1. At what age, or stage of life, did you decide that you wanted to write a memoir, and what triggered the actual writing? How long did it take to write the book?
I was a psychologist for 25 years and running out of empathy, and then once I was at a party and someone said they had worked at their father’s store. I told a few stories about working in my dad’s store and someone at the party said I should write it up so I did–just one story about Roy. I sent it in to the first name on the Canadian publishers list–ECW on a Friday–and then Monday I got an advance for a book and the enclosed note said ‘Finish it’. Since I didn’t want to give the money back, I finished it.
2. Your memory of details from a very young age is amazing–I’m envious!–right down to the colour of chalk your teacher used on the blackboard. Did you keep a journal during childhood, or was all of Too Close to the Falls in your memory bank? Did you have to work at some of the memories to get them to reveal themselves fully?
I never kept a diary. I was too busy. When I wrote the first draft I didn’t have any of the fine details–like the chalk colour but human memory is organized according to associations–so with each draft I would remember a few more details–one memory would jog another. If you write a skeletal draft it will expand each day if you let the picture expand.
3. Did you ever hesitate when deciding how truthful to be in describing real people? Some of your portraits, particularly of more minor characters, are not particularly flattering. As a reader I appreciated them because they seemed very honest, but I know this is always a tricky area for memoir writers.
I was really naïve about that. I had a fantasy that as long as you wrote what was ‘true,’ everything was fine. Of course that theory leaves much to be desired. I learned that when I went back to read the memoir to a few hundred people in Lewiston. Anthony McDougall showed up and had a few things to say. Also some of the town thought they had been kinder to Warty than I portrayed. On the whole, I was surprised at how accepting they were of most of my descriptions. The descriptions of people didn’t send anyone into orbit – but the anti-Catholic feeling made some people mad. But hey, you never make everyone happy. One of the upsides of having no living relatives is there is no one close to me to disagree.
4. I was fascinated by your structure. The book is about your childhood, and basically chronological, focusing, it seemed to me, on various stages of awareness and/or loss of innocence–and yet most of the chapters are also built around character sketches of other people who influenced you. How did you come up with the idea for such a structure? Did you play with various structures before deciding on the one you used, or did it present itself immediately?
No I never planned anything. It just flowed out exactly like that. I think when you are a kid you usually learn from other people, especially when you are away from your parents all day. Their view of life very often contrasted with my parents but was never at ‘moral’ odds from it–just a different perspective. I think I grew up to be a psychologist because I have always been interested in people and what they think and how they operate. I have struggled so much with my new novel Seduction that I now realize how lucky I was to have it flow out so easily in Too Close to the Falls. I was also lucky that I had editors who never changed a word or fussed with it. They told me to cut the last chapter which said what everyone was doing today, which they said spoiled the voice, and I think they were right.
5. I absolutely loved Roy, the pharmacy deliveryman who worked for your father. And you obviously did too. Do you feel that he played a larger part in your development than your parents, or did the three share billing?
I think they shared billing. In fact I have grown up to be far more like my parents than Roy in terms of career and financial success etc. However people say I have a sense of humour and irony and that has come straight from Roy. I have the ability to mimic and be theatrical and that is straight from Roy. Roy had traits I loved that I never acquired or even approximate–but I hold up as an ideal. He was always accepting of others–never focused on their foibles and he didn’t worry about things. I am not like that–I’m much more like my parents that way. But I hope a little bit of his kindness rubbed off on me.
6. You were/are obviously very bright and talented, but in Too Close to the Falls you are also brutally honest about yourself–about your pride, your comeuppances. Did you find it difficult to be so honest in print?
No I didn’t at all. I think I have my mother to thank for that. Believe it or not she never once criticized me EVER. For example when I would go home and say I had to stand in the hall at school for talking and trying to be amusing, she would say something like, “Well for heaven sake, they didn’t appreciate your humour at that place. You will simply have to save your act for New York where they have a funny bone.” Therefore when I said things that happened to me or I did wrong, no one said how stupid or annoying I was, they just accepted it. When I would only give certain kinds of cookies at Christmas to certain kinds of people, Roy made fun of it but only in a fun way which made me laugh at myself–it was never derogatory. Laughing at myself never bothered me because it never had a humiliating undertone.
7. Further to that, what would you say was the most difficult part of the book for you to write? Were there any parts that almost didn’t make it into the final draft?
It was all fairly easy. I think the most difficult chapter was my mother. She is a very difficult woman to describe. She was a typical housewife on the outside but more rebellious than anyone I have ever met on the inside. She would help me in any way if I asked her, but if I didn’t ask for help she just minded her own business. She was a woman of contradictions and I needed to be able to describe her as a real person. She was complicated and full of contradictions–yet the piece had to hold together as a portrait.
8. My husband and I had an interesting conversation after I read your memoir. You had an epiphany while at the track meet in Harlem that mirrored something he has often said–that he blames his parents for making him believe all things are possible, when in fact they really aren’t: we all have our limitations. He and I agreed that it’s a fine line. Good parents have to instill in their children that confidence to strive to be the best they can (that all things are possible?), and yet, if they do, life for their child can be a series of excruciatingly humbling experiences. As a psychologist, and as the grown-up Cathy, I’m interested in your take on this delicate balance in parenting.
I have never figured that out myself. I think my parents did as well as they could. Perhaps they could have tried to prepare me for failure but that would have only made me nervous ahead of time. In retrospect it would have been helpful if my Dad had said something to the effect that hard work is all you can do and the rest is out of your control. ‘Control what you can and give up what you can’t control’ is a good motto. Instilling the work ethic is an important thing but not at the expense of reality. However, I was never one to listen to others–probably why I had school problems—I had to be hit on the head with a 2×4 before I learned any life lesson.
9. I was intrigued by your mother, who was the only “character” in the book I never really figured out. I feel you portrayed her honestly but without analysis. She was incredibly supportive of you in many ways, and yet there seemed a great distance there. Did you mean for her to come across so enigmatically?
I never understood her either so I decided not to pretend. As she said, “I really loved you but I didn’t like the ‘job’ of motherhood”. She said she never quite got it. I thought she was great and had no idea there was a distance. I only experienced others like Mrs. Schmidt as smothering. I think I was a difficult child–very hyperactive and stubborn and type A. She was aged forty when I was born and basically said that disciplining me wasn’t working, so best that I learn form my own mistakes. In terms of enigma I never knew why she was so different form other mothers of the 1950’s–other than there was no feminist movement and she didn’t want to do the job—as in she didn’t like the job description. She wanted to look ‘normal’ so she was between a rock and a hard place.
10. In the last chapter, you make it clear that you are more naive than your fellow classmates in a certain sphere (I’m being vague here as I don’t want to spoil the ending for other readers). I was surprised at this, as you’d always come across as street-smart for your age, even in preschool! Why do you think you were naive in specific ways?
I have no idea. I am now writing my sequel and the same thing happens again, believe it or not. I think I, like my parents, have put a great store on the rational, and the emotional and/or romantic have eluded me. I never had brothers or sisters to tell me the goings on of the opposite sex and also I was working when kids talked about these things. Roy was certainly interested in women so you think I might have cottoned on. Maybe Mother Agnese’s teachings on the evil of commingling got to me more than I realized. It is sort of embarrassing to admit, but I have never been particularly interested or astute in the sphere of male–female relations and never enjoyed the subterfuge that went into flirting and other romantic endeavour. That is explored in my new book the novel, Seduction.
11. Your ending was truly powerful, coming on the heels of the whole “too close to the falls” scene and building up the readers’ curiosity about what was really going on that night. With that ending, were you following that showbiz adage “Always leave your audience wanting more”? Or did that closing just feel “right” to you?
It was a childhood memoir and I believe coming of age is when you realize what really happens in an adult world, when you are able to see through the childhood cover-up stories. I had hit that moment, so my childhood was over. It was the end of my childhood illusions–so the book had to be over since it was a ‘childhood’ memoir.
12. The ending does leave questions unanswered, such as whether the experience jaded you, or helped you to grow–or both. Did your disappointment cause you to dismiss the things that were recommended to you, or did you take the advice that was offered to you?
I took all the advice that Father Rodwick offered me and it was the best thing I ever did. Did I feel duped? Yes I did, and it was a long time before I would believe a man again.
13. Have you ever considered writing another memoir that picks up where the first leaves off?
Yes I am writing one now about my life from 13-21.
14. What did the process of writing the memoir mean to you personally?
I grew a lot while writing that book and it also helped me mourn. My parents and most people in the 1950’s were the type that said “life goes on” and “there is no use crying over spilt milk”. I waited day after day for Roy to come back but he never did. I had the chance to chronicle Roy and to chronicle what he meant to me. I re-experienced his loss and although it was sad I got to express it for the first time and that was good for me.
15. Did you read other people’s memoirs before writing your own, and if so, which ones influenced you or resonated with you?
No, not really.