Your most recent book, Missing Lucile, is about your grandmother, who died long before you were born and, in your own words, was no one very significant. Surely you must realize that grandmothers, especially insignificant ones, are unusual subjects. Not exactly bestseller material. Did you expect only grandmothers to read your book?
I would be delighted to know that grandmothers were reading my book, but believe it or not, I wrote it for a general audience. Missing Lucile is about my father’s mother, who died when he was a little boy. All his life he missed having a mother—that loss colored his relationships with his wives, his children, his friends, even the choices he made professionally. It was the first thing I think I ever really knew about him: that he didn’t have a mother, had never had a mother as far as he was concerned. And when, at the end of his life, he was talking about obsessively about his childhood, and his missing mother, I decided that I would try to find out about her for him.
That’s very generous. But let’s be frank, why would anyone else want to read a book about your father’s mother?
My goal was somewhat more audacious than finding information about my father’s mother. I decided I would try to find her. The woman herself who had been missing for 75 years. Lucile. So you could say this book began as a pair of impossible tasks: 1) that I would “find” a person I had never met, and who had been dead for decades, and who had left little behind in terms of a personal record. And 2) that I would give another person something he’d been missing nearly all his life.
What a presumptuous idea!
The presumptuousness of this project was almost as startling as its possibilities for sentimentality, but writers are presumptuous. We presume that what we know, or think we know, or want to know, is something other people will want to hear about. We have to be presumptuous, or we would never write anything. But with that presumptuousness comes the terrible responsibility to be worth listening to, to have something to say that is, actually, worth hearing.
It sounds like you had a real battle on your hands in this case.
Well, yes. Because not only was I proposing to write about my grandmother, about whom I knew next to nothing, but I was proposing to write about a woman who, in the eyes of the world, did not “matter.” She was not famous. She was not historic. She had done nothing spectacularly horrible—had not murdered anyone, or been a drug addict, or a child abuser. Nothing spectacularly horrible had been done to her: she was not murdered herself, or maimed by an accident, or the victim of a monstrous crime. Nor had she saved anyone, discovered a cure for anything, painted pictures or been on stage. She had not even married twice. She was a woman from Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, a woman of her times, maybe somewhat ahead of her times, because she had gone to college in 1907, had been for a while a businesswoman, and had gone to France after WWI to help with the reconstruction.
She came back to Cincinnati, married, had children. Got cancer. Died.
She was, as Virginia Woolf would have described her, a person to whom things had happened. And this is exactly what I found so monumentally challenging about her. As Woolf puts it in a “Sketch of the Past”: “Here I come to one of the memoir writer’s difficulties—one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things have happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: ‘This is what happened’; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.”
And that was exactly what I was proposing to do–to discover this woman, my grandmother, Lucile, to whom things had happened.
Did your reasons for writing this book—by the way, what should we call it, since it’s not exactly a biography, or a memoir, or fiction?
Let’s call it an uncertain book.
Did your reasons for writing this uncertain book change as you were working on it?
I certainly had my personal reasons for searching for my grandmother—I wanted to try to make my unhappy elderly father happy, to give him what he had been missing for 75 years, and by doing so give myself some of what I had been missing as his daughter. But I had my own pressing artistic reasons as well. And to be honest, these artistic reasons were my real motivation for writing this book.
What I wanted to address is the presumption that lies at the very heart of memoir and biography: That by telling the story of another person’s life you are capturing the person herself.
As Virginia Woolf also said, and this is from Orlando: “A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have many thousands.”
How on earth can you capture the many thousand selves of another person?
I managed to find a lot of facts about the things that had happened to my grandmother Lucile. I had a box of small objects that had belonged to her, which I tried to use as a kind of historical DNA to reconstitute her. I had photographs. I had a letter she had written, a few pages of diaries, statements other people had made about her. I had her college transcript. I had her wedding ring. I had my own genetic relation to her, and the shadow of her that had hung over my childhood. But I did not have her. I never had her. Even for an instant. And I knew it.
So is that what this book is about, not knowing someone?
Yes and no. Because once I accepted that the subject of a biography—the person to whom things had happened–is always going to be missing, I had another question: So what? Does that mean you have to give up writing about her? Can you write about someone anyway—even someone who doesn’t “matter”–and do it honestly, even when what you don’t know vastly overshadows what you do, like a magic mountain looming behind a boulder in a meadow?
You could have written this book as fiction, that seems a fairly obvious answer to your question. You could have made up what you didn’t know. Why didn’t you just call the book Missing Lucile: a Novel?
That’s true. I could have written this book as fiction—but had I done so, I would not have directly addressed another question, which began to seem more and more pressing to me: What if you really do want to find the person herself, what you can find of her, that person to whom things have happened? And what if you want to claim that this person, this ordinary, unimportant person, did matter, if only because she was once alive, as alive as you yourself are now?
So what can you do? Is there an alternative?
That is what I wrote this book to find out. And though it is highly debatable that I succeeded in writing a book that would satisfy a reader looking for a biography, or a reader looking for fiction, I did put right at the center my own uncertainty about who my grandmother was. And right beside that uncertainty I put my desire to try to know her anyway. And in the end, this is what I found out: That it is in the act of wondering about another human being that we may come to know her best. Wondering about someone else, looking for clues based on the things that happened to her, and a few things she said, or did—that she liked the word “ribald,” for instance, and read the poems of Heine, and raised chickens, and didn’t wear jewelry—musing about patterns and inconsistencies, that’s what you can do. If you want to find another person, that’s where she is—present within the act of being wondered about. Because as soon as you start wondering about someone, she’s not altogether missing anymore, whether she’s been gone for 75 years or just since yesterday afternoon.
But it seems there must be catch here somewhere.
The catch—and it’s a big catch—is to stay honest about what you don’t know, about what you wish you knew, and about what you imagine you know about another person. The danger of any biography is losing sight of how much fiction is going on when you try to write about someone else. It’s fiction we can’t help—we are always going to project ourselves onto other people when we try to understand them. But it’s fiction we should stay clear about.
If we can stay clear about our own uncertainties, then we have a chance at a three-dimensional image of that person we’re trying to understand. Or at least a more nuanced image.
Are you saying that focusing on what you don’t know about someone else may be the best way of trying to understand her? That’s a rather radical claim, don’t you think?
A book isn’t worth writing unless it’s radical in some way, though it can be quietly radical. And who’s to say that writing about your grandmother can’t be as radical as writing from the point of view of a cockroach or writing a novel in pieces that a reader can arrange in whatever order she likes? There’s nothing more boring, in a book as well as in life, than something that proves to be just what you think it is. If I have devoted my writing life to anything, it’s to writing books that appear to be one thing and are not really that thing at all.
But back to being radical—and perhaps we should point out here that you are a suburban middle-aged woman with a husband, two children and a dog, who votes in every election and believes, more or less, in a two-party democratic system—how are you defining radical, at least in terms of your book?
I am talking about changing the way we think about biography. I am advocating uncertainty as a way to write about someone else. When I see a book described as “the definitive biography of so-and-so” I feel faint. Given the multiplicity of informational sources we have nowadays, most of them contradictory–from blogs and Facebook and Twitter to CNN and Google and Wikipedia to self-interviews–one might be forgiven for thinking that the conventional, unilateral idea of biography would be falling out of favor. But most of us still expect a single product when we read a biography; we are expecting “the life” of the subject. And we want a story “worth reading,” which often means survivor stories, celebrity tell-alls, exposes, confessions. Stories, frankly, that we already know. Those stories have their place, of course, but there is room for a more questioning attitude when it comes to biography.
In the act of wondering about someone else, we take a step out of ourselves for a moment, we step forward to encounter another person. What a radical thing to do! Especially when we acknowledge that it is not the person herself standing there, but a kind of shadow based on who we want to know. A ghost. A silhouette. Our idea of that person.
That idea, that shadow person, has its own dimension, its own vitality, its own ability to shift and change based on how well we’re able to question our perceptions. That idea is animated by our desire to know the person it’s based upon, and that idea is equally animated by our frustration and despair when we’re forced to admit that we cannot, ultimately, succeed.
Despair because if we can’t fully know another person, it stands to reason that we cannot fully be known ourselves. We are all mysteries. And perhaps that, finally, is the real job of biography–to acknowledge the mystery of being human, again and again and again.