Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
“I wrote the book so that other people would feel less alone when faced with the isolation and pain that comes from economic collapse.”
For those who have known the particular pain of joblessness in The Great Recession, Caitlin Shetterly’s plainspoken memoir, Made for You and Me: Going West, Going Broke, Finding Home, is a much-needed bear hug. Freelancers Caitlin and her husband Dan never thought the economy would get as bad as it did. Indeed, after marrying, moving across the country from Maine to Los Angeles, and becoming pregnant in quick succession, their future looked bright in spite of the slowing economy. Shetterly’s husband, a photographer, was booking enough jobs to support his growing family. It seemed for a time that they would really make it in L.A. But by early 2008, making ends meet was becoming impossible, especially with a newborn in tow. Dan resorted to looking for work by hitting every store, restaurant, and bar, block by painful block, to no avail.
Stranded in California and drowning in debt, Dan and Caitlin eventually conceded that there was nothing left to do but pack up their baby, dog, and belongings, and move in with Caitlin’s mother in Maine. It was around that time that Caitlin began recording The Recession Diaries for NPR. To their surprise, listeners all across the country responded to Caitlin’s story with their own recession stories and an outpouring of support. “I’d thought that going west was our most American of journeys,” writes Caitlin, “but this journey—the going home—was when I felt America reach out to me and beckon me with its long legacy of triumph over adversity.”
SMITH recently spoke with Caitlin about her All-American story, NPR radio series, and the importance of community and family.Given that your story is about a struggle that so many Americans have faced, what has the response to your book been like?
I’ve just gotten nothing but lovely comments. A girl showed up at a reading recently. When she came up to me, tears started pouring out of her eyes. She handed me a four-page handwritten letter she had written the day before. She told me how her husband had been laid off five times in the last two years. He’s got two degrees, they have two kids, and he finally got a job as a custodian. She wrote in her letter, “Someone out there really knows what it’s like. We’ve felt many of the same feelings you wrote of in your book. We stopped dreaming. That was the worst.”
One woman who offered to let us stay at her house on our way from California to Maine drove two hours each way to see me at a reading. When she appeared, I just hugged her. The connection was so deep. She had reached out to us in response to the NPR series at a time that was so hard. She saw us for our humanity. Those people who reached out to us will always be saints in my life, and all they did was write to me. I can’t say how much that helped us get across the country.
On the day you received your book advance, you were down to your last $16. What did it feel like to receive that advance?
It felt really weird. We went from having nothing to something, even though we were still living below the poverty level. It was a totally surreal experience. We were so on the edge and so desperate that to have some money felt like a magical thing, a Cinderella story.
So many Americans have experienced unemployment by now, and yet it is a very lonely experience. Why do you think that is?
Why do they feel so alone? Money is so hard to talk about. I’d liken it to when my parents got divorced. When your parents are going through a divorce it feels so specifically ugly, as if what is going on in your family could never be so ugly in someone else’s family. It’s hard to be open about things that feel so personal, so wrenching, and so ugly. You can’t imagine anyone else is going through the same thing.
Sometimes I have these dreams of just handing the book out at job fairs or an unemployment office, just giving it to people who might need it. I wrote the book so that other people would feel less alone when faced with the isolation and pain that comes from economic collapse. The message of the book is that we have to be willing to ask for help, and we have to be willing to help each other.
Was it difficult to write honestly about such a painful experience?
Hemingway said, Write one true sentence. Dan and I have always been committed to telling the truth. I felt my job was to write the truth and be completely honest and open, and I wasn’t scared of telling the truth.
I have a friend who used to say, This is my heart, it’s yours to break. This is my book and it’s yours to break and yours to love. It’s my story. It’s the truth, and I can’t do any better than that.
How did you personally grapple with the ugliness of economic collapse?
Becoming a mother saved me, because I had a more important job than just taking care of myself. My son’s life depended on me. And I had to choose life. I also laughed every day. I went through my whole life for weeks without laughing, and then I had a child and it totally changed me. It changed how I interacted in the world.
How do you hope your son Matty will respond to this book when he is old enough to read it?
Sometimes I worry that all of his life so far has been sort of a struggle. It’s like, we were in that struggle, and then I was writing my book seven days a week, and now I’m on a book tour. I just hope that he understands that the struggle we were going through was always with him in mind.
I hope that he reads my book with mercy. I hope what he reads is about two people who were tenacious and who would do anything for each other, for him, and for our animals, because our animals are our family, too.
How have you changed as a result of the financial struggles you and Dan experienced?
I would say that experience made it scarier to live with a question mark, but I also know now that we’ve got options. I always thought the worst that could happen to us is that we would move home with our mother, and we did that already. Although I wouldn’t like to move home again with my family, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. It no longer feels like this terrifying thing that I have to make never happen.
We’ve brought into our lives some of the communal values from living with our mother. For example, with our landlady, we’ll shovel the driveway and she’ll watch our son. We’ll do part of a holiday together. We really help each other. I never would have existed that way before.
What is the main thing you’d like to say to the many Americans who have had their dreams deferred?
Dreams can get deferred, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone. They can also change, and the things we sometimes think we want are not always what we need. What we need is community, family, and a meaningful life.
As for artists and freelancers who have struggled in this economy, lots of people have worked in jobs that we didn’t expect to be in and we were still able to make art. I’ve worked some bizarre jobs. My parents were artists, but my dad dug clams and my mother worked at a fish factory. Your dreams can still be within reach. You just have to configure your life to make it work.
In your book, you write about how Dan feels emasculated when you move your entire family in with your mother. Has it been difficult for him to have his story told on NPR and in your memoir?
I’d say the audio diaries were more difficult. Some of the tape was so raw and really went through my heart. I don’t think either of us had any idea that the NPR diaries were going to become such a lightning rod. I just never had anything overnight go viral like that. We felt really exposed. There is such a feeling of vulnerability when your voice is out there as well as your words.
The book was a lot less scary. Dan read every draft of it. In the end, I read it out loud to him before my book was transmitted and made into a galley. He was really involved in all that.
How would you compare the work of putting together your NPR audio diaries to writing Made for You and Me?
The audio diaries were hard. However, I felt like the pain of what was happening was happening anyway, and this was a part of it. As far as writing the book went, when I had to write the part about our life falling apart and more specifically about our cat Ellison dying, that was very, very hard for me. Those chapters took a lot out of me, and I approach them with anxiety. When I pick up the book to read it, I just skip the chapter about Ellison dying. I almost don’t even want to touch those pages. I still wear her tags, and I still have my cat’s ashes on my bedside table next to me.
Which authors and books have influenced your writing?
I believe in seeing who has gone before. If you look carefully, you can see that the story was inspired by The Great Gatsby. I learned to write a sentence from Hemingway. There were authors like Pam Houston, Gretel Ehrlich, Jack Kerouac. I read this wonderful book called Went to Kansas. I read a lot of pioneer stories. Those were the real American stories that inform who we are, and the sentences I wrote couldn’t help but be influenced by the pioneers who came before.
How are you and your family doing now?
We’re okay. What’s hard now is that we don’t know really what we’re going to do next financially. The book is out now which means I’ve gotten my final payment. Dan’s about to graduate from school. And we’re about to have two hefty school loans of his. I still have school loans. We are still in a lot of debt. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. This experience got me writing my first book and now I’m trying to promote it, but there’s a question mark in our lives now, too. I’m not back to square one, but I’m back to having to figure out something soon.
What can we expect from you next?
Right now I’m just really focused on getting the message of this book out. I can’t say I’ve really even figured out what I’m doing next. I’d love to say I have a novel in the bag. I have started writing a few pages, but it’s very hard to write when you’re promoting another book.
And finally, Caitlin Shetterly, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?
Went west, went broke, found home.
LISTEN to Shetterly’s NPR Recession Diaries.
BUY Made for You and Me.
READ Shetterly’s blog about going west.
FOLLOW Caitlin Shetterly on Twitter.