For this episode of Life Stories, a series of podcast interviews with memoir writers about their lives and the art of writing memoir, I met up with Gideon Lewis-Kraus to discuss A Sense of Direction, his account of pilgrimages that took him across Spain, around the Japanese island of Shikoku, and finally to a Hasidic religious festival in Ukraine. His father and brother accompanied him on that last trip, and it becomes an opportunity for them to address, as a family, conflicts that extend decades back. As he told me, that last trip turned out to hold a key that unlocked the final version of the book:
“My first drafts of the Spain chapter and the Japan chapter had almost nothing personal. It was really just straight travel. I did not set out to write a memoir. And then I went on this trip with my dad and obviously this was incredibly personal… When I first sent that material to my editor, she said, ‘This is really tremendous material, but this book cannot just swerve into memoir two-thirds of the way through. The challenge for you now is to find a way to draw all of this stuff back through the whole book so that we are prepared for the fact that, ultimately, the book comes to all these conversations with your dad about your family.’
My reaction, at first, I was sort of defensive, probably because I didn’t want to do all that work, was, ‘Well, the stuff that was going on on the Camino and in Japan had nothing do with my dad, so I don’t know how I’m going to draw all this stuff back when it was totally irrelevant.’ And my editor, who’s an incredibly smart woman, said, ‘I doubt that. Why don’t you go back and look at the emails you were writing at the time, and really think about this again?’ Then I went back and saw, oh! Actually, I don’t think it was a coincidence that I talked to my dad for the first time in two years while I was on the Camino… None of that stuff had been in it originally, and… the more that I thought about it, the more that I realized, this whole experience on the Camino had so much to do with my relationship with my dad, and it was completely unclear to me at the time, completely unclear to me immediately afterward, and it really took the two years of writing this book to realize how much of that experience had really been about my dad all along.”
Listen to Life Stories #15: Gideon Lewis-Kraus (MP3 file); or download the file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click).