In your introduction to Looking Back, you wrote about how “moments, memories, fragments, falsehoods, and fantasies” sort of got the ball rolling for your story ideas. I’m curious about why you decided to write a memoir, and to do it in this particular way—weaving together photographs, short passages from your books, and then snapshots of your life?
My father was a dental surgeon, but he also was a very serious photographer. There was always a darkroom in our home and serious cameras around. I studied photography in graduate school, and when my father got older and his eyesight began to fail he gave me his old German cameras. I’ve always lived in a house full of photographs. I’ve moved a lot in my life, and every time I move I have to sort and pack and discard some, but I get to go through once again the pieces and fragments of my own life represented as photographs. So I was doing that at one point, once again—and I should say that I wrote a book once called The Silent Boy, and I used a lot of my family’s old photographs—but at this particular time I began to be aware that some of my books had arisen from moments in my own life. It happened subconsciously, but when I began to look for it I could see those connections. So then I began to look more carefully at it, and that’s how that book evolved. I would be looking at a photograph and wondering and often finding that a particular book or section of a particular book would have related to that particular moment which was captured in film in my own life. So it became a fun exercise in putting those things together.
The [memoir] was published 20 years ago, and now I’ve added to it to make this new edition. What I’ve found over those 20 years is that a lot of teachers have used it as a vehicle for helping students create their own stories based on little bits and pieces of their own lives, looking at photographs, remembering things and thinking about things that are evoked by those captured moments. I had a lot of fun doing it. I was delighted when Houghton Mifflin asked if I would update it by adding to it. I got out the old photographs once again.
How did you narrow it down and choose the particular segments?
That was hard. I do this with every book I write: I go back in my mind and wish I’d done things differently. Now, since only recently adding things to this book, I find myself wishing I’d added other things and done it differently, but that’s just the way my mind works. I’m not dwelling on it. It was hard to narrow it down, but nobody’s interest is going to be kept forever. You can’t make it a 500-page book, so I had to try to find the things that would have the most meaning for an audience.
In the chapter “Book Writing,” you mention that you discovered that it is much harder to write a book than one would think. If you could go back and offer your fledgling writer-self some wisdom, what would it be? What did you struggle with in the early days of writing that has gotten easier? And are there things you still struggle with?
Oh gosh, that’s hard to answer. My first book was relatively easy because I was drawing on my own experience, so as most writers do, I found the second book more difficult, particularly because the first had been so successful and the second was going to be so different. It was entirely fiction. It wasn’t that it was more difficult, it was just a different mindset. I find it easier to do memoir or autobiographical fiction. It’s very easy for me to go back into my childhood self or my young self. It’s less easy to go into the mind and emotions of a completely fictional character, though maybe it’s good to be more challenging. I don’t know that things have changed much for me over the years, that I find things difficult now that I didn’t find difficult 35 years ago, or the reverse—that I found things difficult then that are easier now. It’s stayed pretty much the same for me. It’s always been both challenging and exhilarating.
I’ve always been, since that first book, grateful that I came by chance into this profession, into something that I enjoy so much. But I don’t think—and it’s kind of surprising to realize this—it has changed for me. I still sit here—I started to say at the same desk, but of course it isn’t because I’ve moved many times—but I still sit here in the same way, and it used to be on a typewriter, but now of course for many years with a computer. I still feel the same way about arranging words on the page and moving into the mind of the characters and trying to coordinate the thought, which is the thing I have the most trouble with, and the language. I intuitively pay a lot of attention to the flow and the cadence of language. I’m not sure the reader notices that, but it’s important to me. To orchestrate all of those things together is, as I said, both challenging and exhilarating, and in the same way now as in 1977 when I wrote my first book.
That’s uplifting to hear, but of course as a writer, you’re always hoping that someone will have some great secret to make it easier.
The secret is that there are no secrets. There’s no bit of arcane knowledge. I get emails from readers every day, and I sit here and try to answer their questions. Often they’re looking for the secret to being a writer, and there just isn’t one outside of being willing to be alone and to sit at the desk and work hard and to love language.
That’s really true. A lot of people, and I’ll include myself in this, worry about making the wrong choices or what might happen if they fall off the path they had planned for themselves. You note in Looking Back that you dropped out of your first college and didn’t get your degree until you were 36. And then you ultimately dropped out of your graduate program to write fiction. In your memoir, you have an imagined conversation with your mother about this, where you are hesitant to tell her about dropping out of college. Can you talk a little bit about those feelings and how you feel now about the path you took?
Well, you know if I were called upon to give advice to somebody 17 years old, which is the age I was when I entered college, I would certainly advise them not to rush into things. I rushed into marriage and rushed into motherhood. I seemed to be at that time in a hurry to experience things, but I don’t think that’s so much true today. I have a granddaughter who is now 22. She’ll be 23 this fall, and she’s in school. She just started a master’s program and she has a wonderful boyfriend, but she’s not rushing to get married. She’s not rushing to finish school. She’s thoroughly enjoying what she’s doing, and I don’t know what I was that I was in such a hurry, but my advice to young people would be to take time to enjoy what you’re doing. When I went back to college in my thirties, I so loved the learning part of it. When I was in college at 17 and 18, I was a good student and I did well, but what I enjoyed was the social life. Of course in my thirties that was a not an issue. I was married and had four kids. But at any rate, my only advice would be to take advantage of what’s there and available and to laugh it up and love it instead of rushing on to the next thing.