This may be Jeanne McCulloch’s first time at BookExpo as an author, but she’s been a familiar presence since her days as managing editor of the Paris Review, senior editor of Tin House magazine, and founding editorial director of Tin House Books. All Happy Families (Harper Wave, Aug.), a family memoir spanning 20 years, begins in East Hampton, N.Y., in the summer of 1983 as final preparations are being made for McCulloch’s wedding. But those carefully laid plans are torn apart when her father suffers a massive stroke from alcohol withdrawal. Although he’s in a coma at the local hospital, McCulloch’s mother decrees the wedding must go on as planned. That weekend—and the decisions that were made—would have major repercussions in the lives of McCulloch, her family, and her in-laws.
McCulloch knew there were some inherent dangers in a memoir that could “stink of white privilege. I knew it would be all too easy for people to make that judgment. But family dysfunction is family dysfunction.” McCulloch continues: “It’s an equal opportunity condition. I believe there are universal themes—alcoholism, motherhood, strong women and how they deal with men who on some level always let them down—and truths that apply no matter what the setting.”
After signing a contract for the book in 2007, she readily admits to “dithering for a long time trying to figure out how to tackle it.” When it did come time to finally begin pulling the manuscript together, she fell back on a habit from her days at the Paris Review. “We’d take Xerox copies of pieces, lay them out on the pool table in George Plimpton’s townhouse, and start cutting and pasting them back together. So, in the ancient ways of my people”—McCulloch laughs—“I’d lay everything out on the rug in my office and crawl around on my hands and knees with scissors and Scotch tape. If I had to do it all on the computer and couldn’t see it on pages in front of me, it would read as less ‘worked’ and more flat. The mess, the physicality, connects the brain and the hand—and the story truly only then begins to take shape for me.”