Monica Wood is one of those writers you hear about from deeply committed readers, the kind whose list is intense and revelatory – and that changes the game. “Have you read Ernie’s Ark?” they might ask. And suddenly you know you have something grand on the horizon. Wood has written several novels, contributed to anthologies and produced other books that are classroom staples about writing and storytelling. In 2012, she delivered When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, her story about growing up in the 1960s in a Catholic family in a mill town in northern New England. The book begins with her father’s unexpected death at age 57 (Wood was 9) and thrusts the reader into the heart of a family in mourning and into the head of a writer in the making. The book is sad and funny, and the backdrop is a community and nation undergoing changes as swiftly as the young narrator. The New Yorker called Kennedys a “meditation on time” and “a record of a vanished way of life.” That time and life are both historical and personal. I asked Wood to reflect on the craft of memoir, the process of writing and the interface of fiction and nonfiction. Our exchange follows.
You write about family life in a detailed and revealing way. What were your fears going into this project?
None. None whatsoever, because I never intended for this to be a book, much less one that people would be interested in reading. I was in a dark period – several losses within a few months – and had “quit” writing. Which is to say, I quit writing for publication. This was a labor of love, for my eyes only. It was only after I completed a draft that I realized I had a real book on my hands. The freedom from potential judgment – from agent, editor, reader – was pretty sweet while it lasted. And as for my family, they gave their full blessing.
In memoir, writers often quote conversations that took place too many years ago to get exactly right. How do you think about reconstructing conversations, and what advice do you have for others who are exploring memory?
Readers understand that memory is not fact, and that memoir is not journalism. The pact I made with my reader was this: I won’t lie to you. I won’t exaggerate or fabricate. I will tell the truth as I recall it. Readers know that it’s impossible to accurately recreate a conversation from this morning, let alone one from 50 years ago. My job is to recreate the cadences, contents and emotion from scenes I remember as honestly as I can. I can say, though, that some of the lines of dialogue are verbatim, because my uncle taped us endlessly on one of those old reel-to-reel behemoths from the ’50s. I filched lines from my mother, uncle and older sister as they conversed in the background while I sang Latin hymns on cue into the little microphone. But the rest of the dialogue is cobbled together from real memories of how real people really talked. My advice is so simple: Don’t lie.
Clearly, you were thinking about the craft of writing as a young girl. You made lists, had a “word collection” and protected your secret writings. You had some methods in place early. Are any of those practices still with you? Give us some insight into your process, please.
I still keep a word list. I still read fanatically. My sister Cathe tells me that I was always listening for “what people weren’t saying.” I still do that. As for process, my novel-writing skills turned out to be far more useful than I ever could have imagined. The first draft used a more journalistic voice, and it was a complete failure. It read like an annual report. For the second draft, I gave myself permission to inhabit my “characters” as I do in fiction, viewing the world from their perspective, thinking their thoughts. And I paid attention to scene, dialogue, story structure, creating a book that read more like a novel. I had to leave a lot of things out in order to do that. But, again, readers understand this. They don’t want to read a daily diary; they want to read a story that has a certain thematic cohesiveness, a story line they can follow. It’s so easy for memoirists to bore their readers with too much incident and too much detail.
You reveal that early influences were Nancy Drew and the Bible. How have those influences stayed with you? And what other influences are important to your writing?
I’ve become more and more aware, as I get older and more experienced as a writer, of structure. I see it (or don’t) in stage plays, other people’s books, movies, the telling of simple anecdotes. I reread a few Nancy Drews while I was writing When We Were the Kennedys, and was amused and appalled by the godawful writing. But every chapter ended with a cliffhanger! Ol’ Carolyn Keene knew what she was doing.
In terms of craft, what was the most difficult part of writing memoir, and how did you get over that hurdle?
The biggest problem was finding the voice. A line like “The Vaillancourts were catless but otherwise without flaw” captures, to me, what I call the “braided voice.” It channels the childhood perception simultaneously with the adult humor, sensibility and lyricism. Much harder than it looks, and it requires a painstaking, word-by-word, line-by-line revision process.
Place is critical to your story. Mexico, Maine, is exotic not only because of the time frame in which you set it, but because it’s a part of the country you don’t hear much about in art: rural America. What special treatment, nuance, care or ruthlessness did you apply to capturing your Mexico because 1) it is your home and 2) it’s a place people might dismiss because it’s not New York City or Mexico City?
I have been amazed by the mail I’ve gotten from people who tell me that “their Mexico” is in Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois. “Their” Mexico is rural, urban, industrial, coastal, landlocked, thriving, dying. People respond to my hometown as if it were theirs, because I am describing not only a dying mill town, but also the place that formed me, that still lives in me. That Mexico is universal.
You mentioned that the poet and editor Wes McNair saw the potential for this memoir in a shorter piece you had written for A Place Called Maine, an anthology set in the world of Maine writers. How did you develop your short piece into a longer piece? Tell us about craft steps you took and the research process.
I tried “developing” the essay, but the essay was in an essay voice and didn’t work. So I did what I always do when writing a novel: I wrote one book, tossed it, then wrote the real book. Three hundred pages went kaput. The research was a delight: I read back issues of my hometown weekly, talked to people from my old neighborhood, compared notes with my sisters and best childhood friend, and met with a man who had worked with my father.
One of the nuns who taught you as a child said explorers should have courage, goals, imagination and, finally, humility. Which of these is most important for a writer, and why?
I have a sign in my studio: Run your own race. Some other writer will always write lovelier books, reach more readers, make more money, win more awards. The writing trade – which is full, full, full of rejection and failure – is a lifelong lesson in humility, and we are wise to take that lesson into the other arenas of our life. Writing is engaging, gratifying and often profoundly discouraging and difficult. But not as discouraging and difficult as coal mining or warfare.
People must ask you if you consider yourself a “Maine writer.” Do you? What are the dangers and glories of being identified regionally?
It is extremely gratifying to me to be well known in my home state. But I don’t consider myself a “Maine writer.” For one thing, there are so many writers now who call Maine home! We have an embarrassment of literary riches here, and I cherish my close ties with my fellow scribblers, most of whom grew up somewhere else. Secondly, I write for everybody, and my books, though often set in Maine, are about human beings in complicated circumstances – you don’t have to be a Mainer to relate to that.
If a fiction writer is moving into memoir, how will her existing skills apply and what muscles will she have to strengthen to get through the process?
Don’t ever forget, for one second, that you are telling a story.
Alicia Anstead is editor-in-chief of this magazine.
Two writing musts for Monica Wood:
“I can write just about anywhere. I’m pretty disciplined that way and have good concentration.”
“I do have trouble getting going in the morning. Caffeine is essential, in my KISS THE CAT mug.”
Excerpt from When We Were the Kennedys
Lee Harvey Oswald created two widows that day, aside from his own: Jackie Kennedy and Marie Tippit, wife of J.D. Tippit, a patrolman with the Dallas Police Department. As Mum told and retold it, Marie got up at dawn to make her husband’s breakfast, their three young children still abed. Officer Tippit’s humdrum beat was Oak Cliff, a neighborhood of houses and swing sets and smiley dogs, but at thirty minutes past noon every cop radio in the city of Dallas crackled with instruction. Officer Tippit had just been home for lunch – Marie, again, a sandwich and fried potatoes – and with his full belly went on the lookout for a “thirty-year-old white male of slender build.” He found one hurrying along East 10th Street and guess who it was: the ferrety, slinking, pistol-packing murderer of our first Catholic president.
Officer Tippit slowed his cruiser, exchanged a few irrecoverable words with the slender male through the vent of the passenger-side window, then got out of the cruiser, where he was shot-shot-shot-shot in broad daylight before the pinned-open eyes of two bystanders. Three bullets to his powerful chest, one more to his handsome, beloved head. Shortly thereafter, Marie went the way of Jackie and Mum, a shuddering woman rocked by grief, looking into the eyes of her half-orphaned children.
But when it came to the art of emulation, it was Jackie Mum chose, though she did not leave Mrs. Tippit unremembered. She would spotlight every scrap of Tippit news that dribbled in over the ensuing weeks: a photo in Life, a sidebar in the Lewiston Daily Sun, a footnote in the TV retrospectives that sprang up as soon as the smoke cleared from the twenty-first saluting gun.
“Officer Tippit came home for lunch that day. Imagine, a normal lunch, a sandwich and fried potatoes. She had no idea.”
“Jackie sent Mrs. Tippit a letter. ‘We share a bond’ is how she put it.”
“The older boy came home sick with a bellyache. Pure coincidence that he saw his father one last time.”
“Jackie sent Mrs. Tippit a picture of the family. Not a posed one. A candid.”
After suffering in front of the whole world, Jackie planned to flee to a beach in Hyannis, sheltering her children from the press. She was right to leave Our Nation’s Capital, Mum said, right to shun the press, right to hide her children. That family has suffered enough.
I don’t know if I understood at the time what Mum was telling us – or even if she did – as she peeled back her own metaphorical black veil. I know I witnessed the return of her authority, her dignity, her willingness to turn her widow’s face once again to the light. She never directly compared herself to Jackie, but often in the following months, standing at the stove, she might suddenly stop in mid-stir, cock her head like a bird, and say, “I wonder how she’s making out.”
Jackie’s story made Mum’s bearable. See? she could have said, sitting under the dryer at the beauty parlor, opening Life magazine’s multipage spread of Jackie in her pink suit, Jackie on the tarmac, Jackie staring dead-eyed at the Bible while Lyndon Johnson takes the oath. See? This is what widowhood looks like. Of course she said no such thing, but I believe that my mother – like Mrs. Tippitt, like every ordinary widow of that time and place – watched the national spectacle with a weary, inside knowledge. They had not escorted their husbands to the graveyard in six-white-horse-drawn caissons. They did not own tailored black suits with matching hat and veil. But I believe they took a private comfort in the way Jackie, their sister now in loss, had made her grief – and theirs – look beautiful.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from Mariner Books. Copyright 2012 by Monica Wood.