Interview: Kaylie Jones, author of Lies My Mother Never Told Me

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

By Miranda Martin

“It’s almost indecent, in a sense, to talk about somebody’s downfall from something like alcoholism, in our society, at least. You know, that it’s improper or indecent.  And I thought, ‘Well if nobody’s ever talked about what it’s really like to die from this disease, then who’s ever going to really come forth and tell people what an absolutely horrendous way to die this is?’ So I decided that I was just going to write it, without hysteria.”

Kaylie Jones’s new book, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, is all about the truth. And the truth is, her mother died a slow, horrible death as an alcoholic—a fate Jones could have shared were it not for her own journey to sobriety. In her new memoir, she shares that story for the first time both complete and completely de-fictionalized. It starts with her childhood in Paris and her unflinching love for her literary father, James Jones, the author of From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. It ends with the raw emotion she faces as her mother’s alcoholism poisons her mind and body.

Lies My Mother Never Told Me reaches out to families cursed with this disease and may prove shocking to those who aren’t. Either way, for this seventeen-and-a-half-years sober author, it’s time to talk about it.

Miranda Martin: How do you feel now that all of those details and emotions are out there for everyone to read?

Kaylie Jones: Well, you know, going through the events, I was telling someone this last night in fact, going through it was so awful that writing it felt easy, comparatively speaking, you know. So, in a way, it was so bad that it seemed to me that almost nothing could even compare to that. In fact, writing it felt good. Does that make sense?

Miranda: It does. And I think that sounds great. It’s a little bit surprising to me because my understanding was that you felt somewhat guilty throughout going through those events and thinking that something could be wrong, and I wondered if you could still feel that way now that it’s over. But it seems like not.

Kaylie: No, I don’t. And you’re making an excellent point. I think that one of the greatest troubles that adult children of alcoholics have is that feeling of guilt and shame. And I think those feelings of guilt and shame are what make us not talk about it, and cover for it, and cover up, and do all of the things that we do and, so, by the time my mother died, my feelings on that had been so battered that I didn’t care anymore. It was almost to the point that I just didn’t care anymore about what anybody thought about what I’d been through, and that’s what freed me up to be able to write about it in the way that I did. And, you know, I never would have been able to write about it, at all, before that.

Miranda: I can definitely understand that.

Kaylie: But now I don’t feel that guilt and that shame at all, and that’s what’s, in a sense, really a surprise to me, myself, is that I don’t have those feelings anymore.

Miranda: I think that’s wonderful, and I can imagine that being a surprise to you because I picked up on a lot of feelings of guilt that you had.

Kaylie: Oh, absolutely. I lived under a pile of guilt for so long, for so many reasons, and I think being liberated from that was one of the greatest gifts that I’ve been given. And I don’t think the writing of the book liberated me from it, I think that somehow the events liberated me. If that makes sense. I’m not sure. But by the time I actually sat down to write it, I was pretty much free of those feelings, I think.

Miranda: Right. So, when you did sit down to start writing it, were you aware that it was going to focus so much on your mother, or did that sort of develop after you started writing?

Kaylie: You know, in a sense I think A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, which was a novel, was much more focused on my father, and I was still sort-of starry-eyed with the myth of that life and growing up in that kind of environment. After my mother’s decline and death, I knew when I started this book that it was going to be about alcoholism and I knew it was going to be about my mother dying, and I also knew that I was going to have to talk about my own drinking or it wouldn’t be a good book. It would have been completely an unjust book. And a kind of hypocritical book if I wasn’t going to come at it from, you know, not a high horse, but from the mud. So, in a sense, I had to do it as nonfiction and I had to do it with that knowledge, so that everybody would know that I’m not talking from a place of purity, myself.

Miranda: I know that you have written a good deal of semi-autobiographical fiction, and this time you set out to write a completely nonfiction account of your life. What was different about the process of writing it as nonfiction versus writing accounts of some of the events in fictional form?

Kaylie: Oh, that’s a good question. You know, most of my fiction—not all of it, but some, like I’d say Soldier’s Daughter and a few other books—is somewhat autobiographical, but what I did was I put needs of the novel first. In other words, I focused on changing the details to fit the story. But in this case, I had to change my own literary style to fit the details. In other words, I had to be true to the facts first. So it was kind of a reversal of approach. I had to know that the facts were correct and I did a lot of research and talking to other people to make sure that I had the dates right and the times right and all the things I needed to do, and I referred back to notes and so forth, and what was interesting was I found that memory is not reliable in so many ways. I would remember things in a certain order and then find out that I was wrong, you know, from the research, and then I’d have to rethink my approach to how I was writing it based on the facts and being true to the facts. So that part was different.

And then the other side of it that was strange was that I realized that I had to write it with a certain amount of objectivity and neutrality, so I had to remove myself in a sense from the character and the events in the story. In other words, I had to think of myself as a narrator telling a good story. And I figured, as a nonfiction writer, my job was to choose which events to focus on, in a sense.

Miranda: And it seems like you definitely had quite a few to choose from.

Kaylie: Yeah, well, you know we ended up cutting—I mean, great editor, Henry Ferris is just a brilliant editor—and he ended up cutting about, I’d say, maybe a fifth, maybe a hundred pages, 80 pages from the original manuscript.

Miranda: Wow.

Kaylie: Because it was very detail-oriented, and sometimes I felt the need to explain things probably too much. And I said, “Well it’s nonfiction, so don’t I have to explain that?” and he said, “No, no you don’t have to explain it. It’s clear.” So that was an interesting process for me. I felt the need to give more detail than I would in fiction because I felt that I had to explain why things happened.

Miranda: That definitely makes a lot of sense. And it’s funny, too, that you mentioned having to do a lot of research because your memory isn’t always reliable, and it’s funny to think that a lot of us have to do research in order to get the truth about our own lives.

Kaylie: Isn’t that funny?

Miranda: It is!

Kaylie: It’s absolutely true. You know, I took a lot of notes over the years. I had a lot of diaries, and all my writing teachers over the years always said, “Keep notes. Keep a notebook; keep a journal and write down ideas,” and so forth. So I did a lot of going back to old journals to make sure that I had the dates right and the times right. Also, I was very lucky because, with my father, he kept meticulous notes, and he wrote tons and tons of letters. So I have all his letters. They’re already archived and put away. And there was a lot of material to go from. And the reviews were easy to find; making sure the years were correct, all that stuff was not hard because there was so much already there about them. So, in that sense it was not so difficult.

Miranda: Speaking of your father, I also wanted to ask, it seemed like, for a lot of your younger years and when you first started writing, you lived somewhat in the shadows of your parents. I think in a lot of ways you thought of it that way yourself. What I’m wondering is, what did it take for you to realize that you had achieved some success on your own merits?

Kaylie: Oh, that’s really an interesting question. Let me think for a second. I’m trying to think when that process happened for me. See that’s a good question. I think, when I wrote A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, and that was turned into a merchandising film, and I think when I was in fact in Paris, when the movie and the book came out together in French, it was in the spring of ’99, and I went to Paris for the first time in ten years or so. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to go back to France. But I was invited by the French publisher; they paid for everything; they said, “Please come.” So I went, and I had a great number of interviews—French press and colleges and so forth—and very few people asked me about my father. They asked me a lot more questions about writing and literature, and what I thought about American literature, and I was amazed to see that it wasn’t all about my father.

Miranda: I imagine that must have been an exciting feeling.

Kaylie: It was a wonderful feeling—to be there on my own merits and not being perceived as just his daughter. So that was, really, a very good moment for me.

And also, I realized when no one was interested any longer in the fact that James Jones’s daughter wrote a book, or two books, or three. The more I wrote, the less interested people were. Then I realized, well, fiction is having a hard time right now, and all these fiction writers are having a hard time, and so am I. And that was actually a good thing because it means that I am not being differentiated because I am James Jones’s daughter. I’ve made my own sort of way here, and I’m considered a literary fiction writer, and that means I’m not ever going to be this pulp fiction, huge, massive bestseller, and it certainly isn’t going to happen due to my father. So in a way, that was good for my self-esteem, if it wasn’t good for my pocket book.

Miranda: I did get the impression sometimes that some of the achievements that you had made on your own, you were concerned that they only happened because of who your father was or who your parents were, so I’m really glad to hear that, at some point, you knew that you were doing it on your own. I know that must have been very exciting.

Kaylie: Yes, yes, that really was. And it took a very long time. It took a long time for me to feel that way. Certainly with this last book, I couldn’t have written it if my mother were alive. And I worry a lot about what my father would have thought if he knew I’d written this book. Would he have been upset? Would he have been offended? Would he have felt that I was doing something wrong? I thought about that. It didn’t stop me. It didn’t even occur to me not to do it, but I thought about it.

And then I got a call from Terrence Malick, the director who actually made a film about my dad’s book, The Thin Red Line, and I sent some galleys. And I just said, “Terry,” you know, because I really love him very much, and he knew that I went through this terrible thing with my mother, and he called me, and he said, “I stayed up all night reading this book; I couldn’t put it down.” And he said, “I just want to tell you that I think your father would be so proud of you because your father always said that the writer’s main job was to be brutally honest in his search for his own truth, and you really went and did. You searched out your own truth, and your father would be very proud of that.” So that released me from that burden almost at the blink of an eye.

Miranda: And that’s a wonderful compliment, as well.

Kaylie: It was a huge compliment. I think I cried for two hours after, I was so overwhelmed. But the point is, for some reason he understood so deeply—what he said to me was, “Your father would not be ashamed. Your father would be very proud.” And that, to me, was so great. Because, I mean, he’s a real philosopher, and he understands a lot of things about my father’s work, too, that a lot of other people don’t. To him, my father’s primary goal was the search for truth within the self. And I thought, “Wow. Okay. Now I’m happy.”

Miranda: I definitely have to agree that that’s something you’ve achieved with this book.

Kaylie: Thank you so much for saying that.

Miranda: Sure. I’d also like to ask about that, because I found a lot of the stories and incidents about your mother and what alcohol did to her just completely shocking, but it was so compelling. So what I wonder is, is that one of your goals, to sort of share what you learned, as well as the truth that you ended up finding about yourself and about her and about alcoholism?

Kaylie: No, there’s this really sort of, I don’t know how to explain it, need to not talk about it. It’s almost indecent, in a sense, to talk about somebody’s downfall from something like alcoholism, in our society, at least. You know, that it’s improper or indecent. And I thought, “Well if nobody’s ever talked about what it’s really like to die from this disease, then who’s ever going to really come forth and tell people what an absolutely horrendous way to die this is?”

So I decided that I was just going to write it, without hysteria. I tried to write it with just objectivity: These are the events. This is what happened. This is what she did. This is how she said it. I went back to reading Primo Levi and Varlam Shalamov, who’s a Russian writer who survived nineteen years in Kolyma, which was a Stalinist work camp in Siberia. So I decided to read them because they wrote about those experiences with complete objectivity and neutrality. And beautifully. They wrote beautifully. I said to myself, “If they can write beautifully and objectively about the worst possible human condition, then that means that anybody can write objectively about the human condition, no matter what it is. And it’s okay! It’s okay to tell the truth.”

Miranda: I definitely felt that way when I was reading your book because I was so stunned, and I also felt like I was learning so much that I did not know about what alcohol can do to a person.

Kaylie: Oh, wow.

Miranda: But I didn’t feel like you were trying to teach me anything. I just saw it, and I was so surprised.

Kaylie: Well that’s so good to hear, you know, because really, who wants to be taught anything, right? I mean, ugh! You know? That’s the thing: if you’re going to read about anything as awful as Auschwitz, my God, read Primo Levi, because he’s the one who writes beautifully, and he’s the one who writes about the little details, and I think that’s how you learn things. It’s not being didactic, but just sharing objective experience. If that makes any sense.

Miranda: It does. And I think that’s the experience I had when I read this book because I don’t come from a history of alcoholism. It’s not something I have much experience with, but I got so much out of it—I learned so much about it from reading this book.

Kaylie: Oh, well that’s wonderful. And you know what’s amazing is, not coming from the experience at all, that you got it, because a lot of people who come from those kinds of families read it and they say, “Oh my God, I recognize that. I know that. I felt that. I saw that. That’s what happened to my father/mother/whatever.”

But I was worried a lot that people who didn’t have the experience would relate because I know how hard it is to understand something that’s not your experience when it’s something like that, that is so bizarre, really. I mean, it’s quite bizarre. It’s kind of like collective madness or something, you know?

Miranda: So I have another question about your mother. Well, really about the title of this book. When I was reading through it, I felt like there were quite a few lies that your mother did tell you—I mean insults that couldn’t possibly have been true, and that she didn’t have a problem and that you didn’t have a problem, so what do you refer to with the lies that she didn’t tell you?

Kaylie: Well, it’s ironic in the sense that, you know, my father I trusted completely, and he was this writer who always wanted to be honest and truthful. And he always said, “Your mother is the most honest person I’ve ever known. Your mother never lies. She always tells the truth.” So, in my mind, it’s almost like a mathematical proof. If my mother always tells the truth and my mother never lies, then I’m the one who’s lying. Or I’m the one who’s crazy. She never lies, therefore that means she’s not an alcoholic because she says she’s not an alcoholic, therefore I’m crazy. So, it’s the lies she never told me because she never lied.

Miranda: I understand.

Kaylie: But in fact it’s all a lie. The basic formula is, if you’re standing on a lie, then everything you say may be very truthful, but basically, the foundation of what you’re saying is a lie. But she never told lies, so these are the lies she never told me.

Miranda: That does make sense. It seems a little bit complicated, but it does make sense.

Kaylie: It’s a total mind-twist, you know? One of those things where you say, “Wait, wait, what was that?  What do you mean? How could you not tell lies if you’re lying your whole life?” But at the same time, she never told lies, according to my father, so it’s a lie she never told.

Miranda: So, I know that your opinion of your mother did start to change as she was dying, when you finally started to accept all of this. Did it change any more after you finished writing everything out and doing all the research that that required?

Kaylie: Well, you know, the thing was, and this has been the most amazing process for me, this book, because when I started the book, I didn’t have an agent; I no longer had my old agent. I no longer had a publisher, really. Everybody left the publishing company that I was in, and so I was just kind of out there on my own. When I started writing it, I didn’t really start thinking about the fact that anybody else was going to read it for quite a while. I wrote it with just the bottom line that I was going to get this out.

So then, the reaction was extraordinary. The agent accepted the book overnight: Larry Kirshbaum. And then he said, “Well I think you need to do this, this, and this,” and of course I said, “Sure.” And so we sort of tightened it up a little bit, and then Henry Ferris took the book in a few days, as well. So that happened very fast. So I didn’t have time to think about the repercussions or the consequences of the fact that I’d actually written all of this until after.

When I was writing, I tried to stay as objective as possible, and then when Henry said, “Well you know the scene when your mother chased your ex-husband around the house with the knife?” and then I thought, “Oh my God, he’s talking about me.” And I thought, “Everybody’s going to read this. People are going to read this. Somebody’s going to read this. They’re going to be appalled. What was I thinking?” But that didn’t happen until much later because, as I started the process, I didn’t think about that stuff at all.

So, I didn’t feel relief in the sense that, well, just as with any book you write, I felt actually great accomplishment, like I’d really done something very good for myself when I’d finished it. I felt like, okay, it’s almost like saying, “All right, I’m going to sand in front of this judge, and I’m going to tell my side of the story, because I want people to know that I never robbed my mother. I want people to know that I was disowned and that I had nothing to do with this—that this happened because of this, this, this, and this.” And I felt the need to do that. So that’s why it’s nonfiction and that’s why I wrote it.

But in the end, I won’t know for a while, I guess, how I feel about it, except in the reactions of the people around me who say things like, “I can’t believe you went through this. This is such a horrendous thing to have to go through.” But now, I don’t feel that way. I feel that it’s just part of the journey that I’ve been through. In fact, I feel very lucky. I really was given an unbelievable chance at grace in this life, you know? I really, really mean that. I feel that so strongly. I feel every day that I’ve been given unbelievable gifts: this beautiful marriage, this child who’s just wonderful, and I hold onto that all the time and I think, “There’s always going to be good and bad, but the good so much outweighs the bad that it’s okay. It’s all okay.”

Miranda: That’s always a wonderful thing to hear.

Kaylie: Yeah. Yeah. But I really believe that. I think it’s true. At least it’s true for me, so far. And that’s kind of scary, too, because, you know, my husband says things like, the other night, joking around, it was the book party, and I said, “Oh my God, I feel like having a drink,” and he looked at me and said, “Are you out of your mind? Seventeen and a half years later, and you’ve just written this book all about how your life was . . .” and I said, “I’m just joking. I’m just joking. Calm down; I’m kidding,” you know? Because, now, it’s silly, in a way. It’s funny that everything I’ve gotten, everything I have out of life now, I’ve gotten because I’ve stopped.

Miranda: Well, is there anything else you’d like to share about the book?

Kaylie: I’m just amazed and so, sort of, wide-eyed over the reactions that people have had. You know, people that I don’t know are sending me emails, and friends and acquaintances, people I barely know. A couple of times, people within the industry who are peripherally involved with the book called me up and said, “I’d like to meet you for lunch,” and I said, “Well, okay, sure,” and I thought they wanted to talk about some business-angle side of the process of this book, and it turned out that they wanted to talk about their parents, and the alcoholism in their families, and the experience of it. It felt like sitting down with people I’d known all my life, even though we’d never met; we’d spoken on the phone, you know? So that’s been an unbelievable gift.

I can’t even explain the enormity—how big that is, when somebody says, “I recognize myself. I recognize my family here. And you helped me.” I didn’t set out to do that, but the fact that that is occurring, to me, is just beautiful.

And then the other side of that is, you wouldn’t believe the level of anger and rage, too, that people have about the fact that I would even consider writing this. People would say, “How dare you write something like this?”

Miranda: It is sort of taboo, almost, in our culture, at least.

Kaylie: Yeah, I think so. You know, people who say, “Let bygones be bygones. Let the dead rest in peace. Who do you think you are?” And I accept that. I really do. I accept that they are angry, and I’m sorry they’re angry, but it has nothing to do with me, you know?

Miranda: Right. What do you read now? What have you been reading lately?

Kaylie: I’ve been reading mysteries!

Miranda: Oh, that’s fun.

Kaylie: I’ve been reading—my husband buys me a lot of foreign mysteries translated into English, and they sort of really get me out of where I am. They’re beautifully done, and I love them. So I’ve been reading, you know, Icelandic mysteries and Swedish mysteries and Danish mysteries and things like that. And I’ve been reading a series of Henry VIII mysteries. There’s this guy, Matthew Shardlake, he’s a character in the time of Henry VIII, and Cromwell. I’ve been reading that stuff, just to get my mind sort of away from my work.

But I’m going to read The Embers by Hyatt Bass because we became friends on Twitter. And it sounds very, very good. So that’s something that I got into in the last six months, and it’s been really fun to meet a lot of writers and look into what they’re reading online.

Pretty much I haven’t been reading a lot of literary work. I’ve been reading a lot of students’ work; I have a whole bunch of students who are writing their novels for their thesis, so I’ve been doing that. But to go to bed at night, I’ve been reading mysteries. I’ve been reading the second one of Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the next one is, The Girl Who Played with Fire, that’s what I’ve been reading the last couple days.

Miranda: That sounds like a lot of fun.

Kaylie: It is fun. And Russian—I love anything to do with the Soviet Union, so I’ve been reading some spy novels about the Soviet Union, which I love.

Miranda: And just to finish up, what’s your six-word memoir?

Kaylie: Ooh, that’s a good one. Oh boy. That’s tough. I need to think about it for a second.

How about: Used to drink vodka. Now, Evian.


READ an excerpt from Lies My Mother Never Told Me

BUY a copy of the book

VISIT Kaylie Jones’s website and watch the book trailer

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One response

  1. Excerpt: Lies My Mother Never Told Me by Kaylie Jones | Memoirville says:

    [...] Excerpts and interviews from published memoirists, artists, and other storytellers. « Interview: Kaylie Jones, author of Lies My Mother Never Told Me [...]

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