The first time I heard Bonnie J. Rough read was at the first Mother Words Reading. We had connected through a mutual friend, and I roped her into standing up at the podium just weeks after she became a mother.
Bonnie was the second of three readers that night, and after she had read only two or three sentences, I remember thinking oh shit. Why didn’t I go first? I have to follow her?
But after another minute, I let go of my insecurity and let myself be mesmerized by Bonnie’s lyrical prose, by her incredible writing, which straddles a line between essay and poetry.
I think Bonnie is tremendously talented, so it’s no surprise that I love her debut memoir, Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA.
When Bonnie and her husband, Dan, begin to plan for a family, Bonnie confirms something she always suspected—that she is a carrier of the genetic condition hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, or HED. Bonnie begins a journey to uncover the complicated details of her family’s past, searching for answers to help her and her husband, Dan, face the difficult reproductive decisions before them.
Bonnie takes us into the past, deep into the haunting life of her grandfather, Earl, who had HED, then propels us into the future, into the possibility of her own children having this disorder. Bonnie’s prose is lyrical and her story is incredibly moving. And the book is masterfully crafted, challenging the limits of creative nonfiction and making my teacher-brain work overtime.
Chapters alternate being narrated by Bonnie, Earl, and Bonnie’s mother, Paula. I was immediately sucked in to Earl’s life, into his voice and world-view, which Bonnie pieced together through research, letters, interviews with people who knew Earl, and her imagination. Robin Hemley, who wrote a blurb for this book, said: “Carrier is boundary-busting nonfiction at its finest. This is a book I will not only recommend widely but teach for years to come.” I can’t agree more. I kept stopping mid-chapter, mid-sentence and thinking, Look at what she’s done! Just look at what she’s done!
But besides being a tremendous feat of craft, this book is really brave. Any author, especially an author of a work of nonfiction, who writes about a polarizing topic such as reproductive rights is brave. But Bonnie writes with such sensitivity and works through her feelings on the page, so the reader is able to walk in her shoes, which is really extraordinary. Early in the book, as she worrying how her decisions will affect her mother and her brother, who has HED, Bonnie writes: “It is not, of course, a question about whether [my mother] is happy Luke is in the world—that answer is obvious. The question is never about what is. It is about what might have been, and what might be: two things impossible to know.”
I could go on and on and on about this book, and I plan on posting about how Bonnie has dealt with certain issues of craft down the line, but for now I’ll turn to my interview with Bonnie, who is here at Mother Words today:
KH: You’ve pieced together your grandfather’s life—creating him as a believable, three-dimensional character—using research and your imagination. As a creative writing teacher, I know reading Carrier and seeing what’s possible in a memoir will be so liberating for my students. Can you talk a little about how you settled on this method for telling your grandfather’s story and whether you had to adjust your expectations of what memoir is in order to do this?
BJR: As I wrote this book, I learned how important it is to write the story that is trying to be written—and to worry about labels later (if at all). Yes, in Carrier, my late grandfather and my mother deliver their personal histories in first-person monologues alongside my own. I realize that inhabiting other voices may seem a risky thing to do in a memoir, but theirs were the voices I heard inside as I went on my journey to uncover what had happened in my family’s past. Theirs were the voices that gave me guidance, reassurance, and fair warning as I faced momentous decisions about the future of my branch of our family tree. I was working very hard to find the facts, and I also wanted to be sure I was using total empathy to understand my grandfather and mother as fully as possible. From the very beginning, that meant discovering their interiority.
KH: Earl’s voice feels so authentic to me and I’d love to hear a little about how it evolved. How fast do you settle on this voice for him? Did it change at all the deeper you got into your research/his story?
BJR: In the beginning, before I had learned the full story, Earl’s voice was simply that of a country boy who was smart, idiomatic, and a bit stung. As I came to know him, I discovered the depth, beauty, and tragedy of his 49 years of life. That meant I had to come to terms with the fact that this person was not only a farm boy but also a chemist, an inventor, a husband, a father, and a grandfather who had held me in his arms—the only grandchild he would ever know. I had to deepen him and be sure the language was not too consistently lyrical—because he was not consistently in a state of deep emotion. I needed to acknowledge his practical side and make room for the simple language of the everyday.
KH: One thing I admire so much about this book is the respect and compassion with which you consider the impact of your story and your choices on your brother and mother. I’m wondering if you would talk a little about how you dealt with your family’s possible reactions in the writing process and later, as you prepared Carrier for publication.
BJR: As I wrote early drafts, I tried not to worry about what my family would think. I had enough sense to know that the draft they would eventually see would be as sensitive and thoughtful as I could make it, up to the point of asking for their feedback. Still, I think it must always be hard for memoirists to reveal to their families just who, and how closely, they’ve been observing. It was hard for me to show my brother the life of my grandfather, in case he thought I was pigeonholing the two of them together. And it was also hard for me to reveal to my mother on paper some parts of my journey I hadn’t been ready to reveal to her as they unfolded in real life.
Closer to publication, I sent Carrier to all of my immediate family and gave them veto power. I told them I would change or remove anything that didn’t sit right with them. The job of Carrier is to tell my story, and I use other people’s stories as they touch mine, but there was no reason to overly expose anyone. My mom had been working closely with me for years, providing me with stories, data, memories, photos, and artifacts, so she had a huge interest in what was written. She didn’t really ask for many changes at all—she seemed committed to a story that depicted everyone as full humans, foibles and all. My brother told me it wasn’t an easy read for him, emotionally speaking, but he also wanted the book to stand mostly as it was. “This is your story,” he said, “people aren’t going to judge me.” And he turned the tables on his big sister, showing me his support and protectiveness. He made it pretty clear that he didn’t want to see me hurt.
KH: At one point in Carrier, after you’ve visited your grandfather’s grave and have spoken to him, telling him your plan if you become pregnant with a boy with HED, you go back to your car and dig through your bag until you find paper and pen. “Scribbling as quickly as I could,” you write, “I recorded everything. I couldn’t wait to see Dan. I needed to tell him that our decision was safe. I had finally written it down.” I loved this idea of safety being tied to writing down the words, writing down your decision. Could you talk a little about how writing—the physical act of getting words on the page—changes your relationship to what you’ve written?
BJR: The day I wrote down our plan, I was acting on the advice of a wonderful doctor who had suggested I do so, after I had told her I was worried I would waver at a critical moment. “Write it down,” she told me. “Make your agreement with your husband, and put it on paper.” The effect reminded me of what I do each day with my journal. I unload the things that I don’t want to carry, the things that weigh me down, and I put them somewhere outside of my body, outside of my head and heart. Writing down our plan removed it from my constant thought, giving me a sense of security without a constant weight of worry.
KH: I’d love to hear about how this book—what it was about, your dreams for it—changed as you wrote it.
BJR: That’s a great question. When I began this project, I was in my mid-20s and experiencing something I think many women do at that age: the desire to better understand one’s mother. I called my mom from my house in Iowa on a cold January night and asked her how she would feel if I wrote about her childhood as the daughter of an enigmatic and difficult father. I would need her help—her memories, ideas, and patience. She agreed to help me, and the project quickly moved me into an obsession with learning every detail of my grandfather’s fascinating and heart-rending life. I had pieced together most of his story for my MFA thesis, which I finished around the same time I published an essay in The New York Times Modern Love column. The essay was about the possibility that I was a carrier of HED, the genetic disorder that had so powerfully altered my grandfather’s life. In the essay, I revealed the dilemma of my genes and grappled with the options my husband and I faced: not having kids at all, adoption, IVF/PGD, or natural conception with prenatal genetic testing and the possibility of very difficult choice.
Even though I wrote these things simultaneously, I still didn’t realize how strongly linked my grandfather’s story would become with my own. Finally, a few months later at my thesis defense, a smart professor who had seen the NY Times article said, “Isn’t it true that your grandfather’s life represents your worst fears for your own children?” In an instant, I saw what my book needed to become.
KH: I think of you primarily as an essayist. I wonder if you can talk a little about how that sensibility worked for (or against) you as you wrote your way through this material?
BJR: I love that you think of me that way! I think the link is in research and the thought process that flows from it. Whether I’m writing an essay or working on a larger personal project, I always begin with an obsession that I explore with a period of intense research, combining immersion, interviews, travels, document and photo recovery, etc. Then comes the hard part: letting it all settle. I have to step away and give the data and details some time before I know what they really mean to me. Once enough time has passed and I find myself arriving at insight, I have a story to tell: What I wondered, what I discovered, and how I changed.
KH: How has motherhood changed the way you write?
BJR: Motherhood has been a wonderful thing for my writing. Being a mother is at once the most humbling and the most validating experience I’ve ever had. I’ve found ways to use that humility and that sense of validity in my writing. Staring my flaws in the face day in and day out—which motherhood has forced me to do—makes my flaws less scary. I can see beyond them now, into my simple curiosity, my nascent opinions, my boring and sometimes funny humanness. These are great starting points for an authentic voice, whether in essay or memoir. And now, because I also feel validated, I find it easier to trust that what I want to say is actually worth saying. “Making art” feels so much less tortured now.
KH: Your book has only been out a couple of weeks, but I’m wondering if you have had any feedback from readers.
BJR: Technically, the release date is still coming up: Monday, May 10! But for the most part, the book is in stores and it has been available online for a few weeks. I’m getting more positive feedback than I ever imagined I would—especially since we’re still in the period before the book’s official release and before great media exposure from interviews like this one, Kate! I’ve been getting three or four notes a day from people telling me how it felt to read Carrier. The thing I keep hearing—which comes as a huge surprise to me—is that the book is a page-turner. People are telling me they were hooked and couldn’t put the book down. I keep hearing it takes only two days to read! One person even described the book as a combination between memoir, suspense, and mystery. Reassuringly, people are also telling me that even though the book is fast and gripping, it’s not leaving them easily. The story and the emotions seem to linger, in a good way. It’s hard to express how glad I feel to when I hear that Carrier has moved someone. What more could I possibly want?
Thank you for your thoughtful answers, Bonnie!!
If you’d like to learn more about Bonnie and see photos of her family (fascinating to scroll through as you read her book), visit her website. And if you’re in the Twin Cities, come down to the Open Book tomorrow, May 8, at 11 am and listen to Bonnie read from Carrier.