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In the Fictions of Our Past


The authors discuss mourning in memoir, whether dreams belong in literature, and the territory between writing and teaching.

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A couple of years ago, I read and admired Lucas Mann’s Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Pantheon, 2013), a hybrid work of immersion journalism and memoir. Class A follows Mann’s season-long reportage on the LumberKings, the Midwest League Class A farm team for the Seattle Mariners. As an observer, Mann witnesses the sacrifices and ambitions, the quiet wins and losses, of the LumberKings, as well as the individual young men who make up the team. He often turns those observations inward to confront his own ambitions and failings and to mourn his older brother, who died of a heroin overdose when Mann was thirteen. In Class A, Mann captures a universal feeling—that psychological middle-of-nowhere—when we must move beyond loss without firmly knowing what’s to gain.

In one of my favorite passages, Mann writes, “There is something more important than the place being left. It’s that swell of crushing emptiness that makes the insignificant seem anything but.” Mann’s words resonated with me: for the insight, wisdom, and wonder that infuse his work; and because, as someone who’s moved seven times in the past ten years, I recognize my own leavings in them. It’s those qualities that made me eager to read his follow-up memoir, Lord Fear: A Memoir, published by Pantheon in May.

Lord Fear—an experimental memoir that this time places Mann’s brother, Josh, at the center—has the author investigating, imagining, and remembering his sibling’s addiction and his impact on those around him. The opening passage is an entry from one of Josh’s journals. From there, Mann intersects interviews with those who knew and loved Josh with scenes reconstructed and reimagined from these narratives. It’s a completely different book from Class A, though it also relies on Mann’s key strengths as a writer: introspection and vulnerability, along with an adept sense of how and why to blend genre.

I couldn’t help but read Lord Fear against my own memoir, The Way We Weren’t (Soft Skull, 2015), which also deals with love and loss. In my book, I write about a man I loved, Kenny, and the child we had after a four-year relationship. When our daughter Indie was four months old, Kenny abandoned us, leaving me to reel in the absence of his love while raising our daughter on my own. The Way We Weren’t tracks my relationship and its undoing, eventually taking the form of a travelogue that captures the transient life Indie and I have lived ever since.

While reading Mann’s memoir, I recognized some uncanny overlaps: the non-linear presentation; the role of fiction in memoir; the damages of addiction; the relentless act of missing; and the meta-moments—those passages where we address our writing processes or the challenges we face when we have more questions than answers about the people gone from our lives. Toward the end of Lord Fear, Mann writes, “The more I read from him, the more I rehash the stories he told other people, the more my brother becomes fiction altogether.” As we piece together what we can from fragments, both of us question our ability to understand the stories we’re telling when so many gaps remain.

Mann and I have never met—we only know each other through our work, a few email exchanges, and social media—so this was our first extended conversation, which we conducted via email and Gchat.

—Jill Talbot for Guernica

Lucas Mann: The issue of chronology comes up a lot in discussion of memoirs—how does one organize the material? One thing that impressed me about The Way We Weren’t is how you stick to clear dates and keep us moving forward chronologically, but you also let moments bleed into one another and double back in this dreamlike way. How did you go about constructing the narrative, and did you think a lot about the way you wanted the reader to move back and forth through time?

Jill Talbot: I was in Walgreens yesterday when Dave Loggins’s “Please Come to Boston” came over the PA. I thought, “This is why moments double back,” because as I moved through the aisles, my legs grew heavy and I slowed down. Not because I’m still grieving the loss of Kenny, but because while I was searching for WD-40 to loosen a lock in one of my house’s doors, that song reversed my direction. I felt as if I’d opened a door into a night, years ago, when Kenny called me from a bar to tell me someone had played that particular song.

This has happened to me for years—even though he’s gone, he shows up—like when my daughter, Indie, cracks her knuckles one finger at a time, the way he often did. You have a line in Lord Fear about your brother, Josh: “He never stops looming.” Neither does Kenny.

I was struck by the experimental structure of your memoir, too. I began reading it on a plane, and after reading a few pages, I flipped through to see where the chapter ended, as I do when I read—to gauge the space and scope of what I’m reading. But there are no chapters. The best memoirs merge form and content so that how a writer presents the material enhances it. Lord Fear certainly does this. Can you talk about how you chose to organize the material?

Lucas Mann: For me, the form grew entirely out of revision. I tried to force Lord Fear, a couple of times, to be a book that it wasn’t supposed to be, probably because I thought that narrative nonfiction had to look a certain way. Then, the last time I got really frustrated with the manuscript, I just started stripping away the connecting scenes, extra exposition, anything that felt safe and palatable but also slow and flabby. After the purge, all that was left of the narrative was impressionistic little fragments. I decided to keep it that way, organizing these moments around bits of Josh’s own writing, using those as trapdoors to fall from one scene or idea into the next.

When I started Lord Fear, it was an explicitly journalistic project. I knew that I wanted to interview people about Josh’s life, and I went from one interview to the next like I was building a conventional biography. Then, when I realized that the narrative needed me and my memories to be more present, I pushed hard in the other direction, toward what I thought a memoir had to look like—long scenes, lots of explanations of the feelings I was having, me going for a walk while ruminating and remembering, etc.

It ended up feeling stale—voice-y and emotive, but stale. What helped save the project was going to graduate school for nonfiction and being exposed to writing that felt no need to adhere to the linear. So I was reading Barthes and Duras and Maggie Nelson and David Shields and all these writers who wove a narrative through snippets. Lord Fear doesn’t move so far in that direction, but it grew out of a feeling of permission that these writers gave me to not always connect the dots.

Thinking about your work, in many ways The Way We Weren’t read to me like a memoir of academia, as much as anything else. The books you read and teach are hugely important to the story. There’s also the sense of how much you’re willing to sacrifice for a life full of words, the simultaneous joy and pain that can bring to a person. Can you talk about the way your teaching life has influenced your writing life?

Jill Talbot: That’s another overlap in our memoirs—the influence of what we read on how we read our lives. You include passages from Philip Roth, Roland Barthes, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas De Quincey, Jamaica Kincaid, and James Baldwin. Their voices are blended within the narrative, another layer of text through which to read Josh and the experience of loving and losing him.

I like to think about the genre, the essay or the memoir, as much as I enjoy writing within its fluid parameters. And teaching allows me to think about it, to articulate it, and to explore it. The anthology I edited, Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, was the direct result of a class I taught in the spring of 2010. The students in that class were most engaged with and intrigued by the meta-aspects of the books we read. After editing that anthology and reading all those meta-essays, I wanted to focus on meta-writing in my own work—so in a way, the approach I took in The Way We Weren’t started in a classroom.

I get giddy when I come across lines like that—when the writer is not only making a meta-move, but one that troubles truth and fiction, the nature of genre itself.

Lucas Mann: “Meta-writing” is one of these terms that comes up in grad school that people seem to feel either really positive about or really dismissive toward. I start to feel a little lost in nonfiction lingo sometimes. For you, what is meta-writing?

Jill Talbot: Simply put, meta-writing is writing that is self-conscious, self-reflective, and aware of itself as an artifice. The writer is aware she’s writing, and she’s aware there’s a reader, which goes all the way back to Montaigne’s often-used address “dear reader,” or his brief introduction to Essais: “To the Reader.” It can be done in a myriad of ways—and you and I both do it in our memoirs. Right?

Lucas Mann: Yeah, totally. Do you see personal writing as something that has to be meta to work? Can there be an authentic, believable personal essayist or memoirist who doesn’t involve the process of her own writing in the story?

Jill Talbot: Yes, absolutely! Not all essays or memoirs rely on those techniques. But in the books I love, there are hints of meta-writing that work so well and do so much work. There’s a moment in Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians when she writes, “I try not to make anything up, and I fail every time.” I get giddy when I come across lines like that—when the writer is not only making a meta-move, but one that troubles truth and fiction, the nature of genre itself.

Lucas Mann: My tastes run that way, too, completely. But then part of me is like, “Where is the end to this?” And being a teacher is often what brings up that feeling in me. I say to my students, “Write about the small details, interrogate your thought process, feel free,” but then sometimes you see results that come across as self-indulgent to the reader. Is there a point for you where the meta, and also the blurry fictiveness, needs to be paired down?

Jill Talbot: I run into the same problems in my classes, too—and I think part of it comes from this meta-mode we’re all living in now, recording the minutia of our thought processes on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr or via text messages, so my students are doing it as an extension of reality more than contemplating meta-writing’s purpose for the essay/memoir. More often than not in workshop or my own feedback, I encourage a writer to cut those moments.

My own brilliant editor cut a large chunk of meta-writing from my manuscript because he said those moments highlighted the writing more than the story, and he was right. For example, there was one essay in which the story was stalling out because, as he put it, “We have to read through five pages about you writing a poem.”

But I want to go back to these “impressionistic fragments” you mention. The foundation of the book is the interviews with people who knew Josh—family, friends, lovers—and you mention in your author’s note that “this book is about the life of a real person, my brother Josh…it is not, however, an exact representation of his life. People’s memories contradict one another, and many of the scenes are my imagined versions of stories they told me.” So there’s another overlap—the recognition of the fictional aspects in memoir.

I underlined this line in Lord Fear: “The more I read from him, the more I rehash the stories he told other people, the more my brother becomes fiction altogether.” This echoes an idea in The Way We Weren’t: “How long do we live in the fictions of our past? And how do we convince anyone that who we write is not necessarily who we are?”

I’d hear myself read and it was like I was eavesdropping on a dream—even with myself as the narrator.

Lucas Mann: Yeah, that idea of not being exactly who you write as is so crucial. Even looking at those words as I type them, it feels dirty, it feels like I’m admitting something. Unfortunately, I think that’s how the conversation around nonfiction is so much of the time—either defensive or accusatory. Aha! You’ve been caught! But the original essence of something is always lost when it’s reproduced.

Walter Benjamin talks about art losing its original “aura” in an age of mechanical reproduction. In writing memoir, we’re taking something that happened in a particular moment and meant something at that time, and we’re trying to capture it to mass reproduce it for readers. So of course something is lost. And when we edit that material, we’re getting even further from that aura, but toward something else that is potentially vital.

I came to nonfiction through journalism. My first book was journalism, and it was so frustrating to me, while I was writing it, that I wasn’t capturing the moments the way they were when I lived them; I was filtering and re-filtering. I had to come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t and shouldn’t claim authenticity. Then, when the book was published and I gave readings, I’d hear myself read and it was like I was eavesdropping on a dream—even with myself as the narrator. I knew that guy but couldn’t exactly recognize him.

Jill Talbot: I know what you mean—it’s been very jarring for me to stand in public and read about myself and my daughter and her father. I feel like I’m reading someone else’s story, and I feel like I’ve lost something, too, in the writing of self, as if I’m standing and reading myself, as a stranger, to other strangers.

Lucas Mann: When I was writing Lord Fear, I was having conversations with people about Josh, writing the memories of those conversations, and also the ways that I was thinking about their memories of him. Then all of that was edited over a number of years. By the end of the editing process, I was writing in the present tense about a version of myself from seven years earlier, and my current thoughts were permeating this old character of me. It’s all me, it’s all deeply felt, it’s all true, but I can’t pretend like there isn’t a ton of fiction swirling through the person who ended up on the page.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the idea that all novels are, at least in some way, about the process of writing a novel—that the construction of the book and the lineage of people constructing novels are always part of the story the author is telling. I think the equivalent for memoir should be that all memoirs are, in some way, about the process of memory. Memoirs are made out of a confusing, flawed act of creation.

It has been strange and stressful to actually publish a book that tells the real secrets of my family. Weirdly—or maybe necessarily—I didn’t think about what publishing the book might feel like as I wrote it. Since you’ve just published a beautiful, intimate book that has been all yours for so long, how are you thinking about the process of it becoming public?

Jill Talbot: Just after The Way We Weren’t came out, I’d sit on the couch and read passages from it, as if I were a reader sitting down with it for the first time. One of my friends who writes novels says that once the book is published, it’s a separate thing from you; it becomes its own. I feel that way when I read—and that applies to the experience of reading my work in public, too. The essays are a barrier between me and the audience, and it feels like a disappearing act. Poof! I’m gone, and the woman I’ve created on the page emerges.

I like what you say about your more recent thoughts ending up in this old character—that’s so true. When I write, for example, about the moment Kenny told me he was leaving, I’m writing it from over a decade out, and the distance I have from that moment influences how I write it. To me, the most difficult part is not making that moment public, but going back into it and digging down as deep as I can.

I can go back to that morning and relive the pain of it, or I can write it and feel it dissolve a bit. You recently published an essay in Buzzfeed about telling the secrets of your family in which you explain, “I told it and now it’s a little less mine and a little less real.” Yes, that’s it. That’s exactly what it’s like.

Lucas Mann: One painful aspect for you in the book seems to be your own addiction. Much of the book is made up of material that you have returned to and rethought, I think, through different moments in the process of your sobriety. Does that affect the way you see the book now, or how you expect a reader to see it?

I’m thinking of a point in Bluets where Maggie Nelson says, “I could have written half of these propositions drunk or high, for instance, and half sober…. How could either of us tell the difference?” I read that and wondered which version of the narrator I was getting at different moments. We’re talking about not really knowing ourselves on the page; how does this dynamic affect your work?

I want the freedom to take his story and put it out there with the hope that it will move people. But then when those people talk or write about him, as I’ve invited them to do, it stings.

Jill Talbot: This reminds me of Hemingway’s “write drunk, edit sober” edict or even Joan Didion’s practice of revising at the end of the day while having a drink—write sober, edit tipsy? There’s a distinction between writing under the influence of drinking and writing about the influence of drinking.

One of the reasons I interject third-person chapters, beyond the attempt to present myself as a character, is to distance myself from the woman I used to be. I still drink wine. A misconception of AA and/or rehab is that it’s an all-or-nothing gig. For many, sobriety is the only option for survival, and I admire that and them. For me, recovery is about controlling the drinking and not losing myself in it. When I sit down to write that three-in-the-morning, wine-gulping woman, I feel like I’m standing next to her, watching her. That helps me write her more clearly, more honestly. I know her well. Didion’s adage—“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not”—is integral to my writing.

You write in Lord Fear that there are only two addiction narratives: the former addict writing memories as if detached from them, or a loving observer writing from isolation. The latter is what you’re doing—a solitary act of writing Josh and his addiction after his death, of being the recorder of his life as well as its interpreter, when you use the text from his journals. I’m writing my own memories as if detached from them, so much so that I write some of them in the third person.

Since I just used his name, is it odd for you to hear Josh’s name spoken or written by others? Is it painful?

Lucas Mann: Yes to both. Sometimes I think I want it both ways: I want the freedom to take his story, his actual words, and put it out there with the hope that it will move people. But then when those people talk or write about him, as I’ve invited them to do, it stings. Some of the reviews have felt, in part, like reviews of him. And that’s what people do in reviews: they mention the traits of main characters and the effects those traits have on the reader. But I put him in that position, and it hurts like hell.

Jill Talbot: That’s the risk, isn’t it? When we write the stories and the people of our lives, we invite others to read them how they will. After a couple of interviews and hearing strangers ask about Kenny, I sat down on my couch and sobbed, saying, “He’s real. He’s a real person.” I mean, I’m writing about losing a love, but loss is loss, and missing is missing.

Late in Lord Fear, you include an excerpt from Josh’s journal, a part where he records a dream. You begin to trouble out the dream’s meaning and then write, “And as a friend once told me: Write a dream; lose a reader.” I winced when I read that line because I have that essay in The Way We Weren’t, “Dream Houses,” about my dreams of Kenny. Did I lose you there?

Lucas Mann: Ha! No, no. My friend is much more of a cynic than I am. I do think it’s interesting, though, that so much of what we write and read in memoir can be written off so easily. The very notion of writing about yourself is an eye-roller for some people. Then when you’re writing about heartbreak or addiction, there’s the fear that it can be so easily reduced to seen-it-before status.

I remember in grad school one colleague witheringly saying, after reading one of my essays, “Ugh, what is it with boys and their dads?” I’d say writing about dreams is just a specific subset of that easy-to-dismiss stuff. But then, lo and behold, writers like you do it well and all of those critiques cease to matter. Lately, I’ve been wondering if the kind of insecurity you mention, the wincing, might be a positive thing. It puts pressure on the writing. You sit down and say you’re going to tell the story of a dream you had and it becomes a subconscious challenge to yourself: you better write the hell out of that dream to earn it.

For better or worse, I seem to gravitate toward writing about something or someone else, then have my own self shove its way into that story.

Jill Talbot: I had a professor in graduate school who challenged me to write without mentioning sex or booze, and looking back, I think what he was trying to do was get me to think about why I write what I write and how I might write it in a new and different way. I do this with my own students, especially in advanced or graduate workshops. I ask them to identify what I call their “recognizable palette.” Often I have them identify each other’s, because after they’ve been in workshops together, they can easily point to a fellow writer’s proclivities, go-to words, themes, conflicts, and persona types. Then I either challenge them to write beyond their recognizable palette or to push it in more interesting directions. I’m wondering what you see as your own recognizable palette—what makes a memoir a Lucas Mann memoir?

Lucas Mann: Well, I guess for starters I’d say that a Lucas Mann memoir, so far at least, seems to be a book that I never thought of as a memoir until someone else called it that. For better or worse, I seem to gravitate toward writing about something or someone else, then have my own self shove its way into that story.

It seems insanely narcissistic. But I also think there’s a particular effect that comes from using my autobiography in service to another story, as opposed to being the subject. I’m much more comfortable working in that mode. And I do think I have a persona or mood that I keep coming back to: self-conscious, self-critical, unsure. I write a lot about bodies, particularly male ones, usually as a point of emphasis for my insecurities about my own. The first review of my first book called me “doughy and morose,” and I was like, “Damn, he nailed it.”

This brings up a question that’s been nagging at me, which has to do with how much repetition is okay. There’s a tricky balance between having a discernible style and set of interests, and not becoming static. After writing anything, there’s always that postpartum feeling of, “What do I do now?”—I think particularly for nonfiction writers. I feel myself pulled back to the same themes, sometimes even the same moments, and I’m not sure that I want that. How do you deal with that, particularly after putting so many years into this story?

Jill Talbot: Two moments come to mind regarding the insecure, unsure, body-consciousness of your work—that moment toward the end of Class A when you look out to the lights of the city, so unsure of who you are at twenty-four, and the moment in Lord Fear when you’re in the bathroom on the floor while your father wails in his room, and you push at your flesh. Those are powerful, vulnerable moments. I would also add that you don’t just observe the people you write about, you really see them, if that makes sense.

But to your question: I always go to Fitzgerald when this issue comes up: “Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great and moving experiences in our lives…and we tell our two or three stories—each time in a new disguise—maybe ten times, maybe a hundred, as long as people will listen.” This idea has been a touchstone for me as a writer, because there are some moments in our lives or some emotions that we hold on to.

There are moments in The Way We Weren’t when I actually write that I’ve written the moment or the scene before. I’m conscientiously aware that I’ve gone through this territory before, and I want the reader to know that, too.

When I admire a writer, it’s for the recognizable palette—Hemingway’s minimalism, the dialogue, those isolated bar scenes. But with each story or novel, he shows me something different within the framework he’s built—like noticing that there’s a chair in the corner I didn’t see in another story.

Nick Flynn is another writer I admire—his fragmented sections, his playfulness with genre, his urgency. The palette in his work is his style, a voice that is singular, and that’s what I think writers should strive for, to have a style and a voice that is only theirs. What writers do you return to for their particular voice or style?

Lucas Mann: Particularly of late, I’ve reread a lot of Marilynne Robinson. I’m not sure if it’s the style that I keep coming back to so much as the confidence, which I suppose is a style. Her writing is rich without straining to be, I think because there’s so much intelligence behind it. I’m not that smart, but it’s helpful to remind myself when I’m overwriting that, if I think I have something smart to say, I shouldn’t wreck it with bluster.

James Baldwin is the writer who made me love essays, so I always come back to him. His sentences can get so long and complex and searching, yet they’re always airtight and precise. I read them and think, “That couldn’t have been said any other way.” I will always love to read Philip Roth and Barry Hannah because their voices are so loud and brash. Each is totally different, of course, but they both remind me that this shit is supposed to be fun.

I think we do that as writers—we write one story in order to write the next one.

Jill Talbot: I want to go back to your question about what to do with a story when it won’t let you go, because I don’t think I answered it. Nick Flynn writes in The Ticking Is the Bomb, “If I’ve told you this already, forgive me…before this is over it’s likely I’ll tell you again.” Yet he follows that with something he didn’t tell us the first time. I think we do that as writers—we write one story in order to write the next one.

I remember when I was reading Class A, your few mentions of your brother and his overdose were like a faint bass line, and I’d say out loud, “This guy’s next memoir will be about his brother.” Yesterday, I was talking to Indie about the carbon monoxide poisoning we went through in New York. I wrote about it in the essay “Emergent,” which is included in the book. But there is so much about those weeks that I didn’t tell the reader. So to answer your question, “What do I do now?” I ask myself what I left out or what’s embedded beneath what I’ve already written. I’m really curious what moment or moments you wrote about in Lord Fear that won’t let you go, that you might write again.

Lucas Mann: For me, I don’t know if it’s moments that stick with me as much as the overall theme or shadow. So whatever subject I’m looking at, Josh—whether it’s images of him or the way I learned to think about masculinity, success, excess, through him—is there influencing my thought process. I’m writing about my own relationship with TV at the moment, particularly reality TV. None of the moments I’m writing about involve Josh, but he always pops up in the way I think about the narratives of Intervention or Hoarders or another show. He will always be part of the way I think and what I choose to notice in the people, art, and culture around me.

Jill Talbot: Yes, absolutely. We read the world—television, movies, songs, books—and the people in it through the lens of our own lives.

Lucas Mann: You and I are both about to begin another semester of teaching nonfiction. Since you so nicely elucidate the way reading helps push our own writing forward, what’s on your next syllabus? What should I be reading to stay excited?

Jill Talbot: I’m most excited to be sharing Mark Slouka’s The Visible World with my graduate creative nonfiction workshop. It’s a brilliant novel in three parts—“Memoir,” “Intermezzo,” “Novel”—in which the narrator remembers his parents in one section, travels to Prague to see what he can find out about them in the second, and in the final section, rewrites their story via invention. It blew my mind the first time I read it because it’s about what we know, what we don’t know, what we can find out, and how even after all the facts, we still invent. I hope it will inspire interesting conversation in the classroom and truly complex essays in the workshop. What about you? What are you teaching this fall?

Lucas Mann: I’m teaching a seminar in literary journalism that I developed last year. The idea is just to make students ask questions. I say, “I don’t care what you write about, as long as you do a lot of interviews with people whom you think are interesting and try to convey what is so interesting about them.” In some ways, the anxiety the students feel when given no direction other than to ask is the way I feel embarking on whatever comes next in my writing life. So much possibility can handcuff you. We’ll read everything from old Joseph Mitchell essays to this great piece that Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah wrote about Dave Chappelle for The Believer a couple of years ago called “If He Hollers Let Him Go.” I get really excited when students have these great, often really bizarre, ideas. Plus, I can steal them—kidding, kidding.

G

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