author of Love & Fury
Interviewed by Amy Grier
All-Interview Issue Editor
and Solstice Managing Editor
Amy: I’m going to begin with my first experience reading your work. My second semester MFA advisor, Kyoko Mori, assigned me your memoir Half the House for a craft annotation. I love analyzing text, and usually find it an emotionally fulfilling process even when the subject matter isn’t particularly emotional.
Your memoir sparks strong emotions, of course, since it deals with your childhood sexual abuse. One of the scenes I chose as the focus of my annotation begins on page 52—the immediate aftermath of having been raped for the first time. I was and am struck by the absence of a scene of the abuse itself, and believe that it isn’t needed and may even be too difficult for some readers to take in. As a craft choice, it works well to provide some cushion for the inevitable empathetic pain a reader would feel.
Did you consciously consider how to prepare a reader psychologically for a story of such horrible abuse? Did considering a reader’s emotional response play into your craft choices? How did this affect your process and your own emotional pain in writing these scenes?
Richard: Well, I have to be very careful here not to sound as if I had carefully deployed each moment in the narrative after long and careful consideration of the pros and cons of doing this or that. That would be a case of mythologizing, a kind of creation story after the fact. What’s closer to the truth is that my “long and careful consideration” — more than fifteen years worth in the case of that book — was made up of trial and error informed by my lifelong love of, practice of, and study of poetry. I just kept tinkering until I felt it worked. That’s true of the whole book and its organization, but especially true of the scene you cite. For reasons of traumatic memory, I don’t have a continuous and complete memory of some of the actual instances of abuse; there were moments of dissociation and even a kind of pall that descended as certain things were done to me, a pall that is sometimes remembered unintentionally to this day, a sadness I have learned to ride out like a storm.
Amy: The Kirkus review of Half the House (by anonymous) includes this statement: “His recollection of his childhood carefully avoids adult retrospective analysis.”
I remember writing in my cover letter to Kyoko how wrong wrong wrong I thought this unnamed reviewer was. I perceive a strong authorial presence in the narrative, and I can’t imagine writing about childhood abuse without it. It’s subtle, but clear; for example, the scene of catching fish—through word choice (“baiting,” “hooking,” “shuddering,” exclaiming “I got him!”) creates a metaphor that clearly foreshadows the abuse and very much includes an “adult retrospective analysis.” I admire this kind of subtlety, and believe that reviewers like “anonymous” are looking for active, obvious authorial ruminations on the past.
How focused were you, when writing about this subject, on creating an authorial voice that was present, but not intrusive? Did you find this difficult to do or did it come more naturally? Is this something you had studied or learned to do as you were writing it?
Richard: I was quite focused on doing just that. Early versions of the manuscript, read by Donald Hall, were full of adult commentary. Most of it was an over-intellectualized, emotionally defensive attempt to put the grief and anger in the book in a larger sociological or philosophical context. It was garbage. I was a young man in my twenties trying to bootstrap my way into intellectual or literary respectability at the same time that I wanted to honor the suffering of my family and tell the truth of the brutality of a working-class boyhood. Hall dissuaded me, not too gently, and pointed out where the prose was doing the right kind of work, taking us into the lived experience of that place and time, not hovering above it like a voice-over.
I agree with you that the adult is present in the choices I made, choices that, as I said, were the result of trying a great many different ways of grappling with the material. Ultimately, those choices come down to word choices, word choices and silences.
Amy: Since I’m writing a memoir about growing up with a mother with mental illness and a father who worshipped her, I’m always eager to learn how other writers perceive their own relationships with their parents. Near the beginning of your latest memoir, Love & Fury, you write “Sometimes I think I’ve had two fathers: the one who made me, and the one I’ve made of him.” In a memoir workshop I took years ago with Marcie Hershman, she said that we should be aware that what we write, as memoirists, will become what we remember.
How has the father you’ve “made” on the page changed your relationship with him? Did reading this character of himself change his perception of you? Do you think, as Hershman says, that what you’ve written about him is now your memory of him?
Richard: Well, of course my father never read what I wrote about him in Love & Fury, which began as an attempt to eulogize him. Or maybe to integrate his profound impact on me, to come to terms with him, and in fact, I think that the portrait of him in that book is one that helped me arrive at an acceptance of his many contradictions, many of them exasperating. That twisted sign, the ampersand, between the words of the title is a kind of emblem for me; it denotes the knotty and inseparable nature of the love and the fury my father engendered in me.
But of course he did read my portrait of him in Half the House some 20 years earlier, and it had a grounding effect on our relationship. He acknowledged that he thought it an honest portrait, and as a result we became closer, able to talk about our lives with each other, at least more than we had been able to before when we were trapped in a kind of father-son cartoon in which sports, politics, maybe news of his grandkids, was all we could talk about.
Amy: As you wrote about your daughter in Love and Fury, were you concerned about how it might affect your relationship with her? Do you ever wonder if, like with your father, if you have one daughter and another daughter you made in your mind? How does writing about a relationship with your child differ from that with parents or siblings?
Richard: A memoir is like a drawing or a painting; it’s not a documentary form. If I were drawing or painting a portrait of my daughter, I would be doing it with love, just as I did portraying her and my son, my wife, and, now, son-in-law. The characters in the story are not made-up, but they are still characters in a story, a true story, but a story nonetheless. They are made of words. A memoir is a made thing, a representation, i.e. a re-presentation, in words, of a story that took place in the author’s life. So, I guess, no, I don’t confuse any of the people in my life with the static portraits of them I made at a moment in time while I was writing a book. People are not only a thousand times more complicated than one can ever portray on paper, they are also growing and changing all the time.
Amy: I began writing as a poet, and as I worked on my MFA, I had several discussions with poets about what we believe is a link between writing poetry and writing memoir. As a writer of both, do you experience a particular connection between these two genres? What can poetry do to convey one’s memories that memoir can’t, and vice versa?
Richard: I believe that the difference we’re talking about is the difference between verse and prose. Prose has its own poetics. Poetry happens, or doesn’t, in both verse and prose. I think to give off both heat and light, to meld thought and emotion into a moving experience for a reader, the tools of the poet are essential: vivid imagery, a feel for the sound of words, the rhythm and pace of language, and an appreciation of silence. Prose has a kind of different system of musical notation, but I want it to be a compelling voice in the reader’s ear, a voice that has enough range to sometimes whisper and other times sing.
RICHARD HOFFMAN is author, most recently, of the memoir Love & Fury, which was a finalist for the New England Book Award from the New England Independent Booksellers Association. He is also author of the celebrated Half the House: A Memoir, just reissued in a new 20th Anniversary Edition in 2015, with an introduction by Louise DeSalvo. His poetry collections are Without Paradise; Gold Star Road, winner of the 2006 Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize and the 2008 Sheila Motton Award from the New England Poetry Club; and Emblem. A fiction writer as well, his Interference & Other Stories was published in 2009. A past Chair of PEN New England, he is Senior Writer in Residence at Emerson College.