PW: What's it like to make the transition from fiction to memoir [Truth & Beauty]?
It's funny, because I swore I'd never write a memoir. I give talks about my belief in fiction and the importance of the imagination, and I always say that one thing about my novels is that there's none of me in my books. I'm in there somewhere, of course, but in a very Madame Defarge kind of way. I'm not a character in my books and I like that. I'm often grouchy about the fact that I feel memoir springs out of people writing such autobiographical fiction that they finally throw up their hands and say, "That's it, I might as well make the leap."
Do you think memoir is an inferior genre to fiction?
Not at all, and I don't think it's a poor form of writing. I just think that with most memoirs, the books become tragedy's greatest hits. I remember when Lucy and I were teaching in a summer program, I taught fiction and she taught creative nonfiction, and her students were so much worse than mine. They had all experienced a tragedy and wanted to write about it. One woman found out at age 30 that she was adopted, and wanted to write a book just so she could sell it. It was as if everyone in that class was coming to writing from more of a therapeutic and monetary angle. And that's fine, but it's not what I wanted to do, so I vowed never to write a memoir. But by God, that's what I did.
Given your feelings about memoirs, why did you decide to embark on one?
I had written a piece for New York magazine three weeks after Lucy died, which my father had pushed me to do. I was so sad, and he knew it would help to write about her. When writing the article, I thought of so many more things I wanted to put in. When I look back now, I think it really was a way to sit shiva for a year, to stay on her grave and be unwilling to get up and go on with my life. In going over the good times we had together, because things ended on a very bad note, I think it really gave me all the time I needed to feel terrible and to celebrate her. I feel it would be melodramatic to say the book saved my life, but it certainly put me in a better place.
Why did you decide to write the book so soon after Lucy's death?
I can imagine picking up this book in 20 years and having it be like a picture of Lucy. It's like a leaf in a book—I've saved her. And that's why it was important for me to write this, and do it right after she died, because I knew that if I waited, I would remember her too fondly. I wouldn't be able to admit to the bad things that had happened. But the bad things were part of why I loved her so much, so it wouldn't have been fair to leave them out.
The book shows how complicated friendship can become, especially if one person displays self-destructive tendencies. If Lucy had lived, how do you think your friendship would have been?
I believe we would have stuck it out. However long she lived, I would have been there and we would have kept on going. When I got to the end of the book, I was able to look at her life as a package, and I was able to see more than how things were right before she died. I was so frustrated with her at the end, and I wanted her to try harder. Yet, when I looked at her whole life, I saw that she brought love into peoples' lives. Granted, she also brought challenges, but on the whole, it was a really hard hand that she got dealt and she turned it into a very valuable life.