Friday, March 7, 2008

Redux: Truth in Memoirs

If you're a book lover -- or even if you're not -- you've probably heard about two memoirs that were recently unmasked as fake.

The whole bru ha ha got me thinking again about Trish Ryan's He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (which was book 35 of 52) because it is a memoir, and because starts with an interesting disclaimer. Here's a sample:

"If you're someone who knows me, or used to know me, or (awkward moment) once dated me and are flipping through these pages in fascinated horror, wondering what I'll say -- chances are I've changed your name. This book is a collection of my memories and thus may differ from yours. Some events and people have been combined, and (in an effort to avoid 346-page chapters) some time sequences shifted around. But as with the swearing, I haven't cleaned anything up, and the words you find here are true, and my best effort at an honest account of how A led to B and then swerved around C, D, and E."

So I asked Trish her thoughts on the issue:

1. Why did you add a disclaimer?
First, I didn’t want anyone to pick up my book and realize a few chapters in that I once dated her boyfriend/fiancĂ©/husband! So I changed identifying characteristics wherever I could, and even combined guys in a couple of places. This way, if I run into one of them in the future, and he says, “Wait…the girl I dumped you for was named Angela, not Laurie…” I have an explanation.

Second, on a slightly more serious note, I wanted to make sure readers know that it’s okay if they don’t approach life the same way I do. Relationships and spirituality are such personal subjects -— I wanted to flag that up front and say that this is just a story about me, and there’s no expectation that anyone who reads it will come away with the same conclusions.

2. How did you fashion this one? I like the humor.
It just struck me as funny, the whole idea that I was publishing a book about the most embarrassing aspects of my life: the 101 ways I’ve been dumped, and the ridiculous spiritual things I tried to fix myself. Most folks try to hide these things! I had this mental picture of someone from my past walking into a bookstore and seeing a display of He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not (of course, in my fantasy, the book is right at the front of the store, complete with author pic!) and turning white with horror, wondering what I’ve said about them and whether they’ll be receiving a call soon from Oprah’s people asking them to be a surprise guest on a show. I guess that just got me thinking of the basic reassurance I’d want to give all the people who used to know me: “Don’t worry…things turned out okay…no grudges here!” Humor is a great tool to deflect fear.

3. As a memoirist, what do you think about this rash of fake memoirs?
At a certain level, I’m amazed...I can’t imagine keeping such an intricate story straight through the entire editorial process. On my road to publishing He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not, I’ve had long, detailed conversations with my agent, two editors, a lawyer, and two publicists. Each of them has asked me about different facets of the story -— either parts they especially liked, or sections that needed clarification. Then they all talked to each other. If the scenes in my story hadn’t actually happened, I don’t know how I’d keep track of it all. (But then again, I’m particularly bad at this...I have a chart I refer to just to keep track of the names I changed!)

At the same time, though, if my publishers asked me to back up my story, I’m not sure exactly what I’d show them. There’s a stamp on my passport from my trip to Greece with the famous author, and I have the divorce papers from my less-than-spectacular first marriage. Somewhere, I probably still have the work ID card with my picture next to the imaginary name I lived under for three years when I was trying to hide. I guess in a pinch my publishing house could contact old boyfriends...but can you imagine getting that call? “Hi—can you please verify that you cheated on/admitted to being bisexual on the first date with/asked about the bowel movements of/stalked a woman who now goes by the name of Trish Ryan?” Hopefully it will never come to that, but if it does, I’m happy to say that all my stories will pan out!

The truth is, my favorite memoirs would never come under this type of scrutiny, because they’re not about wild, crazy, unbelievable things...they’re beautifully written accounts of normal life. Peggy Orenstein’s Waiting for Daisy; Kimberlee Auerbach’s The Devil, the Lovers, and Me; Heather King’s Redeemed; Rachel Toor’s The Pig and I; anything by Anne Lamott...when the writing captivates you, you don’t need outlandish adventures. What I love most about great memoirs is that the stories feel like they could be my own. That’s my dream for He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: that readers who I’ve never met will see themselves in it, and readers who were actually part of the story will feel like I protected them well.

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3 comments:

LEstes65 said...

I love this interview. And not just because I adore Trish. But I love getting even more inside her perfectly coiffed little head. Thank you!

Jenny said...

Great thoughts, Trish. I'm gonna have to check out some of those memoirs you mention and can't wait for yours.

Susan Johnston said...

I am really excited to read Trish's book when it comes out! Thanks for sharing this, Jen!