I have been meaning to post about Kate St. Vincent Vogl’s Lost and Found: A Memoir of Mothers for months and months. Kate read as part of the 3rd Annual Mother Words Reading last fall at the Loft, and her lovely memoir is a story of adoption, love, and what it means to be a mother.
Just after Kate St. Vincent Vogl’s mother died of ovarian cancer, Kate received a phone call late one night. The woman on the other end of the phone began ticking off facts about Kate’s life and her parents’ lives. Then the woman said, “I gave birth to a baby girl.” She named the day, the month, and the year that Kate was born. Then she said, “Would that be you?”
Lost and Found is the story of losing one mother and finding another mother, and as the often-moving narrative progresses, we see Kate broaden her idea of family and learn to accept and love her birthmother, Val.
Kate St. Vincent Vogl will be reading this Friday, February 12th at 7 p.m. at Birchbark Books (owned by the amazing Louise Erdrich) in Minneapolis, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to talk with Kate here at Mother Words. Thanks for agreeing to this short-notice e-mail interview, Kate.
KH: Kate, I love how present your writer-self is in the narrative. I’m wondering if you can talk a little about how writing this story helped (or didn’t help) you process it. What were the biggest discoveries you made during the writing of this memoir?
KSV: Thanks, Kate. Thanks especially for this chance to share my story with your readers.
This is such a great question, for these discoveries happen on both the personal and professional level. Let’s talk personal discoveries first—though I should say that when Meredith Hall was asked if writing a memoir was therapeutic, she balked at the notion that a memoirist should seek that as part of the goal of getting her story onto the page. Considering her success in Without A Map, I think I’ll defer to her expertise. Yet I’m the type of person who needs to talk things out in order to understand what I think of something. So, I won’t call the process therapeutic, but I will call it enlightening. Until I sat down to write it, I hadn’t realized how far I’d come in my willingness to bridge a connection with Val. I had to go back to my original emails to my friend Christin telling her about Val’s call to recapture that moment. I’d forgotten I wasn’t interested in developing any sort of a relationship with her. I had to step back into that moment and recapture that desire to keep her at arm’s length and then bring the reader to where I am today. In looking over those old e-mails, I was also able to tap into the voice I wanted to use in the telling. I wanted to draw the reader in close, so I tell the story much as I would tell it to my friend. Women in the book clubs I’ve joined have noted that intimacy, so I’m glad I’ve been able to make that connection with readers.
On a professional level, I learned a lot from writing this as well. This was the story I wanted to write when I first started writing seriously almost 15 years ago, but I knew I didn’t have the tools to be able to write it yet. So I set it aside and wrote an awful first novel. With 100,000 words under my belt (and 5 revisions of each and every word), I was finally ready to write this story. I could finally write an effective scene—or at least a decent one—and I could carry a narrative arc. I could parse dialogue down to its essence, and when it came time for revising, I could recognize which scenes needed to be added and which ones really should be cut. (Okay, so some were easier to cut than others.)
I should also note that some of my biggest discoveries came not in the writing, but in the marketing of this book. In speaking at national conferences, I realized just how many people out there hunger for mother words—that’s something.
KH: In Lost and Found, you write a lot about your sister and your sometimes strained relationship with her. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached this material, both while you were writing and when you were ready to publish it?
KSV: That’s so interesting—at many readings people noted how they wished I’d written even more about my sister! And at one point I had, but my editor (the very accomplished Patricia Weaver Francisco) reminded me that writing is an art—but not a martial art. So a chapter of my memoir that focused on my sister ended up on the cutting room floor. Which was better, really. It’s a memoir of mothers, after all—not a memoir of sisters.
That example is indicative of my writing process. What I tried to do was get my heart on the page, to include what my motivations were, what mattered to me. That’s the essence of characterization, isn’t it? Once I got it down in that crummy first draft, as Ann Lamott calls it (she actually calls it a much naughtier word!), then I had to decide what to do with it.
When I started writing this memoir in full, there was one person I definitely had to get the okay from to write it: Val. I wrote out a draft of the first three chapters, in which I write about me not wanting a birthday card from Val and how I admitted I was a snot for being that way. (At least I was honest, if not very nice.) So you can imagine how I held my breath for Val’s reaction. And I have to hand it to her, Val called me right up and said, “Absolutely, you have to write this. You have to share everything.” It was important to her that other birthmothers know they weren’t alone in the darkness they lived in, not knowing whether the child they surrendered was okay or not.
Once I wrote the story, there were of course others I needed clearance from. Val gave the okay once more as I started sending it out to agents. And then I shared it with Nor, my birthfather’s sister, and she loved it. (My BookShelf article in this month’s Minnesota Women’s Press touches on this.) I then also shared it with Nor’s sister, Welling. And I shared it with Dad, but he still hasn’t been able to read the whole thing yet. It’s still too hard for him to think about Mom.
As for my sister Aimee, I asked her from the beginning if it was okay to write about being adopted, and Aimee was totally okay with that. So I went with it. When I gave her a copy to look over, Aimee had only one change—she was working at the country club when Mom died, not the Ponderosa. So that was easy enough to fix.
KH: How did this book change (or not change) your relationship with your birthmother, Val?
KSV: It brought us much closer together. Sharing with her the writing of my novel was a big first step. There is a vulnerability in sharing a work in progress. Add on top of that sharing your innermost feelings about topics you don’t normally talk about—motherhood and the role played in your life by those closest to you. Why don’t we do this? There is such a need for this out there, so I applaud you, Kate, for getting these Mother Words out to folks.
When the book came out, Val and I presented it jointly to the national adoption conference. I shared what happened from my perspective, and she shared it from hers. There was such a demand in response to our presentation that I had to return to the area just a few months later to take our story to many of the local bookstores. It’s been wonderfully rewarding to be able to give back by sharing with others the gift Val had given me.
KH: The chronology of Lost and Found moves back and forward in time, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you settled on this structure. Did it come early or later in the writing process?
KSV: The book opens with the initial phone call Val made to me and then establishes my dad’s initial reaction (“There’s always enough love to go around,” he said, “but I’m not sharing holidays!”). The narrative goes from her call to a vacation we actually did all share together—my birthmother and her husband, my father and step-mom, and my family. And though we’d grown close over that 13-year period, Val and I still had secrets left to share. This story shows what it took to get there, what we still were afraid to reveal to one another.
In that process, there is some context a reader needs in order to understand the full import of what’s happening. There’s some weaving of time on the life-changing events covered in that time-frame, and that way the reader can see what happened before and how it compares to now. Always, always, you need to show the reader why it’s relevant to what’s happening in the moment. You need to keep it tight, or else you lose that forward momentum of your story.
I’m not a linear writer. I prefer stories to be much more complex that that, like the effect Tobias Wolff achieves in Bullet to the Brain. Or even any of Tim O’Brian’s work. And so it’s that peeling back the onion of a character and an event as in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours that I strive to emulate.
KH: You write both fiction and nonfiction. Does anything about your writing process change as you move from one genre to the next?
As I share with my students in my multi-genre classes at the Loft, there are many similarities between the two. Indeed, Vivian Gornick points out that we have a situation and a story in our memoir, much like we have themes and plots within our fiction. Likewise, just as a narrative arc is essential to good story in fiction, so too will it serve a narrative well in memoir.
I teach a class through the Hennepin County Libraries about the basics of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. In an hour, I have to explain the unifying elements of all three. Luckily, there are key techniques we do use for them all. Most importantly as writers we must create effective images for our readers. Without that, we are nothing. Carol Bly in her Passionate, Accurate Story talks about the need to cull out of our stories all the plurals and generics. If there’s one thing I would tell writers to do, it’s that.
The other thing is to show why it matters. Why is it essential for them to find out what happens? This goes to the story question, and it goes to plot development, and it goes to character development too. If you’ve got all three, you’ve got a story your reader has to read, no matter what the genre.
KH: Lost and Found is in its second printing now. Can you talk a little bit about changes you made to the memoir before the second printing? What was this process like for you?
KSV: The cover is the most noticeable change, so let me start there. Right after I got the book contract from North Star, the Adoption Network Cleveland asked me to speak at their upcoming national adoption conference. It was in just five weeks, and North Star had said the publishing process would take at least 6 months. But with this opportunity, North Star said they could get me copies to have in hand. I can’t tell you how amazing they were in their efforts. The offset printing process alone is a 3 week process and we had to get final edits in 2 weeks—turning around in 5 weeks what New York publishers usually take 2 years to do. But to do so, I had to go with the cover design they came up with. It was good, but I wanted to go with more of a periwinkle cover, to bring in my mom’s name, Peri. So I worked with Sandra Benitez’s cover designer to come up with the design for the second printing. Then I was able to include on the back and inside covers some of the good reviews that had started coming out for the book, too.
Going to a second printing gave me the chance to correct a couple of typos (sigh… I had three book clubs and five other readers and still we missed the apostrophe in “smokers’ coughs”). Turned out I did need to change some of the wording, too, especially that describing one of Mom’s friends. As important as it is to capture an image in words, I don’t know of many women who’d love to know that their eyes have turned milky since the last time you saw them. (!) The point I was trying to make for this beautiful friend of my mom’s was that I could see time passing over her in a way that would never touch my mom.
But there was also a much more serious change I decided to make between the first and second printing. Right in the midst of making the final changes, I got a call from the Catholic Spirit. There was a reporter who was going to run a feature article on my book. “I’m really enjoying it,” she said. “But I got to page 65 and it says here that you’re pro-choice. Is that true?”
I wanted to tell her she shouldn’t believe everything she reads in print, but that line was absolutely true. I lost the interview, I lost the chance to connect with readers. So for the second printing, I pulled the line. I don’t know if I did the right thing. But I did leave in (towards the end after the reader understands how much I honor my birthmother Val) that if I’d been in Val’s position, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to do what she did. To me, I am saying the same thing but in a less politicized way. Hopefully it’s framed so I can get my message across to an even broader audience.
I’m thinking next round I’ll try fiction and then I can just blame the issue on my made-up characters.
KH: I’d love to hear about some of the reactions/responses you’ve gotten to the memoir.
I’ve been very fortunate in the positive responses I’ve received. The best part by far is having people tell me how much they’ve been touched by my words. That they had to put the book down at times because they were so moved by my words. To have some women have to put on sunglasses in the middle of my reading because they are crying so hard.
And just today, I was answering some questions for someone from Ohio who’ll be doing my book for her book club this Friday and she said she cries every time she reads the ending. I can’t tell you how much that means to me. I suppose that might not be too nice of me to say it’s a good day at the office when I make someone cry, but I think as writers what we strive for is to connect with our readers on an emotional level, and to achieve that—well, then, we’ve done our job.
KH: Kate, you are a writing teacher, as well. What advice would you give to emerging writers working on their first books?
Get your heart upon the page. Write about what matters to your character, and for that you need to understand what it is that your character wants that she can’t get. That’s the essence of any story.
Maybe we laughed at Diane Keaton’s character in Something’s Gotta Give as she sat at the computer laughing and crying and carrying on as she wrote. But we all do a bit of that as we write. It’s been said that if there’re no tears in the writer, there’re no tears in the reader, and the more I do and teach this, the more firmly I believe that. You need to write about what you care most about, and your reader will care about it, too. You can write about real life as I did, or you can fictionalize it. I think of Ron Carlson’s famous quote. “Did it happen? No. Is it true? Yes.” It’s that truth we want to capture in what we write.
The hard part is this: that truth doesn’t show up in our first drafts. So be patient with it. Listen to what your writing is telling you. The key to being a good writer is being a really good at revising, at revisioning. In that way we can turn our writing into all that it’s meant to be.
Thanks for taking the time to visit Mother Words, Kate!