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Focus On: Allyson Latta

This interview by Donna Marrin, moderator of Markham Village Writers, was published on their website November 2009.

You have edited an impressive list of acclaimed books. Can you name a few?

It’s a great privilege – a joy, really – to feel I’ve made a contribution as a freelance editor to books that have topped the bestseller lists or garnered literary prizes. I’ve worked with some incredibly talented Canadian authors, and am pleased to have played a small editorial role in bringing to readers novels such as Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe, Richard B. Wright’s Clara Callan, and Lewis De Soto’s A Blade of Grass. I edited three of the last four winners of the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. And a book I copyedited by first-time novelist Annabel Lyon, The Golden Mean, is currently shortlisted for all the top Canadian lit awards, so my fingers are crossed for her! I’ve worked with many wonderful authors over the past thirteen years – too many to name.

Can you pinpoint particular characteristics in the storytelling abilities of these authors that made their books so successful?

An original and authentic and consistent authorial voice. Believable characters and motivations. Care and clarity in the writing. Sensory details. Compelling storytelling. Insights about life that resonate with the reader. A good writer draws the reader in from the crucial opening paragraphs and carries him or her on a journey to a worthwhile destination, with surprising, insightful or entertaining – preferably all three! – stops along the way.

What drew you to memoir writing over any other genre?

I have edited a great deal of literary fiction and non-fiction, but my fascination with memoir – whether or not it’s for publication –  grew out of a passion for genealogy that seized me about six years ago. That was followed quickly by a frustration with the lack of detail available about my ancestors’ lives. I found myself wishing that at least some of them had written about their experiences in journal or memoir form. And of course the logical next thought was, “Well, how much have I written down and what will people know about me in years to come?” Around the same time, I was also moved by the pleasure a friend’s father’s memoir gave his four adult children and his grandchildren, and thought to myself: “Everyone can, and should, do this.” My mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s brought home to me that memory is fleeting, and that the time to write things down is now.

Did you keep a diary as a child?

Only sporadically, sad to say. My earliest began when I was thirteen and continued irregularly until I was about fifteen. I wrote some fiction back then, and poetry, and thought that much more fun than writing about my own little life. That period was, however, a difficult and pivotal time for my family, so I’m very glad to have that diary now, however spotty. I’ve also travelled quite a bit over the years, and usually keep detailed journals of those experiences. And I kept other sorts of records here and there. For example, through my late teens and early twenties I jotted down point-form notes on wall calendars, detailing my everyday activities. And during university I kept copies of all the long letters I wrote to family members. I did the same when I was living in Kumamoto, Japan, for three years: I was far more motivated to write for others than for myself, so I kept copies of my correspondence with family and friends back in Canada. Some of my experiences found their way into freelance pieces I wrote for Canadian newspapers. I’m always impressed by the one or two students in any given workshop who tell me they’ve kept a journal for decades. What an amazing resource for their writing. And that great thing is, it’s never too late to begin one.

Why do you think memoir writing is important?

We’re all natural storytellers, and it makes me sad to think how many stories are lost because people don’t write them down. I believe memoirists should write first and foremost for themselves, to honour their own experiences and those of loved ones, to explore the patterns in their lives. Beyond that, for many, the goal is to leave a legacy for children or grandchildren, because they realize that no one else can tell their stories the way they can. Also, it can be therapeutic: studies have shown that writing about negative personal experiences can improve psychological and physical health (there’s an interview with Dr. James Pennebaker on my blog about this). It’s also a fabulous creative outlet, and it exercises the mind. And certainly as an armchair genealogist I can see the longer-term value in memoir writing. Best of all, you need very little equipment: just a pen and paper – or a tape recorder or video camera – and your memories.

One of the most challenging aspects of memoir writing is …

An issue that concerns many of my students is whether to, or how to, include details that may upset others they are writing about. The fact is, every writer has to decide on this for him- or herself. Write your truth. Don’t ever write vindictively. When it comes time to edit, ultimately your decisions will be influenced by your purpose in writing, your intended audience, and also, of course, the nature of your relationship with the person written about. I recommend that writers try not to agonize over this too early, and that in early drafts they write honestly and fully about others (while keeping the content confidential). Changes or cuts can be made to later drafts.

We all know what happened to James Frey when people discovered that portions of his memoir were untrue. Is it considered unethical to embellish a memoir with fictionalized elements? How much is too much?

There’s a marked difference between using fictional techniques, such as voice, characters, setting and dialogue, to tell a true story effectively, and actually writing fiction. Embellishment in memoir, whether obvious during reading or discovered later, ultimately destroys a writer’s credibility; and without credibility, a memoirist has nothing. Readers don’t like to be fibbed to. In memoir, you can only write what you remember (faulty though memories may be), and dialogue of course must be reconstructed. But aside from this, “emotional truth” – the truth as you felt it – should prevail. Just an aside, but a pet peeve of mine is authors condensing time so that events seem to have happened closer together than they did. This has become an accepted approach in memoir, but I feel it bends the truth.

How can I write honestly about my life without feeling as if I’m betraying the people involved?

There’s no point in writing memoir unless you intend to write honestly, but by its nature the writing process is selective, and there are a number of ways to work around upsetting people. There’s plenty of time in later drafts – when you’re revising and cutting – to trim scenes, or to change names or details about individuals to protect them, or you. The emotional truth of your story is more important than these minor details. Another strategy is to focus in your writing more on your own feelings than on the behaviour of the other person. This in fact is the “truth” of your experience, how you felt, and no one can argue with that. Another is to be fair and generous enough to try to see and write about both sides of a relationship or situation (for example, what might have been troubling a sibling who treated you badly?). Your readers will relate to you better if you do.

Must I get permission from these people before I publish what I’ve written?

This is a personal decision. Getting permission is not required, and in addition, it can be problematic. How, for example, are you going to respond if they say no? How much are you willing to change your story of your life to please, or to avoid offending, others? Before showing your work to anyone, decide how you will respond to their reaction, and how far you’re willing to go to keep that person happy. If you aren’t prepared to change anything you’ve written anyway, there isn’t much point in showing anyone in advance, unless it gives you peace of mind to do so. How you handle this will depend on the importance of the particular details to your story, and on your personality, and on your relationship with the person in question. You may not feel concerned about upsetting an old high school teacher, for example, but be loath to offend your granny – or vice versa! Keep in mind, too, that it’s almost impossible to predict reactions; some writers find that the scenes they expected to be controversial aren’t, and that ones they thought innocent rile some people up. In the end, you have to go with your gut.

What defines good memoir writing?

Honesty and vulnerability in the narrator. As with fiction, an authentic voice. A story that is told in an original way. Strong writing full of sensory details. A tale that carries the reader along and allows him to feel part of the writer’s experiences, and also calls to mind resonating experiences in his own life.

Do you have an all-time favourite memoir?

Oh, I couldn’t name just one! Only two common denominators tie memoirs together: they are true, and they are written in the first person. Aside from that, anything goes, which makes it difficult to compare one to another. How can one compare Marina Nemat’s Prisoner of Tehran, Blanche and Allison Howard’s A Memoir of Friendship, Catherine Gildiner’s After the Falls, William Leith’s Bits of Me Are Falling Apart, and Ian Brown’s The Boy in the Moon? I did editorial work on all of these very different books, each excellent in its own way. A few others I would recommend, however, include Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, Anne Coleman’s I’ll Tell You a Secret, Nigel Slater’s Toast, Julian Barnes’s Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle … and any travel memoir at all by Pico Iyer! I’m still trying to decide what I think of Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which was fascinating but occasionally too self-consciously experimental for its own good (though he is a talent, there’s no question).

Who do you admire, and why?

My younger brother Blair, who passed away three and a half years ago. He was born with congenital kidney disease and spent much of his life in and out of hospital, undergoing two kidney transplants by age twenty, as well as other surgeries. He was smart and funny and insatiably curious – an intellectual sponge. He was also very, very brave. He died at forty, but not before completing an honours degree at Queen’s University (part-time, because of his disabilities, but graduating top of his class), creating an online magazine (with my brother Darren), and publishing one book, as well as writing and producing plays, and a couple of short films, and writing short fiction, poetry, essays, a screenplay, and, shortly before his death, a score for a rock opera. He wasn’t one to let a little thing like no formal musical training stand in his way. His zest for life and learning and writing, despite debilitating physical setbacks, were – and still are – an inspiration to me. Outside of my family, I admire my students who persevere in completing some form of life writing, whether they publish or self-publish a book, or get a short story accepted by a magazine, or start a blog – or even distribute their memoir to family members in a simple binder! It’s the fact that they achieved their goal that’s important. I’ve taught writers ranging in age from twenties to eighties, and one of my online participants published her first memoir at the age of 90!

What’s on your bookshelf right now?

I have eight overflowing bookshelves in my home – just ask my husband, who is constantly begging me to prune them back. But on my to-read list is Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, and Claire Holden Rothman’s The Heart Specialist. And I just treated myself to the purchase of a collection of Alice Munro’s best stories.

Can you recommend any books or other educational resources of interest to aspiring memoir writers?

To my mind one of the best authors on writing is William Zinsser, who has also penned a couple of excellent books about memoir (and one audiobook, How to Write a Memoir). He wrote Writing About Your Life, which I assigned this fall in my University of Toronto online course, and also edited Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, based on a series of lectures by memoirists on memoir. Judith Barrington is also well worth reading; her book is titled Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. Another I always recommend is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, which is part memoir, part “toolbox” of valuable writing tips. A great collection of short memoirs is The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs, edited by George Fetherling.

You are also a teacher. Tell me about your memoir writing workshops and what your students can look forward to learning.

In 2004 I developed an online course in memoir writing for Ryerson University, and from there I branched out to lead workshops for libraries, writers’ groups and literary festivals. I currently teach an online course for University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies: “Memories into Story.” I’m also running an online workshop on dialogue writing, which has been lots of fun. Since my students range from those who are writing for themselves and/or family to those who hope to publish, I focus on elements common to both: I encourage them to share their stories, and suggest techniques they can use to trigger memories and organize their writing. I also provide tips on editing and finding markets for short memoirs. I want them to leave my workshops with some momentum – with a few vignettes/stories in a binder, lots of ideas, and the sense that “I can do this!”

Where can I find information about your upcoming workshops?

At www.daysroadwriters.blogspot.com, click the link in the sidebar for “Upcoming Workshops.” I’m hoping to launch a proper website early in 2010, but meanwhile on this site there are my interviews with authors and others, and additional resources for memoir writers.

Any advice for aspiring memoir writers?

Be confident that your stories have value and will interest others. If you aren’t confident that you have something to say, how can you expect to persuade readers to come along with you for the ride? Be flexible. There’s no right or wrong way to write memoir, and your writing may take you places you didn’t anticipate. Allow yourself to be surprised. And remember: you can write more than one memoir! Read a selection of memoirs, both short and long, and be analytical. What do you like? What do you not like? How did the author achieve the effects you liked? Emulate the style (though of course not the content!) of writers you admire, at least until you establish your own style. And freewrite regularly: set aside short, regular writing periods at least two or three times a week for writing practice; these sessions will help jog your memory too. Join a critique group, or start one of your own. Set yourself a goal: enter a writing contest, or submit a short memoir to The Globe and Mail’s “Facts and Arguments” section. There’s nothing like a deadline to get you motivated.

What’s up next on your agenda?

I’m thrilled to have been asked to lead a two-week life-writing workshop in February 2010, at Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat in Santiago, Chile (http://daysroadwritersworkshops.googlepages.com/losparronalesflyer). And I’m hosting novelist/memoirist Beth Powning as a guest in the Fall and Winter sessions of my U of T online course. As far as editing goes, I’m not at liberty to reveal what I’m working on until the titles have been catalogued, but I can say that upcoming projects include a novel and a young-adult novel, both by award-winning authors, and a fascinating memoir by a first-time author.

ALLYSON LATTA is an independent literary editor who teaches memoir writing for the University of Toronto’s Creative Writing Program (School of Continuing Studies), as well as privately. With degrees in journalism and psychology, she has worked as a newspaper reporter, freelance features writer, magazine editor (trade, literary, and business), film reviewer, and university media relations consultant. During three years in Japan, she taught college-level ESL and wrote about Japanese culture for Canadian newspapers. Among the books Allyson has edited are nominees for the Man Booker International Prize, and winners of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. She has worked with numerous acclaimed authors in Canada, as well as in the Caribbean through the University of the West Indies Press. Allyson developed and began teaching her first online course on memoir writing for Ryerson University in 2004, and from there moved on to offer workshops for libraries, writers’ organizations and literary festivals. In February 2010 she will be editor-in-residence for a two-week life writing workshop at Los Parronales Writers’ Retreat in Santiago, Chile. Visit her site, www.allysonlatta.ca , for her series of interviews with authors and others in the realm of memoir writing.