Dietrich's The Girl Factory: A Memoir is a haunting memoir about coping with mental illness, her mother's as well as her own, and growing up as a girl in a world seemingly filled with dangerous and volatile men.
What drew you to the imagery of a “girl factory?” Is it something you thought of as a young person or did it come to you while writing the book?
I actually recall the moment the image of a girl factory came to me. I’d been working on the first draft of the book for several months, and I was in bed for the night, thinking about the book. I was in that strange space between awake and asleep, just about to drift off, really—and the idea of a place where girls are made entered my mind. I felt compelled to get up at that moment and go to my computer, where I wrote (in a somewhat dreamlike state) what is now the prologue of the book. The next morning I continued working on the manuscript with that central image in mind, and that’s when I knew I was on to something. It suddenly pulled everything together. But honestly, factory imagery has been present in my writing for a long time. Even the poems I wrote as an undergraduate had glass bottles and machines and conveyor belts in them. A lot of it was subconscious, as the factory was this place constantly looming in the background of my life.
At what age did you realize your mother was mentally ill and did that realization have any effect on your own symptoms (the anxiety, the counting, etc.)?
Looking back now, I realize signs were everywhere, but I don’t recall when I truly began noticing them. In early childhood, I believed that my home life was mostly the same as everyone else's. I lived in an intensely personal interior space and my experiences often felt universal. As my mother revealed more odd behaviors and shared more details about her own past with me, I began to connect the dots, so to speak, but there was also a healthy dose of denial. I thought mental illness was a term used to describe people with multiple personalities, something sensational. It took some time for me to process the fact that mental illness wears many masks. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t “normal” for me to count things, to obsess over certain rituals, to have such overwhelming feelings of anxiety, but part of me also hoped that everyone suffered from these symptoms, they just hid them well, which is what I strived to do.
The book is remarkable in its attention to detail, you recall dates, times, and descriptions so completely. Did you refer back to journals while writing? What was the process of remembering like?
I have always been a cataloger. Being a quiet person lends itself to that—while everyone is chatting away, I’m memorizing the pattern of the linoleum beneath my feet. But I was never good at keeping a journal. I can remember at least two occasions in which I was gifted a diary. I would write a few enthusiastic entries, then abandon it. So I didn’t have journals to rely upon while writing The Girl Factory, but I did have my strangely vast memory. Not everything was crystal clear though, and the writing process was a bit of an excavation at times. I would enter the emotional space of a memory and if I lingered there long enough, I would begin to conjure a scene and remember more and more details. For me, that’s what writing memoir is – a certain kind of alchemy. It feels like magic sometimes.
Finally, what can we expect to see from you in the future?
I have the beginnings of a second memoir, but it’s still very much at the conceptual stage. In the meantime, I’m working on a novel, which is quite thrilling, because while there is certainly truth in fiction, I’m not bound to it in the same way as memoir. I can invent. That’s a different kind of magic.