Jen Pastiloff here. I’m the founder of The Manifest-Station. Welcome to The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. With the site getting so much traffic, I can think of no better way to utilize that traffic than to introduce the readers to writers I love. The dialogues created within this series have stayed with me long after I’ve read them on the page. Today’s is no different. It’s between Laurie Easter and the amazing Alice Anderson.
By Laurie Easter
Alice Anderson is an award-winning poet and author of the new memoir Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away: A Memoir, published by St. Martin’s Press on August 29, 2017. I met Alice at the AWP conference in Washington DC last February, where I picked up a copy of her breathtaking poetry collection The Watermark. Alice’s writing reflects the spirit and charm of her personality. Honest, straight-forward, and intensely beautiful. Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away is a book that sucks you in and doesn’t let go. Both harrowing and full of love, it is a story of survival, resilience, and redemption that will resonate for a long time to come. It has received rave reviews, including starred reviews from both Kirkus and Booklist. An excerpt from Alice’s memoir Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away can be found online at Good Housekeeping. http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/relationships/a45620/some-bright-morning-ill-fly-away-alice-anderson/
Laurie Easter: There is a tendency to classify works of literature. And while some writers may resist labeling their work, taxonomy allows publishers to target a desired audience. For example, some of the sub-genres of memoir include travel memoirs, divorce memoirs, coming-of-age memoirs, etc. One thing I find interesting about your memoir, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, is that the book occupies space within many sub-genres. As readers, we get glimpses of the narrator coming of age in scenes from her childhood and young adult life. We witness her in varying locations: Sacramento, Paris, New York, and Mississippi. We experience the multitude of traumas she lives through and observe how she deals with the devastation of childhood sexual abuse, physical pain and suffering from accidents, Hurricane Katrina, mental and emotional abuse by her husband, domestic violence, and the ultimate threat of losing her children. Each one of these narrative threads could categorize the book as a particular type of story—a trauma and redemption story, a navigating the chaos story, a mother’s fierce love story. To me, the one key element that stands out is Resilience. The book is many things, but above all else, I see it as a story of the resilience of not only this one woman and her children, but of human nature and the body. And that resilience gives me hope.
How do you see this story? What kind of narrative is it for you? If you were to distill it down to one key element to label it, what would that look like?
Alice Anderson: I love that you landed on resilience. We have a family motto, which is No Matter What. No matter what means: I love you no matter what, we’re going to be okay no matter what, I’m going to survive this no matter what, I will keep fighting no matter what. The primary narrative arc of the memoir is the legal battle, which started the day after I was attacked, when I called a few lawyers around town from my room in the Gulf Coast Women’s Shelter for Nonviolence in Biloxi Mississippi. The first attorney I called was a man who of course ended up being my ex’s attorney. He listened to my story before telling me he’d already been retained. I hung up and called another lawyer, who I only knew from two places: 1. She had a big billboard on the interstate, and 2. She sat behind me in church and had a singing voice that was clear and true. Early readers have said the memoir is a bit of a “legal page turner” and that gives me great satisfaction. The truth is, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing when I started writing Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away. Being a poet, I knew there were these shining moments in the midst of all the chaos and strife in my life. I wrote those stories first. The chapter, “How I Learned to Shoot a Gun,” was the first scene I wrote. Later, I started to stack the stories and see what missing scenes needed to be written in between, building bridges across the most dramatic, shining moments. That’s where the stories started layering in: my childhood story, my Paris modeling stories, my brain injury story. My agent, Jen Gates at Aevitas, was essential in helping me see how many layers to add in. She even (to my horror at the time) helped me to see that I needed to write the love story with my ex—to narrate not just the fall into violence but the fall into love. One of my goals was to write a nuanced story about abuse, because abuse itself is incredibly nuanced. The answer to the question of “why I stayed” can be found in that nuance. And that is my impulse in all of my writing: to find meaning, beauty within the calamity. Several decades ago, when I was getting my MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, the poet Tom Lux nicknamed me “the redemption addict” and it’s true—I can take the ugliest, most terrible stories and tease out the light, the redemption. That’s how I see life, and it served me well in all the battles/narratives of the book. So primarily, I would say it’s a redemption narrative. Because what is the point of resilience if you’re not going to come through to some shining place?
LE: Reading Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away was like living inside the story. The memoir is extremely cinematic. The scenes feel honest and true. The characters are fully realized, and the narrator is personable and trustworthy. I was engrossed from start to finish. Part of me wanted to race through the book because I wanted to know what was going to happen next. The other part of me wanted to draw it out and linger, which is an odd thing to say because there are harrowing episodes that are painful to read. I think the reason I felt this way, though, is because I loved the narrator so much. She is charming and funny, passionate and loving, vulnerable yet strong. She has a very clear voice, and I came away feeling as though I know her intimately. It’s easy for readers of memoir to conflate the narrator with the author and have a sense that they know the person—the writer—which is a fallacy because the self as narrator is not the whole self as person, but a construct, a persona.
What was it like for you to create the persona of Alice? Did creating yourself as a character come easily? Do you feel you have been fairly transparent, or are there things you held back?
AA: I love that you said this. With my two books of poetry, I’ve come up again and again with folks, literary and otherwise, who have confused the narrator of my poems with me. With the truth, instead of the higher truth, if you will. Arriving at the narrator of this book took a while, over the course of the writing. I had early drafts of chapters where the narrative voice was a bit off. That came about for many reasons: either I was trying too hard to be funny or being too poetic without giving the story the room it needs in prose to breathe. When you say you felt like you knew the narrator intimately, it strikes a note in me. Because of course anyone who knows me knows that I’m wide open honest, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes furious, on social media all the time. As a result, people feel like they really know me. When the book inched its way closer and closer into the world, I knew that people would get to know me in a way they never had. People expected it to be a memoir about traumatic brain injury. But that was the smaller narrative of the story. Because the stakes were so incredibly high, I decided early on never to talk about my legal troubles battling my ex in first family court and later criminal court on social media, or otherwise. There were truly only a handful of people who knew what I was actually going through over those long years. So I feel as if I’m revealing myself in more ways than one as a narrator, and there is a relief (albeit channeled through a tunnel of abject horror/fear) in finally letting the totality of that narrator’s story align with my real voice, with my real life. I think the narrator of the memoir is very, very close to my own voice, in the end. People who know me best say reading the book is like having a late-night chat with me, and that feels like a success to me. In my work as a writing coach and editor, I often say that prose is a conversation between the author and the reader, and I hope I’ve achieved that myself.
LE: In our message exchange prior to this interview, you said, “It’s still strange to me that people are reading my memoir!” As a creative nonfiction writer myself, I can imagine and understand that you may have trepidation about your story being out in the world, especially given the fact that Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away contains extremely personal details about your life. Can you elaborate on this feeling of it being “strange” that people are reading your book? Is it a fear of exposure that leads to this feeling or a sense of wonder that people would be interested in reading about your life, or something else altogether? What is the difference between having people read your memoir as opposed to them reading your poetry collections?
AA: Oh, it’s the vulnerability! When I sustained a traumatic brain injury (a coup contrecoup with diffuse axonal shearing of the brain) I started very early on to tell my story. When I sustained a TBI, I didn’t know a soul who had one. No one talked about it much. Maybe I was too impaired to make a “choice” about revealing it or hiding it. But it’s my nature to be transparent, to offer myself up as witness, to say the thing that is not supposed to be said. In my first poetry collection, I think that’s why the incest poems were so meaningful for other survivors. Because I went past the acceptable things people say about it and said the terrible things—the things you’re not supposed to utter aloud. I’ve always been the girl who’ll say anything. There were brief moments that I second-guessed my visibility as a brain-injured writer, but overwhelmingly it has been positive. I have a deep need to be out front, to be the voice of whatever it is: sexual violence, brain injury, domestic abuse. If I can help one person, it’s worth it to me, Dickinson’s “I shall not live in vain” is a driving impulse. I remember when I was young, sitting on the wild-patterned autumn-hued carpet of our family’s living room, with Oprah on TV. My dad was sitting behind me in his recliner, having started his five o’clock drink an hour early at four. When Oprah said aloud, “I’m a survivor of incest” it was like my entire body was shot through not just with recognition, but with fire. With the desire to tell. My father held the remote but didn’t change the channel. A few years later when I was taking my first graduate level poetry class (I was an undergrad at the time) our professor, the poet Dennis Schmitz, read a Sharon Olds poem in class on the first day. I thought, you can do this in poetry? You can say that? I was off and running full speed ahead from that point on and I never looked back. So it almost felt oppressive to me to keep so much of my life a “secret”: the strange feeling with people reading my memoir comes in knowing that my story in entire is being revealed, and it’s not what people were expecting.
LE: Writing about one’s life can be problematic in that one’s personal story is never a solo event. We, as humans, are relational and interact with one another, so inevitably, our personal stories are also the stories of others. Did you encounter resistance from others, notably family members or friends, about publishing your memoir? How did you navigate the telling of this story in regard to your children? Did you include them in the process? Did anyone have veto power or an influence in what was either included or excluded?
AA: I hate to admit this because it seems like kind of an asshole thing to say, but I encountered absolutely no resistance. It’s a great gift that all my kids were supportive early on and wanted me to use their real names. They grew up with me, they know telling stories is who I am. There was no resistance from my family either. One story I’m glad to have been able to tell is the story of how I made peace with my father before his death. Every once in a while I’ll post something online about missing him, or a happy memory, and sometimes people will respond asking how I can be kind about him or even that it’s a little creepy that I’m waxing nostalgic about him. They’ve read my poems. So in this book I got to tell the story about how, come one Mississippi evening, my mother called after I had been estranged for nine years from my father, and told me that he was dying. I called him right then: and then he didn’t pass for four years! But when I called he said, “I wronged you, and I’m sorry, and I want to do anything I can to make amends.” It was the kind of reparations most survivors of incest never receive. “Also I read your book and I am grateful you transformed the horror I did to you into art that helps others.” And over the next four years, he did do everything possible to make amends, including donating his body to the medical school attached to the university hospital that saved my life, telling me “my body for your body.” I went through a stage where I felt not bad that I’d written about my father, but I felt a strange sense of betrayal for the relatives on his side. Having not been abused by him, they loved him universally. In forgiveness, I found that I could return to the unabashed love I had for him as a kid. That’s one thing I tried to do in the book: not make monsters. Even in talking about my ex, I tried to make sure I told the whole story, the complicated story, as these stories always are. Abusers aren’t that simple: they aren’t monsters lacking any scrap of redeeming qualities. That’s one of many reasons why coming to terms with abuse at the hands of someone you love is so difficult. The only resistance I felt was probably my own, here and there, deciding what to tell and what not to tell. The only person I asked for a blessing was John Buffalo Mailer. No one knew about our relationship except the closest of friends (because when you’re embroiled in years long high-conflict custody battle in a conservative Mississippi court, the last thing you need is a boyfriend who was the editor of High Times magazine and an unabashed lover of criminals and outlaws.) After the breakup of our engagement, we were on good terms, though not in close touch. When I got an agent and it was clear she was going to take the proposal out to editors at big publishers, I wrote and asked for his blessing. Because I was telling my tales with Norris and Norman Mailer, his parents, and they were important stories to me: beautiful and crucial. To his credit, he gave me his blessing and didn’t ask to read a word. Even the story of our undoing, I was purposeful in telling my part of the trouble. When I first talked to my editor at St. Martin’s, Nichole Argyres, she said that it was one of the “least ax to grind-y memoirs” she’d read. When she said that, I knew she was the editor for me.
LE: The book opens with a prologue—one of the most exquisite openings I’ve ever encountered in a book, on par with Lidia Yuknavitch’s opening in The Chronology of Water. The prose is lyrical, exact, slicing to the core. It is, in and of itself, a perfect flash essay or prose poem that splays wide the possibility of what is to come. The first line reads: “We make chapels of our scars.” Maybe it’s because I write about loss and grief, but I love this line with my whole being. It implies a willingness to “explore the wreck” of pain, hold it aloft and regard it with reverence. Is that how you feel? When did this notion of making chapels of our scars come to you? Did you write this before you wrote the rest of the book, or did it come after?
AA: That prologue didn’t exist until the very last day before we sent off the proposal (I sold the book on a partial) and then it came to me in a flash, like poetry does. “We make chapels of our scars” has become a kind of mantra to me. It’s who I am, and how I’ve lived my life. I think the first time this “feeling” was real to me was when I was eight and we were living in Jackson, Mississippi. It was the first time that I realized that I was truly an independent soul, and I was just kind of existing in my family at the time. A coming of age, of sorts, and probably also a way to survive a wildly dysfunctional family. It was like an escape route in my heart. So, I was riding down this steep hill in our wooded neighborhood and I had a kind of (though I’m not thrilled with the word or really very woo) epiphany. Religious experience, aha moment—call it what you will. I had taken to playing “dead” in bed at night when my father would come to visit. For a long time, there was this enormous, dead cockroach underneath a little doll’s bed I kept at the end of my bed. I’d perfect and perfect my “playing dead” until I taught myself to hang my head between the bed and the crack in the wall, eyes open, rolled back. For some reason I felt like the dead roach and me were both beautiful. Such an odd child, right? Haha, but when I was riding my brother’s bottle-green Schwinn stingray bike down the hill towards our house, taking extra care to shift the fake gear shift, a cockroach flew at my face and in my panic to duck, I fell. Somewhere between soaring down the hill and biting the dust on the road, shins torn up and bloody, I saw a brief flash of myself and that cockroach, “dead” in the room. I could either fall, or survive. I realized it was my way of staying alive, and I realized then that survival could be beautiful.
LE: Speaking of survival, there is a point in the book where, even with all the trauma you had experienced in your life up to that point, you seem to hit bottom. I don’t want to give away the details for future readers, but you write:
“I wondered, when I’d cried myself to sleep at night, why no one ever warned me how much I’d lose by trying to leave? That’s the part no one ever tells you.
People ask all the time: Why did she stay? What they don’t understand is that leaving is often—maybe always—much, much worse.
There are women who don’t survive the leaving.
There are tiny tombstones of tiny humans who don’t survive the leaving.”
This is heartbreaking. I know there are many who will benefit from reading Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, partially because they identify with this experience. What would you like to say to those who find themselves in such a position?
AA: That you are not alone. And this: plan. Here’s a truth no one ever says: leaving an abuser is more dangerous than staying with an abuser. And it’s not just a few days or a month or a year or a divorce you’ll endure. With a certain kind of abuser hell-bent on punishing you for leaving and an inflated sense of ego that leads to a fury that won’t ever die, the leaving can last a long time—years, even. And it can lead to tragedy, as it did with my family. So whatever you have to do, in whatever way you do it, in whatever timeline you need, is absolutely okay. The goal in leaving an abuser like that is to stay alive. For your children to stay alive. When I went through all of this, I read a lot of books about abuse through the court system and followed the work of people like my friend, Barry Goldstein, who is working to change the way family courts respond to batterers as it relates to custody, but I hadn’t read a book that portrayed this fight from a personal perspective. I hope for those readers, this book is a kind of balm.
Again . . . You are not alone. You are not alone. You are not alone.
LE: You are foremost a poet, and it shows in your prose (haha, I just made a rhyme, but I’m certainly not a poet!). I love your poetic imagery. For example:
“Birds gathered into a great mass of wild panic and swirled within my heart and burst out my chest like a galaxy of silver wings into the paneled ceiling of the courtroom, circling three times before flying out the door. My ears roared with their beating.”
In Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, you disclose that Liam, your ex-husband, had forced you to promise to never write another poem and that as a result, you still wrote poems, but you didn’t write them down. Later, your prize-winning book of poetry is used as evidence against you in court, and you write, “Now I silently promised to never write another poem if I could just keep my children.” This is a stunning juncture in the book. How did you find your way back to poetry? How has your relationship to poetry changed from then to now?
AA: Well, I have to say that Norman Mailer gave it back to me, damn it! So much for my feminist card, right? Just yank it away right now. When I first met Norman, he made a point to read my book. Now, I’d heard him speak a time or two about how much he disliked memoir, or “confessional bullshit” as he once referred to a certain kind of writing to me. The very first time we met I told him the story about how, when I was in the sixth grade and just starting to find my voice against my father, I had called him a “mother fucker.” He proceeded to chase me down the hall, where I locked myself in his home office while he bellowed, furiously, drunkenly, to come out. My father loved Mailer (loooooooved Mailer) and I loved to read every book in our house. I read a lot of Mailer and spy novels as a girl. So it came to me, scared and locked as I was in his little windowless home office, to tell my father I’d called him a “mugger fugger” not a “motherfucker” and that broke the drunken fury and I was out of the office without a belt across my ass. So one night I was at the Mailer’s storied Prospect Park apartment and Norman told me he read my first book, Human Nature, and it struck a little fear into my heart. I said, “What’d you think?” He said, “Before I tell you, did you read that poem of mine in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry?” I nodded my head, yes. Buffalo had reminded me to look it up. “What did YOU think?” he asked. There was a silence between us. Norris was in the tiny galley kitchen making treats and pouring wine. Kids ran around the light-filled flat overlooking the river. I took a deep breath and said, “Norman, as a poet, you fucking suck.” He laughed uproariously and then he got that sweet, soft twinkle in his eye that those who knew him saw. “It’s great,” he said, “your book is really something.” So after that, he and Norris, when they were my father and mother-in-law to be, used to introduce me as “The Greatest Living American Poet.” It was at once silly and secretly affirming. They were like the literary family I’d always dreamed of: they saw me as a whole, as the complete me. And Norman very casually would refer to “When your second book comes out” and “You’re a writer, that’s what you do” until I remembered that poetry was something that was worth risking again.
LE: Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away exposes the inner experience of domestic violence and its long-term ramifications. As readers, this can be difficult because it triggers an empathic response, which is a good thing, but can make for emotional reading. One of the things that eases some of this intensity that I love about your story is the vast array of characters, including some prominent names like George Whitman (owner of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris), Norris and Norman Mailer, and Stormé Delarverie. I realize that, for you, all of these people were demystified because you had a personal connection to them—essentially each acted as a sort of guardian angel in your life—whereas the reader does not personally know them and may remain absorbed in their mystique. Can you elaborate on your experience of writing about such well-known people?
AA: For me, they’re all beloveds, and I wrote about them from that vantage point. The artist Robert Montgomery has this light installation that says: THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE BECOME GHOSTS INSIDE OF YOU AND LIKE THIS YOU KEEP THEM ALIVE. Writing about each of the people you name was like a love letter: I didn’t think so much about who they were in the zeitgeist of literature or queer history, but who they were to me. With Stormé especially, I wanted to show a little bit of a side of her she didn’t always show—if you knew her, you knew she was very private and didn’t like the attention on her. For years I’d say, “Let me write your story.” Hers is a story that needs magnifying. She was yet another queer person of color, a drag king, who put their body on the line when she threw the first punch at Stonewall. It was in the end that she finally said, “Okay, Mississippi, write what you want.” I was lucky: starting the night I met her in a bar in Chelsea, she told me her “true” story. Writing about people with a larger life or enduring mystique wasn’t so much as an inside look into them, but a telling the stories of folks I love with my whole heart.
LE: What do you hope readers will take away from Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away?
AA: That beauty is possible, no matter what. That our tragedies are a portal: we make chapels of our scars.
LE: Now that your memoir is published, where do you go from here? What are you currently working on?
AA: Aside from the never-ending list of notes about poems I intend to write in in the “notes” section of my phone, I’m furiously at work on a novel set in the ‘70s, based loosely on my own life. My family moved from Jackson, Mississippi to Sacramento, California in 1976. When I went away to a week-long school camp up in the Sierras, where I had my first real queer love affair, I came home to discover that my parents had traded houses with the family across the street. That’s where the novel opens. I had started on another, but this one insisted to be written, now. That one is all still there, inside me. I think the stories are all there inside us, waiting to be told. You just have to be willing. To pick up the pen, open a new doc. Believe. The story is inside of you, waiting for you to fall in love with the sound of its voice.
Alice Anderson’s work has appeared in literary journals including Agni and New Letters and is featured in anthologies such as American Poetry and On The Verge. Her second collection of Poetry, The Watermark, contains three Pushcart Prize-nominated poems; her first, Human Nature, was published to critical acclaim. The recipient of The Plum Review Prize, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Prize, and the Great Lakes Colleges Best First Book Prize, she also received the Haven Foundation Grant from Stephen King. Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away: A Memoir can be ordered here.
Laurie Easter is a writer and editor from Southern Oregon. “The Sunday Spotlight,” a collection of her interviews with writers, can be found on her blog at www.laurieeaster.com. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Chautauqua, Under the Gum Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, and The Manifest~Station, among others. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, listed as “Notable” in Best American Essays 2015, and awarded a fellowship from Vermont Studio Center. An essay will appear in the anthology The Shell Game: Writers Borrow Readymade Forms, edited by Kim Adrian and forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press in Spring, 2018.