Dan Slater’s vibrant The Incorruptibles chronicles the homegrown vice squad that took down New York City’s most notorious turn-of-the-century gangsters.
Dan Slater’s vibrant The Incorruptibles chronicles the homegrown vice squad that took down New York City’s most notorious turn-of-the-century gangsters.
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Courtney Zoffness shares some of the joys and difficulties behind her book, Spilt Milk, a collection of essays that plaits her life experiences with larger observations about society.

To celebrate Memoir March, we spoke to the authors of this spring’s most exciting memoirs about their research processes, writing roadblocks and biggest fears as they put their personal stories out into the world. Menachem Kaiser shares some of the joys and difficulties behind his book, Plunder, about his journey deep into the shadowy realm of Nazi treasure hunters.


What do you love most about your book?
How it embraces uncertainty. The story I recount in Plunder—namely, my quest to reclaim my grandfather's building and falling in with modern-day treasure hunters along the way—is not a straight-line story. Nothing went as planned. There were so many mishaps, misunderstandings, errors, and the book doesn't gloss these over, doesn’t smooth out the bumps. 

What kind of reader do you think will most appreciate or enjoy your book? 
Anyone who's confronted or wanted to confront their family story, especially with respect to World War II. So many of us don't know what our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents went through in the war, or know only fragments, bits and pieces. And I think sometimes we’re a little complacent, incurious, satisfied with undetailed family lore, because it’s always been there. It is so hugely rewarding to investigate, to step into your story. It is so much stranger, more complicated, more beautiful, more tragic than you thought.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may have a hard time believing?
The way I first learned about my relative, Abraham Kajzer, the man so revered by the treasure hunters, does admittedly sound like a very unlikely story. I had initially sought out the treasure hunters only because I was curious. I had never heard of Abraham—in fact, I had no idea that my grandfather had any relatives who had survived the war. So here's what happened: I was sitting with the treasure hunters, having a beer, talking about Project Riese—the underground Nazi complex they had showed me that afternoon—and I overheard them saying, in Polish, my last name. I don’t speak Polish, I just caught my name, and I knew they weren’t talking about me. So I asked what was going on, who was this Kaiser? They explained they were talking about Abraham Kajzer, a Jewish enslaved laborer who, on account of the diary he had kept while working on Project Riese, has become an almost mythological figure among their community. 

My first thought was that it was a funny coincidence. But later that night, after pulling up some documents and translating the preface to Kajzer's diary, I was able to trace the family tree, and I realized that this was my grandfather's first cousin and his closest relative to have survived the war.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Plunder.


What resistance did you face while writing this book?
It’s a touchy subject, reclamation. I encountered resistance on all sides. Some people, including many of my relatives, were disappointed and upset that I was being at all sympathetic to the Poles living in my grandfather’s old building, who were benefiting—even if unknowingly—from the murder of my grandfather’s family. And some people, particularly in Poland, accused me of being something like an evil landlord, trying to displace helpless tenants. I understand both sets of objections, even if I disagree.

Was there anything that surprised you as you wrote?
So, so many people, upon hearing about my book, would tell me their own story of lost family property in Eastern Europe and beyond: in Egypt, the Ivory Coast, South Africa. It wasn’t the dispossession that was so surprising—that part is horrifyingly ubiquitous—but how, even generations later, the descendants of those who were dispossessed still cling to a place they often have never even been to.

Is there anything in your book that you’re nervous for people to read?
One of the chapters details the relationship between Abraham and the German woman who hid him in the final weeks of the war, saving his life. They became lovers; after the war, Abraham stayed with her and her children. (Her husband, a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was killed on the front.) It’s a beautiful but challenging story—not exactly taboo but still not the sort of Jewish-German wartime narrative people are used to.

"The constraints of memoir can be frustrating but also allow you to turn inward, to be introspective, to not have answers, to question your own motivations."

How do you feel now that you’ve put this story to the page?
Really just grateful and kind of amazed that the book exists.

What's one way that your book is better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel?
I actually address this question directly in the book: I wonder aloud if I should have written it as a novel, because then the narrative could be neat, clean, linear, not plagued by false starts and misunderstandings. But that would have been the wrong move. Ultimately memoir was absolutely the appropriate genre for this story. The constraints—it has to be true, whether or not it makes sense, whether it helps or hinders the narrative—can be frustrating but also allow you to turn inward, to be introspective, to not have answers, to question your own motivations. 

Many people think writing memoir means you just write from memory and don’t have to do research, but obviously that’s not true. What is the most interesting thing you had to research in order to write this book?
There are some very out-there conspiracy theories rampant among the treasure hunters, particularly with respect to Nazi technology that’s been lost or covered up. I spent months researching Nazi UFOs, Nazi antigravity, Nazi time travel, Nazi space stations and on and on. Fascinating if occasionally horrifying stuff.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more great memoirs this Memoir March.

 

Author photo credit: Beowolf Sheehan

Menachem Kaiser shares some of the joys and difficulties behind his book, Plunder, about his journey deep into the shadowy realm of Nazi treasure hunters.
Louis Chude-Sokei shares some of the joys and difficulties behind his memoir Floating in a Most Peculiar Way, about negotiating what it means to be African in Jamaica and the United States.

To celebrate Memoir March, we spoke to the authors of this spring’s most exciting memoirs about their research processes, writing roadblocks and biggest fears as they put their personal stories out into the world. Georgina Lawton shares some of the joys and difficulties behind her book, Raceless, about growing up in a family that fiercely insisted, despite all outward appearances, that she was white.


What do you love most about your book?
That I cover multiple themes and places, that it looks at identity in a way we don’t see very often, that it’s not boring! I write about love, grief, secrets and shame by working through my family lore. And the physical journey I undertook to learn more about race and community brings the reader from London to the U.S. to Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam and back again. Examining DNA testing, Afro-futurism, Black hair and my own past took me on a journey of self-actualization while helping me understand my parents’ choices, too. 

What kind of reader do you think will most appreciate or enjoy your book? 
Those who navigate personal identities in the spaces between, anyone who has wrestled with family secrets—and readers with impeccable taste, of course.

What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may have a hard time believing?
Perhaps on first glance, readers will find it hard to understand how an educated woman who looks like me grew up believing she was related to her white family. Or that my parents really did not ever discuss our differing racial backgrounds unless I pressed. Or that boxes were checked that declared my ethnicity as “white.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Raceless.


What resistance did you face while writing this book?
The turmoil of writing about my father, our life together and the strength of his love, while also attempting to understand his silence around our racial differences and to work through issues with my mother, was incredibly tough to overcome. I’m proud of the chapter “My Lot,” which is all about my dad, but I detest rereading it because it still makes me cry. 

Was there anything that surprised you as you wrote?
No one prepares you for the emotional time travel that a memoir necessitates. Writing something traumatic from your past is hard enough, but constantly editing and reworking it means that internal wounds take longer to heal. I was surprised by how draining some of it was.

Is there anything in your book that you’re nervous for people to read?
I’ve done a lot of memoir-style writing about me and my family over the years and received lovely, compassionate emails from strangers online, as well as some predictable trolling. It’s actually the other parts of Raceless—the analysis of the subjectivity of race and transracial identities—that I really hope readers are open to understanding.

"I learned a lot about love and belonging and the corrosive power of community secrets."

How do you feel now that you’ve put this story to the page?
Like I still want to go back and rewrite bits! I’m very pleased with the final product, but if I hadn’t had actual deadlines, I’d probably still be tinkering away. I am a perfectionist.

What's one way that your book is better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel?
Raceless
is a hybrid of memoir and analytical writing. If I had just written it as a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to bring in other perspectives and studies. Situating my personal experiences within some sociological discourse added weight to my narrative and hopefully made it more persuasive. 

Many people think writing memoir means you just write from memory and don’t have to do research, but obviously that’s not true. What is the most interesting thing you had to research in order to write this book?
Mining the memories of my Irish mother and English family members for insight into how and why my race and parentage remained a hidden truth for years was quite the mission. But I learned a lot about love and belonging and the corrosive power of community secrets.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more great memoirs this Memoir March.

 

Author photo credit: Jamie Simonds © Loftus Media

Georgina Lawton shares some of the joys and difficulties behind her book, Raceless, about growing up in a family that fiercely insisted, despite all outward appearances, that she was white.
Theo Padnos shares some of the joys and difficulties behind his book, Blindfold, about the two years he spent imprisoned by operatives of al-Qaida.
Interview by

Actor, activist and visionary Cicely Tyson’s memoir, Just as I Am, is as graceful as it is funny, as measured as it is charming. The audiobook features a number of treasures, including a foreword read by Viola Davis and an introduction from Tyson herself, but narrator Robin Miles carries the majority of Tyson’s life story, and she does so beautifully. Here Miles discusses the humbling and thrilling process of narrating this remarkable book.

Tell me a bit about transforming Just as I Am into an audiobook. How did you prepare, and what did you most enjoy about the preparation?
I Googled to find every interview [of Tyson] I could, and then watched them repeatedly. Not to copy her voice, but to hear and feel how she communicates, her energy and pace, her intellect and humor. And I wanted to feel her energy as a young actress, then again as a mature actress. I just loved how self-possessed she was in all of them.

Tell us about your personal connection to Tyson prior to narrating the audiobook, and did you work with her at all during the audiobook’s production?
Cicely Tyson was very special to me; she was a big reason why I wanted to be an actor and believed that it was possible for me, the Black girl with the buck teeth. I did get to speak with her during the process, and it was thrilling. Also humbling, because she asked me to take my time more in the reading. (Ironically, I had stepped up my pace, fearing that my original tempo might be too slow. She assured me that my instincts were right, and reminded me to always trust them. Sigh . . .)

Was there anything you felt strongly about getting “right” as you narrated her words?
Absolutely. I wanted the moments when she expressed a strong reaction or deep impression to be organic, natural and true. No pretense, no overplaying.

As you told Tyson’s story, what were you most surprised to learn about her? Was there any section that was particularly challenging to narrate?
I was surprised to learn that she came from the same neighborhoods of NYC that my Caribbean grandparents, aunties and uncles lived in. I keep thinking that one of my great aunts must have known her as a little girl. It was a six-degrees experience knowing that, and that my acting teacher at Yale Drama, Earl Gister, was a close colleague of her teacher, Lloyd Richards.

Do you have a favorite Cicely Tyson performance or memory?
Oh yes . . . Sounder. That film left an indelible impression on me. I think it was the quiet intensity, the way she portrayed perseverance, love and grounding with a soft femininity. It just shattered the stereotyped images of Black women we had been fed in entertainment up to that point.

How does the experience of narrating an audiobook differ from other kinds of performances?
With audiobooks, I conjure and project images in front of me the whole time (the place, the people, etc.), so I am reacting to something outside of myself that I must invest in, but that isn’t tangibly there. With theater, film, TV, there are so many levels of real images to use as a source; you endow them with meaning and let them do their work. The movie of the audiobook narrative happens solely in my head.

“It emotionally hurts to let that pain into my body, but it is necessary to make complex human dynamics recognizable.”

What’s the hardest part of limiting your acting toolbox to just your voice?
Good question. One thing is definitely the urge to move or gesture. I cannot tell you how often I’ve whacked a mic. The other is that you cannot hide; you have to release the thing you’re feeling and pursue the things you want or else you leave your listener squinting (i.e., left in a state of confusion about what’s happening between characters).

What do you believe are your greatest strengths as a narrator?
I would say a deep understanding of language, strong acting chops and a strong ear for music and rhythm, which helps with accents and emphasis. I was blessed to have exceptional speakers modeling the use of language in my family. I had a leg up in understanding complex sentences from my grandfather, who was a Shakespeare and Victorian poetry professor. It’s like the family legacy, so I cannot take credit for it. I also grew up in a neighborhood of immigrants from everywhere, and I absorbed their accents. Then, drama school added solid acting training to my arsenal. It turned out to be a perfect storm for audiobook narration.

What is the most rewarding or coolest thing you get to bring to this experience through your reading?
The most rewarding thing I’d have to say is offering up my emotional intelligence as a community service. When I express what characters feel and want from each other, what is happening beneath the words, I like to think I add to the emotional intelligence of the community. At least, I tell myself that when I freely allow a character’s pain to play through my body and voice. It emotionally hurts to let that pain into my body, but it is necessary to make complex human dynamics recognizable.

What’s one thing people might not expect about your role as narrator?
I think people believe that narrators read super fluidly and make very few mistakes. And that can be true for me with colloquially worded nonfiction books and some very fluidly written fiction. But we narrators misread or stop to redo a line every few sentences, particularly with fiction. Especially in the beginning of the book, before I have absorbed the feel of the author’s style and the individual characters. My students who accompany me to a session are always so surprised.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of the Just as I Am audiobook.

Narrator Robin Miles discusses the humbling and thrilling process of narrating Cicely Tyson's remarkable memoir, Just as I Am.
Judy Batalion tells the long-hidden stories of a number of idealistic, restless, brave young Jewish women who volunteered as couriers, informants and fighters in the struggle against the Nazis in Poland.

Anne Lamott’s latest book is a timely guide to restoring our hope and finding our faith as we wait for a new day to dawn. She shares some ideas for how to get by when the world seems especially dark.


What’s the story behind Dusk, Night, Dawn?
I started writing Dusk, Night, Dawn during the tour for my last book. Everywhere I went, the people in my audiences felt scared and overwhelmed by all the bad news—and this was before COVID-19. So I wanted to share my experiences of going through extremely scary, defeating times without losing my essential isness or my capacity for joy and curiosity.

You got married in 2019, and your attempts to deal with this new relationship dynamic underlie much of Dusk, Night, Dawn. Can you describe some of the ways your marriage affects your outlook on broken relationships and forgiveness?
My husband, Neal, and I have been in quarantine together since right before our one-year anniversary, so things have possibly been a little more insulated than we had been expecting. We’re both pretty easygoing, so that helps a lot, and we both hole up a lot to do our writing, so we have a lot of space apart. 

When you’re mostly stuck in a house together and the other person says or does something hurtful, there’s a lot of incentive to work through it. And Neal is (almost) always willing to talk things over. Both of us believe that Earth is Forgiveness School, so we practice on each other. Some days go better than others.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: If your faith has been challenged, these books will encourage hope, offer guidance and provide glimpses of light amid the shadows.


In one chapter, you use the image of Soul Windex. Can you describe Soul Windex and how we use it?
Our vision gets so smudged by all the endless and meaningless data that come at us, and by toxic obsessions, cravings, resentments, etc. So Soul Windex is a new way of paying attention to what is real and of real value, so that we are spritzed awake. Think of it as an energetic equivalent to the fluid you clean your windshield with. It’s usually found in nature or in being of service to those in need.

You write about the tricky concept of sin in this book. Can you define sin? How does your definition of sin differ from the traditional Christian definition?
The origin of the word sin is an archery term for missing the mark. So I don’t see sin so much as drug cartels and porn shops, but rather all the isms—racism, sexism, ageism and so forth. 

How do you describe forgiveness?
Forgiveness is when you decide not to hit back—when your heart softens ever so slightly toward someone who has harmed you or someone you love, or your country. It doesn’t mean you have to have lunch with the person, but it usually involves seeing them as having acted badly from a place of feeling damaged and empty, not from evil.

Do you feel hopeful about the future?
Yes, I have so much hope for the future! Our young people are so incredibly passionate about climate change and have access (because of us older people!) to the greatest scientific knowledge that could ever be. I never lose hope in science or in most people’s essential goodness. 

"Even though it gets darker and darker, the light will return in the morning. It always has, it always will."

How do we recover our faith in life?
Basically we start where we are; we start where our butts are. We do kind things for others, and we pay more attention to all the beauty and goodness that surround us. We make gratitude lists of everything that blesses us, that gives us feelings of safety and nurture, pleasure and relief. And on some level, I think we decide to keep the faith.

What will readers be surprised to learn about from Dusk, Night, Dawn?
How really hilarious so much of life can be, if you have a couple of best friends; how much of life still works, no matter what a disaster the Earth or a family is; and how much light can be found almost anywhere we look, no matter how dark and scary the world can be.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Anne Lamott narrates the audiobook for Dusk, Night, Dawn.


What’s the significance of the title Dusk, Night, Dawn?
I discovered that twilight means both dusk, the trippy light before evening, and dawn, that mystical light before morning breaks. And I have felt very strongly for the last few years that this is the darkest the world has ever been—but we have come through so much, with the little pilot light inside us still burning, and even though it gets darker and darker, the light will return in the morning. It always has, it always will.

 

Photo credit: Sam Lamott

Anne Lamott’s latest book is a timely guide to restoring our hope and finding our faith as we wait for a new day to dawn. She shares some ideas for how to get by when the world seems especially dark.
Interview by

We know authors and agents, publishers and printers, libraries and bookstores—but there’s one company responsible for bringing just about every book you’ve ever read into your life, and you may not even know it exists. In The Family Business, author and journalist Keel Hunt charts the history and contributions of Ingram Content Group, a little-known, family-owned business based in Tennessee that has shaped the publishing world for 50 years. We asked Hunt a few questions about Ingram, its role in the industry and its vision for the future.

Ingram's role in the publishing business is relatively invisible to the general reader. What gaps does Ingram fill for publishers, libraries and retailers?
Basically, Ingram helps publishers, bookstores and libraries by providing essential services that enable publishers to do business in all their modern markets. For many years, Ingram performed a classic middleman function as a distributor of print books, but today, executives at Ingram prefer to describe their job in terms of getting content to its destination—that is, from the publishers who curate and own the content of books to entities that provide it to consumers. This frees up publishers to do their most essential work: finding great content.

"Ingram could and usually did take the longer view and give sustained commitment to unusual or unconventional ideas that might have been unworkable in the short term." 

How did Ingram’s origin as a family business shape its growth and affect its success? 
Because it has been a private, family-owned enterprise, Ingram Book Company (later renamed Ingram Content Group) was freed from many of the onerous short-term horizons that typically constrain public companies—such as the expectations (by shareholders and analysts) to show incremental profit each and every quarter. Ingram could and usually did take the longer view and give sustained commitment to unusual or unconventional ideas that might have been unworkable in the short term. 

Sometimes it’s easy for readers to forget the business machine that lies behind the art of literature. What do you think readers should know about Ingram?
That it has always been a family-owned business, and it grew from a handful of employees to one of the largest media businesses in the world. That its innovations have carried not only Ingram but also the publishers, bookstores and libraries it serves into the new digital age. That Ingram has always taken almost a “partner” approach to each of these critical sectors. Over its 50-year history, key landscape-shifting innovations by Ingram have helped publishers and booksellers alike strengthen their own service models and their profitability.

What are some of those innovations, and how have they shaped the publishing world?
One of the first examples was Ingram’s early application of microfiche technology, which was revolutionary for retail booksellers. Later, Ingram’s development of its Lightning Source model for print-on-demand saved book publishers millions of dollars in inventory costs, adding to recaptured sales and making for faster sales fulfillment and better profitability for publishers and bookstores.

The shift to digital publishing was a real adjustment for everyone involved in the book business. How did Ingram approach this challenge?
In the 1990s, there was much fear and dread in the book industry that the printed book might go away because of digital book technology. But the theorized “death of the printed book” didn’t happen, partly because of Ingram’s innovations in that period and after. These involved business risk and smart thinking. One of my favorite lines in The Family Business is current CEO John Ingram’s early observation that the future was not going to mean “either/or”—as to whether print or digital books would carry the day—but instead it would become an “either/and” world, with both digital and print formats available to serve consumer needs and preferences.

You have written two books about Tennessee politics and have worked as a columnist and reporter. How did that work inform this book? 
Ever since my earliest days as a news reporter, I have loved to write about truly original characters and how they navigated tough situations. That’s certainly been the case with my two previous books about politics and government (Coup and Crossing the Aisle). Some of the best stories in our culture—take Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs or Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail—are about choices that business leaders have made in their own environments. The Family Business has all these ingredients. It shares the untold stories of one of the world’s most private companies and one of the most important media businesses.

Why did you want to record and share the story of the Ingram family and the Ingram Content Group?
I feel it’s important, now more than ever, for as many people as possible to understand how our world works, and particularly what I call the “leadership examples” from innovators throughout history. From Johannes Gutenberg to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to the Ingrams, innovators have materially helped our world to climb higher and human ingenuity to reach further.

If you could only use three words to describe Ingram, what would they be? 
My three words would be the “family of families.” There are many Ingram associates today whose mothers or fathers (or both) were connected to the business, too. Some have met their spouses there. 

Also, the Ingrams themselves have always honored the role rank-and-file associates play in the company’s overall success. Founder Bronson Ingram insisted on that over his career. He always stressed that the line employees were materially contributing to the company’s success in business. He meant it, and John Ingram believes it, too.

For example: When Ingram Micro was taken public in 1996, at $18 per share, the share price climbed by 15% in just two months. Many Ingram employees—from the telephone sales office to the book warehouse to Ingram Barge towboat crew members—shared in the rewards of that profitable event.

You spoke to dozens of people while researching this book. Does a particular interview or story stand out to you? 
There were several, of course, that stand out over my two years of research. Possibly the most revealing was my first interview outside the Ingram family. I drove to Bradenton, Florida, to talk with Harry Hoffman, who was the first president of Ingram Book Company. After college Harry worked for the FBI (he was sworn in by J. Edgar Hoover himself) and later went on to great success in business. He eventually left Ingram to become CEO of the Waldenbooks chain of mall bookstores. He is still a beloved figure among Ingram old-timers. On the afternoon of my visit, Harry, at 90, was charming and answered my every question.

That interview was also a reminder to “do the interview now” when the idea first occurs to you. Harry died in May 2020, at age 92.

If there’s one thing your book proves, it’s that Ingram has always been a forward-thinking company. What are they doing today that will affect the reader experience in the future?
I suspect only a few people know how Ingram helped our nation—and the world—to navigate day to day through the COVID-19 pandemic. You’ve never heard Ingram people brag about any of this, but you can read about it in the book. Looking further ahead, it will be fun to see what comes next from this innovative business, and how it will serve our culture and the world.

Author photo © Marsha Hunt.

We asked author and journalist Keel Hunt a few questions about Ingram Content Group, a little-known, family-owned business based in Tennessee that has shaped the publishing world for 50 years.
Alison Bechdel’s latest graphic memoir is a comic marvel that will make you think.
Interview by

In The Ugly Cry, Danielle Henderson writes about experiencing abuse from family members, being abandoned by her mother and growing up with her foulmouthed, horror movie-loving grandmother. Individually these topics seem unfathomably heavy—but Henderson leavens them with humor to create a wholly original testament to survival.


Why did you choose the title The Ugly Cry?
It’s something my grandmother said whenever a child was crying in her presence. “Oooo, you look ugly when you cry.” Then she would laugh, and her laugh would make me stop crying and laugh, too. I realized as an adult that she never actually cared if it made us stop crying, and she wasn’t saying it as a kindness. She genuinely loves teasing children, because she is a tiny maniac.

You use your power of observation to deliver vivid portraits of your family members in this book. Did you rely on diaries or journals for this? Do you still keep a journal?
I never felt safe keeping a journal when I was a child. My abuser would have used it to embarrass me, and later I shared space (including my bedroom) in my grandparents’ house to such an extensive degree that the concept of privacy was tantamount to winning the lottery—impossibly out of my grasp. I always wrote in great detail when I was in school, but I didn’t start journaling in earnest until I was 18 years old.

I journal every day now and have for years, but I think the reason I was able to deliver such vivid portraits of my family is that I’ve observed them for over 40 years. I narrowed in on my most vivid memories and used my knowledge of how my family acts and reacts to fill in the story. I realized in therapy that hyperobservation was a response to my trauma, a way of keeping myself safe. I learned at a very early age that I could not stop trauma from happening, but I could gain some sense of control if I was prepared for it—which doesn’t work either, as it turns out. But that’s what turned on the switch.


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of The Ugly Cry.


What’s the appeal for you of writing memoir instead of fiction?
Memoir creates deeper connections, whether you’re writing a book or telling a story over dinner. I thought about the books I needed to see on my library list when I was a teenager, and I would have felt so much better about myself if I knew that other women had survived similar families. I’m compelled to tell my story as it happened because I am compelled by connection as a form of healing.

Since finishing The Ugly Cry, have you received any reactions from the family members you write about in your book?
My brother is the only person in my family I’ve allowed to read the book, and his reaction was unexpected, because he apologized. At first I couldn’t understand why, but he felt terrible for not being there for me more when we were younger. I reminded him that we were both children, both reeling from trauma in different ways, and the important thing is that we reached a place in our 20s where we became very close again. But he felt a lot of grief when he was finished reading and considered that there were a lot of things about our childhood that he’s never addressed. He may go to therapy. The fact that my book could even make him consider it is a triumph. 

My great-aunt (my grandmother’s sister) has also read the book and is incredibly supportive. She loved seeing her little sister come to life on the page, and we both laughed about stories from my childhood. But she also had some grief—even though she was aware of what happened to me, she did not know the details. It hurts to put someone in a place years later where they feel guilt about something they could not control, but the beauty that comes from the connection of it alleviates that pain. 

My mother knows about the book, but I haven’t sent her a copy yet. She will definitely read it, but our relationship is in such a tender place as we try to reconnect that I kind of don’t want her voice in my head. As present as she is in this book, this is not her story to tell.

“I thought about the books I needed when I was a teenager, and I would have felt so much better about myself if I knew that other women had survived similar families.”

You originally set out to become a fashion designer but became a writer instead. What changed your course?
Oh, my résumé reads like I’ve been on the run from the law. Most of the work I’ve done has been out of survival—I’ve supported myself entirely since I first left home after high school—and that does not leave a lot of room to dream or define your goals. I didn’t become a fashion designer because I left school, and in 1996 I could see no other way to reach that goal. I worked in coffee shops, bookstores and restaurants, having two or three jobs at the same time, because I had to pay rent and eventually size up from a futon mattress on the floor to an actual bed.

The thing about my writing career is that it was never supposed to happen. I never set out to follow that dream; my writing was always just for me. My course changed as I changed, as I grew, as I gained more confidence in my abilities or felt more desperation about how I was living. Going back to college at 30 years old was very freeing; I was being valued for my brain by people who encouraged me to take bigger chances.

When I left my Ph.D. program, I started freelance writing full time. The first time I was able to pay my rent and bills with a paycheck earned from writing was my tipping point. My agent found me through my freelance writing, which jump-started a writing career in television that I was also never supposed to have. My literary agent was a friend of a friend; when he heard my stories over dinner, he said, “You should write a book.”

There are plenty of writers who know what they want to do in utero and map their lives toward those specific goals. I’ve never taken a writing course, I’ve never been to a writer’s retreat, I’ve never taken a year off to work on my craft. I survived, and I keep surviving. Then I write it down.

“I’m compelled to tell my story as it happened because I am compelled by connection as a form of healing.”

The tenacity and grit you demonstrate throughout your memoir is impressive. What, or who, helped you persevere the most?
This is the most difficult question to answer, because I truly do not know. There’s no way I should have survived what I did, and as early as I did. If you look at my beginnings, that’s not a kid who eventually moves to Alaska for four years on a whim. This may be an unfulfilling answer, but I persevered because I had no choice. I did not have the option of moving back home once I was gone. My family was never going to support me financially. I didn’t have a therapist until I was in my 20s. There was no scaffolding, nothing propping me up. If my life was going to be worth living, I had to figure that out on my own.

In The Ugly Cry, you acknowledge the racism embedded in your community, but you seem to consider it more a fact of life than an obstacle. Has your perception of that racism changed as you’ve gotten older?
Absolutely not. Racism is still a fact of my life every day. Racism didn’t get worse; it got louder. It got confident. But so did I.

Your honest voice shines through in this book, especially when treading softly around the abuse you experienced. Through your craft, you let these dark times speak for themselves while keeping the focus on your own behavior and reactions. What was it like to write about these heavier topics? Did you rely on any forms of support or comfort to soften the emotional blow?
My therapist deserves her own chapter at the end of this book! She was crucial to helping me get out of my own way and find value in my voice. For a long time, I didn’t feel like my life story was worth telling; bad things happen to everyone, and some experience far worse things than I have. My therapist helped me to remove that layer of comparison and learn how to write without focusing on the audience. 

It wasn’t difficult to write about my abuse. That may seem strange, but I’ve been telling my story for years and am very adept at flopping out those facts. Perhaps that’s why you feel the darker times speak for themselves; I just told what happened without giving any thought to spicing it up with glitz or glamour. In those scenes I was more of a reporter. The events were enough. 

“Racism didn’t get worse; it got louder. It got confident. But so did I.”

Flannery O’Connor said, “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” What would you say to that?
I understand the sentiment, but I don’t think that’s entirely true—especially now, when hypervigilant parents are shielding children from their own childhoods as a way to avoid any kind of pain. A lot of people emerge from childhood as absolute chumps, and they remain chumps until their dying day. This is a statement made from a place of privilege. 

I would say the opposite was true of my experience. Yes, I had a clear picture of the horrors the world could throw at you, but it took me decades to learn that I was worthy of love. It took me even longer to learn that I could love someone else. For me, surviving childhood meant that I started my adult life at a deficit. 

Your acknowledgements are extensive and heartfelt, and they include your mother. Are you at peace with her?
I’m at peace with myself. I was able to find an astonishing amount of grace as I was writing about her, which came as a surprise. We reconnected last year when my aunt was dying; I flew my mom, brother and sister out to say goodbye. But our relationship is still in flux. I’ve made peace with her in that I see her for exactly who she is, and I’m no longer willing to spend effort on being angry at all the things she’s not. That does not mean there is a happily ever after for us, but it does mean that there is a happily ever after for me.

“I don’t think grandparents get enough credit for the myriad ways they save our lives.”

The people in your memoir are so memorable. Can you see your story as a movie? Any thoughts about who would play your grandmother?
I actually optioned the book as a TV show years ago, when it was just a proposal. It landed in a place that wanted to emphasize the sitcom elements, which ignored so much of the reality of my life that in the end it didn’t work out. I’m trying to enjoy the book as it is, existing in the precise way I wanted people to receive this information about me, before I entertain it as a film. And truly, I may be avoiding it because absolutely no one could play my grandmother. 

Who would you like to see read your book?
Everyone. I will not rest until I am casually sitting next to someone on public transit and they are reading my book, gently crying tears of blood. 

Everyone, but especially grandparents and people raised by grandparents. There are so many of us, and those relationships are so special. I don’t think grandparents get enough credit for the myriad ways they save our lives.

What do you hope readers will take away from The Ugly Cry?
The great capacity we all have to survive. The boulders of joy we can find among the pebbles of pain. I want readers to feel that their families are an origin story, not an endpoint.

 

Author photo credit © Maile Knight

Danielle Henderson reflects on a memoir’s ability to create connection, and connection’s ability to heal old wounds.
Clint Smith, whose spellbinding debut nonfiction book is a must-read, shares his thoughts on reckoning with Confederate landmarks and locations where Black people were enslaved.

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