Excerpted from "Why Do I Love These People?" by Po Bronson. Copyright © 2005 by Po Bronson. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, 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 PO BRONSON
This is the part of the book where the author answers questions put forth by an unnamed interviewer, often the author’s editor or publicist. Random House suggested that Po Bronson be interviewed by his brother, Steve Bronson, instead. Steve Bronson is an organ transplant nurse at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. He is married with two young boys. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2006 on Vashon Island, where the Bronsons share a summer home with their cousins and aunts.
Steve Bronson: For the record, I liked the chapter about us. It really got to me.
Po Bronson: And your off-the-record opinion?
SB: No, that’s how I really felt. But I have looked back at the chapter and I hear this guilt you had, and I just want to make sure that you don’t still feel that way–so as a formal question, do you still carry that burden of responsibility around? For me?
PB: Not since those days in Peru. After that trip, I didn’t seem to have that weighty concern anymore.
SB: Why didn’t you put that story first in the book, so readers would know you better?
PB: My whole method is to learn from the real experiences of others. I felt putting my story first would have undercut that method.
SB: You were always so creative and imaginative when we were kids. But you didn’t trust for a long time that writing could be your life, or that you would ever make a living at it, and you tried a lot of other professions. Why didn’t you trust your talent?
PB: I had no role models for how it’s done. In our family, we didn’t have any exposure to artists, or writers, or college professors. Then Mom got a boyfriend who was a writer, and he took it seriously, but he never sold anything he wrote. When he didn’t have enough money to buy a roll of toilet paper, she had to throw him out. Then she’d miss him, invite him back, and eventually get fed up and throw him out again. So even though I wrote a novel the first summer after graduating from college, and continued to write at night for years, I thought of it like playing the lottery. You could play the lottery, but you had to have a life and a job, and could only daydream that one day you’d win the lottery.
SB: Was your writing a factor in why you were isolated from the family for many years?
PB: Yeah. Dad was a practical guy, a business guy, and he’s been as supportive as he can, but it was painful for him to watch me quit one job after another. Then Mom, after her boyfriend, had to watch me go down that path, too. So I had to get away from the doubt and pragmatism. I didn’t have any success for a while, and that was a little shameful.
SB: Your son lives in his elaborate fantasy life, role-playing anywhere, just like you did. And he just started at a performing-arts elementary school. He tells you he wants to write with you when he grows up. So, what if that actually happens? How would you feel about him taking that risk?
PB: Terrified and proud, but probably no more so than I would be if he chose any other field.
SB: Okay, let me switch subjects. Honestly, tell me your method when you interview these people. How do you organize all the details? Do you use audio recordings?
PB: I take handwritten notes. The act of writing the notes helps me remember it better later–I can picture the page in my memory. Also, when you interview someone for ten hours–it’s hard to look at a person eye to eye for so long. So writing notes allows me to lower my gaze now and then, makes it feel less confrontational. The first night in my motel room (if I am not staying in their house), I draw bubble charts to record my main observations. I write his or her name in the center of a piece of white paper, start making a family tree, add notes about those relationships, include a big bubble around an event that presents a dominant metaphor, a bubble for each key turning point. This becomes sort of a one-page version of his or her story. When I’m done interviewing someone, I have maybe sixty to one hundred pages of handwritten or typed notes on that person’s life. So I break the life story into chunks and color code the notes with crayons. Underlined in yellow is everything about his mother. In red is the theme of rejection. In orange is everything that happened to him prior to high school. So when writing a section about him and his mom, I can look for all those things underlined in yellow and find every detail.
SB: And then you go to your writing closet and lock yourself away in that small space with just your laptop?
PB: Right. Every time I write, I go in the closet. It’s dark, except for a tiny light so I can see the keys. I put a song on repeat, then disappear into the story. It sounds claustrophobic, but it’s not–the closet is a portal that takes me back to the place where I recorded the story.
SB: I’m a nurse, and in the medical field we think a lot about maintaining professional distance. I had to get used to people dying. How do you deal with the tendency to get attached to the people you write about? Have you formed a professional distance from these people?
PB: The hardest thing about my work is to slowly back away after extensive interviewing. I don’t have an institutional setting, like you do– your patients come to your hospital, and in that hospital there are doctors and orderlies all mimicking a similar distance. But I’m all alone, in their house. After someone tells me their secrets, they don’t want to let me go. It’s like they need me close so they can still guard their secrets. It might be hard for me to let go, but it’s much harder for them– I, at least, get a lot of practice doing it.
SB: How did researching and writing this book affect your relationship with your family?
PB: With my wife and kids? Or with my extended family?
SB: All of us and them.
PB: Hearing these stories reminded me about the nobility of the journey. They made me feel good about being a son, a father, a husband, and a brother. They made me want to try harder. So I guess I became more patient, more resilient. I could handle more without getting peeved. And remember, no sooner had I finished the book than my wife’s family lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. If I hadn’t done all my research, I wouldn’t have even known how to have a conversation with those who’ve lost their homes to a hurricane. The research gave me the means of empathizing with people who’ve suffered every type of family crisis.
SB: What traits about our family did you realize defined us?
PB: Oh, we really like our heart-to-hearts, our one-on-one confessionals. And we don’t let any tiff pass without everyone hearing about it in these sidebars and reenacting it and digesting it three times. And we’re intense–we’re pretty direct and don’t use sly remarks or quips.
SB: Does healing always involve revisiting memories of the past?
PB: It’s helpful for most, but not for all, and in some cases can be damaging.
SB: Why did you write this book?
PB: Because I wanted to write stories like these. Stories of redemption. Not fakey redemption. I have many writer friends who believe all redemption stories are lies. And many are. But I wanted to record redemption in the often imperfect, embarrassing way it actually occurs. Real redemption.
SB: If you could picture a person you were writing for, who would that be?
PB: Someone who has lost faith or is having their faith tested. Anyone who feels broken and worries that time alone won’t fix things. Someone who is creating a new family and feels like the past is no guide.
SB: I would like you to write something funny again.
PB: I do write funny stuff. Usually to perform. Monologues, stories, speeches.
SB: No, a whole book story, a funny story.
PB: Where are you headed with this?
SB: Were you funnier when you were sad and screwed up and not so content with everyone in your family? Or did you just need to write this book to finally heal, to put the turmoil of our early years behind you, and now you can go back to writing stuff that makes me split my gut?
PB: Well, let’s hope it’s the latter.
1. While reading, what memories of your own life came back to you? Do you see those events in a different light, having just read what other families have been through?
2. How did the fact that these are true stories, rather than fiction, affect the way you read the book?
3. People commonly invoke the phrase, “You can’t choose your family.” But in this century, while we might not get to choose who we come from, we do choose whether to live in the same state, how often to call, and whether to see our family once a week or once a year. In what ways have your relationships with various members of your family been your choice? In what ways have they not been your choice?
4. In “The Cook’s Story,” the Louie family’s fate turns when they get to visit their childhood home. Have you had any interesting experiences when visiting your own childhood home?
5. In “The Trial,” Vince Gonzalez writes to his mother, “Mundanity can be elevated to art by perception alone” (p. 58). What does this mean to you? Do you think the ability to see the beauty in the everyday and ordinary is key to healthy relationships?
6. In “Bumpkin,” it takes thirteen years for Doug Haynes to go from a young man who neglected his son to a very sensitive man who takes full responsibility for him. To pull it off, and to build trust, Doug becomes a listener, never telling Gabe what to do or ordering him around. How does your own father compare to Doug? How about your grandfathers? Has your father changed much over the years, becoming more tolerant, or a better listener?
7. Bronson writes in “The White Guy” that nearly every new couple today feels like they are bringing two different family styles into their marriage. Do you and your partner, if you have one, feel like you come from different family styles? How have you negotiated assimilating the two styles?
8. In the chapter “Jamaica?” Bronson raises the question, “When is it time to cut someone off?” We try to protect ourselves, and yet we don’t want to run at the first sign of trouble. Has the book made you more inclined to hang in there longer with problematic relationships? Or has it made you more inclined to cut off people who mistreat you?
9. In “The Butcher’s Wife,” Bronson talks about two styles of forgiveness–one that puts the burden on the atoner, and one that puts the burden on the forgiver. The first voice tells us not to trust again, the second voice tells us how important it is to forgive if only to move on and let go of our enmity. Which voice is louder in your head? Has reading this book affected those voices–has it changed how you see forgiveness?
10. In “Some Thoughts,” Bronson introduces us to one of the greatest mothers he has ever met, Mary Naomi Garrett. Then he admits that she never hugged her children, and that one of her children is missing (and might be dead) due to mental illness. Did that change your impression of Mary? Do you have preconceived notions of what a great relationship is supposed to be like? Do these notions ever blind you to the actual good that’s in your real relationships?
11. If you were Charlie Taylor in “The Tornado,” how would you have handled learning that your son has been stealing to support a cocaine addiction? Would you have been more strict than the real Charlie Taylor, or more lenient? What would you have done earlier, when you found pot in his room? Would you have suspected your son had much bigger problems?
12. In “The Tornado,” do you think Charlie Taylor was more lenient on his children because his wife Susan had given him a second chance? How would you have handled learning that your fifteen-year-old daughter was pregnant? Would you have taken her out of school, as Susan did?
13. The chapters of this book are separated by questions that are meant to help us see all sides of family life. Two examples are “Do we need to have been taught what love is to give it to someone else?” and “Is it harder for them to accept you or for you to accept them?” Did these questions make you stop and think, either about the story you’d read or how it related to your own family?
14. Many of the protagonists in these stories are people who’ve made mistakes. Although they are portrayed as noble and Bronson clearly admires them, they have hurt their families, too–one neglected a son, several committed adultery, many of the parents disciplined their children physically, and several couldn’t make their marriages work. Did Bronson manage to keep you from disliking these people or judging them? Is he simply recording the reality that nobody’s perfect? Did you ever find yourself judging them when Bronson didn’t? If these people were your friends, rather than strangers on a page, would you judge them the same way?
15. Bronson explains that some family problems are external, while others are internal. By external he means that the world has put the family in crisis, and they can either bond together or be broken apart by that which challenges them, be it poverty, culture, migration, or discrimination. By internal he means that personality differences and actions toward one another cause the crisis. The families in this book have an abundance of both types of problems. Pick a story, and talk about which forces in it are external and which are internal.
16. For which person in the book do you most wonder, “What happens next?” What is it in his or her personality or story that makes you want to know more?
17. Instead of telling the stories of entire families, Bronson has chosen to focus on the relationship between two particular people in each family. Were there other family members you wished you had learned more about? Especially in his own story, “Blue Blankets,” Bronson suggests that having a strong relationship with a single family member can save your relationship with the entire family. Do you agree? Do you have any personal experiences similar to that, where a family member is close to just one or two family members, but is estranged from the others?
18. Bronson has said that he hopes this book will give encouragement to those who have been dissuaded from having a family because of endless reports about rising divorce rates, single parenting, and so on. Are you one of the people he’s talking about? If so (and even if not), do you think this book will help change that perspective?
19. Who in the book did you most expect you would relate to? Who did you least expect you would relate to? Did those expectations come true, or did you find yourself relating to people you did not imagine you would?
20. Most of these stories are built around an indelible image that works metaphorically–Andrew’s tree, Jen’s bracelet, Andy’s greenhouse, silent car rides, a tornado, the river of family life, Brian’s palace, Uma’s boxes. Did it surprise you to find such a literary technique applied to a work of nonfiction? Which images do you think worked particularly well?