IN JILL TALBOT’S NEW MEMOIR, the author and Kenny, the father of her daughter Indie, experience a brief spell as a family before he departs, when Indie is four months old, never to return. Then begins the dominant story of The Way We Weren’t, the story of a mother and daughter, expelled from their home, who start a life of wandering. Rather than a chronological account, the book is a swirling mosaic of tiles; Justin Hocking rightly blurbs that The Way We Weren’t “combines big emotional risk-taking with bold formal experimentation.”
Talbot, celebrated for this sort of innovation, has long been interested in pushing the boundaries of genre. She is the author of a previous memoir, Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007), and the editor of two anthologies that rewrite our generic notions of nonfiction and fiction — Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, 2012), and The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, coedited with Charles Blackstone (University of Texas Press, 2008).
Talbot and I conducted this interview by email.
MARCIA ALDRICH: The title of your book might be taken to describe the veracity of its account. And you go out of your way to make us aware that the I in your memoir is a fabricated persona. You even alternate between sections where the pronoun is she and others where it is I. Why was it crucial to disrupt the reader’s expectations in this way?
JILL TALBOT: Phillip Lopate describes the necessity for the essayist to “build herself into a character,” to create and shape an “I” for the reader. I’ve never considered the “I” in my work to be who I am. When I craft a persona on the page, it’s as if I’m turning up the volume on a particular emotion or aspect of my self. It’s a version of me, but it’s not me. And for this memoir, the point-of-view shifts and the idea of me and Kenny as characters (“she” and “he”) are intrinsic, not least because of the letter from him that serves as the memoir’s prologue. The letter was the first word I’d received from him in six years, and he didn’t write it to me, but to the court. It described a version of our relationship I imagine he assumed I would never see — his version of history was in direct conflict with my own. For days after I read that letter, I felt bifurcated — as if I were the woman I knew myself to be and a character he had created. I kept muttering to myself, “I’m a character in a story I didn’t even know existed.” It was like The Sixth Sense — how you get to the end and go back to each scene and watch it again in your mind. I did that with us, returned to scenes from our undoing and considered them from the perspective he had given. I realized that I have a story to tell, but he does, too. What makes my version any more real than his? We’re all characters in other people’s stories. We all invent ourselves on the page — where’s the line between who we were and who we weren’t?
Pam Houston describes The Way We Weren’t as a “gut-wrenching tale of abandonment.” There’s been a rise in attaching descriptors like gut-wrenching or brave to literary nonfiction, terms that Brenda Miller suggests describe the experience but not the writing. She says, “At some crucial point the best autobiographical writers shift their allegiance from experience, itself, to the artifact they’re making of that experience.” How did you shift your allegiance from experience to artifact in The Way We Weren’t?
I worry I already live in a perpetual state of detachment from the world, from experiences, from people — I see the essay in everything. So when I begin to think about how to shape an experience via formal experimentation or point of view or metaphor, the experience dissolves and the essay emerges. Although I will admit there’s a moment in The Way We Weren’t I’ll never be able to see as artifact — the Christmas morning Indie, at the age of three, visits me in rehab.
Yes, that was a powerful moment and tough to read — one of many such scenes in a book of tremendous emotional undercurrents. I expected that the memoir would be about a difficult period in your life — when Kenny left — and then the page would be turned. But that page is never turned. The narrator seems to want to move forward but often reiterates what has happened, borne back repeatedly into the past.
I’m going to let F. Scott Fitzgerald take this one because what he says about writers and writing (in an essay published over eighty years ago in The Saturday Evening Post) has been a touchstone for me for years:
Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves — that's the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives — experiences so great and moving that it doesn't seem at the time anyone else has been so caught up and so pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way ever before. Then we learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories — each time in a new disguise — maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.
Were there specific memoirs that influenced the writing of yours?
When I told fellow writers I was working on what I referred to as a “fictional metamemoir,” they’d insist I read Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family or Lauren Slater’s Lying. And I didn’t, wouldn’t, because I knew what I was after, and I didn’t want to be distracted by others engaged in similar experiments. I did get so far as Slater’s first chapter, which is two words: “I exaggerate.” And I thought, no, that’s not what I’m doing — I’m not addressing the unreliability of a narrator, I’m emphasizing that one narrator’s version isn’t necessarily the definitive telling.
Just last week I read Ondaatje’s memoir for the first time. (I’ve ordered Slater’s.) In his acknowledgments, he writes, “I must confess that the book is not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture.’” I feel that way about The Way We Weren’t — it’s a collage, a collection of varied sources, a revisiting, but it’s not the complete story — there is too much unknown. I did marvel at the one photograph of Ondaatje’s parents he includes in his memoir — the significance of what that photograph reveals and what it never can is so similar to the one photograph of me and Kenny I write about in mine.
But the book I read and reread while I was writing is Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. It upended me. Two lines of hers ran beneath all of mine. I still can’t speak these words out loud (or, as it turns out, type them) without crying:
Most of all, I want to stop missing you.
I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words.
Kenny haunts the book, while Indie’s presence is recessive. Did ethical considerations shape your writing decisions?
The fact that this memoir purposefully complicates who left whom and so firmly separates who we were from who I’ve written us to be solves that for me in terms of Kenny. Writing about Indie was more complicated. Two years ago, when I first told her about her father and me, how we met, how much we loved each other, I interrupted myself to say how much I was enjoying telling the story, because, as I explained, “For 11 years, I had no one to share it with.” She answered, “So you shared it with the world.” It wasn’t a bitter comment, just a statement of a truth. Still, before I accepted the offer from Counterpoint, I told her that this was our story, and I needed her to know that the details of our lives would be published. She asked to read it first, and I took a deep breath because there’s so much I still haven’t told her, but I agreed. Eventually, she decided herself against reading it right now. She said she didn’t feel old enough. She said, “There are some of your memories I don’t think I’m ready to have in my head.”
So Fitzgerald and Nelson figure in. Who else? Were there other books or writers who informed the making of this work? The book that I’m reminded of is The Lover by Marguerite Duras, sometimes described as a memoir, sometimes as an essay on memory, death, and desire. Like your memoir, it isn’t driven by narrative events but by psychological probing and contradictory emotions. What books influenced the making of this one?
I started The Lover in 2008, and I know that because I keep a plane ticket from the trip I took when I was reading it. I didn’t finish it at the time — but I did find out more about Duras: it turns out she wrote the story of an affair not only in The Lover but also in a novel, a one-act play, and another novel she considers a “further telling,” more “true.” She once told a newspaper in France that “the story of her life did not exist. Only the novel of a life was real, not historical facts.” And that’s how I feel about loving and losing Kenny — I cannot claim facts or history. I can only complicate them. Duras’s willingness (obsession?) to write about the same man, again and again, had a profound effect on me. I hadn’t written anything since the publication of Loaded — in which I explore patterns in my family and my life to figure out how I came to choose a man who would abandon us. I was worried I had already written “the book” about Kenny, but for three years (2007–2010), I couldn’t or didn’t care to write beyond him. When I read that about Duras, it was very freeing for me, a loosening, a way to return. By the way, I recently read The Lover in its entirety — thank you for the comparison.
But the book that influenced me the most, the one that impacted my thinking about shared histories and the stories we tell about them is Christopher R. Beha’s debut novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder. I remember reading it on my front porch in New York in 2012 and being so excited about its metafictive brilliance. It has alternating chapters in first and third person. In first person, the narrator tells the story of reuniting with his college girlfriend, Sophie, and in third, an omniscient narrator recounts Sophie’s experiences before and after that reunion. I can’t say this for sure, but I suspect the competing points of view, the emphasis on storytelling, and the lack of a definitive “what happened” solidified my commitment to The Way We Weren’t. And until my editor cut it, a line from Beha’s novel served as the second epigraph to the memoir (after Alice Munro’s): “What really happened does matter, even if we can only ever know it once it’s too late to do anything about it.” During the years I worked on the manuscript, I’d open up the document and read Beha’s line to feel fortified, grounded, focused. What really happened? The fact that I’ve never been able to know the answer to that question — what happened to us? — keeps me writing and trying to figure it out, “maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.”