CATHERINE GILDINER is a former clinical psychologist and author of the popular memoir Too Close to the Falls, the sequel After the Falls, and a novel, Seduction. Catherine lives in Toronto. This interview was conducted before she wrote After the Falls (Knopf Canada, 2009).
AL: At what age, or stage of life, did you decide that you wanted to write a memoir, and what triggered the urge?
CG: I was a psychologist for 25 years and running out of empathy and then once I was at a party and someone said they had worked at their father’s store. I told a few stories about working in my dad’s store and someone at the party said I should write it up, so I did—just one story about Roy. I sent it in to the first name on the Canadian publishers list, ECW, on a Friday and then Monday I got an advance for a book and [the letter] said, “Finish it.” Since I didn’t want to give the money back, I finished it!
AL: Your memory of details from a very young age is amazing, right down to the colour of chalk your teacher used on the blackboard. Did you keep a journal during childhood, or did you have to work at some of the memories to get them to reveal themselves?
CG: I never kept a diary. I was too busy. When I wrote the first draft I didn’t have any of the fine details, like the chalk colour, but human memory is organized according to associations, so with each draft I would remember a few more details—one memory would jog another. If you write a skeletal draft the picture will expand each day if you let it.
AL: Did you ever hesitate in deciding how truthful to be in describing real people? Some of your portraits, particularly of more minor characters, are not flattering. As a reader I appreciated them because they seemed honest, but I know this is always a tricky area for memoir writers.
CG: I was really naive about that. I had a fantasy that as long as you wrote what was “true” everything was fine. Of course that theory leaves much to be desired. I learned that when I went back to read the memoir to a few hundred people in Lewiston. Anthony McDougall showed up and had a few things to say. Also some of the town thought they had been kinder to Warty than I portrayed. On the whole, I was surprised at how accepting they were of most of my descriptions. The descriptions of people didn’t send anyone into orbit—but the anti-Catholic feeling made some people mad. But, hey, you never make everyone happy. One of the upsides of having no living relatives is there is no one close to me to disagree.
AL: I was fascinated by your structure. The book is about your childhood, and basically chronological, focusing, it seems to me, on various stages of awareness, and most of the chapters are also built around character sketches of people who influenced you. How did you come up with this structure?
CG: I never planned anything. It just flowed out exactly like that. I think when you are a kid you usually learn from other people, especially when you are away from your parents all day. Their view of life very often contrasted with my parents’ but was never at “moral” odds from it, just a different perspective. I think I grew up to be a psychologist because I have always been interested in people and what they think and how they operate.
I have struggled so much with my new novel Seduction that I now realize how lucky I was to have it flow out so easily in Too Close to the Falls. I was also lucky that I had editors who never changed a word or fussed with it. They told me to cut the last chapter, which explained what everyone was doing today, which they said spoiled the voice, and I think they were right.
AL: As a reader I felt drawn to Roy, the pharmacy deliveryman who worked for your father. And you obviously did too. Do you feel that he played a larger part in your development than your parents, or did all three share billing?
CG: I think they shared billing. In fact I have grown up to be far more like my parents than Roy in terms of career and financial success, etc. However, people say I have a sense of humour and irony and that has come straight from Roy. I have the ability to mimic and be theatrical and that is straight from Roy too.
Roy has traits I loved that I never acquired or even approximate, but that I hold up as an ideal. He was always accepting of others, never focused on their foibles, and he didn’t worry about things. I am not like that—I’m much more like my parents that way. But I hope a little bit of his kindness rubbed off on me.
AL: As a child you were very bright and talented, but in Too Close to the Falls you are also candid about what you perceive as your flaws—your pride, for example. Did you find it difficult to be so honest in print?
CG: No, I didn’t at all. I think I have my mother to thank for that. Believe it or not she never once criticized me EVER. For example, when I would go home and say I had to stand in the hall at school for talking and trying to be amusing, she would say something like “Well for heaven’s sake, they didn’t appreciate your humour at that place. You will simply have to save your act for New York where they have a funny bone.” Therefore, when I said things that happened to me or that I did wrong, neither of my parents said how stupid or annoying I was, they just accepted it. And when I would only give certain kinds of cookies at Christmas to certain kinds of people, Roy made fun of it but only in a fun way that made me laugh at myself. It was never derogatory.
AL: What would you say was the most difficult part of the book for you to write?
CG: It was all fairly easy. I think the most difficult chapter was my mother. She is a very difficult woman to describe. She was a typical housewife on the outside but more rebellious than anyone I have ever met on the inside. She would help me in any way if I asked her, but if I didn’t ask for help she just minded her own business. She is a woman of contradictions and I needed to be able to describe her as a real person. She was complicated—yet the piece had to hold together as a portrait.
AL: I have to admit that your mother was the only character in the memoir that I never really figured out. Did you mean for her to come across as somewhat enigmatic?
CG: I never understood her either so I decided not to pretend. As she said [to me], “I really loved you but I didn’t like the ‘job’ of motherhood.” She said she never quite got it. I thought she was great and had no idea there was a distance. I only experienced others like Mrs. Schmidt as smothering. I think I was a difficult child—very hyperactive and stubborn and type A. She was forty when I was born and basically said to me that disciplining me wasn’t working so best that I learn from my own mistakes. In terms of enigma I never knew why she was so different from other mothers of the 1950s—other than there was no feminist movement and she didn’t like the job description. She wanted to look “normal,” so she was between a rock and a hard place.
AL: You had an epiphany while at the track meet in Harlem that mirrored something a friend of mine has often said — that he blames his parents for making him believe all things are possible, when in fact they really aren’t: we all have our limitations. Good parents have to instill in their children that confidence to strive to be the best they can (that all things are possible?), and yet, if they do, life for the child can be a series of excruciatingly humbling experiences. As a psychologist, and as the grown-up Cathy, what is your take on this delicate balance in parenting?
CG: I have never figured that out myself. I think my parents did as well as they could. Perhaps they could have tried to prepare me for failure but that only would have made me nervous ahead of time. In retrospect it would have been helpful if my Dad had said something to the effect that hard work is all you can do and the rest is out of your control. “Control what you can and give up what you can’t control” is a good motto. Instilling the work ethic is an important thing but not at the expense of reality. However I was never one to listen to others—probably why I had school problems—I had to be hit on the head with a two-by-four before I learned any life lesson.
AL: In the last chapter, you make it clear that you are more naive than your fellow classmates in a certain sphere (I’m being vague here as I don’t want to spoil the ending for readers). I was surprised at this, as you’d always come across as fairly adult and street-smart for your age—even in preschool! Why do you think you were naive in specific ways?
CG: I am now writing my sequel and the same thing happens again, believe it or not. I think I, like my parents, have put a great store on the rational, and the emotional and/or romantic have eluded me. I never had brothers or sisters to tell me the goings-on of the opposite sex and also I was working [at my father’s pharmacy] when kids talked about these things. Roy was certainly interested in women so you think I might have cottoned on. Maybe Mother Agnes’s teachings on the evil of commingling got to me more than I realized. It is sort of embarrassing to admit, but I have never been particularly interested or astute in the sphere of male-female relations and never enjoyed the subterfuge that went into flirting and other romantic endeavours. That is explored in my novel, Seduction.
AL: Your ending was powerful, coming on the heels of the whole “too close to the falls” scene and building up the reader’s curiosity about what was going on that night. With that ending, were you following that showbiz adage “Always leave your audience wanting more”? Or did that closing just feel “right” to you?
CG: It was a childhood memoir and I believe coming of age is when you realize what really happens in an adult world, when you are able to see through the childhood cover-up stories. I had hit that moment, so my childhood was over. It was the end of my childhood illusions—so the book had to be over.
AL: The ending does leave questions unanswered, such as whether the experience jaded you, or helped you to grow, or both. Did your disappointment cause you to dismiss the things that were recommended to you, or did you take the advice offered?
CG: I took all the advice that Father Rodwick offered me and it was the best thing I ever did. Did I feel duped? Yes, I did, and it was a long time before I would believe a man again.
AL: Does your next memoir pick up where the first left off?
CG: Yes, I am writing one now about my life from 15 to 25.
AL: What did the process of writing the memoir mean to you personally?
CG: I grew up a lot while writing that book, and it also helped me mourn. My parents and most people in the 1950s were the type that said “life goes on” and “there is no crying over spilt milk.” I waited day after day for Roy to come back but he never did. In the memoir I had a chance to chronicle Roy and to chronicle what he meant to me. I re-experienced his loss and, although it was sad, I got to express it for the first time and that was good for me.
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Copyright 2004 Allyson Latta.