Tuesday, January 5th, 2010
“Any writer likes to tell stories to begin with, and if the best stories you have are your own, how could you not tell the stories? I don’t feel particularly shy about sharing my stories. You know, if the worst thing I’m ever accused of is naïveté, especially in my twenties, I can live with that.”
For decades, Michael Antman looked back on his three uncanny months in Port Arthur, Texas in 1976 in puzzlement. A native of Chicago and in his early twenties at the time, he’d taken a job selling Bibles door to door and found himself in an entirely foreign, sometimes terrifying place. His concept of his own identity changed suddenly and shockingly with a single incident, when a young friend not unlike himself, Sydney, burst into a local bar with a sawed-off shotgun and threatened to kill himself and his wife, later driving his car full-speed into a tree that same night. I spoke with Michael at length about revisiting Port Arthur thirty years after his experiences there and how writing his memoir helped him understand why his fate was different from Sydney’s, despite their apparent connections.
So sitting down to write a memoir for the first time was mostly about looking over your past and this one event that was so striking—losing someone that you thought was very similar to you—and then trying to figure out what that was all about, which seems like it sort of developed into what you were all about. I’m really interested in this case in how it’s tied so directly to place. I think anytime you look back on your memories, everything happened somewhere, and this one seems especially tied to a particular place.
That’s absolutely true. And I was naïve about that; I didn’t really understand the importance of place because I hadn’t traveled very much. All I knew was where I grew up. All I knew was Chicago and a few family vacations here and there. Port Arthur was a bizarre place to be because it was totally unsuited to who I was. It was a struggle the entire time I was there just to earn enough money just to buy a Greyhound ticket back to Chicago.
What was it like to go back and look at it, when you were doing the research for the memoir, to go see what it’s like now?
That’s the kind of thing that I find incredibly fascinating. It was almost suspenseful in a way because I had no idea what I was going to encounter. Part of me thought that, well, this was in the seventies, this was 1976, and in the seventies American urban culture was at a low point, you know, between the energy crisis at the time and botched urban renewal and high crime rates and very high pollution rates, American cities were a mess. And subsequent to that many of those cities have turned themselves around. So part of me thought that Port Arthur maybe had turned around as well, and part of me thought that maybe it had continued to slip down the hole it was already in and was in worse shape than ever before. And unfortunately the reality when I arrived there was that it was in much worse shape. It’s like a third-world ghost town. It’s like a third-world city after all the people have deserted it. It’s all very melancholy.
I spent a couple weeks there researching and going to—trying to find all the old haunts, and everything was just boarded up. Driving around the downtown streets, everything was so desolate that I got pulled over by the police a couple times because they wanted to know what I was doing driving the streets. Why would anybody be in the downtown? So I would say it was a very melancholy visit, but at the same time it had a tremendous impact on my psychology and helping me to understand for the first time who I was and why I had gone down there.
How did going back and seeing it, and then writing the story of this place and the person that you were in that place help you understand who you are? Do you understand yourself better after writing it all out or after doing the research it takes to do that?
Yeah, I think absolutely. The process of researching and writing it was—and I don’t think this is too strong a word—it was joyful. There was something joyful about it because very few people have the privilege or the inclination to ever really examine their adolescence in detail. A lot of people tend to forget it; I tend to have a memory that hangs onto everything, and that’s a very neurotic sort of thing. It’s not necessarily a good thing. But I hold onto everything from my past. And I saved all these scraps, all these pieces of paper and letters that I had written to my friends and they gave back to me, and letters that they had written to me and all the old sales textbooks and notes from sales training, and reading through all that was thrilling, in a way, because it was almost like an insight into this strange human being that acted in unaccountable ways. Maybe the research and the writing of it was the first time I’d ever had a sense that indeed I had finally succeeded in some measure.
That’s a surprising response to me because it contrasts completely with your description of what Port Arthur is like now and how melancholy a place it is, so it’s sort of funny to me that you were so excited to sort of relive all of that.
Well it wasn’t so much my reliving my experience in Port Arthur itself that was exciting to me, it was, for the first time, I think, getting an understanding of the course of my life and what had been driving me. Port Arthur was just a catalyst.
So you eventually left. How long were you in Port Arthur?
It was only about three months, but it was such an intensely concentrated experience to me it was like being plunged under water for three months. By the end of the experience, I was completely rung out.
How does it feel for you to have your personal experiences and explorations out there, just sort of hoping for someone to pick it up?
You mean in the sense of how does it feel to have people to read about how what an idiot I was? You know, I honestly could not have written a memoir in my late twenties or thirties or whatever. For years, people said, “You should write a story about this,” because of all the bizarre things that had happened to me, but I couldn’t do it. I was always blocked. The reason, again, this is an example of how we don’t understand things until decades pass, I was trying to turn it into a piece of fiction. I would try to write it as a novel. I would try to write it as a play. It just wasn’t clicking, and I didn’t understand why. It wasn’t until after Hurricane Rita, which had struck Port Arthur, that my brother-in-law once again said, “You should tell your story,” that it finally clicked for me. And I started writing it as a memoir and it came very easily. I wrote the whole thing as a fairly intense, you know, tightly packed book, but I wrote the whole thing in three months. The reason it came so easily for me is that I was finally old enough to be willing to talk about my stupid youth. The reason I had been so blocked earlier, I think, was that, because I didn’t really want to be honest.
You didn’t want to admit it was you, and that it really happened?
Right. But the important fact was that I didn’t have the self-knowledge to know that that’s why I was blocked. I didn’t say to myself, “I have to write it as fiction because I don’t want people to know it was really me.” I didn’t even think about that; it was just the direction I automatically drifted in, and then I would get stuck every time because it wasn’t true. But writing it the way it actually happened was easy because I’m old enough now to have at least a modicum of self-knowledge, and successful enough at least that it’s not going to embarrass me to admit to the world that I was an idiot in my twenties, because I’ve done things since then. I probably wasn’t ready to write it until I was well into middle-age and wasn’t really able to understand it until then. I think there are other people who have a much stronger ability to understand themselves at the moment they’re doing things; I’m just not one of them.
Right. So now that you understand yourself and the person that you were in your twenties, you feel pretty good about putting it out there?
I do, because, well first of all I didn’t commit any crimes, at least no serious crimes, so in that sense I have nothing to feel guilty about. But embarrassed or ashamed about how foolish I’d been? No, because I’m such a different person now. And even back then I didn’t mind telling the stories. I guess the reason is partially that any writer likes to tell stories to begin with, and if the best stories you have are your own, how could you not tell the stories? I don’t feel particularly shy about sharing my stories. You know, if the worst thing I’m ever accused of is naïveté, especially in my twenties, I can live with that.
So, now you’re also writing about memoirs in “Read Only Memory,” right?
I’m trying to combine, in the column, three elements: one is a review of the book at hand, the second is a broader cultural commentary about some issue, and the third is my personal memories, so I sort of use them as little mini-memoirs at the same time.
I particularly enjoy the personal anecdotes. What stuck with me from your column about Japan was the anecdote about you walking into a man’s home thinking it was a museum. I thought that was hilarious.
And, you know, I guess this goes back to the whole point of your earlier question about being embarrassed to have these stories out there. And to me, encounters like that, as long as no one gets hurt, are a source of tremendous delight. You don’t plan them. You don’t expect them to happen. And it’s the very unexpectedness, the very surprise of them that’s so delightful because life, to me, is all about surprise.
How is it for you, it seems like you read a lot of memoirs, and also actively reviewing them, and also having your own being in the process of being published?
I certainly don’t allow that to enter into my exploration of other memoirs; I take them all on their own terms. To me, the reviewer’s number one task beyond all others is to take what he reads on its own terms.
Does it go the other way; do you feel influenced at all by the memoirs that you read?
Not really. I wrote my first memoir before I really got into reading memoirs. But I also have kind of a distinctive style, and for better or worse, it is my style and it’s probably too late for me to change it. I’m a very distinctive individual and I don’t think you can be an effective writer unless you’re a distinctive individual. You have to do your own thing.
I think that’s a fair assertion. As a reviewer, would you have any advice for people who want to become memoirists?
You know, you have a responsibility—you have to be true to yourself and your own story, but it’s still a story. You still have to tell a story that’s going to move other people. You have to keep the reader in mind. If all you’re doing is telling your own story without telling a story that has shape to it and that has some kind of consequence to it and leads the reader somewhere he or she hasn’t been before, then you’re just doing it for yourself.
What sorts of things do you really enjoy reading?
I love nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American fiction. One of my prose models is Elizabeth Bowen; I think she writes some of the most beautiful sentences ever written in the English language, so I like to dip back into her writing sometimes just as a reminder of what great prose is.
And finally, Michael Antman, what’s your six-word memoir?
Every peak is a new plateau.
READ an excerpt of Michael Antman’s unpublished memoir, Searching for the Seagull Motel
VISIT Michael Antman’s website
CHECK OUT Michael Antman’s column on the memoir, “Read Only Memory” over at PopMatters