Q&A with Shortlisted Memoir Writers
MAry Oliver: 'The Case'
New Welsh Review: What was your initial reaction to finding out you’d been shortlisted?
Mary Oliver: My initial reaction was to jump on to the nearest window sill with joy. Fortunately it was only a couple of feet high, so I made it ok.
Then came the serious deep realization that my story made sense. I started researching it more than 8 years ago. This took me across Canada in Jim's footsteps (but in more comfort) and parts of Italy where he'd been billeted during WW2. As the story grew, it became a biography, then a fictionalised biography, then a novel. I started to insert poetry. Someone said the poems worked best and I should recast more of the material as poetry. This I did, condensing and condensing, until I ended up with this short memoir (although I'd not thought of it as a memoir). By this time, I'd lost all objectivity; although utterly familiar with the big picture, I found it impossible to tell if the small gem I'd ended up with would make sense to a new reader. Anyway, I sent it off when I saw the New Welsh Writing award advertised ... the only time I've submitted it ... thrilled that the last 8 years have not been wasted.
NWR: What first inspired you to write a memoir?
MO: Inspiration was Jim, knowing him a little but not well; hearing references to his life but few details. Twenty five years after he died, I realized I missed him. And I wanted to make up for the fact that I'd never allowed him to be close to me. So I wrote about him, for him.
NWR: The structure of your memoir is very interesting, what would you say is at the heart of the story?
MO: The heart of the story is this man's bad luck, from the moment he was born and how bravely and quietly he always battled through. As a child, I had been given a one-sided view of him; I wanted to discover the true Jim. It was fascinating to study and explore others' views of his life, how he'd impacted on them. And of course, there is no true version (Nabakov). I'm also interested in how the story of one man's life can say so much about society at the time.
NWR: I love the use of poetry in contrast to the documents. How did you go about the process of putting together the life of Jim?
MO: I'm glad you like the structure. I was very excited as the story whittled itself down to a collection of poems and documents. The essence of the story is absolutely true. But I have fictionalised the details. As I said above, the format went through many permutations. My background is in the visual arts, and it felt as if, with Jim, I was working on an absolutely massive painting/collage/installation, forever playing with ways of making it 'work'. I was happy that, when it resolved itself, it was like a small jewell, not a rambling diatribe.
NWR: Are you working on any writing projects at the moment?
MO: Yes, I write all the time; can't stop. I have two new projects on the go. But the Jim story is still alive. The Case ends when he comes back from the war, to his English wife and their two young boys. The last 2 poems are the key to the second half of his life.
Catherine haines: 'my oxford'
New Welsh Review: What was your first reaction when you were told you'd been short-listed?
Catherine Haines: When I heard My Oxford had been shortlisted for the New Welsh Writing Awards, my first thought, was “It’s not good enough! I need to withdraw it!” Then I started to re-write, edit, change, and pick at it. The manuscript I have sitting on my desktop now is quite different to the one I submitted!
At the time, I was on a high-school trip in Japan (I’m a teacher), so the first people I shared the news with were my students. It would have been inappropriate to talk to them about my eating disorder, but children can be inspired by their teachers’ personal pursuits and successes, so I did tell them I’d been listed for an award. When they asked for a ‘blurb’ I said the memoir was an account of my tertiary education and the dangers of its associated stresses. Most of my students are Hong Kong Chinese and face Herculanean academic pressure, so our consequent conversation was quite constructive.
NWR: What inspired you to write this memoir?
CH: I wrote the first draft of My Oxford for the sake of self-knowledge: to try to interpret what had happened to me, and why. Once I felt I had gained some understanding, I re-drafted the piece to give one of my friends, whose brother died of anorexia. She struggles to understand his experiences and motives, and since he also went through a religious conversion while he was ill, I wanted to offer what insights I could. At a more ignoble level, I wanted to vindicate myself: I lost many friends, by whom I felt abandoned or attacked, and from whom I received very harsh judgments. I wanted to emphasise the fact that my concerns were not as superficial as they have imagined. Some of them had good basis for their disapproval, since I was working as a model, but I was tired of being thought of as vain or superficial or suffering from some sort of media-inspired dysfunction, when in fact I was on something of a pilgrimage.
NWR: My Oxford tells an intensely personal story, but in an oftentimes scientific, almost disinterested way. Was this a conscious choice in the writing process and, if yes, why?
CH: The style and tone are intentional, but I was aware that they may not be effective. The impersonal voice is common practise in philosophical academic writing: my use of it is meant to show me as a product of that intellectual tradition. During the time I was ill, I became something of a floating head: I so successfully detached my mind from my body, that I lost touch with my senses, and became devoid of emotion. The prose is intended to represent that fact. Also, even though I think of myself as a ‘literary’ writer’ and have in some ways presented anorexia as something of a ‘literary disorder’, during the course of my recovery I became familiar with the scientific and medical jargon often used by professionals in treatment: their lexicon is part of the way in which the illness is contemporarily conceived by modern sufferers. And I am ‘disinterested’ in the sense that I’m not influenced by considerations of personal advantage: I don’t want to ‘sell’ my experience, and I don’t want to benefit in any way the fear and hurt my family and friends experienced while I was sick.
NWR: There seems to be a real hunger at the moment for stories about and/or addressing mental health issues. Is it important to you that issues such as eating disorders are addressed in literature?
CH: On one hand, I strongly believe in raising awareness about and treating mental health problems, not only eating disorders but also illnesses such as OCD, PTSD, anxiety, sleep disorders, schizophrenia, and bipolar, which commonly coexist with anorexia and bulimia. Co-morbidity can make recovery much more challenging, and sometimes leads to misdiagnosis.
At the same time, I tend to think, perhaps injuriously, that turmoil and suffering are integral not only to the human condition but also to some people’s abilities as artists. Mental health issues lead to different kinds of insight, compassion and knowledge, which creative individuals are able and willing to articulate. Isn’t it the artist's role to become aware of a higher order of things, to see things other people can’t see, to recognize the resemblance between human creation and universal creation? I think that many of the people the world calls crazy are in fact people who dare to test what powers there really are in the human mind.
Literature is a good way to explore and address these questions because it is able to include all of the various lenses through which mental illness is perceived: anorexia, for instance, is ‘read’ in as many different ways as existence itself is read; by psychiatrists, feminists, sociologists and religionists, to name just a few. The purpose of literature is to inquire into, probe and enable many different methods of interpretation, which, I think, leads to a deeper and more profound understanding than is possible with any single system of thought.
ADAM SOMERSET: 'People, Places, Things: A Life With The Cold War'
New Welsh Review: What was your initial reaction when you found out you had reached the shortlist?
Adam Somerset: Obviously I was delighted, in part because I have never written anything of this kind before. The subject matter is novel and different- it is after all about a world that no longer exists- but that is not enough. The short-listing means that there is craft in it, and form, and these are the things that matter.
NWR: People, Places, Things begins with a conversation with your step-nephew about Checkpoint Charlie. Poignantly, you state "Checkpoint Charlie was, for me, my gate of entry to the other Europe; for my step-nephew it was a museum." Was this the moment that inspired you to write the memoir?
AS: The trigger point was watching “Bridge of Spies” and the long last scene. It was filmed on the actual bridge on the edge of Berlin and it sparked a deep memory of recognition that I had been there. I was aged twenty. I watched the film on Christmas Day and started writing on January 6th so there must have been a period of inner gestation. Certainly the conversation with my step-nephew had stuck in my mind as a kind of marker. I imagine that everyone passes the same kind of point. The world that is real for you, your experience, has moved on and it has become just a part of history.
NWR: People, Places, Things presents a vivid account of your own travels and personal experiences; the narrative is interspersed with references to film and music, and lines are drawn between historical and modern Europe. All of these elements together suggest that this memoir is a product of much time, effort, and research. How long did it take to finish?
AS: Start to finish took twenty-four days - but they were busy days.
NWR: What can readers take away from People, Places, Things? Is there a lesson to be learned from your experiences?
AS: If there is a lesson it is probably at two levels, and they are quite distinct. The first is just plaininformation. I was in places that no longer exist, either as political entities or indeed in their ethnic composition. The great expulsions of the 1980's by the governments of Romania and Bulgaria are for instance a part of recent history which are little known. I include accounts of the terrorism groups who were active across Europe. The second lesson, but it is up to the reader, is the malleability of history. Peter Lord here says it in his art history of Wales, that the most difficult thing to predict is the past. Culture and history are like the proton and the neutron in an atom. They are in a bond together but different, in fact in tension. Culture looks for completion, so it is unhappy with history which is lumpy and inconsistent and paradoxical. My piece tries to capture some of the discomfort of the past, in particular my account of seeing Svetlana Alexeivitch, the Nobel prize-winner of 2015, at Hay.
NWR: What can readers expect from you next?
AS: I am still writing my weekly piece for Theatre-Wales, the review site founded here by Keith Morris. I had been tempted to stop - it is good to cease while you are still popular - but I still receive invitations to review. I have been writing an election diary for the Institute of Wales. That is the election less as day by day events but through a cultural filter. Otherwise I have been talking with a publisher for a while now about a collection of essays. I demurred because I felt I had nothing to write about but it looks as though that may have changed.