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. 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.
What do you love most about your book?
Its candor and depth. I worked hard to turn issues over and around so I could consider their many sides and angles, whether a student’s sexual come-on or “nature vs. nurture” or my friend’s job as a gestational surrogate.
What kind of reader do you think will most appreciate or enjoy your book?
Imperfect parents and children of imperfect parents. Anyone who suffers from anxiety or spiritual unease, particularly of the Jewish variety. Anyone who contemplates empathy and how to cultivate it.
What is one thing in your book that’s true that readers may have a hard time believing?
That I committed a felony at age 16.
What resistance did you face while writing this book?
I encountered several publishing professionals who wanted to turn this book into something else, including a straightforward memoir or a book about intergenerational anxiety. I was also advised to abandon the project—to focus on placing the individual essays in magazines so I might work on a more marketable book. Essay collections are hard to sell.
Was there anything that surprised you as you wrote?
I was surprised by the ways my preoccupations kept resurfacing in different ways. These essays explore a range of subjects, from preteen heartbreak to a ghostwriting gig for a Syrian refugee, but when I revisited the experiences years later, I saw them all through the lens of motherhood. It’s a thread that binds Spilt Milk.
Is there anything in your book that you’re nervous for people to read?
No. It took me years to get comfortable enough to write the vulnerable material, so I’ve made peace with publishing it. It does feel important to remind readers that memoirists have fallible memories, and also that my life and history consist of far more than what’s represented here.
"I did the most research on topics I thought I understood. The more questions I asked, the less I realized I knew."
How do you feel now that you’ve put these essays to the page?
Delighted and relieved and proud.
What's one way that your book is better as a collection of essays than it would have been as a novel or collection of short stories?
Readers often come to short stories and novels with expectations: conflict, plot, characterization, resolution. Meanwhile, the word essay still evokes the five-paragraph rectangles we all wrote in high school—even though the form can be wildly imaginative! I was interested in challenging fixed expectations of the form. I had a lot of fun playing with structure and style and language.
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?
Curiously, I did the most research on topics I thought I understood. The more questions I asked, the less I realized I knew. This held true especially for “Boy in Blue,” about my young, white son’s predilection for dressing and acting like a cop, a role inspired by our living beside a New York City precinct station. I wound up in some dark research holes, reading about everything from the slave patrol practices that inspired modern-day policing to the recent brain science that exempts juvenile offenders from being put to death. Much of this didn’t make it onto the page, but it all informed the writing.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Discover more great memoirs this Memoir March.
Author photo credit: Hannah Cohen