Me 1: Do you feel self-conscious about doing this interview with yourself?
Me 2: In fact, I do. But then again I feel self-conscious about everything. There’s always this little voice in my head that tells me to be quiet, stay in line, and whatever you do, don’t make a fool of yourself. Hence, I sometimes feel paralyzed.
Me 1: That’s odd. You don’t seem like the sort of person who has spent her life “staying in line.”
Me 2: I haven’t. I am constantly in rebellion against that voice.
Me 1: When did the rebellion begin?
Me 2: Sixth grade. I discovered cussing and never looked back. Sometimes I feel like a Tasmanian Devil — the cartoon kind.
Me 1: How many times a day do you check your four email accounts and your Facebook?
Me 2: Shut up. At least I don’t twitter.
Me 1: Maybe you should.
Me 2: I dreamed last night that I was going to start twittering. Is that good enough?
Me 1: I don’t think so. Let’s talk about your new book, Wait Until Tomorrow: A Daughter’s Memoir. Was that always the title?
Me 2: No, the working title was An American Requiem, which is also the title of a piece of music that my mother wrote. The story begins and ends with that piece of music. It’s really an extraordinary composition.
Me 1: As a child you often felt that you were in your mother’s shadow. You say she was admired and respected by everyone who knew her. People were constantly singing her praises. Was she really all that?
Me 2: She was pretty amazing. Musically, she was extremely gifted. As a conductor and choir director, she was authoritative yet kind and genuinely loved. She has some little quirks that became more prominent in her later years. One of the things I don’t talk about in the book is that in her 80s, she managed to unintentionally offend a few people in the town of Edenton where she had settled. I never knew that to happen when she was younger. She might have offended people when she was younger but never unintentionally. So I think it was related to her dementia. Which kind of scares me. Not the part about offending people — just the personality change. But you asked about being in her shadow. Here’s the thing: I know that no matter how good I get at what I do I’ll never be as good as she was at what she did. That doesn’t bother me though. I’m having a pretty great life.
Me 1: Your first book Sweet Fire was an autobiographical novel. This book is a memoir. What’s the difference?
Me 2: Good question, Pat. I made several attempts to write a novel that drew on my experiences as a junkie and drugstore bandit. That was hard. I found, though, that the more autobiographical I got, the easier it became. But I consciously fictionalized a lot of that story because I didn’t want to be shackled by the facts. I blended more than one person into one character. I changed certain facts about my family in order to protect their privacy. And I made the main character much more self-aware than I was. I guess I gave her my later awareness.
Me 1: Share with us one of your petty thoughts regarding your first book and A Million Little Pieces.
Me 2: Sure. I thought, I could have just marketed Sweet Fire as a memoir (which in many ways it was) and then been on Oprah and gotten a million little pieces of money even though I consciously altered certain important parts of the story. But that’s what we all think, right? If only . . . Truthfully, Oprah probably wouldn’t have picked it up no matter what I called it. I haven’t won the lottery yet either.
Me 1: So now that Greg Mortenson has added his international brand of disgrace to the memoir genre, are you afraid people will think your book is full of lies?
Me 2: Weirdly enough, I almost never watch broadcast television but for some reason I happened to watch 60 Minutes that particular night. It was rather disheartening to see that Mortenson felt the truth wouldn’t be enough to sell that story. Anyway, I think I’m safe. I never claimed to be kidnapped by the Taliban. And who lies about wiping shit off an old woman’s ass? (Not my mother’s ass, by the way.)
Me 1: Are you sure that absolutely everything in your memoir is true?
Me 2: No. But I do know that I didn’t consciously alter facts to make it more dramatic or to make me or anyone else appear heroic or diabolic. Memoir is a subjective truth, which is why I say in the introduction to the book that it is my truth — not my mother’s or my husband’s or anyone else’s. It’s also selective. And that’s the tricky part of memoir as opposed to fiction. When you are writing fiction, every scene you write contributes to the arc of the story. If it doesn’t, then you cut it. When you are writing memoir, then you have to choose: this day or that day? this story or that story? You’re trying to capture the truth, and at the same time you don’t want to bore your reader with every bit of minutia from your journal.
Me 1: Your memoir was supposed to be about taking care of your mother in her old age. How did it wind up being about so much more?
Me 2: One of the things that interests me most as a writer is exploring the connections among things — experiences, events, people. So I wondered how was my relationship with my mother similar to the relationship I had with my husband and with my daughter? How did what happened in my childhood affect what happened when I became the parent to my mother? How did the political decisions and changes that were going on in the country relate to my personal life? The book couldn’t be limited to just one thing.
Me 1: Okay, so what are you working on now?
Me 2: Besides getting the word out about this book? Well, I’m doing some writing workshops on the transformative power of writing, and writing a book about the same topic. And I’ve started another novel. I’m also trying to write more short pieces. I’ve started bird watching, and I’m doing some traveling with my daughter soon. I want to do more hiking, more outdoor stuff. So that’s what I’m writing about when I can. It’s difficult to write and teach full time and do workshops, but that kind of tension seems to be built in to the writer’s life. We all are constantly negotiating the competing demands for our time. It gives us something to complain about so we don’t feel so guilty about the fact we get to do what we absolutely love to do.