I am so excited to have Debra Gwartney, author of the wonderful memoir, Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love, here at Mother Words today.
I first read Gwartney’s writing just over a year ago when her essay, “The Long Way Home,” appeared in The New York Times’ Modern Love column. I’m always thrilled to hear about a wonderful mother writer, so I added Live Through This to my reading list. But then, as you know sometimes happens with me, I got busy with teaching and revising and my girls. A year passed.
When I opened her book this summer, I didn’t want to put it down. I was reading it while we were up north over the 4th, and I kept trying to sneak away from the chaos of the cabin so I could finish it. (I was asked for something to eat or drink at least five times while I was closing in on the last pages. Is there anything more annoying than that?)
When I finally was able to finish Gwartney’s memoir, I had tears in my eyes. In parts, the memoir is heartbreaking and terrifying, but it’s also beautifully written—a testament to the power of love and the necessity of forgiveness.
After a contentious divorce, Gwartney moves with her four daughters across the country to Eugene, Oregon. But the upheaval is too much for her older daughters, Amanda and Stephanie, who begin to rebel, skipping school and staying out all night. Then, when Stephanie is fourteen and Amanda is sixteen, the girls hop on a freight train and leave home for good.
There is so much I’d like to say about this book, which was chosen as a finalist for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award, but I don’t want to take more time away from the interview. So without further ado, I’d like to welcome Debra Gwartney to Mother Words:
KH: Debra, I think this is a tremendously brave book. You don’t sugarcoat anything and most of the blame—though your ex-husband gets some of it, certainly—is directed at yourself. I’m wondering how it felt to expose yourself in this way, to examine your actions and reactions and take responsibility for them.
DG: The early drafts of the book included most of the scenes that appear in the final version—the circumstances, the characters, the unfolding of action. Those aspects were established from the beginning. But what challenged me nearly to defeat, draft after grueling draft for eight years, was understanding the dynamic, the “why” of the situation my family was caught in. I wrote many revisions, then gave those pages to trusted readers only to hear, “you’re still coming off as a victim.” I knew I couldn’t let the manuscript go until I’d scrubbed out as much of the “victim” as possible. The reader is not interested in self-pity or in self-loathing, but instead in agency, and it was agency that I wanted to get to the heart of. As best I could. So, yes, it was definitely difficult to revisit the past—not just once or twice, but dozens of times, and each time with the intention of establishing my role in what went wrong among us. Some days I’d have to circle my computer for an hour or more, folding laundry, baking a loaf of banana bread, balancing my checkbook or whatever, all the while easing myself toward the keyboard. Sometimes I’d do the hokey thing of pretending I was putting on a big, thick cloak that made me impervious to the sorrow or pain of the past before I sat down to write. I never once thought that I should try to be brave or to write a brave book. I was just trying to be honest with myself. The fact that you call it brave is humbling and gratifying indeed.
KH: In the introduction to your memoir, you write, “I’d like to be one of those women who can confront the past’s reminders […] with nothing but compassion. But apparently, I’m not there yet. Something tangled and sore remains unsolved in me. After years of trying to decode and dissect our history, of picking over episodes with my daughter (a fight over a concert, a note found under one of their beds, the nights and nights and nights they didn’t come home), and crawling through the muck again to discover the origins and escalations of our troubles, I want to move on. I want to forgive—Amanda, Stephanie, myself, the times we lived in—so we can stop looking backward.” Memoir writing is so much about looking back and making sense of the lives we’ve lived and times we’ve lived through, and writing memoir—for me, anyway—affects my relationship with this past. I’m wondering if that was the case for you. How did writing this book affect (if it did) your relationship with this time in your life and your daughters’ lives? Did writing this story help you stop looking backward?
DG: I’ve come to believe that memoir is organized, as its name suggests, around memory—that is, not around events in the past, but instead how you remember events in the past. I guess more accurately: why you remember the event that way. When I gave up worrying so much about what we were all wearing, whether the scene happened on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, if it was rainy or clear, etc., and started pushing myself to understand why I clung to certain details in the memory and refused to acknowledge others—the version of the story I was overly-attached to, from which I derived my sense of identity for a long time—the writing became more rich, more evocative, more interesting (not only to me, but to others, I believe). I did develop a new relationship with the past because in order to write a book I had to tear down my own defenses about the past. In those years of trouble in my family, I’d become quite comfortable telling myself that my rebellious daughters were wrong and I was right. Only by giving up my posture as the “good” one could I move into the writing of the true story of this time. I produced hundreds of pages that did not make it into the book. I realize now that all of that scribbling led me to examine my self-delusion, my own tendency to cling to the story that protected and served me. As a writer, I needed to get to the story of a very complicated set of patterns that led to a family crisis. “We are in the presence of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows,” Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and The Story. That was my aim: to puzzle my way out of my own shadows. Most times that didn’t feel at all nice, but instead as if my skin was being rubbed off an inch at a time. Though I didn’t begin the writing as a sort of therapy, of course it became cathartic. Once I could see myself as a player in our problems, and could admit to that agency, my daughters and I could also be more open, honest, loving in discussing this still painful time.
KH: I was struck by how careful you were in writing about the parts of your daughters’ lives that you didn’t witness. I think there could have been a lot of speculation about what they were or were not doing on the streets, but your respectfully don’t go there. Certainly there are passages in which you are worrying about their safety and wondering about where they are, etc., but for the most part, you have protected the privacy of Stephanie’s and Amanda’s relationship and their time on the streets, and I was really impressed by the way you were able to tell a full story without divulging this information.
With that said, writing about adult children can be tricky, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little about how you navigated this with her daughters. In the acknowledgments you write, “Not one word of this book would have been written if I hadn’t felt my daughters’ support behind me—behind this effort to get a complicated family story on paper.” How involved were your daughters in processing the content of this book? Did you get their feedback as you were writing or wait until you had finished a full draft? Or even later? Did they get veto power over the content of the book?
Have their feelings about the book changed since it was published?
DG: You’re so right that the single copy of the manuscript on my desk was a much different entity than the published book on a shelf in a library or bookstore. My relationship with the physical object changed hugely once it was published—the old cliché that I realized it was no longer mine alone, but now belonged to the world of readers—and I’m sure my daughters also struggled with the difference between the idea of the book and the reality of the book.
But back to your first point: In early drafts of the manuscript, I attempted to explain my daughters’ motives and actions. It was weak and uninspired writing, for sure, but I didn’t know how to make a book without filling readers in about what these primary characters, my girls, were up to. Then Amanda, Stephanie, and I did a segment for This American Life, produced by our dear friend Sandy Tolan. When the three of us sat down to listen to our voices on the radio parsing our own raw experience—oh what an hour that was!—the girls could not stop staring at each other. Absolute intensity between them. They were both very emotional, and for the first time I really got it: they have a story of their time on the streets that is not my story, that will never be my story, and that I really have no right to explore because it does not belong to me. I returned to my writing with a new goal, and that was to write only and exclusively my version of the story, and to leave their version alone. I had to divulge a little of what the girls were up to, where they were, but I was scrupulous (I hope) in not allowing myself conjecture as to their motives or emotions. If they want to write about that time, they can delineate what was going on in their own hearts and minds. My job, I felt, was to explore the angry, defensive, hurt, lost mother left behind and the ways in which I had to relearn the meaning of motherhood if I was going to have a lasting relationship with my daughters.
When I finally produced a manuscript worthy of a good agent—that is, honest enough, well written enough—and the fabulous Gail Hochman agreed to represent me, I realized I was on new ground. This book could become a reality now that an agent was going to present it to editors, and it was time to hash out that possibility with my children. I gave Amanda and Stephanie each a copy and I told them to be brutally honest with me about every word. If in the end they didn’t want me to publish the book, I wouldn’t (I certainly would have argued with them, though, I must admit). They both returned with many comments, some bitterly hard to take, but also with their mutual blessing to publish. Later, I gave the manuscript to the younger girls and we had a good talk about the contents and their mixed feelings about the story out in the public arena.
Looking back, that part was fairly easy.
What’s been hard is the publicity around the book, which the girls have considered exploitative at times, and which has caused anger/rifts between us (all healed now). They were incredibly good sports about the interviews and photos and all that, but they’re done participating, and I totally understand their need to be finished. Hardest of all for us—the truly nasty and consistently anonymous comments about our family life that have appeared on various websites, mostly by people who admit they haven’t read the book but still have a thing or two to say about what’s wrong with us. Perhaps I brought such ruthlessness on myself, but I’m terribly sorry my daughters have had to bear the brunt of public anger.
KH: I’m very interested in how authors turn short essays into memoirs, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little about the process of writing this book. I know you first wrote and published short essays that told parts of this larger story. How did you move into working on the memoir? I’d love it if you could describe the process of creating a continuous narrative from these separate pieces.
DG: When I was younger, I wanted to be a fiction writer and in fact spent most of my creative time hammering away on short stories. Then, when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona (in journalism, not creative writing) I took several classes with Vivian Gornick, who opened this giant and magnificent door into the world of memoir. I really had no grasp of the genre back then, but after I read such books as Duke of Deception, Stop-Time, Fierce Attachments, My Father and Myself, Confessions of a Catholic Girlhood, My Mother’s House, etc., in her classes, I was certain I wanted to write personal narrative. I tried my hand at some short pieces about my childhood. But then my writing life (except for journalism, which is how I made my living) came to a grinding halt after my divorce, and into the trouble with the girls. It was only after Amanda and Stephanie were back and fairly settled that I tentatively wrote a brief piece about looking for Stephanie in San Francisco. The essay was published in Creative Nonfiction and was a notable essay that year in Best American Essays and (prematurely) got me a bit of agent attention. Around the same time, I published a piece on Salon (The Mothers Who Think column, which I sorely miss), and another in Fourth Genre. Once I had four, five, six twenty-page brief memoir pieces I thought it would be oh-so easy to line them up into a book. I had no idea what I was in for. The arc of a three-thousand-word nonfiction story is quite different that the larger, sustained arc one must discover for a book. I tried for several years and failed quite miserably in my efforts. At that point, I knew I needed help. So I returned to school. I enrolled in the low-residency program at Bennington College and within weeks was on the right track. I worked with absolutely amazing teachers: Phillip Lopate, Sven Birkerts, Bob Shacochis, and by the time I finished the program, I had a book. An honest to goodness book that made sense, had a solid structure, and held together in way that pleased me. It was an expensive decision, Bennington, but I’m convinced I wouldn’t have understood how to go from essay to book-length without that training.
KH: I was also struck by how circular the narrative felt at points. There are places where you are in a scene, then back up and explain how you got there, then you’re back in the scene, and then forward in time. My thought as I was reading was that this heightens the disorientation and the just-getting-by feeling that you seemed to be feeling at the time. I’d love if you could talk a little about the construction of the book, and whether this was a conscious choice or if it’s just how the narrative emerged in the writing process.
DG: I’m delighted by this question, actually, because the narrative was even more circular when I turned it into my brilliant editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Deanne Urmy. She and I talked a whole lot about structure and chronology—what would engage a reader and what would cause a reader to simply give up. While writing the book, I relished the idea of suspending time. For me, the layering of events, no matter the month or year those events took place, helped establish the patterns that eventually led to our troubles. Sven Birkerts writes about this kind of structuring in his marvelous book Art of Time in Memoir, and cautions (wisely I think) against the tendency to get episodic, this happened, and then this happened, and then this. . .
I was much more interested in delving into symbols, metaphors and lyricism, than adhering to chronology, and I tended to pick up on a detail—putting the tent up in our living room, or standing in the rain in the downtown square confronting my daughters, or eating at a Chinese food restaurant with Amanda—and let my writerly mind make intuitive connections with other times, other episodes. So it was a swirl—the disorientation of that period in my family life, as you say, but also the recognition of the nature of your heart and mind when you’re trying to sort out your life, or a significant portion of your life. All kinds of information and memories, and from many different times, pour in as you strive to understand how you got to this point, to this place. At least that’s how the process worked for me, and I wanted the writing to express that somehow. Deanne Urmy wisely convinced me to make the narrative more straightforward, less discombobulated, and I soon agreed that was the way to go. Still, the narrative isn’t linear, and I hope I was able to express the encounters with time, images, and emotions as I began to reconcile the past with the present.
KH: A number of readers of this blog are mother writers working on memoirs and novels. Time and again we hear that the mother memoir market is “cashed out,” that these types of books “don’t sell.” This is clearly not the case, and I’d love if you could talk a little about your journey from manuscript to book. What roadblocks did you encounter along the way?
DG: I’ve asked my agent several times (now that I’m working on a new project, and of course caught up in the anxiety of getting this one eventually published, having heard many times that it’s actually harder to publish a second book than a first) about what’s selling and what’s not, and she wisely tells me, “There’s always a market for a really good book.” Which is her way of saying: go write a really good book. I hope I can do that.
Backing up three years or so: It was not one bit easy to sell Live Through This. I’d convinced myself it would be. I’d send Gail my manuscript and within days, hours even, she’d have an offer. But the manuscript was rejected by quite a few editors and a good number of publishing houses, and I grew despondent as the no thank yous kept piling up. But then I’d force myself back into the writing, trying to make passages stronger (editors consistently complained that the narrator wasn’t “likeable,” a confounding dilemma, since that narrator was a persona made from me) and the stakes clearer. Months passed, and I was wondering if a huge rewrite was in order, and then—rather quickly and delightfully—Deanne Urmy accepted the book. I often wish I could go back to the moment when Gail called with the news. The relief, the joy, the sense of accomplishment. I’ll never forget it. Equally as gratifying and thrilling was the moment I learned the book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (I replay that one a whole lot, too, when I am discouraged about the writing life).
At one point along the way in trying to sell the book, someone called it a “momoir,” which bugged the hell out of me. I’m left to sort out my strong reaction to that silly quip. Live Through This is, in my way of thinking, a book about motherhood. About my illusions of motherhood as a young woman, and the critical need to smash those illusions so I could learn to know my children as real, vibrant, capable people. But I don’t want that effort to be belittled by calling it a “momoir.” Once the book was published, I noticed the bias against “mother” narratives: they can’t be all that serious as literary ventures, they can’t hold up against the new, edgy nonfiction out there. On the contrary, I say. It seems to me that we need, more than ever, to hear from mothers who are willing to dig in to both the utter joys and the frighteningly dark side of parenting, who aren’t afraid to express fears, doubts, guilt about raising children in an extraordinarily difficult time. It would be a tragedy for a woman to stop writing because she believes there’s no market for books about mothering and motherhood—because a well-written book is going to say something profound about the human condition, and we need to hear the voices of women who can express the plight we’re all in as humans.
KH: What kinds of reactions have you received from readers?
DG: I’ve received hundreds of emails from parents—and I’m deeply grateful for each one—who’ve gone through some kind of similar difficulty with teens. Some write about teenagers who are surly and hard to deal with but are still at home; some have written me about daughters who’ve been gone for decades without a word. Heartbreaking for sure. It’s nearly impossible to talk publicly about your children who’ve run away from home, because the automatic assumption for most people is that you’re an abusive parent. I’m pleased that some parents who are suffering through this nightmarish experience have read my book and feel like they can reach out to me.
I’ve also heard from parents of young children, who’ve been hugely supportive of the story; from young people who were once out on the street and perhaps now have more compassion for the parents they left behind; from lawmakers, police, agencies who say they’re glad to know more about one mother’s point of view in all of this. Very gratifying.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve also been lambasted by some readers (and some nonreaders). I find it curious that the angriest notes come from people who admit they haven’t read the book but are angered by it anyway. Some who have read the book are infuriated by its contents and by my actions. I’m astonished at the fury this memoir has stirred up. One woman sought me out at the NBCC ceremony to tell me that the book “disgusted” her. She chewed me out about what a bad mother I am right there in the beautiful New York City literary venue—what a shocker. But such reactions come with the territory. The negative responses upset me, of course, but then I try to remember that I wanted to write a book that pushed as hard as it could against the truth, against honesty and my own terribly difficult struggle to know myself better as a woman and a mother. Of course plopping such personal and raw material out there for all to see is going to offend some readers.
Thanks so much for your time, Debra! I do have to chime in here at the end and say how much I also hate the term “momoir,” which I’ve blogged about here at Mother Words. I’m also discouraged that readers (and nonreaders!) would judge a mother who has bravely written about the most difficult time in her life. I am grateful to Debra for having written such a well-crafted and honest memoir. Go buy this book, people.