Miranda Beverly-Whittemore and Wendy Salinger have been friends ever since they met at the 92 Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center, where Salinger ran the Schools Project for many years, while Beverly-Whittemore helped curate the Center’s excellent reading series. When Salinger’s memoir, Listen, came out last year, the two of them got together to talk about their writing experiences. At the time, Beverly-Whittemore had seen her first novel, The Effects of Light, published the year before; her latest book, Set Me Free, has just been published.
Wendy Salinger: Your first novel is loosely based on your own experience, while my memoir uses some fictional techniques to tell the story of my childhood. Do you think there’s anything new in the current debate about truth in memoir, or is it just about fundamental ambiguities between genres? I mean, is there anything left to say about the James Frey scandal?
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: You write on the copyright page of Listen, “Because remembering is an act of the imagination, the only real name I’ve used in this book is my own.” Reading that, I thought a lot about the responsibility of the writer when she takes on incidents from her own life. I first read Listen when it was still a novel entitled Victor Dying, and I know that it was a winding road for you to see the book as a memoir, and that in doing so, you knew you needed to give your family some degree of anonymity.
Although my novel has an entirely made-up plot, the jumping-off place for that plot was based in my real-life experience of being photographed by a close family artist friend. Because the real photographs of this friend have been misrepresented and misinterpreted by the religious right, I knew I had to be very cautious about separating the made-up photographs in my book from the real photographs in the world, and the photographer in my novel from the photographer in my life—for my sake, for the sake of my readership, and, perhaps most importantly, for the photographer and my family. I did that by making sure that everyone close to me who had the potential be hurt by my book’s subject matter had the chance to read the book and talk to me about it. It was ultimately essential to me that I approached them. Not because I was asking their permission, but because they were fabulous resources.
In light of all that, what fascinates me about the James Frey stuff is that the debate was dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, that is, Oprah’s berating of James Frey for “lying.” A lot of good could have come out of all of this with some interesting discussion about blurred lines between genre, about what memoir is, about exactly why Oprah was so angry—what that says about her as a cultural bellwether. I get that she was embarrassed. But I also believe that Frey was punished for something that’s a central issue in our country right now; our President lied to get us to war, for God’s sakes. It’s no surprise that this is what we’re dealing with right now, culturally: Kaavya Viswanathan, JT Leroy, James Frey—I think they just happen to be the literary versions of the lying all around us. At least something’s prompting a discussion about lying!
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: The title of your book is an instruction. As a writer, you have embodied the voices to which we, as readers, are listening; in a sense, we become Wendy and you become those voices in power that you heard throughout your youth, which scared and hurt and judged you. I’m wondering what taking those voices into yourself was like—embodying, for example, the voice of your own mother. I can’t imagine it was easy.
Wendy Salinger: I like what you said to me a couple months ago, that part of what I try to accomplish in this book is to say to the reader: “I’ve listened to these voices for long enough. Now you listen to them.” I think that’s part of it. Embodying the voices. And that’s where the problem comes as far as where the line lies between truth and fiction. It’s a fictional technique, or maybe more appropriately, a dramatic technique. My book did start out as a novel, not only because I wanted to protect the identities of those involved, including myself, but also because the techniques I wanted to use were dramatic and scene building. Listen mushes together a lot of different realms and genres, which I’ve always been interested in doing in my work. I think it comes from a kind of impatience. I want to do everything at once, put down everything I know at that moment and in every genre. But I wonder if sometimes that can be a mistake. In old age I’m starting to think, “There’s a reason for genre.” To help the writer. With Listen, I made it difficult for myself as well as for the reader, although what I did finally was to go back and try to make it as easy as possible for the reader.
I think I tend to work through the ear. That’s why I write both monologue and poetry, because they’re connected to ear memory. I don’t know how books come to you, but in many ways, ideas come to me in shapes. I knew that there was some kind of emotional and mental explosion in the middle of Listen that had to do with memory, because memory’s associative and poetry’s associative. And then the things surrounding the poems were scenes, almost more than prose. They were usually constructed around the memory of someone saying something. Of course, people might say to me, “that didn’t happen. You’re creating a scene around a memory.” But that’s why I find it difficult to talk in terms of true or false… The irony of the James Frey fracas is that, as you said, it’s during a time when there’s a real question about journalism and truth, which is entirely apart from how anyone tells their own personal story.
And speaking of personal stories, I’m wondering if you’d mind talking a little about your first book, the as yet unpublished novel-in-verse The Telling, which you wrote as your senior thesis at Vassar and which I first read seven years ago. I’m interested both in its relationship to your own experience as a child in a West African village—it may be, in fact, much closer to your life than The Effects of Light—and also in how you conceived the book as a novel-in-verse, as opposed to the other novels you’ve written.
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore: I wrote The Telling nearly ten years ago, and as I revisit it, I realize I am reading a novel I wrote when I was twenty-one based largely on a life I left when I was six. There are layers upon layers of memory, which makes the line between remembering what happened and remembering what is fiction very blurred indeed. That’s part of why writing Set Me Free was such a powerful gift to myself: After The Effects of Light and The Telling, it was nice to write a novel about completely created places, people and situations.
Part of the answer to your question about form and The Telling (“why a novel-in-verse?”) lies in its very form. The narrator, Gin-Gin, is a young child who may or may not be narrating the book in the English language. Although The Telling is written in English, her sentence construction indicates that she is speaking in Mandinkakangho (the language of the people with whom her family is living), or at least a hybrid of that language and English. She talks about that overtly at some moments, about how English sounds in her parents’ mouths. She talks about the difference of thinking in those two languages. Also, child consciousness is much more fluid—much more willing to accept. I love the freedom it allowed in writing her: Because she is six, and because she is living with a traditional people, she reports certain things as perfectly normal that most other people would consider extraordinary. All of that lends The Telling to the verse form.
Implicit in your question is where I’m headed as a writer. I started out writing in a very obscure form and realized that I have a skill and a passion for plot, so I went on to write The Effects of Light and Set Me Free. I’m extremely lucky that a house like Warner Books is interested in publishing someone like me. But sometimes it feels like a secret that I’m keeping, to be someone who has published two commercial literary novels and yet has this strange older sister book hiding in my desk drawer. I guess that like you, I’ve never wanted to see myself as being one kind of writer, and I’ve always loved books like yours that play with genre. In that light, Set Me Free isn’t all that different from The Telling in its impulse to span more than one genre; it’s very much tied to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it is a novel, but written in five acts.
I’ve been thinking about how we both define ourselves; you are a poet/dramatist who has used prose to accomplish this memoir, and I’m a prose writer who borrows poetry and dramatic form to accomplish my work. When I was younger, I was a firm believer that definitions of form were meant to be broken, and I find that now that I’ve written two novels, that form is so familiar and known, that I feel more and more tempted to call myself a novelist. But I’m wondering if you see those definitions as freeing or imprisoning, whether memoir has an innate form…?
Wendy Salinger: I’m of at least two minds about it. There are times when I’ve thought genres are made for a reason, that I’m making things much too hard on myself, that working distinctly within one genre is liberating precisely because you don’t have to be constantly worrying about form. On the other hand, I’ve always had that tendency of not only wanting to break down boundaries but being most interested in writers who do that. People like James Agee, and his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which can’t really be categorized. Sometimes I find failed ambition more exciting than neat success. So, there’s probably a lot of that in my own work, I guess. Many of the wonderful writers who’ve met with the Schools Project students at the Y have said the most important lesson you ever learn is failure. William Trevor said that, too.
I’m first a poet—that’s how I grew up, that’s the form I initially worked in. Then I may be someone who should have pursued playwriting. I’ve written a couple of one-act plays. I would have been happy to write my whole memoir as just monologue, dialogue and poetry. So I know there’s something I’m not, that you are. You have a novelistic gift that I don’t. But I don’t feel that’s a reason not to try to learn any of the things I don’t do so well… I remember seeing this review of a Kazuo Ishiguro book in which the reviewer said that every writer is trying to disguise the one thing he or she can’t do. I think it’s true. We all have weaknesses, and so those are what you try to work on.
photos: Mona Kuhn (Beverly-Whittemore), Nancy Crampton (Salinger)
21 March 2007 | author2author |