ELIZABETH KADETSKY, an associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State University and the nonfiction editor at New England Review, recently spoke with me about her latest memoir, The Memory Eaters. The below interview has been edited for length and clarity.
RACHEL CANTOR: How would you describe your book?
ELIZABETH KADETSKY: The Memory Eaters is a spiraling meditation on memory, grief, and loss. It consists of essays portraying memories of my upbringing with a single, fashion model mother in the gritty, layered New York City of the 1970s and early ’80s. I interpret scenes from my childhood through lenses related to memory — its loss, its insistent repetition in trauma, the almost mystical-seeming echoes of ancestral history in one’s own consciousness, and nostalgia. My understanding of the past is accompanied by a present-day narrative of caretaking my mother, who had Alzheimer’s, while interacting with my erratic, dramatic sister as she struggled with addiction.
Your most recent books have been fiction, and while some of that fiction takes place in India and Malta, where I know you’ve spent time, and New York City, where you spent decades, I wouldn’t say I recognize Elizabeth as a “character” in that fiction. I’m guessing you go to some lengths to distance yourself from the characters in your stories. If so, how is the process of writing memoir different for you from the process of writing fiction?
Thank you for being such a careful reader of my work, Rachel! In fiction, I’m drawn to the inherent unreliability of the form. I try to push my fiction to a place where I find some odder version of myself and imagine what that extreme person would do in an extreme situation. Process-wise, most of my work, fiction or nonfiction, starts with journal writing. At some point, it becomes obvious whether it should tip into fiction or nonfiction. For instance, in On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World, a novella set in Malta, a chronic shoplifter, alcoholic, and single mother witnesses a hit and run in the capital city and winds up stalking both the victims and the suspects. This started out as a journal entry about a hit and run that I witnessed in Malta’s capital city. Afterward, against my better judgment, I tried to get to know the victims and follow the case. Rather than write my story, I chose someone more interesting — I was a fellow at an arts foundation who was spending a lot of time inside her head; my character, on the other hand, had the kind of rich life that I actually wanted. She also had dire problems, which helped me set up a clearer rise-and-fall structure using fatal flaws that could drive the plot forward.
In nonfiction, on the other hand, I give in to that sincere “I.” When I get to that fork in the road and choose either fiction or nonfiction: I ask that essential question for nonfiction, “So what?” Does my story have any application for readers, or is this just about me trying to work something out that I might better take up with a friend or a therapist? When working on The Memory Eaters, I knew so many people dealing with grief over lost pasts, or parents who were still living but mentally absent, or the desire to overcome the lingering effects of unresolved family traumas. I felt that I could touch on something universal, and that there was good reason to do that unironically. In nonfiction and especially memoir, experimentation and even fun can come in embracing that sincere “I” — it’s almost exactly opposite of the irony of the unreliable narrator in fiction.
I’m surprised to hear you refer to memoir as fun! I don’t write memoir, but writing about the past, especially when it concerns trauma and loss, seems the opposite of fun to someone who prefers to live in the imagination. Can you say more about what you mean?
It has to do with pushing to get at something honest while rejecting the first obvious resolution. For example, in The Memory Eaters, I describe my desire to get back the New York City real estate lease that I seem, in my subconscious, to believe still belongs to me. Obviously I can’t go back to the apartment where I grew up. Why can’t I get over that? I went back and posed as a prospective renter, but getting close enough to move in again — which is what happened — didn’t solve my problem, so I had to keep asking the question and butting up against my irrational desire.
I have to tell you that just this morning I chatted with a friend about our childhood homes, neither of which are still in our families. I even went onto a real estate site to find photos of the house. That said, I have no urge to write about that town, where my family was intact, because that time doesn’t interest me (the place being proxy for a time). Instead, I write about places that imprinted on me during my difficult adolescence: Rome, New York, and the Subcontinent. I know you’ve traveled a great deal, and are even now in India, and your first memoir concerned India. But in this memoir, which is specifically about memory, you mostly write about New York. Is that because your family is such a central aspect of this book?
I’m so glad that I’m not the only one who excavates real estate photos of lost family property! I am embarrassed to say that I do a lot of checking on Etsy and eBay for lost family heirlooms. But seriously, is there an inherent romance to a place that draws us back to it? I do think that New York carries a certain patina of nostalgia in the cultural imagination that is hard to not be influenced by. But I was also entranced when I encountered real estate photos of former family homes in Chicago and Briarcliff Manor, New York, which I looked up for my essay “A Room in the Memory Palace.” I like how simply you put that — place is a proxy for time. It’s absolutely true. Nostalgia is a yearning — we imagine ourselves now in the lost place, as if our adult selves could regain the innocence of that past. I suspect that some aspects of my story make it particularly susceptible to this place-nostalgia, and not just that it is set in New York. My very young age at the time of my parents’ divorce (three years old) caused me to have a hole in my memory for any context for that lost family unit, while so much else in my childhood was also characterized by memory voids — my mother’s unspoken trauma, her hidden family history, the silence surrounding my grandmother’s alcoholism.
So is there a continuity, then, in how you’ve approached memoir? Between your first memoir, First There Is a Mountain (2004), and this, you publishing two books of fiction and numerous short stories. Are there ways in which your approach has changed?
With The Memory Eaters, I think I can safely say that I stopped worrying about the market. I got a lot of advice to write this book chronologically and find an unshifting present moment. But every time I tried to write that book, it wasn’t very good. I knew that the story couldn’t be told in a linear manner or even with an unshifting present-day narrator, so I gave in and wrote the book the way it was coming to me. Having a tenure-track job definitely gave me the space to find that artistic freedom.
When I was writing my first book, on the other hand, I imagined getting a big advance that would set the stage for a future where my income would come from writing. When First There Is a Mountain finally sold — not with a proposal but as a completed manuscript — it had evolved into a labor of love. Hard times for publishing have provided a positive corrective to some erroneous ideas that I had about a booming literary economy.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that I was always both a good student and an ace procrastinator. Even now, I write in several genres — when the burden of one form becomes overwhelming, I take a break by doing something that seems to have lower stakes — and then when that one feels oppressive I switch again.
I understand you are also about to, or have already, published some related essays? Practically speaking, how did you decide what would appear in this book?
One of these essays, recently published in the Franco-American literary journal Résonance, is an anecdote about my alcoholic, Franco-American grandmother that elaborates on my theory of how those who grow up around abusive addicts develop a reflex for dissociation, if not PTSD. While I touch on the idea in the book, I didn’t feel there was room to fully flesh out those scenes with my grandmother. While assembling the book, I also eschewed several published essays that fell into what I think of as the “nostalgia” thread, about events in New York City during my childhood.
So did you write The Memory Eaters while also working on other projects? If so, did this one take a long time to write? What are you working on now?
I began working on a “cycle of essays” about my mother’s Alzheimer’s and our lost past in 2008 while concurrently working on a chronologically structured memoir on the same topic. I published about 10 of those essays before I realized that the “cycle” was the book. That was around 2016, at which point I began adding new essays that pushed the frame of the story outward and forward in time and tied together the lyric structure. In the middle of that time, I re-immersed myself in fiction projects, which had been proceeding in a similar way: short stories linked by theme that took shape as a collection over time. My novella also came together during that time, what started as an outtake from the story collection. Now I’m working on a fairly epic research project in India that deals with the topic of memory and may wind up becoming either fiction or nonfiction. The process is totally different, but perhaps similar to that for my first book in that it begins with research. I am hoping that once I have something close to expertise a story line will come clear.
Rachel Cantor is the author of the novels Good on Paper (Melville House, 2016) and A Highly Unlikely Scenario (Melville House, 2014). Two dozen of her short stories have appeared in literary magazines, anthologies, and prize collections.