Thursday, July 28, 2011

Q&A witih memoirist Glen Retief, author of The Jack Bank

Once you listen to the podcast of my show with Glen (posted yesterday), finish up with reading here. Questions we didn't have time for on the show.

Was the first graf, and the first chapter, always the beginning?  Or did you revise the beginning over and over?

Believe it or not, the answer to both those questions is yes.  Intuitively, I knew I had to start The Jack Bank with those many lessons I remember from childhood about Kruger National Park, where we lived, being a paradise.  A few years earlier, I’d written an essay—“Kitsch and the Art of Wildlife Painting,” published in The Massachusetts Review in 2004—about how much I hated African paintings, because to me they projected a kind of false idealism about animals I actually found very scary as a young kid.  I linked this feeling of falseness to the general sense I had as a boy that something was untrue about the whites-only paradise created by apartheid—smiling black maids, happy gardeners, crime-free streets, and middle-class comfort.  I sensed that this general cheerfulness disguised a very deep racial pain, much as I looked at the pictures of leopards lounging in thorn trees and wondered why the butchered warthogs I saw in the real world never made it onto living-room walls.
          So if the first chapter was going to be about my earliest memories of physical vulnerability, due to dangerous animals, then the opening scene had to be about the illusion that I was immortal and safe, because I lived in an earthly heaven.
          That said, I worked endlessly on all the sentences and paragraphs in that opening, shortening them, pulling out only the most relevant and evocative details, and trying to be true to my recollections.

The title: At what point did you have it (the subtitle as well)?

The title was the first thing I had.  On our podcast I talked about the jack bank as a controlling metaphor for the book—the idea that if we invest in violence and cruelty, it earns compound interest.  Also, that the book came out of an essay called “The Jack Bank,” which I published in Virginia Quarterly Review. It never seemed to me the book could be called anything else.  The memory of that school prefect allowing us to deposit beatings and earn interest on them, and the enthusiasm with which all of us younger boys volunteered to be hurt—this was all just so weird to me, so haunting.  To me, it said more about story of coming to terms with apartheid’s violent side, and my own temptation to solve conflicts with violence—than any other recollection in the book.
          The subtitle merited a bit more discussion.  As we said in the interview, this memoir sits close to the “fiction” end of the journalism-novel continuum.  I gave myself permission to make educated guesses about what happened.  Written in the present tense, the book reads much like a novel.  I briefly talked with my editor as well with the St Martin’s Press lawyers about whether these artistic liberties meant I could no longer call The Jack Bank “memoir.”  They agreed that so long as it was a good faith attempt to recreate the past, and as long as I was upfront in my Author’s Note about my artistic methodology, there wasn’t a problem.  I really don’t have the faintest doubt that this is my personal story rather than that of a fictional character’s, so I stand by the subtitle.
          My editor suggested, “Memoir of a South African Childhood” rather than just “A Memoir,” so as to send a signal to readers about the book’s content.

Re memoir as a editor I spoke with said she thought memoir was replacing the novel as the most popular genre, that as a culture we are so into reality everything, the memoir is the written form of reality shows. What do you think about this?

There may be a grain of truth in the idea.   The novel rose to prominence with the bourgeois nuclear family.  Before the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, almost everyone in Europe would have known all about their neighbors’ lives, as a result of living on top of them in a crowded village.  Street chitchat and evenings around the hearth with family and friends would have provided more stories, which is to say more knowledge of how to deal with life.  But as more people moved into large, middle class, private houses, they needed different forms of storytelling.  The novel allowed them to live vicariously, and thus learn how to cope with life, while preserving their and other middle-class people’s privacy.
The big change came, I think, not with Survivor and Jersey Shore, but in the 1960s and 70s, with feminism, Black liberation, and gay liberation.  Suddenly, privacy wasn’t a source of freedom, power, and privilege anymore.  It provided a screen for women and children to be abused in the home.  It provided a way for society to hold LGBT people in contempt while still enjoying our talents—if your hairdresser is in the closet, you don’t have to grant him any rights.  Ordinary people came to believe the personal was political and should therefore be given voice.  In popular culture, this eventually led to reality TV; in universities, among other things it fed the growth of creative writing programs.  Community, as an alternative to isolated suburban family, made something of a comeback—remember hippy communes and women’s consciousness-raising groups?
          I write out of that intellectual tradition of 60’s style activism—in the book I talk about my years in feminist, socialist, anti-apartheid, and gay activist circles.  Hence my statement in my Author’s Note that I continue to believe in memoir as a social act, because if no one is willing to break the protective veil of silence over individual lives, how will we ever learn from each other?  But it’s important to distinguish literary memoir from Big Brother 8.  The memoirist digs deeper, and tells her story with more artistry, than the housemates talking about kitchen crumbs or bedroom shenanigans.
          Also, novels and memoirs are always going to provide different pleasures to readers.  With memoir comes testimony—someone saying this is an honest attempt to be real.  But with novel comes the extraordinary joy of seeing an author’s imagination ranging free.  That satisfaction will never be redundant.

Were there memoirs you found inspirational or informative as you were writing yours?

So many!  Clearly, my main influences were the more novelistic memoirs. Angela Ashes made me want to write in a filtered child’s voice, where the language and perception is simultaneously that of a young person’s and that of an adult looking back and shaping what the child sees. The Glass Castle showed me what could be done with a brilliant but subtle overarching metaphor.
J.M. Coetzee’s memoir, Boyhood, resonated both in subject matter—he writes about many of the same things I do, like English-Afrikaans tension and the masochistic pleasure white South African boys took in corporal punishment—and in style.  I loved the way he wrote his whole story in third person, present tense.  I almost did the same, except that as a first time author I didn’t think I could get away with third person.  I did use the present tense.  Both formal choices—third person and present tense—are signals to readers that the author is giving himself permission to re-imagine the past.
I didn’t like all of the Afro-pessimism in Rian Malan’s My Traitor’s Heart, but it would disingenuous of me to pretend that memoir didn’t deeply influence my vision of South African culture—both black and white—as being soaked in extraordinary violence, as a result of our strange history.
I read and re-read Vivian Gornick, George Orwell, and Natalia Ginzburg to inspire me to write with the clarity that I think is my literary aesthetic. Fierce Attachments was my model of a “movement memoir” that never became preachy or didactic.  Ginzburg’s classic essay, “He and I,” about the ups and downs of an intimate relationship, was the inspiration for my chapter about Afrikaners.  The chapter title, “Them and Me,” is a nod to Ginzburg.
I love memoirs with poetry and collage in them, like Ondaatje’s Running in the Family  and Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Books that make fun of the genre help me keep my feet on the ground.  I think of Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and, even better, Lauren Slater’s Lying.  The latter is a true heartbreaking (and hilarious) work of staggering genius!  You can’t read it and take yourself completely seriously; she reminds us that the act of self-characterization on the page is inevitably a kind of lie or at least oversimplification.

Structure: You had so many topics in your book. Was it a challenge knowing what to keep and what to leave out, and how did you decide how much ink to give each?

There was no system.  It was intuitive.   In my head I was trying to tell a story rather than explore topics, so I addressed topics only to the extent that this felt relevant to my central question, which was: “What did it mean to me to grow up in a culture with an abusive streak?”
          My editor asked for more about faith and about religion, and I agreed with her, so in the final draft I added the section in chapter 7 about losing my Catholicism in comparative religion class.  This narrative does “talk” to the main story in the chapter, where my friend Aubrey is teaching me to take risks that my previous Catholic faith might not have permitted.
          What was harder than leaving out topics was leaving out sub-narratives.  At moments I felt as if I was lying to readers, but really, all I was doing was keeping the book manageable.  For instance, in the second chapter, Kobus van der Walt and I had had a history together.  We’d played together, got along and then annoyed each other—so when he prevents me from entering the hall to see what the Afrikaner Nationalist youth group is doing, there are more emotional layers than I let on to readers.  But I couldn’t figure out how to discuss all this without hopelessly slowing down—and distracting from—the story I was trying to tell in the chapter, so I focused only on the cultural dimension, the fact that this was another way I couldn’t be Afrikaans.  Without making ruthless cuts like this, I don’t think it’s possible to write a coherent autobiographical narrative.

Agents and editors constantly talk about voice, in terms of memoir, that voice is—if not everything, it’s a LOT of why they’re attracted to certain memoirs and not attracted to others. Do you think voice makes a difference whether a memoir will be compelling, or will it always be the big story, the dramatic story, that’s the most compelling?

Yes--voice, voice, voice, that’s what matters—not the big story!
Look, I’m not going to pretend some inherent drama doesn’t help.  As a memoirist I don’t regret my material--the lions outside my tent when I was ten years old, the proximity to a notorious serial killer, and so on.  But as I think I said on the podcast, I feel it’s my voice—a function of hard literary labor—that makes these recollections emotionally compelling.  As mere anecdotes they might be entertaining, but not memorable.  What deepens them is an adult narrator looking back and trying to figure out what they meant.
Some of the memoirists and essayists I most admire—E.B. White, Natalia Ginzburg, Vivian Gornick, Gretel Ehrlich, Philip Lopate—built whole careers on writing about everyday experiences loaded with meanings that would be easy to miss.  Except that these writers noticed.  They meditated on these trivial occurrences—a dinner party, a husband getting irritated if his wife puts on a sweater on an evening that he experiences as hot—and reached tremendous feeling.  That’s perhaps a memoirist’s most important job—simply to live the examined life.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Memoirist Glen Retief podcast just up

Glen Retief, author of the memoir, The Jack Bank, in conversation with me for the entire hour.

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(Broadcast date: July 20, 2011)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Literary attorney Mark Fowler and Dan Duling

Mark Fowler, New York City-based literary attorney, and Dan Duling, playwright and writer for Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters talk with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett about writers' legal issues and writing plays and narration for Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters.

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Broadcast date: July 13, 2011.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dani Shapiro on writing memoir

Dani Shapiro is one of my favorite memoir writers. I loved Slow Motion and Devotion. She's been on the show a bunch (you can access those shows by entering her name in the search box on this page, or here). Here's what she has to say about writing memoir.

Let's talk about structure--again. We've talked about it on the show and in person (when you were here, at the Pen on Fire Salon). The structure of DEVOTION was so compelling with its short chapters spiraling narrative. How did the structure come to you, or did it evolve and surprise you? In other words, had you planned to write a more traditional narrative like SLOW MOTION but it went another way?

When I first started writing DEVOTION I thought the book would have a more traditional structure. I wasn't thinking about SLOW MOTION, per se, but I certainly imagined that that narrative of DEVOTION would unfold in a straightforward manner. But almost immediately, it began breaking up on me. I wrote a small piece, then another, then another. And all the while, I was panicking. I realized that the story was asking to be told in a puzzle-like way, in these pieces, and I didn't know if it could be done. I hadn't read any books that had done it -- which either meant, to my mind, that it couldn't be done, or hadn't been done well. But then, along the way, I read a few books that had had succeeded brilliantly in creating a forceful narrative drive--a compelling story--in these puzzle-like pieces. Annie Dillard's FOR THE TIME BEING was the book that made me think, okay, maybe I can do this. And then, for a while, because I felt I needed more structure within this seemingly loose way of story-telling, I thought I was going to write DEVOTION in seventy-two pieces, because there is a story in the Kabbalah about God having seventy-two names. But this was an intellectual construct rather than an organic idea, and at a certain point, I realized that this self-imposed number, seventy-two, was limiting what I could do. I was writing toward the number seventy-two, holding onto it, rather than simply allowing the narrative to unfold in as many pieces as it needed. And so the book really took off for me when I let go of that artificial construct. It started breaking up into even smaller pieces. I included lists, definitions, brief descriptions that I wouldn't have been able to, otherwise. It was a lesson--one that I learn over and over again--about not imposing ideas from the outside, but rather, allowing structure to develop out of the ideas and narrative of the book, sort of like watching a Polaroid develop. It can only become clear when a writer forges ahead, into the unknown, and then the structure emerges.

Had anyone--an agent, editor--encouraged you to write the memoir using a more traditional structure?

I really didn't show DEVOTION to anyone as I was writing it, other than to my husband, who is my first reader. I find it can be dangerous to get opinions that may have more to do with the marketplace or what people think is selling, while in the midst of the creative process itself. As I said, I was panicking -- but the panic was part of doing the work. I couldn't have written DEVOTION using a more traditional structure, and so I had to go through the struggle of discovering how to tell the story. Outside opinions would have been distracting at best, and quite possibly might have derailed me. That's another thing I've had to learn again and again over the years. To keep the process as internal and private as possible for as long as possible. It's not that the marketplace doesn't matter -- of course it matters, and we all want to sell books! -- but the book can't start there, or there's no hope for it.

In DEVOTION, you found a way to blend your spiritual search, your son's illness, and the struggle with your mother--and more. When you began the book, or prior to beginning, did you know there would be multiple threads weaving throughout?

The multiple threads really ended up emerging from the structure. There was the story of motherhood, of daughterhood, of moving from the city to the country, of my religious upbringing, my spiritual crisis in midlife, my search. I came to think of each of them as a fishing line cast at the beginning of the book, which would then need to be grounded by the end. Each thread needed to have a resolution of sorts. Or to catch a fish, to extend the dubious metaphor even further.

One reason the structure works so well is because each chapter transitions to the next, even if you're writing about a different time and space. How much attention did you pay to transitions?

One of the more challenging but also ultimately very satisfying aspects of working in that way is that I had to wait for the next piece to emerge. I almost never knew where I was going next when I finished a piece. At one point, I referred to the writing of DEVOTION as "death by 102 prose poems." That's what it felt like. The spaces between each piece felt important. I had to breathe, to be patient, to allow the unconscious pattern to emerge. And sometimes I ended up needing to move pieces around so that they fit together more clearly -- but not as often as you'd think. The unconscious has its own coherence, if only we get out of its way.

While memoir is not autobiography, but about a specific time/experience/journey, it can still be difficult knowing what to leave out. Was there a lot you left out? And how did you decide what had to go?

I love this question. What to leave out is at the heart of writing memoir, I think. I'll sometimes meet a writer who is trying to write memoir and is stuck, and that stuckness so often comes out of a feeling that it all needs to go in there, the whole kitchen sink, every story, every year, every memory. And that isn't what memoir is at all. I always try to keep in mind that memoir is an act of story-telling. What is this one story I'm trying to tell? What belongs in this story? I can write other books later about other stories, other aspects of experience or memory. And so what I leave out is dictated by the story I'm trying to tell. There are many aspects of my life that didn't go into DEVOTION, or into SLOW MOTION for that matter, because the books couldn't have supported those other stories. I don't think that's in any way deceitful, or morally questionable, though some readers feel entitled to know everything, and feel somehow cheated if they later find out: oh, she had a half-sister she didn't write about, or, oh, she had a months-long marriage at age eighteen, or whatever. (Those are both real examples.) But I'm not writing autobiography -- I'm writing memoir, and memoir is a story that hews to memory. I never invent anything, ever. But I don't feel like I need to reveal all. It isn't a confession, or a diary.

Dani Shapiro's other recent book's include Black & White (Knopf, 2007) and Family History
(Knopf, 2003). Her short stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, Elle, Bookforum, Oprah, Ploughshares, among others, and have been broadcast on National Public Radio. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure and guest editor of Best New American Voices 2010. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

Writing behind bars

Yet another idea about how to get writing done.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Alethea Black and Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Marrie Stone interviews Alethea Black, author of I Knew You'd Be Lovely, and Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House.

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(Broadcast date: Jul 6, 2011)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tamar Cohen and Jane Smiley

Marrie Stone interviews Tamar Cohen, author of The Mistress's Revenge, and Jane Smiley, author of Private Life.

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(Broadcast date: Jun 29, 2011)

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Susie Bright and Melissa Schroeder

Marrie Stone interviews Susie Bright, author of Big Sex Little Death: A Memoir, and Melissa Schroeder, author of A Little Harmless Obsession.

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(Broadcast date: Jun 22, 2011)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Our first donation!

A shout out to Ron Alvarez (former NYC cop) who clicked the donation button over on the right side of the screen and sent $$ our way, which I will, in turn, send to our podcast guru Rob Roy. It's because of Rob that the Writers on Writing podcast started up, and it's largely because of him that it functions. When it recently fell off the iTunes radar, Rob put in time to get it going again. So thanks Ron, and thanks again to Rob for all that he does.

Geraldine Brooks and Laura Furman

Marrie Stone interviews Geraldine Brooks, author of Caleb's Crossing, and Laura Furman, author of The Mother Who Stayed.

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(Broadcast date: May 18, 2011)

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

This morning's show

Join co-host Marrie Stone as she chats with debut author Alethea Black about her short story collection, "I Knew You'd Be Lovely" and Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of "Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House." 

Tune in this morning, July 6, at 9:00 a.m. (PT) or online at (or iTunes under college/university radio).  Hundreds of past podcasts can be heard at  

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Arielle Eckstut, David Henry Sterry and Arthur Plotnik

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett interviews Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, and Arthur Plotnik, author of Better Than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives.

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(Broadcast date: Jun 12, 2011)

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Podcast is back up

Back from Palm Desert. Saturday. Just musin' about, a lil of this, a lil of that. Our podcast is back up on iTunes, thanks to our podcast guru Rob Roy. Here's the link. You can go there and subscribe--or re-subscribe, and when we upload a new show, you'll receive it in your iTunes podcast library.

This is what summer looks like in our teensy yard.