Writer, teacher, and scholar Laura Madeline Wiseman asked me some astute, well-researched questions about Close Quarters for her awesome Q&A series on chapbooks. You can check out the whole interview here, but for those who just want to read a couple of snippets:
I’m particularly interested in the point of view of various essays in Close Quarters and the ways you take up the perspective of your father when he’s courting your mother or your mother’s thoughts when she’s pregnant with you, for example. Landrigan answers that question by saying these essays “are all truly from your perch on the shoulders of your parents.” Can you say more about your choices to write certain moments in the perspective of your parents? What do you gain and lose by switching perspectives? Why did you make certain point-of-view choices in the service of craft?
I think children of divorce often feel their own histories—their own existences, even—are threatened or somehow incomplete. When I drafted these essays, I automatically found myself writing in my parents’ point of view, but in doing so I was trying to find my own origin story. Like the majority of children whose parents split up, I spent a good deal of my life wishing they hadn’t, and this unanswered wish sometimes manifested in destructive ways. I tended to believe that love was inevitably temporary, so I became self-sabotaging in relationships, finding ways to end them of my own volition. I felt easily betrayed by other people, while at the same time addicted to praise and validation (I could never, ever have enough). Even now, I can be ruthless pessimist.
Writing from my parents’ point of view demanded that I write from an empathic place. Even though the narratives that take place before I was born ultimately had an impact on my life, taking myself essentially off the scene allowed me to treat my parents as characters unto themselves, rather than bound to me. I hoped that by placing myself in their positions I could better explore the complicated nature of their decisions.
I’m also curious about the license with imagination in Close Quarters. In many of the essays in the chapbook, the character of your father is so well drawn, a portrait that feels like something one might run across in a Great American Novel. Franklin notes in her review that your “characters—members of her family—are compelling and fully human” Can you talk about the license with imagination and how far a writer can/can’t push into what is real, what is guessed, what could be possible, what should have been? Landrigan calls this “a great wondering, a giant what if.”
Because my father is a bartender by trade, he is also an avid storyteller. Many of the essays in Close Quarters are really part of my father’s canon, even the one about my mother’s pregnancy. So, in terms of what happened, say, on the night before my parents became engaged, there’s little imagination at work. I’ve heard that story hundreds of times. And because my father is remarkably reflective, he supplied a large portion of the interiority, too. That’s one thing I can say about divorce: it can create opportunities for searing honesty between parent and child. Neither of my parents held back much when I asked them questions as a kid. I just didn’t know what I’d eventually do with the information.
There are times when I imagine, though, most often when I’ve got one of my parents cornered at an emotional intersection. I take license in imagining their thoughts at these times as a fiction writer would. I felt comfortable doing this for a few reasons. First, in listening to my parents tell these stories over and over, I could observe their faces, the pitch of their voices, the way they seemed to feel about what happened, and I could apply those observations to the essays. Second, I felt that using their point of view would be best executed if I openly imagined what they felt—one seemed to demand the other. Third, my intimacy with them allowed me to make educated guesses I wouldn’t make with other characters in my nonfiction.
I tell my personal essay and memoir students that they all have to draw their line in the sand about what licenses they’ll take in nonfiction writing. I don’t believe the same rules apply uniformly, so for me, it’s all about the material. I’m researching for a true crime book right now, and the rules of this book are already very different from the rules that govern Close Quarters…
Thanks again to Madeline for hosting me on her beautiful site. She’s a prolific writer herself, so readers, check out some of her gorgeous poetry books.