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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’


Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Quindlen_Lots of CandlesDiscussion Questions for LOTS OF CANDLES, PLENTY OF CAKE

1. In the opening lines of the book, Anna Quindlen says about the arc of her life: “First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone, and became her.” Looking back over your own life, do you identify with Quindlen’s experience? Do you think you’ve “invented” yourself as you’ve grown older, or become who you always were? And how would you differentiate between the two?

2. Anna Quindlen loves everything about books—from the musty smell of old bookstores, to the excuse reading provides to be alone. Books, she writes, “make us feel as though we’re connected, as though the thoughts and feelings we believe are singular and sometimes nutty are shared by others, that we are all more alike than different.” What do you most love about books? Be specific: Is it the entertainment, the escape, the sense of connection? Something else entirely?

3. Anna writes hilariously about the small white lies—the cost of a kitchen renovation, for example—that can keep a marriage healthy. Do you agree? If so, fess up: Which of your innocent fibs do you think has spared your relationship the most grief?

4. Anna tells her children that “the single most important decision they will make…[is] who they will marry.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Anna calls girlfriends “the joists that hold up the house of our existence,” and believes that they become more and more important to us as we grow older. Have you found this to be true? If so, why do you think that’s the case? What do you think close girlfriends offer that a spouse cannot? (more…)

Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter: A Reader’s Guide

Monday, February 6th, 2012

Blood Bones & Butter TP 150dpi


NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Miami Herald • Newsday The Huffington Post • Financial Times • GQ • Slate • Men’s Journal • Washington Examiner • Publishers Weekly • Kirkus Reviews • National Post • The Toronto Star • BookPage • Bookreporter

Before Gabrielle Hamilton opened her acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, she spent twenty hard-living years trying to find purpose and meaning in her life. Blood, Bones & Butter follows an unconventional journey through the many kitchens Hamilton has inhabited through the years: the rural kitchen of her childhood, where her adored mother stood over the six-burner with an oily wooden spoon in hand; the kitchens of France, Greece, and Turkey, where she was often fed by complete strangers and learned the essence of hospitality; Hamilton’s own kitchen at Prune, with its many unexpected challenges; and the kitchen of her Italian mother-in-law, who serves as the link between Hamilton’s idyllic past and her own future family—the result of a prickly marriage that nonetheless yields lasting dividends. By turns epic and intimate, Gabrielle Hamilton’s story is told with uncommon honesty, grit, humor, and passion.

1. What does food mean to the author? How did your particular attitude toward food develop?

2. What challenges do writers and chefs share? Are they unique to those professions?

3. What saved the author from a life of substance abuse and crime?

4. Gabrielle Hamilton’s mother-in-law is a central figure in her book. Why did she become so important for her? Do you have someone equally important in your own life?

5. Being invited by Misty Callies to prep for a large dinner party and, later, to work at her restaurant were milestones for Gabrielle Hamilton. Why were these experiences significant for her?

6. Gabrielle Hamilton writes about her ambivalence in wedding her husband. Why do you think she married him? Have you ever felt similarly about your own relationships?

7. Getting one’s needs met is a recurring theme. How do you think Gabrielle Hamilton feels about this and how has it influenced her journey?

8. Is Blood, Bones & Butter a funny book?

9. Many have commented on the “honesty” of the book, suggesting that such candor and intimacy are uncommon. Are readers mostly responding to the way Gabrielle Hamilton writes about her own family or does that “honesty” manifest elsewhere? What is her point or objective in being so forthcoming? Do you think you would be so upfront in your own memoir?

10. Did you like/not like the ending and why?

Jane’s Bookshelf: Food Books As Delicious As Any Good Meal

Monday, January 30th, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

In my book group, we start by eating dinner, catching up, and then we turn to our discussion. Our suppers are pot lucks, and despite no planning, they’re always delicious: someone made a soufflé for our discussion of Madame Bovary; another member brought panacotta one hot summer night. Eating is not only a wonderful way to bond, but also to be exposed to new tastes and cultures. And over the years I have learned that books about food are just as satisfying.

Blood Bones & Butter TP 150dpiTake Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter. Hamilton is the chef-owner of the acclaimed restaurant Prune here in New York and her memoir reveals that she is as adept with a pen as she is with a skillet. She traces the path she took from a teenager who loved helping her father roast whole lambs over a spit to the kitchens of prize-winning (as well as unknown chefs) in France, Greece, and Turkey, where she learned about both cooking and hospitality; and to working side by side with her Italian mother-in-law in Italy, where love of food is their bond and shared language. What emerges is the portrait of a woman finding her way with her family, in her profession, and on the page. It’s almost as if Mary Karr had the chops of a chef or Anthony Bourdain had penned a powerful family story.

The Soul of a ChefOne of my favorite “foodie” books is Michael Ruhlman’s The Soul of a Chef. He takes you to the Culinary Institute of America where he observes the rigorous certified master chef exam; my heart raced as the clock ticks away as several chefs compete over the course of ten days. Later, Ruhlman works at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, and we see a professional restaurant kitchen working at full throttle, creating and perfecting the dishes that rocketed Keller to the very pinnacle of his field. It’s a gripping—dare I say thrilling—read as he shows the emotional grit and epicurean talent needed to reach the top of America’s culinary world.

Tender at the BoneOver the course of three books, Ruth Reichl has chronicled her life in connection to food. Starting with Tender at the Bone, she explores her childhood when she discovered “food could be a way of making sense of the world. . . . If you watched people as they ate, you could find out who they were.”  This remains a constant during her years as a chef and food critic, which she also writes about in Comfort Me with Apples and in Garlic and Sapphires. Reichl’s memoirs are spiced with humor, warmth, great portraits of chefs and the meals they create.

What these authors share is the ability to make you walk in their shoes, whether at the stove or in a foreign country. As they orchestrate fabulous meals or navigate personal terrain, I’ve found they make me hungry, wanting to cook, and in that spirit I share Gabrielle Hamilton’s recipe for braised chicken legs with shallots and vinegar from her new House Beautiful column. I think I’ll try it for my next book club meeting!

MWF Seeking BFF: A Reader’s Guide

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

MWF Seeking BFF

Consider these questions if you’re reading Rachel Bertsche’s irresistible memoir, MWF Seeking BFF:

1) After moving to Chicago from New York City, Rachel quickly realized that “friend-making is not the natural process is used to be.”  Why do you think it is so much harder to make friends as adults? Or do you think making friends is as easy now (or easier) than it was when you were a kid?

2) When Rachel writes her BFF “want ad,” she hears from a number of women in her same situation, all of whom are hesitant to admit they too are looking for new friends. Rachel writes, “Popular culture has made it okay to yell ‘I need a man!’ from the rooftops, so why are we still embarrassed to say ‘I want a best friend?’” What do you think? Is it easier to admit you’re looking for love than it is to say you’re in the market for friendship? Why?

3) What would your BFF want-ad look like?

4) After Rachel meets Amanda (friend-date 18) she realizes that her new friend has a blog, and they’ve each blogged about the other. How has social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) affected your friendships and the way you make new friends?

5) Rachel claims that her husband isn’t her best friend.  “A husband can fill many vital roles—protector, provider, lover—but he can’t be a BFF,” she writes. “Matt is my most intimate companion and the love of my life, But I can’t complain about my husband to my husband. That’s what friends are for.” Do you agree? Or do you think your spouse could be (and maybe should be) your best friend forever?

6) After looking at the relationship research, Rachel claims that when it comes to friends, “more is more.” Do you agree? Or do you believe in quality over quantity?

Bertsche_Rachel7) Have you ever been on a blind friend-date? If yes, what were the circumstances? How did you meet? If no, would you like to? Did MWF Seeking BFF warm you up to the idea of friend-dating? What parts of Rachel’s search would you be willing to incorporate into your own life?

8. At first, Rachel thinks people will find her friendship advances weird or creepy. Eventually, though, she realizes that “it’s not that people are less civilized now, it’s just that we think they are, and so we act accordingly. We don’t reach out unsolicited for fear of being rejected. We don’t talk to new people because we assume they don’t want to be bothered. But as I continue to pursue friendships, I’m constantly surprised at how receptive people are.” Are you surprised that women were receptive to Rachel’s attempts at friendship? How would you have reacted if she had asked you out?

9) Rachel makes clear throughout the book that even though she is looking for new friends, she has plenty of great old friends. What is it about our lifers that makes them so special? Did reading about Rachel’s quest make you appreciate your own lifelong BFFs more?

10) Throughout her search, people tell Rachel she can’t force friendships, they should just happen. Do you think one can successfully search for friendship, or should it always happen naturally?

11) By the end of her quest, Rachel may not have a new BFF but she says she has a “bouquet of friends.” For Rachel, the definition of BFF has changed. She realizes she isn’t as likely to talk on the phone with her best friend every night for two hours like she did when she was 15. Families, careers and responsibilities make that impossible. How has your definition of BFF, or your requirements of your friends, changed over the years?

Alexandra Fuller on writing her African childhood: “I am African by accident”

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Don't Let's Go to the Dogsfuller_alexandraThis week memoirist Alexandra Fuller publishes Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, where she returns to sub-Saharan Africa and the story of her unforgettable family that she first introduced to readers ten years ago in her stunning memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, a book The New Yorker called “By turns mischievous and openhearted, earthy and soaring…hair-raising, horrific, and thrilling.” Below is an essay she wrote upon the publication of that book.


My Africa

I am African by accident, not by birth. So while soul, heart, and the bent of my mind are African, my skin blaringly begs to differ and is resolutely white. And while I insist on my Africanness (if such a singular thing can exist on such a vast and varied continent), I am forced to acknowledge that almost half my life in Africa was realized in a bubble of Anglocentricity, as if black Africans had no culture worth noticing and as if they did not exist except as servants and (more dangerously) as terrorists.

My mother—hard-living, glamorous, intemperate, intelligent, racist—introduced my siblings and me to Shakespeare before we could walk (my sister maintains that her existing horror of reading stems from having Troilus and Cressida recited to her when she was still in utero). My father—taciturn and capable—sat outside on hot summer nights with a glass of brandy and sang us Bizet’s Carmen and explained to us the story of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. The cannons of the piece (crackling on vinyl records over the throb of a diesel generator) blasted into the heat-thick night and Dad raised his brandy to the sky. “Bloody marvelous,” he shouted, and far away beyond the river the hyenas shrieked their reply. Vanessa, my sister, taught me the survival skill of self- reliance. We occasionally pottered away the long hours of a yellow summer afternoon pasting old magazine pictures of the British royal family into scrapbooks or holding pretend (if very proper) tea parties for the dogs.

Fuller title page photoWe were poor and we had a knack for picking bad-luck patches of land on which to farm, but (and this was supposedly to our advantage) we were of very particular British stock. My maternal grandmother maintained that we held a better pedigree than the English queen (who is German, after all, while we were part highland Scot), and my mother frequently reminded my sister and me that we were “well bred.” “Well bred” ensured buckled noses, high-arched feet, a predisposition to madness, and an innate knowledge that it is more polite to say “napkin” than “serviette.” “Well bred” assumed a working knowledge of the construction of a decent Irish coffee, the appropriate handling of difficult horses, and a pathological love of dogs. “Well bred” meant, most specifically,an innate belief in our own unquestioning superiority. This archaic way of thinking coupled with Africa’s tumultuous history may make for wonderful literature, but it also made for chaotic living.

By the time I came to Rhodesia in 1972, Africa—Kenya, in particular—had been home to three generations of my family. With the exception of a great-uncle who had shocked his relations and scandalized the European community by going to live with the Nandi people of Kenya (and who became the first person to document their language in the written form), my people were the sort of European stock who brandished their culture before them like some devastating scythe.

In spite of this, Africa—as an idea—dawned on me gradually. I appreciated that we, as whites, could not own a piece of Africa, but I knew, with startling clarity, that Africa owned me. As the land and people around me began to make sense, I was like a snake itching off the excess of an extra skin in the dry season and finding myself milky-eyed, and dangerously blind, in the rarefied, free air of the new order in Africa. From Ghana to Mozambique to Angola, independence had rippled down Africa’s spine, and now it had come to us—to Rhodesia. Whatever happened next, I knew that I had to be either a part of this new world—a working, active, feature of it—or forever apart from it. I could either celebrate the new opportunity we as Africans had been given at independence, at the birth of Zimbabwe, or forever lament the loss of Empire. I would either fight for a new world of political equality or become a servant to the regimes that had assumed the strangling mantle of colonialism.


When I was in my early twenties, I fell in love with an American (he had come to Zambia as a river guide), and I went with him to live in North America after our marriage and the birth of our first child. I mourned Africa daily (I still do) with something like a physical ache even while I luxuriated in the relative security and peace of a Rocky Mountain life. And it was here, in the high bright air of a Wyoming winter, that the need to write my life became overwhelming for me.

At the start, I tried to write my life as fiction. I wrote eight or nine spectacularly unsuccessful novels. I felt as if I needed to find a way to explain the racism I had grown up around, to justify the hard living of whites in Africa, to expunge my guilt over the injustice I had witnessed in my youth. I wrote and rewrote the characters of my childhood and I wrote the landscape I loved over and over again until the smells of the place burned on my palate. But the novels still felt like lies because in them I had tried to soften the voices of the whites I had known and to write into full life the voices of the black men, women, and children who had been silenced by years of oppression. These works of fiction, I eventually realized, were the writings of a woman who was scared to look the world in the face, and if there was one thing Africa had taught me, it was to shout above the sting of a dry-season wind loud enough to be heard from one end of a farm to another.

I made the decision, then, to write my life exactly as it had been: passionate, wonderful, troubled, oppressive, chaotic, beautiful. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is the story that was born of that decision. It is not a political story or the story of Empire. It is the story of how one African came to terms with her family’s troubled history; it is a love story for the continent.

Alexandra Fuller
Jackson Hole
, Wyoming
August 2002

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Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship

Friday, July 15th, 2011

Let's Take the Long Way HomeThis summer, Reader’s Circle is proud to present in paperback one of the best memoirs we’ve read in years. A few months ago, as we started to think about publishing Gail Caldwell’s extraordinary memoir in paperback, we remembered all the many readers, bloggers, authors, and reviewers who loved it when it first appeared in hardcover, and we thought: why not capture some of them on film? The result is a moving testimony to the power of Let’s Take the Long Way Home. As Time magazine said when it named the book one of its top ten nonfiction titles of 2010, this is a memoir “meant to be savored and shared.” We hope you and your book clubs will read this and agree that it’s an experience best fulfilled by passing it on to the friends in your life who mean the most to you. And we hope you’ll share this video with them too!

Included in the video are Kelly Corrigan, bestselling author of The Middle Place; Carol Fitzgerald, president of The Book Report Network; Bethanne Patrick, editor of Shelf Awareness; Esther Bushell, founder of LiteraryMatters.com; and Jesse Kornbluth, editor of HeadButler.com.

“Stunning . . . gorgeous . . . A book of such crystalline truth that it makes the heart ache.”—The Boston Globe

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Win two copies of Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home: one for you, one for a friend!

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

Let's Take the Long Way Home

Caldwell_gail“A lovely gift to readers . . . You can shelve Let’s Take the Long Way Home,Gail Caldwell’s beautifully written book . . .  next to The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s searing memoir about losing her husband. . . . But that’s assuming it makes it to your shelf: This is a book you’ll want to share with your own ‘necessary pillars of life,’ as Caldwell refers to her nearest and dearest.” —The Washington Post (Best Nonfiction of 2010)

Watch Kelly Corrigan and others on why they love Let’s Take the Long Way Home:

Winners will be chosen randomly and notified on September 1st.

“I am eternally grateful for laughter”: Margaret Robison on writing her memoir The Long Journey Home

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Long Journey HomeMy 87-year-old friend told me that she’s not at all the same person she was when she was young. She said her mother told her that as an old woman she’d felt the same way she’d felt at 26. My own mother said that when she was in her 70’s she still felt the same way inside she’d felt when she was 16. In my mid-70’s I don’t feel at all like the person I was when I was young. Life’s experiences continue to change me.

I spent over ten years writing The Long Journey Home, a memoir about my life as a child and continuing through my college experiences, my years as a young married woman with two sons — one with Asperger’s — and a middle-aged woman who had several psychotic episodes that required hospitalization, and much later a stroke and recovery from that stroke. Looking back at some of my experiences, I can’t imagine the person I am now doing some of the things I did when I was younger. A part of me is inclined to judge myself harshly for doing some of those things. I am filled with sorrow at the people I hurt along the way, my sons in particular. Another part of me is grateful that I lived through those experiences to come out of them a wiser, more loving person. Certainly there are many ways to mature creatively, emotionally, and spiritually. Writing my memoir was one of my most important ways.

Writing about my life often evoked such intense emotions that I became exhausted from the effort. After days or weeks of that intensity I would take a break and turn to writing poetry. Sitting in my wheelchair on my porch facing the Deerfield River, I would lose myself in the joy of contemplating the way sunlight danced on ripples of water or the way a single small cloud floated in the blue above me. Then, once again, I would turn to working on my memoir. Did I really do that? I asked myself as I wrote one thing or another. Yes, I did that, I answered myself and searched for words of description. I was grateful when I felt compassion for myself instead of condemnation, pride instead of shame. And if I realized something about myself or about life itself, I was grateful that I found myself changed for the better.

And what about the harm done to me — both physical and mental—or other difficult, painful experiences? I struggled to find words to describe those experiences, just as I had struggled physically to survive them. And now the memories no longer haunt me. Words can heal, after all.

Words can also encourage and inspire, and I hope the words of my memoir will do that for readers. After my son’s memoir Running with Scissors was published, sometimes troubled parents and young people would write to me at my website for support, and I’m grateful I have had the opportunity to be of help. I hope my own story will give hope to people suffering from their own traumas. For most of my life, I never imagined that I would ever reach the place of peace I’ve found, that in my old age I would be able to sit contentedly at my kitchen table and welcome the day — birds singing in the dim light of dawn, the sun rising over the distant hills, and always, always the river flowing past my window. And laughter. I am eternally gratefully for laughter.

-Margaret Robison


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A Q&A with Colum McCann and Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

mccann_columColum McCann is the internationally bestselling author of the novels Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness, Songdogs, Let the Great World Spin (for which he won the National Book Award)  as well as two critically acclaimed story collections. His fiction has been published in thirty languages.

strauss_darinDarin Strauss is the bestselling author of three previous books. The recipient of a Guggenheim in fiction writing and numerous other awards, Strauss has seen his work translated into fourteen languages and published in more than twenty countries.


Colum McCann:  They say all stories are the same. Of course this can’t be true.  The poem doesn’t swerve and suddenly become a thriller. The playright doesn’t necessarily know how to begin a rhyme. Can you discuss the challenges that face as a novelist who switches to memoir?

Darin Strauss: My training and my inclination is to invent. Memoir was in some Half a Lifeways an easier form (you skip the hard, dreaming-stuff-up work) and in some ways more difficult (Wait, you can’t just dream stuff up?). The novelist has permission to do whatever she chooses to supercharge whatever’s interesting in her story. This is also known as freedom. So, had this been a novel, I would’ve made the court case more steeply dramatic, for example. I couldn’t, of course.

But something about the exercise feels, for lack of a better word, pure. Trying only to remember what had happened—but exactly as it happened—and being reverent to the facts: trying to make something artful of that.

The challenge is being true and respectful and stylish, at once.

CM: This book is full of thunderbolts—wonderful subtle strikes of weather.  Everybody is going to want to know if you had ever considered fictionalizing it.

DS: Thanks. But I’d never considered writing it at all. I thought the accident was going to be my lifelong secret, the past I wouldn’t let poke into the now. I told almost nobody. Writing began only when we had our twins, when I realized the accident happened half my life ago: impending fatherhood tends to focus the mind. I felt with new force that I’d never be able to feel it all — never truly comprehend just how awful the Zilkes’ loss must have been. I wrote merely as a way to take hold of my thoughts about this. (I write to figure out how I feel and what I know about something; I imagine you’re the same way.) So the book started as a little therapy project, and has ended up with me talking to you here. Which still feels strange to me—the big secret as participatory event.

CM: How did your having written about it—this therapy project of yours—change the way you thought about the accident?

DS: You know, Mailer wrote Armies of the Night as a response to an article in Time. He thought the reporter had misrepresented his (Mailer’s) behavior during an anti-Vietnam march. So Mailer begins his Armies by reprinting the entire Time article, and then there’s this: “Now we may leave the pages of Time to find out what really happened.” The resultant book is a 400-page letter to the editor.

I found myself with the same frustration, the same impulse, raised to a higher power. How crassly my local newspaper had portrayed the accident! As if the sadness-quotient depended on Celine’s having been the most popular kid, the class pretty girl, some kind of prom superstar. I felt protective of the real her, who had been made 2-D by the reporter, simplified into something she wasn’t. In fact, maybe that’s where my fiction training came into play—knowing how to return nuance to the story, and chiaroscuro. At least, I hope it did. I left the pages to Newsday to write what really happened.

CM: So, how do you feel now?  I know how I felt when I first read the piece in GQ.  It took my breath away. Quite literally. I remember gasping a moment.  There is so much volume in a life.

DS: There is volume in each life, and a writer tries (at least sometimes) to turn it up, the better to transcribe the noise. Most people–healthy people–work to turn it down: to find a little quiet in which to live. Maybe that’s why it’s such a weird job.

I’m of a much stronger mind than ever about it now. At least I hope I am. This profession didn’t stifle my grief; it allowed me to feel it, and then at least to begin gesturing past it.

In my friend David Lipsky’s excellent book with/about David Foster Wallace, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Youself, Wallace says that a small part of who he is craves fame, but that this part “doesn’t get to drive.”  The fact that Celine died is present still in who I am—it would be inhuman if it weren’t at least in some way present forever—but it doesn’t get to drive my life. I used to wonder what would’ve happened if Celine had cut in front of a perfect driver, a Mario Andretti. Would that have been enough to save her life? I think not; I think physics dictate that nobody could have avoided her. But I now understand this Andretti vs. Strauss question is useless. She cut in front of me. And I did my best to avoid her. That’s all I can control.

I recently heard from a friend of the girl’s—someone I never knew. She read Half a Life and told me: “Stop beating yourself up. She committed suicide. She talked and even wrote about death constantly in the week before she died.” I didn’t want to hear that—I don’t know if it’s true, and it’s also not my business. Celine around school seemed happy to me. (Though admittedly I didn’t know her well.) I did what I could to avoid hitting her, and that’s the only part that concerns me.

All the same, when the book was about to come out, I wanted to write Celine’s parents a letter, a warning. Of course, they’d sued me after having said they knew I was blameless — and promising they would always support me. But I never blamed them for anything. (How could I? They’d lost a daughter, and I was walking around.) So I wanted to spare them the pain of being surprised by the book. But the simple act of Googling them and writing the letter was hard—harder than writing the book. It never goes fully away.


Half a Life is available in paperback May 31, 2011.
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A Conversation with Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Other Wes MooreAfter an amazing run in hardcover, Wes Moore’s memoir The Other Wes Moore is now out in paperback.

Two kids named Wes Moore were born blocks apart within a year of each other. Both grew up fatherless in similar Baltimore neighborhoods and had difficult childhoods; both hung out on street corners with their crews; both ran into trouble with the police. How, then, did one grow up to be a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader, while the other ended up a convicted murderer serving a life sentence? Wes Moore, the author of this fascinating book, sets out to answer this profound question. 

New York- based journalist, author, and novelist Farai Chideya spoke by telephone with Wes Moore about his story, the other Wes Moore’s story, and what we can all do to help bridge the opportunity gap that plagues our society. Their conversation was originally published in SMITH Magazine on June 22, 2010.

Farai Chideya: You talk about the South Bronx so beautifully in your book and how it has changed between the time your grandparents bought a house there in the fifties and when you moved there in the eighties. How did you first come to understand place?

Wes Moore: I think the first time I really understood place was actually when I first started to understand my need to be a part of one, and I felt myself having difficulty finding that. As I was in the Bronx and started getting older and going through that burgeoning process of manhood, and tried to get that understanding of what that felt like and what that was—and my mother was working multiple jobs to send me to the school across town—I increasingly found myself “too rich” for the kids in my neighborhood. I was one of the only kids in my class that didn’t go to school in the area. But as I went across town for this other school, I found myself being “too poor” for the kids in my school because they didn’t understand anything about my background or why I was one of the only kids in the school who had to travel an hour- plus to get to school. That’s the first time I started to understand place and my role and my footing because I found myself searching for it—I found myself searching for that comfort, that support, that acceptance that seemed so elusive at every turn. I just found myself increasingly more uncomfortable everywhere I went.

FC: One of the moments in your book that had me cracking up was that, because your family was financially strapped, you actually sometimes wore your older sister’s pants to school. You say that you thought you could pull it off, but in retrospect people were probably rolling their eyes. You have a lot of moments like that in your book, lightness and humor in a book that has a lot of tough moments, starting with the death of your father prematurely on.

WM: That definitely came through in the first draft. One thing I realized throughout this process very early was that if I was going to do any justice to this process, I needed to be transparent, I needed to be honest about it. As I was going on thinking about my life there were a lot of lighthearted, humorous moments and I wanted to make sure that my story highlighted that—and Wes’s story also. This wasn’t just some purely macabre story about how bad things are, but about reality and about the reality of all of our lives. And the fact is there were, even in the midst of chaos, a lot of lighthearted moments that not only are important to remember, but also helped you kinda get by, particularly as you think back in retrospect and you can look at them from a different place. There were things that really came out in the first draft and ended up making it to the final cut.

FC: Let’s talk about the other Wes Moore. You have spent hundreds of hours with him at this point, but you didn’t grow up with him. You write about his interior narrative very convincingly. Did you ever think you crossed the line and took too many liberties with how you constructed his life on paper? How did you hit the right tone?

WM: My talks with the other Wes Moore were free- ranging conversations where you’d be asking one question and the next thing you know it’s an hour later and you’ve got all these amazing anecdotes, and these amazing facts, and these amazing stories that you’re going to have to go back and make sense of and let them process once you’ve done your transcription. It wasn’t about me coming up with a framework and having him fill in the colors in between the lines. It was more taking what he was giving me and then processing it, and I think a lot of that came from Wes. The format of the book wasn’t something I came into the process with. It wasn’t like I came in and said, “Okay, we’re going to go over these couple of years: tell me about 1982, tell me about 1984.” It really was about hearing these different stories, and that was when I started noticing a pattern and noticing a trend. Some of the years where Wes had some of the most influential and important factors in his life ironically took place in my life [as well]. It was really taking what he gave me and being able to process it from there.

FC: Do you think you ever overstepped the line in turning his life into prose?

WM: No, not at all. It’s interesting because Wes was one of the people who really pushed me to write this book when I was first approached by author and publicist Terrie Williams. She knew that I had reached out to Wes and I had gotten to know him. She said, “I think this is something bigger, I think this could be a book.” I was at first very reluctant, and told her, “I don’t know, Terrie.” There were two things that pushed me over. One was that I thought about the tragic death of the police officer, and I thought if I could do something that would help keep these tragedies from happening again, I think it’s necessary and could be useful. And then I thought about something that Wes told me. He told me, “I’ve wasted every opportunity in my life and I’m going to die in here, and if you can do something that can help people better understand the ramifications of their decisions and also understand the neighborhoods these decisions are being made in, then I think you should do it.”

FC: My mother was a Baltimore City school teacher; the other Wes Moore is from Baltimore and you really paint a picture of his struggles as a smart kid in tough schools. When I read your book I thought of my mother. Some of the kids she taught sixth grade science to went on to get MDs and PhDs. Others were in the drug game and shot dead on the street. Their potential was wasted.

WM: Wasted is really the best word to use. One of the things I want to show is: this is not a dumb guy. This book is not a celebration of the exception, this is a book that questions why we even have exceptions in our society in the first place. There’s very little [that] separates us and someone else altogether. That’s one of the things I wanted to show with Wes—had that intervention been there, had those supports been there, had there been a certain level of attention instead of a certain level of apathy about his final destiny, I can’t help but think that things would be different.

FC: You mentioned your book was originally supposed to be more prescriptive. What do you hope this book can do for readers, for kids, for society?

WM: I wanted people to understand their potency and I wanted people to actually do something about it. In addition to the call to action, I wanted to add all of these organizations where people could get involved, and all of them are vetted organizations that would love to hear from you, either if you’re looking for help or you’re looking to help. That was genuinely important to me, because one thing the book helps to show is that if we’re willing to get engaged, if we’re willing to get involved, then we can really make a substantial and permanent impact, not just in the life of someone else, but in the life of our entire society.

FC: How does being an author and the process of writing compare to being a paratrooper or a Rhodes Scholar or a White House Fellow—some of the other roles you’ve played?

WM: I think some of the things I had done before really prepared me to be a writer in some ways. First of all, writing takes a real level of discipline. For example, with my schedule I would wake up at 5:15 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before getting ready to go to work, and then go work my day job for the rest of the day. There were some mornings I would literally sit in front of the computer for an hour with nothing to say, but I forced myself to go through this process because I knew that was the only time I could really efficiently get it out. When you wake up reading articles about a father of five, a police officer that went to work one day and will never come home, and then you read letters from someone who will spend the rest of their life in prison, it adds a certain level of humility to your day and a certain level of clarity in a certain context. Everything I did before helped me respect the discipline of writing.

FC: Your life has intersected in different ways with different types of African diasporic histories. Your family has roots in Jamaica and Cuba as well as the U.S. I’m wondering how you think of blackness in the twenty-first century, since we are so much more diverse in terms of immigrant groups influencing American blackness and we’re also at a critical point in history.

WM: One thing that I have always been taught and believed in is understanding our past and our history and our roots. Not just for where you’re going—understand where you come from. There’s a certain pride in that. When you think about not just my family but the larger diasporic movements, and the evolutions and the successes and the victories that have taken place, it has really been pretty extraordinary. It’s something that gives me a great sense of pride, it’s something that gives me a really strong foundation in terms of where we can go, because I really do appreciate where we’ve come from.

FC: One of the pivotal moments in your book is when your family sends you to military school in order to get you off the streets of the South Bronx. You went on to train as a paratrooper and serve in Afghanistan. How can veterans get what they need from our nation?

WM: One of the partner nonprofits we have throughout the book tour is Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the first and largest organization that supports younger veterans, particularly from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We’ll spend so much time giving soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines support when they are overseas, and then when they come home it stops. Something that was really important to me—this is personal—I saw the challenges that so many families, including my own, had to deal with having someone deployed and not knowing who is coming home to you. If we are going to send people overseas to fight, then we need to support them [when they come home] as much as we did overseas.

FC: It seems like today, versus when I was growing up, there is more of a disconnect between the role[s] of servicemen and women and other citizens. Right now, maybe people are fatigued from the war, but it doesn’t seem as if we are having a dialogue.

WM: We’ve been in Afghanistan for close to a decade, and you think about the amount of casualties we’ve had in Afghanistan and the casualties we’ve had in Iraq. But if you ask people what the biggest issue in the country is, I don’t know where the fact that we have more than a hundred thousand troops serving fits in their consciousness. Less than 1 percent of the population has served. Less than 1 percent really knows from a firsthand experience what it’s really like over there. In terms of what can be done, a lot of it will be up to not only the citizenry and population, but also up to the policy makers to make sure that this is a group on Americans’ minds.

FC: And finally, Wes Moore, what’s your Six-Word Memoir?

WM: Grandma said have faith not fear.

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