The Rumpus Book Club chats with Deni Béchard about his book Cures for Hunger, the complexities of memoir and fiction, and the difference between traditional French and Quebecois.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
Editor’s Note: Because we experienced software issues during the chat, we gave Béchard the chance to answer some questions that he couldn’t see during the actual chat. These additions are in italics. This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Was writing this book significantly different from the other writing you’ve done?
Deni Bechard: Yes. Very different. I never wanted to write a memoir, and when I finally decided that this subject matter was meant to be a memoir, I realized that I would be working with a slightly different set of tools.
Kristy E: Why didn’t you want to write a memoir?
Brian S: So did you start by thinking you would just write a novel and this grew out of it?
Deni Bechard: I loved novels, and I had always planned on writing only novels. So when I started writing this book, I intended it to be fiction, and I allowed myself certain freedoms in terms of style, etc. But after about twelve years of coming back to the manuscript, I realized that I needed to write it as a memoir–that I was caught between fiction and memoir, and it wasn’t serving the book well.
Betsy: It’s a little weird to talk about your mom and dad as though they are simply characters in a book, but they are such Characters. For some reason, I cut your mother a lot of slack as I read. She is doing her best, or isn’t, and my heart went out to her even when I sometimes thought What Are You Doing? Nooooo! Have you been getting those reactions to your parents from readers? Reading your parents as fictional? I was engrossed from start to finish.
Deni Bechard: Yes, I have been getting those responses, more from women than from men. Women have generally been the readers who voice their feelings about my parents’ choices and how they both tried to understand them but were horrified to see what they were up to.
Kristy E: How much rewriting did you have to do on account of the shift to memoir?
Brian S: I was going to ask how long it took to write–12 years? That’s a project.
Deni Bechard: I rewrote the vast majority of the material, but even as I reworked it, I realized that I could go much deeper into the scenes, and I threw away even the first drafts of it as a memoir. Less than a fifth of the material dates to before Dec 2009.
Kristy E: The back and forth was really hard to read. My heart just went out to him being caught in between being who he was and who his dad wanted him to be and who he thought he might be.
Brian S: I found myself also wanting to read the father in his own words, which is impossible obviously. But get another point of view. So where were we?
Kristy E: Yes, a child’s understanding of a parent can be limited.
Brian S: Even looking back as an adult, it’s tough. I think I find memoir as a genre fascinating because it shows the difference between fact and truth so vividly.
Deni Bechard: I agree with this. Writing the memoir, I was very conscious of how everyone involved was constructing their identities, trying to tell their own stories within the context of the book. It made me realize that even while I was trying to record my memories truthfully, those memories contained stories that were certainly often somewhat fictionalized. My father presented his past in such a way as to achieve his immediately goals, and I spent a lot of time both while growing up and while writing the book trying to figure out what was true in his words.
Deni Bechard: What I was going to say earlier about the transition between fiction and memoir also addresses this. By the way, most of my comments aren’t going through. A little worrisome. I think that my computer is having a problem with this.
Kristy E: I was just commenting that it must be difficult to write a memoir about a relationship with a parent, when that parent limits what you know about him.
Deni Bechard: That’s exactly what I struggled with. The knowledge that my father decided to share with me influenced how I perceived him and whether I respected him. It wasn’t in his interest to have me know too much. But the memoir was very much about that search, about trying to unravel my father, trying to figure out what had created him, where he’d come from, what his motivations were.
Brian S: I have this sense that you can only ever really describe your relationship from your own point of view, because you can never really know what’s happening in another person’s head.
Deni Bechard: That’s true. And in a sense, I realized that my portrayal of my father would ultimately be a self-portrait.
Deni Bechard: As I wrote the memoir, I had clear sense of wanting to unravel my father, much in the way that Faulkner would unravel his characters, and to open him up to history and in a sense forgive him. This was much easier to do with fictional tools–or at least it seemed that way. So when I rewrote it with memoir, I found that the process was much more subtle, from showing my perception of him when I was a child to my growing understanding of who else he might have been as I got older.
The other literary influence who was very present in my mind as I wrote, and whom I should mention, was Tolstoy. I have always loved how he transformed characters gradually over time, and I wanted both to unravel my father as Faulkner had done with his characters and to transform both my father and myself slowly over time. As I searched to understand what was in my father’s head and to know who he was, I increasingly tried to live aspects of his life and changed who I was, getting to know him by becoming like him.
R. Rafferty: So Betsy brought up an interesting point about your mother in the story, I know the relationship with your father was much more the focus, but I felt there was a lot to read between the lines about your relationship with your mother. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to not keep that part of your life more veiled?
Deni Bechard: I didn’t intend to keep that part of my life veiled. My mother wasn’t very present during my late teens. However, her influence remained very strong, and the writing that she brought into my life in many ways continues her narrative.
What I mean by that is that she valued writing very strongly when I was a child, and I came to indentify myself as a writer at a very young age. The memoir in many ways explores how writing saved and transformed me, and her voice and values often come through my choice to pursue writing.
Brian S: Were there ever times when you were writing this that you started to question your memory? That’s always an issue with memoir, after all, especially when you start off writing a novel. Especially with the ongoing argument over the issue of truth versus fact in memoir and nonfiction.
R. Rafferty: Awesome question Brian, you beat me to it. I kept thinking to myself, especially early on, how can he remember so much about his early childhood and teenage years…and in such great detail!
Deni Bechard: Whereas earlier on my mother is speaking to me and encouraging me to live a certain way, later in the story, it is the writing that is driving me to live a different life.
Betsy: Okay, well then. On to my favorite paragraphs and line in the story. The most poignant, telling part of the story that gave me the most insight into your father is on pages 256-257, where your dad has been told he can’t go live with his uncle and become educated because he was needed at home to work. He is given the silver chain that he ties to a wood chip and eventually loses in the barn. I love that section. And my favorite line/quote is where he says, “That’s how pathetic that life was,” he explained. “That something like that could matter.” I had to pause there and just be silent for a while. it summed it up. Really beautiful. I loved this book – one of the best books we’ve read, I think.
Deni Bechard: This comment didn’t come through in the online chat because of the technical difficulties. I just want to say thank you, Betsy. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.
David B: If this question connects Deni, I wondered if you felt you resolved some issues with your father in those last days before he died. In your book you didn’t mention that you loved him.
Deni Bechard: I definitely did resolve some questions that I had regarding him over the seventeen years of writing the book. In a sense, I made him human and found him in myself.
R. Rafferty: I see, I understand its obviously your life to tell us but I found myself wondering about your mother and how she influenced your life in those early years, as well as your siblings.
Deni Bechard: She had a very strong influence actually, and though she doesn’t occupy a large part of the book, she is quite present in the beginning. Her vision of my future very much influenced how I chose to live my life, and she was a master of making small comments that stuck with me and often caused me to make good decisions at crucial moments.
Deni Bechard: I often questioned my memory and worried about this a great deal. It is very difficult to know how our memories change with time. But what startled me is that I realized that many of my memories seemed to be becoming more accurate as I got older, largely, I think, because I had more emotional distance and my understanding of people had deepened. It was easier to recreate scenes based on my knowledge of the people, given that it is impossible to recall every word that they said.
Brian S: Have any of your family members questioned you about your version of events? Remembered things differently?
Deni Bechard: I also found that if I spent a lot of time recreating each setting–trying to remember everything that was in the room, everything I liked, all of the people who lived nearby, then suddenly the scene came alive and I recalled very clearly details that I had until then forgotten. In fact, I would suddenly see that I hadn’t written the scenes correctly in the first place–that I had left out key details. I also think that, like I said, I have much more distance now.
I haven’t discussed the book with my siblings. Only my mother and I have talked about it. There was a lot that she didn’t know, and in earlier drafts, she did comment on things that she thought I might be forgetting or not giving enough attention. But when she read the final draft, she was largely fine with the material.
Brian S: I have a friend who writes memoir who has a very interesting story about his memory of the day he was told he had cancer versus his mother’s version of events. Both are telling the truth, you know?
Deni Bechard: What will be more interesting is when it comes out in French next year and my father’s family (I have probably nearly 100 close relatives in Quebec) reads it.
Deni Bechard: Interestingly, I appeared in a friend’s memoir this year, a book called The Rules of Inheritance, an excellent book, and I was surprised to see how differently she and I recalled things, though I don’t privilege my recollections in any way. I think that her version of it is absolutely truthful but through a very different lens.
Brian S: Are you working closely with a translator on that?
Kristy E: I really enjoyed the very end where you met with your father’s family. I found myself wanting more of their story as well.
Deni Bechard: I most likely will be working closely with the translator. We’re just getting started. With my first book, I surveyed the translating pretty closely, so the same may happen here.
Annie B.: What I would love to know is if this book has brought you a sense of peace or has it brought up some new emotions? Just read that you are in The Rules of Inheritance. I just bought the book.
Deni Bechard: I think that it has given me a sense of closure. I carried the book with me for a long time, and I wasn’t sure how to get it right. During that period, I felt that I couldn’t move forward with other projects until I had finished this one. So now that it’s done, my other work is going extremely well.
Brian S: What are you working on these days?
Deni Bechard: A nonfiction book about the Congo actually. I have wanted to address environmental and conservation issues for a long time, and I just spent two months following two conservationists in the Congo and I am writing about their work. Then, after that, I will get back to fiction. I have a novel that I have been working on for quite some time and would like to finish.
Brian S: How much does your nonfiction writing work its way into your fiction?
Deni Bechard: I also wanted to circle back to the comment about my father’s family who appear in the end of the memoir. The knowledge that I gained upon meeting them was sufficient for an entire book, so it was difficult to figure out how to fit it in the memoir. I ended up having to be very clear about what I wanted to do within the memoir and not get distracted.
Deni Bechard: More and more, I find. I actually would like to alternate between the two as much as possible. I find that the nonfiction forces me to expand my vision and work with the messy reality and try to make narrative from it. I learn a lot.
Brian S: Do you have to put yourself into a different frame of mind to work on the different genres?
Kristy E: I imagine writing about your father from his family’s eyes would be an entirely different perspective!
Deni Bechard: A very different perspective and one that would be difficult to work with. The book in its current form is very much a father son story, about the way that he and I grew and changed roles over time, and that I tried to make sense of him, to make him human and place him in history and forgive him.
Brian S: It has to be a whole new way of seeing the person. I try to imagine what my sister would tell my daughter about me, for instance, and I suspect I would learn some interesting stuff about myself in the process.
Annie B.: Who influences you? And another question…I worked on a memoir with an elderly gentleman who told me some incredibly haunting tales, but when it got right down to publishing he didn’t include them for fear of hurting feelings. Was this ever a consideration for you?
Deni Bechard: Yes, I do have to put myself in a very different frame of mind, though there are certainly places where they overlap. But when I write fiction, I feel a liberty to use language in a very different way.
I was worried about hurting feelings, and I struggled with this. I wasn’t sure that my family would want the story told, but given that my father is no longer alive, and that the story focuses mostly on the two of us, I had a fairly clear conscience.
Brian S: I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a memoirist who didn’t worry about hurting feelings on some level.
Deni Bechard: I largely focused on making sure that the material was relevant to the story–that it had a reason to be there and wasn’t in any way gratuitous. That made it easier to justify choosing the material.
There were a few people who wouldn’t like how I am portraying them, but I don’t think they’ll ever hear about it or read it.
Even novelists run into that problem, I’m sure. It’s just easier to lie to people and say, “No, I wasn’t think about you when I wrote that character. It’s just a coincidence.”
Brian, in relation to your comment about learning things by seeing ourselves from the point of views of others, I certainly felt that way reading The Rules of Inheritance. I was actually rather shocked but quickly realized that Claire was absolutely right in her depiction of me.
Brian S: I think it’s Dorothy Allison who’s said that her family swears that they recognize characters and scenes she’s completely made up, and don’t remember the things she says has actually happened.
Deni Bechard: I would absolutely believe that.
David B: Will your book be translated into French Canadian or traditional French?
Deni Bechard: The difference is about as serious as British English and American English. There will no doubt be some words more commonly used in Quebec than France, but otherwise it will be very readable for both.
Brian S: I was in a translation class in grad school with a guy who would cut you for saying that.
Deni Bechard: You will only feel the difference if someone has a Faulknerian sort of project, really digging into the roots of the colloquial language.
Deni Bechard: Where was he from?
Brian S: I don’t remember, but he was a fanatic about Quebecois as a language. He had the zeal of the converted, as I recall, i.e. he wasn’t from Quebec.
Deni Bechard: I’ve traveled in Australia, the UK, and throughout the US, and I think that the differences in variations in English are about the same as those in French.
David B.: I could never understand Kerouac’s french.
Deni Bechard: Nor could the French Canadians. When he spoke to them, they laughed and he was very embarrassed. But I don’t always understand Australians either. I know a lot Quebecois writers, and all of them find it insulting and rather absurd to be told that Quebec French is a different language.
David B.: Kerouac spoke drunk french I think.
Brian S: Can you give us a little more detail on the Congo book? Or is it still in the early stages?
Deni Bechard: Actually, it’s quite far along and will be coming out late next year if my brain doesn’t blow a fuse. The Congo book looks at why this grassroots conservation group gets so much bang for their buck, how they work with local people. In many ways, it is a critique of how large NGOs work together and spend them funds, but it is above all a study of the Congo, its environment and local conservationists who aren’t very supported by the international conservation movement.
Annie B.: Will your character be obvious to readers in The Rules of Inheritence? Or maybe you don’t want to answer that.
Deni Bechard: I’ll be very, very obvious in the Rules of Inheritance. I’d tell you the name I have in it, but there’s no point.
David B.: Thanks Deni for this and your wonderful book.
Deni Bechard: You’re welcome. Thank you all for reading it.
Kristy E: Yes, thank you so much. I enjoyed the book quite a bit as well.
Brian S: Are you doing a traditional book tour for Cures for Hunger?
Annie B.: Thanks so much. Really wonderful.
Deni Bechard: Yes. I’ve already done a fair bit, in Minneapolis and Boston, a little in New York. There are more events in Boston and New York, and I’ll be in Chicago this weekend. I list all of the events on my website.
David B.: A bientot!
Deni Bechard: Merci!