“You think of the courage it takes to be anyone at all and anyone, especially, on the page. You think of right, you think of wrong, you think of a writer writing…” Wife | Daughter | Self
Beth Kephart has penned over thirty books, received numerous awards, and been a National Book Award finalist; yet, somehow, I only “discovered” her recently. Her latest memoir, Wife | Daughter | Self, touched me in so many ways, and on so many levels, I had to reach out to her. I am so grateful she reached back.
Wife | Daughter | Self
One of many interesting things about this memoir is how you wrote some essays in first person, and some in third. Could you talk about why you chose this approach?
I also managed to sneak in a little second-personing, strange person that I am. WIFE | DAUGHTER | SELF is a memoir in essays—a book built of reverbs and recursions, echoes and signifiers. Each piece was written with the hope of getting as close to the truth as possible, and sometimes the truth of us requires us to see ourselves as others might. Alternatively, the truth is so painful that the closest we can come to writing it is by giving ourselves another pronoun. And so I sought truth. I sought to see myself clearly.
“I’m increasingly inclined toward honesty.” What, if any, impact has this insight had on your writing in general, and this memoir in particular?
My work is more fierce than it once was. Less afraid to explore complications. More willing to wade into complexities. Painfully aware that there are no easy answers or finally true patina surfaces. I never bent to commercial expectations, but I’m doing even less bending now.
“We get to know each other.”
“We never know each other.”
These two quotes, back to back, fascinate me. Does this apply to knowing, or not knowing, ourselves as well as each other? Have you gotten to know yourself better by writing in general, and/or memoirs specifically?
We are always coming toward an understanding of ourselves and of the others in our lives. But we never quite get there, do we? Something shifts, something surfaces, some new experience shapes us, or the other, and there we are again with our questions. I have never felt as if I’ve known myself perfectly, but I know myself best with writing, in any genre. Writing is the conversation we have with our own selves, as we write toward our conversation with others.
You quote George Hodgman: “The worst books are the ones that feel safe.” Why do you think so, and would you consider your books safe?
Safe is boring, because safe can be foreseen. Safe can be predicted. I don’t consider my books safe. I think my books find those readers who are willing to take risks.
One of the things that struck, and impressed, me most in your latest memoir is its courage and candor. Yet, in “Second Coming” you write “Lie, and it’s fiction. Lie, and it’s a poem.” Would you add, “Lie, and it’s a memoir.” Or is that the exception to the rule?
We never knowingly lie when we write memoir, or we shouldn’t. But boy is it hard to nail the truth. Memoir is the sustained art of trying not to lie.
You also write, “A memoir is never right. Nor is the memoirist.” So… what drives you to write them? Is it because, as you also wrote, “…the truth is in the trying?” Do you write, ultimately, for yourself or to share your experiences with others? You have written several memoirs; are you closer to getting it right with each one? What, ideally, do you hope to achieve in writing memoirs?
I write, as we all must write, to find out. I write to bridge myself to myself and to others. I write toward the universal I and eye, and every memoir I have written has been the right memoir in that moment. And then we live on, we live forward. We keep writing.
There is so much of your own life and loved ones in this beautiful middle grade novel: your great-grandfather’s book; the uncle based on your own; the young Salvadoran artist; your husband’s lovely watercolors… even the heroine’s name, Lizzie, is a variation of your own. You wrote that you “had an instinct… about putting my mother’s brother, my father’s grandfather, and my husband’s childhood world all together in one story.” Can you tell us what this writing journey was like, and if it was different from your other books? Did you find it harder or easier because it was so close to you? And did you find it more rewarding in the end?
Although I have written many novels for younger readers (books that mostly get read by parents and adults, it seems), I have always felt, with each novel, that I have been circling a truth of me. My protagonists all contain elements of who I once was. My secondary characters are based on those I love, including some of my students at Penn. I’m talking about the soul of these people, the soul of me. Every novel has incorporated the struggle and the great pleasure of honoring the real in and around me. WILD BLUES was spectacularly populated with the stories of my life, the people I loved. I had to get it right.
Some of my favorite lines include:
“…You can choose to matter.”
“Nobody is the judgment they’ve been given… Nobody is anything except who they are.”
Lizzie has such an inspiring and empowering voice, especially for middle grade readers. Did you base her on anyone you know? Have you received a lot of fan mail from your audience?
I’m so glad you love Lizzie. Lizzie was one of my childhood monikers (even though my full name is Beth, not Elizabeth). There is a lot of her in me. And fan mail — those cool conversations used to happen mostly in person pre COVID. I do love hearing from readers, though.
You framed your story in such an unusual manner: Lizzie is talking to someone the entire time… but we don’t learn who her audience is until far into the book. Had you always planned to tell the story this way, and why?
Yes. I had always planned the story precisely as you so ably describe it here. It all begins with voice with me. I heard Lizzie talking and she was talking to someone. I had to write the book to find out who. And then of course rewrite it a thousand and one times to get it right, or better.
Here’s another line I love: “Tell your story until the story heals.” Is this what you aspire to do in both your fiction and memoirs? Does writing heal you in any way?
Writing quiets my brain, even as it challenges and frustrates me. It is a great, distracting puzzle to solve, and sometimes, in this world, distractions and intensities and urgencies distract us long enough to give us the energy we need to go back out and face the world.
General Writing Questions
From a reader’s perspective, you switch effortlessly from memoir to middle grade novel to picture book. How is this possible? Do you lean towards one kind of writing, or are you equally comfortable with, and fond of, all?
It always just comes down to voice, metaphor, image, idea, pressing hopes and dreams. I move among the genres but my heart is always here, in the same place. I loved writing novels, but I don’t know that I know how to do that anymore. But I will always be glad that I took those journeys with my characters.
Besides writing amazing books, you run fantastic workshops. Could you please talk about Juncture?
I write about Juncture, of course, in the memoir you have so kindly asked me about here. My husband and I think of it as a Shelter for the Truth—a place to go to delve deep into the genre, into one’s memories, into one’s world. We ran a series of five-day intensive workshops on a farm, by the sea, by a river, in a suburban town. During COVID, we built an online platform offering some really interesting, I think, sessions full of excerpts, prompts, ideas. We’re just starting the second series now. In addition, Juncture is a publishing arm, publishing memoir workbooks and a journal and other sorts of things. Finally, Juncture offers a free newsletter, updating readers on new books and offering prompts. I’m lucky that my husband is a designer and so capable of creating such a beautiful stage for writers’ work. More on Juncture can be found here: junctureworkshops.com
Do you have any advice for writers, new or experienced?
Everyone says the same thing, but it is really and so deeply true. There is no writing without reading. We must teach ourselves what we believe is good and not good, excellent and not worthy, and write to transcend our own expectations.
Last but not least, please tell us about your upcoming projects!
I do have a series of beautiful (I can say that because the illustrators are all so amazing) picture books due out—nonfiction picture books. AND I PAINT IT, with Amy June Bates, tells the story of a single day in the life of the painter Henriette Wyeth, beside her famous father. Next spring, my book on William Morris will come out, illustrated by the incredible Melodie Stacie. Both books from Cameron/Abrams. After that, I have a book on the children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom, to be illustrated by Chloe Bristol. All in all, I am lucky.
At the moment, I am not at work on any book. The ideas rise and fall, hide and appear. I wait.