(Seriously? You did not just take me seriously.)
So my friend, the Great Poet SKG, (who you can read here) tagged me in a post a while back–Holy crap I just checked SKG’s blog and it was March. March!–for the “Next Big Thing” meme that’s been making the rounds of blogs of novelists and poets and short story writers (and now essayists and dissertaters (which word, when written out, is surprising reminiscent of “tater tots”)).
And this is a good thing to do because I need to get back to the dissertation, and at the same time stop calling it that, and start calling it “the book.”
What is your working title of your book (or story)?
I am Not That Girl: This is Not My Narrative. This was the title of the my dissertation, or part of it, but I like it, and I’m keeping it.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
From the dissertation.
No really. I’m not sure. It was a confluence of events and thoughts and things read and classes taken. I’d like to say it occurred quite naturally, but the very subject of the damn thing prevents me from saying that anything at all “occurs naturally,” with the possible exception of plant life, which, now that I think about it, doesn’t even occur naturally anymore. It’s all constructed, folks. Helloooo, Truman!
Where was I? I wrote the essay that begins the dissertation proper–by which I mean, the dissertation without all the crap I was forced to add by the gatekeepers who would have preferred a five-paragraph essay dissertation–fifteen years ago in the class that introduced me to the personal essay. The epiphany class. (Thank you, Doug Hesse.) But it really took me those fifteen years, lots of reading about poststructural theory and narrative inquiry, a few boring Professional Development Days at Suffolk (for some reason those really get my brain moving, unfortunately not in appropriate, “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’” PD directions), two sabbaticals….and so on.
The impetus for the original essay came from my cousins Adrienne and Dillon, for reasons I won’t go into here. But I thank them for giving me the start of what I think is the best writing I’ve ever done, and for just being their generally awesome selves.
The structure and format and content of the original essay I owe, indirectly, to Lifetime Television for Women (Does LTFW even still exist?), in that I was striving to not write something that would easily fit inside the national, traditional, dominant discourse about adoption, i.e. a LTFW movie script, by which I mean, “Adopted girl goes on quest, finds birth mother, realizes was never before whole.”
Likewise the Hallmark Channel, or anything that might be summarized on a Hallmark card.
I got the idea for the Dear Biographer portion of it while I was driving down Nichols Road one night listening to WNYC. Someone who had written a biography was being interviewed, and I was taking this class about biography and autobiography and I started thinking about what I’d want a biography of me to look like, and then I started talking, probably embarrassingly loud in the car, to my imaginary biographer, and then I wrote it all down. And that became what would be a literature review chapter in a more traditional dissertation–and even though I dreaded writing that part, it is one of my favorite voices in the dissertation, and is now causing me angst in terms of revising.
Similarly, I got the idea for the blog portions and voice from another WNYC interview–this one with Cheryl Strayed, who was talking about her own blog and alter-ego, “Sugar,” just as I was thinking about a way into writing what would be the analysis chapter in a more traditional dissertation. I, too, needed an alter-ego, another voice.
But the idea for the final structure of the thing, if that’s the question, came at the kitchen table of the house I was renting in Greenport last summer, which is, for some reason, a karmically good writing space. Seriously. Rent it.
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a poststructural autobiography.
And that will have copies flying off the shelves.
I’m actually thinking it’s not so much an autobiography but that it uses autobiographical writing as a method of inquiry, and poststructural thought as a lens. I think it’s a memoir, sort of. It maybe plays with memoir. Deconstructs memoir? It’s a memoir with some could-have-beens? It definitely messes with memory, and it definitely messes with narrative, and it definitely messes with how people tell stories, consciously and unconsciously, and how how (I’ve repeated “how” on purpose) people tell stories is effected by the language and discourses available to them when and in what context they are telling those stories.
For example: in 1967, my Irish-Catholic-family-values dad had no language or context with which to construct an adoption story that included an unmarried, young birth mother, other than, “She gave you up to give you a better life.”
(Now, though, sometimes, just for fun, I like to ask my mother if it bothers her that she stole some poor, disenfranchised, single Catholic girl’s baby. For everyone’s own good, of course. And legally. With the help of the nuns. What. Eva. (You can chuckle here. Laugh even. Don’t be all alarmed and think I’ve been irreparably emotionally harmed or something. I’m fine.))
What was the question? Oh, yeah. Genre. That’s what I need to figure out. I mean, it could go the scholarly publishing way and….and….and (add something here about how I’d revise it) or it could go the memoir way and…and…and…(add something here about the other way I’d revise it).
In short, I know not which way I want to go. Of course, I daydream that someone at some huge publishing house with an enormous marketing budget will read it and say, “Well, Dr. Cone (the doctor thing NEVER gets old), we’d like to publish your dissertation exactly as it is. Word for word. No revision necessary. Send us the pdf immediately. Annie Leibovitz will contact you about a headshot. And would you like to include Paris in your book tour?”
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Robert Redford for my dad. Seriously. Look at this photo.
For my mom–I don’t know, but I bought this greeting card from Papyrus (love Papyrus) the other day and the woman on it looks exactly like my mother did when she was young. Maybe we can find her. Check it out.
I will leave my cousins free to choose their own celebrity representatives. Below, in the comments section, please. Adge, I don’t know how you’re going to work Brad Pitt into the movie, but I’m sure you’ll find a way.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
I can write a damn long sentence. I can be an f’in theoryhead. (I’m actually sad to admit that.) But I will try not to. I will try to write the kind of sentence that does not make one’s eyes glaze over. I will not cut and paste from my dissertation abstract. Well, maybe a little.
This book is about family stories and how they’re never “just what happened.”
This is not the adoption story you think it is.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m just going to keep having copies printed at Staples and forcing them on people. Who’s next? Anyone? Can I entice anyone with a pdf?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I think I had Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost in mind somewhere along the line. I liked the combination of research and memoir and the narrative turns in time. But my project turned out nothing like that. I do still want to write that book. I just need to find some lost relatives.
This is not within my genre, but when I first read the description of this “book,” I freaked out and said, “This guy totally had my idea before I had it!” and checked the publication date to make sure that I had had my own idea on my own. I had. All is well. The book was Building Stories by Chris Ware, which is actually a box of stories in all kinds of cool and different formats. And then, TC being what it is, my dissertation took a much different format than Building Stories, because Ware’s publisher is obviously much more imaginative than the Office of Doctoral Studies. But now that he did it, anyway, I think mine will have to be a regular old book.
Sort of within my genre, though, is A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and my book (no longer a dissertation, so there!) has some things in common with Eggers’. Publishers Weekly said this about Eggers’ book: “Literary self-consciousness and technical invention mix unexpectedly in this engaging memoir by Eggers, editor of the literary magazine McSweeney’s and the creator of a satiric ‘zine called Might, who subverts the conventions of the memoir by questioning his memory, motivations and interpretations so thoroughly that the form itself becomes comic.”
If you take out, “by Eggers, editor of the literary magazine McSweeney’s and the creator of a satiric ‘zine called Might,” and “comic,” you might have a description of my project. Of course, I question everyone’s memory, motivations and interpretations. No one is left unscathed. But I do it nicely. I’m a nice girl.
You might have to take out “literary” as well. But certainly leave in “self-consciousness.”
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I don’t know if this is inspiration, so much, but I always loved my dad’s stories about himself and his sisters and cousins and friends growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression and the war, and my favorite bedtime story was the one about how my dad met my mom and how they dated and broke up and got back together and got married and adopted me. (At first, I liked it because it took a long time to tell.) My dad is a storyteller. He talks in story. And I think I think in story; perhaps the combination of my adoption, then, and my dad’s story of my adoption, and all of his stories, was sort of a perfect storm of language and context for my particular subjectivity–or, this particular storm constructed my subjectivity. And I’ve always wanted to record all of those stories. And explore why they are so important to me. And Janet Miller, my favorite professor and mentor and advisor, gave me the materials and theories and methods of inquiry to do it. (Thank you, Janet!)
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Everyone loves a good adoption story. And maybe I’ll find my birth mother at the end. Who knows? That’s the end everyone’s looking for, right?
And now I get to tag someone else!
Carol McGorry, you are IT.