Speaking Truth to Power: An Interview with Elissa Bassist

January 13, 2023 § 4 Comments

By Summer Koester

Elissa Bassist

I first discovered Elissa Bassist—teacher, humor writer, and editor of the “Funny Women” column on The Rumpus—as a student of her “funny personal essays” class. Her wit, hilarity, and generosity won me over instantly. Here she talks about her debut memoir Hysterical and the importance of using our voice.

Summer Koester: You write about how people hate women’s voices. I found the only way I can say things without annoying people is to say them in a pirate voice. How is humor a way to be heard? 

Elissa Bassist: Author Vivian Gornick, in her writing guide The Situation and the Story, writes about her own voice: “the one I lived with wouldn’t do at all; it whined, it grated, it accused; above all, it accused.” People listen to a joke when they may ignore a sob story or criticism, or an accusation. Laughter is an emotional reaction and jokes trick people into feeling something for you, into hearing you, even into understanding you. Jokes about DJing can get across your point about rape culture in a more palatable, entertaining way.

SK: You joke that “it took eleven years only to write Hysterical.” Meanwhile, people compose entire novels within the month of November. Do you think that your book would be the tour de force it is without that ten-year gestation period? 

EB: I needed one decade just to learn how to sit in a chair and look at a blank screen without crying. MFA programs, which are 2-3 years, aren’t long enough. Writing school should be as long as medical school + residencies–it takes that long to develop a “writing practice” and to “find your voice” and to experiment with syntax to see which sentence structures are right for you and to read everything and to learn how to give/receive feedback and to unlearn the bullshit about publishing and to revise (and revise and revise) and to meet the right therapist who will listen to you complain about how hard writing is and how long it takes. 

SK: How did you figure out what your story was? 

EB: I’d wanted to have a book idea before I wrote, but I had to write to figure out my book idea. And the book idea changed with every draft and every rejection. Sometimes I got closer and sometimes farther away. An agent once told me to “make a mess.” Mess and rejection are ways forward. And then, after nine years, you close your eyes and point to a story on a list, and that’s your story now. 

Summer Koester

SK: After writing a political satire inspired by one of your classes, I emailed you and asked if I should use a pseudonym before publishing or expect death threats to my family for mocking heavily armed populations. You said, “No one I know has received death threats for their satire; and yet, I have received death threats just because I am a woman writing about my experiences.” Can you speak to that?

EB: Not without a stranger asking me to kill myself. 

SK: Fair enough. Since that email, I have been called a “child killer” and equated to Nazis and Al-Qaeda for my satire and reported articles. My friend, who runs a popular humor and satire blog, lost her job as attorney general for the state of Alaska from posting disparaging jokes about the governor. (ACLU sued on her behalf and won, but she still suffers the fallout.) What responsibility do writers have in speaking truth to power, even at the risk of being canceled/losing jobs/social shaming, etc.?

EB: “It’s the writer’s job to tell society what it pretends it doesn’t know,” said Mona Elthawy, author of The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. It’s the writer’s job! We know things others don’t (or won’t say), and it’s our responsibility to tell everyone. I’m glamorizing it, but: if we can make art from our experiences, expertise, feelings, thoughts, opinions, outrages, insights, problems, point of view, voice, privilege, and tragedies (especially tragedies)–then shouldn’t we? We should. And we should utilize and develop this art rather than doubt and squander it.

There’s so much fucked-up shit happening, and people are counting on our silence. Speaking out—about anything, about bias and abuse especially—is just not cute, we’ve been told, and people don’t want us to get away with it.

Big picture, your friend losing her job is part of a current backlash and timeless movement that includes overturning Roe. Women who speak freely are just asking for consequences. Most recently, Johnny Depp made suing a woman over her public disclosure (that disclosed nothing specific) look righteous. Yet again, what was being adjudicated wasn’t Should a man be penalized for abusing a woman; it’s Can we penalize her for telling us about it.

Writing is risk-taking–and a woman who writes faces more legal problems than a woman who doesn’t–but I’ve lost more from risking nothing. Not “speaking truth to power” is the same impulse we have not to report our own heart attacks because no one believes us anyway. 

I think that if you have a voice, and you know what to do with it, then use it. Use it to make bad actors uncomfortable and to mock the status quo and to tell society what it pretends it doesn’t know. That’s how change happens. 

SK: When Amber Heard spoke up about spousal abuse (but didn’t name Johnny Depp), she got sued for speaking up, and then the public eviscerated her on social media. By then, your book was in production. After the Depp-Heard verdict, was there anything you would have added to Hysterical

EB: I would have added the Heard-Depp trial as an example of how women are sued for defamation (and lose) even for things they don’t say. And I would have written about the Dobbs verdict as the legalization of silencing–of silencing people who can get pregnant and silencing people who help them and advocate for them and educate them and write about them. Dobbs also confirmed that we’ve always been right to “be hysterical” and have always been convinced otherwise. We should be hysterical. Not being hysterical is insane. We live in a world of example after example of stripping women’s speech rights and of using “hysterical” against us, of using our emotions and our fears against us, to contain us, and if you’re not losing your shit in public right now, then what are you doing?

SK: For a long time, I thought that “write like a motherfucker” meant making paper bleed until your words punched a human in the soul. It was only later that I realized Cheryl Strayed meant “write a lot.” What does “write like a motherfucker” mean to you?

EB: “Work hard.” When I wrote to Sugar/Cheryl, I wasn’t working hard. I was complaining/panicking/spiraling like a motherfucker. And she called me out as the spiraling, panicked complainer I was. Fact-check: It didn’t take me 11 years to write my book. For ~6 years I was complaining about writing (and publishing) my book. But I wasn’t writing. Because I didn’t have a writing practice. It took ~4 years to develop a writing practice. 

SK: So how long did it actually take you to write Hysterical

EB: 11 days.

SK: !!!!?! Many of us are working on our own memoirs, and it’s a bleak market for memoirists. Parting advice for us peasants?

EB: Is it a bleak market? Does anyone really know anything about the market? Above I should have factored in the years I tried to write the book that agents wanted me to write, a marketable book. Which changed every season. It was a bleak market for personal essays, then it wasn’t. Next it was a bleak market for memoir, then it wasn’t. The market was flooded, or there was no market. Depending on the market, I was too early or too late, so I started over, writing and deleting hundreds of thousands of words and weathering the same number of rejections. What I wish I knew: no one actually knows what the market wants. But everyone has an opinion. The job is to write the best book you want to write and to find an agent who shares your vision and can help you develop it. My advice to “make it” is to “keep going.”

SK: You are one of the most generous, wonderful, and inspiring teachers. When and where can I take another class from you?

EB: Thank you! I’m teaching two classes this spring, a one-day seminar on how to write a tragicomic memoir like Hysterical and another on how to write funny person essays that’s four weeks in April and May via 92nd Street Y. Both are online and life-changing.

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Elissa Bassist is the editor of the “Funny Women” column on The Rumpus and the author of the award-deserving memoir Hysterical (Hachette). She teaches humor writing at The New School, Catapult, 92NY, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and elsewhere, and she is probably her therapist’s favorite. Visit www.elissabassist.com for classes and gossip. 

Summer Koester (rhymes with “luster”) is an award-winning writer and performing artist in Juneau, Alaska. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares Blog, and elsewhere. She is writing a memoir about her fifteen years living in Latin American and Caribbean cultures. Connect with her at www.summerkoester.com.

Fantasy, Reality, and Grief: An Interview with Erin Langner

December 21, 2022 § Leave a comment

By Megan Griffin

Erin Langner

Erin Langner’s debut essay collection Souvenirs from Paradise intertwines her frequent visits to Las Vegas with an exploration of grief and childhood memory. As an art critic and museum staffer, Langner sees the sparkling city through the eyes of design, forming connections to the unique buildings she stays in and walks past. Megan Griffin talks with Langner below about craft, form, and how place can be a tool to uncover the past.

Megan Griffin: As humans we are obsessed with pleasure and pain, both of which occur in grief. Why did you see Las Vegas as the right backdrop for Souvenirs from Paradise to explore this simultaneous fascination?

Erin Langner: In the beginning, I thought I was writing about Las Vegas in a literal sense. I was traveling there multiple times a year and wanted to explore that obsession. The first time I workshopped one of the essays, someone aptly said, You sure know a lot about architecture, which wasn’t the affect I was hoping to achieve.

What had initially been a secondary story in that essay, about Vegas’s similarities to Disney World (a place my family visited repeatedly in the years following my mother’s death) turned out to be the one that readers connected with most. I soon realized that I could use my interest in Las Vegas to trick myself into writing about those more difficult and meaningful aspects of my life.

MG: In your essay “The Mirage” you write: “Maybe it’s a portal between fantasy and reality. Maybe it takes you somewhere you were afraid to go”. As experiences of grief and your first Vegas trip collide, I wondered what Vegas was more for you: a distraction from childhood memories or a place to connect with yourself?

EL: I love that you used the word “distraction” to consider this question, because it speaks so well to the dual relationship I have with the Vegas Strip. The casinos are built with an intent to distract—through whimsical themes, various vices, sensory overwhelm.

One of the greatest challenges was to write beneath the surface of that spectacle. A mentor of mine, Peter Mountford, gave me guidance in this vein using this example: Everyone knows the food at TGI Fridays is bad. It’s much more interesting to convince me it’s good.

MG: As an experienced art critic, you brought architecture and design in as a central part of this collection. How did pieces like the “Eye Benches and buildings like theMandalay Bayexpand your presentation of self in this story?

EL: I’m very close to objects of all kinds, through my job working in a museum, as well as through writing as a critic. I see objects and building structures as places to find evidence of the unsaid. I like to search for aspects of an artist’s biography or point of view that, through the artworks, give insight into questions I have about my own life. Buildings operate similarly in my work, though because they are used by humans, they take on more of a witness role to the experiences that happen within their walls—even when, in cases like the Mandalay Bay, those experiences aren’t marked or memorialized in a visible way.

MG: I enjoyed how your essays effortlessly bounce between time, from childhood, to college, to motherhood. What craft elements helped you navigate these transitions within the essays and create an authentic voice for yourself at each age?

EL: Writing in a range of forms throughout the collection was a device that helped me to conjure different versions of my present and past selves. The essays I struggled most to write began as chronological narratives that told the story of a trip to Vegas but didn’t probe very deeply. This was in part because I find it very difficult to move between past and present perspectives within a linear structure in a way that reads clearly and true to my experiences. More fragmented forms that relied on thematic connections allowed me to make leaps in time without losing the momentum of the narrative or confusing the reader.

For instance, I used a collage-ish form in one essay to consider my troubled relationship with my sister through the lens of Britney Spears, a figure who had meaning and relevance to our lives both as adults and as young people. Spears was a talisman that I could use to access my memories from childhood, leading me to some I would not have easily recalled. 

MG: Do you have any advice for writers looking to explore the themes of travel and grief in their work?

EL: I spent most of my time in Las Vegas documenting my experiences, then sat down to write weeks later, once I could step back from the spectacle and see what surfaced most potently. Writing about grief was in some ways similar, as it’s easy to become lost while trying to capture the biggest emotions of loss. Smaller, quieter moments that I had to spend a little more time excavating were what resonated most as I brought readers into my experiences.

MG: Now that Souvenirs from Paradise is out, what projects are you working on?

EL: Since finishing the book, I’ve become interested in better connecting my life in the art world to my personal writing. I have been traveling with my young daughter to where I grew up more frequently to visit family. I’m working on a collection that uses my favorite works of art as a lens to better “see” my experiences growing up in suburbia, a place I felt sometimes had a forced narrative which felt untrue. It’s the opposite of Souvenirs from Paradise; I’m now writing about experiences in a place I’d been avoiding for a long time. It’s been exciting to learn new things about a seemingly familiar landscape and think about some of my favorite works of art in this context, since the writing process is leading me to see them differently, too.
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Erin Langner is an essayist and arts writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, decemberThe OffingThe Normal School, and The Brooklyn Rail. She is the recipient of a Jack Straw Writers fellowship and the Good Hart Artist Residency. Langner lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter and works at the Frye Art Museum.

Megan Griffin is an emerging writer from Connecticut, currently living in Massachusetts. She has a BA in professional writing from Bay Path University and is pursuing her MA in English from Bridgewater State University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Months to Years, and Parhelion.

Mapping New Essay Terrain

November 28, 2022 § 3 Comments

An Interview with Sarah Fawn Montgomery

By Erin Vachon

Sarah Fawn Montgomery

I am considering relocation to another part of the country while reading Sarah Fawn Montgomery’s new essay collection Halfway From Home, a lyrical search for home across geographical landscapes. The serendipity astounds me and sets my pen curving red topographical lines around paragraphs on each page. “Everyone can be a cartographer,” she writes. “Roaming makes coming home richer, for when we explore places beyond our understanding and experience, we see connections between places we never imagined.” The essays in Halfway from Home roam across California, Nebraska, and Massachusetts, deftly unpacking violence, grief, and nostalgia through their diverse habitats. In an interview wandering through the rich terrain of her writing, Montgomery and I explored the purpose of making your own map when uprooting your personal history.

Erin Vachon: On Dirt: In Halfway From Home, the ground unearths surprising truths through artifacts, graves, and time capsules. How has the passage of time changed the way you write about long buried events?

Sarah Fawn Montgomery I’ve always been interested in digging up what has been buried. As a child I dug for treasures — rocks, pennies, old trinkets. As an adult I dig for histories — familial, political, environmental. Lately I’ve become less interested in the artifacts and more interested in the acts of burial and unearthing, in the transformation of stories and selves over time. I’m interested in refocusing the work on this evolution, on the reasons we bury or uncover, on what happens to us through the act of concealing or revealing.

EV: On Sea: Overall, this collection examines unseen violence from family, partners, and strangers through lyricism. In particular, “Carve” is a tidal wave against bone-rigid gender violence: “How to hide in the sea with your bones on display, your hurt exposed and inviting. How to survive when your weapon is a wanting.” How does lyricism’s heightened beauty function when reclaiming violence?

SFM: We often ignore brutality because it is too painful, too pervasive. We recognize certain narrative structures and styles and stop reading in order to save ourselves from personal pain and collective responsibility. Lyricism is a way to command a reader’s interest and compel them to engage. This isn’t to say that I use lyricism to soften or distract from violence. Instead, beauty becomes a way to present violence more viscerally. I use lyricism when writing about brutality — domestic violence, social and political violence, gun violence, environmental violence —because it is the only way I know how to make a world inundated with grief take notice.

EV: On Grass: “To me, the Plains are neither cruel nor kind. They are indifferent.” You write lovingly about the unpredictable Midwest landscape, a place existing to “remind us of our impermanence.” How is writing about the character of a place different than writing about a person?

SFM: Both people and place invite intimacy, but we are often more accepting of place. When we accept the indifference of place, we also accept our unimportance. Place invites us to be insignificant, a process that encourages us to broaden our stories beyond ourselves. When we write about place, we decenter ourselves from the story, focusing instead of ecology, geology, natural history, community. It’s harder to do this when writing about people. When writing about the people in our lives we often become the center of the narrative and this can reopen old wounds, invite resentments and sorrows. Writing about place teaches me how to write about people. It invites me to set aside judgment in order to encourage compassion, empathy, in order to understand how a particular human stories fits within larger communities.

EV: On Forest: You write, “Trees hear one another because they listen.” Halfway From Home acknowledges the frustration of the ongoing pandemic as a single tree in a forest, emphasizing the need for community and resilience. Now that the collection is published, have these essays made the world feel larger or smaller by comparison?

SFM: Initially I hoped these essays would expand small portions of the world — the California grove of eucalyptus trees where most of the world’s monarchs spend each winter for warmth, a stretch of unbroken Nebraska prairie, the wetland woods that surround my Massachusetts home. I wrote much of this collection in the early days of the pandemic when my entire world was confined to my small home. By noticing the rich abundance of my small stretch of forest, I was able to expand my experience beyond the borders of my home. I learned trees, for example, are connected by a rich underground fungal network that allows them to share resources and take care of each other in order to ensure survival. During the pandemic this seemed — and seems still — a small lesson that we could invite in order to make a large difference. Now that the collection is published, it’s not so much that the world feels larger or smaller, but that we have rushed back to a “normal” where we don’t allow the small things — tide pools, prairie birds, moths — to be important, where we don’t learn what might be possible if we were to simply take notice.

EV: On Stone: In “Tumble,” you explore the relationship to your father alongside the meanings of crystals. What do you think Halfway From Home’s personal crystal might be?

SFM: I’ve long had a fascination with rocks. My father was a fence builder who taught me to dig in order to see what stories exist beneath the surface. At work sites, he pulled treasures out of the ground and taught me to use a rock polisher to make what was ordinary shine. If this collection were a rock, it would be obsidian, a stone associated with truth. Obsidian is formed when molten lava cools, when what erupted with violence cools to gloss. It is not actually a rock, instead glass, meaning the story is not what it first appears. Obsidian can be sharpened as a knife. It teaches us that what is beautiful can also wound. It is not showy like quartz or amethyst, does not boast colors like fluoride or citrine. It is dark and opaque, black like nothing. But look closely and you will notice how it reflects your own image.

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Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press), and three poetry chapbooks. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

Erin Vachon has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, Brevity, and more. They are Hybrid Editor for Longleaf Review and an alum of the Tin House Summer workshop. You can find more of their writing at www.erinvachon.com or Twitter @erinjvachon.

Where I’m From—Writers Answer on Instagram Live

November 8, 2022 § 19 Comments

A Q&A with Alyson Shelton

By Andrea A. Firth

Over the past year, Alyson Shelton has interviewed over 50 writers on Instagram Live about their response to the prompt “Where I’m From.” The conversations start with the writer reading their response and from there Alyson and her guest spend a half an hour talking about the prompt, the process, family, relationships and much more. Andrea A. Firth spoke with Alyson about the project. 

How did your Where I’m From Instagram Live project get started?

I was introduced to the writing prompt in a workshop led by Jeannine Ouellette. The prompt is inspired by a poem by George Ella Lyon. It’s basically a poem template and you fill in the blanks as directed, like insert a sensory detail, a family tradition or name, and so on. I was so struck by the poems people generated. I felt changed by it. A couple days later I thought maybe this would be a cool thing to do on social media, share a poem and talk a bit. We don’t have time in our schedules to connect in a meaningful way with all the people we know. I love hearing people’s stories. But when you meet someone casually you can’t say, “Hi, nice to meet you. What was your childhood like?” I liked the idea of having a container that could do this, one that we could share. 

Who has participated? How’s it going?

Initially I solicited people I knew, a lot of writers, but also people whose voices I find interesting and other creatives. Then people started reaching out to me because they saw an episode and wanted to participate. The momentum has been building. Currently I’m scheduled out to April with an interview each week, which will make a total of 80 episodes.

Wow! Why do you think that this fill-in-the blank prompt works? How do participants respond to it?

Many will ask me if it’s ok deviate from the prompt or break the rules. I say definitely break the rules. I’m not their editor, that’s not my function. I’m just here to listen. Personally, I found the prompt freeing and also fascinating because it pushed me to do things I don’t normally do. For example, I don’t really think about smells, but when prompted to do so, I did. It’s curious because the exercise gets you out of your comfort zone, but you still feel at ease, which seems impossible, but I do think it does that for a lot of people because it’s so specific.

The prompt is described as poem and reads like a prose poem, yet by the end it feels like a complete story, with narrative movement, like an essay. What do you think?

I feel like it creates a micro-memoir. I’ve had participants reach out after our conversation and say that the exercise changed their perspective about themselves and their work. The prompt may make the writing easier. I think there’s this myth that personal writing has to be difficult and gut wrenching. Maybe this container helps us access what lives in us and validates our story.

The prompt opens the door to a range of topics like religion and family relationships. How does this contribute to the conversations you have with the participants?

I’m fascinated by what people, some who I know quite well and others less so, choose to share or not share. I’m not going to talk about something that they don’t share in the poem, that’s my boundary. Often in conversation, I think people can feel put on the spot by a question or not sure if they want to share. Here the participant gets to make those choices, and the container, the prompt, provides the boundaries. We get on Instagram Live, the guest shares their response, and we talk about it. Life is so uncertain now and has been for a couple years. I think it’s gratifying and relaxing to go into an experience and have it be what you think it’s going to be. 

Another facet of the conversation that’s interesting is that you share your experiences as well.

I do. It comes naturally to me. A conversation requires give and take. I don’t expect the guests to be vulnerable with me if I respond like a neutral party. We’re in this space together. If they’re sharing parts of themselves, I share parts of myself too. It’s not a burden. It’s just how I am. 

The conversations include a lot of laughter. Are there ever any tears?

Yes, but I try not to cry too much because sometimes tears can make people feel self-conscious or that they have to take care of me. I don’t want it to be about me, so I try to keep the tears internal. I find laughter is a more inclusive expression. I think a lot of people who join me are nervous. Often, it’s the first time they’ve been on Instagram Live. Laughter diffuses those nerves. 

What are you learning and gaining from these conversations?

I’ve learned that things that I enjoy and that come easy to me have merit. I don’t have to do something hard for it to be worthwhile. This comes easy to me, and it’s been validating because other people are enjoying it too. And it’s increasing my connectedness with my community, which is something I strive for on a regular basis. Another particular joy of doing this series is connecting with people who I’ve become friends with online, but who I’ve not met.

I’ve always believed everyone has a story. We’re ordinary people and at the same time we are all extraordinary too. Everyone is walking around with something they’ve experienced, they’ve lived through. The more we recognize that every single person we interact with has their own own story, I feel like we move through the world with more gratitude and grace—at least I do. It’s not just what they can do for me or what is this interaction about for me, it’s about trying to be present.

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Alyson Shelton (pictured here) wrote and directed the award-winning feature Eve of Understanding. She created and wrote the comic, Reburn, and successfully funded the first arc (Issues #1-#4) on Kickstarter. Additionally, her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Ms., Hobart Pulp, Little Old Lady (LOL) Comedy Blog and others. She is currently at work on a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byalysonshelton where you can watch and participate in her IG Live series Where I’m From.

Andrea A. Firth is an editor at the Brevity Blog and essayist and journalist. She is co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop.

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Death Doesn’t Sell…Or Does It?

November 1, 2022 § 3 Comments

Publishing’s disconnect between “the market” and actual readers.

Karen Fine (photo: Constance Owens)

E.B. Bartels and Karen Fine met last summer and realized they have a lot in common: both drive bumper-sticker-covered Subarus, both published with nautical-themed imprints––and both faced obstacles getting their death-heavy books into the world.

Karen Fine: When I was querying The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Mortality, I had many literary agents request material and come back with “too much death.” Eventually, I worked with an editor (Allison K Williams, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor!) who helped me reorganize the manuscript and trim some sad parts that didn’t add to the overall narrative. An agent who had asked me to revise and resubmit loved the changes and offered representation. What obstacles did you encounter when you were trying to place your book?

E.B. Bartels (photo: Small Circle Studio)

E. B. Bartels: I also had the “too much death” problem––which was hard when the book is about death. When I was querying agents and later editors, the feedback I got was: “If people love animals, why would they want to read about animals dying?” Meanwhile, when I talked to friends, family, random people I met, about what I was writing, people got excited. They told me how much they wished they had a book like this when their pets died, and then would tell me about every pet they’d ever had and how that pet died. It was a confusing disconnect between what publishing thought the market was and what the market actually was.

KF: I wrote my book in part because I felt that people could benefit from knowing more about a veterinarian’s experiences with the loss of both my patients and my own animals. Did you feel a similar need to write about this taboo topic, to help people gain a greater understanding of death and grief?

EB: Definitely. I wrote Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter because I wanted to have a greater understanding of death and grief, and I feel like a lot of people are also hungry to have that understanding. Whenever I brought the subject up, people really wanted to talk about it. I was giving them the okay to share all these feelings they’d had no outlet for before. After so many of the interviews I did for my book––even the really hard ones with a lot of tears––people would say, “I am so glad I got to talk about this.” I think American culture is closed off from talking about grief and death in general, and even more so about disenfranchised types of grief, like the death of a pet or a miscarriage.

KF: Your book was such an enjoyable read; I feel as though the title says it all – grief can be pure and loving. How did you come up with your title?

EB: I was inspired by one of the most famous human-pet relationships in pop culture––Snoopy and Charlie Brown. I also liked the exasperated tone because it mirrors the frustration around pets: good grief why do we keep doing this to ourselves if they’re only going to die in the end?  No one forces us to fall in love with these adorable, loving, kind creatures only to have them die on us, ten to fifteen years later. But having pets is such a good thing it makes the grief worth it––thus Good Grief.

KF: What kind of feedback have you been getting from readers?

EB: I’ve been overwhelmed by how many people have thanked me for this book––saying it brought them closure and comfort thinking about pet deaths that happened decades ago. People have also been excited to share their own pet memories and stories, so much so that I started an Instagram account for the book to post them all. I like to think of it as a virtual pet cemetery.

KF: Your book has an interesting structure which worked so well for the subject matter – as a new writer, it’s something I wouldn’t have thought of. How did you decide how to organize the book?

EB: Each chapter starts with one of my own personal pet stories, and then I move into reporting on a specific element of pet death. I wanted to blend the personal with the researched because that’s my favorite kind of nonfiction to read (like Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui or On Immunity by Eula Biss), but also because I found when doing interviews, people were faster to open up when I shared my own experiences first. Talking about your feelings about pet death is scary, and it’s easier to do when you know you’re talking to someone who gets it. I like to think of my pet death stories as an offering to the reader––a way of saying I’ve been there too, you’re not alone.

KF: You’re ahead of me in the publishing journey; my book’s release is March 14, 2023. What advice do you have for me?

EB: As I am currently battling a miserable cold after doing book events nonstop for three months, my advice is to take care of yourself! Get sleep, spend time doing non-book-promo-related things, drink lots of fluids, and remember it’s a marathon not a sprint. Especially for books like ours about evergreen topics. Don’t buy into the hype that you have your three weeks and then the publishing cycle moves on. People are always going to have pets, and those pets are, unfortunately, always going to die.

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E.B. Bartels holds an MFA from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Toast, and The Butter, among others. She is the author of Good Grief: On Loving Pets, Here and Hereafter (Mariner). E.B. lives in Massachusetts, with her husband, Richie, and their many, many pets. Find her at www.ebbartels.com, on Twitter @eb_bartels, or on Instagram @goodgriefpetsbook

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Dr. Karen Fine is a holistic veterinarian who writes about the human-animal bond, holistic veterinary medicine, pet loss, grief, and narrative medicine. Her memoir, The Other Family Doctor: A Veterinarian Explores What Animals Can Teach Us About Love, Life and Mortality (Anchor/Penguin Random House) will be published in March 2023. She co-edits Reflections, a digital journal on Veterinary Narrative Medicine, and has written for Bark Magazine and Inside Your Cat’s Mind. Find her at www.karenfinedvm.com.


Crafting a New Genre: A Conversation with Jamie Gehring

October 25, 2022 § 4 Comments

Jamie Gehring’s glad her initial pitches got rejected.

Jamie Gehring, author of Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber

By L.L. Kirchner

I’m not typically into true crime. I prefer relatable memoirs. Then I discovered Jamie Gehring’s new book, Madman in the Woods: Life Next Door to the Unabomber, and found both in one—a relatable memoir about a true crime.

In 1996, Gehring learned the identity of the nation’s longest-running domestic terrorist, Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber. He also happened to be her neighbor, and so her memoir blends personal experience—Kaczynski holding her as a baby and giving her gifts like painted rocks—with original research, including the author’s insights into Kaczynski’s personal correspondence, journals and interviews.

What makes this story accessible is that Gehring resists turning Kaczynski into a caricature. Her family shared meals with their reclusive neighbor, so she knew he didn’t care for her beloved, noisy motorcycle. Still, it’s shocking to read Kaczynski’s writing on the same memory:

“When I see a motorcyclist tearing up the mountain meadows, instead of fretting about how I can get revenge on him safely, I just want to watch the bullet rip through his flesh and I want to kick him in the face when he is dying.”

After meeting Gehring at an author’s conference, I got to ask how she went about researching and writing the book and the grit it took to create a unique genre, the braided crime memoir. Our conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

Lisa L. Kirchner, author of the forthcoming BLISSFUL THINKING: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution

LLK: Do you distrust all your neighbors now?

JG: [laughing] I’m still very trusting of people until I have reason not to be.

LLK: What gave you the idea to write this book?

JG: Since he was arrested in 1996, I’ve wanted to tell the story. It’s so unique to us. But I was working full time, raising kids. It wasn’t till my two kids were older that I could. I wrote while my baby napped, or my husband would stay home for the weekend and I’d lock myself in a hotel room and write for 48 hours to get completely immersed in the project.

When I first started writing this six years ago, I thought the book would be short stories. I did my outline and started writing and when I had it almost done, I didn’t feel like it was personal enough.

LLK: What was the model for your book?

JG: There wasn’t one. I wanted to write something completely different. It was a risk because I didn’t understand the market, or what a braided memoir was. I had to learn how to incorporate the interviews, my history, and the journal entries.

A couple of writing coaches were like, “Braided memoir in crime is something that’s just not done. It’s not going to work.” I was like, I think it’s gonna work.

LLK: [Expletive] them!

JG: I’m just glad that when I was initially pitching, I got rejected. Because that wasn’t the story that I wanted to write. Other writers I met said I could pull this off, so I kept writing and recrafting. It finally came together. My agent really helped me hone as well.

LLK: Do you worry about glamorizing serial killers?

JG: I don’t want to glorify this violence or make a hero out of Ted Kaczynski, or to excuse acts of domestic terrorism. But when you’re trying to understand the people around you, I believe it’s important to try to understand their background, their story. The victims were always very present in my mind when I was writing.

I also researched my demographic. True crime is a broad audience, but there are a lot of women interested in true crime. It can give a feeling kind of empowerment, knowing that, though you can’t control the violence around you, you can control what you understand. I wrote with that in the back of my mind too.

If the beginning chapters of my book seem sympathetic toward Kaczynski, that’s honest. Those are my childhood memories. But those views changed. I take readers along as I read and learned about what he was really doing next door.

LLK: How did you stay with this difficult story?

JG: There were times I had to stop and put everything away for a couple of days. I remember reading the journal entries where Ted wrote these methodical, strategic descriptions of what he was going to do, hanging up by the neck, the neck height, type of wire… It was methodical. It was strategic. And it was in our backyard. He It was intentionally trying to kill people. And that wasn’t just people, that included me. Reading that was very difficult.

I had many moments of wanting to throw my laptop in a trash compactor and watch as 50,000 words were transformed into unrecognizable splinters and cubes. I wanted to forget this dream. Not only during the writing process but while pitching to agents and then publishers. 

I made myself take weeks off the project to play with my children, hike, meditate—which I wasn’t very good at—and go to yoga. That way I could digest difficult discoveries and restore my nervous system, before diving back in. 

LLK: What advice would you give writers who feel like their project doesn’t fit a mold?

JG: Trust your gut and your creative vision for a project. You may need to revise a hundred times, but stay true to your goals. Much of the initial advice I received was thrown out by the time I gained confidence as a writer and had the backing of a skilled agent and publisher. 

If you’re new to this industry, find your village. Mine was found in online groups of writers, who are now real-life friends, my agent, writing coach, and my publicist. 

__________________

Jamie Gehring is a Montana native who grew up sharing a backyard with Ted Kaczynski, the man widely known as the Unabomber. She was featured in Netflix’s Unabomber—In His Own Words where she discussed her family’s role in Ted’s capture. Her debut memoir, MADMAN IN THE WOODS: LIFE NEXT DOOR TO THE UNABOMBER (Diversion Books, 2022) has been referenced by Kirkus Reviews as, “A revealing, firsthand addition to the literature of domestic terrorism.” More at her website

L.L. Kirchner is an award-winning screenwriter and author of the forthcoming BLISSFUL THINKING: A Memoir of Overcoming the Wellness Revolution (Motina Press, 2023). Her first memoir, AMERICAN LADY CREATURE, was recently re-released as an ebook. More at her website.

Believe It or Not: What Makes Us Weird Actually Unites Us

October 5, 2022 § 5 Comments

Allison Landa’s debut memoir Bearded Lady: When You’re a Woman with a Beard, Your Secret is Written All Over Your Face is a powerful first-person narrative of her struggles with Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia since childhood. In the interview below, Allison and Chris Young discuss the book and the steps involved in writing, editing, and publication. 

Chris Young: From conception to print, how did Bearded Lady evolve? How did your perception of the book change over time? How long was that timeline?

Allison Landa: At first, my perception of my project was different. I had all these tropes and sidelong ways of telling the tale. I was missing the mark for the first several drafts. And how did I know when it was “right?” Therapy helped. So did my husband. He has a great ear and tells me bluntly – Nope. Kill that. All of this takes time, it takes effort. I first started writing this in 2006…so, 16 years to bring it to print.

Chris: You’ve shared with our writer’s group your years-long journey of finding the right agent and the right publisher for this book. Can you talk about how this work became a memoir? 

Allison: Knowing yourself and your vision is a critical first step – but it doesn’t always come first. Along the way came four years and three re-writes to try and fit someone else’s vision of a Young Adult book. That was painful. Ultimately, I discovered the story was a memoir and needed to stay that way. I found people who supported that and were able to get my work into print. 

Chris: You’ve mentioned that getting an MFA and participating in several writers’ residencies helped enormously in bringing this project to light. Can you share any advice you picked up and how, specifically, it helped you? 

Allison: Certainly the MFA helped me to know myself, know my book – that is step one. You learn how to take feedback – and figure out who is qualified to give you that feedback. You make friends, connections. With residencies, it’s the time and the space to do the work. No matter if you go an academic route, or a non-academic route, you have the three Cs: Commit to the work, Conceptualize (try things on for size), and Connections (share your work, and find friends along the way). If you’re finding that a particular writing group isn’t right for you, don’t stick with it. Find another one. If you’re not getting what you need from your mentor or coach, find someone else. Ultimately, you want to find people who understand your story enough to help you see it through.

Chris: How did you choose the shape and structure of this memoir? 

Allison: I’m not sure if I chose it or it chose me. I played around with all kinds of different structures, but ultimately a linear narrative felt like the most effective way to tell my story. If that sounds neat, it certainly wasn’t. I spent years shaping and reshaping the thing before it finally fell into place. 

Chris: If the takeaway is about how we are all weird – (embrace and share your weirdness!) – can you talk about how – and when – this occurred to you?  

Allison: Great question! At some level I always knew that was the bigger takeaway, but it didn’t consciously occur to me until after the book was close to done in its current form. Having written the damn thing, I was then thinking in terms of higher themes – what did I want to tell the reader? I talked with many friends about this and realized that what makes us all weird in our own ways also unites us.

Chris: I really love the cover. What was it like to select the art for this piece?

Allison: It took a few iterations to get it right. I didn’t have a specific vision for the cover, but I did know it needed to convey my story – and I also knew what I did not want it to be. I chose to stay away from clownish imagery that could downplay the significance of the book’s message. I feel that the cover says so much without being overly specific or literal.

Chris: What’s next for you? 

Allison: Memoir is a unique and beautiful genre, and I don’t use the word beautiful lightly. That said, I’m switching gears and am currently 13,000 words into a work of fiction I’m calling Conflagration. I’m excited to see where it goes. I also recently pitched Parents Magazine on a piece about having to explain death to your 6-year-old, as we recently had to put our dog of 12 years down. I had to write my way through it; it’s how I process. We’ll see if that makes its way into any other stories. Sometimes you don’t know until it happens.

___

Chris Young is fascinated with what makes some workplaces full of drudgery and discusses this on workplacewoes.com. She’s working on what she thinks is a memoir covering the tech scene from 1999-2019, including an accidental visit to the mental health psych ward. She’s been a participant in Allison Landa’s weekly writer support group for over 2 years. 

Allison Landa teaches at the Writing Salon and was a recent member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Her work has appeared in venues including The Guardian US, The Washington Post, HuffPost Personal, The Mighty, and Salon Magazine. She is professionally represented by Marisa Zeppieri of Strachan Literary Agency. Her debut memoir Bearded Lady is forthcoming from Woodhall Press in October 2022.  

Pre-order link! 

Allison Landa (photo credit Maya Blum Photography

Happy Birthday Seven Drafts

September 20, 2022 § 6 Comments

There’s a logic (and some magic) to the number 7.

By Andrea A. Firth

When you take a class from Brevity Blog’s editor Allison K Williams, she starts by sharing her hashtag, #FirehoseMe. Why firehose? Because she packs more information (and laughs) into a class than almost humanly possible. She’s literally a blast.

Last Fall, not long after the launch of Seven DraftsSelf-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book, I interviewed Allison for Catapult Magazine. She presents the same way in an interview as she does when she leads a class. By the end of our hour-long conversation, I was soaking wet. (You can read the interview here.) I couldn’t fit all of the great information and lol moments into that 1,500-word Q&A. So, on the eve of Seven Drafts’ one-year publication anniversary, I asked Allison to revisit what didn’t make the cut and answer a couple more questions.

What inspired you to write Seven Drafts

I really like money and one of the ways to make money is to have a product that you don’t have to keep delivering in person. I know that sounds mercenary! But writing and editing is how I make my living, and there’s no shame in wanting to be paid for what you do, even when you love doing it. Plus, having a traditionally published book is a huge resume-booster for a writing teacher, and I was so happy Woodhall Press was willing to team up to make it happen (Thanks Matt & Colin!).

Seven drafts to a complete book—why 7?

Because if I called it 17 Drafts, no one would buy the book! But really there’s a logic (and some magic) to the number 7. Each draft plays a specific and important role, and I first wrote about that for Brevity in 2015. The short version:

Vomit Draft:  This is awesome!

Story Draft:   This makes no sense.

Character Draft:  Who are these people? I hate them.

Technical Draft:  Thought made writing but me wrong was.

Personal Copy Edit: Sprinkle commas like confetti!

Friend Read:  If you love me, you’ll tell me what sucks.

Editor Read:  I paid big bucks to confirm what I kind of knew. Can I at least query while revising?

Circus arts, like lying on a bed of nails and fire eating, are among your other talents. You worked as a street performer for many years and often draw on that experience when you write and teach? How do the two connect?

Honestly, the hard part is not lying on a bed of nails. The hard part is taking a big, deep breath and holding it while a big audience volunteer guy is standing on you, because once you exhale, you can’t inhale again. But the key to lying on a bed of nails is in the numbers. Lying on one nail will pierce right through you. Lying on a hundred nails isn’t so bad. It’s like submitting to literary journals. One submission, you’re on the edge of your seat every time the inbox pings. A hundred submissions, you won’t even remember what essay you sent them when the rejection comes in.

Fire-eating’s a lot like writing, too—and I’ll be talking more about that in this month’s newsletter. (Sign up here!)

You say writers are seldom original, but we can always be rare. Can you expand on this?

Early-career writers often worry that somebody’s going to steal their idea, or else they aren’t moving fast enough, and someone else will write it first. But an agent doesn’t need to steal your idea. The agent got six other books today with that same idea. So little is original. And even if someone else tells “your” story, you haven’t lost your chance. Our voice, our bravery in telling the story, whether that’s a personal story or one in which we have carefully created beautiful characters and bravely sent them into the world to tell their story—that is almost always unique. No one else can tell our particular, unique story. As I wrote in Seven Drafts, that’s why showing is so much better than telling, why details are better than generalities.

What have you learned about yourself, the book, or process over the past year?

It was powerfully moving to hold my book in my hands for the first time. And I’m delighted every time people Tweet and email me to say how much Seven Drafts is helping them get through their own books! But because it’s a writing craft book, part of me still feels like an imposter—like it’s not a “real” book like a memoir or a novel. So I’m working hard to finish a YA novel that is very much the book of my heart.

You’re organizing a dinner party to celebrate the first anniversary of Seven Drafts. Which three writers, alive or dead, do you invite? And what kind of cake do you serve?

Hilary Mantel, William Shakespeare and Kate Atkinson. Three powerful wordsmiths who I think would also enjoy each other’s company. We’ll have Lemon Lush cupcakes from Lancaster Cupcakes, please and thank you!

I’m a terrible gift receiver—so I think the very best way to celebrate is presents for other people! For all the Brevity readers who support, sustain and challenge my work, I’m offering two free chapters of Seven Drafts, and my Self-Editing Checklist. Get them here.

Happy Birthday!

__________________

Andrea A. Firth recently joined the Brevity Blog editorial team. She lives and writes in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. Andrea has a new class Let’s Try: Essay, A Space to Tell Your Story starting in November. Learn more here.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and the author of Seven Drafts. She’ll be leading three sessions of Memoir Bootcamp starting October 19. Learn more here.

Finding Joy in the Struggle: Kathleen Rooney’s “Where Are the Snows”

July 26, 2022 § 6 Comments

Kathleen Rooney, photo by Beth Rooney

Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore sat down to discuss the line between essay and prose poem with Kathleen Rooney, author of Where Are the Snows, chosen for the 2021 X.J. Kennedy Prize by Kazim Ali, who calls the work “a smart, fierce, and intelligent take on contemporary life that everyone should read.”

Rooney’s book is also heartbreaking and wickedly funny

And hard to classify.

 *

DINTY: It strikes me that so many of these poems could easily be presented as flash essays, albeit quirky and unusual flash essays. Do you have a pivot point where you see prose poem turning into essay, or vice versa. Is it simply a matter of honesty vs. imagination, or something more to do with form?

KATHLEEN: One of the differences between a poem and an essay, for me, is how much of the connecting is going to be done by the reader in comparison to how much is going to be done for them by the writer. In an essay, even a fragmentary one which eschews transitions, there’s usually a grouping or an order that suggests stronger connections or relationships from one chunk of content to the next. In a poem, you can be more elliptical and suggestive. I see the stanzas of these prose poems as operating more associatively than argumentatively or narratively, and in an essay—though of course there are exceptions—that’s not as much the case.

DINTY: That is a fresh, and fascinating, delineation of where the prose poem ends and essay begins, one I haven’t seen articulated so clearly before now. Of course, we published one of the poems from Where Are the Snows in Brevity recently, “The Sweet and Fleshy Product of a Tree or Other Plant” (as an essay of course) and I’m struck by how what seems at first a simple meditation on fruit builds into something more political, spiritual, and complex. That happens again and again in the book; ideas come out of nowhere and the experience of reading takes a fascinating turn, one that seems entirely necessary by the time we reach the bottom of the page. Can you talk about how this works, and your deeper intentions with this book?

KATHLEEN: Thank you! As you know, I am fascinated with these sorts of questions and distinctions and like to explore them in my own work and in the work that Abby Beckel and I publish with Rose Metal Press. It’s cool to me that “The Sweet…” is hybrid enough to hop back and forth over whatever fence can be said to exist between prose poem and essay. There’s a feeling I associate with childhood of looking super-hard at a seemingly simple object – the square in a window-screen, a pine needle, a fleck of glitter – and then tumbling into a kind of Grand Canyon of contemplation, just free-falling past layer after layer, stratum after stratum of realization and association and even politicization and argumentation. It’s a sensation of curiosity with no bottom, a potentially infinite feeling of being mesmerized by the tiniest thing, which then goes from being tiny to infinitely huge. With each piece in the book, I tried to have a given topic in mind – fruit, like you say, or cemeteries or birthdays or the priesthood or real estate – and then let myself free fall through my thoughts and emotions on that topic for as long as possible until I felt like the writing was done and I’d reached some new understanding of whatever I’d been looking at.

DINTY:  And then there is humor. Where Are the Snows is a very sly book, and despite some deadly-serious commentary on the dire state of our world today, the individual poems, essays, or whatchamacallits are packed with tongue-in-cheek surprises, even, at times, unexpected joy. “Can beginner’s luck apply from moment to moment?” you ask. “Not sure, but I hope so.”

Well, we all should be so lucky. So tell me, is the mix of humor and hard reality an intentional move, or does it just come to you naturally?

KATHLEEN: I am so happy you found it funny because I meant for it to be hilarious and for the humor to be entertaining, but also maybe to serve a political end. In his essay “Funny, but Not Vulgar,” George Orwell says, “A thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution.” Right now in America, the right-wing is adept at being funny in a manner that is vulgar, offensive, and frightening; their proudly coarse and deliberately ignorant and false forms of humor are proving effective for their oppressive, exclusionary, and destructive aims. I want the left to have more fun and get funnier too. Seeking solidarity through humor and fellow feeling could help combat a lot of the self-seriousness, dreariness, and grievance that make the left prone to eat its own, and could help us channel our energy into avenues that, as Orwell mentions, could be revolutionary. Finding joy in the struggle, as the saying goes, is one of the things I hope this book evokes.

___

Dinty W. Moore is founding editor of Brevity magazine and author of Crafting The Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Non-Fiction, among other books.

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a collective of poets and their typewriters who compose poetry on demand. Her most recent books include the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, and her criticism appears in The New York TimesThe Chicago Review of BooksThe Brooklyn RailThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay, and teaches at DePaul. Her novel From Dust to Stardust is forthcoming from Lake Union Press in Fall 2023.

Telling the Unwanted Story: an Interview with Memoirist Jill Kandel

July 19, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Sarah Coomber

Your second memoir, The Clean Daughter: a Cross-Continental Memoir, takes us to five different countries, yet all of your experiences tie into figuring out your prickly relationship with your father-in-law. How did you get to the heart of that story?

This was a hard book to write, because it is really personal, and it touches on not only my life, but my in-laws, my husband, my children and my grandparents.

It circles around three themes. One of them is my relationship with my father-in-law, Izaak, who spent his entire life in the Netherlands. We had a difficult relationship, and I felt in order to understand him, I needed to understand the Netherlands better, so I did quite a bit of Netherlands research.

Izaak was a child in Nazi-occupied Holland, so I went to the Netherlands several times to research World War II, learning what it was like for him as a young teen growing up under Nazi oppression.

In 2008, he decided that he wanted to end his life using euthanasia, which was legal in the Netherlands. He did not have a terminal diagnosis and was a relatively healthy man. We didn’t understand his decision, so part of my research focused on euthanasia in the Netherlands. I felt if I could understand those laws, I could understand his choice better.

Tell me about your writing process.

I didn’t want to write this book as memoir—I was afraid of my own story, afraid I’d get it wrong, afraid I’d offend people. My first three versions of this book were fiction. But it did not work at all.

I threw those drafts away and shifted to memoir, trying out a few different structures, and ended up going with straight chronology. As you read the book, you learn about euthanasia and World War II and my father-in-law as I learned about them. You’re viewing the story through the eyes of someone else who’s learning it, so we’re learning together.

We’ve had conversations about the challenge of writing stories involving our families. How did you get past your initial resistance to sharing tough experiences?

I crossed that bridge in my first memoir (So Many Africas, Autumn House Press, 2015). There were things my husband didn’t want me to write about then that I needed to write about. So I wrote. He would read it and get upset or wouldn’t talk to me for a while, and we’d let it set, and then get it out again and talk about it.

In a sense, writing hard things was a way for me to have a voice in things we needed to talk about. It opened up those doors.

In life?

In life. And I’d say that’s true about this book, too, because the parts where I wrote about euthanasia, my husband would say, “Can’t you write about something else?” And I couldn’t. If I could have not written this book, I would have not written this book. But I was compelled to find answers.

How did writing this book change you as a person?

In the five years it took to write, I learned empathy toward Izaak, partly from what I learned about his boyhood in World War II. I have more compassion for his fears. He wasn’t sick when he chose to die, but he was very fearful of the future. As I age, I understand that fear a bit more.

I learned something else as well while writing. I always thought Izaak was a difficult man, but I was an American girl, and he was an older Dutch gentleman. I was difficult for him like he was difficult for me. I don’t think I realized that before.

You wrote this book while a member of an all-woman writing group, which I joined after your manuscript was complete. The group’s sharing process is different from other writing groups I’ve been part of. Instead of pre-reading each other’s writing, we read our work aloud to the group. How did this practice impact your book?

The writing group definitely shaped this book. Collectively, we’ve published ten books, so we’re all experienced working writers. I think when you read out loud to a live audience, it’s a very organic process. It’s living. And so it’s much like a reader reading your book. They don’t have time to think over it and stew over it and make all sorts of intellectual comments. It’s a little bit off the cuff, but the writing group off-the-cuff comes with years of experience, and it flows. We talk back and forth, and we trust each other, so it’s more like a conversation, which I feel you learn more from.

How does it feel to have The Clean Daughter out in the world?

This isn’t the story I wanted or asked for—or even liked, but it is the story I was given, and I found the writing of it offered me a sort of release.

When it’s finished and accepted for publication, it’s made into this thing called a book, and you don’t own it anymore. It’s a sort of mysterious, difficult gift that you give the world.

I think that’s the glory of memoir, when words can take pain and turn it into art. Then art can do its work to bring mercy into the world. All the difficulty and hardness of writing this book has become a joy, something I have to give away and offer to others.

Memoirist Jill Kandel began writing at the age of forty to make sense of a life lived on four continents and a cross-cultural marriage that has lasted more than forty years. Her first memoir, So Many Africas, won the Autumn House Nonfiction Prize and the Sarton Women’s Literary Award.

Sarah Coomber, neighbor and fellow memoir writer (The Same Moon, Camphor Press, 2020), walked over to Kandel’s Minnesota back yard for this visit about Kandel’s new book, The Clean Daughter.

Learn more about Kandel and her writing at www.jillkandel.com

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