As of late, there have been some AMAZING book events in my city. We’ve not only had some great authors come to visit (Kelley Armstrong, Michael Ondaatje, Esi Edugyan), but the local scene has exploded! Who knew there were so many wonderful authors residing in the capital city?
Lucky for me, the Edmonton Book Bloggers are usually on top of these events, so when Laura offered up an extra ticket to an event called Writing in Blood, featuring not only local authors Jessica Kluthe and Jenna Butler, but also Canadian author Lawrence Hill (who penned the amazing book The Book of Negroes) I jumped ALL over her in the hopes she’d take me.
Here’s what the event was all about:
A writer’s family is both rich source material and a minefield, especially when the material remains as nonfiction instead of being transformed into fiction. This panel discusses their personal experiences, and offers their thoughts for others shaping a family memoir.
The idea of memoir/biography writing baffles me. This might be because I have the worst memory in the world, but there’s also that aspect of putting a LOT of family information out there. One of the things that Lawrence Hill said was: “If you’re writing honestly, you’re going to piss someone off.” And isn’t that just the case? With social media these days, it’s too easy to put out that one thing you think is innocent material, only to have someone fire back at you, “Why would you write that?” So when it comes to writing entire books about family history, I can bet there are a lot of people rolling over in their graves (or digging yours. Just sayin’.).
While Lawrence Hill has written some amazing fictional tales (which do borrow from family history), he has also just released a book containing his Massey Lecture titled Blood: The Stuff of Life. I’ve only just started reading this, but one thing I loved about it was the personal details Hill added to the story. He admitted to doing this so that he could make the book more personal, and I felt that having these personal elements really added to the story. When writing, Hill said to ask yourself what’s more important? Family politics or history? And most importantly, where is your line in the sand going to be? What will you write about and what will you stay away from? There are also the questions that arise when you’re an author and sending your book out into the world. People will ask questions and you have to ask yourself how guarded you want to be in your response.
Jessica Kluthe, who penned Rosina, The Midwife, a story that has the author researching her family roots after finding herself with child says that when she found out she was pregnant, there was that absense of blood. For me, being adopted, I felt like I could connect with this. At doctor’s appointments when asked the questions of family history so that they could know more about what might be an issue for my child, I drew a blank. I could share many details of the people I call family now, but my birth family? I have nothing. I could definitely feel my lack of blood when Jessica brought this up.
When Jessica went to write Rosina, she hadn’t intended to include personal details. For me, and I’m sure for many readers, knowing more about Jessica and her reasons for researching her roots really made me connect to the story as a reader. For Jessica, she felt that after exposing so much of Rosina — including a family secret — she had to include secrets about herself to clear herself morally. When it comes to those stories she told about Rosina in the book, though, Jessica admits that she went by stories that had been told to her over the years and filled in the gaps with imagination. To her, memory is a reimagining. The author is building a truth, but that might not be everyone’s truth.
For Jenna Butler, author of the book Wells, a poetry collection based on her grandmother’s struggle with Alzheimers, we all might go through the same things, but our perceptions coming out will be different. The real question is, how will others perceive our perception? To Jenna, we are made up of the details that other people give us, as well as the fictions we make for ourselves. In the case of Alzheimers, when that person loses their sense of self, they also lose their perception of you.
After the panel, the floor was open to audience questions. One of the questions that came up was about the term “creative nonfiction,” which is how Jessica classified her work. The audience member said that using the term doesn’t give you a license to make things up. Personally, I liked Lawrence’s response to this. He disagreed, saying that it really depends on the relationship you have with your reader. If you explain what you’re doing, you can still fill in the blanks of a story with imagination.
Naturally, this meant that author James Frey was brought up in regards to his nonfiction story A Million Little Pieces (a book I read and loved). Lawrence mentioned that publishers are wary these days to really label something as nonfiction when fictional elements are added. To him it’s important to be honest with your readers. (For me, this was a tidbit of information I had never been aware of. I knew about the whole debacle surrounding Frey’s book, but didn’t know he originally wanted to release it as fiction, but was pushed by his publishers to release as nonfiction.)
When it comes to writing nonfiction, the audienced asked how authors make it interesting for the readers. A story might be interesting to the author, but does that necessarily mean that readers will like it? Jessica says that an author of nonfiction can still use all of the devices that are available for fiction writers in order to write their story. She also said to not just info dump in your story, but include only information that advances it. Don’t just share for the sake of sharing. Jenna mentioned that this is easy to do when writing in verse. It’s much easier to shift points of view and pull in the different threads of other peoples’ stories.
Lastly, there was a question about dealing with grief all over again by the end of your story. This was especially true in the case of Jessica’s book. Rosina had been very much alive in her imagination while writing the story that she felt an enormous amount of loss when she sat at Rosina’s grave (something she talks about in the book). In fact, she felt like she was crossing boundaries by being there when a lot of the family who had known Rosina was never able to visit her grave. Lawrence also mentioned a new book he’s writing that contains a character resembling his mother. His mother is in her 80’s and he’d very much like for her to be around to meet this character.
In the end, this event truly was inspiring. It was interesting to see how each author defined their relationship with blood and the techniques they used in order to transfer those thoughts to the page. Laura and I stuck around to get Lawrence Hill to sign our books. I may have fangirled just a bit since I’ve been a fan of his work for quite some time, so much so that my jaw dropped when Laura mentioned that she hadn’t read The Book of Negroes. I promptly got her on that and am very happy that she enjoyed it! Lawrence said that he liked my name, that it was very unique, and then he asked me about my book blog, to which I had no coherent response to (“It’s about books?”). It was very cool to meet an author like him!
We also stuck around and talked to Jessica a bit, since we had both met her at previous events and chat with her on Twitter. She admitted to being quite nervous about the event, but we both thought that she handled herself beautifully.
So happy to have gotten to attend this event! I can only hope there will be more events like this in the future in the city!
How do you relate blood and identity? What are your thoughts on authors writing memoirs or biographies?