People have strong thoughts and feelings about memoir, and how old you need to be to write it. In this new monthly interview series, Bri Lee talks to five memoir writers at different stages of life, discussing their experiences with the craft and with publishing in the controversial genre.
The series begins with Lech Blaine, who is in his 20s. Lech’s essay iGrief was shortlisted for the Scribe non-fiction prize and that work is now the basis of his first book Car Crash: A Memoir which will be published by Black Inc. next year. Lech’s work has recently appeared in The Lifted Brow and Griffith Review, and he’s a 2017 Griffith Review fellow.
Bri Lee: I want to start by asking about Mary Karr. You introduced me to her, and she’s the one who says nobody should write memoir before they’re 35. And now I’m making this series. She says if you’re too young you don’t have enough distance. That somehow you don’t yet know yourself well enough. Is that something you worry about?
Lech Blaine: Nah, not really. I’ve just got a story so I’m not going to wait. I almost feel like it’d be worse if I waited twenty years to tell it because it’d be almost too much distance from what I’m actually trying to talk about. I’d rather tell this story now. It’s related to my youth and its very topical now. I don’t know whether it would have the same effect in twenty years time because a lot of it is about social media and stuff like that, so a lot of it would be irrelevant in 20 years time. But there are different types of books. Her books are pretty timeless and poetic and are more, sort of, languagey. This book is just the best story for me to tell right now.
BL: Also, the themes in your book are youth-centered.
LB: Yeah, definitely. It’s about a car accident which three of my friends died in. And I guess the whole thing is about trauma – it can’t not be about that – but also the media event, social media, the way that that distorts trauma, and also just how people acted. I think a tragedy like that and tragedies in the modern era generally have changed because of social media. There have been media spectacles since television and that sort of thing came about, but with social media everyone is a public figure in a way. So when a big awful thing happens to you, you’ve already got this public profile that you need to preserve, and also things don’t go away. The TV and newspapers move onto different stories after a week, but social media pages and profiles stay there forever. It changes the way you act because you’re anticipating people’s responses a lot more. After the accident, everything I was doing I was doing through the lens of: this is being watched by other people.
BL: So it’s not only ‘now’ in society, but also ‘now’ in your life. This is fresh. Has anyone told you to take more time?
LB: Not really. Maybe they would, but I’m not that active in the writing community so I don’t speak to that many people who would have an opinion about memoir. Most people I talk to wouldn’t even say the word ‘memoir’, they’d just say ‘you’re writing a book’. So in terms of the whole ‘memoir cringe’ I haven’t got that. It’s not like I know a heap of fiction writers who would look down on writing a memoir. I’m sure they do, but I’m just not in touch with that. And I’ve had that whole cringe thing about memoir. I never wrote this book thinking ‘I’m writing a memoir’.
BL: Me either! But it feels like a dirty word.
LB: Yeah! I was like, ‘I’m writing a novel and I’m just the main character.’ (LAUGHS). And then reading Mary Karr’s book, she sort of says, ‘why would you be ashamed of writing a memoir? It’s just a book in a different form,’ and it seems silly for me to spend the next five years writing short stories of fictionalised stories which are clearly based on my experience when I could just be a lot more emotionally honest.
It seems silly for me to write fictionalised stories clearly based on my experience, when I could just be a lot more emotionally honest.
The other thing about writing for me now is the whole digital history of people’s lives. Anyone can just Google me now, and the first results are about the car accident. It would be disingenuous of me to go and write a heap of fiction that was based on that. It’s not like in the 1930s and 40s and writers are running around semi-fictionalising their lives because nobody knows anything about them. Anything I release would be viewed through the prism of the car accident whether I wanted it to or not, and I’d end up having to talk about it anyway.
BL: Non-fiction normally sells more copies than fiction. Do you think people like memoir because the stakes are higher?
LB: Yeah, definitely.
BL: Do you think you’d ever move into fiction?
LB: No, I can’t see it now. I just wouldn’t. My second book is about my family’s history and the foster care system. It’s kind of a family memoir that crosses thirty years. I’ll be fictionalising people’s stories, a bit, but it’s based on real people. I just don’t really differentiate. And I could potentially get in trouble for that, because I will be fictionalising the shit out of stuff.
BL: But that’s creative non-fiction, right?
LB: Yeah, yeah, yeah, and I just don’t even care. (LAUGHS).
BL: Genres! Who gives a fuck? (BOTH LAUGH).
LB: Yeah! ‘Cause I remember when I hadn’t studied writing and I read a lot of different writers, and I read one of David Shields’ manifestos about the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, and he was a really militant who-gives-a-shit, there-isn’t-a-difference, kind of guy. That was really liberating.
BL: Do you subscribe to that fully?
LB: Well not really, because with this book, I feel like I have a responsibility to the families of the boys who died. Other people’s lives are involved. I’m happy to stretch the truth with myself, and fictionalise, and shift stuff around when it’s me, and it comes from a baseline of truth.
BL: Do you worry about the families of the boys?
LB: Definitely, yeah, that was probably my biggest anxiety. But their response was pretty great. Sometimes I felt unsavoury about making ‘art’ out of their trauma and loss, but that’s all tied up with survivor’s guilt and stuff as well. A lot of writing is survivor’s guilt by definition. I dunno. I can’t really help that, there’s always going to be a level of discomfort there.
BL: I get worried that I’m somehow selling myself, when I think about the story I’m telling, but I would never think that about someone else.
LB: A few people have said to me, when I was really worried about it, they said, ‘why wouldn’t you make something good out of something bad?’. And I mean, I’ve been published enough that people know I’m not writing some shit exposé to cash in on this. It’s not an A Current Affair interview.
BL: I feel a bit similar with my book, in that there’s nothing else I could do, but to take the super shit thing and make it into something good.
LB: That’s another thing about writing about my family that I have an advantage in – and it sounds awful – but with my father dead and my mum being so sick, I have a free license to write about them. I never would’ve written anything about my dad if he was still alive. And the same for mum, if she was still an active member of the community I wouldn’t be able to dish it out. I have no qualms about that anymore.
A few people have said to me, ‘why wouldn’t you make something good out of something bad?’
I think it’s what stops a lot of people saying their work is memoir. I’ve listened to so many interviews with writers lately and so many of them worry about their parents reading it. And that’s the other thing about writing fiction – even little things I released online – people presumed it was about them when it wasn’t, and it was a strange situation to be in. And going through all that, especially if you’re writing about relationships, I mean, it’s not like I’ve had enough particularly exciting or deep love affairs to make them even worth writing about! (LAUGHS). It’s just a combination of lots of different people.
BL: And you’re so right, people in the 30s didn’t have to worry about this shit.
LB: And you can’t just jump on Fitzgerald’s Facebook profile. But all those dudes, Hemingway and the rest, it was all just memoir.
BL: So what is your involvement in the writing community? The piece you wrote in the Capitalism issue of The Lifted Brow was so fresh and amazing.
LB: I studied writing briefly at uni, for like 6 months or a year, before I had to go back up to Bundaberg to work. And my tutor for the first semester was Chris Somerville, which was just awesome. I got lucky there. And then Jack Vening was a tutor as well. And they were the only two writers I really knew, because I met them through uni, and then being up in Bundaberg for two years, I was writing, but not in touch with anyone. A lot of the time I felt like I was just pushing shit up a hill. Getting the Scribe thing was like, ‘oh, okay, I can actually do this’. You don’t know unless you’re getting that feedback.
BL: I think there is some truth in the idea that when you’re young and trying to write about your own life, that unless you’ve lived something other than the writing life, your work won’t necessarily sound that different. People ask me why I wasted 6 years at law school, but it was the best thing I ever did for my writing, because it gave me a whole world that not many other people can write about.
LB: It’s about diversity of voices as well. I went from living in St Lucia surrounded by white guys in their 20s from private schools, to going up to Bundaberg and running a budget motel. A lot of people come for funerals up the road, you get drug addicts, prostitutes, people fleeing domestic violence, and it’s just constant. It’s like you’re speaking a different language to these people. It’s a different register. I think that moving was an amazing thing for my writing. It wasn’t a conscious thing that I was putting those voices into my writing, but it was a combination of really extreme voices and also isolation. Writing is an escape up there. When you combine those two things it’s powerful.
BL: Are you worried about the promo tour?
LB: No. I’m not worried about the accident stuff being in front of the writing community. I’m only worried about the real people affected.