My 6th book, The Ghost of My Father is, as the title suggests, a departure from my other books. Many have asked why I wrote it and this page is the answer. The story itself addresses many questions people have, so I recommend reading the free chapter excerpt here (PDF).
The book has the highest avg. reviews of all of my books (4.7/5 avg, 70 reviews) and Kirkus Reviews called it “A sobering, lucid memoir about the uncanny, precarious nature of family, masculinity and childhood.”
Q: What’s the book about?
The Ghost of My Father is a story of a seemingly successful, well adjusted, adult man (me), working to sort himself out inside a family in crisis. My family is a mystery, especially my father, and the events of the last year were painful enough to force me to stop avoiding those mysteries and challenge them head on. There are questions inside every family that everyone thinks about but never asks. I asked my questions to the world with the hope it can help other people answer theirs.
Q: How hard was it to write this book?
It was the hardest book to write because the stakes were high. These are my most personal feelings about the most important people in my life. The craft of writing about emotions is hard to learn. It’s very easy to seem self-involved or trite, and miss the nuances that make a feeling relatable or even sensible to someone who wasn’t there.
Reading many memoirs (I read more than 15 of them) helped me sort out what I wanted to do with the book, and how to deal with some of the challenges memoirs have. The Art of Time In Memoir by Sven Birkerts was by far the most useful book about memoir writing I found and he calls out many of the traps, citing many good examples writers should read.
Q. Why did you decide to write a memoir?
How do we know what a good family is? Are there relationships that are beyond repair or is there always hope? We usually only have family one in our lives, perhaps two if we marry into another one, which is not much information to work with for the most important relationships we have. I wrote the book for anyone with questions about how their family works, or doesn’t work, and wants to read a well told story, from the inside, of a family that fell apart and what I did about it.
Q. A memoir? But you’re not famous.
We confuse autobiography with memoir. A good memoir is not comprehensive. Instead it takes one thread of a life and carefully explores it. Someone with a drinking problem, an interesting job or a specific question they’ve explored, can write a fantastic memoir even if the totality of their lives isn’t historic.
People assume only famous people have earned the right to write a memoir. I don’t think this is true. Most of us lead ordinary lives and well written books by ordinary people can be far more compelling and inspiring that books by people lost in their own fame.
In my case I’m a writer. My life presented me with a difficult story about my family and I felt someone needed to tell it. There are many people who have serious relationship issues with their fathers or mothers. I’ve wanted to write different kinds of books and this seemed an obvious time to take that risk. The primary goal in my life is to fill a shelf with books I’ve written and that demands I push hard to discover exactly how far my writing talents go.
Q. Do you think many families have stories like yours?
Many of us have unresolved issues with at least one parents. Most of us ignore those feelings, hoping to keep the past in the past. Yet we feel the pressure at every family visit, a bottled up tension fueled by something powerful we don’t know how to release. While I know not every family has the drama mine has, the goal was to use my story to ask universal questions about being an adult, and what to do about the monsters we’ve made for ourselves in our past. I want my story to help other people figure out theirs, which is why 50% of the profits of the first edition will be donated to Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Q. Did you family know you were writing about them?
Early on in I told my brother and mother I was thinking about writing a book about our family, and they agreed it was a good idea. I don’t know that they fully understood what this would mean (or that I did) but it was something we discussed. I interviewed my brother and mother many times, and my father once (which is captured in the book itself).
Q. How did you prepare?
I’ve always kept a journal and once this all happened and I thought about writing a book about it, I kept a separate journal of thoughts and correspondence related to my family. When I sat down to start writing the book in earnest I had a stockpile of archival material that helped me get started.
Q. Was writing the book cathartic?
Yes. I was surprised how in each draft parts of the story hit me hard, or didn’t make sense, even though I’ve known these stories all of my life. Life presents us with situations that don’t make sense, or are unfair, but happen anyway. We have to fight to live in the present and find ways to escape the past without pretending it never happened. Writing about yourself is difficult but I highly recommend it. It preserves your feelings and thoughts in a way memory never can.
(These next few questions are from an interview with Debbie Weil at VoxieMedia)
DW: How long did the writing take? How many drafts did you do? What was your process? Did you use readers or editors for feedback as you went along??
I’ve always kept a journal and around 2012 kept a separate one for this project. I wrote, I believe, seven drafts. However, the last three drafts were primarily for copyediting and proofreading with few structural changes if any. I always have early readers. In this case four people read early drafts (they’re enthusiastically thanked in the Acknowledgements).
I hired two copyeditors to review the last drafts, a proofreader, and had many volunteer proofreaders too. Most of my books demanded fewer drafts, but otherwise this arrangement of editors/readers is standard for my book projects.
DW: What are your tips and lessons for writing about a painful topic, one that you are exploring as you write?
The best advice is to read many books in the form you want to write in. When you read as a writer you read differently. You’ll discover how many different ways there are to handle the core challenges (is the narrator reliable? believable? whiny? charming? annoying? How did the writer achieve or fail at this?) and inform yourself about what they are.
You’ll also discover many different styles of narrative and structure, which will also help you make those choices. Joan Didion is a very different kind of memoir writer than Mary Morris or Maya Angelou, and each of their books expresses painful stories in different ways.
It is useful to invite people who were there into the project early on. David Carr, in his memoir, The Night of The Gun, used his family to help him remember events, and even had them read drafts. For me, I interviewed both my parents, and my brother read nearly all of the drafts and gave feedback on them.
The challenge for memoir is that it is highly subjective and personal, even more so than novels. The reasons why someone likes a memoir – or not – are very personal. Only in reading many of them can you recognize there is no right answer, and that no matter what you do not everyone will be interested in your story, or like the way you tell it.