I first met Gayle Brandeis in an online workshop taught by Lidia Yuknavitch. I had no idea who this woman was, that she’d written multiple books, but I knew her prose made me sit up straight and take note. It was only later, when I became Facebook friends with her, that I realized how accomplished she was. Brandeis has written several novels, including The Book of Dead Birds, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns; the writing guide Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write; and a book of poetry, The Selfless Bliss of the Body. Her newest book is a memoir entitled The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving my Mother’s Suicide. Brandeis is that rare writer who can write fiction, reportage, nonfiction, and poetry—and do it well—and this is apparent in her memoir.
Knowing Brandeis as a person, and having read the book and its themes of motherhood and daughterhood, I am so glad that she is kicking off this series. She found the time to do a little back-and-forth with me to discuss the memoir, as well as the confluence of writing and motherhood. Continue reading
Megan Stielstra’s new essay collection, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, is a guidebook to living in troubled times. I found myself putting the book down to draw out the time I had with it. Each essay is urgent and impassioned, unique and universal, a reminder we’re not alone.
Jaime Rochelle Herndon: Your other book is also an essay collection. How did you come to essay writing?
Megan Stielstra: In high school I was the kind of geek who cut class to hang out at the library. I’d sit on the floor, reading Tolkien, Atwood, Virginia Woolf, but the kicker was Richard Wright’s Black Boy. In chapter 13, the character of Richard gets a library card for the first time and, in reading novels, he’s able to understand people who are different than himself. There I was, a sixteen-year-old girl in super-sheltered, small-town Michigan, having this profound connection with an adult man in the Jim Crow South. It was the first of many stops in an ongoing dialogue I have with myself about the enormity of our world and my own responsibility and privilege within it. Continue reading
Salt Houses, Hala Alyan’s multigenerational first novel about a Palestinian family, is a richly layered story of devastation, rebuilding, and making your way home, when you’re not even sure where that is anymore. As a Jew who believes strongly in the importance of a Jewish homeland, I wanted to read Salt Houses for a different perspective—to hear the stories I might not have heard otherwise. I asked Alyan some questions about the book and our current sociopolitical climate.
Q: You’re Palestinian-American. How much of this story is drawn from your family history and how much is part of the larger cultural story?
A: I borrowed structural elements from my familial history, in terms of the countries that appear in the book and the way the family in Salt Houses is displaced more than once. I wanted to keep the focus on this one particular family’s story, while also nodding to the larger sociopolitical context that housed it. I was inspired by the tradition of storytelling in Arab communities, and how that is a way of reclaiming history and identity. More generally, I was inspired by the resilience of refugees and immigrants I’ve come across in my personal and professional life, and I wanted to honor the story of displacement by unpacking it as honestly as I could. Continue reading
A man wakes up and doesn’t remember the night before. Then he sees photos that show him assaulting a woman. Add the fact that he’s a new father, his job involves experimental surgeries, and his own father has dementia—oh, and he can read minds—and you’ve got Fiona Maazel’s new novel, A Little More Human. Memory, autonomy, and conspiracy theories abound in this complicated, well-crafted book. Maazel has won the Bard Prize for Fiction and was a National Book Award Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree. She was recently awarded a Guggenheim.
Jaime Herndon: One thing I loved about A Little More Human was the intersecting storylines, especially Dr. Snyder’s memory loss, juxtaposed with his son’s mindreading ability and blackout. How did you come up with the structure/form of the novel?
Fiona Maazel: Thematically, I knew I wanted to be writing about memory, and memory as a way of constructing identity, juxtaposed against how incredibly hard it is to establish an identity when we know so little of what transpires in our own inner lives. I wanted to get at all that, but there was no way to do it from one perspective. I needed a few characters to allow me to approach the topic from multiple angles. Continue reading
I first read Melissa Febos while in my MFA program. Her memoir Whip Smart was next to the register of my local indie bookstore, and I picked it up while the cashier was helping the person in front of me. This was years ago, but I remember it well, because her memoir of her work as a professional dominatrix was unlike anything I’d ever read before. Her new book, Abandon Me, is a collection of luminescent autobiographical essays—stories about bonds that break, fierce love, and what makes a family, all shot through with art and passion. It defies easy description or categorization, and begs to be reread, to be unpeeled, layer after layer.
Jaime Rochelle Herndon: Abandon Me feels more “bare bones,” somehow, than Whip Smart. More raw or vulnerable. On page 196, you say, about Whip Smart: “By building a story, I could find a beginning, middle, and end.” Does this also apply to Abandon Me? Continue reading
The Art of Waiting is a hybrid memoir from Belle Boggs, author of the 2010 novel Mattaponi Queen. It tells the story of Boggs’s journey through infertility and IVF, but it also examines fertility, motherhood, and assisted reproduction, and how these fit into our society and culture. Drawing from medicine, theater, literature, personal experience, anecdotes, and biology, Boggs writes about motherhood in a smart, unsentimental, incisive way.
I knew from the moment I read about this book on a friend’s Facebook post that I had to read it. As a medical writer with a degree in maternal-child health and a background working in ob/gyn, and as a new mother who used assisted reproductive technology to conceive my son, I can tell you this: The Art of Waiting does not disappoint. Boggs’s prose is quiet but powerful, and she did her research in every way.
Jamie Rochelle Herndon: This is not merely a memoir; it feels to me like a cultural exploration/commentary/criticism, almost a sociological memoir, if that makes sense. What made you decide to write it like that, instead of a straight memoir? Continue reading