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.

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