Well, I’m not traditionally religious, so after my mom’s death, it was very hard to see any way to connect with her. There was just this incredible feeling of goneness. But dragonflies, maybe because of their surprisingly short life span once they transform into gorgeous, iridescent flying creatures, were what appeared to me. It got pretty intense right after she died—so many dragonflies. Because I’m such a hardcore realist, it was hard for me to accept these “visits” from my mom at first, but grief cracks you open in a whole new way. I now understand there’s something out there much bigger than us, and that you simply have to be receptive, porous, and open, and you will receive.
I noticed the book’s structure is almost like a collage or a crazy quilt—some short pieces on dragonfly facts and experiences, some long pieces on hospital and family, some artifacts and letters and blog posts from your time in Vietnam. How did you come to arrange the book this way?
My mom was an expert quilter and it’s something I always wished I could do, so maybe this is my own way of stitching things together. The structure of this book was such a conundrum for me! From start to finish (which was an eight-year process, by the way), the ordering of scenes, the what-to-leave-in, what-to-leave-out questions, the issue of a necessary narrative arc to keep the reader grounded, all confounded me. Another thing I had to figure out, as a novice memoir writer, was how (or whether) to weave new details and information about my life and my family’s lives as we were living them into the memoir. With fiction, that’s not an issue. But here I had to decide whenever something significantly happened: should it now go in the book? I don’t want to give anything away, but there was something dramatic that happened in my life while I was close to finishing the memoir that I spent countless hours trying to decide if I should include or not. I think—I hope—I made the right decision.
And so you’re not going to tell us if you did or didn’t? That’s no fair.
Okay, I did. But we’ll just leave it at that.
Okay, so you just mentioned something about how things work with writing fiction. Your first three books are all fiction. What was it like for you to write a memoir with that kind of heavy fiction background and training?
I’ve actually been writing and publishing creative nonfiction for quite a while. Almost twenty years maybe? The first essay I ever published, “Remembering, I Was Not There,” I originally thought of as fiction because I was imagining my parents’ courtship and early marriage as if I were physically present with them, when clearly I wasn’t. But then I realized it was a completely “true” story that I had just used fictional tools and devices to create. After that, I fell in love with all the possibilities of creative nonfiction, and just kept moving further and further in that direction. Also, big-ticket life events were happening to me at that time: buying my first house, having children, living in Vietnam. I found an urgency to write about these things and creative nonfiction was the perfect container.
But let’s face it: writing a book-length memoir is a whole different deal. I’ve always thought of writing fiction as an act of architecture—lots of planning, mapping, measuring, thinking about space and size and corners and entryways. Writing my memoir was not like that at all. The process of sorting through my mom’s medical files—her little blue diary from 5th grade, love notes and apologies my father had sent her—was overwhelming, not just aesthetically but emotionally. Writing a memoir, I quickly came to realize, was like living the whole painful ordeal over and over and over again, every time I sat down at the computer. That was tough, but I think the way I wrote it, in pieces, eventually allowed me to create, pause, create, pause. I wrote dozens of short chapters, then futzed with them until I had a clear “plotline/throughline.” Because the book isn’t linear or chronological, I was able to add chapters, delete some, and move things around. There is no way in hell you can do that with a novel draft—at least not the way I write novels. The whole thing would collapse. I’ve tried it.
I’m already one hundred pages into my next memoir draft, so I guess this is my path for now. And I love it. I do.
Okay, so this might be a hard question, but what do you think your mom would think of this memoir? Is that inappropriate to ask?
God, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve obviously thought a lot about that every step of the way. So much of the book is about her, the decisions she made, the hardships she lived through, the regrets as well as the joys. One thing I know is that you can’t write a saintly memorial to a deceased loved one and expect anyone to want to read it. Someone once told me that as long as you’re writing about a family member with love, and with absolutely no vendetta or old scores to settle, you’re okay. And also, I strove to be as ruthless with myself as a character and narrator as possible. I was a good daughter in many ways, but I was also a disappointing daughter in that I chose to constantly live far away from my family. I know my mom wished it had been otherwise, and now, of course, so I do. There was never doubt about our deep love for each other. The question, for me, as least in this book, was what’s the cost of that distance between a mother and a daughter?
Any last thoughts, advice?
Buy books every chance you get.
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ANNE PANNING is the author of three previous fiction titles, most notably Super America (University of Georgia Press, 2007), which won the 2006 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was a New York Times Editor’s Choice selection. Several of her nonfiction pieces have also been recognized in The Best American Essays series. Originally from rural Minnesota, Panning now lives in upstate New York with her husband, Mark, and two children, Hudson and Lily. She teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport, where she serves as Co-Director of The Brockport Writers Forum reading series, and is currently at work on her second memoir, Bootleg Barber Shop: A Daughter’s Story, about her late father, a barber and an addict.