CNF Conversations: An Interview with Joy Castro

Castro small headshot

Joy Castro, ed. Family Trouble. University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Joy Castro is the author of the memoir The Truth Book (Arcade, 2005) and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s, 2012) and Nearer Home (St. Martin’s, 2013). Her essay collection Island of Bones (U of Nebraska, 2012) is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, Brevity, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine. An associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies.

Essays by twenty-five memoirists explore the fraught territory of family history, analyzing the ethical dilemmas of writing about family and offering practical strategies for navigating this tricky but necessary material. A sustained and eminently readable lesson in the craft of memoir, Family Trouble serves as a practical guide for writers who want to narrate their own versions of the truth while still acknowledging family boundaries.

The 25 distinguished, award-winning memoirists who contributed to Family Trouble come from a wide array of cultural backgrounds and family configurations. They include college and university educators, many of whom have published craft texts.

The contributors, with links to their author websites, are listed here:

Family Trouble cover

Julija Šukys: Joy, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to discuss your recent edited anthology, Family Trouble. I myself am working on a project that tells the story of my family’s history, and I’m grateful for the chance to have a conversation with you about it here and with the authors whose works you gathered via the pages of your book.

Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your writing background, and how did you come to want to put together this collection about the challenges of writing about family? How did you find the contributors to this book, who are many and varied?

Joy Castro: First of all, thank you so much for your interest in this book. I’m grateful. I hope Family Trouble will help many writers, aspiring writers, and teachers of writing as they think through these tricky issues.

I’ve published two books of memoir, The Truth Book (2005) and Island of Bones (2012), both from University of Nebraska Press, which also brought out Family Trouble. I’m also a writer of literary thrillers: Hell or High Water (2012) and Nearer Home, both set in New Orleans and both from St. Martin’s Press, and they’ve been optioned for film or television. I publish essays, short fiction, and poetry. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I teach fiction and creative nonfiction in the graduate program.

The idea for this particular collection began to grow when I was touring with The Truth Book. After I read, audiences always wanted to know how my family felt about the revelations it contained. That surprised me. I knew how carefully I’d thought through those issues of respect, privacy, and artistic license, but I hadn’t realized that anyone else would be interested.

At the AWP conference in 2008, I coordinated a panel on the topic—mostly due to my own curiosity, and so that I could hear what the other four panelists thought about it.  I thought 20 or 30 people might show up.  But over 400 came.  I knew then that I’d stumbled onto something that was an issue of real urgency for many people, so I decided to try gathering a collection of diverse views on the topic.

A few of the contributors were memoirists I knew personally whose work I admired.  Others were writers whose work alone I knew and admired, and I e-mailed them with an invitation to contribute. A very few, like Paul Lisicky and Susan Olding, were writers whose work I didn’t previously know but who were recommended to me by contributors whose work I’d already accepted, and their essays were really great and fit the collection’s topic well. In one case, I went after a published essay I’d read online, the piece by Alison Bechdel, because it spoke so beautifully (and succinctly) to the topic.

In gathering the pieces, I wanted to include memoirists whose opinions, aesthetics, and strategies diverged significantly, so the collection could examine the issue from a variety of perspectives.  No easy consensus emerges, and I think that’s a healthy, lively, challenging thing for readers to experience.

I also wanted other kinds of diversity:  cultural, sexual, racial, class, family itself.  There are several pieces by memoirists who occupy positions in the adoption triad, for example. These social, experiential factors inflect how we approach the issue of writing about family, so I wanted to try to include a broad range of standpoints.

Writing about family, just about everyone agrees, is problematic because it involves telling the stories of others. There is almost a necessary appropriation that happens in the writing of family stories, since families are, by definition, networks of relationships and of love, resentment, competing memories, and allegiances. “The details might be a part of my story,” writes Ariel Gore, “but it is not my story alone” (65). Similarly, Heather Sellers suggests in the last essay in the collection: “To write about family is to plagiarize life. I believe it can be done with grace. I believe, in my case, it has been the right thing to do. But it’s still stealing” (211). What do you think of Sellers’ use of plagiarism and theft as ways of talking about the theme at hand? Is writing about family always transgressive?

I was happy to get to write the introduction to the collection, which gave me the opportunity to lay out my own point of view on these matters at length. Here, I’ll just say that I respect, have learned from, and enjoy all the different essayists’ perspectives, but my own is that writing memoir is a search for understanding. For me, if I’m immersed in answering urgent questions that move and hurt me, and I include nothing irrelevant to those questions, nothing gratuitous, then the work is not transgressive or exploitative.

I understand, though, that the people about whom I’ve written may take a different view.

And to be frank, I understand that. When I’ve seen myself written about (as in a newspaper, for example), I often cringe a little, feeling as though a partial, and thus distorting, portrait has been drawn. This has come to seem perhaps inevitable, since we humans intersect with each other in such incomplete ways. Yet I still often find those public depictions uncomfortable and inaccurate. So I understand that people who’ve found themselves depicted in memoir might feel quite the same way—and even more strongly, since memoir often reveals painful material.

I wholly support writers’ right to explore such material, but I also empathize with people who don’t like seeing themselves in print.

In “Mama’s Voices,” Susan Olding describes feeling judged by her peers for writing about the difficulties she encountered while raising an adopted daughter who had been severely neglected while living in an orphanage as an infant. Writing about family is one thing, her peers say, but to write nonfiction is where ethical problems creep in, namely, the question of exploitation. Here’s a snippet from Olding’s essay, where she is reacting to an onslaught of negative feedback from her peers and mentor in writing workshop:

I ask the question that’s been bothering me. Was it something I said? Was there anything in that first essay—the one I brought to the class—was there anything in the writing, that led her to believe that I might treat this material in an exploitative way?

            No, she says. It wasn’t the writing. The writing was fine. But the situation was inherently exploitative. My daughter, I’d said, had been traumatized by her history of abandonment and orphanage neglect. To write a book about my daughter’s trauma would be to reinscribe it. It was a huge betrayal. ‘To a nonwriter, a book is the truth.’

            ‘Suppose I wrote a book of poems.’

            ‘Oh.’ She pauses. ‘That would be okay. That would be different.’

            But why? (108)

What is your response to the ways in which the fourth genre, our genre of (creative) nonfiction, is held up to a standard that is different and ethically more rigorous than fiction, poetry or drama?

It simply is. We stake a particular sociopolitical claim when we publish our work as nonfiction. We say, This really happened. We enter a contract with readers, many of whom read more intensely, invest differently, when they believe the work is factual. We can resist that contract, mock it as naïve, flout it, or honor it, as we like, but it’s there, and most writers operate with that awareness. Other genres offer the cloak—and it may be only an illusion, but it’s a functioning illusion—of unreality.

On that issue, I love David Lazar’s edited collection Truth in Nonfiction (University of Iowa Press, 2008), which includes essays by Kathryn Harrison, Mark Doty, Judith Ortiz Cofer, David Shields, John D’Agata, and more.

Family Trouble isn’t particularly focused on that issue, but it does crop up from time to time (as in the Olding essay), since it’s salient for all nonfiction writers.  In Karen McElmurray’s essay, for example, she recalls her father asking why she can’t just write it all but then publish it as a novel, and Bich Minh Nguyen’s essay addresses directly the issue of genre.

Last winter at the AWP Conference in Boston, I attended a very interesting panel on writing about family and friends. One piece of advice given there was never to give veto power to those you write about. Share your work only in its last stages, once you’re happy with it, and never offer control over to others. In Family Trouble, a variety of scenarios are offered: some writers describe sharing their work-in-progress and welcome input from those they write about; others publish without input and live with the consequences. Where do you come down on the issue of familial input and veto power?

That’s one of the things I love about the essays in Family Trouble: they demonstrate so clearly that what works for one writer won’t work for another. Where I come down on the issue of veto power is that the important thing is to think through your own situation and figure out what really works, the strategy that will let you sleep at night. Some of us are very autonomous, and what the AWP panel suggested will work fine. Some of us have identities that are more relational and wouldn’t dream of excluding our family members from the process, like Allison Hedge Coke and Paul Austin, whose essays are included in the book.

Ultimately, it’s a kind of cost-benefit analysis. What might a manuscript lose when you share it with family members and invite their feedback, and what might it gain? What might you lose if you publish without letting family members give input—relationships you value? The important thing is to be sure you’re aware of the potential costs and proceed accordingly.

In my own particular case, I shared the manuscript of The Truth Book with only my younger brother, who had gone through childhood abuse with me, and I did give him veto power. For me, his feelings were more important than my book. As it turned out, he vetoed nothing, and he actually reminded me of a detail that, when added, enhanced the story. I didn’t share the manuscript with other members of my family, because I knew them well enough to anticipate that they would be only angry, would want only to suppress publication.

It’s a calculation each writer needs to make for herself or himself:  for her or his own family, for her or his own art.

By and large, the authors in this collection agree on basic principles. Namely: nonfiction writers who tell family stories often write out of an urgent need. These are stories of survival, of struggle, and of identity formation. Most agree that they cannot predict the reactions of others. Most also agree that any pain caused is unintentional, but also a risk worth taking. Most agree that writing about family is not inherently exploitative, though all are aware of that danger as they write.

That said, there were a couple of passages in this book that surprised and troubled me. In “I Might Be Famous,” Ralph James Savarese writes about his adoption of a boy with autism and his subsequent decision to write a book both about and in collaboration with his son. “The whole point of the book and of the life the three of us had constructed was to show what was possible with respect to family making and autism, especially at the so-called low-functioning end of the spectrum” (132). Savarese worries explicitly about exposing his son and weighs the benefits of telling his child’s story against the harm it might cause – this is a calculation that, it seems to me, every writer must make.

But then we read the following: 

“This [meaning himself, Ralph James Savarese] wasn’t the case of a writer who, like David Sedaris, exploits his family for personal gain.” (133)

Huh. Really? The starkness of this judgment of a fellow writer who, after all, is doing something not all that different, was unexpected and seemed (to me) un-nuanced. Surely Sedaris is doing something more complex than simply exploiting his family. Surely he too writes from a place of necessity, even if his writing is funny, and he must do so for reasons other than personal gain. We know, for example, that the young Sedaris long lived a Spartan life and supported his writing life by cleaning houses. His work therefore can’t possibly just be about money or fame or status, no?

What do you make of the judgment that Savarese makes of Sedaris, and the way he seems to argue that writing about family is OK under one set of circumstances (his) and not OK under others? It seems to me that he’s doing something different here than Sellers who says “we are all thieves.” Savarese, by contrast, seems to say, “You are the thief. I am not.”

What an interesting point, and thanks for pointing out those areas of agreement that do emerge among many of the writers.

Without knowing exactly what was in Ralph’s mind when he made that comment, and without knowing David Sedaris’s history as well as you do, I’d hazard that he’s looking at Sedaris’s work as operating primarily in the mode of entertainment, of humor, rather than the kind of urgent search you mention above. Moreover, I’d imagine that he’s thinking about Sedaris in the aspect in which he came to the general public’s attention: as that rare writer who publishes regularly in The New Yorker and can fill an auditorium at $30 a ticket.  That is, as a writer who explores  family material for fun and profit, rather than as a writer who pursues family material with social and/or political urgency.

As you point out, that’s not a complete picture, and I’ve found some Sedaris pieces—recently, in fact—quite wrenching and serious. I don’t know whether to call them exploitative or not, so I probably wouldn’t; I don’t know enough about his work.

But I’d guess I’d understand Ralph’s line as employing Sedaris—“Sedaris,” if you will—as a kind of quick symbol for a subgenre of memoir that is primarily humorous and (perhaps not incidentally) quite profitable.

This circles back to that being-depicted-in-print issue I discussed above. You bristled at seeing Sedaris summed up so quickly and inaccurately—or incompletely, at least—for someone else’s agenda. David Sedaris might be uncomfortable to see himself so reduced to one or two aspects of his work. A partial portrait, deployed for someone else’s purpose.

My guess is that Ralph used “Sedaris” to convey, in a quick stroke, a kind of memoir that he himself isn’t interested in. However, that’s sheer speculation. I haven’t consulted Ralph with your question, and I could be entirely wrong.

Finally, Savarese appears to write off the genre of memoir and so-called confessional writing completely, suggesting that “the status of testimony to which so many memoirs of personal injury aspire might best be served by silence or some private expression of grief” (136). He seems to say: my motivations are pure, my story important, and therefore my project of writing about family members, even the most vulnerable ones, is acceptable and laudable. You (whoever you are…), however, should remain silent.

This seems problematic to me. Do we really want to re-silence communities (of women, of First Nations people, of transgendered individuals, of survivors of all kinds) who are just now finding their voices, because some of what they write may rub us the wrong way, or may not be high art, or may be different from the sorts of books we (or Savarese) might write?

Am I misreading being too harsh in my judgments in turn? Are we writers too easy on each other, wanting perhaps to see the best in our colleagues because that reflects better on us? Am I perhaps just being too touchy, given that I’m afraid of being the objects of such judgments myself? What do you make of this? Any wisdom you could offer on this series of (unanswerable) questions would be welcome!

I read this line in the Savarese essay differently. I see it as exploratory and philosophical, as directed toward Ralph himself and his own projects, as well as memoir generally, and as being therefore similar to Sandra Scofield’s essay’s exploration of not writing the potential memoir that’s nudging at her, or Dinty W. Moore’s final decision not to write about his daughter. Most memoirists have moments when they wonder if what they’re doing is good, is right, is justified, and I see Ralph’s line as musing on that.

Perhaps I’m especially inclined to read it that way because I have a larger context: I’ve read Ralph’s own memoir, had fascinating conversations with him, and know the extent of his support of other memoirists. I’m also familiar with his passionate editorial efforts to give voice to the diverse perspectives of others, such as the terrific special issue of Seneca Review on the lyric body and Papa PhD: Essays on Fatherhood by Men in the Academy (Rutgers UP, 2010). In my experience, he’s unlikely to call for anyone’s silence and instead works actively to promote the voices of others.

Aware of that larger context, I read his line as a kind of sympathetic, thoughtful probing of the issue (As writers, we’ve done x, but maybe y would really have been better). Again, I could be wrong. As an editor, I should have tried harder to imagine how that line would have fallen on the ears of someone who didn’t have that context, and I should have asked Ralph to clarify his point. Thank you.

In a larger sense, though, as an editor, I tried to include writers’ moments of doubt, of ambivalence, of self-contradiction. Paul Austin’s essay, for example, expresses a kind of wondering about what’s best, and so do some of the other memoirists included in Family Trouble.

I think the inclusion of these moments of self-interrogation may help to provide a fuller depiction of the thinking that goes into this issue.  They dramatize on the page the thoughtful way that memoirists have considered their work.  For most of us who write about our families, there’s nothing cavalier about it.  Rather, most memoirists have thought long and hard about these issues.  I think Heather Sellers’s and Jill Christman’s essays, for example, are sheer genius, and I love the piece by Aaron Raz Link.  Everyone’s essay offered something different, something interesting.

I’m looking forward to the Family Trouble panel this year at AWP in Seattle.  Contributors Faith Adiele, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Ralph Savarese, and Sue William Silverman will be there with me, reading brief excerpts from their essays and answering questions, and everyone’s welcome to come.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful engagement with the book, and every best wish with writing your own family story.

Thank you!








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