2012 Festival of Books: The Ties That Bind

You know you’re getting older when you just can’t stop reading memoir.

I’m (hopefully) nowhere near the age when it’s all in the rear-view mirror, but let’s just say I’m glancing in that direction with increasing frequency.

The compulsion to read memoir is a little like comparing notes – thinking about my own life and wondering, “So, how did it all happen for you?”

Recalling the facts of one’s life, however, can be a muddy business: the writer is ever grappling with sustaining dramatic interest, capturing the essence of an historical moment, and getting it right. And when you’re writing — trying to articulate a larger truth about humanity — which is more important: facts or profundity? Most critics would say that genres, such as fiction and non-fiction, provide boundary markings or “sign-posts” for the reader, rules that aid understanding. And while genre blurring and inventiveness are all well and good, lying is a different matter.

During a panel titled, “Memoir: The Ties that Bind” at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on April 21 at USC, moderator Samantha Dunn let her feelings on the issue be known rather clearly: “Memoir is circumscribed by fact, despite what you may have heard,” said Dunn, whose Failing Paris (2002) was a finalist for the PEN West Fiction Award.

Mark Whitaker
Photo by Pete Williams

Dunn put the “truth” issue to her panelists, all authors of recent memoirs: Benjamin Busch (Dust to Dust), Claire Bidwell Smith (The Rules of Inheritance), Alexandra Styron (Reading My Father), and Mark Whitaker (My Long Trip Home). The upshot of their responses was: “Well, yes, facts are important . . . but facts alone are dull.”

“I spent a couple weeks just writing from memory and it was kind of boring me,” said Whitaker, a former Newsweek editor and NBC News Washington Bureau Chief who currently is the Executive Vice President and Managing Editor of CNN Worldwide.

Whitaker suspected that the story of his parents’ interracial marriage might be worthy of a book. Whitaker’s father, Syl, the grandson of slaves, was a college student in the 1950s when he fell in love with his professor, Jeanne Theis, a World War II refugee from France. After a year-long secret relationship, they married and had two sons, and Syl became a ground-breaking scholar of Africa; however, a bitter divorce left Jeanne struggling with recriminations and Syl spiraling into alcoholism for decades.

When Whitaker’s recollections of his childhood reached a dead-end in the writing process, Whitaker turned to his considerable reporting skills and began to research the historical context of his parents’ marriage. “It was really the reporting that kept me going,” he said.

And yet, Whitaker had to learn to move beyond his journalistic comfort zone and to find his own voice. Despite the historical significance of his family narrative, the story would have been uninteresting without Whitaker’s personal perspective.

“Anyone who writes a memoir has to confront the, “who cares?” he said.

Alexandra Styron
Photo by Rex Bonomelli

For Alexandra Styron, “who cares?” was not an issue – Styron’s father, William Styron, won the Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968 as well as a National Book Award for Sophie’s Choice in 1980 before descending into depression for the remainder of his life (chronicled in William Styron’s own 1990 memoir, Darkness Visible).

Alexandra Styron’s book combines memoir and biography to provide a much-needed look back at the author (and his star-studded circle) who loomed so large over both a generation of American writers as well as over her childhood.

“He was a complicated man and a difficult father,” said Alexandra, who recalls in the book tiptoeing around while her father was working and being terrified of the psychological warfare he would inflict on the family.

In one episode from the Reading My Father, excerpted in the New York Times, Alexandra’s mother had left baby Alexandra in her walker in the care of her 7-year-old and 9-year-old siblings. When the siblings wandered off to play, Alexandra fell down the basement stairs and suffered a head injury. Alexandra’s siblings found her and cradled her for the next hour until their mother returned home and rushed her to the hospital. The entire time, it turns out, their father was upstairs napping – but the children were too frightened of him to wake him and tell him of the emergency.

Alexandra said that she had finally made peace with the turbulence her father caused in their family after his death in 2006. When the book opportunity came knocking, she immersed herself in the William Styron archive at Duke University.

“What became thrilling for me is that I really got to know my father. I came to really like him so much (and) to understand the man he became,” Alexandra said.

Claire Bidwell Smith
Photo courtesy of the author

Claire Bidwell Smith’s parents weren’t famous, but she knew the story of their early deaths from cancer would make a memoir somehow. She wrote two versions beginning in her 20s, but found a linear narrative – “and then this happened and then that happened” — to be tedious.

Bidwell became a grief counselor, and she began to visualize the form of her book changing. She revised those earlier drafts with a new structure, organized around the five stages of grief. The new arrangement, in The Rules of Inheritance, provides a kind of synergy to the “facts” of Bidwell’s story, elevating it above what otherwise might be simply a sad, personal story.

And yet, let’s face it: most memoirs begin with a search for personal catharsis. As Alexandra Styron said during the Festival of Books panel, the chance to write a memoir can be a great gift —  “It realigns the stars in your life when you go through that process,” she said.

True enough.

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