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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Author Louise Krug, whose memoir, Louise: Amended, was enthusiastically read around our office last month, was kind enough to answer a few questions concerning the nature of her story, as well as the interesting use of form she used to tell it.
Tin House: The immediate question that comes to mind when talking to any author about memoir is “Why write it?” What was the impetus for you?
Louise Krug: I started working on a memoir as a way to deal with the aftermath of my brain surgeries. I had two craniotomies to remove a cavermous angioma (a malformed blood vessel) in my brainstem. I went from being a normal twenty-two-year-old girl, living in Southern California, working her way up the journalism ladder to someone who was disfigured, undesirable and useless. I was bitter, I was angry, and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had vertigo, I walked with a hitch, and one of my eyes wandered off into nowhere. I could talk to people about my problems, my friends, parents, siblings, and I even had a therapist, but at a certain point one is done talking. It only does so much.
TH: Any inclination to fictionalize your story? I ask this because one of my favorite things about your memoir is the interludes where you imagine what those around you were thinking during your recovery.
LK: Yes. I wrote about my experiences as fictional short stories when I began an MFA program at the University of Kansas in 2006. For example, one story had a character that was embarrassed to go outside to get the mail because she thought she looked hideous. Another was about a social misfit in a weight lifting class trying to make friends but failing miserably. Then there was the winter I tried acupuncture to reverse my facial paralysis and went around running errands with missed needles sticking out of my face. That became a scene in another short piece.
TH: What pulled you back towards the nonfiction route?
LK: I thought it would resonate with readers more. There’s something about knowing that something actually happened that is powerful to me, and I just couldn’t see the point in fictionalizing events that were so autobiographical. The only problem fictionalizing would solve would have been the ability to include what the other people, or characters, were thinking, so I just did that anyway and kept it as memoir.
TH: What immediately stands out about Louise: Amended is the structure, which involves multiple narrators. That’s not something you see very often in memoir. How did it come about?
LK: After I decided to write a memoir for my MFA thesis, I started to connect the stories to form a single work. I put all the stories in chronological order and made the narrator first person. I thought it was close to done and showed it to my thesis advisor, Deb Olin Unferth. I remember holding back tears as she told me, gently, I’m sure, that it wasn’t going to work, that it needed a narrative arc, a beginning, middle and end. It was basic advice, but it was new to me. I had recently read the novel Arkansas by John Brandon, which has nothing in common with a memoir about a brain surgery, but Arkansas happened to be told from three different viewpoints, and I thought it was great. I decided to use five different narrators in my own memoir so that I could avoid an overly self-pitying tone as a first-person narrator, which is quite easy to do in a memoir that involves illness. Using multiple narrators also helped tell a story that really did affect my entire immediate family, not just me.
I originally wrote the memoir in first-person, but then I put it all in past tense, and then I changed it back. I had no idea what I was doing. I was unsure of what to call my book. Was it a “fictionalized memoir” because of the different narrators? Was there even such a thing? Would it be easier to call the memoir fiction anyway, even if all the actions and events were true? I decided to go with my gut and stick to memoir. I’m very lucky that Deb Olin Unferth ran into my editor Elizabeth Koch at a party and told her about my manuscript. Elizabeth read it, saw something in it, and has worked so generously with me helping shape the book.
TH: I think most writers find editing to be incredibly hard. It’s never easy to kill your darlings. I imagine editing a memoir is more difficult than fiction in the sense that you’re actually cutting away part of yourself. It’s not an easy task to admit that sections of your life story are unnecessary to its telling. Was it a difficult process for you?
LK: I think you really need to have a sense of humor about it. Yes, it was a bit humbling to hear that a reader might not be riveted by, say, many detailed explanations of my physical therapy sessions, but you just have to get over yourself. After a while, the “Louise” character was just that, a character, so I didn’t take everything so personally, it was like editing someone else’s story. I had to remember that even though I was writing nonfiction, the fact that it happened didn’t necessarily mean it was interesting. I looked at my nonfiction like it was fiction in the sense that I was shaping it and cutting it as much as possible, while still staying true to what actually happened.
TH: Any memoirs that you looked to for inspiration?
LK: Mary Karr and Dani Shapiro, who are masters of letting the reader see them at their worst. They redeem themselves only after they’ve taken you to the edge. There is nothing more satisfying than watching someone pull their life together after making it a shambles. Some of my favorite memoirs with this plot line are The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, and even graphic novels such as My Most Secret Desire by Julie Doucet. From these writers I learned that as humbling and painful as it is to let your readers see you as someone who is despicable, they must, for only then will you win their heart, and if you don’t win the heart of a reader then, well, what have you done?
Louise Krug currently lives with her husband, Nick, in Lawrence, Kansas where she’s a PhD candidate and teacher. Louise:Amended will be published by Black Balloon in April.