Excerpted from Another Song About the King by Kathryn Stern. Copyright © 2001 by Kathryn Glasgow Stern. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Kathryn Stern
Fred Shafer was an editor for several years with TriQuarterly, the international literary journal published by Northwestern University, where he has taught fiction writing in the English and Radio-TV-Film departments and the School of Continuing Education. His stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in several journals. He also leads private workshops in story writing and novel writing, of one of which Kathryn Stern is a member.
FS: At a time when many fiction writers and poets have been publishing memoirs drawn from their lives, you chose to write a novel based on your relationship with your mother. Why did you decide to write a novel, rather than a memoir?
KS: My mother was diagnosed with cancer before a number of things between us could be resolved. She died just as I was becoming engaged to be married, and there I was, falling in love inside a space of great loss, forced to close one door when another door was being flung wide open. This novel began as an attempt to explore everything that had been left unsaid about our complex relationship, and to make peace with losing her so soon. But it never occurred to me to write a memoir. I didn't have the confidence to blatantly expose the emotional truths of my life, or the arrogance to assume they would be interesting. It takes courage to say, "This happened to me and I'd like to tell you about it." I guess that's because we are ashamed of our weaknesses and flaws, even though they are what makes us human.
Writing a novel, rather than a memoir, gave me a license with language and imagery that was utterly compelling. And it was the best way I could find of trying to understand the things that had always puzzled me about my mother's personality. I wanted to write a version of our story. As it turned out, that didn't keep me from feeling guilty about using the people I love for the sake of art or for my own personal catharsis. But the need to hold my life up to the light, in order to study it and find meaning in the struggle we'd gone through, somehow outweighed all other concerns.
FS: From a writer's standpoint, what distinctions have you found be-tween memoirs and fiction based on autobiography? Does a work of fiction give the writer more of a sense of being protected?
KS: It only seems easier to hide behind a work of fiction than a memoir. I have found that it's impossible to hide behind any writing that strives to reach a deep place. But the line between fact and fiction is always indistinct, and even a memoirist must, at times, be forced to invent. I don't see how anyone can remember entire paragraphs of dialogue from her childhood. I know I can't. A weakness in my character, but perhaps one of my strengths as a writer, is that I rarely tell the whole truth. If I come home and say to my husband that I was involved in a fender bender, the minor scrape on the bumper will invariably lengthen and deepen, and the time it took the police to arrive will grow from twenty minutes to forty-five. Conversely, if I set out to write a novel based entirely on things I've imagined, I suspect I'd be unable to resist throwing in a character who resembles someone from my family, or a few lines of dialogue lifted from last year's Thanksgiving dinner when Aunt Pearl drank too much wine and began cursing her dead husband. The impulse to liven things up, to embellish, to make the world a more profound and interesting place, is what separates art from life and makes a person a storyteller.
FS: John Irving, in an interview published several years ago in The Paris Review, said that he starts out by writing about real people, then invents and exaggerates until he has produced "autobiography on its way to becoming lie," and the lie interests him more. Is this what you're talking about?
KS: Yes. Looking back, I'm not always sure which things I made up and which are true. When she was a teenager, my mother had a date with Elvis Presley, but she rarely talked about it while I was growing up, and I was left to color in what was shrouded in mystery. It always intrigued me that my mother was so hush-hush about the dates she'd had with men. She was the kind of person who you'd expect to shout it from the rooftops.
Elvis was nowhere to be found in any of the early drafts; it was primarily a book about a stormy mother/daughter relationship, end- ing in loss and grief. But as I wrestled with it, one line kept popping up: "Silvie, did you know your mama dated the King?" It hung over me, and I didn't know what to make of those words. It wasn't until I went to a neighborhood barbecue, where a woman actually drove home to get a scrapbook she kept of the time she met the Beatles, that I began to pay attention to the Elvis theme in my novel. I was struck by the air of discontent this thirty-year-old woman wore like a cloak, and how it dissipated only when she launched into her story, holding court in that tiny backyard, recounting her fifteen minutes of fame. It was clear that nothing in her life had equaled, or ever would equal, the experience she was describing. And I thought, "That's what Simone has been trying to tell me!" Unlike my mother, Simone had been holding herself and her family hostage to a story about the date with Elvis. I was on my way to loving the lie I'd invented, and I couldn't turn back from the sense of freedom it brought to my writing.
FS: Does this mean that you made up many of the things that people say or do to each other in the book? What limitations or boundaries did you set in regard to inventing action or dialogue?
KS: I invented almost everything the characters say or do to each other. Which doesn't mean that I didn't live in New York City or meet my husband there, or that I didn't have a difficult relationship with my mother, that she didn't date Elvis Presley, or that she didn't die and I didn't sit beside her on the couch while it was happening. But not one of the events in the book happens as it did in real life, and very few lines of dialogue were actually spoken. Isn't it a writer's duty to carry a conversation a step further than might have happened in life, to unveil hidden truths so that a reader has no choice but to respond deeply?
I didn't consciously set boundaries. The only guideline I followed was to stay true to the characters I had created on the page and to the action that was taking shape. In chapter two, for example, Simone sends Silvie a manila envelope full of perfume samples torn from magazines. I was never the recipient of such a gift, but I seized upon the idea one day while leafing through a magazine in a doctor's office. It was exactly the kind of project Simone would undertake, collecting those samples for her daughter, and the kind of unspoken message she would send: "All you need to have in order to succeed in the big city is your femininity and a good perfume." After I'd written a monstrous first draft, the characters gradually became entities in their own right, separate from my personal history. And whenever I used situations from my life, I'd always ask myself whether the characters would behave differently than the real people did under those circumstances.
FS: The novel is structured with chapters that describe incidents from Silvie's childhood are interspersed with chapters concerning her mother's illness and death. How far into the writing did you decide on the structure of the novel? Did your choice of this structure have any impact on your understanding of the story?
KS: I wrote several drafts in chronological order, and that helped me to get in touch with my story. In the course of producing a later draft, I realized that the structure itself would help carry the issues of the plot forward. By juxtaposing Silvie's childhood self with her adult self, I found that I could create suspense and make connections that might not be apparent otherwise, because, of course, the past influences and, at times, foreshadows the future. Once I'd rearranged the structure, some of the connections surprised me. For instance, the chapter that follows the Thanksgiving scene, in which Simone misbehaves when Silvie brings home Scottie, begins with the line, "My new friend, Martine LaRue, gave me courage." What I realized in putting the two together was that, just as Silvie's friendship with Martine helped her to gain a measure of independence, her relationship with Scottie is bound to grant her a life beyond her mother's grasp.
FS: Did the need for introducing a plot enable you to learn anything about the characters?
KS: It's astounding how much a writer can, and must, learn about her characters as she watches them respond to situations into which she has thrust them. How will they behave when a new person enters their lives? How will they react when someone they know well does something unusual? A writer's reward for all the grueling hours spent in isolation struggling with one sentence occurs when characters surprise you by acting in ways you never dreamed possible or by saying things you never expected them to say. You just shake your head and exclaim, "Wow, I didn't know they had it in them."
One area of the plot where the characters continually surprised me is what I came to think of as the Simone and Silvie dance; it's a kind of love versus hate, dependence versus independence two-step. In order to sustain the ebb and flow of this dance, I invented many scenes in which the characters draw together, but then fall back, due to insensitivity on the part of one or the other. For instance, after Simone bites into the apple, Silvie stops calling her "Mom" and eventually renames her "Mimi," as a way of gaining distance from behavior that has become increasingly confusing. Later in the book, following her own failure in the sewing contest, Simone criticizes Silvie when she wins the art prize, then Silvie sets out to destroy her mother's carefully organized closet.
In writing these scenes, I wanted to create tensions that would lead the characters to react strongly to each other, to the point that both of them might become capable of changing and growing. What I realized, instead, was that this mother is the major impediment to Silvie's being able to find her own identity. With each small act of rebellion, the girl moves a step closer to the independence she seeks, but also fears. I was like a surrogate parent, cheering for Silvie whenever she quietly fought back.
FS: Did you ever feel the urge to make things happen between Silvie and Mimi that you wish had taken place between you and your mother? Is there ever a place for wish fulfillment in an autobiographical novel?
KS: In writing the hospital scenes, I often felt the urge to compose a farewell that my mother and I did not actually share. Those were the first scenes I wrote, beginning only a month after she died. That room was still vivid in my mind, and the dialogue came easily. It was often stitched around a single line that my mother said, but that, because of limitations imposed by her illness, our shared denial that she was dying, and my usual tongue-tied response to her, did not go any further. The Hollywood deathbed ending, with the apologies and white lies and good-byes, rarely happens. People die, and very little is said. That was certainly my experience, and at first it may have fueled my need to make the final chapter happen as I wished my real life experience had.
Like dreams, wishes are potent, and very much a product of our imaginations. I believe that anything that comes from such a deep place is valid territory for a writer to explore. But there is no place for wish fulfillment in a novel, unless the words or details fit with the story you're telling. You have to be true to the story. You can't just get your ya-yas out, in terms of wishes or revenge, because the possibility of engaging in self-indulgence is too great.
FS: Speaking of dreams, one of the most powerful and disturbing moments, apart from the deathbed scenes, occurs at the end of chap-ter four when Silvie, soon after she arrives in New York, has a nightmare about riding the subway with her mother. Did you actually have that dream?
KS: It started with a dream I had before beginning to write the novel. My mother was a few weeks from death. I woke up and jotted a note on an index card: "Riding the subway with Mom in NYC. She is turning round and round, crying, confused, like a dog, and I am trying to hold her by the shoulders." That was the central image, and I built the entire sequence around it, just letting my imagination go. I rewrote that section countless times, and with each new draft tried to get closer to the characters' deepest need, which, at that time in their lives, was to connect, really connect, before it was too late.
FS: Do you feel that Simone and Silvie have achieved closure by the time Simone dies?
KS: If closure means accepting the most basic truths about a relationship and letting go of things that shouldn't matter, I'd say, yes, they do achieve closure, and they find peace. When Simone asks Silvie to drop the Elvis locket in the wastebasket, it shows that she recognizes the extent to which she's hidden behind the myth, and is finally able to set it aside. Elvis is a symbol of the ambition and desire that were very much a part of my mother's personality, but we never talked about Elvis when she was dying; there wasn't room for him in our conversations.
However, it seemed right that, on the threshold of Sylvie's and Simone's marriage, the two of them would gain closure through talking about him. I have trouble reading those scenes aloud now. They transport me back to my own experience so completely: the feel of the room, the smell of death, the longing to keep my mother alive. I used the present tense in chapter fourteen to convey the fact that the dying ends only for the person who closes her eyes; death lives with the survivor forever.
FS: In the last few years of revising the novel, you gave birth, first to a daughter and then a son. Did becoming a parent have any impact on decisions that you made about Silvie and Simone? Have you learned anything from writing about those characters that has influenced the approach you and your husband take in raising your own children?
KS: I feel that I have a lot more sympathy for Simone now. Being a mother is hard, and until you have children of your own, you can't fully appreciate how hard it is. After my daughter was born, I saw Simone as a fellow mother, and I was concerned about making sure that she seemed sympathetic, even likable. I felt I truly understood how a woman like Simone could be pushed, out of tedium over endless loads of laundry and drives to and from school, to invent a glamorous counterlife for herself and to behave in ways that are unpredictable and, at times, cruel. And when I began to see Silvie as having an identity separate from my own, I was able to regard my daughter as separate from me, something Simone was never able to do with Silvie.
As a parent, I try to look the other way when my daughter, at four, refuses to brush her hair or insists on wearing her pink tutu over her overalls. I am not, by nature, overbearing and competitive in the way Simone is, but I am much more aware now that the role assumed by a parent can stifle a child's creativity and identity. By the time I revised the final scenes in the book, I cherished my own budding relationship with my daughter, and I wanted Simone and Silvie to come as close as possible to forgiveness, understanding, and a kind of mutual respect. It was painful to let Simone die. I kept wanting to keep her alive, through another paragraph, another page, so that Silvie wouldn't be left without a mother at her wedding or when she, someday, had a child of her own.
FS: What do you think would have happened in their relationship if Simone had lived?
KS: In some ways I find it difficult to imagine what Silvie's married life would be like if Simone were still around, because the premise of the novel has to do with the sense of freedom that Simone's death brings Silvie. But it is a writer's job to learn more about her characters' lives than goes onto the page, and that may even include speculating about the roads that were not taken. Once Silvie was married, I think that Simone might have felt jealous of the happiness and love that she'd attained with Scottie. The tension might have kept building between them until Silvie had children, and Simone began to acknowledge her daughter's new role as a mother. But I don't think that Simone would have been pleased to find that she'd become a grandmother. She certainly wouldn't have allowed herself to be called Granny. They would have needed to come up with a more glamorous name for her, perhaps something like Mimi!
FS: Have you ever wondered how your mother would have felt if she'd been able to read the scenes from your book that describe Silvie's childhood?
KS: I've thought long and hard about that. Her pride at my accomplishment in writing and publishing the book, I know, would have been filtered through a sense of competitiveness. She would have regarded the story itself as a black-and-white picture of our relationship, without the subtle shadings that I see there. And I'm sure that she would have been unhappy with the portrayal of Simone, whereas I regard Simone's shortcomings as human and real and often lovable. Would I have written this book if my mother were alive now? I don't think so. Not this book. If she were still actively making an imprint on my consciousness, I would have felt too restricted.
FS: You said earlier that, following your mother's death, you wanted to solve the puzzles of your relationship with her. What have you learned through writing the book?
KS: It has been part of my journey as a woman to come to terms with my mother. Many women have an opportunity to do this face to face as they grow older, but I was denied that luxury. Writing this book enabled me to grow into myself as an individual, with an identity separate from the one I had with my mother. What took place between us was so powerful that I could not easily let go of it. I had to stick my hands into it, all the way up to the elbows. That deep digging has been tremendously therapeutic for me, and that's why writing a memoir would have been insufficient: I needed the freedom to take conversations into places where they never had a chance to go. What I've come away with is the understanding that those conversations did not go further in real life because I was too weak and passive; as a fiction writer, I am far more courageous. But I was young then, and I shrank from challenging her, without realizing that confrontation might very well have led us into the dark night that pre-cedes the day.
Although some readers may not believe it, this book is intended to be a love letter to my mother, an offering of tremendous potency, and I feel certain that, at her very best, she would have seen it that way. The book honors her by saying that ours was the most difficult but also the most important relationship of my life. Our lives gain meaning from sorrow and pain, not from comfort and ease, and often the people who affect us indelibly are those against whom we have struggled but ultimately loved.
From the Trade Paperback edition.