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.
This second interview is with living legend Fiona Wright, who is in her 30s. Wright’s 2015 memoir Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays in Hunger (Giramondo) won the Kibble Award, the University of Queensland Non-Fiction Book Award at the Queensland Literary Awards, and was shortlisted for The Stella Prize and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for non-fiction. Her debut poetry collection, Knuckled, also won the Dame Mary Gilmore Award in 2012. We spoke on the phone while her brand new puppy (‘skinny with curly, red hair’) ran around her feet.
Bri Lee: Small Acts of Disappearance came out in 2015 and you were in your early thirties, so to start with, why 2015 and why your early thirties?
Fiona Wright: I started writing the book when I was in my very late twenties, it was about four and a half years’ worth of writing work, and so I think even by its very nature – because books take years – thirties seems easier than twenties. Most of the experiences I was writing about, I hadn’t really started thinking about properly until my late twenties. I was about twenty when I got sick, and it wasn’t until I was about 26 or 27 that I first started getting treatment and thinking about the illness in a different light, and then longer still until I was able to write about it. It’s very hard to write about your life when you’re in the middle of living it. Somehow a little bit of distance can be a really great thing for that.
BL: So that explains why you didn’t write it any earlier. Is there any reason you didn’t sit on it for longer or leave it until later?
FW: No, because the writing was something that helped me make sense of what had happened in a really wonderful way, so I am glad that I did it sooner rather than later. It did have benefits I wasn’t expecting. I’ve always been very suspicious of the idea of writing as therapy, you know, I think therapy is therapy, and is a very important thing. I think even people who are completely sane should have therapy, it’s so good for you. [Laughs.]
But it does help, strangely enough, or it did help me. So I’m glad I didn’t do it in my forties.
I’ve always been very suspicious of the idea of writing as therapy… But it does help.
BL: I was hoping you could tell me a little about what you find to be the difference in the actual writing process, from memoir to your poetry or your other shorter pieces.
FW: That’s a tricky question. I feel like after Small Acts the line between the two things is becoming less and less distinct for me. I’ve started writing essays that are much more poetic in form, and poems that are much longer. That was something I didn’t see happening. But I’ve always thought that poetry is much more interested in momentary stuff, in capturing intense moments or thinking about tiny things – well not tiny things – but details and moments of significance rather than trying to weave those moments together to create a more coherent story which is what I really like about essays and memoir – the drawing together of things that might not seem to hold together from the outside.
BL: People seem to care a lot about memoir. I think there’s something connected to the fact that in the last few years authors now have to be able to sell their work, and people more and more want to know about the author as well as the author’s work. And I feel like when readers know they’re reading memoir they feel like they’re getting that whole package already?
FW: And I think somehow too they feel like when the story is true there’s more at stake. It’s not a fictional, built world. The consequences are real world consequences. It’s a bit more dangerous. I think it’s to do with what we’ve seen in news media too, and how that’s become more personalised in a way that we expect more longform news essays to have the personal ‘I’ in there in a way we didn’t ten or fifteen years ago. Which may have to do with the Internet and blogging, or it may not, and it may have to do with a distrust of objectivity too. I’ve been thinking about it a lot but I haven’t figured it out. Or part of it too, is that, because we’re presented with so much information from all around the world, all the time, it doesn’t seem to be enough to just describe what’s happening. You need to also hear the effect it has on the person who saw it and is writing about it, because that’s the bit that we can’t find out for ourselves.
BL: When I was at Ubud Writers Festival last year, Suki Kim was frustrated that people kept referring to her book as ‘memoir’ when she kept referring to it as ‘investigative journalism’. I got the distinct impression that in America if a woman writes a book in first person and everyone starts talking about it as though it’s a memoir, that’s a way to discredit its validity.
FW: Yeah, that’s funny, because it’s only after the fact that I’ve been referring to Small Acts as memoir, because I always called it a book of essays. To me that was because I didn’t think it was memoir. My publisher, when he sent me the material that was going to go out to the bookshops, had me listed as ‘memoir’ and I said ‘oh, I don’t think it’s memoir, I call it essays’ and he just said: ‘yeah, but where would they put it in the bookshop?’ [Laughs.]
There’s often no ‘essays’ section in the bookshop. It seemed like a convenience thing more than anything. And I realised later that a lot of my discomfort at the term ‘memoir’ was because I didn’t know enough about it as a form, and hadn’t realised how elastic or experimental it could be. I had this particular assumption about memoir, and the kind of memoir that gets ghost written and is the something-strange-happened-to-me-and-here’s-the-story sort of book. When the more I’ve read and researched and talked to people, the more I’ve realised that’s such a limited and limiting way to think about it.
A lot of my discomfort at the term ‘memoir’ was because…I hadn’t realised how elastic or experimental it could be.
I feel like there’s a better sense, that there’s more happening in America, around essays and personal essay collections. I think that work is starting to happen in Australia but has just taken a bit longer. I’m thinking of people like Leslie Jamieson, who I just adore.
BL: I’m halfway through The Empathy Exams now.
FW: I just love it. That collection was so important to me, and so important to Small Acts as well. And yeah, I do feel like there’s more of a culture of single-author essay collections in the States. And they are and aren’t memoir.
BL: So going back to memoir and age – do you think people can be too young or too old to write memoir?
FW: You know, I don’t. I do think there are a lot of really wonderful accounts of peoples’ early twenties that often get published as fiction, and often it’s thinly disguised, which I find really fascinating. The idea that you can be too young for memoir is dismissive of young people and their lives and experiences and stories. The idea that the experience of youth is the same for everyone, and that young people aren’t unique enough in their ideas or politics. And as for too old – I always thought that writers just got better as they got older.
It’s interesting to be old enough to have seen things in society change.
One of the things I’ve started noticing in myself, since I turned 30, is that it’s interesting to be old enough to have seen things in society change. Watching fashions – in clothes and food and ideas – change and come back. Part of that for me too was re-reading books that I loved as a teenager and seeing how differently they read now that I’ve had different experiences and a longer perspective on things. I don’t think it’s necessarily better, it’s just different. It’s a different sort of thing that you can then write about.
BL: In terms of the way most people think about memoir writing where you have a life event, or a period in your life that happens, and then you write about it. The life comes before the writing, A to B, and I was wondering if you ever feel like, now that you’re a memoir writer, the A and the B swap around? And that the way you live your life is affected by the fact that you are a memoir writer? Does that make sense?
FW: I think I know exactly what you mean, and it’s something I haven’t quite figured out yet either. The book I’m working on now is about ideas of home and ideas of ordinariness and the everyday and both the very political nature of that and also how our ideas of that are disrupted by illness. But a few months ago, after living in a house we really love, out of the blue we got one of those 90-day eviction notices because the owner wanted to sell.
I felt almost catapulted out of my life, in a strange way, and into this character…of myself.
It’s a bizarre experience. I kind of felt almost catapulted out of my life, in a strange way, and into this character. The character of myself. But at the same time, I think that the reason I write from life in the first place is because I am very self-conscious. I mean in a positive sense, not in an awkward-or-shy sense, I mean like in a self-reflexive way. I’ve always been that sort of person and I’ve always lived that way and I think it’s something a lot of creative people have in common – living in the world and reflecting on the world at the same time.
BL: I wish we had a word that came with less baggage than ‘philosophical’. I suppose, what are creative people and artists doing, if not trying to make sense of the world in which they live?
FW: And I also think it’s a falsehood to assume that people who aren’t writing about their lives aren’t fictionalising their lives all the time anyway. Especially in our mediated world. Online everyone is curating their image and writing about themselves in small ways, all the time.
BL: It’s like we get to a point where the actions come from an idea of who we’d like to be or are representing ourselves.
FW: And sometimes we don’t even know what those things are.
BL: Would you do it again? Have you got any more memoir plans?
FW: Yes. In a heartbeat. It’s such an interesting way to write. And I’ve always believed that the personal is political, and I’m constantly having fights with straight white men about that who just refuse to see that might be the case, and I say, ‘you see, that’s the very problem, you can’t see the water you’re swimming in’. It’s amazing how many times I have to explain that to the – you know – bros. [Laughs.]
One of the things I’ve found so rewarding about writing personally is how much of a vehicle for empathy it is too. I know that one of my favourite moments as a reader is when I read something that suddenly is so similar to an experience I’ve had, or makes sense of something in my own world, I love those moments. I think personal writing, and memoir, is one of the strongest vehicles we have for making those moments happen. I’ve discovered I really love it.
BL: So in that sense, Small Acts was a bit of a turning point?
FW: Yeah, and I guess the whole time I was writing it I never really knew what I was doing with it, or what it was going to be, which is one of the things I love about writing. I have a poetry book coming out later this year, but the next thing I’m working on is definitely more personal essays.