5 Questions for Priscilla Gilman: On the Art of Memoir Writing about Motherhood and her Journey of Self-Discovery

 


Priscilla Gilman, whose book, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy, was published by Harper in May 2011, is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College.  She writes and speaks frequently at schools and organizations on topics including parenting, education, and the importance of the arts and humanities. www.priscillagilman.com

 

She had this Q&A with Cori Howard, the founder of The Momoir Project whose online memoir writing classes for moms launched for the first time on SheWrites this fall to a sold out crowd. She will be teaching her Writing for Moms course again starting in January. You can read more about her course here: http://www.shewrites.com/page/new-classes#moms. Or email cori@themomoirproject.com to put your name on the list!

 

1. When and how and why did you come up with the idea that you were going to write a memoir about your experiences with your son?

 

You know, Cori, I never really did!  This book evolved organically out of talks I gave to parents, daycare providers, and teachers at early childhood conferences, schools, and literary conferences beginning in 2003, about a year after we discovered that our older son, Benj, had a rare disorder called hyperlexia.  A few years later, I shared all these talks with my dear friend from Yale graduate school who was now a literary agent, and with her encouragement and guidance, I  combined them into one cohesive article, which she submitted to numerous magazines and newspapers in 2007.  When everyone passed on the article, my agent friend suggested that the material might be a book instead.  Over the next year or so, in the few hours after the kids went to bed and before I did, I wrote an 80 page book proposal, and ultimately my agent sold the book on proposal to HarperCollins.   Once it became clear that it would be a book, I wrote it with two primary aspirations: first, that it would serve as an act of advocacy for my son and for all children (and people!) who don't fit easily into boxes and are a little "different" or unusual, and second, that it would give comfort and hope, ideas and inspiration, solace and fellowship to anyone facing an unexpected challenge or change of circumstance in his or her life.

 

2. In my work with The Momoir Project, I often see the transformative powers of self-discovery in memoir writing. And I read in an interview with you that writing this book helped you in many ways - with grieving your marriage, your father, your grandparents. Can you explain what it was about the writing process that helped you and how exactly it changed those relationships?

 Writing this memoir required a number of exquisite balancing acts- protecting privacy while telling the truth (I use no last names and don't name any of the schools, don't go into detail about my father's indiscretions or my ex-husband's struggles), being kind while being honest, excavating the past while living through a sometimes rocky present in which the subject of the book was continually evolving.  I had to remember and depict my falling in love with my ex-husband so readers would understand why I'd gotten engaged to him so quickly, and as I wrote that section of the book, I tapped into the deep stores of love I still have for him and saw him with fresh appreciation and insight.  In writing the book, I got to immortalize in print three beloved people who had recently died- my father and my maternal grandparents.  One of the most touching moments in the book's reception came when my cousin sent me this email:

"The book has been read, and parts re-read many times. In fact, I read the description of fairy grandmother Peg to the assembled family group on Mothers Day. You have captured in words that elusive side of her perfectly and all of our children are grateful for it.  She was such a figure in their growing up - we left them all with her often - and it will bring back many  memories."

 

And I got a letter from my father's college girlfriend!

 

3. How long has it been since you finished writing the manuscript? In that time, how have your feelings about the book changed and how have things in your life changed? Could you have written the same book today?

 

I finished the final draft of the book in the late summer of 2010, but the chronological story ends about two years ago, when Benj was in the fall of his fifth grade year.  He's now a middle schooler- a 7th grader who'll be taller than me in a few months- and there have been many ups and downs in the past few years that don't get described in the book.   I'm actually being asked by many readers to make my next book the continuing adventures of the Anti-Romantic Child, his spirited brother, and our family- we'll see!  In terms of the values and ideas, the tone and the style, my attitudes and feelings, I would absolutely write the same book today, although often at readings, I drop an adjective here or a phrase there in the interests of smoother, tighter prose!  Many things in my life have changed since I turned in the manuscript.  First, last fall, Benj started at a new school and after a rough beginning, is doing marvelously well.  Second, I've recently become engaged to a man I began dating a little over a year ago, and we are buying an apartment together and planning our wedding.  As of February 2012, I'll be the step-mother to a spunky, sweet, and beautiful nine-year-old named Rafaella; Benj absolutely adores her.  Watching him tenderly comfort her when she's sad, giggle uproariously with her over a shared joke, or help her with her tricky math homework, I'm continually reminded of just how much progress he's made.

 

4. How did you sell the book originally? How difficult was it to get a book deal on this topic?

 

I was very fortunate that my best friend during my first year at Yale graduate school, Tina Bennett, had in the intervening years become one of the most successful literary agents in the world.  Tina represents everyone from Malcolm Gladwell to Laura Hillenbrand, and It was Tina who first saw this material as having "book potential," Tina who painstakingly edited drafts of the proposal, and Tina who engineered a successful auction for the book and placed me with my wonderful team at Harper.   Tina lived many of the experiences described in the book with me- she was my fellow student in graduate classes on romantic poetry, saw me fall in love with my ex-husband, attended our wedding, visited me and baby Benj- and to have her as my loving guide and fierce advocate during the writing and publication process has been such such a comfort, honor, and joy.

 

5. How has it been received by your family and the wider audience of readers in general? How has it affected your career as a writer?

 

Both my family and my ex-husband's family have been absolutely wonderful during both the writing and publication process.  Many people are surprised to hear that my ex-husband has declined to read the book (I gave him numerous opportunities throughout the writing process), but he could not have been more supportive of its writing.  For him, revisiting the odyssey of Benj's early years would be too overwhelmingly painful, and he trusts me to depict us all honestly and fairly.  The members of his extended family are some of my most passionate supporters- his aunts and uncles and cousins come to my readings and cheer me on.  When I gave the manuscript to my mother to read, I had a nail-biting few days waiting to hear her thoughts, but she responded with great love and appreciation.  A few months ago, When one of my mother's oldest and dearest friends, and greatest admirers, the author Michael Korda, wrote to me:  "Again and again, you capture your mother perfectly," I knew I'd done well by her. 

 

This book has given me a career as a writer.  It's only in the last month that I've started to put "writer" down as my occupation on forms (for the kids' schools, doctors etc).  As a graduate student and English professor, I wrote all the time, but I never considered myself a writer.  The writing I did was scholarship and a means to an end- being able to teach.  I'm so grateful to my readers whose support will enable me to write future books.  I'm mulling over a number of future projects, including children's books, a novel, and a memoir about siblings (me and my sister and Benj and James).

 

 

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Comment by Loren Stephens on October 24, 2011 at 1:26pm
Fascinated to learn that your ex-husband did not read your book.  I am currently writing a novel based on my husband's Japanese family and he has had the first draft for over a year.  The book has morphed considerably in the rewrite so it is just as well, but I was at first hurt that he would not take the time to read it.  Now I realize that it is too close to the bone and perhaps it is best that he give me moral support and the latitude to exercise my imagination.  Loren Stephens

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