Friday’s Tennessee Williams Festival panel SPEAK, MEMORY: WRITING THE MEMOIR was a misnomer. Only one of the four panelists was a true memoirist.
Zachary Lazar wrote a book about the killing of his father decades ago by members of the Mafia. Jesmyn Ward wrote a book about the death of five young black men in her small, Gulf Coast Mississippi town, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has written a book about Harlem, based both on research and on her interactions with the people of Harlem when she moved there in 2002.
Only Claudia Sternbach, author of Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses, wrote a true memoir, an account of how kisses mark important points in a person’s life, focusing on her own experience.
Rhodes-Pitt kicked things off by pronouncing, “I don’t consider my book a memoir. I write essays and Creative Non-Fiction, the ugliest genre name in all of literature.” Lazar, with one novel under his belt, was up next and said he wanted his second book to be a novel but his publisher refused. “I thought writing it as a novel would be a better way to get readers engaged…I invented dialogue between people I never met and imaginistic descriptions of places I’ve never been. My model was (Truman Capote’s) In Cold Blood.”
Ward, the author of two novels who is working on a memoir, said her book The Men We Reaped is the story of five young men who died in her small hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi. “I knew these young men … and I wanted to try to get them to live again on the page.”
By their authors’ descriptions, all these books except Sternbach’s skirt the boundary between memoir, creative non-fiction and journalism.
Sternbach’s book, a compendium of kisses and how each played a prominent role in her life, an intimate personal history of kisses sounds like memoir gazing straight at the navel, she asserts that “I don’t think memoir is a style of writing that’s predictably about the author. I think it’s more universal. People come up to me all the time and say, ‘ah, that happened to me’.” The editorial board board chair of Memoir Journal and editor in chief of their publication Memoir (and) has been a daily newspaper columnist and wrote her first memoir in 1999. Between the column and the memoir she said she had “lost a few friends but made some, too.”
Ward, winner of the National Book Award for fiction for her second novel Salvage the Bones, wrote Reaped to explore “why we would have an epidemic like that happen in a place where I live, a small down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast?” The deaths all took place in a short period of time, and her book could just have easily been a non-fiction title had she not chosen to make it a personal exploration of five young men she knew before their deaths. Asked by moderator Ted O’Brien to compare working on this book to working on a novel, she said it was much more difficult.
Rhodes-Pitts, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, Vogue and Essence, said her book Harlem is Nowhere grew out of a move to Harlem in 2002, where she was working on a novel in progress. She would walk the streets of her new neighborhood. “I was constantly inundated with people’s stories and the conversation always turned to something that happened forty or fifty years ago.” Hearing the stories, she set her novel aside and wrote instead about “this place that held such a large place in African-American culture.” She now plans to make this the first part of a trilogy, with books on the African-American experience in Haiti and the American South to follow.
Lazar is also a novelist, whose book Sway fictionalizes an actual meeting between the Rolling Stones and the Manson family. “I found myself in the head of Keith Richards,” he said to the laughter of the crowed, “and strange as it sounds he was the voice of reason” in the story. He wanted his father’s story to be a novel at first, because “fiction is always a weird sort of autobiographical work. I’m interested in appropriating people and figure out what they’re like.” He said he didn’t mind writing about difficult things like his father’s death, because “all writing is that, or it’s hard to make it interesting to the reader.”
The panel may have wandered far from its announced topic, but we live in an age saturated with memoirs and navel gazing blogs like, um, never mind. Face it, we are not all Joan Didion. I left the room inspired not to open a new Word doc and Kindle my way from an online audience of hundreds into several more hundreds, but instead itching to spend far too much money adding to my monstrously unstable “to read” pile.
Writer Mark Folse’s notes on the Tennessee Williams Festival are reposted here from his blog, Toulouse Street: Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans.