When I was first becoming a writer, I was a teacher. When our girls came along, we were always searching for a place with less teaching responsibilities so I would have more time to write. The closest have to a home, is the Gloversville home that I have fictionalized, because I have always taken that with me.
AD: Rick, you gave me really good advice. I was really tortured in writing about my own childhood. Thirty-five, forty years had passed and I could write honestly about myself and all my flaws. I was unprepared to write about my family — I was horrified I’d have to shine a light on them.
I don’t know if you remember what you told me, but I’ve been quoting you for months. You had just finished the Gloversville essay, and you said, “If it were up to me, if I were writing this kind of essay, I’d ask myself, ‘Am I trying to skewer anyone with this book?’ If my answer was yes, then I would write it and not publish it or I wouldn’t write it at all.”
As soon as you said that, I knew I wasn’t trying to skewer anybody. In fact, I was simply trying to capture what it was like from the very subjective emotions of my experience. The reason I’m bringing it up is I wasn’t mad at my father. I wasn’t mad at my mother. I didn’t feel sorry for the boy had been. I was just really compelled to capture it the way writers feel compelled to capture things.
I was especially tortured to write about my younger brother’s suicidal attempts from age 13 to about 25. It’s really his business That’s his story to tell. But, Rick, my friend Mark said to me, “How can you write the story of your boyhood without writing about your brother wanting to die?” He said, “It’s part of your story.” Being a boy witnessing your older male relative working in a tannery, that’s as much a part of your story as it is theirs.
RR: Well that’s what I keep telling myself. I remember giving you that advice. It was wonderful advice to give to another writer. I remember after sharing that advice with you, I then had to come to terms with whether or not I could accept that when it came to me. It does in some ways seem a question of whose ox is being gored, and when you were goring your ox, and bleeding, at least spiritually — I know how difficult that book was for you to write — your suffering was somewhat easier for me to contemplate than my own.
I had no doubts about the material — I just had severe doubts about the man holding the pen, about my ability to summon the right kind of honesty and the right kind of generosity.
AD: It is absolutely essential that the writer has black doubt. It’s completely true, with the novel form, that you are becoming other people in these characters. But, boy, it’s even more so with the memoir: you are free-falling into your psyche and into your memory and into your imagination and into the history of all you’ve loved and who you’ve loved and lost.