Q: You worked in advertising. For how long? We’re all imagining three-martini lunches a la Mad Men. Was this your experience? A: Before I got into advertising, I taught philosophy, but I was barely a chapter ahead of my class, and it didn’t take me long to realize I wasn’t serious enough for academia. A friend suggested I try advertising because it was “a business of ideas.” That sounded like fun, and it was, even though the ideas were mostly small. I worked on everything from denture adhesives to Star Wars, and during my thirty years in the business, I did witness a few liquid lunches. But if I’d drunk my way through them, I wouldn’t have remembered enough of my career to write about it. That said, I may have had a martini or two on the way home at night.
Q: Was there a moment in your advertising career where you thought to yourself: “I want to write a book”? A: The idea was anything but sudden—writing a book about my mad, brainy mother was a compulsion that began in kindergarten. I started taking notes the minute I learned the alphabet, and before that, I drew hieroglyphics that got me sent to the school nurse. I finished my first draft while I was working full-time by writing before dawn, during vacations, and in my sleep. The only way I could forget my crazy job was to refocus on something more lunatic.
Q: The dream of most people is to write the great American novel, yet you chose to write nonfiction. Why? A: Truth is stranger than fiction. My mother’s madness—and the freak accident that altered her personality and killed my father—were wilder than my imagination. To get to the bottom of an incredible story, I thought that fact would be a better route than fiction.
Q: Where does the title come from? Who or what is the center of the universe? A: My mother was the self-proclaimed “center of the universe,” a fact she declared when I was about ten. She was very convincing—brilliant, bigger than life and charismatic—but she was intermittently unhinged. We were in our old Chevy when she made the pronouncement, and she was twirling her fingers in dainty arcs, demonstrating the rotation of the solar system around her, right there in the front seat. She was the axis of a magical orbit—spinning, spinning—and I rotated around her.
Q: Perhaps the most surprising thing about your memoir, given the subject matter, is how funny it is. Have you always been able to laugh at the dysfunctions in your family—if I may call them that—or is this the gift of hindsight? A: I had some outrageous material. To paraphrase a famous quote, laughing well is the best revenge. It certainly beats self-pity.
Q: Was the process of writing this memoir painful? Cathartic? Did you feel like it had to be done? A: “Catharsis” is the right word. I won’t say that writing purged my feelings about my childhood, but it transformed them. The first draft erupted from me like a volcano. I had misgivings about writing anything so honest it would be cruel, but by the time I completed the second draft, the anger was gone, and it was replaced by understanding and forgiveness.
Q: You write in your Author’s Note: “Memory is so fragile that even perspective can distort it but this is a work of nonfiction, mostly about my mother.” How much of THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE is true? A: This story is as “true” as memory can be. I transcribed dialogue and incidents that were seared in my brain during childhood, but we’re not exactly disinterested observers of our own lives, and the passage of time airbrushes whatever we call “reality.” Telling a chaotic story in an orderly manner mutates it—since life is messier than prose. But no non-existent apple was thrown over a metaphorical fence.
Q: Are there any favorite anecdotes about your mother that got lost on the editorial cutting room floor? A: There’s enough material about my mother for a sequel and a bad cookbook. And I cut most of the prequel— the stories about her ancestral psychodrama, which resembled the chapter headings of a psychiatric manual—from Aunt Flossie’s vapors to Aunt Lily’s neurasthenia and Aunt Annie’s dipsomania. Uncle Larry (a sociopath?) was a jailed judge, Uncle Bill an assassin at large, and their nephew embezzled from the mob. What kind of people embezzle from the mob?
Q: What do you hope readers of THE CENTER OF UNIVERSE will take away from the book? A: Most families have their share of dysfunction, although mine is admittedly over the top. I hope readers will take away hope. No one should be counted out while they’re still breathing, even if they’re breathing on a ventilator. The brain is resilient, and despite what one well-meaning doctor told me, hope is never “counterproductive.” No one has a crystal ball.