The Foundry is our literary reading series, featuring established and emerging writers from near and far, right here in San Diego. Our upcoming reading is this Saturday, February 24th, at 7 PM at The Rose wine bar in South Park, featuring Michael Konik, Bernard M. Cox, Kirin Khan, and today’s feature, Amy Wallen.
So Say We All’s Julia Dixon Evans, host of the Foundry, had a chance to ask Amy some questions about her brand new, hot off the presses memoir, When We Were Ghouls, officially releasing March 1st, 2018. It’s a fantastic book: beautiful, smart, devastating, and very funny. We hope you enjoy what Amy has to say, and come to see her read from her book this Saturday!
JULIA DIXON EVANS: Hi Amy! When We Were Ghouls is your first memoir. How long have you been working on this project?
AMY WALLEN: Well, the very first stories I wrote, even before I wrote my novel were personal stories, so I guess it was 25 years ago when I first started. But as far as writing it seriously as a memoir, it’s been since 2013 when I was getting my MFA and one of my professors kept telling me I was writing a memoir. I ignored her until I couldn’t any longer. I resisted writing a memoir. I wanted to just keep these family tales as anecdotes and maybe write some personal essays from the adventures my family had taken. I was struggling with my 2nd novel, so I thought I could piddle around with essay form for awhile until I became engrossed in the next novel. But any story has to have situation or it’s just an anecdote, and the discovery of the situations led me down one rabbit hole (or grave) after another. So, somewhere between 25 year and 3 years with a novel written for 7 years in between.
JDE: I love the timeline of this book. It’s so heavily anchored in age 7-10, and even though it escapes those ages periodically, this is the time that matters. To me, the older Amy mattered as a way of showing us your parents now and showing us the work of memory. How tempting was it to pull us to your present mind to show us what has or hasn’t changed in you?
AW: The adult narrator is always slippery and changing. I kept wanting to update those parts. In fact, when I read sections of it now, I can tell you where my perspective as the adult 3 years ago was not seeing the whole picture yet. Now I know things I didn’t know, but if I tried to keep up with that, the memoir would have never been finished. Maybe our stories are never finished.
JDE: How did you refine the timeline? What was it about those ages that made you dwell?
AW: Those were the specific years that we lived in third world countries. I wanted the memoir to focus on the time when my family was dispersed and when we were the most out of our comfort zone. We were very different people when we left the USA than the family who returned. We started off living in a three-bedroom one-bath house and ended up living on three different continents from each other. I’ve always imagined that if my family hadn’t moved overseas I would have grown up to work in my dad’s gas station. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a very different life than the one I ended up living. During those years when the memoir take place we saw things we never could have imagined if my dad had a gas station.
JDE: This is one of my favorite studies of memory and the reliability of our own nostalgia that I’ve read in a while. Did you set out to write a book about memory?
AW: Not at all. I wanted to write how we were such tacky rednecks living this Beverly Hillbillies life, but I kept realizing that what I remembered was so different than what anyone else remembered, or what could have been, or (and this was the hardest to take) what the reality had to be.
JDE: And the ghosts! I could ask the same thing: what came first, the ghosts or the disappearing family? Did you set out to write a book about ghosts?
AW: I’ve always been intrigued by ghosts, my whole life. My sister used to bring me books about ghosts home from places she’d travel to. I knew about the ghosts in the White House. I loved ghost stories that my friends would tell. My mom has a great story about a house we lived in that was haunted, and I swear a house I lived in a few years ago was haunted. I’ve never seen a ghost, but always wanted to. Still do. I even stay at hotels that claim they have ghosts, just with the hope that I’ll get to see one. But nope, that wasn’t my first intention at all with this book. But when I saw how the family members were coming and going and I also had a reader friend tell me that I need to use the grave scene as the metaphor for the whole book, ghost themes just started appearing on the page. Maybe I’m haunted!
JDE: I loved the scenes where we are inside your 8 year old head, knowing what you want to do or say, and then we watch you do the right thing, the thing that’d make your adults not see you as a nuisance. Most of these, despite being about you and your interior struggle, can’t help but be seen as… awful situations. The grown ups leaving you in the pub vestibule! The Helter Skelter movie blanket-ripping! How much of your memory and your recounting of this is wrapped up in feeling wronged?
AW: This is probably why I resisted writing memoir, but also why I probably needed to write it—I was just telling an anecdote, but as I was writing it I realized how an adult would see it. In the vestibule scene the last line, I say, “I was ascared,” and my mom corrects me and says, “Afraid, you were afraid,” and I correct myself, “Yes, I was afraid.” That was something my mom always did—correct my bad language. I thought it was funny when I was writing it down, but when it was on the page was the first time I realized how she was ignoring my fear. I think that was the first time I felt the hurt. I was 50 years old. Sure, I was already aware how my mother wasn’t exactly attentive to my little girl needs or wants, but writing the details made me relive them and feel them as that little girl again. There’s some catharsis in that. And who doesn’t like catharsis? But I don’t know that I think I was wronged, rather than looking back and thinking, wow, we survived some tough shit and I was only 7.
JDE: As I read this, I related on so many levels. To the adult writer, scrambling for understanding of her past and unreliable memories, to the eight year old girl, but also, to the adults. Parenting an 8 year old girl myself while reading this was quite the undertaking. I would say the emotions I felt towards your adults, the parents, were mostly cringing, but some… empathy too. Did you experience this as well as you wrote? Relating to your own parents as you wrote them as characters in a way that was new?
AW: Definitely! I became much more aware of how my mother was really a single mother thrown into Lagos, Nigeria with no background or experience or even a car at first. I never really realized how scared (ascared!) she was all the time, until I wrote this book and realized she was constantly fearful. I was just too young to know how afraid to be, and you definitely don’t think of your own mom as afraid of anything. To be a single mom is hard enough, to be a single mom in Lagos, Nigeria after the war is a whole other issue. I gained a whole new compassion for her. If our roles were reversed and she had been more protective of me, I can see how that would and wouldn’t have helped me be a different adult.
JDE: To know you is to know your obsession with death. Have you known all along that this blossomed from seeing so much death, literal dead bodies, as a kid?
AW: I’ve wondered if this is where it came from, but I think I had an interest in death when I was even younger. Before we went overseas and saw any death or remnants I used to love to watch scary movies with my big brother. I always preferred the ones with ghosts and with a more gothic theme like vampires than the ones with monsters like The Blob or Zombies. Mummies—those were my thing. Creature from the Black Lagoon, not so much. I used to use up several rolls of toilet paper trying to wrap myself up like a mummy.
JDE: As you know, much of the work So Say We All does is in memoir and personal narrative writing. What advice do you have for people trying to pinpoint a slice of their upbringing to focus on?
AW: Maybe it’s obvious, but consider a personal story with a situation, something is different at the end than at the beginning. And first and foremost—tell the TRUTH. You don’t have to get all the facts right, but you have to be honest. You have to be honest about who you were then, and especially who you are now because of then. If you haven’t changed, then it’s not a story. It’s an anecdote.
JDE: How was this experience different from writing and publishing your novel, MoonPies and Movie Stars? Has everything felt different with nonfiction?
AW: Oh, everything has been different. I was so confounded by the genre of creative nonfiction. I thought I would just write down all these stories that I had in my head from my life experiences. But it didn’t work that way at all. Fiction had come to me as a story that was being told to me and I was just the typist. It flowed. Muses were my friends. Sure I did umpteen drafts, but in memoir the adult and child narrator conflict I describe above had me so confounded. Then, I had all those difficulties with memory that I describe in the book that I ended up using as part of the theme, but that really stumped me at first since I’m a real stickler for the truth. I really craved to go back to fiction, but something kept tugging at me to write this memoir. When things clicked, when I studied the back and forth/give and take of the adult and the child and how to create that between-the-lines conversation with myself, I think something finally clicked and the story fell into places—ghosts became the theme. Maybe my story is haunted. And then on top of the writing process being different, the publishing process was also a completely different experience. To make a long story short, I learned that each book really does have its own home and it’s about finding where that is.
JDE: Thank you so much Amy!
AMY WALLEN’s next book When We Were Ghouls is forthcoming Spring 2018. Her essays have been published in The Gettysburg Review, The Normal School, Country Living and other national magazines and anthologies. Her first novel MoonPies & Movie Stars was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. Her book launch event at The Book Catapult is Saturday, March 3rd! Find her at amywallen.com
See Amy read alongside Kirin Khan, Michael Konik, and Bernard M. Cox at The Foundry reading series, this Saturday, 2/24, at 7 PM at The Rose (2219 30th St) (21+).
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