Christmas at Long Lake Q&A

From a Sauce Magazine email interview.

Q. What sparked your desire to write this memoir? Was it something you’d been contemplating for quite a while?

A. I think one of the first short stories I ever tried to write, years ago, attempted to capture the ongoing sense of loss I feel for that place and time. The beauty and mystery of my early childhood still haunts me and guides me. And I think my mother’s death prompted me to write this, too, for while she was still alive that history was still alive…My parents, like many, lived largely anonymous lives and left little mark in the larger world—except perhaps on me. I wanted to write this book not only to honor them for what they gave me, but also so I could travel back to that time and place, and to be with them again as they once were.

Q. I think of you primarily as a fiction writer … how was writing a memoir like this different than writing a novel. In what ways was it more challenging?

A. First, writing a memoir is like writing fiction in that you want to structure a narrative around scenes and to write or recreate dialog that shows character and to layer in the sensory detail that will bring the reader into that time and place and the world of your book. (I’m sounding like a writing instructor here.) It is more challenging in that, in a memoir, you are limited to what you are given. You can’t concoct new characters or events to make it work better. So you have to dig deeper to mine better whatever riches you have.

Q. What research did you do for the book?

A. The greatest research I did was to dig down into myself, to go into my memory and commit it to paper. It was at the same time a gratifying and a wrenching task, for the whole book is about loss—loss of a way of life, of innocence, of family, or the irretrievable past. Often, as I sat at my desk writing the manuscript, I would be overcome with it, with the loss and the beauty of it, the warmth and goodness and solidity, and literally tears would be coursing down my face as I relived the sweetness of my early days. The only other research I did was for broader historical and municipal background.

Q. The beautifully described setting of this book was one of the most impressive parts, for me. How difficult was it for you to put the pictures in your mind of your childhood home into words?

A. The whole book was a labor of love, for the place and time as well as for the people. It was a pleasure to try and craft the sensory depiction of the physical world there, to recreate it so the reader can see it and smell it and taste it and hear it and feel it. That, for me, is the pleasurable part of writing. The structuring and architecture and such are agony, trying to figure out what your work ought to be. But the wordsmithing and layering in the sensory stuff and making it come alive—that’s great fun. I would put myself back there, for example, on the frozen lake with my father, and I could bring it all back: the smell of burning leaves, the sting of the cold air, the feel of the ice on the soles of my shoes. Then it’s just a matter of selecting the right details that make it vivid for you—they’ll make it vivid for the reader as well.

Q. Did the final book end up as you expected, or (as often happens in fiction) did the “story” change and evolve from your original conception?

A. It evolved a lot, mostly in terms of structure. I wanted to write a book that captured the place and the time but also wanted a compressed narrative that would keep readers with me. As it developed, my challenge was to compress the memories of four seasons over six years into a narrative that spans only 36 hours. To do that I used a variety of rhetorical devices, such as flashbacks, and “essays,” such as the chapter on my first grade experience, or the chapter on the rustic nature of the house itself, as interludes within the narrative. That was the most demanding aspect of writing it, that structuring, to keep it moving while still getting in everything I wanted to say about the place, to paint the picture while still telling a story.

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