A Dance of Words
A Conversation with Beth Kephart
Editor's Picks: I took Into the Tangle of Friendship very personally. After reading it, I ransacked my closets and reread letters from friends I hadn't thought about for 20 years. I evaluated those friendships, tracing their patterns into my adult relationships. Have other readers reacted to your book this way?
Beth Kephart: My hope, with both my books and essays, is to use my own stories and experiences not as an end in themselves, but as a prism through which others might view and evaluate their own lives. I don't, in fact, feel successful as a writer unless readers of my work are somehow led toward their own personal reflections. My favorite part of publishing TANGLE has been hearing from readers who have gone off searching for long lost friends, or gone up into the attic to look through their own letters, the artifacts of their own lives. This is a great honor, and it is what I want my writing to do. A few evenings ago, at a small reading in downtown Philadelphia, an elderly man got very emotional as I read a chapter about my husband's friends. When I was done, he slapped his thigh, stood up, and said, "That's it. I'm going to look for Eddie." His personal reaction made the evening worthwhile. And I hope today that he has re-found his Eddie, who turned out to be his best friend of forty years ago.
EP: That's a great story. Would you say, overall, that the book transcends gender, race and age?
BK: It is not a book exclusively about female friendships, nor about childhood friendships, nor about best friendships. I am looking at civilization, at the ways we choose to get along, at the processes by which we allow ourselves to be drawn in close to some, BY the accidents or deliberateness with which we push others away.
EP: In the book's preface, you state that friendship is more than a subject for photo albums and light romance. You argue that friendship is the "by-product of the self-preserving forces of evolution." You set out to write about friendship as an art form and as a means of strengthening our communities. Were you at all daunted by this thesis?
BK: Many writers before me have believed in the power and importance of friendship. Indeed, up through the 19th century, friendship was an important topic of discourse and essays for thinkers ranging from Aristotle and Cicero to Emerson and Thoreau. It was during the 20th century that friendship became more the province of novelists than essayists, less prominent as a matter of social discourse. So I wasn't daunted by the size of the topic, no. I loved spending time reading, thinking, evaluating, viewing friendship from so many perspectives. What was daunting was trying to write about friendship in a particular, philosophical way while at the same time creating a book that ultimately felt novelistic and engaging, that read like story. I began by deciding which stories from my own life I would tell, what lessons I felt they held. I then quite separately wrote out my thesis of friendship. And then I began entangling the two.
EP: In an earlier interview, you stated that memoir can be a powerful form of story telling and awakening." Could you elaborate on this? In other words, why did you chose to write a memoir about this subject rather than a novel?
BK: Memoir, as term, actually refers to a subject that a writer takes on with passion. It's unfortunate, I think, that the word in our culture is now equated with tell-all narrative, with "all about me's". I write memoir because I would like to restore it to its original purpose, because I believe the genre can and should be expanded, because truth can and should be powerful. When I say memoir can be a powerful form of awakening, I mean that the memoirist should be constantly making room for the reader, opening up passages, asking, essentially, was it this way for you? Memoir can be a form of conversation, I guess I'm saying. That's what I'm shooting for.
EP: It seems as though there are two camps of nonfiction writers. Some never wander from the truth, even if the facts make a less interesting story. (For instance, a writer from this camp would say, "If the suitcase in my memory was green, then it must be green in my story) Writers from the other camp would have no problems with changing small details or quotes in order to achieve a more dramatic story. (The suitcase was green in my memory, but it would be a better detail if it were red) Of which camp are you a member?
BK: Patricia Hampl has written engagingly on this topic in her essays of "I Can Tell You Stories." For me, I do think the truth is important. I do believe in being as accurate with the past as one can be. I do think it's important to honor the genre. If we are after the truth, if we claim that we have written the truth, then I think we should keep our contract with the reader, to the extent that that is possible. If I don't remember what color something was, I say, "In my memory, I see it as green." That's a truthful statement, and it may also help the story along.
EP: One of my favorite chapters, "Back Home," involves your mother-in-law, Nora, and her circle of friends. Now grandmothers, they get together and try on costumes once a year, dressing up in their Catholic school uniforms and old debutante dresses. This is an incredibly funny story. Are your in-laws natural story tellers, or do you have to catch them off guard or rely on your husband's stories? How do you go about researching family history?
BK: I think my in-laws have incredibly interesting and funny stories to tell, but they rarely tell them well, at least from what I can make out through translation and interpretation. This is because they've told the stories so many times to each other that they now sidestep the context, the punchlines, in fact. Usually they are laughing long before they finish the story and the heart of the story remains untold. So I have had to ask a lot of questions afterwards, when the laughter dies down. And I've had to look through a lot of photographs and surmise. And given that they are Salvadoran, I've had to read dozens and dozens of books on the country so that I can put it into context for myself.
EP: You examine friendship through stories about being a daughter, wife, mother, high school student, social worker, daughter-in-law, e-mail corespondent, neighbor, traveler and teacher, to name a few. Did you leave out any stories you wish you could have included?
BK: Well, I left out people I wish I could have included, people whom I love. This wasn't accidental, though, or an after thought, a regret. I wanted my memoir about friendship to be universal and so I chose the stories that I hope work for all of us. I hope and trust that my friends who aren't in the book will recognize that I love them just as much as those who are. Their stories sing for me in other ways.
And then there is this: There are people I have met since I finished the book who have offered me such friendship, such strength, such constancy that I regret deeply not knowing them before, not having a chance to incorporate what would have been the right additional stories to tell. But I guess this is simply proof of one of the book's theses, that friendship is a dynamic, a wind that keeps blowing through. Having finished a book on friendship does not in any way mean that I have finished learning about friendship's power.
EP: How does your writing most often begin?
BK: My writing always begins with details, with exotica, with the attempt at making the unknown known. Equally, my writing begins with dance, with a strong communion with the musicality of language. I love the detail and I want to capture it. I love the sound of words and I want to dance with them.
EP: Would you say then that beauty, form and language must be balanced with the facts or are they more important? With what detail did TANGLE begin?
BK: What a wonderful question. I guess I might best answer it by reflecting on the memoirs that mean a lot to me. Take Michael Ondaatje's "Running in the Family" or Natalie Kusz's "Road Song." Both are extraordinary records of extraordinary families. Both recount astonishing facts. But neither would have seared readers' imaginations without their immaculate beauty and form. So you have to begin with something important to say, and you have to have a compelling narrative and structural thrust. But if it isn't done beautifully it won't be remembered, it won't take the reader inside its folds. So both matter. A book absolutely depends on both.
Now, about that initial fragment of detail/memory for TANGLE. I wrote a lot of pieces of that book separately and set them aside for a long while, knowing I had not yet found the beginning. To find the true beginning, I meditated for a long while one quiet morning in my home and took my memory back as far as it could go. I was trying to remember everything about my very first friend. And the detail that announced itself was an afternoon when this early friend and I pretended we were swans and danced. And when I found that detail, when I slipped inside it, when I brought it back out with words, I had my beginning.
EP: How did you start writing, in general? You mention in TANGLE that you used to write poetry.
BK: I began writing sitting under a willow tree at the age of nine with a pad on my lap and a pen in the air. Boy was it bad. It was sonnets and all forms of glorious praise to nature. It was me thinking I knew what went on in grown-ups' minds. When I got to high school, a couple of teachers took interest, and I was awarded this completely unexpected, unknown writing award. These teachers, then, gave me the idea that I could write, if I applied myself to it. But I knew, still, how really bad my work was, and at the University of Pennsylvania I studied History and Sociology of Science, keeping my poems under my bed. I didn't start trusting myself until I was pregnant at 28, with my son. It seemed to me then that I finally had something to say. I had gotten beauty down pretty early. But I was, until then, still searching for the facts. When I gave birth to my son, I became obsessed with writing. It suddenly seemed enormously important to begin to tell the stories right so that he'd have them someday, as his own.
EP: Your first book, A Slant of Sun, was about helping your son, Jeremy, overcome PDD. It seems to me that your stories are much more than a legacy for Jeremy. Through them, you were able to break through his silence and instruct him successfully when many other approaches seemed to fail. Would you say that this is the case for all parents and children?
BK: All stories are gifts, plain and simple, for they are, first and foremost, about reaching out. I think telling stories to Jeremy was just something I needed to do, as his mom, and I think he, with his marvelous intelligence and certain empathy, understood that I was sitting with him, talking with him, encouraging him because he was so worth getting to know. So there are the stories themselves, and these matter, these teach. But there is the sitting there together that story telling requires, and this was probably just as critical. Telling stories is finally about spending time, so that yes, I do believe that it is an essential act in all families.
EP: Though my own son has not had the same struggles that Jeremy has had, I felt that SLANT was intended for me to read too. I recognized so much of him in Jeremy. I think I learned how to be a better parent from reading the book. Was this what you hoped would happen?
BK: I never pretend to instruct others on how they should live, what they should be doing, in minute detail, with their lives. But what I did want to accomplish, among other things with SLANT, was to encourage all parents to step back and say, about their own children, Aren't I lucky to know them? Aren't I blessed by all they teach me? I never set out to write a special needs book; indeed, I was dismayed when I realized that some saw SLANT exclusively in that light. I set out to write a book about the power of children in our lives, about the light they can, no matter who they are, no matter what their gifts, shed on us. And I set out to tell Jeremy his own tale.
EP: Though engaging and beautifully written, SLANT was a painful book to read. Was it painful to write? How did you gain the objectivity to write so persuasively about this subject?
BK: I don't actually go back and read SLANT anymore. It's painful for me to read it, for many reasons. Writing it was simply necessary; I could not have sorted my own self out had I not put it all down in words. So yes, I cried while writing many of those pages. But I cried because I was writing the truth, and the truth, whether it's gorgeous or whether it is dark, has a really emotive power over me.
EP: How old is Jeremy now?
EP: What does he think about this book?
BK: Jeremy is very proud of SLANT because he understands how it has helped other parents and teachers see their children in new ways. He understands that it closes a chapter on his own life, that SLANT ends where it does because he emerged as who he is today, because, in so many ways, he made it. Many people have asked me to write a sequel, but I won't. SLANT was the book I wrote for Jeremy's sake so that he would someday see how far he'd come, so he could see how much he taught his dad and me, so that he could understand the love he brought into the world, and so that his story could inspire others. Those objectives were met with SLANT. All of us now must move on.
EP: One of the qualities of your writing that I admire the most is your ability to write instructively and poetically about the mundane, the every day. Your material seems to seek you out. Is there anything you don't write about?
BK: I am very keen on not writing what would hurt another to read. I write toward an idea of community, civility. This is especially so with TANGLE. It would be counterproductive, in my mind, for me to write swaths of story that might embarrass another. At the end of the day, we are human beings and not writers. I don't believe it is my place to expose another, or to write with cruelty. So that is what is off limits for me. As for topic, idea, story....I follow my heart every time.
EP: Where do you draw the line between fulfilling that idea and compromising your inner truth?
BK: I think the easiest way to know whether something may be hurtful to others is to imagine yourself reading the words or story yourself, and imagining that those words or that story are about you. If it seems likely that you yourself would feel betrayed or haunted, if your career could be damaged, if your family would feel embarrassed or scarred, then it just doesn't seem worth doing. Does that mean I don't write the truth? Absolutely not. I am hellbent on digging out, resurrecting, putting forth the truths that I think matter, not just for me, but for all society. Does it mean that I wallow in the sentimental? I certainly hope not; indeed, I write about a lot of painful and prickly things. But I never name those who would be hurt by being named and I never write about topics that seem strictly self-indulgent (e.g.., you can bet that you'll never be reading a book about Beth Kephart's sexual past; who really cares?). And I don't use my books to passively aggressively get back at those who may not have been kind to me in the past (and believe me, there have been many). That's just not what memoir is for, at least for me. And sure, I understand that the lack of sensationalism or gossip in my work will perpetually put me outside the mainstream of commercial attention or success. But I'd rather sleep well at night than have the fleeting glory of a juicy, tell-all book.
EP: What has your heart lead you to write about these days?
BK: I am staggering into a vast project about my husband's homeland, El Salvador, about the coffee farm his family has run there for years. What I am interested in this time is how we learn to love the things we don't know first hand, how we assimilate ourselves to the histories of our lovers. And I've just completed a novel on the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, which I hope to sell someday soon.
EP: Patricia Hampl defines memoir as "Telling a story and then listening to what the story tells us." Is this process similar to your own?
BK: I love what Patricia Hampl says about memoir. And I'd say, with that line, that she pretty much hits the nail on the head. Memoir is what we remember, yes. But it is finding the meaning, and, in my case, the universal meaning, in that memory that makes the memoir matter in the end.