I love talking with writers, finding out how they work their magic. I was so pleased to get to know Joy Castro-first through her books, her inspiring memoir The Truth Book and her collection of essays Island of Bones. I was thrilled to meet her in person at the AWP conference in Seattle this year where she presented two workshops–my favorite was about Family Trouble, based on the book she edited with the subtitle “Memoirists on the Hazards and Reward of Revealing Family.” I asked if she would be my guest at the National Association of Memoir Writers teleseminar series and she agreed! We titled the seminar Family Trouble–the Hazards and Rewards of Writing about Family.
A generous teacher and guide to the journey of memoir writing, I asked her if she would also agree to an interview. I hope you enjoy what she has to say about memoir writing, and that her wisdom can help you with your memoir.
LJM: Joy—you so skillfully and poetically dig deep into the ethics, shame, and struggles of writing about family in your essays in Island of Bones, and in your introduction to Family Trouble—Memoirist on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. Your speeches at the AWP conference rocked my world. They were so inspiring to those of us who struggle with voice, with permission, and with finding our stride with our material. I’m so pleased you were our guest at the NAMW member teleconference in April!
JC: Thank you so much, Linda Joy! It was great to meet you at AWP!
LJM: In reading over again your books, I found some themes I hope you can address for us as we prepare for the teleseminar.
One of my favorite essays is “An Angle of Vision” in your collection Island of Bones. Here you talk about class, suffering, being an outsider, and how you had to find a way to confront what you felt were the ugly and shameful parts of your past to write your memoir.
“To put my art into the world as memoir, I had to be willing to stand as the living visible representative of the text, the body at the front of the room.”
Wow—you articulate what we all have to do if we are drawn to this work. How did you allow, invite, force—yourself to confront the many painful memories you write about. Did you feel this struggle in your body? Tell us whatever you can about how you wrestled with this kind of writing.
JC: Thank you, and I have to thank Lorraine López, too, who initially invited that essay for the book that became An Angle of Vision: Women Writers on Their Poor and Working-Class Roots (U of Michigan, 2009). An award-winning author herself, Lorraine is terrifically kind, compassionate, and smart, with a shrewd, funny, and precise mind, and knowing that she’d be reading and editing it helped me to say the hard things.Writing has always been a very physical process for me. Like many people, I tend to physicalize stress and trauma, and so writing memoir—imaginatively re-experiencing difficult events—has often resulted in physical and psychological symptoms: stomach pain, headaches, nightmares, and cathartic crying jags. And also, at times, a kind of ecstasy. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not hard, hard work. But worth it. Always worth it. It helps to have privacy, a safe space, because sometimes you fear you’ll look crazy to others. You don’t want to scare your friends or family. When I wrote my first memoir The Truth Book, I was fortunate to have a small studio to myself at Norcroft, a (now sadly defunct) writers’ retreat on the northern shore of Lake Superior, for three weeks. I cried, raged, threw the thesaurus at the wall.
But then I had my manuscript, and I could go back to real life and don my professorial persona. It also helps to have at least one person who truly sees and accepts you, who loves you unconditionally. Truly unconditionally. That’s rarer than we like to think, and it’s one of the most healing gifts we can be given. I didn’t have that growing up, but in adulthood, I’ve been very lucky.Readers have sometimes called me brave, but it’s important to emphasize that I have never felt brave. I have felt afraid, always afraid. Terrified, sometimes. But more powerful than the fear was the compulsion to make art, to make a shape out of the chaos. I wrote through the fear, with the fear. Anger at being stuck in my damn self was often the fuel. Use what you’ve got.
LJM: In your memoir The Truth Book you weave from present to past, you weave from your present self to your past, younger and lost self. It was a fluid experience for me the reader to encounter past and present that way. Can you talk about how it was to create that weaving, did you outline it or was it organic? How did you keep the different time frames straight? For many of us, that would be nearly impossible!
JC: I’m so glad you mentioned that aspect of The Truth Book, and that its movements in time were clear for you. A little backstory: The manuscript was rejected by one major New York publisher because of that very element; the editor claimed that the chronological play would confuse “little old ladies in Iowa with their glasses on upside down,” and offered to reconsider it if I’d reorder everything in a linear structure. I declined. My own thought was that little old ladies in Iowa were a damn sight smarter than he knew. Earlier in my writing process, I’d workshopped part of the manuscript with a very well known nonfiction writer. He hated it, and he gave the same suggestion: to reorder it in a strictly linear fashion. His comment: “People don’t read Virginia Woolf anymore.” I’d beg to differ. I stuck to my guns.A more adventurous publisher, the independent New York house Arcade Press, eventually took the book. Casey Ebro was my editor there, and I’ll always be grateful to her for taking a chance on my debut. After the 2008 financial crisis, unfortunately, Arcade was one of the publishing houses that went under. In 2012, the University of Nebraska Press brought out a new, paperback version of the book with a foreword by Dorothy Allison, and I’m grateful that it’s still in print. The structure of The Truth Book emerged organically as I drafted. It was very natural, very unforced.
My favorite memoirs are those that not only tell an interesting story but also capture a mind in motion, so that’s the way I let The Truth Book unfold. I like leaps, risks. I trusted the sophistication of the reader. The text records the way my own mind works: by association, by linked images, by reverie, moving freely back and forth across time. A traumatic past, unfortunately, often intrudes into one’s present, and that was the case for me. How the damage of the past continued to live and breathe in my adult life is one of the themes of the narrative, and the form of The Truth Book tells that story as much as the content does.
A memoir I’m reading right now that does a beautiful job with this is Megan Hustad’s More Than Conquerors (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). Hustad shifts fluidly among time periods, and there’s never a moment’s confusion. The writing is gorgeous, too. I’ve only finished the first chapter, but I’m hooked.