Monica Wood is the author of When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, a New England bestseller, #1 bestseller in Maine, Oprah magazine summer-reading pick, and winner of the 2012 May Sarton Memoir Award. Her novel, Any Bitter Thing, was an ABA bestseller and Book Sense Top Ten pick. Her other fiction includes Ernie’s Ark, Secret Language, and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award. Her widely anthologized short stories have won a Pushcart Prize and been featured on public radio, including the NPR program “Selected Shorts.” Her books for writers and teachers, include The Pocket Muse, volumes I and II. Her nonfiction has appeared in Oprah, New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, and many other publications. She lives in Portland, Maine, where she conducts a writing program for women at the Maine Correctional Center. Lisa Shirah-Hiers interviewed her via email for the Story Circle Journal.
Your memoir tells the story of your father’s sudden and unexpected death of a heart attack and how your family experienced that staggering event. How were able to write about such a painful time?
Oh, but the writing was the opposite of painful! I loved being “back home,” even in the fraught year I was revisiting. I have such wonderful memories of my childhood, and my family at that time. Being with them again was a balm to my soul.
Who were you thinking of as you wrote?
My audience for this book, for the first time in forever, was me. Just me. I’d hit a rough patch, both professionally and personally, and I was writing for comfort and consolation, not for publication. It was the most joyful writing I’d done in years.
Your memoir is full of your early experiences with the love of words and books and stories. You describe in great detail the reams of beautiful paper that your father brought home from his job at the paper mill and the hours and hours you and your siblings spent filling the pages with drawings and stories.
Well, I come from Irish stock, and a love of words is in the DNA. Everyone in my family tells a great story. I do wonder, though, if being from a paper-mill town might have nudged me along the writing path. I love paper: I love its smell, its feel, its possibilities. Unlike a lot of writers, a blank page fills me with joy, not dread.
Let’s talk a bit about those great family stories. What makes them so powerful?
I teach memoir writing now, and I don’t think I’ll ever go back to teaching fiction. I’ve seen first hand the power of speaking stories aloud, of simply putting on paper the tragic or ordinary or quirky or mundane. I teach in a women’s prison and I see every week how their stories not only make them reflect on who they are, but how their stories connect them to one another in a place where human connection can be really risky.
What else did you learn from doing the book?
I learned that I have one memoir in me. I learned that voice is the key element in memoir. I learned that my skills as a novelist served me well in writing nonfiction. And I learned that every particular family story is universal.
What do you mean “voice is the key element in memoir”? Can you elaborate?
The memoir voice—at least the childhood-memoir voice—is a challenge. You want to bring the reader into your childhood experience, but at the same time you don’t want to be limited to the child’s vocabulary and range of insight. So you’re checking, sentence to sentence, constantly, for what I call a “braided voice,” the child/adult speaking in one voice. It was a big technical challenge for me, but once I got it—like reading Shakespeare, I guess—it got easier and easier to render on the page. I think the key is to establish at the get-go that you are an adult looking back (I did this in the prologue, which is completely in the voice of the adult me), and then, when you ease the reader back and forth between the child’s experience and the adult’s subtle interpretation of that experience, your reader comes along for the ride. In any writing—fiction or non—it’s so critical to establish that authority at the beginning, which says to the reader, “You are in good hands. Trust me. Go where I go. You won’t be sorry.” So, when you give a line like “Dad’s death is so big; my sister is so small,” in the middle of a scene with very young sisters learning how to dance the jitterbug, your reader understands that your adult sensibility is gently guiding the procedure, which is fully immersed in a childhood experience.
The title of your memoir alludes to the fact that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was a turning point in your mother’s grief. Why do you think this was so?
My mother was ashamed to be a widow, which seems irrational, but I’ve since learned that it’s not an uncommon emotion. She was afraid people would pity her, or think she could no longer support her children. She was shy, and didn’t like to be different. I was the same way and took my cues from her. When we witnessed Jackie Kennedy’s gorgeous grace in her own grief and widowhood, my mother’s status somehow was restored—we weren’t so different from the most glamorous family on earth, after all—and I, too, felt more “normal,” knowing that Caroline, the First Daughter, who was near my age, was experiencing exactly the same thing.
There are many metaphors in your rich memoir. Predominant among them is the paper mill that literally loomed large in your home town. There is a parallel between your family’s loss of the father/breadwinner and the community’s loss when the paper mill threatened to shut down. When did you become aware of the parallels between these two stories?
The connection I made at the time was between the Kennedy family’s loss and ours—that came from my mother. The potential loss of the mill is something I realized while writing the book—how the metaphor of lost fathers so perfectly fit this paternal, godlike behemoth that so benevolently ruled out lives. So much of a book’s thematic and metaphorical weight comes late to me… I have to begin writing the story first, and see where my subconscious language choices lead. It’s a thrilling experience, to be writing what you don’t yet know you know.
Your characterizations are so vivid. How did you learn to describe people so clearly?
I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t. My sister Cathy tells me that I was the kid who “noticed what people WEREN’T saying.” Most writers I know were exceptionally observant children. That’s the only way I can explain it. You’re born that way. Technically, I tell writing students to avoid abstract descriptions and embrace the seeable, touchable, hearable, smellable aspects of people and things. That helps.
What have you learned about publishing that you can pass on to those seeking to publish for the first time?
It’s hard to be a beginner right now. Publishing is changing in so many ways, and the big houses can’t keep up with the pace. Everyone’s afraid: to lose money, to publish a book that won’t sell. But if you persevere after writing the best book you can write, the possibilities are there. You have to be really, really patient. Get an agent first.
In what specific ways have you promoted your book? What has worked well and what hasn’t?
The usual: bookstore appearances, library talks, book club visits, and so forth. The reviews were very good, so that helped. I already had an audience, so that certainly helped. I don’t think social media did much for me. But I’m a “traditionally published” writer, so what I do may not signify for those starting out through alternative channels. I’m one of the leftovers from the old way. Thank God. It really is tough out there. My heart goes out to the newcomers.
What are you proudest of in your personal or professional life?
“Proud” is a loaded word for me. (Childhood lesson: get over yourself.) But I’m most “grateful” for the work I do in a women’s prison, running a program in which I bring literature and writers into the prison. We meet with writers, we write, we read to each other, we create a bubble of creativity for two hours every week.
What are some of the other childhood lessons you learned?
Don’t wallow. Don’t brag. Be nice. Family first. If you’re going to tell a story, make it a performance. Know you are loved. Go ahead and pat strange animals, especially if they are cats.
What are some of other principles you live by?
Envy is the evil lurker in any writing life; I refuse to succumb.
What things/people/places make you feel most alive? Where do you find the most joy?
Birds make me happy. And singing. And people I love. I’m very, very social, considering my solitary vocation.
Tell me about other projects on your horizon.
An audio book is coming—I will be narrating, which pleases me enormously. The paperback comes out in June. I’m working on a new novel, and a play.
What other things do you hope to experience or accomplish in your lifetime?
More and more, I live in the daily. I no longer set five-year goals. My desires are so modest, really; I wake up every day hoping something good will happen.
How do you honor your muse?
By sitting my backside down in the chair every single day. What other way is there?
Anything else you’d like to say?
I discovered, through my own memoir, that one family’s story is in some way or another every family’s story: I’ve heard from people all over the country who believe I’ve written “their” story: either because they grew up Catholic, or lived in a factory town, or remember the 60’s, or lost a parent young, or had an older sister who took care of them, or had a mentally disabled sibling, or, or, or… The connections are endless, and always surprising, always gratifying.