Ron Hogan interviews memoir writers about their lives and the art of writing memoir.
Life Stories #107: Chavisa Woods
Chavisa Woods' 100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism is a book that, as our British friends say, does exactly what it says on the tin—chronicling 100 separate incidents of sexist behavior that Woods has faced in her lifetime, a pattern of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse (including sexual assault) that starts when she's five years old and continues to the present day. It's a patten that, I speculated, just about any woman should find instantly recognizable, to which Woods replied: "I keep saying a lot of memoirs are written because the author thinks it's an exceptional story. I actually felt like I needed to write this memoir because my story is not exceptional at all, and I wanted to show how pervasive sexism is in multiple spheres of society... I just wanted to show how pervasive it is everywhere and how it affects us constantly throughout our lives."
We cover a lot of territory in this conversation, including how Woods used to adopt a violent response to sexual harassment—and the mental and emotional toll that response took. Misogyny becomes like a hazing ritual, an ordeal women are supposed to endure for the privilege of being allowed to participate in society at all. As I said, every woman reading 100 Times will find it instantly familiar... but every man who reads it and doesn't recognize the world it describes has to come to a hard reckoning with things he may have done and has almost certainly condoned through inattention, inaction, and silence.
Life Stories #106: Rick Moody
In The Long Accomplishment, Rick Moody takes readers through the first year of his second marriage. It was a moment in time where he'd gained significant control over his addictions, and had extricated from a dysfunctional first marriage—a moment when, as I jokingly said during our conversation, "everything should be coming up Rick Moody." But it didn't go that way; instead, we have an account of a couple grappling with the financial and emotional tolls of fertility treatment, along with various other assaults from the outside world... and, as Moody describes it, a shutdown of his creative faculties so all-encompassing that, eventually, the only thing he could see himself writing about was what was happening to the two of them.
We talked about how he was able to write about these events, and he made an insightful distinction between craft and candor&8212;whereas most of his career, including his first memoir, he'd been focused on craft, this time around he decided to go all in on the opposite direction, to be as upfront as he could about everything. It wasn't, he confides, an easy project—and we also discuss what it's like to write about the life you share with another person, and about facing a situation where being one of the most acclaimed writers of your generation is absolutely no help.
Life Stories #105: Glen David Gold
I first met Glen David Gold when he was on a reading tour for his second novel, Sunnyside, which happened to be the name of the neighborhood where I lived at the time; that wasn't the only reason we hit it off, but we did, and so I was excited when I found out he was publishing a memoir, I Will Be Complete. I spoke to him in the summer of 2018 about his family history, how he'd tried to deal with it by writing fiction in his twenties, and the path toward eventually finding the right literary structure through which to tell the story. One of the first things I mentioned is how perfectly it illustrated that famous Philip Larkin verse about what your parents do, which eventually brought us to a discussion of how some relationships simply can't be fixed.
We also talked about how working on I Will Be Complete has made Glen a more confident writer, and the newly honed skills he's been able to take back to his fiction. Plus the story of how David Leavitt became his literary archnemesis, until he actually went to a David Leavitt reading...
Life Stories #104: Minna Zallman Proctor
I met with Minna Zallman Proctor a while back, shortly after the publication of Landslide, a collection of autobiographical essays that orbit around her relationship with her mother. One of the things we discussed was how circumspect she was in the portrayal of her own children, and that prompted me to say something about how we don't really know the author of a memoir or an autobiographical essay, that the "I" we read is a controlled, calibrated literary invention. Proctor challenged that assumption.
"The book is, at best, a portrait of my brain," she told me, "of the way I think of things. In that sense, it's incredibly honest. I don't think that you can write a book like this without a degree of intimacy, a degree of candor and vulnerability—a great degree of those things—and I think that the vulnerability that I express in my personal essay writing... and sometimes my book reviews, too, for that matter... is in that I am laying it all out. This is the way my brain works."
Life Stories #103: Michelle Stevens
I first met Michelle Stevens in 2014, back when I was an acquiring editor for a startup book publishing company. We took a meeting with her and her agent after reading the proposal for her book, which combined a memoir about surviving childhood sexual abuse with solid explanations of the psychology involved in the dissociative identity disorder that Stevens, among others, developed as a result of that protracted trauma. I was impressed by the proposal, and the meeting, but I wasn't the one who got to make those sorts of decisions, so we ended up passing on the book—fortunately, Scared Selfless wound up with a great publisher who was able to support the book in a way it deserved, so chances are that, sometime in 2017, you might have seen her in a magazine you were reading, or on a daytime talk show...
Happily, she and I were able to keep in touch, so when she came to New York City to do some media, we were able to get together for a frank conversation about—among other things—what dissociative identity disorder is (and what it isn't), about how surviving her trauma motivated her career in psychotherapy, and about what it's like to come forward with a story about surviving sexual abuse in a country where, let's face it, the outcome of the most recent presidential election suggests our concern about sexual assault is not what it should be. I'm delighted to finally be able to share this conversation with you.
Life Stories #102: Elizabeth W. Garber
I spoke with Elizabeth W. Garber the Monday right after Father's Day, an apt time to be discussing her memoir, Implosion. It's a story about growing up in Cincinnati in the 1960s and early '70s in a glass house designed by her architect father—years that were so unsettling to live through that when Garber began speaking to her mother and her two brothers about the abuse they all endured, they initially refused to have anything to do with the topic. Which didn't exactly surprise her, because it was the last thing she ever intended to write about, either.
During our conversation, Garber and I discussed how she had mentally and emotionally blocked out her father's most invasive and abusive behavior while it was happening, and about how friends and neighbors, and even her father's therapist, turned a blind eye to the blatant signs of his mental and emotional condition. We also discussed how her father's most famous project became a landmark metaphor for all the shortcomings of modernist architecture... along with the more personal meaning it accrued within the family.