Lifeboat magazine’s interview with Richard Hoffman by Amy Biancolli
AB: Let’s start with the big, loaded question. Please define memoir. Is it synonymous with autobiography — and while we’re at it, what’s autobiography, anyway?
RH: Well, it’s funny, memoir is one of those forms that I think that everytime you try to define it, it overflows those boundaries, because practitioners keep it alive by renewing it. At its best it comes truly out of people’s lives and isn’t simply a variation on the genre. But the effect of new memoirs coming out is to repeatedly extend the definition of memoir. However, I think that when expanding the definition of memoir is done self-consciously it becomes sterile. And I’ve seen a few a memoirs that do that. Now, I don’t want to talk about them, because I don’t want to slam other writers, but it can become a very solipsistic, not to say narcissistic, genre. So some people decide that the way to get around that is to be sort of hyper-literary or. . .
RH: Well, or reflexive in some kind of post-modern way. At their deepest level, the best memoirs encounter the grief of being a human being. They wrestle with that grief. And the worst ones indulge in nostalgia. And even when they’re hip and edgy as opposed to sentimental and schlocky, they’re still artificial in the worst way. So, what’s the difference between memoir and autobiography? I think of autobiography as something that a public figure writes about a period that is of intrinsic interest to everyone. Or a person writes at the end of their life looking back on it, and it’s the only chance they’re going to get. But a memoirist is saying, very humbly, “This is the way I remember it. This is how it was.” And not “This is how it is,” but, “This is how I see it.” I think that the memoirist is guided by truthfulness — not a claim to The Truth. Truthfulness is a synonym for honesty. If you remember something a certain way, then that’s the way you must write it. And that means you can’t fictionalize. I know that people are going to argue — I’ve had I don’t know how many arguments well into the night with colleagues about fiction and memoir.
AB: Fellow memoirists.
RH: Yes, and people who write personal essays, and people who write nature essays, travel essays, etc. They say, Well, I reserve the right to move things around and change this and that. My feeling about that is, you make a contract with the reader when you call something nonfiction. And the reader says, “Okay, there is a level of truth that moves me here that I might also find in a novel or any other dramatic work, but in this case it rests upon factual truths, events that happened and have not been tampered with.” When you do tamper with them and you move something from one city to another, or you decide to take an experience you had when you were in your teens and recount it as though it happened to you in your 30s, then you’re writing a novel. And that’s fine, it’s wonderful, but don’t call it nonfiction. Or, alternately, tell me up front in a prefatory note just what kind of nonfiction this is. Just as every novel says in the beginning that the characters in this narrative are fictitious and any resemblance to real people living or dead is merely coincidental, however it is based on a true story. You know, give me the boundaries, here, so that I know what the context is going into it.
AB: In Half the House, you provide the boundaries very clearly: “This is not a work of fiction. It contains no composite characters, no invented scenes. I have, in most instances, altered the names of persons outside my family. In one instance, on principle, I have not.” My assumption is that’s the coach who abused you, Tom Feifel.
AB: Did that make your job easier — setting those rules? Did you know going in that that’s what you were writing?
RH: Going in was interesting, because that book was fifteen years in the making, and I certainly didn’t write that first, that “reclaimer,” as I call it.
AB: But in your mind. . .
RH: But in my mind that was my understanding of what I was doing. Those were the boundaries and so I wanted to make them clear to the reader. Because by the time this book was finished, there were a few memoirs out that were playing with the edge between fact and fiction. Again, I have no problem with that so long as you tell me where the edge is. But there are ethical questions involved. You can’t just say “As long as it’s a good story,” because then you have to say that it doesn’t matter that Binjamin Wilkomirski’s Holocaust memoir, Fragments, turned out to be fiction, that he’s passing off imagined experience as factual experience. You have to say that because it’s a good story, the author is beyond the judgment of the reader.
AB: In journalism, we jokingly like to say, “Well, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
RH: I think that that’s true: You can’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, but you can’t change the facts in order to make the story. You have to somehow bring every bit of artistry you have to bear on the facts to use them gracefully so that the story finds its own shape in a dramatic way.
AB: That leads me to ask you about the structure of your book. It’s more or less chronologically shaped, but it’s fluid as well — you move back and forth from one time frame to another. Was that necessary to the story you were shaping — your childhood, your young adulthood, your reckoning with your father?
RH: It took many, many tries to find the shape of this book. And I remember finding it on my bedroom floor, literally taking scenes and laying them out on the floor and saying, Okay, if I take this one first, then that has to come next and then this one. . . And doing that over and over again for a year, making sure the reader could follow from one to another. So you make a compromise with the demands of the narrative, of the shape, so that there’s an ebb and flow of tension in the intensity of the book, because otherwise — I mean, you can’t have the thing be at a white heat for 200 pages. There has to be humor in it, there have to be discursive moments, there have to be gripping scenes. There has to be some sort of rhythm to that. And I did want the book to be, generally speaking, chronological. It starts in 1984 and then it goes back farther and then it goes back farther and then it moves back and catches up to 1991 and then goes from there.
The first version I did was in four parts. And because the book had taken so long to write, each of those parts went and looked at the same events with a different understanding. It’s the way I understood it at 30, the way I understood it at 35, the way I understood it at 40. That turned out to be very honest but unwieldy.
I like to tell my students that the shape of it is already there; it’s not a question of creating a shape. Narrative, you know, has its own demands, and you have to compromise with that in such a way that you don’t falsify facts. You’re not making connections as much as you’re discovering how they’re already connected in you. We have a deluge of experience coming at us every day. Most of it doesn’t stick to me, most of it isn’t important, I don’t remember it. Things I remember are connected to other things I remember or they wouldn’t have persisted, they wouldn’t have survived. It’s part of my process as a memoirist to discover how they’re connected. Which is a sense of discovering the story of your life — the web work that is you.
AB: I had a professor who used to say that “autobiography is self-creation.” Would you agree with that?
RH: Yeah. You’re creating it using the tools of the dramatic writer. Using the tools of a novelist. But you’re doing that in most respects with the facts as you remember them. And if you find out — and this happened to me — if you find out halfway through the process or somewhere before the book is published that you were wrong about something, you gotta change it. I had my brother in a scene in my book: I had my brother Joe in a scene, and when he read the manuscript he said, “I wasn’t there.” I said, “Wait a minute, of course you were.” He said, “No, don’t you remember? I had to go here and I know that I wasn’t there because I regret terribly not being there.” And I had to go back and figure out how to rewrite that scene.
AB: Were you concerned about hurting people when you wrote the book? Are you still aware of how the book affected people, even now?
RH: Writing a memoir puts you right at the crossroads of two main junctions. And they were both on a sign in my daughter’s daycare center. I remember in the playroom there it said, “The rules: No hurting. Tell the truth.”
Isn’t that THE existential double bind right there? And that’s what the memoirist is up against right there. You know, the fact is that it’s one thing to decide that something is going to cause more harm than good, you know, it’s another thing to decide that so-and-so might not like this account, but it’s the truth you have to tell, and that it is important beyond the fact that you want to articulate it.
AB: There’s some pretty heavy stuff in your book: the deaths of your brothers from muscular dystrophy, your sexual abuse at the hands of your coach. Did it take a lot of work to reach the point at which you said, Okay, I have to write about this, people have to read it.
RH: Yes, absolutely, a lot of literary and extra-literary work.
AB: Emotionally, psychologically. . . ?
RH: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And it meant acknowledging this little voice that kept saying that this was bigger than my story, this story was also other people’s story. And my gratitude as a reader to other writers, memoirists and novelists and poets, for the work that helped me to be able to articulate to myself my own experience. So I wanted to do that, too. In incredibly dramatic ways that happened right after the book was published, but it continues to happen. I mean, it’s eight years later, and I’m still getting mail from all over the world from people thanking me for telling their story and sending me letters wanting to tell me all about things that happened to them — what it was like to lose their brother or sister, how scared they were growing up in the shadow of the H-bomb, how long they had suffered their childhood beatings, rapes, humiliations.
AB: Touching people.
RH: Yeah, I mean, what else are we about? Why else bother to go through it? It’s fifteen years of pulling the wagon up the hill to get it right and to make it beautiful — it’s not just an account. I don’t think memoirists are after leaving a record. We’re making art. We’re turning life into art, not just turning it into ink.
AB: What do you think of the term “creative nonfiction”?
RH: I think the term was arrived at as a kind of compromise to begin with. So you have to be careful not to allow yourself to be compromised by the license that it seems to offer for playing fast and loose with the facts.
Suppose memoir as a genre had exploded in bookstores instead of in the 1990s as it did suppose it did in the 1840s. And memoirists decided, hey, you know what? People don’t want novels; they want to know stuff that’s factually true, because they don’t understand the way that novels work, they don’t understand the kind of truth that can be carried in fiction. They want to know, this is the facts. So we’re going to pass stuff off that’s almost factual as factual and we’re going to fudge things. And suppose into that culture, that literary culture, came Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave — what a fucking insult.
AB: And it would be useless historically.
RH: It would be useless historically. Which is why it’s so important, when someone says they’re a holocaust survivor, they’re a survivor of ethnic cleansing, or they’re a survivor of the killing fields in Cambodia — we need to be able to believe them and their account. And anyone who falsifies an account like that should be held responsible. And I think that works on the micro-level as well. If you say something’s nonfiction, dammit, it’s nonfiction. That means that three generations from now somebody pulls it down from a shelf in a library and they’re doing research, and it says it’s nonfiction — so it contributes to the picture that our grandchildren have of our time.
What a hard-ass I am! Keep me talkin’, and pretty soon I’ll be — I don’t know. I think we should line ’em all up, and, jeez.
AB: You feel strongly about this. Is it a calling for you –specifically writing the book, generally writing?
RH: This book taught me that literature is not a little playground with a fence around it where you can go play and do whatever you want — that it has consequences in the real world. And literary history is full of books that have had consequences in the real world, and it’s also true that books that don’t surface as big consequential works nevertheless change people’s attitudes and their minds and hearts in subtle ways that, you know, is what Shelley meant when he said, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world;” it’s what Keats meant when he said he wanted each one of his poems to be an “action in the world.” We’re not over here in this bunker making little flower arrangements, you know? When you start talking about what you think you know about human beings, and you put that out there for somebody else to read, it has an impact. I think people just need to be responsible for that impact.
AB: Do you think a lot of writers are heedless of that responsibility?
RH: I think that they’re not heedless of it so much as they are insulated from it because we’re not a reading society any more. I think that a lot of writers don’t think enough about it, about the impact on the reader, on the public. . . .
AB: On history as well?
RH: On history, on the culture. We come out of a post-WWII literary culture that says that art and literature constitute a world apart, and there are all sorts of historical reasons for that, and there are political reasons.
After the Second World War, the Marshall Plan in Europe included the European Cultural Congress, which essentially set up museums and galleries and readings and magazines, et cetera, with that aesthetic in mind, the “art for art’s sake” idea, and anything that included social commentary just wasn’t funded. It was left to die. And so back here in the States you have the Museum of Modern Art being built after the Second World War by the Rockefellers, and abstract expression is made the sine qua non of art, and anybody who’s painting anything representational is suddenly, you know, a pig farmer from Tennessee — or may as well be in the way that people think about it.
There’s the idea that anything that’s committed or critical is propaganda, or a writer whose work is focused on dissent is not an artist.
AB: I’ve been reading a lot of Tolstoy lately, and it’s all social commentary wrapped up as soap opera.
RH: Oh, yeah, oh, yeah. And I mean, Dickens is a great example. . . .We need writers to be writers and not entertainers.
AB: Isn’t that a false distinction, though? Shouldn’t art be entertaining, and can’t entertainment also be art?
RH: It has to be. That goes back to Aristotle — one of the purposes is “to delight and instruct.” My beef is with people who don’t have anything to instruct us with.
Salman Rushdie said that literature helps a culture have a conversation about itself. As long as you’re doing that, you’re doing your job. So I don’t want to set myself up as Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards, you know — “You falsified your memoir! You’re goin’ to hell!”
AB: So whose memoirs do you admire or have influenced you?
RH: Well, some of the memoirs I most admire have come out since Half The House. One is After a Long Silence by Helen Fremont. It’s magnificent for many reasons, and one is that it uses lots of fiction. But Fremont always tells you, because she’s reimagining the events she has discovered are her parents’ experiences. And you are led on the journey of that discovery with her. So she knows how to use the word “perhaps,” or ”I imagine,” or ”maybe.” You’re still within bounds, as long as you’re saying ”perhaps.” What a magnificent book that is! Really, her family’s history was destroyed by the Second World War and many in her family perished in the Nazi camps, and her father was in Stalin’s labor camps for a long time. She was raised as a Catholic kid in the United States. She ended up feeling this absolute need to understand who she really is, who she really was — because the fiction was flimsy, would not suffice. You couldn’t hang an identity on it. It wasn’t real. It’s an interesting book because her parents, both Jews, survived by fiction, by changing identities, by becoming people they weren’t, by pretending. And she could only survive by replacing the fiction by the truth as she was able to put it back together — from public records, from testimony of other people — and then to use her imagination to flesh that out and make it alive. It’s a magnificent story of restoral. One of the thing’s story can do is re-store.
So that’s one of them. James Carroll’s An American Requiem. All Souls, Michael Patrick MacDonald. All of these books have political importance. They all set the record straight at the same time they same time that they’re graceful and well-made. . . I think that that’s one of the things about this genre: it kicks ass and takes names, you know? I mean, Tom Feifel goes to prison, he dies in prison. I don’t know how many kids were spared as a result. That wasn’t my purpose, ever, but, wow — what an eye-opener to see that happen. I understand the power of that book. Michael Patrick MacDonald blowin’ the whistle on Whitey Bulger all through that book. And he could do it because he was out on the street, there. He’s not just an investigative journalist coming in from outside doing his thing. He’s writing out of his suffering, out of the suffering of his family, and it’s that much more powerful, and the reader is outraged by those things in a way that no one else can touch.
AB: Because of the close connection to the subject?
RH: Because he was there. . . Again, that’s where literature comes from. And maybe the reason memoir came on with such an authentic energy of its own at the end of the 20th Century is that there was a backlog of authentic stories, authentic voices, that hadn’t been heard. Then for some reason the political and cultural climate allowed a bunch of nobodies to be able to say what it was like in their neighborhood. “This is what things are like for my people, my economic group, my ethnic group, the country I come from. This is what it was like to live through this period in history.”
AB: Do you think that accounts for memoir’s huge popularity — that people are responding to these very intimate witnesses to history? Or what is it, if not that?
RH: I think that is it. But I want to say right away that you can get that understanding from serious novelists too; it’s just that I want to know, as a reader, what kind of truth to expect from a book. Fiction is fiction. Nonfiction is, well, not.