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. 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