Posts Tagged ‘author interview’

“There was a writer living inside me”: Interview with memoirist Cea Sunrise Person (part 2)

Watch the book trailer for North of Normal:



Read also Part 1 of Cea’s thought-provoking interview.


As you wrote about your personal experiences in North of Normal, did you struggle to deliver the most truthful version of events? Have others ever disagreed with your recountings?

I have struggled, yes, because there are always missing details that sometimes need to be speculated about or made up. But my philosophy is to always stick to the truth of the event, and the rest will follow. Memoir is a creative art, not a straightforward recounting of events.

I have never had anyone disagree with my written memories. Some have expressed surprise at some of the things that went on within my family, mostly with my mother’s siblings, but I was expecting that, since very few people knew the whole picture of what was going on and the family dynamics.


Have you ever had to deal with anyone being upset about something you’ve written (family or friends)?

Would you believe no? Keep in mind that my mother and grandparents are passed on, and I’m out of touch with my mother’s siblings. My father was upset, but only because he felt guilty for not being there for everything I was going through as a child. I did have one friend who read an early draft and chose to judge me for some of the choices I made in my twenties — needless to say that friendship is over! For the most part, it has been amazing — I’ve had many people who knew me as a child and knew my grandparents and mother back in the day who have really enjoyed the book and been super supportive.


What was the most surprising discovery you made through writing your book — about yourself, or the writing process, or your life’s journey?

The thing that surprised me the most was how open, willing, and excited people were to hear my story. This goes for my friends (who knew very little about my past), my family, my agent and editors, and my readers. I knew I had a crazy story, but I’d always seen it as a liability rather than an asset. Putting it out there changed that perspective for me. It also made me realize that I had preconceived notions about people and their expectations of me. I realized I hadn’t given most people enough credit for their abilities to be accepting and even admiring of my challenging and unique past. I was surprised by how it strengthened existing friendships and forged new ones. I was surprised by the stories I heard from others about their own struggles, people I’d always imagined had lived charmed lives. I was surprised that females from teenagers to seniors connected with my story, and that men did too. I had never thought of myself as inspirational, but it makes sense to me now, because the people I admire the most have come through a lot in their lives.

It also surprised me that I was able to learn to write in such short increments, amid chaos. I didn’t think my brain worked that way, but I guess I trained it to!


I sense love for your mother but also a frustration. Did this memoir — specifically regarding the relationship with your mother — begin to form in your mind before she died, or did you decide to write it after?

I began writing my book a year before my mother died. The funny thing is, she knew that I’d dreamed of writing it for years and had always encouraged me to do so. She was really excited when I told her I was finally doing it, and that’s when I started to get nervous about it! I realized that she and I had such opposing views of my childhood that she would likely be very hurt by what I was going to write. She saw my childhood as a wilderness nirvana and felt she had given me the ultimate gift of personal freedom of expression by not restricting me or disciplining me. Obviously, I saw it differently. I remember telling her that it would probably be hard for her to read, that it revealed the bad along with the good, and she smiled at me and told me she was okay with that. I had a lot of questions about the details and chronology of my childhood, so she sat with me and helped me put it all in order. She also filled in a few stories — for example, the time we slept in the abandoned farmhouse, which I hardly remembered at all.

She never did get a chance to read it, because her health deteriorated rapidly after that. I also did not have a draft I was willing to show to anyone, let alone my mother, within that time frame. Part of me is grateful that she never had to read it, though I know she would have been proud in the end. Her death also gave me a sense of added responsibility to make sure I told both my story and hers from a very human perspective — letting the world see her wonderful qualities as well as her flaws. Since she is not here to speak for herself, I wanted to be sure she was honoured that way. Many people who knew her have told me that I did a great job of capturing her spirit, and that means a lot to me.


Which traits of your family do you hold dear or consider strengths? Which have you chosen to let go of?

Great question! I really value my family’s courage to go after their dreams and create a new world for themselves against the odds. Courage and tenacity are traits that I value in people probably above all else. Their love of nature and willingness to live minimally and non-commercially are things I aspire to, but have not succeeded with as they did. Narcissism and selfishness were my mother’s and grandfather’s worst traits, so it’s probably not surprising that these are trigger points for me in others. I also try hard to give my own kids guidance and boundaries, which are things I never got.


When you became a mother yourself, did you view your childhood memories, and your relationship with your own mother, in a different light, and if so, was this helpful for your writing?

I believe that becoming a mother did change my perspective. I remember when my first son was born, I held him on my chest and suddenly understood how my own mother could never give me up and just chose to do the best she could. At the same time, it made me furious that she hadn’t done more to protect my childhood innocence. So I guess you could say I simultaneously had more sympathy and more anger toward her, which probably made my writing more emotional as a result. But my past was my past, and becoming a mother did not change my purpose in writing my story and the way I remembered how events had played out. When I was writing, I would always try to transport myself back to my childhood self and how I would have seen things at that age. I will say that having children myself who were at three very different ages — baby, toddler, school kid — helped immensely in terms of listening to how children speak at certain ages, and getting clues into how they think. I imagined that my thinking would have been similar to theirs in terms of level of understanding of what was happening in my life at the time.


Do you think of yourself as a writer, or more specifically as a memoir writer? If the latter, do you ever worry about running out of material to write about? (This worry would keep me up at night!)

I guess I think of myself as a memoir writer who is transitioning into a regular old writer! I’ve written two books on my life now, and may have another one in me as a book for teen girls. Beyond that, I know that my story is done and told, which fills me with both relief and dread. The relief is that I was able to get it out and be proud of the finished product and how it has helped others. I am also, quite frankly, sick of writing and talking about myself! The dread, of course, is that whatever I choose to write about next won’t be as good, because it is not my own experience. I want to write nonfiction books about other people’s lives, and I hope that this will be a new, challenging, and exciting genre for me.


Were there times when you felt unprepared emotionally to write about certain experiences?

Memoir is unique in that it tests not only our writing skills but also our memories and the emotions that go along with them. I think it’s important to think of the first draft of your memoir as the one where you get everything out, almost like a diary that you know no one will read. Do whatever you have to — place blame, rage, hate yourself or your life choices if you have to. Expect a lot of emotions during this time — some call it the “diarrhea draft,” but of course I’m classier than that.

At some point after that first draft, it’s imperative that you stop seeing yourself as the you in your story and start seeing yourself as the protagonist. This was key for me in getting the distance I needed to write objectively, without malice or fear of my memories. It was an interesting transition, because I then felt like I was writing about a fictitious character named Cea, and I wanted to make her as compelling and three-dimensional as any of my favourite fiction heroines. Writing with the reader’s desires in mind instead of your own therapeutic needs really helps during this process.

It’s also important to remember that it is not necessary to reveal all in a memoir. If some memories really make you squirm, it’s okay to leave them out. Interestingly, I wrote a few scenes for North of Normal that I ultimately deleted because of the way they made me feel about myself — ashamed, dirty, and unlovable. In my second memoir, I decided to release these previously deleted scenes to the world because of the acceptance I had found through readers in my first memoir, which made me even more willing to take risks in my writing.

All in all, it is a leap of faith and a test of courage to write about the really tough stuff. I always remind myself that if there is something I’ve gone through, there is someone else out there in the world who has gone through something very similar and will identify with my experience — and that is enough for me. That may not be enough for you, and that’s okay. We all have our personal standards for acceptable divulgence. What I can tell you is that laying myself bare has been more rewarding than I ever thought possible, and I never would have been able to say that had I not taken the risk.


Has writing about difficult events in your life been cathartic, and did it bring up other issues that you may have forgotten until you started writing these books?

It has been extremely therapeutic, yes. In fact, my second memoir [to be published this year] is about the healing process I went through as a result of writing North of Normal! I wouldn’t say that writing my books brought up many new memories, but it did make me understand why I was the way I was and gave me a lot of insight into my choices in life, good and bad.


When describing times of your youth — I’m thinking, for example, of the party scenes — what techniques did you use to reconstruct dialogue?

Dialogue seems to be one of those things that writers either find comes very naturally or really struggle with. I definitely started off in the latter group, but now it’s one of my favourite elements.

First of all, it is important to determine if dialogue is needed at all within a scene, or if the message would be better conveyed through paraphrasing or narrative. My rule is that if the dialogue is not moving the plot forward, it should be replaced with one of the above techniques.

Obviously, it is not possible to recall conversations from years ago with much clarity. What I do personally is to think about the gist of the conversation, the most important bits of information that were exchanged, and the general demeanour of the participants. I also try to recall key snippets of what was said, because this gives important clues about the speaker’s tone of voice, mood, etc. I then build a scene around what I absolutely do remember, with supporting dialogue, actions, and settings that make sense to both the scene and the people speaking. If my mother had a habit of tugging on her hair when she was nervous, for example, I might bring this movement in as she is speaking about something difficult, even if I can’t exactly remember her doing that during this particular conversation. If it’s a tough conversation, I might mention that it’s raining, in keeping with the mood, or that the sun is shining despite the gloom in the room, even though I don’t remember what the weather was doing that day. Also, keep in mind that speech is not perfect — there are accents, mispronounced words, long pauses, “ums” and “ahs,” and your dialogue should reflect this.

Knowing where to begin and end your dialogue is also important. I like either to start the dialogue with a provocative statement or question, and then let the ensuing conversation explain how we arrived at that statement, or begin my dialogue more quietly and lead up to a compelling point and end the scene there. Be careful not to bore your reader with mundane exchanges of information that have little impact on the plot. Keep it tight. I like to think of dialogue as lively pops of colour amidst the greyer shades of narrative.


What books or authors have influenced you most?

Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle was the most influential — I actually started writing my memoir the same night I finished hers! Also Angela’s Ashes, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Never Cry Wolf, She’s Come Undone, White Oleander, Fall on Your Knees, and Look at Me by Jennifer Egan were all very inspiring for me. I actually read a lot more fiction than memoir before I started writing my own story, and now I read almost all memoir.


What compels you to continue writing?

Writing has become a creative outlet that fulfills my soul. I am not nearly as happy when I’m not working on a writing project.


What’s the best thing about writing a memoir? What’s the worst? 

The best part has been helping others with their own life challenges, and coming to feel that I’m going through life without any secrets anymore. I used to hate for people to know where I came from, but now everyone does, and it has opened doors for more new friendships than I could have imagined. It has also given me an outlet to express myself and connect with others through public speaking, the media, and teaching.

The worst thing? Knowing that because I’ve written two stories about my life, memoir writing is pretty much over for me. Writing about my past helped me reconnect with it and relive some cherished moments and feelings, so it does bum me out that I’ve mined and depleted most of that ground, even though I did so in a way that was meaningful to me personally.


What advice do you have for a budding writer? 

Get lots of honest feedback on your drafts from friends and acquaintances who read a lot of memoir. If the feedback is consistently good, don’t give up! If it’s mixed or negative, rethink your strategy. Maybe your story needs to be told in a different way, or maybe memoir isn’t your forte but fiction is. Also, don’t think you need huge chunks of uninterrupted time to write. Don’t make excuses — just do it!



(For Cea’s bio, book information, and additional links, see Part 1.)


Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

“There was a writer living inside me”: Interview with memoirist Cea Sunrise Person (part 1)

News: Plum Johnson will be my guest for the Winter session of Memories into Story: Life Writing II (online advanced workshop), at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. She’s the author of the bestselling and RBC Taylor Prize–winning memoir They Left Us Everything and a former student in Memories into Story II. The next course begins online on January 11. Space is limited. (Check out “Women’s Voices Are Crucial” on this website.)

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Cea Sunrise Person

Cea Sunrise Person


CEA SUNRISE PERSON is a returning guest of Memories into Story and a favourite with my students. I had the pleasure of copy editing her bestselling memoir, North of Normal, and I was sure she’d have insights aplenty to share. Thanks to Cea, once again, for her considered and candid answers, and to each of my students — though I wasn’t able to include all their questions here — for their input. What follows is an edited version of one class’s collaborative interview (part 1).


Cea, did you always know that you would be a writer, or was your path more indirect?

Both! Let’s say that I’ve always known there was a writer living inside of me, even as a child, and then later, much more strongly, in my teens and twenties. The funny thing is, I didn’t write a thing during that time . . . I was busy with modelling, marriages, and dealing with my issues, and I used to write in my head a lot, but never on paper. I just knew the day would come when I was ready to finally write my life story down, and I was right. As it turned out, it took a deep frustration and unhappiness with where my life was at in my late thirties to get to that point. Read more about that in my second book!


How long did it take you to write North of Normal? Was it done over long periods of time or in one shot?

It took me six years to write and about twenty-five to thirty drafts. This was done in sporadic starts and stops. But my second memoir took me less than a year and three drafts — proof that writing is a skill that gets much easier with practice.


Did you approach a publisher before you had written your book or after you were ready to present a first draft? And how many publishers did you meet before HarperCollins agreed to publish North of Normal?

For a first-time author, it is very difficult to sell a memoir on a book proposal. I knew this going in, so decided to write the whole draft before trying to get a literary agent, who in turn seeks out the publishing deal. I did, however, have some false starts. I actually queried agents after I’d completed my first draft, which was a mess, and as a result, no agent wanted it. I rewrote, and one year later got an agent. I was super excited and thought it was all but a done deal, but my book was rejected by every publisher in New York. Disheartened to say the least, I nonetheless had a lingering suspicion that I could still do a lot better in my writing.

I proceeded to write many more drafts over the next few years, until I really felt in my heart and soul that it was as good as I could make it. When I queried agents that time, I got offers from five within a week! After signing with my dream agent, my agent submitted my book to Canadian publishers, and HarperCollins bought it in a pre-empt (taking it off the market before any other publisher can offer a competing offer). It then sold to HarperCollins USA in a bidding war among three American publishers. This was by far my dream scenario and does not always happen, but I can tell you that I held very tightly to my dream through all the rejections, and was determined that I would find success with my book even if I was still querying agents on my deathbed!


Why did you want to tell your story? For whom did you write it?                       

My reasons for writing my story changed over time. In the beginning, it was definitely born of a need to try to make sense of my past and the people who had raised me, who were so different from me. In my late thirties, when I started writing it, I still had a lot of anger toward them, unanswered questions about myself, and a lingering, low self-esteem that I was pretty sure had roots in my early childhood. I was hoping that writing would offer insight and healing. It did — but also so much more. As I moved through that process and began to allow more space in the world for myself while my confidence built, I realized that my true calling was actually to write the story for others — people who may have had similar experiences in the counterculture, or who simply understood what it was like to feel they didn’t fit in with society or their own family. Judging from the overwhelming number of messages I’ve received from grateful readers, my instinct that there were many of us out there was correct — and being able to connect with them and offer them hope has been my proudest accomplishment with this book.


How did decide how the memoir would play out?

For me, this was by far the most challenging part of writing my first book. In the beginning, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t know where I was going to end up. This is key: you should know where you will end up before you begin. Once I decided that my story would go right up to present day, things became a lot easier. Deciding that three-quarters of the story would be devoted to my childhood was also an important decision, because it determined the pacing. I also knew that I had to begin with my grandparents’ history before I was born, because that information was critical to the reader understanding their motivation for moving to the wilderness. After that, I literally just made a long list, chronologically and in point form, of all the scenes that I wanted to include in my book. Then I asked myself how and why each scene was critical to the themes of my story. If I couldn’t find a connection, I either scratched it or found a way to make a connection to my story in the way I wrote that scene. As I wrote each into my book, I would simply cross it off my list. This list waxed and waned as I wrote, but it kept my vision of what I wanted to convey to the reader clear. The scenes at first were pretty bare-bones, and I went back and filled them in and connected them to each other in later drafts.

My second memoir I wrote mostly as separate, non-chronological scenes that I then connected together, so either way can work. For me it’s about keeping the momentum going and not allowing negative self-talk to sabotage my process . . . so if my excitement about a scene starts to wane, I’ll move on to another one that I’m excited about and go back to the dud scene later, with a better attitude! Also, since I did a lot of deleting of some original scenes, I needed to go back and fill in new ones, so a lot of it was written out of order. I really do believe that any method can work, as long as it is working for you.


Given that you had no formal writing experience before penning North of Normal, what supports — personal/inner or otherwise — did you rely upon to keep plugging away at it, not knowing if it would lead anywhere?

I can only say that I had a strong instinct that if I could get my story right, it would be successful. I felt that my story was too unique not to tell. All the same, there were many times I was frustrated enough to want to quit. Wanting to quit is fine — just don’t act on it! I’m lucky that I have always been a tenacious person by nature who likes to see things through, but I must say that six years of writing and rejection tested that to the max. I have a very supportive husband who believed in my project, and I asked friends who did a lot of memoir reading to read my drafts. They really encouraged me to keep going, which helped a lot.


What is your creative writing process? Do you write every day, at certain times of the day, keep a notebook, go for walks to generate ideas, freewrite?

Hahaha! Seriously, my writing process is a joke. Before I started writing, I always had this idea that the house had to be quiet and perfectly clean, the grocery shopping done, and my mind clear to be able to do it. When I finally realized that this ideal likely to never happen, I decided to just dive in anyway and see what happened. What happened was a lot! When I started writing my book I had a one-year-old, no childcare, and a design company that I ran from home. When I finished writing it, I had a baby, a two-year-old, a seven-year-old, and no childcare. I was chronically sleep-deprived, so I could not do early morning or evening writing. As a result, I learned to write in the eye of the storm, with a lot going on around me. I would write notes on my phone throughout the day, when they occurred to me, about things I wanted to change or include in my story, and then consult that list when I finally got to sit down and write. It was incredibly frustrating, but also a gift, because I have learned to get “into” my story within seconds and can pound out a paragraph in a few minutes. My husband would often give me a few hours over the weekend when he would take the kids out of my hair, which was of course my most productive time, but the bottom line is, I never would have finished the book if I hadn’t learned to write in ten-minute increments. North of Normal took me six years to complete. I wrote my second book in exactly the same manner, and it took me less than a year — which goes to show how we can train our brains to do anything.

Freewriting is a wonderful tool for many, but it has never worked for me. Because I am very outcome-oriented, I need to write with a specific reward in mind, and that reward is always creating a scene that I am excited to read back to myself. But that’s just me — it’s important that all of us writers learn what works for us.


How much research did you do in order to properly describe geographic places, topographical details, etc.? Or did you simply work from memory and/or photographs?

I did not do a ton of research. Mostly, I relied on memories and photos. I was also required to change some location names. A few times, I did go on Google Earth to look at topography.


Approximately how much of your memoir is “truth” as you remember it, and how much is “creative writing”?

The way I write is to always stick to the integrity of truth when it comes to the actual event, and to fill it in with creative writing details. In other words, all of the scenes in my book a hundred percent happened, and of course I’ve never fictionalized or hybridized characters. There is, however, a lot of fiction in my settings, i.e., time of day, weather, scenery, dialogue. It’s impossible to remember all of this, and yet ironically, these details are needed to add credibility to a memoir. Many names, physical features, and locations were also changed in my book. Some of the chronology is off, as even my mother couldn’t remember all of our nomadic moves. I think that it’s fine to do the best you can in these situations. Memoir is about recording the truly memorable and meaningful experiences in our lives and how they affected us, and I think that if you always stay true to that, the details will almost fill themselves in.


Did you ever feel a conflict between your truth and your imperative to tell your story or how it may impact on others you wrote about?

Absolutely. This is such a tough subject and fine line in memoir writing. What I ultimately decided was that a) many people in the book had either passed on or couldn’t be identified unless they identified themselves, b) humanizing them by revealing both their positive and negative traits in an objective way left for little argument in the court of truth, and c) if you’re going to do bad shit in your life, you may have to live with the consequences — like someone else writing about it in a memoir!

Having said that, I actually did NOT reveal all. It all had to do with my level of comfort, because I can’t measure anyone else’s. After writing a few scenes, I checked in with myself and realized that I did not feel good or comfortable with what I had written. This was my cue to hit the delete button — which I did, several times.


Is there a primary theme, a fundamental human dilemma that you are orbiting around, delving into, in all your writing?

I feel like I have so many varied experiences in my life that I can find one or more to suit almost any theme. I am, however, forever fascinated by the mother–child bond, dysfunctional family dynamics, and the subject of childhood resilience, so I definitely gravitate toward these themes in my writing. There is no way I can write about a topic that doesn’t interest me, such as politics or finance! I find it interesting to explore the spiritual world and karmic energy and how they relate to the choices we make and circumstances we find ourselves in as human beings, so a lot of my writing has to do with looking for those answers. This may not be obvious to the reader, because I don’t wish to engage in a debate with anyone who feels they do have the answers. I definitely don’t, but I appreciate the luxury of being able to explore and express my own views on the topic, however subtly.


Did you find some parts of your book harder to write than others? If so, what parts and why?

It’s funny, because the hardest parts are not what you’d expect. Some parts I LOVED writing — all the scenes with Karl, for example, because he was such an interesting and ultimately big-hearted character. I loved reliving all the wilderness stuff with my grandparents, and I enjoyed writing about the modelling. Even the stuff about Barry molesting me wasn’t really difficult for me write about. The hardest part for me was the period right after we moved to Calgary, before I started modelling. This time in my life feels like a well of hopelessness and powerlessness, even today, because I had lost my mother to her married boyfriend, and I finally realized that I was helpless to force her to parent me. I was very unhappy and saw my future as bleak. I desperately wanted escape from my family but wasn’t sure how to go about it at such a young age. I realized my grandfather was a total narcissist concerned with little more than his own desires. I had few friends at school and felt like a freak from the wilderness. Reliving all of this through my writing was very unpleasant for me, and as a result it took me many rewrites to get it to an acceptable place. Each time that point in the book came up, I would skim over it and move on and procrastinate some more, because I hated how it made me feel. But I do believe that if a subject doesn’t evoke an emotion in you as a writer, it’s probably not worth writing about.

There’s more:  read Part 2 of Cea’s interview.

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CEA SUNRISE PERSON’s bestselling first book, North of Normal (HarperCollins), chronicles her wilderness childhood and dramatic move into a decades-long modelling career at age thirteen. She makes regular appearances at book clubs and other venues to speak about her unique life, and teaches memoir writing at the university and secondary school levels. After living in such cities as New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Munich, and Milan, she is now happily settled in Vancouver with her husband and three young children. Her second memoir, a follow-up to North of Normal,will be released by HarperCollins in early 2017.

North of Normal is currently on sale throughout Canada, USA, Australia, and New Zealand. Find out where it’s available here.

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

“I just have a quirky way of looking at the world”: Interview with three-time memoirist Catherine Gildiner

Catherine Gildiner

Catherine Gildiner

CATHERINE GILDINER is the author of three memoirs and a novel. Too Close to the Falls (1999) was a New York Times and Globe and Mail bestseller. This was followed by two sequels, also bestsellers, After the Falls (2009) and Coming Ashore (2014). Catherine lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Visit her at, or at her blog,

Catherine was a much-anticipated guest for a session of Memories into Story I, the introductory online course on memoir writing I teach through University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. The following is an edited version of my students’ collaborative interview with Catherine about her memoirs and her writing life.


 “I learned as a psychologist that almost everyone feels the same things and that people spend the majority of their lives dealing with their own vulnerability and defending against it. In my writing, it was easier to reveal things in my own unconscious knowing that almost everyone is dealing with the same conflicts.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Tuesday, July 28th, 2015

“And then one good sentence”: Interview with novelist Rebecca Silver Slayter


Rebecca Silver Slayter

Rebecca Silver Slayter


“Now I watch it go by like a passing train, each car in sequence: hesitation, uncertainty, self-doubt, total panic, questioning of self-worth, and regretting of every act I’ve undertaken during my time on earth … and then one good sentence. And then a scene that has my fingers hurrying on the keys, struggling to keep up with the unfolding action, following it as closely and eagerly as if I were in it, excited to see what will happen next, and what will happen after that.” — Rebecca Silver Slayter, author of In the Land of Birdfishes

Rebecca, as a writer, do you plan and outline, or do you write to find your story?

Birdfishes cover2I am still determining what process works best for me in this regard. With In the Land of Birdfishes, I was told by many people that the best process was to plan very little, leaving me free to follow the story wherever it should take me. But that strategy terrified me. I was sure without a map of some kind, I’d get lost somewhere in the novel and find myself with no way out or back. And so in many ways, my planning of Birdfishes was motivated by fear, which is not typically a good basis for decision making. But in this case, I think it was a good strategy. My inner critic is a noisy and nasty one; I found she was best silenced by the reminder that I knew where I was going, even if I’d momentarily lost my way, and I found that the excitement of getting to an ending I looked forward to writing kept me progressing forward even during chapters where I lost my footing. The chapters I had planned most thoroughly were always the best ones and the ones I enjoyed writing most.

With the novel I’m finishing now, I am a little braver, so I began with very little of a plan, only a relationship and situation I wanted to explore. As I went along I defined more details, the chapters ahead becoming increasingly clear as I approached them. And I’ve enjoyed this increased freedom, though I suspect it will mean a broader and more intensive edit lies ahead before I will be ready to show my novel to anyone else. I suspect that’s the typical trade-off: planning speeds and steadies the process, while freeing yourself to explore may result in a longer journey but offers wonderful discoveries along the way.

Ultimately, I suspect what I will find is that I like the same balance in writing a novel that I like in life (where I balance the predictability of freelance editing work with the liberty of fiction writing): a reliable but flexible structure within which I can wander very freely.


What inspirations for your writing, if any, have come from unlikely sources?

You know, I think my inspirations tend to come from rather likely sources … That is to say, I tend to draw from the things I see and hear around me — like my mother, an ophthalmologist, telling me about a young patient who forever lost her ability to see due to neglected cataracts, or the story of my father spending all his savings in silver coins on his first date with my mother. (See excerpt from an essay below for more on the latter. Both of these memories contributed to the story that unfolds in the first chapter of Birdfishes.) But typically I try to work against using that material so directly — which has certain advantages: I have been surprised, upon being published, to learn how many people look to your own biography and life for the source of what you’ve written. My parents are, I think, rather relieved that when friends or colleagues have asked them, on multiple occasions, which characters they are in my novel, they could answer that none of the characters were modelled after anyone I know.

Of course I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing from life, but for whatever reason, I find I like to digest personal experience fairly well before it surfaces in some new, less recognizable form in my writing. The most common source of inspiration for me is experiencing, reading about, or hearing of an event and then imagining what would have happened if it had turned out some other way. I’m a hopeless daydreamer, and my daydreams often begin with some real happening, vanish down a long path of “what if,” and then emerge, occasionally, as a story I want to tell.


Which aspect or aspects of writing do you enjoy most?

Before writing Birdfishes, I always enjoyed the editing stage the most. There’s something very powerful about sitting down with something rough, and making it beautiful. In this case, however, to my surprise, I found editing very challenging. I had the most wonderful editors in the world (yourself emphatically included), and so it certainly had nothing to do with the process. But trying to maintain perspective on something so big, which you’ve worked on for so long, was difficult. And I made a few major changes — cutting one of the most prominent characters, for instance — that were unexpectedly painful. You have to have a certain ruthlessness to edit your own work well, to be willing to part with characters who seem real to you without feeling like you’ve committed some sort of murder, to make the difficult decisions to cut whole chapters you love or worked hard on. It’s like performing surgery on yourself (which is why having talented and clear-eyed editors to guide you through it all is so critical).

And so, to my surprise, what I loved most were the beginning and end stages of writing/publishing Birdfishes. I loved the research, the places I went, the books I read, the stage when I was learning so much and believed that every new fact or perspective I encountered might find a home in the book. I loved the nights at my desk, writing it, page by page. I LOVED the moment of beginning to work with my editors at HarperCollins Canada, suddenly having a partner in telling this story, in making the hard choices. But maybe my favourite thing of all is the very last stage of writing a book: when I come across readers to whom my book really meant something. It is truly a gift to be able to have that relationship with a stranger — I know what it’s like to be at the other end of that gift, how certain books have affected me and my life. To think of having even the possibility of offering that to another reader is almost overwhelming. I feel very lucky.


Your husband believed in you as a writer and helped restore your faith in yourself. What advice would you give to writers who face a crisis of confidence?

First, from my experience of my husband’s support, I learned that there is nothing more valuable than having people around you whose faith in your writing is solid as steel, and will steady your own when it quakes. If you don’t happen to have such people among your immediate friends and family, seek them out in writing groups or classes. I also think it’s valuable to take your time — accept that it may take more years to begin than you’d hoped, and more days to finish than you’d expected. But nothing is wasted. The years you aren’t writing, or aren’t writing what you want, or aren’t finishing what you start are all productive. You’re gathering ideas, noticing the world, growing confidence and resolve, and readying yourself.

A writer I respect once warned a class of young writing students not to publish too early. I know many talented writers who wrote wonderful books at young ages. But I know I personally would regret forever whatever book I could have written at twenty. It took me time to decide the story I wanted to tell and to develop the experience and ability to tell it. I wish now I’d been more patient with myself then, because everything I did and saw in those years is valuable to the writer I am now. As a writer, there’s a lot of work that’s productive besides sitting at your computer, typing letters. The hours lost to staring out a window, reading, daydreaming, living, are the ore you’re mining once you’re at your desk again. I didn’t know that at the time.

Seemingly at odds with that last advice, I also think it’s important to keep writing, in whatever way you can, at whatever rate, even when you feel stuck or struggling. This will mean different things for different people — maybe writing for an hour, or ten minutes every day, however many pages result. Maybe writing a certain number of words a day, even if only a single sentence. Maybe keeping a journal, while putting aside the novel or poem that is giving you trouble. Keeping the writing energy vital and engaged, even when it’s being redirected to other purposes, is useful.

And last, if you find it difficult to begin or complete projects, install some sort of structure in your life that will demand work of you. This might be a writing class, or a writing group, or a friend who agrees to berate you if you don’t send her a new piece of work every month. Once I had made the decision to write Birdfishes, taking workshops in Montreal and meeting with a monthly writing group helped reinforce my own motivation when it faltered.


Was there anything about being a full-time writer, part of the learning curve, that came as a surprise to you?

There are three things I’ve learned that I value most. The first is about writing as a profession, and it’s just this: that it’s possible.

I had extraordinary support all my life in my desire to write: from a very young age, I was encouraged by my parents and my teachers. However, I had no real model of what it would mean to write as a career. The grown-ups I knew were doctors or farmers or librarians or babysitters. When I was about eleven, I met a writer for the first time. The wonderful children’s writer Sheree Fitch came to visit my grade five class and taught us, among other things, that each time she sold a book she made less than $2. Even at that age, when I had no idea what a house cost, or a car, and was not responsible for any bills of any kind, I understood that $2 would not go very far toward paying them. I also heard from the world at large, over and over again, about how hopeless a living writing was, how naive it would be to pursue it as more than a hobby.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and working in publishing that I came to know other, much more experienced writers. And then I began to understand. It’s not easy, and you must make immediate peace with the unlikelihood of becoming a millionaire, but with hard work and talent, it is possible, in this country, to make a very modest living as a writer. I learned about grants, and teaching gigs, and freelance writing and editing opportunities. I discovered all the bits and pieces that you can stitch together until you arrive at the startlingly lovely situation of being a writer with a roof over your head.

The second  thing — actually two things — I discovered are more about the craft and process of writing, and they’re directly at odds with each other.

(1) You can’t rush or force writing (at least I can’t). Many people will tell you to write a certain amount every day and push ahead no matter what. I remember very clearly the points in my book where I felt I had taken a wrong turn, but I was committed to a schedule of 500 words/day, and so I stumbled on until I’d found my way. But I cursed those memories for several years afterwards: in every case, the parts of the book I struggled most with fixing in editing were the parts I’d written in those moments. I realized, in retrospect, that pushing forward with something you’re unhappy with and thinking you’ll just resolve it later is like deciding you’ll fix the foundation of a skyscraper after you’ve put the roof on. Now if I feel real doubt about something I’m writing, I try to trust those instincts. Sometimes I need to take a few days off writing, or work on something else, or think more deeply about what I’m trying to do, or consider other possibilities. The answer to the problem, when it comes, is worth waiting for.

But …

(2) I’ve also learned that I come to doubt what I am writing — and the entire project, for extra fun — on a fixed routine as predictable and perpetual as the circling of the moon. The first times it happened with Birdfishes, I froze, certain I’d lost my way for good. But now, with the reassurance of experience, taught by habit and repetition, I know to expect and wait out that feeling. Now I watch it go by like a passing train, each car in sequence: hesitation, uncertainty, self-doubt, total panic, questioning of self-worth and regretting of every act I’ve undertaken during my time on earth … and then one good sentence. And then a scene that has my fingers hurrying on the keys, struggling to keep up with the unfolding action, following it as closely and eagerly as if I were in it, excited to see what will happen next, and what will happen after that. So there’s a time to trust your instincts and pause to reconsider the choices you’ve made before cementing them with every plot event that follows. But there’s also a time to hush those doubts and proceed, trusting that you will get to the place you need to be and can erase any missteps along the way. With experience comes the ability to tell the difference. (At least I hope so!)


In Rebecca’s essay “Storytelling and the Eloquent Error,” she wrote (and I share with her permission here):

“When I was a little girl, my parents told me the story of their courtship. How the night they first went out together, my father spent his life’s savings: a jar of silver dollars that his godmother had sent him every birthday and Christmas since he was born. How when my mother opened her door that evening, he stood in the lamplight with a jar of silver in his arms. I imagined he’d wanted this truth to be visible: how precious that first evening with her was, so precious it required a more extraordinary currency. Or maybe he’d hoped there might be some sympathetic magic in purchasing an evening with a woman named Margaret Silver with silver coins.

This is a truth from my life that I wrote into In the Land of Birdfishes, and it wasn’t until my parents heard me read those pages that I learned it wasn’t a truth at all. My father had indeed spent his silver savings that night, but not in the flamboyant way I imagined. Earlier that day, he’d carried the jar to the bank and cashed it all in. The gesture was real, but not that figure of my father’s earnest sacrifice, waiting for my mother at the door, full of hope, clutching those coins. Somehow, in my imagination, that embellishment had sprung out of the truth, the weeds of myth overtaking the family garden, to borrow a metaphor from Bruno Schulz.

Story is a powerful tool, central to our sense of identity, as individuals, families, cultures, and nations. Story is how we summarize the complexity of life and what we value in it, and it’s how we communicate those perspectives to others. But story is often filled with a kind of eloquent error: I better understood how my father felt about my mother, what he gave her and what he gave up for her, when I imagined him at her door with everything he had in his hands. This type of error, whether intentional or not, can perform an important service in storytelling. In Birdfishes, Jason distorts events to express his experience of them, or to conceal what he prefers to hide. He can better explain the devastation of losing Angel with the image of his house burned to the ground, just as the jar of coins better expressed my father’s sacrifice. And so there’s insight in these lies — while stories often fail to reveal the world the story tells of, they always, in some way, expose the storyteller.”

♦     ♦     ♦

REBECCA SILVER SLAYTER grew up in New Glasgow, an old industrial town in northern Nova Scotia. The daughter of a psychiatrist and an ophthalmologist, she was the eldest of three sisters. As a child and adolescent, Rebecca studied music, art, dance, and theatre, read and wrote feverishly, and dreamed of escaping to the kinds of places she’d read about in books. Rebecca studied drama and English at the University of Toronto, and during a summer study-abroad program, met her husband, Conrad Taves, a student of architecture.

Upon graduation, she pursued work in publishing, interning at Quill & Quire and The Walrus before taking a position as Managing Editor at Brick literary journal. After leaving Brick to return to grad school, she travelled to Dawson City, researching the novel that would become In the Land of Birdfishes. She left Dawson for Montreal, where she studied English and creative writing at Concordia University. By the time she finished her M.A., she had a draft of In the Land of Birdfishes, for which she received the David McKeen Award for Best Creative Writing Thesis. That spring, she drove with Conrad to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where they had bought an old farmhouse on a tiny lake between the highlands and the sea. There, he runs an architectural design and planning practice, while she works as a freelance writer and editor, and is currently completing a second novel.


Monday, March 23rd, 2015

“An Artful Arrangement of Truth”: Interview with author Lee Martin (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here.

“When we announce [our experiences] through the art of writing, we have to do something with them. It helps us move on.”

~ Lee Martin


leemartinYou used alphabetically ordered subtitles in the short memoir “Heart Sounds.” Why did you decide on that structure?

The stroke was an overwhelming experience for me, and it caused me to have to gather a large amount of information so I could better understand what had happened, why, and what to do next. I’m the sort of guy who doesn’t want to think about what goes on inside the human body, but the stroke required me to be informed. I needed the control that the form gave me in order to be able to rationally address the issues before me. I wanted to keep a narrative arc moving through the sections, but I wanted those sections as a way of sorting through all the facts. The added bonus for me was that the form also provided a nice entryway into the past. At the time I was working on this piece, I was also teaching the Dinty Moore essay “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: A Meditation on Missing Fathers.” Dinty’s essay is in the abecedarian form, a form I’d never tried, so I thought I’d give it a shot to see if it might be a good fit for this material.

It was sometimes a challenge to come up with a word for each letter. I tried not to force anything. I wanted words that would move the essay along and would invite me to peel back another layer and see more completely.


Did you keep a journal after you recovered from your stroke and then flesh the story out from there? How much time should one let pass before writing about something so life changing?

For a couple of weeks after my stroke, I didn’t write anything. Then I began to write about it on my blog. From there, I started the essay “Heart Sounds.” I kept no journal. The time between a life-changing event and the writing about it varies for each person and each experience.


We have talked in Allyson’s class a bit about writing to heal. Did writing help you better cope with the experience of your stroke?

After my stroke my biggest challenge was emotional and psychological. Writing about the stroke became essential to my returning to a place of well-being. When we write about our experiences, we can’t ignore them. When we announce them through the art of writing, we have to do something with them. It helps us move on.


You state in “Heart Sounds,” “I know that what we say is who we are, even those unspoken words that echo just beneath the sounds of the ones that we allow ourselves.” If you could remove the anger anaesthetizing your father and your mother’s practicality and preparedness, what words do you think they would use to explain who they are?

My father might say he was “wounded.” He might say he was “lonely.” He might say he was “sorry.” My mother might say she was “grateful.” She might say she was “lucky.” She might say she was “scared.”


What have you done throughout your career to improve your writing? And what has been most effective for you: classes, reading, writing groups?

I’ve always found that teaching is great for my writing because when I teach a particular piece, I have to figure out what the writer did to make it work, and I have to be able to articulate that to my students. I also have to be able to think about what might change in piece to make it even more successful. In other words, I have to do what writers do all the time as they develop their craft; I have to know how something works and how it doesn’t. I look at writing as a life-long apprenticeship, one in which we’re constantly taking apart what we read so we can see what we can steal for our own work. I advise students to read a good deal, not just primary texts, but also what writers are saying about the craft. Never read Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners? You must. And that’s only one of a number of books that writers should read. But we can’t forget to live, too. Sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zone to expand our understanding of human behaviour. Travel is great for this, as is getting involved with activities that might seem foreign to us. The world is marvellously varied. The more corners of it we visit, the more we have to draw on in our writing. We should also immerse ourselves in the writing community through whatever means is available to us: writing groups, readings series, writing conferences, online manuscript exchanges — whatever we can do to keep ourselves involved in the “family” that writing creates.


You co-edited Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. Do you still have a mentor, and how has that process changed as you’ve grown as a writer?

My mentors are still the teachers I had even though most of them are gone now. I still hear their voices, their pieces of advice. I know what they wouldn’t let me get away from. They’re never far from me when I’m writing. My mentors are also all the writers I’ve read, for the very same reasons.


What do you believe are the most important characteristics of a compelling memoir?

You have to have a narrative that will hold your reader’s attention, but also a reflective voice that can make meaning from the storyline.


And what are three of your favourite memoirs?

I hate to have to choose just three, but, if I must . . . (ask me tomorrow, and I’ll probably have three other ones!).

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran

Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington


Based on your experience in publishing, do you feel it’s difficult for an unpublished writer to interest a publisher in a book of essays?

In general, essay collections are hard sells. In fact, you may have noted that Such a Life was published as part of the American Lives series at the University of Nebraska Press — in other words, published as a memoir, even though it is, as you’ve seen, a collection of discrete essays. Many publishers don’t like the word essay because they think it’s off-putting to readers, calling up bad memories of the essays that one had to write and read in English classes.

None of this means, by the way, that someone shouldn’t write essays or try to publish a collection of them. Good work always finds a home. We should do the work we’re called to do and then let other people figure out what to name it.


For more about Lee Martin and his work, visit his website.


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Sunday, October 26th, 2014

“An Artful Arrangement of Truth”: Interview with author Lee Martin (Part 1)

“I believe that memoir isn’t an exact record of experience but instead an artful arrangement of truth that creates a specific experience for readers.”

~ Lee Martin


Author Lee MartinLEE MARTIN is the author of the novels The Bright Forever, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction; River of Heaven; Quakertown; and Break the Skin. He has also published three memoirs, From Our House, Turning Bones, and Such a Life. His first book was the short story collection The Least You Need to Know. He is the co-editor of Passing the Word: Writers on Their Mentors. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Harper’s, Ms., Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train. He is the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA Program at The Ohio State University, where he is a College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of English and a past winner of the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching. Visit his website.


I welcomed Lee as guest author to the spring session of my online course Memories into Story: Life Writing (University of Toronto, SCS). What follows is an edited version of  my students’ interview with him. Prior to the interview, they read the following short memoirs:

“All the Fathers That Night” (Such a Life)

“Heart Sounds” (River Teeth)

“Never Thirteen” (Such a Life)

Thank you, Lee, for such thoughtful and insightful responses to these questions about memoir writing and the writing life.


How long were you writing before you got published? And what were your challenges along the way?

I guess I’ve written all my life, but I never took a creative writing class until I was an undergraduate at Eastern Illinois University. That’s where I started to dream about one day entering an MFA program. I got my undergraduate degree in 1978 and stuck around another year to earn an MA. I worked for three years after that, and I kept writing and sending things out to journals with no luck. Then in 1982, I was accepted into the MFA program at the University of Arkansas. That marked the start of my serious study of the craft of writing. I didn’t publish anything until 1987. I needed all those years to read the things I needed to read, to keep practising my craft, and to live enough life to know its complications and its mysteries. In other words, I needed time to have something to shape and to know how to shape it.

My biggest challenge along the way was to keep going. I got very dejected and threatened to stop writing a number of times. I never did. I’m stubborn that way, and that’s a good quality for a writer to have. Thicken your skin and keep studying and practising your craft.


At what point did you develop confidence in your authorial voice?

I read a collection of short stories called Rock Springs by Richard Ford, and in them I heard a voice very similar to the voices of my native small-town Midwest. I’d been writing stories set in other places because I thought no one would be interested in those small towns. Ford’s voice unlocked something for me, and I wrote the stories in my collection The Least You Need to Know. It was the first time I felt that I’d successfully blended voice and material. It was the first time I’d felt the power of my natural voice, and it’s paid off for me in both my fiction and my nonfiction.


What is your daily process as a professional writer?

A typical day begins with a run. Physical exercise gets me focused. Then, after breakfast, I sit down to write. I usually pick up in the middle of something I’m drafting. I try to end one day’s writing session in the midst of a scene, so it will be easier to continue the next day. I used to write everything longhand, but I’ve given in to the computer these days, and I have to confess I sometimes use social media as a distraction. I’ve noticed, though, that sometimes the distraction allows my subconscious to work on a particular problem I’m facing in the writing and to come to a solution. Looking away from the writing, in other words, sometimes allows clearer thinking. Just don’t forget to come back from the distraction. I try to write for at least two hours a day during the school year and longer during the summer months. Little by little, each day, I push a piece of writing along.


Allyson taught us how to kick-start our memories by using several different methods, freewriting, observing/note-taking, clustering, sketching a map, creating a list, journalling, etc. Have you used any of these methods or others to help craft a story? Or do you simply sit down with an idea and begin writing?

I’m a big believer in freewriting, clustering, list-making, etc., as ways to bring material to the page or to deepen it once it’s there. That said, I don’t believe I used any of these techniques when I wrote the three pieces that you read. With those, I just found a place to start and then I opened myself to the powers of narrative and free-association. I never begin with ideas. In fact, I don’t believe in ideas in general in essays, which is to say, I trust the specific things from memory or from the world around me in the present time to become both conveyors and containers of the ideas that lift up from a particular essay.


Do you create outlines?

No, I never make an outline. Instead, I make myself curious and I write to satisfy that curiosity.


Which type of memoir do you find more effective: one in which the author tells the story as though reliving the past? Or, one in which the author reflects on the past from the age they are now? Or a combination of the two?

For me, the most effective memoirists move back and forth between the perspective of the younger self and that of the older one. The first dramatizes the experience; the second makes meaning from it.


In the memoirs we read, you tend to focus on a single topic, the kiss, the stroke, etc. I enjoyed this and the way you kept wandering from the topic and then coming back to it. Do you have any suggestions for crafting such an essay?

I usually start with something very specific from memory or from the world around me at the present time, and then I see what else that specific thing might invite into the piece. If an essay works by letting us eavesdrop on the writer’s mind at work, we have to be open to what may seem like digressions. Those digressions, though, should ultimately lead us somewhere. I don’t like to know where I’m going or why I’m writing about these two things or these three things (or four, or five, etc.). I like the writing to show me. I see it as my job to figure out as the writing is underway what the connection is between the various elements of the essay. I usually know what that is when I’m nearing the end, and I write a line that contains them all, a line that resonates with me — surprises me, even. If I don’t get to that line, I at least get to an understanding of why the piece contains the elements that it does. Then I can revise the essay and usually find that final resonant line. You might start a piece with a particular memory and then ask yourself why that memory is important. You might also say to yourself, “When I remember ‘X,’ I also remember this, this, and this.” Let your mind associate. It will usually call up the elements that are demanding your attention. Your job is to write your way to connection.


“The barber works with wood” — the opening line of “All Those Fathers That Night” — is an effective hook for the reader. Did you start with this, then develop the story, or the other way around?

Yes, I started with that line and then just saw where it might lead me. I started with the memory of how my hometown barber was also a woodworker, and I wrote that first line. The other thing that stood out about him for me was the fact that he had all those daughters. So without knowing exactly where I was going, I was off on an examination of fathers and their children, but I got there by just paying attention to the details of the woodworking. The things of our worlds will often take us to the material we’re meant to write in a less direct, but more effective, way than if we tried to go at that material head-on. If I start by writing about a barber who works with wood, the stakes for me are much less intimidating than if I start by writing about my own complicated feelings about fatherhood. Using a small detail from the world around me, or from my memory, frees me to let language take me where I’m meant to go.


Your father, and your strained relationship, plays prominently in  your stories. Such an important relationship — is it difficult to write about it?

I first wrote about my relationship with my father in the guise of fiction in my first book, a collection of stories called The Least You Need to Know. I waited until both of my parents were gone to write about the family in nonfiction. I was ready to face that material head-on, but, yes, it’s still sometimes uncomfortable. I tell my students, though, that when you find yourself at an uncomfortable place in what you’re writing, that’s a sign that you’re delving into the important stuff. We have to be brave at those points. We have to bear down. We have to make ourselves keep looking, keep living in that uncomfortable memory, etc. knowing that we’re safe because of time and distance, knowing that there’s a wiser, more confident version of the person we once were who is telling us it’s all right, stay in the moment, I’ll help you make meaning from it.


Do you struggle with an over-the-shoulder critic when writing about your parents?

There is no room in the writing space for any kind of over-the-shoulder critic. If you’re worried about what someone might think of what you say, you won’t say it, and something important will be lost forever. My only filter when I write nonfiction is my adult self. In other words, my experiences as a child pass through the perspective I offer as an adult.


Do you find it easier to express feelings through your child’s voice?

I’m not sure that my child’s voice ever leaves me. I hope it blends with my adult voice to make a more textured sound.


As you write about negative life events, do you gain release from those memories?

I wrote a blog post recently about how writing my first memoir, From Our House, allowed me to release a good deal of the anger that I’d carried with me too long as the result of growing up in a house with a violent father. So, yes, I do believe that we write about our lives to gain some measure of control of them. When we dramatize the moments from our lives, we can’t ignore them. We announce them to the world in some form or other, and, if we’re open to the art of empathy, we can gain a good deal of understanding about ourselves and others. We make art from our lives in order to understand them better.


How do you feel about manipulating time or location in memoir? Or about making up dialogue or collapsing two scenes into one? How much of this can one get away with before it crosses the line from memoir to fiction?

You’ll find two schools of thought on the manipulation of time, of course. Some will say that we have to be faithful to chronology; others believe we can telescope time. I fall into the latter camp. I sometimes move a scene around in chronology for the sake of the narrative arc. I do this because I believe that memoir isn’t an exact record of experience but instead an artful arrangement of truth that creates a specific experience for readers.

I’ve never changed the location of an event to make it more dramatic. Drama in memoir comes most often from what’s at war inside the memoirist as he or she puts the scene on the page and then steps back to reflect on it, so the setting of a particular event shouldn’t be the sole provider of tension, but the trigger for it. If we can’t make that happen by keeping the event in its factual location, we won’t be able to make it happen in a fictional setting.

Although I believe that we can modify dialogue and combine events into one, I also believe that we know when we’ve crossed the line from memoir to fiction, and that usually happens when we realize that we’ve altered things for a self-serving purpose, whether that be revenge or self-preservation, instead of for the purpose of truth-seeing.


What tips could you share for writing dialogue in memoir?

I’m not a memoirist who believes in staying faithful to exactly what someone said at a specific time. In other words, I craft my dialogue to make it more interesting. Does that mean I make things up? Not really. It means I know my people so well that I can grab onto the things they did say and also the way they might have said things they really didn’t. All of that said, though, I caution against having someone say something completely out of character for them. You can do that in fiction, but not in memoir.


In “Never Thirteen,” you switch between past and present tense very naturally. What advice could you offer on how to do this?

I establish the dominant tense (present) in the opening, and I stay true to it. Even though I’m writing about something from my past, my first kiss, I choose to write about it in the present tense to better capture what it felt like to be thirteen. I believe I pretty much stay in that tense until the end when the memory of the Peeping Tom enters and I have to render it in the past tense. Notice, though, that I’m always finding ways to blend that with what’s going on for me, the thirteen-year-old, in the present tense. If you read closely, you’ll also be able to pick out the adult perspective in that present tense: “I can never fully know the accommodations they had to make after my father lost his hands, but I can remember their murmurs behind closed doors — the sound as lulling as the cooing of mourning doves, as soothing as the rill of a brook hidden in a deep woods, a private code between them — and know that all the while I thought them impotent and numb they were making love each day right before my eyes, and I was too blind to see it; I was too busy being young.” We have to remember that tense is a way to make clear perspective and personae. There are many selves at work in a memoir, and the management of tense is often a way to allow those selves to engage in conversation.


“Never Thirteen” is filled with juxtapositions: the affection from Beth and the whippings from your father, the contrast between your father’s angry exterior and his actual vulnerability. Did you set out to identify contrasting ideas and work them into the story?

For some time, I’ve been challenging myself to see the opposites in any given situation. I do this as a way of investigating the complexities and contradictions of human behavior. So, yes, I was aware of the juxtapositions, particularly those of the sweetness of first love and the brutality in my father’s story, Richard Speck, the Peeping Tom, etc.


“Heart Sounds” and “All Those Fathers That Night” each have different but effective structures. How do you come up with a structure that you know will suit a particular piece?

I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. Maybe on some instinctual level I know that I have a story to tell, and I know that the story alone will let me explore something I need to explore. At other times, I sense that the place where I start won’t be enough to carry the essay, so I start to experiment with forms that will allow more into the piece. I never really think about form and content until I have a first draft. Then I know better what I’ve come to the page to say.

Read Part 2 here.

Friday, October 24th, 2014