Tuesday, June 29th, 2010
“You have to keep in mind that a memoir is about a story and it’s about the reader. Of course it’s my story and the story is about me, but it’s what serves the reader and not what serves me or my ego.”
Just because I’m a forty-something woman who wrote a journey story (trudging through the advice found in women’s magazines in order to, among other things, repair a broken heart) does not automatically guarantee that I’ll hit it off with every other woman who writes a self-discovery memoir.
It’s like when your friends fix you up with someone and you realize, after spending an agonizing evening poking at your chicken vindaloo, that the only thing you and your date have in common is that you’re both single.
That wasn’t the case with immensely dateable Laura Fraser. Her new memoir is the follow-up to her bestselling book, An Italian Affair, which chronicles Fraser’s post-divorce romance with a French professor she meets on the Italian island of Ischia. The sequel, All Over The Map, picks up where the last book left off and Fraser, a successful travel writer, grapples to reconcile a deeply ingrained wanderlust and an equal longing to unpack for good and settle down.
I spoke with Fraser over the phone from her office in San Francisco, a communal space she shares with filmmakers and writers, including Po Bronson, and, at the time of our call, a dog who wouldn’t lie down and behave.
Your last book was also a memoir, but it’s written in second person, which is a curious choice for a memoir. Did you find a detached voice harder to sustain?
With An Italian Affair, I went back and forth with using the second person because it was controversial with my agent and publisher and editor. I actually rewrote it in the first person to see how it would sound and I thought that it lost some of its dreamy quality. There was something about An Italian Affair that I wanted to make like a fable. I wanted to draw readers into the story almost as if it was a fairy tale. And I also think part of that was the distancing technique for myself as a writer. When I first wrote about the experiences that led to the book An Italian Affair for Salon.com’s now defunct Wanderlust column, I had just had this experience so it was almost like I was observing myself, which is why I wrote it in the second person. It just came out that way. Then as I kept writing it, I felt like that voice for that book was comfortable.
You switched to first person in All Over The Map. What does first person allow that second person does not? Do you have to be a braver writer to use the “I?”
I’m almost 10 years older now and I think that the voice for All Over The Map needed to be more mature. I think you can get away with the second person in your thirties. But when you’re in your forties, you have to stand up and say, “I’m a grown up and this is what I think and this is how I see the world.” The voice in this book is more direct than in An Italian Affair, and I think that has some pluses. It comes out as being kind of wiser, probably funnier.
The other thing is, when An Italian Affair came out, I thought that if one more person asked me why I used the second person, I was just going to die. There was no way I was going to put myself through that again.
Memoir writers are often accused of being self-indulgent. How do you manage to avoid the naval gazing?
You have to keep in mind that a memoir is not about you. It’s about a story and it’s about the reader. Of course it’s my story and the story is about me, but it’s what serves the reader and not what serves me or my ego. If there isn’t a larger point to be made, if there isn’t something that’s going to be illuminating to the reader, then it’s extra. You read some memoirs where people are just sort of exploring their feelings to try and sort them out for themselves and you think, No! You have to do all that work ahead of time and then tell your story to the reader.
What happens with a lot of memoirs is that people try and make themselves look good. They’re a little self-congratulatory. For a reader to identify with a memoir it has to be someone who’s real and honest—warts and all.
People are always curious about the process of recreating dialogue in memoir writing. How did you manage to remember some of the longer conversations you had—especially the ones where some profound thought or piece of advice is transmitted. I’m assuming you didn’t whip out your tape recorder or run off to the bathroom to take notes. When someone said something particularly perfect, did you pull out a notebook and say, “Can you repeat that?”
Memoir is always your story as you remember it to the best of your ability. All our lives we’re constructing stories about ourselves. So you remember the gist of the conversation and what someone said to you and you write it the way you remember it. Now is that word-for-word? Of course not. It never is in any memoir.
But don’t you think that sometimes the person actually says it better than you remember it? For me, I always worry that in trying to remember a conversation, I’m never saying it as good as the original speaker. Do you just have a really good memory?
I write a lot of things down. I’ve always kept a journal. So if something happens to me during the day that really affects me, I go and write it down.
It’s not as if I’m sitting down five years later and asking myself, “What was that conversation I had with the Professor?” I wrote it down over breakfast the next day.
In an early scene in the new book, you sum up what happened to many of your Outward Bound companions in a hilarious cataloging, saying, for example, “The skinny realtor finds a rich new boyfriend and gains a few pounds.” Do you worry about hurting someone’s feelings by reducing them down to their essence?
I feel that I was pretty compassionate toward most of the characters in the book. And I also changed people’s identities so that nobody is going to know who that skinny realtor is. She’s actually not even a realtor.
I don’t want to play “gotcha” with anybody. I want to write about my own response to people. I think that people also understand that when they’re in a memoir, they’re playing a role in your story.
It is so hard to predict what’s going to set someone off. One of my favorite quotes about writing memoir comes from a Czech poet who said, “When a writer is born into the family, the family is finished.” How do you write about people who aren’t dead yet?
Well, my favorite quote is Nora Ephron’s: “He knew I was a writer when he married me.” I try and be careful and compassionate. I wrote a lot about my mother in this book. I recently read it in Denver with her and a bunch of her friends and I think there was a lot of affectionate recognition of who my mother is and people really liked it. Now the portrait of my mother was very sympathetic. There certainly was a lot I could have put in, but the goal wasn’t to get back at people.
There’s a pretty big gap in time between this book and An Italian Affair. So what took you so long?
The problem with my last book was that it was successful enough that I kept hearing from my agent and publishers and editors to “not write another book unless it’s going to be as successful as your last one.” So I took their advice and didn’t write another book and look at where that got me!
At a certain point I realized that I’m a writer and I have William Zinsser to thank for that. I was in his office in New York and I said, “I don’t want to write another book because it’s not going to be as successful as my last one.” He looked at me and said, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. You’re a writer now go write another book.”
I feel really happy about this book because the biggest success for me is just getting over this kind of writer’s block of, it’s not going to be successful, it’s not going to sell, it’s not going to be the perfect follow up–blah, blah, blah. I got over all of those fears and just said, “Fuck it. I’m going to just write what I want to write and we’ll see what happens.” I’m very grateful to Shaye Areheart [at Harmony Books] for having bought the book and having had the confidence to let me find my way with it.
You write hilariously about how uncomfortable you feel about going around in a circle and sharing personal things about yourself. But when you think about it, you go around a metaphorical circle of (hopefully) millions who will be reading this book. Why is it easier for you to reveal yourself on the page than it is in person?
I hate sharing feelings in small groups. It really is my idea of hell. But when I’m writing, I’m just in my office by myself. I love writing until you strip something down into the [most] plain, simplest truth. It’s sort of my craft; it’s always a little startling to me that people actually read what I write.
Because you reveal a lot about yourself on the page, do people tend to ask you more personal questions at your book readings? The questions I always get start with, “I know this is rude, but…”
You’re absolutely right that people think that just because you’ve written a book, they’re entitled to ask you the most personal questions. But the thing is, we’re entitled not to answer them. But as with everything, the best way to deal with those questions is with humor.
As a memoirist, voice is pretty much all you have. I know you’ve written for a slew of women’s magazines; I’m wondering what it’s like for you to kill-off your voice in order to become more Self-y or Glamour-ish?
Fortunately, I have been doing more and more first-person pieces. I don’t have as much fun writing reported pieces as I used to. I have one moment in my book where I’m like, Oh my god, if I have to write one more story that starts with an anecdote, defines the trend in a nutgraf, interviews three women who have this problem, talks to five experts–if I have to do one more of those pieces, I am going to die! I am just so sick of women’s magazines that feel like women don’t have a brain, who don’t think that there’s room for a lively, snarky voice. I think people respond to what I write because I have some attitude and there’s so little attitude in women’s magazines.
And while I’m venting: one of the things that really pisses me off is when people call my book chick lit. I feel like there’s just this idea that anything written by a woman that deals with personal experiences is chick lit and it’s just kind of dismissed. It’s so sexists. Nobody calls anything dick lit.
How do you respond to critics who say there are too many books about women in their forties who reinvent their lives?
The thing that’s dogged my writing is probably Eat, Pray, Love. Everybody has compared An Italian Affair with that book and I just have to point out that I wrote An Italian Affair first. Elizabeth Gilbert was very generous giving me a blurb for this book, but I think that the wild success of her book, weirdly, has made publishers feel like that market is saturated instead of thinking, Oh, women are thirsting for books that talk about how to sort out their issues at mid-life.
Do you think it’s possible to analyze what makes a bestseller?
I don’t think you can. You just have to say you’re going to write your book. If you try and write something that’s going to sell big, it’s inevitably not going to work. You have to write the book you’re going to write. That’s all you can do.
Your previous Six-Word Memoir was “He lied, cheated, left; bestselling memoir.” So, Laura Fraser, what’s your short, short life story now?
Trying to lead a memoir-worthy life.
Cathy Alter is a Washington, DC-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Self, and TheAtlantic.com. She’s the author of the memoir, Up For Renewal: What Magazines Taught Me About Love, Sex, and Starting Over.
BUY All Over The Map.
READ more about Laura Fraser and sign up for her travel writing workshops on her website.
JOIN Laura Fraser’s Facebook page for book tour info and updates.
STAY at the author’s home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.