- Are you going to write more memoirs?
I am 2/3 finished with a new book, a hybrid novel—combination existential mystery, imaginary portraits, and autobiography, called “Soda Lake.” The Alaska Quarterly just agreed to publish an excerpt (Chapter 2) “The Garage Room.” I think, though, by “more memoirs” you mean a follow-up to Kaufman’s Hill. I would love to do that, and have even planned it somewhat. Kaufman’s Hill ends in 1968 with the boy-narrator 14 years-old and beginning High School. I might pick up a year later (age 15) and cover until he is 25 or 30. But for such a book to work, it has to be more than just “life story.” I believe one of the reasons Kaufman’s Hill works is that it captures that in-between time after the 1950s and before 1968, a twilight time, and every chapter has a key scene at twilight. I would need some kind of hook for a second memoir, but I’m not sure yet what that would be.
- Did you ever meet Katy Casady (the Catholic School girl in chapter seven) again?
That is very uncanny on your part. Thirty-five years later, I was attending a wedding in Denver. Ironically, it was the wedding of a son of the family that used to live across the street from me when I was a boy. At the reception, I just happened to be reading over the program and recognized the name of the woman who did the flower arrangements–Katy Casady. (This is her name in the book, not her real name.) The chance was one in many thousands that it would be the same Katy Casady that I last saw when I kissed her by the creek in 1966 when I was twelve, promising her I would drive to see her in Columbus, Ohio when I turned 16. Yet the same Katy Casady had ended up in Denver. And she still had the same pixie haircut and round face. Many other things about her seemed quite different.
- What advice would you give to someone being bullied?
I never intended Kaufman’s Hill as a book dealing with bullying. In fact, when I started writing it in the mid-1990s, that term was hardly used much. And although the first few chapters of Kaufman’s Hill deal with bullying scenes, this doesn’t necessarily give me any expertise on the issue. However, I expect that there is a lot more bullying today because of social media. And people are talking about it more and reporting it more. In the time frame of Kaufman’s Hill, bullying was rarely mentioned or talked about, not to friends or family or teachers or parents or priests. Things like that were kept inside; this is one of the key themes in the book. And you had to find a way around or through it on your own.
- Did you find writing this memoir cathartic?
Yes, but it started more aesthetically, trying to capture lost impressions that I knew were key to those distant times and years. Soon, though, it became about trying to remember the truth, and that’s where the catharsis comes in… remembering without any dissembling. Contemplating the weaving and unweaving of the self. And then to try to see the past as part of a larger thematic story, while trying to be aware of the paramnesia—a Greek word I have always loved. It means the mixing of fact and fancy in the memory.
- What was your motivation for undertaking this project?
I had been writing fiction for years, but with storylines that I made up. Then, on a whim, I wrote a story about when I was seven, a “true” story, and called it “Rat Stick at Twilight.” My writing group thought it was the best “fiction” I had written (I hadn’t told them it was memoir). One person said it offered a perspective on childhood he hadn’t seen before. That story became Chapter One, and I was on my way to writing Kaufman’s Hill.
- What became of Taddy Keegan?
After I had finished the first few chapters, a friend of mine read it and said, “Taddy Keegan seems like the kind of person for whom things don’t end well.” How prophetic, I thought. (By the way, Taddy Keegan is not his real name; all the characters in the book have fictitious names.) I don’t know where Taddy is now, or if he is alive or not. After high school, I didn’t see him for years, until I was visiting Pittsburgh one time in my late twenties, and was at a bar and someone told me “Taddy Keegan is here!” I found him and we talked for a while, but I couldn’t understand any of his words. He moved his mouth like it was filled with marbles. I thought he might have acquired some kind of speech impediment, or maybe it was a reaction to some kind of drug he had taken. Later on, I remembered how, as a boy (and this is in the book) Taddy used to put on strange ways of talking just to mess with people. Maybe he was still doing that years later, messing with me. Some time after that, I heard he had a nursery business and was living in Virginia. But for some reason, that story felt apocryphal to me.
- Does being so in touch with your childhood help you to be a father?
My father was always so removed and never talked to me. So I have worked on being a strong presence in my daughter’s life. But writing a book about childhood carries with it the danger of thinking too much about the past, and repeating too many stories that can cast a shadow on the present.
- Why did you feel that you had to write this now?
I started the book in the mid-1990s. Then I stopped to work on a book about intellectual history (Paranoia and Contentment). When I went back to Kaufman’s Hill in 2004, it was after my mother had just died (my father had died in 1975). I felt strangely liberated and driven to reveal things more deeply, especially about my father and his world, and to focus on how the old days shape our present and future selves in ways we may not readily want to admit.
- How long did this take you to write?
Overall about seven years. And then there was revision.
- What made you want to be a writer?
It started in college, being exposed to so many great writers. I remember being especially fascinated by writing styles―how each writer finds a way to take command of language in an original and startling way. Eventually, I realized how all good writing is about the rhythms, whether it is poetry or fiction or drama or nonfiction. And if you want to achieve strong rhythms, you have to read your writing out loud.
- What helped you to remember the past so clearly? Journals?
I’ve kept journals, on and off, since my college days. But for ages 7 to 14, I had to rely on images. My siblings marvel at how I can remember so much about the old days. And I tell them it is not so much about remembering a narrative of events, as much as letting the indelible images resurface. So many of them are as fresh in my mind as they were 50 years ago. I don’t know why that is, or even if it is a good thing, but I suspect it is.
- Have you resolved your questions about religion?
I think if people “resolve” their questions about religion, then their religion owns them instead of them owning their religion. Faith, by definition, brings with it a constant sense of doubt.
Otherwise, it isn’t faith, but rather dogma. I would say that my decision to include so many issues of Catholicism, especially in the second half of the book, deepened my cultural understanding of religion and the role it plays shaping our evolving identities, whether we move towards religion or away from it.
- Do you think that schools today are properly addressing bullying problems?
I think it is gradually getting better. But I still think schools are often reluctant to take action until serious damage has been done. I would like to see school administrators and teachers talking to the parents of bullying children when those children are in first and second and third grades. By sixth grade, it is often too late.
- Are you still in touch with people you mention in this book, other than family?
Yes. Several of them know they are in the book, but they haven’t seen it yet. Maybe that is why they have given me their blessing. However, there are people in the book I am no longer in touch with, and they are probably going to be unhappy when they see themselves portrayed, even though their names have been changed. I didn’t worry too much about that when I was writing the book. But once you know the book is getting published, the anxiety about that does increase.
- Did you send your children to Catholic school?
My daughter just started going to a Catholic high school. I am a believer in public education. However, she is going to a terrific school of her own choosing, and we are pleased about that.
- Why did you name this Kaufman’s Hill?
I had some other names early on, but was uncomfortable with all of them. Then during the revision process, I realized how central Kaufman’s Hill was to the book. It came to symbolize for me an idyllic world vanishing right into the twilight, yet somehow is always there.
I think Kaufman’s Hill was the title all along, I just didn’t know it.
- What is your writing process?
I like to write from mid morning to early afternoon, never worrying about punctuation and spelling, because I’m trying to catch up with my fingers to what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye.
The resulting pages may look like gibberish, but after that, it’s all about the process of revision. Sometimes I revise late at night, and oftentimes reading out loud. And I revise the same few pages over and over again… until I like the rhythms and lyrical quality of every line, until it seems there is something special on every page. And then I move on…
- What part of writing the book was most challenging?
I had to make a decision, early on, whether to write from the perspective of the boy, or from an older man looking back, or from both. My instinct told me to write from the perspective of the boy because that would create a greater intensity, a greater truth and sense of presence. But the problem is you are then limited to the vocabulary of a boy, which created an aesthetic problem. So my literary struggle was to maintain the boy’s voice, but keep the writing lyrical and fresh. I found I could do it, but it was slow going.