Today, I am so super-excited to bring you Theo Pauline Nestor, author of the newly released memoir (okay, as of tomorrow), How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed.
I am not what you would call a classic memoir reader. What I mean by that is that if I'm in Barnes and Noble, I rarely drift to the non-fiction table and instead wander over to the novels. (And I do sometimes feel that some memoir subjects are less fascinating than the authors might have deemed themselves...geez, though it feels lousy to say that.) That said, there are a lot of upcoming memoirs that I'm truly psyched about including, but not limited to Jen Lancaster's Such a Pretty Fat, Trish Ryan's He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, and Stephanie Klein's Moose, but most often, yeah, I'm a fiction type of gal. But I was sent a galley of Theo's book, which chronicles her divorce and her subsequent recovery, and though most galleys I receive go unread, for whatever reason, I was drawn to this one, and as soon as I read the first chapter, I was sucked in for the long-haul.
The reason, for me, that this book was so readable is because it's not "memoir-y," and by that I mean, yes, this is a true slice of the author's life, but it also reads as smoothly as a novel. I wanted to get to that final chapter and uncover the ending just as I do any fictional creation. I've never been divorced, never even been close to divorce, but this was a universal story about how one woman struggles through the muck and finds her way, and that message resonated with me, regardless of my exact life circumstance. What also made this memoir so intriguing is that it is one of several that got its roots in the NY Times's Modern Love column, which isn't an easy gig to land in and of itself.
So, whew, without further ado, I'm thrilled to have Theo here today to answer a few questions for Ask Allison readers. After reading the Q/A, head out and grab her book. I don't think you'll be disappointed! For more on Theo, check out her website.
1) The germ of this book started out as a Modern Love column. As you drafted that essay, did you ever think, “Oh, this is a much bigger story?”
I actually extracted material from a larger (frankly, rambling) piece to create the 1800-word Modern Love column. In the first days of my divorce, I found every day was full of terribly profound moments, and even though I had no intention of writing a memoir about my divorce, I kept taking notes. Some time after the column was out, I started to realize that what I was writing was becoming a book.
2) Can you tell us how indeed it evolved from a column to a memoir? Was it seamless or, as I’d imagine, a little tougher than it sounds?
The essay that appeared in Modern Love describes the sudden end of my marriage and then an overview of the pain and shock I felt in the first few months after our split up. I knew I couldn't use the article as it was because it covered too quickly the crucial time frame that held a great deal of my story, but I did end up taking the break-up scene from the essay, expanding it and using it as the opening chapter of the book.
However, publishing the essay in the New York Times helped the article evolve into a book in many ways. First, I received an enormous number of emails from readers of the column and their letters gave me a lot of good ideas for the book. Also, the fact that the essay had been published in such a popular column helped get publishers interested in the project while it was still a proposal.
3) I know that you’ve also published fiction. Did it ever occur to you to fictionalize your story and instead write a novel? Especially these days when memoirists are really held up to a lot of scrutiny re: accuracy.
I didn’t want to write a novel, partly because I could hear the voice of this book even before I knew what all it would cover. I knew it was a memoirist’s voice, one that said to the reader: Listen, this is true. In one moment I was married and in the next I wasn’t. I was afraid and angry and sad and then I was hopeful and tired and happy. I thought it would be a voice that would earn the trust of readers, especially those going through a divorce themselves.
4) If I were to write a memoir (which I never will!), I’d always be concerned about portraying other people fairly and accurately, and you did indeed mention this in the acknowledgments, in terms of your ex-husband. Were you ever tempted to downplay what really happened out of concern over upsetting others and if not, how did you get over this?
I wanted to write this book without mentioning that my marriage ended because of my husband’s gambling addiction. I had no desire to reveal that to the world. I didn’t want to do anything to hurt (or frankly, anger) him and my purpose in writing a memoir about my divorce was not to “tell all the dirt” but to share my experience with transitioning suddenly from being married to being divorced. The trouble was the story didn’t make any sense without the reason why we split. I tried multiple times to write it without the gambling in there, and it never worked. People who are reasonably happy (we were) don’t split up overnight unless something big has happened and when I wrote about the split up without including the reason, it seemed like either 1) I was being overly coy or 2) we split up because my husband had an affair (or something worse…although I’m not sure what that would be). So, what I decided to do was include the gambling but write just the minimum about it. I also tried to offset that information by including scenes in the book that showed what a good person my ex-person is despite his addiction. Still, it’s not easy.
5) What I loved about your book is that to me, it read like a novel. How did you decide which stories to include, which aspects of your divorce and post-divorce life to highlight, and which to discard? Was this an instinctive process or is this where an editor really helps you out?
At first I wrote from instinct, but as I drafted the proposal for the book, I tried to think of which of the experiences I went through in this post-divorce period were universal because I wanted to write a book that readers who’d been through divorce would relate to and find helpful. During this process, I read self-help books and talked to friends about their divorces and then returning to my own experience, I picked out the events and experiences that seemed endemic to the divorce process--telling friends and random acquaintances, looking for work, dealing with depression, helping kids through their anger and grief, rebuilding life as a single person and even falling in love again.
6) I know that I found my novel’s release to be the most nerve-wracking aspect of the entire process, and I imagine it’s even more so when it’s such a personal book. You’re right on the cusp of publication: can you tell us how that feels?
Sometimes, I think I’m okay and then I realize I’m really nervous. Oddly, it’s not so much that strangers and friends are going to read personal details of my life. For some reason, I don’t really think about that. I just want the book to do well out there in the world. It’s sort of like I’m sending my youngest child off to kindergarten.
7) You also teach memoir writing at the University of Washington . What are the three (or so) biggest tips for memoir writers to keep in mind as they go about turning their own histories into books?
1) Be patient with yourself. Throughout every stage of the memoir writing process, you will feel internal resistance. It is very scary to tell the truth about your experience and expect that you’ll need to keep giving yourself permission to do so.
2) Learn everything you can about story telling. Study the craft of fiction writing. Character development, plot, theme---all those things that make a novel work are present in memoirs. An excellent book about shaping your story into a memoir is Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer. I highly recommend it.
3) Don’t hold back. When you’re writing you’ll no doubt think oh I can’t write this. Everyone I know will leave me and I will die penniless and alone. Yes, maybe, but that might happen anyway, but in the meantime, there’s a reason why you came to the page and that reason is you need to tell Your Story. Once you have it down, if it still scares you terribly that you’ve written all this crazy stuff, you can tear it up if you want. But the words unwritten, they might be the greatest danger of all. Some call it regret.