Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Leaving It All Behind

I was talking to a colleague of mine at a grad student reading last week (nice work, BTW, Aisha and Alex) about a family story of mine that I once told him: a great-uncle, Tony Moran, was a semi-famous mobster who ran a gambling machine empire in Reading, Pennsylvania during the thirties and forties, and was eventually knocked off in a bar by a rival.  It's a good story, full of colorful characters and funny twists and turns.  And my colleague said, "So when are you gonna write about this?"

Believe me, I've thought about it.  Why wouldn't I?  Nothing would get me an interview with Terri Gross quicker than a novel about my family's shady past in organized crime.  But the fact is, I'm never going to do it.

Why not?  Rhian supplied the answer for me the other night: writing, for me, is about leaving it all behind.  My home town, that is (not Reading, but nearby Phillipsburg, New Jersey), and all its lowlifes, wiseguys, and weirdos.  Don't get me wrong, I love visiting home, and hearing my family tell stories about growing up in the area.  But back when I was in my late teens, all I wanted to do was get away from all that and do my own thing.  Indeed, all my early short stories were about the self-actualization of quirky young people.  I've moved on, thank God, but still can't conceive of writing the kind of stories I love hearing from my family--those serve a different purpose.  Fiction, for me, is self-invention--the "wooing of distant parts of myself," as an Alice Munro character once put it.

People often talk about, or try to talk about, where their writing comes from.  But I wonder--what is your writing trying to escape?

Photo from here.

16 comments:

Jay Livingston said...

This reminds me of Eric Konigsberg’s story, which he told at The Moth, about discovering that his great-uncle was a gangster, and then deciding to write about him.

jrlennon said...

Ha, yeah, that was a great story, listened to it a few weeks ago!

Russell said...

REAL | Journalism — Memoir — Literary Fiction — Genre Fiction — Science Fiction | UNREAL. I suspect, JRL, that with your desire to leave it all behind, together with your interest in technology, you might be moving toward science fiction, the most way-out of them all (where you can woo distant planets). And with today’s literary fiction handicapped by competition with the unfathomable reams of actual reality available for consumption over the Internet, that might be the best move for all of us writers who run screaming not only from the idea of objective reporting but from the treacly fad of premature memoir.

jrlennon said...

My novel-in-progress actually does have a big sci-fi element in it. Though it is really about parenthood...

I'm not sure I buy the idea that literary fiction is competing with the internet, though. I hope not, we'll lose.

christianbauman said...

I hear ya, JRL, and we come from the same town(s), so I double hear ya. But then, one of my greatest regrets about one of my favorite novelists (Robert Stone) in that he hasn't written in fiction about his childhood (schizophrenic mother, etc). Granted, this is coming from me, whose three novels have mirrored the arc of my life, and whose likely fourth is no different. Howsabout this: when we're fifty, I'll write the great Easton novel, you can write the great P'Burg novel, and we'll publish them together in a box set.

Zach C said...

I would pick that up, and then pick up another copy just in case. Just sayin'.

KooKooKaChoo said...

No matter what or who I write about, everyone thinks I'm subconsciously (or maliciously) writing about them. (This is especially true of my mother.) Then when I'm nervous I'm getting too close to an actual person, said person never has a clue.

(Great quote, btw.)

jon said...

I'm with you, I can't write directly about my life in any kind of way. My only non-science fiction novel is depressingly, fatally flawed. I keep hoping one day I'll have the perspective to write more directly about my past, and the place and time I grew up in, but that doesn't excite my imagination, and I'm still running away from the suburbs. Of course, I steal lives, locales, stories, pieces of people's lives, of my family and friends. Never tell me a story, I'll steal it!

Hope said...

I'm not seeing a lot of family resemblance in that picture.

jrlennon said...

He does indeed look as though he's smelled something bad.

Christian, I already feel I'm looking down the barrel of 50...let's make it 60. Could Suzy Stateliner and the Red Rover even survive in a box together?

rmellis said...

I've never seen an pic of Uncle Tony before, and actually, I can't BELIEVE how much he looks like you, although with a bizarre snarl I've never seen you enact.

I mean... the hairline, the eyebrows, the head shape!!

rmellis said...

The cheekbones!

jrlennon said...

Yeah, you're right. I am hoping that what Hope meant is that he looks bad, and I don't.

Anonymous said...

This was a great post. I, too, have some notorious relatives, including a cousin who was the first person to be sentenced to death in CA after the death penalty ban was lifted. So yeah, I could churn out a good half-dozen books about the criminal escapades of assorted relatives, but I don't think I ever will, for a couple of reasons. One, I don't think those melodramatic stories necessarily make for interesting fiction; and two, I would rather be known for my own talent/imagination than for the fucked-upness of my family.

Nevertheless, autobiography sneaks in, sometimes in very abstract ways. This discussion reminds me of Darin Strauss, who said that he thought all of the doubling in his novels was his way of dealing with the accidental death of his friend (which, of course, he did finally write about).

rmellis said...

Darin Strauss apparently has the most terrifying memoir ever -- about accidentally killing a person while driving. I cannot read that.

Sung said...

It's funny you should write about this, because I just wrote a self-interview for the site The Nervous Breakdown (which was unnerving in itself), and I came to the conclusion that I write to escape myself, all of my problems, all of my issues.

I know it'll never work, this escape. Because no matter what I do, I always end up coming back to this old brain and body.

- Sung