“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina
Something similar to déjà vu occurs when I return to the Loop Room at University Center for a second panel discussion during this Saturday’s Printers Row Lit Fest. It’s not just that the room is the same or that both of its discussions are conducted by women – four in the first, three in the second. It’s that all of these women are talking about loss. In “Missing in Action,” moderator Mairead Case talks with Hannah Pittard, Anna North, and Lesley Kagen – novelists whose books each revolve around the disappearance of someone important, someone close. In “My Family, My Memoir,” moderator Kathleen Rooney talks with Zoe Fitzgerald Carter and Cornelia Maude Spelman – memoir writers whose books center on the unusual deaths of their mothers. The two discussions could have been called “Loss, Part 1: Fiction” and “Loss, Part 2: Nonfiction.” One might imagine that with so much talk of loss, the air would be heavy with grief and sadness. It’s not.
Certainly, there is a great deal of gravity in the room when Cornelia Maude Spelman begins “My Family, My Memoir” by holding up a copy of her book, entitled Missing, and declaring, “This is my mother at the age of sixteen, and this [on the cover] is her diary writing. She was not missing, but she did die when I was 28 years old. Witnessing her decline was like watching her lower herself into boiling oil.” Like her mother, Spelman herself is a diary writer, as well as a meticulous archivist, and she quickly reveals to us how research and writing for this book helped her to investigate the mystery of her mother’s death. Her voice is somewhat clinical, perhaps reflective of her background as a therapist, as she describes her first forays into the hospital records that describe her mother’s mental illness: “The prognosis is extremely grave. No potential for rehabilitation.” But the tough exterior cracks a bit as Spelman considers the possibility that her mother may have been right and not “delusional” in believing that Frank, her brother and her mother’s son, was intent on killing her. Later, in answer to an audience member’s question about research, the author says, “In every family, there are those untold stories, or hints of stories, and those are often the most interesting . . . You can go on a marvelous treasure hunt.” Although hers was a search that may have been too painful to describe as a “marvelous treasure hunt,” one does get the sense that it yielded a great wealth of insight and resolution.
“Even in the midst of difficult situations there are often moments of beauty,” says Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, by way of introduction to the passage she reads from her book, Imperfect Endings. It is about how her mother, after having struggled with Parkinson’s for 20 years, decides to end her own life and have her daughters at her side when she goes. Few situations could be more difficult. As anyone who’s experienced the passing of a loved one knows, reality itself can appear to take on different shapes and colors in the moments before, during, and after death. But Carter’s work suggests that these shapes and colors needn’t all be sharp angles and icy grays. She doesn’t read to us about needles and bedpans and hospital gowns, though these things may indeed be mentioned in her book; she reads to us instead about the memory of a stormy Fourth of July. Her mother lay in bed, and she and her children wait for the rains to pass so that they could light fireworks. When the noise of the storm convinces one of her kids that their house is falling down, she says, “That’s what thunder sounds like, like something breaking. But it’s really just two clouds crashing into each other.” Carter tries to get her mom to corroborate, but she’s begun to doze off. Finally, the storm passes and she’s lighting fireworks, “each an ephemeral umbrella of light.” In a line reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ “rage against the dying of the light,” she says, “I’m so intent on keeping the sky alive with light and color and glory.”
Despite her strength and success as a memoir writer, Carter herself doesn’t enjoy reading memoirs much. “I like novels better. I don’t really understand the importance of it being truthful. There can be just as much truth in a novel, only it can be more free-wheeling.” She may have appreciated the “Missing in Action” panel discussion, then, because the more “free-wheeling” approach of the novel is exactly what its authors have each taken with regards to the subject of loss.
As a matter of fact, “free-wheeling” may be a good word to describe Hannah Pittard’s approach to life, and not just literature. She explains during the discussion that she has a habit of rewriting history, telling her own life’s stories to herself and to others for maximum effect rather than accuracy. Her revisions are often so vivid that she herself sometimes has trouble remembering whether or not they are true. A case in point: in her book, The Fates Will Find Their Way, she writes a scene in which boys get in trouble for masturbating in their school auditorium. She hesitated to include this scene, not because of its obscenity, but rather, because she believed it to be based on a true story from her childhood. When she shared her work with former fellow classmates, however, none of them recognized the scene, and it wasn’t until a former teacher came forward to substantiate it that she stopped questioning her own memory. The Fates will Find Their Way is actually about the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl from an unnamed mid-Atlantic town and, more specifically, the effect that her disappearance has on her family and friends – those who never completely let her go, even after graduating, getting married, and having children. It is written in the very unusual first-person plural point of view (“we believe”), which may lend it a sense of otherworldliness.
Anna North’s book, America Pacifica, goes to far greater lengths in establishing otherworldliness. It takes place after a second ice age, on the title island, which is one of the last places on Earth to be habitable. Loss here is epic. The lines that stand out in North’s reading include “I’m sorry that it’s come to this but we’re going to have to eat the children” and “Wait, Daddy, don’t eat us. I have an idea . . . ” Despite the extreme, fantastic, and far-removed setting of this book, however (maybe not that far-removed, given global warming), she explores issues of an ordinary and universal theme: coming of age. “I was interested in this process of making a new self, an adult self.”
Lesley Kagen shares this interest, although her characters are set in 1950s America. “It was beautiful and not in the way that many people think it was. There was a stillness . . . a tactileness and a sensuality.” Perhaps it is Kagen’s attention to the five senses that allows her to imagine worlds so precisely that she develops actual affection for her characters and is sad to stop “seeing” them once she’s finished writing her novels. Jokingly, she says, “People ask me, ‘So what happens after the book ends?’ And I go, ‘Really? It’s pretend.” But she’s moved to tears when she recounts the time during a reading in “Podunk, Wisconsin” that she spotted a woman in the audience crying and holding up a tape recorder. This woman told her that she and a friend both loved her work because it was set in the 1950s, when they grew up, and that she was recording the event because her friend was dying. The two of them would lay next to each other on a hospital bed the next day, listening together. Kagen’s tears are the only ones that surface during the two events about loss. Maybe that’s partly because in this memory she is able to see that, as Carter puts it, “even in the midst of difficult situations there are often moments of beauty.”
From Left to Right: Mairead Case, Hannah Pittard, Anna North, and Lesley Kagen.
Mairead Case is a member of the Dil Pickle Club, nonfiction editor at Another Chicago Magazine, and volunteer coordinator for the Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival.
Hannah Pittard is the author of The Fates Will Find Their Way and the recipient of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award. She teaches fiction at DePaul University.
Anna North is the author of America Pacifica and a staff writer for Jezebel. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, where it was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
Lesley Kagen is an actress, restauranteur, and the author of Whistling in the Dark and two other novels.
From Left to Right: Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, Kathleen Rooney, and Cornelia Maude Spelman
Zoe Fitzgerald Carter is the author of the memoir Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go. She has written for numerous publications including the New York Times, Salon, and Vogue.
Kathleen Rooney is the founding editor of Rose Metal Press. Her most recent books include the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs and the poetry chapbook After Robinson Has Gone.
Cornelia Maude Spelman is a writer, an artist, and a former social worker. She is the author of the memoir Missing, as well as picture books for children.
EVENT: “MISSING IN ACTION” AND “MY FAMILY, MY MEMOIR” PANEL DISCUSSIONS | SATURDAY, JUNE 4, 2011 AT 11:45 AND 3:30, RESPECTIVELY | UNIVERSITY CENTER, LOOP ROOM | EVENTS OF PRINTERS ROW LIT FEST