When I begin to say out loud that I am going to write about my mother, to tell the story of those years I’ve tried to forget,” Natasha Trethewey writes in her upcoming memoir, Memorial Drive, due out from Ecco on July 28, “I have more dreams about her in a span of weeks than in all the years she’s been gone.”
Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, was murdered by her abusive second husband in 1985. Memorial Drive is, Trethewey says, “a tribute to her. It’s about the impact her life and death had on me. I’m the person I am today because of her.”
Trethewey’s father was a white Canadian and her mother was African-American, and the two met and fell in love as college students in Kentucky. When they eloped in 1965 they traveled to Cincinnati to marry. At the time, interracial marriages were illegal in Kentucky as well as in Mississippi, where the couple went to live, in the close-knit community of North Gulfport, which had been a settlement of former slaves and was where Trethewey’s mother grew up. Trethewey was born in 1966 in the segregated ward of Gulfport Memorial Hospital.
She writes of placing her parents’ hands side by side, “asking why they weren’t the same color, why I didn’t match either of them exactly. What was I? ‘You have the best of both worlds,’ they told me, not for the first time.”
Trethewey’s parents divorced when she was in first grade, and she and her mother moved to Atlanta in 1972. A year later, her mother remarried, and the period Trethewey wanted to forget, 1973–1985, began.
Telling the story of her mother became important for Trethewey after she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007, for Native Guard, and then became U.S. poet laureate in 2012. “I was written about a lot,” she says, “and people who knew the backstory would mention my mother as a footnote, ‘the murdered woman.’ I felt that if she was part of my story then I was going to tell it.”
Trethewey adds that her father, Eric “Rick” Trethewey, was a poet, “and there was this idea that I was a poet through him, the patriarchal bloodline. But the truth is that my mother is part of my being a poet. Dealing with what happened in my life has made me a poet.”
Trethewey’s agent, Rob McQuilkin, of Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents, came to her through poetry. His father, poet Rennie McQuilkin, started the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival in Farmington, Conn., and was always looking for talented young poets. “Natasha read at Sunken Garden in 1998 and my father was blown away,” McQuilkin says. “When I became an agent in 2000, he suggested I get in touch with her. We had lunch and I remember her vividly: her heart and talent radiated—and her pain.”
After meeting Trethewey, McQuilkin says it was obvious to him that her story was important to tell, for her and for others. They talked about Memorial Drive back in 2000; it wasn’t sold until 2012. “Natasha began a secondary prose life after the Pulitzer, publishing Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2010, a collection of poetry, essays, and letters,” he says. “Six publishers wanted the book, but we went with University of Georgia Press, which did a beautiful job.”
When Trethewey became poet laureate, McQuilkin submitted a five-page letter of interest for the memoir, which resulted in a 10-bidder auction. “Natasha was known and clearly had something to say, and everyone was passionate”, he recalls. Ultimately, Ecco publisher and poet Dan Halpern won North American rights for, as McQuilkin puts it, “the middle number between zero and a million.”
The manuscript was delivered in fall 2019. “The whole book is a tribute to patience,” McQuilkin says. “It needed a Dan in a corporate world.”
Trethewey concurs. ”Dan bought the book when it was just an idea,” she says. “He said to me that it’s going to be hard and take a long time. He protected me. He wanted me to take my time.” The hardest part, she tells me, was how to frame the story—how to figure out the story she wanted to tell.
When I talk with Trethewey, I can hear in her voice how strong her feelings are for her mother, who died almost 36 years ago, and how difficult it has been for her to deal with the tragedy of her murder.
Halpern understands. “The book was a painful journey for Natasha, an emotional roller coaster,” he says. “When you write a memoir, you relive it moment by moment. You put stuff away and then take it all out, and there it is in front of you.”
McQuilkin adds, “We think of poets as harking to the muse, but Natasha also harkens to the historical record.”
Trethewey was always interested in journalistic evidence but waited 25 years before she forced herself to read the 12-page document her mother had written by hand on a yellow legal pad about her abusive marriage. “I had to write Memorial Drive to restore my mother to her rightful place,” she says.
This story doesn’t end so easily. Trethewey’s mother’s murderer and former husband was released on parole early last year. “I think he would still be in prison if he had murdered a stranger,” she says, adding that “he was always difficult for me, from the first time I met him. The radar children have...”
For Halpern, the book is a victory. “Natasha is able to pull away from deep sorrow but hold onto the mother-daughter relationship,” he says. “The book is so beautiful and positive—the nature of love surviving through memory.”
Memorial Drive is Ecco’s lead summer/fall title and marketing plans are extensive, with radio, print, TV, and online campaigns, and—hopefully—a 10-city tour. Bloomsbury will publish simultaneously in the U.K.
“Other people were interested in Memorial Drive,” Trethewey says, “but somehow I felt that Dan loved my mother from the moment he heard me talk about her. How do you love a person you hardly know?”
“I love Natasha,” Halpern says, and quotes a cardinal he once met at the Vatican who told him, “God loves all his children, but he loves some more than others.”