Stuff About Stuff I Write: Harry Crews’ Mohawk, Sharknado, and All That Glitters — An Interview with Sliver of Stone editor M.J. FievreIn Uncategorized on November 15, 2013 at 3:38 pm
Here’s an interview I did with M.J. Fievre, who along with Corey Ginberg edited the terrific anthology ALL THAT GLITTERS. The anthology is a collection of creative nonfiction from the magazine Sliver of Stone, and features work and interviews with creative nonfiction writers like Susan Orlean, Dinty Moore, Mark Vonnegut and more. My essay, “All of Them Would Hurt Someone I Think” is in there, too. You can also read it here if you’d like.
In this interview, M.J. and I talk about that essay, growing up to be a writer, Harry Crews’ Mohawk, sharks and b-movies and more.
You write that you don’t come from a family of readers. However, you’ve become one of those individuals who “likes the feel of stories, all those worlds building up and spinning around inside [you].” What books/magazines do you enjoy reading today? What are some of your favorite authors?
I love Hemingway and Didion for their glass-cutter precision. And I love Studs Terkel for his huge heart. I met Studs Terkel, the great oral historian who interviewed all these working people — waitresses and steelworkers and housewives, people like the people I grew up with, people like my parents and my friends’ parents — when I was 18 years old. I never recovered.
When I get sad-sacked about things, I think of Studs, his idealism, the way he rode the bus all the time so he could talk to people and hear their stories, the way he never seemed to grow tired of people and never seemed to lose hope. It helps.
I was a waitress for many years. I was a flight attendant. I was a journalist. I was a typist. Now I’m a university professor, a writer. I’m still working that transition out, in my mind and in my heart and in my writing. I’m lucky. That much I know.
I still like most people, but I hate injustice. I see a lot of it in my life in universities now – a lot of very smart and good people I know work a lot for very little and are treated so unfairly. There’s a lot of cruelty. I don’t like it at all. I think Studs would have a lot to say about this.
I like writers who have a lot to say about things.
Harry Crews, for one.
I love Harry Crews’ Childhood Biography of a Place. I think people get lost in Harry Crews’ mythology – that big tough-guy stance, all those tattoos and Mohawks, all the booze and drugs. They miss his big-throated compassion, his humanity.
I always joke that I have a mini Harry Crews living inside of me. I’m a middle-aged woman in a ponytail and sneakers, so it’s pretty funny, but I hope it’s true. I hope Harry is here with me and some of his fire and heart and fury are just under the surface and that they’ll never die.
Mostly, I love honest writing.
I believe people are very busy. They’re working, trying to raise families, trying to pay bills and keep their houses and not have their hearts collapse.
If those people buy a book, if they open it, if they give your words their eyes, I think it’s important not to fuck around.
I believe writers owe it to readers to give them something for their time. I love writing that doesn’t mess around.
“She’ll get ideas,” your mother said, referring to your feverish reading. What stories did burgeon in your mind while reading these World Books of Knowledge? Is this when you realized you wanted to become a writer?
My mother was right. I did get a lot of ideas from those encyclopedias. I lived in a land-locked place, this little rusty mill town outside of Pittsburgh, but I became obsessed with oceans and sharks and I read every entry about sharks and barracudas and other ocean things that could kill you.
For a while I thought I wanted to become a marine biologist, right up until my father took me to see “Jaws” the week before we went on vacation to Florida. Then I wouldn’t ever go in the water again. Also, I wasn’t good at math or science and I’m a terrible swimmer. I hadn’t considered that.
It’s funny, but my daughter loves sharks now, too. She has shelves of shark books and shark movies and can name a dozen of species of sharks when we visit the Pittsburgh aquarium, where she’s made friends with the shark expert on staff. I encourage this, of course. I’m the worst mother ever because I let my 9-year-old watch shark B-movies. She’s might be the only 3rd grader who can quote “Sharktopus” and “Sharknado.” She’s seen not just the first (and best) “Jaws,” but all three, none of which have fazed her on vacation. She’s fearless, which terrifies me.
I think the one thing those World of Knowledge Books taught me early on was that finding something to love, whatever it is, is so important.
There were other things in those World Books, too. I loved the pictures I saw of Paris and became obsessed with Paris. I loved the pictures of New York and became obsessed with New York. I think the World Books of Knowledge started me thinking about the world, about travel, about how much I wanted to take in in my lifetime. They’re probably why I’d end up, years later, becoming a flight attendant, even though I was always afraid to fly.
I lived in such a small place, I couldn’t imagine ever having the means or time to travel, to see the places pictured in those books. Still, those books made me realize possibility. They made me think a lot about the world beyond my house, my driveway, my street. They were my first passports.
You write, “The lines of light from the window blinds make my son’s face look caged. It’s what I feel, too.” Does writing play a liberating role?
Writing for me, when it’s going well, is liberating because it’s an act of discovery. When the writing’s going well, I don’t know where it’s going. I’ll be surprised at what I find. I’ll be surprised at what bubbles up. I write to figure out things– or at least to try to figure out things. I write because I have questions I wonder about. I don’t think, for me, there’s any other reason to write. If I already know something, I’m not interested in writing about it. I’m only interested in writing about what I don’t know. The world, for me, is very confusing. Writing helps me find some order there. Anne Sexton said that, “not that it was beautiful but that I found some order there.” Writing helps me see a shape for things, even if that shape won’t hold still for long. It helps me see, even if it’s just for a second, what it is I’m doing in this life.
Did you get to meet your sister? Did you write about it?
That essay “All of Them Would Hurt Someone, I Think” is actually an excerpt from a new memoir manuscript I just finished. It’s Called Belief Is It’s Own Kind of Truth, Maybe. It’s about my adoption search, in part, but it’s mostly about trying to understand what family means. It’s about making the distinction between real and forced connections. It’s about learning what’s real.
I write about family a lot.
I’ve met some members of my birth family. I’m very close with some of them the way I’m close with some members of my adopted (real?) family. That’s another thing this manuscript is about – trying to find language that matches that.
I went to a palm reader once. She did both palms, not just one. She held my left hand and said, “This is the map of what you were born with.” Then she held my right hand and said, “This is the map of what you’ve made yourself.”
I’ve been writing about that – how it’s possible to mesh those two maps, those two lives.
Your memoir, The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious, came out in May. Tell us a little bit about it.
It’s the follow-up to my first memoir, Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette 2006), and it’s about a daughter – me – who learns that coming to terms with her difficult and gravely ill mother ultimately means coming to terms with herself.
The back-cover copy is pretty much it:
“Her 70-year-old, cancer-stricken mother kills snakes with a broom. Her best friend believes in psychics and the Virgin Mary. Her new neighbor steals her CDs and her aunt sneaks cheese curls into the house. After seven years in New York, Lori Jakiela gives up her job as an international flight attendant and her dreams of becoming a writer, and returns home to Pittsburgh to take care of her dying mother. Always the loving, befuddled daughter, Jakiela stumbles to find her new life while sleeping in her childhood bed and teaching writing to students who hate to read. Unexpected love, expected loss, the struggle to find our own families, The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious is the story of mothers and daughters, the debts we pay, and the new lives we build for ourselves when we least expect them.”
Like I said, I write about family a lot.
Stuff I Write: On Veteran’s Day, Secrets, Mall Food Courts, and Writing To Find Out Everything I’ll Never KnowIn Uncategorized on November 11, 2013 at 5:35 pm
I should go there. I won’t. I don’t go often enough.
I’d say my father wouldn’t approve. I’d say he’d want me to be a good daughter and keep his grave clean, but I don’t know that.
There are so many things I don’t know about my father still. I think that’s why I write about him so much. I’m trying to reassemble him. Writing for me is always that — reassembling, trying to make life hold still, trying to find out everything I didn’t pay attention to the first time, everything I’ll never know.
If I were to guess, I think my father would tell me I should be doing better things than hanging around all sad-sacked at his grave. I think he’d say Veteran’s Day is just another excuse for politicians to get paid to not work and for stores to pretend they’re not jacking up prices on everything no one needs.
I think he’d say let the dead be dead and the living live.
He wasn’t much for visiting graves himself.
Here’s one of the last moments between my father and me. Today this is what I’m trying to make hold still. Reassembling.
It’s a month, maybe, before he’ll die. My father wants to go to the mall food court. He wants Chik-fil-a. This is before Chik-fil-A announces it hates gay people. It’s before my mother is sick. This is before the insurance company delivers the hospital bed and oxygen tanks and walker to my parents’ home and my father asks the delivery guy exactly how long people live after he delivers things like that.
“On average,” my father says to the guy, who’s a kid really, who looks like he wants to run. “I mean, a week, two, tops? How long do you think I have here?”
My father is angry. He knows what he’s doing.
“I just bring what’s on the form, sir,” the delivery kid says. He looks like he wants to jump through a window. He looks like he might throw up.
I don’t know how many people ask him things like that. Not many, I hope. Not many people are like my father. I imagine most people sit back and stare, like he’s wheeling in their coffins before they’re dead. Maybe they say thank you. Maybe they tell him to have a nice day.
I’m home on leave from my job. I work for the airlines, where I don’t have to deal with any one person for very long. Everything is temporary. Welcome aboard, would you like a beverage, sit down please, fasten your seat belts, tray tables up, cell phones off, thank you, goodbye. In ways the job is a good fit, transient, like me.
But now I’m home to help my mother take care of my father, who is angry because he’s dying. His cancer was in remission and now it’s not. He thought he’d been saved. He told the waitress at Red Lobster he’d been saved. He told the organist at church. He told the mailman and the UPS guy. He told the oxygen/hospital bed guy, but then explained how he figured he’d been duped and all. He’d been praying. He carried a blue prayer book in his chest pocket. He thought it was working. It was the happiest and most hopeful I’d ever see my father. At Red Lobster, he ordered dessert, a chocolate volcano cake.
“I have a lot to celebrate,” he told the waitress. “This bastard doctor said I was going to die and I prayed and prayed and God answered, so now I’m not dying.”
But the prayer book and God both quit.
It must have been something he’d done, my father figured. Something he hadn’t counted on.
It’s hot in the food court. The mall’s dry heat is cranked up. It’s late January, but not snowing. My father wears his heavy knit cap, the one he used when he was in the Navy. He’d been in World War II, on an aircraft carrier. He’d seen people die. Plenty of people. He’d been to Hiroshima after the bomb. He gave a woman there his cigarettes and his shoes. One man in a bunk near his died when a kamikaze hit the side of the ship. They’d both been sleeping. The man died. My father did not. These are the kinds of details he gave. Cigarettes, shoes, a bunk mate with shit luck. Nothing about what he saw, really. Nothing about what he felt. Nothing about how close his bunk mate’s sleeping body may have been to his own.
It has never occurred to me how little I know about my father. I could list the intimate things I know. It isn’t a long list. He liked to sing and then gave up singing, he drove a beer truck when he was 14, his father once beat him for ruining his shoes in the rain, he believed in God and the Pennsylvania lottery and when he was 12 he got in a fist fight with Vincent of the famous Vincent’s Pizza in Pittsburgh – who had something to do with the shoes my father ruined in the rain and took a beating for — and my father won and that he was proud of this and that he believed it meant something, even though Vincent went on to become a multi-millionaire and Vincent’s Pizza is the most famous pie in Pittsburgh, weighs ten pounds counting toppings and grease, and my father retired from the mills and had to sell the house in Florida he’d spent all his savings on because his wife ended up with a bad heart and couldn’t take the heat.
“They have a C rating from the Health Department,” my mother says about Vincent’s Pizza, in loyalty to my father, who says, “I wouldn’t let my dog eat pizza from that bastard. My dog’s ass is cleaner than the pizza from that shithole.”
After my father dies, I’ll find a box of his war medals. I’ll find yellowed baggies filled with Japanese yen, the Emperor’s face on the bills. I’ll find a picture of my father in his sailor uniform, his arm around another sailor whose name I’ll never know. Maybe this was his dead bunk mate. Maybe this man was a friend. I’ll find my father’s uniform and, years after that, my son will try it on. My son will be 12 years old when he tries this. He won’t be able to fit his arms through the sleeves.
I try to get my father situated at a table in the middle of the food court. It’s hard for him to be comfortable. The chairs are hard wood. Everything hurts. He’s wearing a sweatsuit my mother got him a few weeks back. It fit then. Now he looks like a child who’s raided the adult section. Under the knit cap, his face is grey. His cheeks are sharp and angled. If I didn’t know this was my father, I wouldn’t recognize him.