First of all, I never intended to write memoir. Like many writers, I started with autobiographical fiction. I wrote a novel about a teenage girl growing up in Detroit who embarks on a quest to find out who her father was and how he died. It’s remarkable how many memoirists say they started by writing their story as fiction, but it didn’t work, so they finally had to tell the whole truth. That’s what happened with me.
You still didn’t answer my question.
About walking on the moon? No, I never did. Yet I like to think that my ordinariness is a plus, that everyone who has ever had a father can find their lives reflected in my story.
But your father wasn’t like everybody’s father. He blew off his dominant hand with dynamite as a teenager. He drove no-hands, with only his knees. He took your sister hunting when she was only six. He went hunting for deer and a deer killed him.
Stop it with the spoilers!
My point is that he was not some Everyman.
Oh, but I think he was. My mother said, “He was a man of his time.”
What does that even mean?
That’s one of the things I didn’t know. One of the mysteries I had to find out.
And did you?
I didn’t find every answer I was looking for. But I found enough to surprise myself mightily. And some of my early readers have told me they were surprised, too. One of them said, “Unlike many search-for-family-truth stories, this one really has somewhere interesting to go.”
Is it true that you wrote a memoir about not being able to remember?
Is that like writing historical fiction when you don’t know history?
Or a legal thriller when you don’t know how the legal system works?
The legal system works?
Thanks. It’s important to have a little humor when you write about death and family. But to answer your question, I think a lot can be gained from admitting what we don’t know. What we’ve forgotten, or what we never understood to begin with, because we were too young. What we misinterpreted or have misremembered.
We? The two of us? Because we’re the same person, you know.
Right. But I think everyone has some memory gaps. That’s what I found when I started asking my family questions about my father, who died when I was seven. Everybody had different versions of the same story.
Kirkus Reviews says that “the unreliability of memory” is your book’s “clear, predominant theme.” Is that true?
It’s one of the themes. The book is also about making peace with death, learning to grieve, and reconnecting with family. It’s about my father, but it’s also about all the relationships connected to his memory. A lot of it is about my mother—so much that a friend compared my book to Vivian Gornick’s memoir Fierce Attachments, which could be subtitled “conversations with my mother.” Anyway, I find it hard to summarize what my book is about, but I know that’s what you interviewers want me to do.
How about this? “A warm, engaging read about the ways in which memory distorts our understanding of family.” Kirkus again.
I’ll take it.
In your first paragraph you say, “Did I need a holiday to remind me that I couldn’t remember my father?” And yet you wrote a whole book about him.
And your question is?
How do you write a memoir about someone you don’t remember?
By doing research. I traveled around and conducted interviews. I collected other people’s stories.
But the subtitle of your book is “a memoir,” which means the book is really about you.
You got me there. Yes, that’s what it’s really about. How my reckoning with my father’s life and death changed me.
In what way?
The book unfolds kind of like a mystery, so I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot. Let me just say that the ending is hopeful.
So you found out how your father really died and why he blew off his hand with dynamite. But your book isn’t all dark and sad. For instance, it’s got a giant cartoon condom who says “I am your friend” in different languages. What’s that about?
I’ve got nothing against safe sex, but why is it in your book? You even have a picture of it.
You want me to put dangerous sex in there instead? You think that would sell more copies?
Speaking of selling out—
Was that what we were talking about?
I hope you got product placement fees for all the brand names you mention. What is Faygo Redpop anyway?
It’s a Detroit thing. You wouldn’t know.
But I saw Detroit the movie. It’s about the race riots 50 years ago. Do you write about that?
I write about how Detroit has changed. And hasn’t. And Charlottesville, where we just had our own riots
Sounds like a laugh-a-minute.
But I also write about Paris. What could be more fun than that?
A lingerie store on every corner.
Yep. And I also write about my teenage son. He’s pretty funny.
He really steals the show.
People say he’s their favorite character.
He’s a much more interesting character than you.
Really? Because I thought he sounded remarkably similar to my own snarky teenage self.
I was just kidding. You’re fascinating.
The other day, my daughter told me I was “relatable.”
You are. And after reading your book, I really feel like I know you. Almost as if I am you.