How I Write: Francine du Plessix Gray
Published: December 1, 2006
When biographer Francine du Plessix Gray wrote "Growing Up Fashionable," a portrait of her mother that appeared in The New Yorker, she knew she had the seeds of a book. Gray's mother, Tatiana Yakovleva du Plessix Liberman, and stepfather, Alexander Liberman, were at the center of the New York fashion world in the 1950s: she as a hauteur hat designer (Countess Tatiana of Saks Fifth Avenue), he as the editorial director of Condé Nast Publications. But that's only part of their story. In Them: A Memoir of Parents, Gray chronicles their lives as Russian émigrés escaping to Paris during the Russian Revolution; her mother's affair with poet Vladimir Mayakovsky; childhood memories of living in occupied France during World War II; the death of her father, Bertrand du Plessix, a heroic freedom fighter; the rise of her stepfather in the New York fashion world; and an upbringing that was both socially privileged and emotionally deprived. As one critic penned, her "parents were not nice people, but she loved them, and readers, by the end, understand why." Them won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award. Gray lives in Connecticut. Her other acclaimed books include the biographies Simone Weil and At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life.
Francine du Plessix Gray lives in Connecticut. Her other acclaimed books include the biographies Simone Weil and At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life.
You need to purify your mind of these toxins of memory. St. Augustine speaks of memory as the stomach of the mind, of the body, of the soul. The stomach of the human engine, in effect. And it's a very helpful metaphor be-cause it helps us understand that the stomach has to be evacuated. Writers are people who have to have this kind of digestive process for the psyche.
|Keeping a journal:|
I keep a journal but with less and less fidelity. I think one tends more to keep a journal when trying to figure oneself out. By the time you're 70, you better have figured yourself out, so there's less to do. There are moments of crisis in one's life that one has to write down. As a writer, you don't feel clean unless you unburden yourself through the written page. Like the scene of my husband's [the artist Cleve Gray] death, which I probably will never use in any way, but he died more or less in my son's and my arms. ... Moments like that. I don't know why I have to record them, but I do. There are certain things I still have to record -decisions or what to do about a possible relationship and so on. I unburden myself. It's a way of saving money on psychiatrists, too.
|Memoir vs Biography|
This memoir is a biography of sorts of my parents. I was obviously much more engaged and much more emotionally involved with the subjects than I was with either the Marquis de Sade or Simone Weil. It came from much more subconscious forces because it came from a wellspring of memory. God knows we've been taught by Freud and all his successors how deceitful memory is, so we have to constantly try to be as faithful to our memory as possible, but we are still haunted by the fact that we are leaving out so many important things.
My mother died in '91, and in '94 I had this extraordinary dream with which I begin the book. She comes to me in the form of a little old lady. I woke and thought, "It's time for me to start writing," so I did. I couldn't tell her life story without telling my stepfather's story and he never wanted to talk about himself. He wanted to talk about how people loved his paintings. He loved adulation of all kinds. But he didn't want to talk about who he really was. I knew I couldn't write about him, that brutal side of him that I heard about for years from his co-workers, until he was dead.
I guess the most painful thing was writing about my mother's addiction [to prescription drugs] in the last 10 years. I [also] did a thorough job on the ... process of the dependent one and the codependent one. I mean, my stepfather in a way was abetting her to take these drugs to just keep her calm and keep her quiet.
I've been struck by how many women come up to me after readings and tell me how my relationship with my mother has helped so much to explain their relationships with their mothers. That made me happy, that I brought some kind of enlightenment to women that way.
--Posted Dec. 1, 2006