Leigh Newman

The Rumpus Interview with Leigh Newman

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Forgive me, but I’ll take a divorce over a wedding any day. How we break up is—usually—more interesting than how we stay together. For this reason, as a reader, I’m always seeking out books that deal with the disillusion of couples, of families.

There’s something in these stories that often provides a more honest accounting of how we live and how we endure. Leigh Newman’s Still Points North is such a book—a moving, direct, at times sorrowful, at times comic look at her own childhood and coming of age in the aftermath of her own parents divorce.

It is also about Alaska, a place that has always fascinated me, a state that deserves more than the clichéd treatment—he-man in untamed nature—it gets from so many other books. This is neither here nor there, but I spent a few months in Anchorage a few years back, working in the Public Defender’s Office. It was there that I had my one and only triumph in my unsuccessful career as a young junior attorney. I argued successfully at a bail hearing for a prostitute, urging the judge to accept that my client had ties to the community and thus wasn’t a flight risk. Upon being released, my client did run away. I’ve always considered this a great victory over the Man.

So I also loved Alaska, with its beautiful weirdness. Leigh Newman captures the unique spirit of the people of this odd, majestic state in the character of her father, who comes across in the book as a flawed (aren’t we all?) but deeply humane person. Still Points North is about the aftermath of a divorce that causes her, as a young kid, to split her time between Alaska (her father) and Baltimore (her mother). It’s also about endurance and faith, and the ties that hold us in places, even when we’re long gone.

As a mostly fiction writer, I marvel at how memoirists delve into real and painful material without blinking. Leigh Newman and I talked about this, and more, over e-mail.

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The Rumpus: There’s a beautiful line midway through the book, when you say to your father:

“Love you,” I say, fast like ripping off duct tape.

It fits not only the moment, but also the character of your father. Had me thinking about my relationship with my own father. Can you talk about this moment, and how you revisit these sorts of moments?

Leigh Newman: Most of the book is about growing up in Alaska and duct tape is a very Alaskan thing. You can use it to repair a hole in a Super Cub (the planes are made of very lightweight canvas-ish material) and I once taped a too-big wedding dress on a friend in order to keep it from falling off her (it was a fancy wedding, too). When you’re looking around for metaphor or simile, I do think it’s often helpful to keep inside the world of the book, to gather your comparisons from the stuff particular to that world—be they king salmon and aviation fuel, or pot roasts and spatulas—so that was probably the first rule of that moment: stay with shotguns and bears and coolers and alters and mosquitos and mud and rainbow, etc.  The second rule is to look at the overused metaphors that lay around the English language—say, “ripping off a Band-Aid.” And discard that thought, which is not my thought, while at the same time mashing it up against the world that is mine.

Rumpus: And it seems like this wasn’t exactly the way you spoke in your family, using words phrases like “love you.”

STILL POINTS NORTH Jacket ImageNewman: Right. There I was with my dad, in the wilderness as my family fell apart. These days, it feels like people talk a lot, in their relationships and in therapy. But my family wasn’t like that. My dad wasn’t and I wasn’t. Things were said, but via the language of action. If my dad showed up at the taco restaurant where I was working and asked me to go on a caribou hunt, that meant he was still annoyed at me for being a destructive teenager but he wanted to fix things. If he let me land a king [salmon] that he’d hooked on his own on a fly rod, that meant he trusted me. Or maybe it meant other things; I’ll never know exactly. In such a language, the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder. That is one of the beauties of it—the human ability to live in constant ambiguity—and that is one of the dangers of it, too.

So…to speak in such a direct way was not only unordinary, it was exposing and horrible and both of us wanted it over even as we wanted it to happen. Which is probably how you’d feel if you had duct tape on your arm. You don’t want to pull it off but if you do, you’ll be free. And a little raw.

Rumpus: And more broadly, the book itself is an act of love—an act of honest love, seems to me. How do you balance the truth with the love?

Newman: Once I realized I was writing a memoir—and for a while I didn’t realize this was what I was doing—I had to make a deal with myself. I had to give myself permission to write the thing. Since I had had parents who loved me and who I loved (including my stepmother), I wasn’t in a position that some other memoirists are, dealing with families who fed them meth, or kidnapped them, or did something that would make the writer not want to see that family again. I wanted to see my family. I wanted to celebrate them. I was proud of who we were, in the wilderness, floating down rapids or hiking over glaciers, and everywhere else. The book was a love letter to Alaska—an Alaska that may be disappearing, I suspect.

Rumpus: And at the same time, there’s also a lot of very personal material here, painful things to revisit…

Newman: Yes, dark domestic stuff happened. Not just with the divorce of my parents, but my mother’s breakdown and alcohol problem. So I made myself a rule: write out of love. And when you love somebody, you have to tell the truth about who they are—not the cute “truth” in your head of who they are, the one where you did everything right and they did everything wrong.

That story is harder that you think, or at least it was for me. And it’s much harder to do when you’re writing about your life, than when you’re writing fiction. (It’s appalling truth, how we can be more generous with made-up people than with real ones.) One thing that helped me was to turn the gun on myself, to look at the admirable and less-than-admirable choices I had made, both when my own marriage—like my parents’—blew up, and when I was a child. Because I do believe that even children have a potent responsibility in the life of a family, and to deny them that is demeaning and silly. I was seven and was running around in my hip boots, participating in the Newman implosion just like Mom and Dad.

Another thing that helped was to rule out the out-of-character episodes, episodes where somebody snapped. There were three or four really violent things happened during that period. And with the exception of my parents burning down the house, most of them are not in the book because I didn’t think they reflected the day-to-day. One scene of somebody doing something horrible in a 250-page book is equal to a character trait. Even if that action took place only one time, under extraordinary pressure. So to include the extreme moment would be shaming of the person, a distortion.

Balancing love and truth probably requires a very rigid, if not anal avoidance of glory and shame, when it comes to the portrayal of the people in the story—be they family members or characters. There, novels and memoirs are the same.

1Family camping _Newman

Rumpus: There’s a tiny, but heartbreaking sentence where you remember being at your grandmother’s funeral with your mother, just you and her and all those empty chairs. What was that like to write? How’d you resist the temptation to expand on it at that particular moment?

Newman: My natural inclination is to think in scenes. So that’s how I write, and the issue for me is usually: what to compress for speed. That scene with my grandmother had the heft of a full scene. I had just graduated college. Two days later, she died in a state mental hospital. My mom flew down to Alabama and got her remains, while I arranged the funeral. The cemetery was an old Baltimore institution, with angel statues and moss and weeping willows—generations upon generations under grass. The organizers assumed we’d have a crowd there and put out 200 chairs and a candy-striped tent. Mom and I stood there like shamed lunatics, with a bare ash box from the state asylum crematorium.

So that was a big moment in my life and it had plenty of juice for the story. But then…there were the larger concerns of the memoir. Not everything that happens in your life—better yet, not everything important or meaningful that happens in your life—goes into a memoir. All those events are just memory. Memoir, as I see it, is the orchestrated reimagining of only those memories that best tell the story you’re trying to tell. When I was writing Still Points North, I was thinking a lot about the point of what I was doing—to talk about the relationship between loneliness, self-reliance, and survival—mostly because I felt it gave me permission to do what I was doing. And…I was thinking about pacing. The story moves from Alaska, to Baltimore, to Russia, to Nepal, to France, to Massachusetts, to Seattle, to Alaska. So it could easily get bloated or overwhelmed.

I remember standing on that one sentence about the funeral. It had plenty of loneliness, survival, and self-reliance. But it also made a point that had been made before: about the hand-me-down madness of my mom’s family. And I had a rule, one made to keep the book from exploding out and out and out, like some dark sun of remembrance: you only make a point once; that’s all you get; one scene to show it like it was.

Playpen_Newman

Rumpus: What happens when being honest conflicts with the impulse we have to protect the people we love—in this case, your mother?

Newman: Maybe it’s easier to think about dishonesty and what kind of trouble you can get into as a writer when love and honesty collide and you sidestep that collision, either because you want to protect somebody or you want to blame somebody—which are the usual impulses in love: protection and blame, frequently at the same time—so you don’t exactly tell the truth. You punish or you glorify. While writing the book, this happened to me all the time. I would hit a scene about my mother screaming at me during her breakdown, drunk or using pills, and she’d turn into a monster. Which she wasn’t. She was a human: somebody who loved me and somebody with a problem. Or I’d write the same scene and she’d be angelic. Which she wasn’t, either, and which made my reactions to her later in the book seem illogical and insane. Usually my editor would gently point this out to me. And I’d redo and redo. Ultimately, it came down to doing in one way, realizing it sounded phony or confusing, then redoing it over and over and over, until it represented what had happened, not the tricks in my brain. Hence three years of writing the same 200 pages.

There’s a kind of intimacy that happens between a mother and an only child. Which only gets more intimate when it’s between a mother and only daughter. And more intimate when it’s between a mother and an only daughter, with no father around. Which is when my mother and I lived in Baltimore. And it’s true, I can tell you how she’ll eat a potato chip (in the corner—rustle, rustle), and why she prefers to eat off a salad plate but would never, ever eat a main course with a salad fork. I can predict the expression on her face when she sees a dirty baseboard, and I can predict how she’ll respond when she is confronted with her catastrophic problems (“I spent all the money on you!”). As for her, she can do all the same things for me; she’ll know when I’ll storm out or hang up or why I’ll throw out a perfectly functional blender. Which makes life impossible—and wonderful. Because who wants to have somebody know so much about you? Then again, doesn’t everybody want somebody to know so much, to know it all?

That intimacy is also terrifically hard to write about. Every sentence has an entire, fat, unfinished novel under it. What’s being said is not at all what’s being said. Teasing out those strands in writing requires a huge amount of unpacking and dissecting and screaming at yourself. Quietly. Inside.

Tent_Newman

Rumpus: Your father is such a complex guy and the book is a lot about how your relationship with him develops after the divorce. Much of the time you two spend together is up in the single-engine prop plane. How did flying influence your relationship with your father?

Newman: The floatplane for us was what most people think of as a family car. I grew up tossed in the back, waiting for us to get over the mountain and get somewhere fun. I also grew up getting airsick and puking all over everybody. (I never got over that airsickness—though I do a lot better when I’m in front, looking at the instruments, which makes me thinking the origins of the malady are in a subconscious need for control, as well as inner ear.) So for my part, there was a lot of, “Are we there yet?” Which is embarrassing. There we were, flying over mountain ranges, passing by dull sheep and furious grizzlies on their hind feet, swooping over an inlet full of beluga whales. And I’m going, “Are we there yet?” It’s only now that I see the scenery. It’s only now that I’m like, “Look at that glacier!” Back in the day, the only memory I have of being really knocked out was a trip we took to the Wrangells to go sheep hunting. Dad set us down on this tiny glacial lake set up at the peak of shale-covered mountain—it was like landing on a tear from God. I have never seen water again that beautiful.

So, in part, Dad’s and my experiences were like many other child-parent experiences. He tried to show me something amazing and I was like, “Can’t we just get an ice cream?” But on the other hand, it was totally different. Because when I was growing up, there were no cell phones and no roads into the bush, and so if something happened to your plane, that was serious. Nobody was coming to rescue you. The plane was everything. The plane was life. And so was the pilot who controlled the plane. A guy who just happened to be my dad. In the book, I talk about the time that an updraft blew us up to 20,000 feet. We lost oxygen, turned blue, and almost passed out. (A plane will also fall out of the sky at this altitude.) Somehow, Dad got us out of it alive. You see things really different when your father is so intimately, so indisputably in charge of your continued existence on the planet.

Rumpus: And how does your relationship with your father influence the way you see and experience Alaska. I’m thinking of the strong line late in the book: “Anchorage is the only place I know better from the air than from the ground…”

Newman: Most kids who grow up in Alaska and spend a fair degree of time in the wilderness, grow up being pretty self-reliant. You have to be, in order to survive all the animals and cliffs and crevasses and rapids—at some point, your brain has to kick [out of] that childish daydream world and start making I-want-to-live decisions. Concurrently, most parents foster this quality in their kids. Because a) they want their kids to know what to do if something happens to them and the kids are left alone out there; b) they want their kids to be competent in the outdoors and have fun; and c) there is too much to do for any one human being. Consequently, by the time you’re about seven or eight, you’re expected to load firewood, dig trash pits, catch fish, gut fish, pump the floats on the plane, etc. You’re treated, in some ways, like a short adult—both in terms of your responsibilities and your understanding of the dire repercussions should you not live up to those responsibilities.

My dad felt pretty strongly that I know about the basic workings of a plane and so he taught me how to read and set the instruments, as well as the basics of taking off and landing. He used to drill me on flying, too—just like he drilled me on shooting, swimming, fire-building, tent-building, running 10ks, knot-tying, etc. A lot of the time, I complained and tried to get out of this stuff. But a lot of the time, I loved it. It was a life with purpose. And it was also a lot of fun. Fishing is fun. Hiking up mountains is fun. Building a wall out of river rocks dug up from the bottom of a glacial lake is not fun. Not at all. But it does give a work ethic that you can take anywhere in the world. I mean it. If you need somebody to dig up rocks eight hours a day underwater, call me.

Lake Hood_Newman

Rumpus: As much as I’m taken by your description of Alaska, I’m also intrigued by your depiction of Baltimore. At one point in your career as a travel writer, you tell people where you’re from based sort of on who they are and what their expectations are of you. I loved this being able to be someone else based on the two places you hail from. Who are you when you’re from Baltimore, as opposed to Alaska?

Newman: After the age of seven, I began living between my dad in Alaska and my mother in Baltimore. Every three or four months, I would fly the 5,000 miles between the two. And having grown up in Alaska, Baltimore was astonishing. All the things I’d never seen: sidewalks! Pools outside! Real live lions at the zoo! I was fascinated by all this, and by the kind of WASP-y, sailboat-and-stables society that dictated a particular segment of the city at the time—the aspic lunches, the wrap-around skirts, the town-and-country station wagons. My mother sent me to an all-girls school that came directly out of this tradition, despite the fact that she was a single mom and a social worker and we hardly had enough money to keep our house. I watched this world, as much as I lived in it. It was some kind of glittering land behind a mossy stone wall. And over the years, I learned the rules and assumed it as my own—monograms and crossed ankles and all of it—but only for the time I was there. The minute I landed back in Alaska, it was back to hip boots and fish guts. This cultural flipping wasn’t easy—especially on top of the post-divorce fighting that was still going on between my parents. But this is why you don’t write a memoir at age fourteen.

Rumpus: How did your being from more than one place affect your choice to become a travel writer?

Newman: Well, I don’t think I chose it. I ran into it—literally, by running into an editor who gave me a chance. But once presented, I knew what to do, mostly because my life up to that point had prepared me. I could sleep in the dirt near the North Pole of Norway (Alaska). Then go to the opening night of the opera in Paris (Baltimore). Then go diving with a bunch of sharks in Cuba (Alaska). All that happened in my first four months. Then I really got serious. And while I was moving around, fitting in with mobsters or art restorers or Italian chefs, I was worried at the time that the reason I could fit in with so many different kinds of people was that I had no self. And then the problem is, if you don’t have a self, how can you be with other people? Who the hell are you with them? You’re how they want you to be…until that gets too tiring and you blow things ups. So I just stayed away. Which kind of gets at the point of the book: how I turned what was a wonderful case of self-reliance into a case of self-exile. Which is not uncommon, I think, in people who grow really early and have to learn how to take care of themselves. They have trouble hinging their lives with anybody else.

Rumpus: I was impressed by your ear for dialogue. For instance, a cop asks early on, “Either your dad’s at work or your dad’s out of the picture?” I see this cop as much through what he says, as his description otherwise. Can you discuss how you capture character through ordinary—but strange, since all ordinary speech is strange—speech?

Newman: I’m pretty much of the Shakespearean school. Dialogue is character. How we speak is who we are. I have no idea how to craft that, and I’d be afraid to learn how because I’ll probably ruin it with dissection and self-doubt. Usually, if I’ve drawn the person, and the setting and action are rolling, the voice just skitters out.That policeman was very much alive to me. Because he had stuck with me all those years, because he was very kind and understanding to me in his way. He could have arrested me for fishing illegally or, worse, caused all kind of problems for me and my mother because she really wasn’t around to supervise me. And I knew that. My mom was a social worker. I had a pretty good idea of what the authorities can do when a parent’s not around. But instead, he gave us an out. He let me run inside my house and stay there.

1st King_Newman

Rumpus: As someone with so-called half siblings—it’s like being half-Jewish or half-nuts, it makes no sense when you think about it—I appreciated that you write of considering your brothers not half: “The ‘half’ part of our relationship never really stuck.”

Newman: I was an only child. And it’s very much my temperament. I remember playing with a piece of string in my room for hours. I had never thought about what it would be like to have siblings. I don’t think many kids question their surroundings. Everything seems so permanent and inevitable growing up, even chaos.

After my parents divorced, my father remarried and my brothers were born when I was twelve and sixteen. I was thunderstruck at these kids. The “baby-ness” of them. Their toes. I had never been around babies before. Or brothers. And as they grew up, there were times that I was intensely jealous of them. They had a mother and a father and the life in Alaska—that I wanted, that I felt had been taken from me. But that jealousy never burned hot enough to override the love and delight. Often, I think that my brothers were the reason I didn’t do something really stupid in my teenage years; I didn’t want to disappoint them. Even though was I was pretty committed to disappointing everybody else.

Rumpus: This is the kind of book that gives an unrepentant cynic hope. There’s real connection here: family love, your relationship with your husband Laurence…it’s actually, in spite of the serious sorrow throughout, a book of much light. How’d you get away with this? How does the pain and joy of looking back influence the future?

Newman: It’s odd, isn’t it? This idea that we have to “get away” with light? But it’s true. Joy is so much harder to communicate. It’s hard to admit—because if we do, we sound braggart or, worse, the joy itself might hear and shrivel up and go away. Sometimes, I think we think of it as this: you’re sad, then—because this, that, or the other happen—you’re happy. Or we think the converse: you’re happy, then—because this, that, or the other happen—you’re sad. But it’s never that chronological. Even as my family fell apart and things were at their most hopeless, my dad and I found a lot of happiness in the wilderness—sleeping on the cold gravel and killing as many things as we could get our hands on. Even as my mom got progressively more crazy, we found a happiness, in flashes.

I wanted to reflect that in the my story—that there was always some germ of joy there, some little paramecium of happiness wriggling around, waiting for a chance to get out. The tough thing is how to cultivate a life where the paramecium of happiness gets a lot of chances to get out and swim and make more paramecia. That seems like an obvious universal goal for most humans. But I lost sight of it for a while. I do think the fastest, most efficient way to refind it is probably love—not just the romantic kind, all the other kinds, too.

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Photos of Leigh Newman and family © by Leigh Newman.


Peter Orner’s most recent book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and was named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal. 2014 will mark the 5th year of the Lonely Voice column on the Rumpus. More from this author →