Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #5: Darin Strauss

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Novelist Darin Strauss hadn’t planned on writing Half A Life, his memoir about the most painful experience of his life: inadvertently killing a girl when he was eighteen, after she suddenly – possibly suicidally – swerved her bike in front of his car. He thought he’d neatly tucked that story away in the back of his mind. Then he realized it was, in ways, actually driving his mind, heavily influencing his fiction, and maybe affecting his health.

In the book, Strauss recalls the accident and its aftermath in stark, vivid detail, turning it inside-out, upside-down and sideways in order to try and understand it. He fixates on the girl’s motivations – especially after it is revealed to him that her diary entry from that morning appeared to foretell her death. With great compassion he tries to understand her parents’ motivations when, after verbally absolving him, they change tacks and launch a million-dollar lawsuit against him.

More than anyone else, though, Strauss holds himself up to intense examination and scrutiny, revealing very human, and in some cases unflattering, reactions and defenses over the years.

Blown away by his bravery, and by the haunting beauty of his prose – and having been hit by a car myself – I was eager to talk to him about the processes of writing and healing. I interviewed Strauss at the home in Brooklyn that he shares with his wife and twin boys.

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The Rumpus: So, after writing three novels (Chang and Eng, The Real McCoy, and More Than it Hurts You) you’ve published this memoir. I’ve read that prior to this, you had always been resistant, generally, to memoir.

Darin Strauss: I think that’s been a little overstated. In some articles it’s been written that I’m anti-memoir, but that’s not true. I didn’t have any biases; I just didn’t see myself writing that kind of thing because I sort of put this experience in a box and forgot that it was part of my life. I always thought, my life is boring. I grew up on Long Island with a pretty happy family and there’s nothing really there. I must have subconsciously thought, Well I’m never going to write about the accident so the rest of my life is not interesting. Then I found out that I’d been writing about the accident all along without knowing it.

Rumpus: When did you realize you were doing that – writing unconsciously about the accident?

Strauss: Only at the end of writing this memoir, when I was coming up against the ending and trying to figure out how to wrap it up. That sounds weird to say, like navel gazing. It’s kind of embarrassing to talk about after having written fiction. Like, “I looked back at my life to try to finish my book,” but I guess that’s what you do when you write a memoir.  The story is about about a car accident I had in high school where a girl on a bicycle swerved in front of my car and I hit her and she died, and at the funeral that girl’s parents told me, “You have to live your life for two people now, so live your life really well.” And my first book was about conjoined twins and the first sentence of the book is, “This is the end I have feared since we were a child.” They’re two people in one person.  The whole book is kind of about that.  We were a child. So obviously I was thinking about that idea of living for two people without realizing it.

Rumpus: You wrote that whole book without any awareness of being influenced by what that girl’s mother said to you?

Strauss: Yeah, none at all, (laughs) which definitely seems kind of stupid now but I guess I really wasn’t ready to touch this thing. It was still too hot to pick up and look at.  Then my second book is about a guy who changes his identity and moves to New York City and lives a life as a fraud. That’s kind of I guess how I felt, because the accident happened a month or two before the end of high school, and after I graduated I moved away and didn’t tell anyone. I mean I told a few people – women I was dating or people like that. But none of my new friends knew about it. No one in grad school knew about it. And then I moved to the city and became a writer and didn’t ever tell anyone. I was lucky the accident happened before Google, so no one who wrote about the first book or wrote about me knew that this had happened. I guess I felt partly like a fraud or like an imposter, so I wrote this second novel about this guy who moves to New York City and is a fraud and an imposter.  Again, not realizing that that’s why I was interested.

Rumpus: Our minds protect us in interesting ways.

Strauss: Yes. Definitely. And then my third book is about this family on Long Island with this terrible secret, so you know, it seems so obvious now. But then, I wasn’t aware of that. I think partially I thought, I dealt with it really well, because everyone said, “You’re not to blame.”  The court, the police, five cars with eyewitnesses all said you’re not to blame, as did all my  friends and anyone I was close to. They said, you know, you walked away. You didn’t get hurt.  Actually, the police said had I swerved the car differently, I might have died. Everyone told me I was doing great about it, and so I thought, okay, I must be doing well about this. So I think I just was in denial for a long time and didn’t think that I was thinking about it. I mean, I was thinking about it consciously in some ways, and unconsciously in others. I thought about the girl who died all the time.

Rumpus: Yeah, in the book you refer many times to how, at different milestones in your life you thought, “Celine isn’t going to have this experience.”

Strauss: Although, I wasn’t talking about it to other people. Still, I was letting it influence my writing, and in ways I didn’t realize. So obviously I was dealing with it in deeper ways than I thought and struggling with it in deeper ways than I thought.

Rumpus: What made you realize that you wanted to write this book? Or was it that you needed to?

Strauss: Well, I thought I would never write about it. I just assumed I never would touch this because it was difficult for me to even talk to friends about, so why would I write a book about it? And I think a lot of the memoirs I had come across I didn’t like.  I think memoirs are great when someone’s really honest and candid and hard on him or herself, and that wasn’t a thing I wanted to do either. I thought, well, I certainly don’t want to put the kind of mental effort forth that it’s going to take to write a good book about this because it would be really painful. But then I was finishing up my third novel and didn’t know what I was going to write about next, and my wife was pregnant with our twins and I was thirty-six and started thinking about what it would be like to have kids, and started to remember what [Celine’s] parents had gone through, and I think I had a new appreciation for how hard it must have been for them. Then I realized, oh wow, I’m thirty-six; I was eighteen when the accident happened. That’s half my life.

Rumpus: Wow. Thirty-six – three-sixty, full circle.

Strauss: When I realized that, I decided I would examine it a little bit and try to start to creep up toward facing it. I hadn’t had many good experiences with therapy so I just thought, I’ll write about it and see what I think about it, because that’s how I deal with things. That’s how I learn what I think about something – by writing it down. I started writing it and I saw that the story was taking shape and I thought, I’m still not going to do this as a book, but I’ll see where it goes. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s done some stuff for This American Life and he suggested I send it to them. It was just four or five pages, and I sent what I had to them, and they said they liked it. So I thought, why not?  I’ll go on the radio, and then I’ll get it off my chest, and then I’ll be done with it. Then I did that, and there was a really good response to it. I got tons and tons of emails from people.

Rumpus: What were those people saying?

Strauss: Some of them surprised me.  I guess I assumed that if I got emails they probably would be from people who have been in car accidents like mine, and I did get some from people who’d been in these accidents – they’re called “dart-outs,” where someone darts in front of the car and that person dies and the driver is not at fault. There are about two thousand of those in the United States a year.

Rumpus: Wow. Fascinating that it’s kind of a relatively common phenomenon.

Strauss: Yeah, I know. People who survive those dart-out accidents, like me, even though they’re determined not to be at fault, they’re more likely to suffer Post Traumatic Stress than drunk drivers are. I think it’s because drunk drivers can look back and say, “Well if I only hadn’t been drinking.” But it’s hard to deal with something when you go over it a million times and you can’t figure out how you can make it turn out differently. So, I did hear from some people like that, but I also heard from a lot of people who had been just going through any kind of grief or feeling guilty about something that they were told they weren’t at fault for, but still felt guilty. I think we all have things that we feel guilty about even though we might not know why, or feel grief that is unresolved. So it was much a more universal story than I realized. A few people emailed me saying, “I know a kid who has been in an accident. Can you send me the text of thing?” I sent it to people. Then I heard from someone at GQ saying would you want to do this as an article – just basically the text of the thing, which at that point was about twelve pages. And I thought, okay, people are responding to this in a good way.

Rumpus: That’s one of the reasons I love memoir – that sense of identification, that the writer has shared and knows and understands your experience. The feeling that you’re not alone in the things that are most painful or uncomfortable or embarrassing to you, because the writer was brave enough to share about those. It feels sort of ridiculous and shameful to compare my experience to yours, because you’re writing about something much more grave and difficult. But, any time I publish a personal essay, the first feeling I have is, oh, I’m a horrible, navel-gazing narcissist who reveals too much about herself and other people, and who is going to care anyway? But then sometimes I hear from readers. I have gotten some emails and letters that for me have justified doing it. I had this great, random experience last year when I ordered some stationery from a company in Boise, Idaho. When they sent me the stationery, it came with this note Scotch taped on from one of the owners saying, like, I’ve read your work, and I relate to it, and it is so appropriate to my life. It made me feel better about putting myself out there the way I sometimes do.

Strauss: That’s great. I know what you mean. The responses I got to This American Life and the GQ article were the reason I decided to write the book. And as many emails as I got from those, I’ve gotten many more from the book. Like hundreds. I know that when I was eighteen, I would have loved to have read something like this. I would have liked to have learned all that I have in the past twenty or so years, but not the hard way.

Rumpus: It must feel really good to know the book has helped people.

Strauss: Definitely. One of the things I wanted to do with the story is talk about how inappropriately we all act in sad or stressful situations. In the book I talked about how right as the accident happened these cute girls came over and I started flirting with them, because I was in shock. Looking back I always felt so terrible about that, but I realize now it’s kind of a universal thing. People are in shock. People have inappropriate thoughts all the time.  I had heard from many people who have said they laughed at funerals, and things like that.

Rumpus: Oh, yeah. That kind of thing has happened to me. In my mid-twenties, I was in this severe depression. But every therapy session, I would go in and the first thing I’d do was start laughing uncontrollably. I would crack up – like side-splitting laughter – and I had no idea why. I mean, I was in so much pain. It made no sense that I was laughing, but I guess it actually did.

Strauss: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of stuff like that. I recently heard a story about a thirteen-year-old girl who couldn’t stop laughing at her father’s funeral. So I thought, well if I’d had a book about this when I was going through it, it would have really helped me to know it was okay to have these inappropriate reactions, and to see that you do move on in your life. It becomes part of who you are, but it doesn’t have to ruin you.

Rumpus: So, here you were thinking that you’d just get your story out and that would be the end of it, but now it’s really taken on a life of its own, with all these reader reactions. Is that more than you bargained for? Is it hard?

Strauss: It’s okay. I’ve kept a file of all the letters and emails I’ve gotten. I’ve thought about doing a book of them, if I could get permission from the people who sent them. There are so many interesting stories. Although some are very difficult. Because I have put myself out there in that way, people feel they can tell me these very intimate things about themselves, and sometimes it’s hard. But sometimes it’s okay.

There’s this one woman who is coming to my office soon to play me the tape she made about her son dying. In the book I quote a New York Times article about Complicated Grief Disorder. One of the therapies recommended is making a tape and then playing it every day for six weeks. This woman who is quoted in the article, whose son committed suicide, read my book and saw herself in it. She said, “It would really mean a lot to me if I could share the tape with you,” so I’m going to hear it. It might be a little overwhelming.

Rumpus: Clearly the book has been well received by readers. Were you worried about how the people you mention in the book would receive it?

Strauss: Sure, I was worried, although not so much people in my life because I felt like my parents come off pretty well and my wife comes off pretty well.

Rumpus: What about the women you dated who were mentioned in there? Were you at all concerned about them?

Strauss: No, because I didn’t name them, and one woman I dated emailed me to say, “Was that me in the book?” But it wasn’t. The only people I was really worried about were the girl’s parents.

Rumpus: That makes perfect sense. Did you change their names?

Strauss: Yes. I changed their names. But I was still anxious. What happened years ago was they told me I had to live for two people and that they never would blame me. They knew it wasn’t my fault, which was a huge comfort for me because I thought, okay, at least they know that. And then they turned around and sued me for millions of dollars. That was really painful in so many ways. I thought, I could be broke. I had my dad’s crappy insurance, and if the case had gone really badly I could have owed money on top of what the insurance covered. I thought they could garnish my salary forever.  But even more than that, it was that these people who said they didn’t blame me then were trying to ruin my life. I mean, I guess they would say they weren’t trying to ruin my life, they were just trying to get money out of the insurance company. Eventually the case went away, because there was really no case.

Rumpus: But you had to suffer through five years of that, right?

Strauss: Yeah that was over my head for five years. So I didn’t talk to them at all.  But then when the book was coming out, I knew that Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, was going to do something on it, and they live in Long Island, so I decided I should write them and warn them. It’s interesting because I thought, okay, I’m in a really good place about this accident. It’s been twenty years now. I wrote the book. I felt like I learned a lot about myself writing the book, and about how I feel. But the act of Google-ing them was difficult. Finding their address, writing them a letter and sticking it in the mailbox were harder than writing the book.

Rumpus: Have they responded?

Strauss: No, I haven’t heard from them. I did that like a month before the book came out, and so it’s been now probably two or three months. I don’t expect to hear from them, but I just wanted to warn them. I felt like whatever happened between us, I didn’t blame them because they were really vulnerable.  I think some scumbag lawyer took advantage of a vulnerable set of parents, and so I didn’t blame them. And I think whatever happened, they’re not the ones deciding to tell the story, I am, so I should warn them. I felt like since it happened to me I had a right to tell my story. I wasn’t at fault. This thing happened to me so I felt like I have the right to tell my own story, but I should warn those people.

Rumpus: Yeah, I know some writers think that you should generally warn the people in your memoir before it comes out. A writer I know gave some of the people he wrote about in his memoir a chance to read it before it came out, although he was not inviting them to make any changes, or give or withhold their approval. He was just giving them fair warning.

Strauss: That’s a good thing to do. I actually considered sending them the book but then I thought it would be really painful for them to read. I didn’t want to rub their noses in it. I told them it was coming out, and if they choose to go read it, they can. But I actually told them so they can avoid it, so that they won’t come across it in a book store and be surprised. In the book, I was careful to be respectful to the girl who died, so I didn’t think I wrote anything that would make them angry. I just thought it’s a painful part of their lives they probably don’t want to relive, so sending them the book would be sort of an aggressive gesture.

Rumpus: Were you at all concerned that they might not like the portrayal of them? I mean, I think it’s a very honest and compassionate portrayal, but it’s also very stark and real. There’s this once scene where you stop by their house, and you italicize the word “apologize” – the girl’s father tells his house guests that you’re there to apologize and there’s something about that characterization and certain other descriptions that I could see not finding flattering if you were the person being written about.

Strauss: Well I was concerned that I’d be honest and respectful, and so I thought I had to really try and understand what they were going through and why they would have sued me when they said it wasn’t my fault. I think I did that, but I also thought my main responsibility was not to them but to the story – to be honest about what happened.

Rumpus: That’s brave – and a huge challenge for me, and I think many writers. I think you come to writing if you are naturally an observer, but your observations are not always going to be kind.

Strauss: They’d better not be, or it’s not going to be an interesting story.

Rumpus: Some people think that writing fiction instead is a way around that, but I think most people will recognize themselves, and in fiction you can extrapolate and make people worse. I don’t know – do you think fiction is a kinder medium?

Strauss: I don’t think a fiction writer is ever going to think of doing it out of kindness. I think they think I’ll make the story better – I’ll change a couple of names, change some facts, smudge the factual truth a little bit to get at the real truth, and sometimes make the person worse to make the story better. I think it’s rare that a writer says, this is too mean so I’ll just tell it as a novel. Because if you go with that mindset it’s not going to be a good novel. You have to plum just as deeply in fiction as you do in nonfiction or else it’s just not going to be good.  That’s the thing about writing – you have to be completely honest. People have to recognize something universally true or else they’re going to think they’re reading something that’s, like, a daydream.

Rumpus: I find that to be one of the scariest aspects of writing. I want to be true to the story but I’m also so concerned about being liked and loved. I fall into this dilemma, and then I get blocked. Either I don’t write, or I feel inclined to ameliorate.

Strauss: See I couldn’t do that. Also, honestly, I’m not so hard on the other people as I am on myself. I thought the only justification for me for writing the story was if I was harder on myself than I was on anyone else in the story.  Because I thought there is no reason for this to be out there if I’m not showing the times when I felt inappropriate things or acted inappropriately and calling myself on it and not worrying so much if I’m loved. I could have written this book as sort of an advertisement for myself as a piece of propaganda, like, Wasn’t it sad that this happened to me? But look how well I acted. That’s not for me. It would have been inappropriate – another inappropriate thing on top of all the other ones. I think that’s where my fiction training came in, because I looked at my eighteen year old self as a character I’d write about with flaws, and being compassionate to that character but also completely honest about that character’s flaws and about that characters ignorance about himself and about what was happening. I think people ended up liking me more because no one can believe the scrubbed clean version of someone who only acts perfectly all the time. That’s a way to lose the reader. The weird byproduct of being mean to yourself is that I think people want to be nice to that character. So if I’m saying, look how inappropriately I was acting, a lot people have written to me saying, you’re too hard on yourself. The first editor of the book wanted me to cut out that stuff. Like, he said, you’re being too hard on yourself, you should cut out that moment where you flirt with the girls right after the accident because people are going to come after you and say you were insensitive.  I thought, well if I cut that, then there is no reason to have a book, because I have to be hard on myself,  or it’s just then therapy for myself. I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to be…

Rumpus: Self-indulgent?

Strauss: Yeah.

Rumpus: You also write that you are concerned about providing a flattering image of “Celine,” at least at her funeral.

Strauss: Well, not exactly. I wanted the book to be flattering, but I wanted it to be honest. I wanted to be as kind to her as I could be while still remaining honest. What got me was that articles in the newspaper about her when she died seemed to flatten her out into some type, and it was offensive to me because it seemed like they were saying it’s sadder that she died at sixteen if she was popular and beautiful – the most popular and beautiful girl in the school.  That was the narrative they wrote describing her: She’s the perfect student, the perfect person. And I thought, that’s really offensive, because she wasn’t the most popular person in school. She probably was more interesting than that, and even if she was the least liked person in the school, it’s still a tragedy for a sixteen-year-old to die. I wanted to avoid that kind of valorization of the dead, where suddenly they were the greatest person that ever lived.

Rumpus: This beatific image.

Strauss: Yeah, exactly, beatific. She was well liked and pretty, but she wasn’t the prom queen, and it was disrespectful, I think, to pretend she was because that, because that’s mourning someone who didn’t exist.

I feel good about the way I portrayed her. I’ve actually heard from a lot of her friends, and they liked it.  I heard from her biking companion that day – the guy who was with her when she swerved in front of my car. He said he never knew why she did it.  He knew it wasn’t my fault. I wouldn’t have expected him to like the book, and he said he read it in one sitting and it really moved him, because it put to words certain things he had been thinking but didn’t articulate. Other people who went to school with her contacted me and said they thought I was really respectful, so that was nice, because it was a worry of mine too. I had people who were friends with her saying that this is a great way to remember her. It was very rewarding.

Rumpus: Wow. That must be so incredibly validating.

Strauss: Yeah. So I felt like if I did it right. Maybe I’ve done a good turn for her.

Rumpus: Yeah, I would say. I think you’ve done as much right for her as you could possibly do. You’ve taken so much responsibility. You know, I was hit by a car a couple of years ago, and the guy drove off.

Strauss: Wow. Where?

Rumpus: In Soho, at the intersection of Thompson and Spring. I had the light and he had the light. He was making a left turn, which is apparently the most common situation in which a pedestrian gets hit.

Strauss: I know the corner. I used to live on Spring Street.

Rumpus: Yeah, so he was in this big Chevy Suburban and he came out of nowhere and barreled me down.

Strauss: And then he drove off?

Rumpus: Yeah. After he yelled at me.

Strauss: What an asshole! Did the police ever get him?

Rumpus: No. They totally dropped the ball.

Strauss: God –  who would yell at someone they hit with their car? Who could yell at someone at that moment?

Rumpus: You know, I’ve had a lot of different feelings about it in the two years since it happened. I had to have surgery on my shoulder and pain in my hip, and I still have nightmares about being under his car. And people always ask me why I didn’t keep on the cops about going after him, since bystanders got his license plate number and everything. But I think what I came to is one of the things we’ve been talking about, which is that, maybe he was in shock.

Strauss: Yeah, I’m sure he was.

Rumpus: I don’t know that he’s a horrible person. I think that in that moment he was a horrible person, and he behaved really badly. Maybe some people, when they go into shock, become assholes. I mean, I behaved strangely, too, that day. One minute I absolutely couldn’t talk,  couldn’t say a word, the next I was crying hysterically, the next I was fine. Then I was crying hysterically again, and around and around. I walked out of the ambulance as if nothing happened, after they examined me, even though I was badly bruised and the medic was like, you’re in shock lady – you could have a concussion, and you should probably go to the emergency room.

Strauss: You could have had a head injury.

Rumpus: Fortunately, I didn’t. I am very lucky.

Strauss: Maybe because of what happened with me I’m overly sensitive about a lot of this. Because I didn’t drive away, when I hear someone doing that, it makes me angry. I stopped. I went to her parents house. When people say, oh what happened to you is like what happened to Laura Bush, I kind of take offense. Which, you know, people don’t mean anything offensive by it. But I’m like, well she was a hit-and-run driver and I wasn’t. I would never do that.

Rumpus: Right, you took responsibility. You more than took more than responsibility, in life, and in the book. So, was it healing to have written it?

Strauss: You know, that’s the weird thing about this. People often ask, was it healing, or do you feel better now? In a way that makes memoir so much different from fiction. Now, an interview is like a therapy session. No one gives a shit how a novelist is doing. Now I have to talk about how I’m feeling.

Rumpus: Oh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. Sorry.

Strauss: No, I’m not saying it’s bad.  It’s just a really strange transition. It’s weird having sort of public therapy sessions. But yeah, it’s been healing. It definitely has made it easier to deal with. I stumbled upon two great therapies in the process of writing this. For Complicated Grief Disorder, there’s taping your story and playing it for yourself every night for six weeks.

Rumpus: It’s funny – I used to kind of do that as a little girl.

Strauss: Really? You did?

Rumpus: Yeah, my parents had gotten divorced, and I was having a really hard time and didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to, and so I used to whisper my gripes and my sadness into this blue plastic Panasonic tape recorder I had, and then I’d listen to it. Unfortunately, it was at the same time that I was practicing for my bat mitzvah, and I taped over the recording of my torah portion and stuff that my father had recorded for me. He had to re-record it. And my secret was out.

Strauss: Did he ever listen to what you said on it?

Rumpus: I have no idea. But it was interesting reading what you wrote about the treatment for Complicated Grief Disorder, because I was instinctually doing something like that.

Strauss: Wow. I also learned that in AA, people tell their stories aloud, and it helps them and the people around them. Talking in public about something that you’re embarrassed about makes you less embarrassed about it and makes you realize that other people are feeling it too. So, I happen to get up and talk and do readings and then have people come up to me afterward, crying, saying my telling my story has made it easier for them. And talking about it again and again has actually made it easier for me. But I’ve had really weird experiences with this book.  Two interviewers have started crying to me while they’ve interviewed me.

Rumpus: Really?

Strauss: Yeah. One I don’t know why – I felt uncomfortable asking. The other, a reporter for a newspaper, told me that when he was seven, he got into a fight with his best friend and the friend stormed out of the house and ran into the street and died, and he’s never talked about it with anybody.

Rumpus: Oh my god.

Strauss: He was like forty five and starting to deal with it, and found the book really moving and helpful. So, that’s another interesting difference between novels and memoirs: If someone interviews you and they say they like your novel, they usually don’t start crying.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →