Posts Tagged ‘Memoir’

Live Nude Books: You’ve written several personal narratives for a number of publications; have you always had a desire to write a memoir?  What made you choose to write about this subject—the experience of purchasing a home?

Mary Elizabeth Williams: I’ve always written first person — I would go on field trips as a kid and come home and compose an essay about what I did and how I felt. 

The challenge for any writer is to get out of your own navel and figure out how your own experience will resonate on a more universal level. That’s why I chose to do a book about home — it wasn’t something unique to me, it’s something anyone who’s ever had a roof over his or her head has context for. And what happened during the housing bubble was particularly dramatic — I wanted people to know wherever they were and whatever they went through, they weren’t alone.

LNB: In the book, you develop and explore several themes: familial bonds, friendship, security, and how place contributes to a person’s identity.  When you began working on the memoir, did you have an idea for the types of themes you wanted to touch on?  Did those themes emerge naturally through the writing process?

MEW: The book went through some changes — originally a lot more took place in my childhood. But as I refined the narrative, I was more involved in the story of a family in a particular place and time in history, so that began to take more of the center stage. As I got more confident as a first time author, I realized you don’t need to know my whole life to get why buying a home was so important. I also wanted to emphasize that this notion of the “ownership society” wasn’t just something that hit me because of my specific circumstances — it was something that was very aggressively peddled to the American people in general. That’s why I brought in the stories of my friends and family and their homebuying experiences.

LNB: During the three-year process of becoming a homeowner, you were raising two kids and working.  How were you able to find time to write this book?  Do you have a writing routine?

MEW: Well, sleep is the first to go. I got in the habit very early on of firing up the laptop right after putting the kids to bed, and making myself do at least a solid hour every night. I could carve out longer blocks on the weekends. No checking email. No surfing. Just me and a word document. 

The key is to just bang away and keep banging. I cut a lot of parts and I rewrote even more, but if you’re in the routine of writing, you become very Pavlovian about it.

LNB: What are you currently working on?

MEW: I’m writing regularly for and continuing to contribute to PRI’s morning show, and I have two messy, much too unformed book ideas. Summer has kicked my routine to bits, so the plan is to start developing the next book more fully in the fall. I’m basically going to put both ideas in the steel cage, write every night, and see which one emerges victorious.

LNB: What have you recently read that you’re recommending to friends and other readers?

MEW: Lily Burana’s, I Love a Man in Uniform, is great — it’s the story of an unlikely military wife that’s incredibly funny and moving and taught me so much about this world that’s so alien to me. And I’m just finishing Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. You could call it a supernatural noir novel — imagine Sam Spade if he’d gone to hell and you start to get the idea. It’s fantastic.


Homeownership constitutes a good portion of the American Dream.  It represents a transitional stage in people’s lives, moving from the temporary lifestyle of renting to the permanence of buying.  It’s an investment—both financially and in terms of family security.  Mary Elizabeth Williams includes all of these as reasons for why she wants to own a home in her debut memoir, Gimme Shelter.  But what’s made just as clear during this three-year period is the desire for her and her family to find a place to call home that represents their personality.

Originally from New Jersey, Williams had visions of living in New York City.  Before the dot-com boom of the mid-nineties relocated her to San Francisco, she lived across the river from NYC and described its distance from her as being “light years” away.  When the dot-com bubble burst, she and her husband moved to Brooklyn to start a family.  They knew that New York was where they wanted to establish themselves and figured the money they were pumping into rent would be better served going toward a more permanent investment. However, home values in the neighborhood where they lived and wanted to stay began rising steadily.  They were being priced out of the area they had called home since 1999.

The decision to leave the area, or move completely out of the city, seems logical.  If you can’t afford to live where you want, look elsewhere.  But that’s not how Williams sees it.  When pondering the idea of returning to New Jersey, she writes, “In my mind, if I move back to exactly where I clawed my way out of, I haven’t gone anywhere in my life at all.”  She knows for sure that she must stay in the city, but where-to becomes a large obstacle.  As Williams explains, “In New York, if you live off your friends’ nearest subway line, or anywhere that involves crossing a park, body of water, or from east to west, you will never ever see them.”  People are a big part of what makes a location.

It’s easy to empathize with the frustrations she experiences—the lack of adequate homes for sale in the area, financial woes, a pregnancy, and the various hoops one has to jump through when trying to obtain a mortgage—all of which contribute to delaying her and her family from reaching their goal.  The entire process envelops her, creating emotional strain and causing her to doubt whether or not to continue house hunting. Anytime a setback or thoughts about leaving New York occur, Williams weaves in a friend’s story that applies to the situation.

These anecdotes seem to help reaffirm her desire to live in New York and provide a certain level of comfort to her.  Knowing that she’s experiencing stress and anxiety about this transition similar to what others have felt helps her maintain a level of sanity that might otherwise vanish.  She also contrasts the friends’ situations—involving divorce, expanding families, 9/11, and even hurricane Katrina—to hers.  In light of her friends’ circumstances, Williams realizes that her family’s situation is different.  They are as much a part of New York as it is of them.

You can make the best of what’s inside four walls, but what characterizes your place in the world is what greets you when you step outside.  It’s like the old guy I overheard in the deli once.  “Leave?” he’d said.  “I need my track.  I need my bookies.”  For Mike and Deb and their sons, it’s the lawn and this swing set and this hammock.  For us it’s the throb of humanity, viewed from a stoop.

Williams does a wonderful job of pinpointing the locations of neighborhoods in the city, describing them in detail, and providing enough background information on them to give the reader a sense of their cultural and economic importance to the narrative.  And more importantly, she gains the readers trust.  Her responses to adversity feel genuine, likely because the insight she offers isn’t predictable.  She candidly shares a wide range of emotion throughout the book, which made me root for her every step of the way.


Mary Elizabeth Williams is the author of Gimme Shelter, a memoir chronicling her journey toward becoming a homeowner.  She has contributed to the following books, as well: Not Quite What I was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure; The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World; The Complete Idiots Guide to Movies, Flicks & Films; and The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors.

Bio from the Gimme Shelter book jacket:

Mary Elizabeth Williams is the cultural critic for Public Radio International’s morning news show, THE TAKEWAWAY, and a regular contributor to  She has written for many publications including THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE NEW YORK OBSERVER, and PARENTS.  She has appeared on Court TV and has lectured on journalism and community at New York University and Columbia University.  She lives in New York City.

To read a sample of Williams’s work, click here.

To see the book trailer for Gimme Shelter, click here.

Live Nude Books: On the surface, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way profiles the men in your life.  The subtitle lets readers know that this is also a book about the various roles in which you identify yourself.  And while reading, it’s hard to ignore the contrasts between social classes.  When you began working on this book, were men, identity, and class your focuses?

Diana Joseph: The first essay I ever wrote is in this book. It’s the one about my son called “The Boy,” and I had such a good time writing it that I immediately wrote “What’s (Not) Simple,” the one about his father.

Around that same time I read Joan Didion’s essay “Why I Write.”  In it she says, “I write to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” I was making discoveries, too. Through writing these essays, I realized the person I adored could also be the person who drove me koo-koo bananas. I realized I dished out as much misery as I took, I gave as good as I got, and that my relationships with the people I loved weren’t easy just because I loved them. I got to thinking what would happen if I wrote about other people who matter to me? What would else would I figure out? So I wrote about my father. And then about an ex-boyfriend and my brother and my dog. I’d written five or six of the essays before I even noticed all my subjects were quirky males. I also noticed that something in my own character might be considered just as quirky. I didn’t intentionally sit down and say to myself I think I will write a book about the various men in my life and the influence they’ve had in the construction of my identity—a thought like that would have made me cringe—but recognizing the pattern, I decided to go with it.

And that’s the best part about having a huge pile of pages:  I can go through them and look for connections, recurring themes, images, obsessions.  So can I tell you how happy I am that you’ve identified class issues as a subtext in this book?  Because I think it is very much a book about class, about growing up blue collar, though I didn’t realize that until the manuscript was just about finished.  In retrospect, I should’ve known since so many of my reactions to the world are based in my reactions to class.

LNB: You identify several people in the book by nickname (The Boy, my old man, Bye Bye, The Satanist, the cat-talkers) or repeatedly by their full name (Vincent Petrone, Andrew Boyle, Gerry Hawthorne).  Is this a style choice, or a way to connect with/distance yourself from these characters?

DJ: It is about connecting with and distancing from people.  Referring to my son as “The Boy” serves a couple purposes.  One is, of course, my interest in protecting his privacy.  There’s also that his father and I have always called him “Boy” and “The Boy.”  But personal stuff aside, in the context of the essays, I think there’s something universal, something archetypal, about him, his boy-ness, that labeling him as “The Boy” emphasizes—a lot of readers have written to me about how much he reminds them of their sons or the boys they know or the boys they were.

LNB: The essays in your book contain a lot of humor; at times, they’re laugh out loud funny.  I don’t read or hear about very many female humorists.  Have you found this to be the case, as well?  If so, why do you think that is?  If not, can you recommend any writers/titles?

DJ: Of course there are funny women writers.   Sarah Vowell is funny; so is Amy Sedaris, so is Lorrie Moore.  Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You made me laugh.  Amanda Davis (Wonder When You’ll Miss Me); Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club); Susan Jane Gilman (Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress)—all funny women writers.  I think Flannery O’Connor is hilarious, and Jane Austen, and Margaret Atwood, Alison Laurie, and Jane Smiley.  I’m working my way through Mary Roach’s book, and she’s funny.  Have you read Binnie Kirshenbaum’s novels?  Read her.  She’s funny.

(Also, check out this:

But there’s this wacky idea that women writers are not funny.  Have you ever read that Vanity Fair piece by Christopher Hitchens?  (On a side note, a similar notion that women can’t write about sex has been going around.)  There-are-no-funny-women-writers is a generalization I’ve even heard supposedly intelligent, well-read people spout.  It’s a sexist thing to say, and simplistic, and I wonder what would motivate someone to say it.  Ultimately, though, I think it’s so asinine that I have a hard time getting too worked up.

But if you’re interested in theories on what humor is and how humor works, there’s a lot that’s been written about it.  Thomas Hobbes says “that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly” (or it’s fun to make fun of ourselves and others.)  Immanuel Kant says, “In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd” (belief in that statement means I want you as a friend.)  Bernard Chazelle’s essay “The Humorology of Power” is also a must-read.

LNB: In a recent edition of the radio show, Here and Now, your book was grouped into the “Bad Parenting” genre of memoir; however, not all of your essays are directly about parenting.  What are your thoughts on the book’s classification?

DJ: Well, the “bad” parents of this genre are what I think of as honest parents, parents who acknowledge that sometimes children are not fascinating, are not always interesting, are not necessarily witty conversationalists.  Since that was often the case during my experience as a parent, I don’t have a problem with the label.

LNB: Some of the essays in your book take place quite a while ago, others occur more recently.  Do you find a certain amount of time needs to pass before writing about a specific event?  Is it a feeling you get before you begin writing, or do you come to this realization—I might need to think about this more—when drafting?

DJ: Yes!  When the house is on fire, I don’t stop and think about what it means that the house is on fire; in that moment, I’m just thinking about how to get out of the house.  But later, I can reflect on that fire, the burnt-down house, I can try to figure out what it means.  For me, a good essay has reflection—the writer showing a particular way of thinking, way of seeing, way of making meaning.  I like writing that leads me to recognition (I know exactly what you mean) or revelation (I never thought of it like that before.)  The best writing gives me both.  I’m not crazy about essays that are really just anecdotes that leave me wondering so what?  Why are you telling me this? But answering the “so what” sometimes means the writer needs some time and space and distance from the event.  At least I do.

LNB: How did you decide on the order in which the essays appear?

DJ: I knew I wanted “Tongue Twister, Tongue Tied,” the essay about my dad to come first.  It makes sense since he’s the original guy in my life, and I wanted the rest of the essays to be seen through the complications and dynamics of my relationship with him.  I wanted “Ten Million, At Least,” the essay about my most recent and most grown-up relationship with a man to come last.  Those two pieces, for me, serve as bookends.

But I struggled with how to order the rest of the essays.  When I turned the manuscript in, I’d arranged the pieces chronologically.  It was my editor, Amy Einhorn, who suggested chucking that and coming up with a more rhetorical ordering, putting a darker piece next to a lighter piece, a piece that highlights some of my bigger foibles and flaws next to a piece that shows less of them.  I think she was right.

LNB: Your first book, Happy or Otherwise, is a collection of short stories.  I’m Sorry You Feel that Way is a memoir in essays.  From a craft standpoint, what differences and similarities have you encountered when making the shift from fiction to nonfiction?

DJ: In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor talks about her story “Good Country People,” how when she was writing it she didn’t know the Bible salesman was going to steal the lady PhD’s wooden leg until a few lines before it happened. And that’s what I love about writing fiction: the what-happens that come as a surprise. I love the way characters can catch me off guard, behave in ways that are inevitable but unexpected.

But in nonfiction, people have already done what they’re going to do, they’ve already said what they’re going to say.  Several of the essays in the book were worked on in real time—as I was living them—so the details were right there in front of me.  All I had to do was pay attention.  I’ve got scraps of papers and old receipts, little notebooks and bar napkins, upon which I jotted things down.  Observations.  Descriptions. Bits of dialogue. I have a bar tab from September 6, 2006.  It’s from a night I hung out with Andrew Boyle, the guy I write about in “It’s Me.  It’s Him.  It’s Them.”  I’ve written all over that bar tab, scribbled down great stuff Andrew said.  Like this:  “I feel like Woody Guthrie in the land of shoes.”  And this:  “It’s the same trick I play on myself so many times.  I think I’m going to clear up her problems.  If I’m good to her, I’ll clear up her problems and she’ll stop being a freak.”  I have that dirty little drawing I mention in “Officer Frenchie,” the essay about my brother Travis.  I’d send a copy to show you but it’s even nastier than I remember, and I don’t want to offend.

In other essays, like the one about my father, I relied almost entirely on memory and its sometimes steady, sometimes slippery path between the hippocampus and cerebral cortex.  I set out to write all the stories I knew about him.  I made lists of everything I knew for sure and everything I didn’t know.  I wrote down advice he’s given me—repeatedly—through the years.  I wrote down conversations we had and conversations I only wished we had.  I had pages and pages of material.  Is it accurate?  I say it is.  Is it the same story my brothers would tell?  I guess you’d have to ask them.

LNB: Do you still write fiction?  What are you working on next?

DJ: My MFA thesis is a collection of short stories that ultimately became Happy or Otherwise.  During the time I was writing that book, I was absolutely obsessed with short stories; they were all I read.  I wanted to learn everything I could about all the ways to write a short story.

I still think of myself as an apprentice to that form, the story, and a good one still makes my heart thump-thump-thump a little louder, a little faster (Have you ever read Let’s Do by Rebecca Meacham or Ask for a Convertible by Danit Brown?  Amazing stories, smart, gorgeously written stories, and funny, too) but somewhere along the line I got distracted by nonfiction, and all of its possibilities.  I recently passed along my old copies of Story magazine—1994-1996, the years I was in graduate school—to one of my MFA students.  It was a nostalgic moment for me, sort of like passing a torch, this handing over of stories that represent my writerly education.  I want to return to stories again someday, but for now I’m studying up on all the forms an essay can take.

LNB: What books (new or not so new) have you recently read and recommend?

DJ: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.  This is my favorite book by anybody ever.  I’ve given away more copies of this book than any other, and I reread it every summer.

imsorryyoufeelthatwayREALDiscussing her book, Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World, writer Peggy Orenstein states, “Motherhood silences women.  The kryptonite words for women are fat, slut, bad mother and selfish.  The words make us lose our powers just like Superman loses his in the face of kryptonite.”  After reading Diana Joseph’s memoir in essays, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Tale of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog, it’s apparent that these kryptonite words fail to cripple Ms. Joseph.  Instead, she examines the language used by the men in her life, in addition to their actions, to explore themes pertaining to the various roles that define her.

Joseph chronicles her relationships with the men in a series of hilarious character sketches.  And as the subtitle suggests, she profiles her father, brothers, husbands, son, colleagues, friends, ex-boyfriends and, of course, her dog (who can’t quit humping everything in his path).  While the essays focus on males, they uncover more about the writer—her desire to understand these men in an attempt to gain self-understanding.

Raised in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town, Joseph’s father owned a towing and auto body shop.  One of her past boyfriends painted her name in gold on his demolition derby car and proposed to her by hiding the engagement ring in a bean burrito.  She has worked her way up from waitress to college professor, observing differences in class throughout her journey.  As a single mother, Joseph preferred smoking and reading during her son’s Tee Ball games, while the helicopter moms cheered on the team and left her alone.  As an Adjunct Professor, she attended parties where her colleagues discussed nature and talked about their cats.  These people and their conversations didn’t interest her, and she tried to let them know it.

…the phone would ring, and [the boy would] run toward it, crying, It’s Dad! It’s Dad! only he was superexcited so it came out sounding like It’s Sad! It’s Sad!
“That is sad!” a cat-talker said.  She was the trim, fit athletic wife of someone in the math department.  Or maybe geology.  Hers was a happy life.  Her cats were named Cutie, Kiki, and Beaner.  I had interrupted her cat story with my boy story, and now she was empathizing with me, and I didn’t like it one bit.  What was her deal?
“Oh, it’s sad all right,” I said.  “Nine times out of ten, it’s a collection agency calling.  I don’t have any money, so it’s actually tragic.  For them.”

She also contrasts herself with friends and close colleagues.  There’s the Satanist who’s deeply rooted in his family.  Joseph fears for his soul and worries about this young man because her religious upbringing and the people who contributed to it have remained with her since childhood.  And there’s her snarky colleague who wears designer clothing and takes art photos of nude women.  While Joseph tries to conclude whether he’s a pervert or a romantic, she never forgets about her desire to knee him in the balls.

She continues by drawing parallels between situations pertaining to family members.  In separate essays, she writes of the sex talk she received from her dad and the one she gave to her 5-year-old son.  Her dad’s was vague and indirect, while her talk was extensive and included a lesson in mythology.  Joseph also shows how different her two brothers are—one’s a crude police officer, the other’s a quiet doctor—yet, she reveals how they both have similar desires in life: to meet a nice girl, start a family.  Even if she doesn’t know everything about these men, she understands enough about them to show compassion and empathy.

But she still seeks answers, and getting the men in her life to open up isn’t always easy.  Her son often refuses to give her straight answers, while she expresses timidity about asking her father anything too personal.  Her brother, Mitchell, hardly says a word over the phone, while her brother, Bye-Bye, responds obnoxiously, often disclosing the details of his sex life.  Despite the lack of communication that can occur, Joseph provides meaningful insight about her relationships with men.  She questions her effectiveness in each role, while attempting to understand and define the meaning of those roles.  At times, she seeks reassurance that she’s doing a good job, while other times she just wants a break. This memoir shows that Diana Joseph is a person who’s not afraid to poke fun at herself for the purpose of discovery.  Along the way, she invites readers to laugh along with her.

Recently, the NPR show, Here and Now, discussed with Steve Almond a subset of the memoir genre called Bad Parenting.  These books aren’t about the writers being abusive or overly-neglectful parents; rather, they paint a more honest portrait of writers’ feelings and attitudes toward parenting.  To listen to the interview, click here (it’s about halfway down the page).

ayelet-waldmanCNN has gotten in the mix, as well.  They posted a video clip the other day about Ayelet Waldman’s new book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.  Waldman discusses how the book came about, how she wrote a 2005 NY Times article that received a lot of criticism from helicopter moms, and how differently the reactions to this subject are now, compared to four years ago.  I’ve tried to embed this clip several times, without success.  I’m not sure whose fault it is:  Word Press’s, CNN’s, or mine.  Anyway, you can watch the clip here.  And to learn more about Waldman’s book and this genre, you can read Time‘s interview with her by clicking here.

I’m posting these links and information as a transition to this week’s featured writer, Diana Joseph.  Her memoir, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of A Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man & Dog, is grouped into this genre on the NPR show (and Steve Almond reads an excerpt from the book).  I’ll be reviewing the book and discussing this topic with her later in the week.