Memoirville

Interview: Catherine Gildiner, author of After the Falls: Coming of Age in the Sixties

Tuesday, December 7th, 2010

By Vivian Chum

“I love writing memoir because whatever happened happened. It’s over. You can’t make it better. You just write it up.”

“I swear to you, 75 percent of my life was eating pizza and watching The Late Show,” insists author Catherine Gildiner, “But these big things happened in between.” From the Women’s Movement to Vietnam and Civil Rights protests, the “big things” that made up the political and social landscape of the ’60s provide the backdrop for Gildiner’s coming-of-age memoir, After the Falls, the page-turning sequel to her New York Times bestseller, Too Close to the Falls. Each chapter of Gildiner’s memoir chronicles a thoroughly readable adventure that never quite turns out as expected, thanks to Gildiner’s outsized, take-charge personality.

But while Gildiner’s stories of the tumultuous America of the ’60s are entertaining, the tragic and complex relationships in her life are what make this book most memorable. As in her first memoir, in which she works closely with her father at his pharmacy in Niagara Falls, Gildiner’s relationship with her father plays a major role in After the Falls. The invasion of chain-store pharmacies forces Gildiner’s family to leave Niagara Falls and their independently-owned pharmacy for Buffalo, New York, where Gildiner’s once close relationship with her father disintegrates and is further complicated when he contracts an inoperable brain tumor.

Likewise, Gildiner unflinchingly writes about her first romantic relationship with fellow writer Laurie Coal and the rift that ultimately leads to their breakup and Gildiner’s expulsion from the Civil Rights Movement. For better or worse, Gildiner touched many lives as she came of age in the ’60s, and the characters in her memoir are as memorable and tragic as the era itself.

Gildiner spoke with SMITH from Toronto, where she is finishing her third and, she says, final memoir.

It’s been ten years since your last memoir, Too Close to the Falls. Why did you choose to write a sequel now?
I wasn’t going to write a sequel, because I didn’t think anything happened after the close of Too Close to the Falls, but I got hundreds of letters from people asking what happened next. I called my friend, who I call Leora in the book, and I said to her, “We did nothing but eat pizza and watch The Late Show. We didn’t even date!” And she said, “I think you’re forgetting some things. There was the arrest over the garden gnomes, there’s the fire, there’s your boyfriend Laurie, there’s getting kicked out of the Civil Rights Movement, there’s the FBI.” I said, “Oh it’s so embarrassing!” And she responded, “That’s what a memoir is!”

As you were writing this memoir, were you conscious that you were also writing about America’s coming of age? Did you attempt to balance the story of the country with your own?
I think you have to focus on your own story, otherwise it doesn’t ring true. My story was pretty much the story of the ’60s. I started out wearing golf dresses and wanting to be popular and ended up wearing work boots and being hit up by the FBI, which is what it meant to be politicized in the ’60s. At the time, going to Chicago to protest didn’t seem like a big deal. People have written to me and told me they did the same things.

You frequently refer to song lyrics in this book, and one seminal turning point for you was hearing Buffalo Springfield sing For What It’s Worth for the first time. Can you tell me more about that moment? What came together for you?
I was the queen of the popular girls, a class leader. I was sporty. I believed it was great to be a cheerleader. But I was also getting letters from my friend Kip in Vietnam and he was writing things like: What the hell is going on here? I don’t even know who the enemy is. These guys on our side seem really corrupt.

There was a lot of underground stuff that I was feeling. Then this song came along. There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. I got this wonderful feeling that I was not alone. I realized I didn’t want to be a part of this mainstream thing; it wasn’t working out for me. This was the first time I thought, Wow. Maybe America’s crazy. I just didn’t want to buy everything from America anymore.

Music in the ’60s was so important to me. I’m a word person. I don’t remember the tunes, just the words. The Dylan songs. We were all feeling slightly unhappy and sick of things, but we didn’t know how to express it. Suddenly these musicians were telling us, this is how it is. They were explaining how we were feeling.

You reveal the personal tragedies of several people. For example, there’s Veronica who is subjected to a gangbang, Rhonda who is left a paraplegic after a car accident, and Bev who never mentally recovers from a bad trip. Did you struggle with the decision to write about these tragedies?
I wrote about the things that occurred to me. I didn’t struggle with writing about them, and I didn’t ask permission. I changed the places, locales, and names but not the incidents. And everyone from my high school knows the true identities of the all the characters.

You’re between a rock and a hard place when you write a memoir, because if you write what happened you’ll hurt other people; if you make it up then you’re James Frey [A Million Little Pieces]. Writing a memoir is fraught with issues. The book has only been out a week, but I’m expecting a bit of a stir.

You had some very negative experiences early on that deeply affected your ideas about sex and sexuality. How did that shape your relationship with men?
When we hid in the closet and watched the boys gangbang Veronica, each boy had to say to Veronica, “I love you.” After that, whenever a boy said anything nice to me, I’d say, “Shut up.” I didn’t want to have anything to do with men. Even today, men come up to me and recall the horrible things I said to them. A guy came up to me recently and said, “I asked you to dance once and you said, ‘yes, but not with you.’” I was frightened.

How do you anticipate readers who did not experience the ’60s personally to react to this story?
Sometimes I give talks in high schools and they’re very shocked by the social morass of the girls, of boys not wanting to associate with girls who are assertive. The word assertive was not used in conjunction with females until 1967. If you were an assertive woman, you were called a bitch. In my era, an assertive woman was somebody you didn’t want to go near.

When you consider the downward spiral of your father’s health and the death of Laurie, do you have any major regrets?
I regret that I was as unkind as I was to my father for such a long time, and I have no idea why I was as angry as I was. From a Freudian standpoint, I had to break away, and part of the way I did that was by being really mean. I regret that now. Teenagers are pretty awful.

Laurie and I worked really hard together and we actually made a difference. We worked really well together in the Civil Rights Movement. We were both strategists. In terms of romance, it was a true disaster, but people learn. Leora yells at me all the time about Laurie. She felt that he really cared a lot for me and that we were a great couple while we were together.

For the longest time, I looked for Laurie everywhere. I was shocked to find out that he was dead. When I got his autopsy, I was shaking like a leaf.

You and your mother weathered through some serious storms together. Where did that strength come from?
My mother was a person who wasn’t strong at all in a lot of ways. The idea of having people over for dinner made her sick, so she wasn’t brave in those ways, but she didn’t care too much about society. She lived a lot in her head. She decided she couldn’t have control over me when I was little, and she said, if I want to have a relationship, I just have to be a friend rather than a parent.

I got my strength because my parents never criticized me. If something really bad happened, my mother would have just said, “Hey, move on.”

Throughout the book you refer back to your time with Roy, with whom you delivered medication for your father’s pharmacy as a young girl in Niagara Falls. What was the most significant lesson from Roy you carried with you?
The one thing I do carry with me is Roy’s sense of how everything was funny. The worst tragedy was funny. The car wrapped around a tree? He’d think it looked like a donut. When something bad happens, I always think that if Roy were here he’d love this! He realized that there’s very few things that are important, really.

How did you reconstruct your memories? For example, you write that you burned everything from your ex-boyfriend, Laurie, after you were linked to him by the FBI, and yet you write quite vividly about the postcards he sent you.
I remember those postcards because they were so shocking. I got rid of everything from Laurie, but I don’t have any trouble remembering things. I’m an idiot savant that way. I can remember everybody’s address and street in high school. I retain all this silly information. And I remember trauma.

What was the process of writing After the Falls like?
The problem with After the Falls is that I wrote it all on my computer without printing it out once. At the end, when I printed it out, it was a foot tall. It burned out my printer. I had no idea I had written so much. My editor took out half of the book. I had four chapters on the donut shop that I burned down by accident.

Now, at the end of each day, I print my work out so I have some idea of how much I’ve written.

Were there books that you found particularly influential or useful?
I tried really hard not to read books about the ’60s. I tried to just write my memoir from my memory because it’s really hard to write from the teenage point of view. You forget how angry you were as a teenager and how riled up you got over little things. I had to put myself back into that character. That was the hardest part.

You write some of your best work in a frantic rush, for example, the paper that led to an invitation to Oxford and the winning American Heritage Week essay. Do you still do your best work that way?
I’m an emotional and fast writer. I wrote Too Close to the Falls in nine months. My novel, Seduction, took a long time, because of legal harassment crap, and I hope to never write fiction again. I love writing memoir because whatever happened happened. It’s over. You can’t make it better. You just write it up. I like having the spine of the story already done.

The Oxford paper was written on a drug. It was such a perfect pill, I made sure to never take another one again.

Why does your final memoir close at 25, when you get married?
Because nothing happens after marriage. Everybody knows that!

And finally, Catherine Gildiner, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Got the last word. Worth it?

+++

BUY After the Falls.

VISIT Gildiner’s website.

FOLLOW the author on Twitter.

READ the blogs, Gildiner’s Gospel and Old Gildiner.

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