with Nathan Whitlock
The HLR presents a topical exchange between two individuals connected to the Canadian writing, reading, and publishing scene.
Too Much Information
All authors hate to be censored. But what about self-censorship? What if a scene or a story seems guaranteed to upset readers? And what if those readers are close friends or family members? Authors Elisabeth de Mariaffi and Jowita Bydlowska overshare on the topic of what to leave in, what to leave out, and the occasionally awkward assumptions readers make about writers.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi: It’s an interesting question because the nature of writing about my personal connection within a public experience I mean here the Bernardo murders, among other real-life stories that appeared in my novel The Devil You Know – turns out to be very different and yet just as fraught as writing about an entirely personal experience (as I did in my previous short story collection, How To Get Along With Women.) I really spent a lot of time considering how to write about the real-life cases, specifically because I didn’t want to be damaging to the families of victims. But I did want to talk about it, that time in history, and some of it felt close to the bone. There’s only one really awful detail in Devil, and it’s something someone passed on to me during the Bernardo trial that had come from a newspaper in Buffalo, NY. I carried this detail around with me for twenty years and then really worried over whether or not to put it in the book. In the end, I decided to let the character of Evie have my own experience – to hear it when she wasn’t expecting it, to be struck by the visceral nature of the image, to be unable to let it go. The image then stands for all the horror, all of it.
On the other side, any time I’m writing and pull someone or something in from my own experience, I worry about it. When is it too much? When does it become recognizable? I think that for better or for worse, I tend to side with the writing. I worried about including any detail about my own childhood, my parents, my grandparents, in both the short stories and the novel, but no one has ever been concerned. My parents have always been primo about that. Sometimes I do things accidentally – I once wrote a story with a particularly awful boyfriend in it, and realized only after publication that I’d given him a name that was one letter different from my ex-husband’s name. That was unintentional, but how on earth didn’t I catch it? I’ll tell you how: at some point in the writing, I think the story becomes bigger to me. The characters become themselves, independent of my own world. Sure, those things happened in real life, but over here, on paper, I’m doing a purposeful thing, and I can’t equate it with the chaotic thing that is actually living. Having said that, there’s a story in How To Get Along With Women that cut too close to the bone for a very dear friend of mine, and it’s only because of her incredible grace that we are still good friends. The problem is that all the things we might be reluctant to expose as friends make very compelling stories. For exactly that reason, they are so close, we are almost injured by them.
I’ve had times when people have “recognized” themselves in stories where, from my point of view as the writer, they do not appear at all. So there’s that, too.
Jowita Bydlowska: That was great, Elisabeth, and it reminds me of conversations I’ve had with Russell (Smith, my partner and an author), who always complains about real people taking offense when they decide a character in a story or novel of his was based on them.
The thing about my memoir, Drunk Mom, was that I started writing it as fiction. It allowed me to have a certain distance and observe what had occurred with almost clinical detachment. It was like I was reporting my own life, but it wasn’t my own life because I called it fiction (that’s how I pitched it to my agent). Once it was decided (by me and my agent) that it should be a memoir, I had to clean it up a bit and take out the fictional bits (there weren’t that many) and insert all the painful truths. I wanted it to be as close to the truth as possible and I knew I had to be ruthless, mostly with myself, to be able to present it right.
I didn’t want to tell other people’s side of the story (for example, my partner’s) because I didn’t know what that looked like from their end so I tried to limit their presence in the book. I referred to my partner as “boyfriend” and gave my son a fake name to make them more anonymous. I also created a composite of a few real people – this is mentioned in the acknowledgments – and overall, tried to protect the privacy of those I wrote about. Not sure how successfully but I haven’t had any major complaints.
I showed the book to Russell once it was already copy edited – I didn’t want his input in the earlier drafts because that could alter the truth; it wouldn’t be authentic. He was okay with that but only because we have an agreement that we don’t interfere with each other’s writing unless it’s to correct grammar (in my case) or give some minor suggestions. He showed me his short memoir (Blindsided) once he’d finished writing it and I didn’t ask him to take anything out. He read Drunk Mom and didn’t comment on it (not that there weren’t any feelings, which we had – and still do – to work out).
There’s one big thing – and I don’t mean to be a tease but its seems relevant – that I couldn’t include in the book. It had to do with a very traumatic event that occurred during my pregnancy that I couldn’t write about. It’s possible that that event contributed to my relapse into addiction, but I remain skeptical about what exactly causes an addict to relapse, and I believe that an addict has very few defenses against big traumas or little ones. I didn’t include this particular event was because I knew it would damage my extended family in more ways than the actual memoir might’ve. I took out some things about my childhood as well. The point is, I didn’t want to blame anybody for my relapse because, as I mentioned, I’m skeptical about why addicts relapse. (In my case it was probably post-partum depression but then, again, what causes that: chemistry, circumstances, trauma?)
Post-publication, the people who got most offended were strangers. I’ve gotten threatening emails and there was some bad press too. A blogger wrote a damning post about the book even though she never read it (go figure). There was lots of support as well. Both good and bad reactions were important because they opened a dialogue about addiction and motherhood and so on.
My next book (and the one after that) will be works of fiction. I find that it’s so much easier to “hide” behind fiction and tell the truth through characters that don’t exist. I also know there are authors taking little revenges via fiction. Elisabeth, I wonder if you’ve ever put anything in your fiction that would’ve sent a “signal” to some asshole who’d done you wrong.
Also, I love that quote (by whom I can’t remember): “Don’t want to be written about? Don’t have dinner with a writer.”
EdM: Ha, yes, exactly. Or I think Annie Lamott says: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better….” I don’t think I’ve ever sent out a purposeful signal, but I have certainly had the odd time where I was not reluctant to include someone’s awful behaviour, because I did not care whether that person recognized their awful self in my story, and if they did, well, you know. You reap what you sow. However, here’s the thing: none of those people have ever complained. Whether this is because they didn’t read the books, or because they didn’t recognize themselves, it’s impossible for me to guess.
I once purposefully wrote a character to look and act nothing like my actual boyfriend at the time, because it was a sort of magic realism happy-ending fable-type story, and I already knew I liked him less than he liked me, and I was so deeply worried he would read the story and see the happy ending as really being me-and-him (where I knew that my real happy ending was going to be me-without-him). The hilarious part is that I made the story-man have red hair, and a year later I met an actual red-haired guy and married him. So now I’m worried people will pick up the book and think I was writing about that. You cannot win.
Jowita, I think you say so many true things -- but I especially like how you knew you had to be ruthless with yourself. I think if we’re going to bother writing about difficult, challenging things, then there is no other way. If you skim over the hard parts, then what’s the point? And the person I’m most ruthless with when I’m writing is always going to be myself, because in fact that’s when things get truly engaging, that’s when you get compelling characters. I do think that fiction affords me a critical distance. I don’t think, for instance, I could ever have written a memoir about growing up in the eighties and losing my best friend to a murderer, even though that also is a famous case. I couldn’t because of all the other people it implicates, but also I just don’t think the work would have been as strong. So that’s about knowing the story and knowing my own strengths, I guess. I’m really interested in how you made the switch from novel to memoir with Drunk Mom – what was the moment when you knew you were approaching it from the wrong side? Was it something you knew all of a sudden, or did it sneak up on you?
JB: That’s hilarious about the red-haired man!
The switch from novel to memoir happened once I got sober (I was writing the fictional Drunk Mom while drinking – probably as a form of self-therapy). So I got sober, felt stronger and I also decided that I can’t really give too many fucks about what people think about me or my art if I want it to be authentic. Later, I told myself I would never write another memoir... but now I’m not sure I’ll keep that promise since I have an idea about a memoir about immigrating to Canada, which might possibly just end up being one of those autobiographical fictions – aren’t those just the best things? You can write whatever you want about your life and all kinds of unflattering stuff about other people – hello, Karl Ove Knausgård – and then say it’s fiction.
In my mind, fiction is the most ambitious, difficult form of writing, and I can’t wait to get out of the Drunk Mom box. I would like to not talk about myself any more (my Toronto Star columns about mental health are a different story), or at least a little less.
Elisabeth, what do you think about readers being so curious about the authors of the books they read? And what’s your experience with the “celebrity” factor of being an author in this time of having to constantly self-promote, engage, have social-media presence, etc.? (Personally, I couldn’t care less about meeting Michel Houellebecq even though I love his writing.)
EdM: I have a kind of social media/self-promotion burnout these days that I just can’t seem to get over... I’m terrible at Twitter because I really want every tweet to be good and meaningful or at least genius-level funny, and so every time I write one I have to put the 140 characters through a stringent set of re-reads and they rarely pass the test. So now I’ve wasted ten minutes on 140 characters and in the end I don’t post it. I have a website, and for a while I was very good at updating the blog part of it. Now… not so much. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, it’s that I think I have limited quiet time in my life and I really want that time to be invested in something more permanent. And hearing your own voice cheerleading your own work all the time can start to feel boring.
I try not to worry about people confusing me with a character, although I know they do. Even friends! And definitely strangers. I’ve been approached by readers and interviewers who all start a question with: You know when you did this in the book….? That goes both for the novel and for a handful of particular short stories. I don’t think it’s something I can bother with worrying about. I like writing about women. I’ve decided it means readers are really connecting with the character; they are as in love or as engaged as I am when I’m writing, so that’s a good thing.
The fan mail I’ve gotten through TDYK has been pretty phenomenal – I really didn’t know what to expect, and kind of expected some people to be offended by the idea of writing about Paul Bernardo. (Even though that’s not what the book is really about, it carries that weight.) In fact, all the mail has been very positive, but very personal. The majority of the letters I get are from women who have experienced trauma, and they are sharing that story, they are looking for someone to share it with. They see in me someone who can access and respond to their stories, and in a way that’s true, but there have been times where it feels like emotional heavy-lifting. I knew that speaking publicly about my personal connection to the Sharin’ Keenan story could open that door – that was a risk I was taking, but it’s also a key part of the book I wrote. I would love to say, New rule! Writers get to be judged on their work alone, and I get to write about anything and never address my connection to it! But I think as a writer, I’m a private person who has chosen a public role, and there are some responsibilities that come along with that. I wrote about some dark, important times in Toronto, and I wrote about them so that we could have a conversation. We don’t write for the void. We write to be read, to push ideas along; if you see literature as culture or cultural production, you have to be willing to talk about it. I feel very lucky to not have gotten any kind of anti-feminist trolling, but I did go into things wondering if that would happen, and taking that on. The key is maybe not to self-censor, exactly, but to pinpoint the things you want to be in the conversation, and be ruthless and include those things. I said earlier that I find the sound of my own voice cheerleading my own work kind of boring – but on the other hand, I was able to use that blog and that voice as an activist earlier this year when the whole country was organizing protests around the Cindy Gladue verdict, and I was very glad to have it.
JB: I have the same problem when it comes to Twitter. It’s just too hard. I used to Tweet about how hard it is for me to come up with Tweets.
I get a lot of emails and messages and meet people at readings who share their own stories of addiction (and sometimes addiction and parenthood), so there’s already that intimacy established when they say they relate; many have written and said they felt as if they were reading their own story (not necessary the content but the feelings I’ve described). Occasionally, I would feel overwhelmed by people asking me to help them as I’m in no way qualified to do that and I’ve had some crazy experiences trying to “help” by, for example, taking people to AA meetings. I ended up feeling so guilty and responsible and emotional about it all that it started to really affect me. I don’t do any of that any more and have set some boundaries, but it took me a while to understand that I didn’t owe people anything (hey, I already wrote a book for them), but I am always very humbled and touched when people write to share their stories. And it kills me to know how many broken people are out there who can’t get out of the hell that is active addiction.
I think writing a memoir (or a personal essay, for example) is an exercise in control. I was very conscious of what I decided to reveal and sure, some of that Jowita from a few years ago is me but I evolve just like anybody else and I don’t think anybody can have any true insight into another person if this person (the author) gives you exactly and only what they intend to give. My book was not a camera recording of that period in my life; it was a carefully distilled account of it. (I love this essay by Leah McLaren who’s way more articulate than I am about what it’s like to write a memoir).
Writing fiction feels like freedom. I love it. The main character of my upcoming novel, GUY, is a total misogynist, and I got to write him from first-person POV and I had so much fun with it. My editor (Paul Vermeersch) wants me to make the title character even more of an asshole, so I’m looking forward to the rewrites. The best thing about it is that Guy is completely made up (in other words, I didn’t base him on anyone/anything other than a single thought I had on a beach, seven years ago). He’s a wealthy douchebag in his late 20s who sleeps around and hey, I even got to imagine what it would be like to have a dick, so that was fun, too. Also, I’m not responsible for him at all. He doesn’t exist. People can write him all the hate emails they want.
I am hoping he will get invited to speak at a PUA convention, though.
Elisabeth de Mariaffi is the Giller Prize-nominated author of How To Get Along With Women (Invisible Publishing, 2012) and The Devil You Know (HarperCollins, Canada; Simon & Schuster, USA 2015). Her poetry and short fiction have been widely published in magazines across Canada. In 2013, her story “Kiss Me Like I’m the Last Man on Earth” was shortlisted for a National Magazine Award. Elisabeth now makes her home in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where she lives with the poet George Murray, their combined four children and a border collie – making them CanLit’s answer to the Brady Brunch. elisabethdemariaffi.com
Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, and moved to Canada as a young teen. Currently, she lives in Toronto with her little family in a little house. Drunk Mom, her memoir about drinking, is published by Doubleday Canada and HarperCollins Australia (2013) and Penguin USA (2014). She writes about culture, social issues, and mental health for the National Post, The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, Salon, Fix magazine, The Times UK, Elle, FASHION, Chatelaine, Hazlitt, THIS magazine, and more. Her first novel, GUY, will be published by Wolsak & Wynn in 2016. jowitabydlowska.com