Jill Talbot is one of the acknowledged masters of creative nonfiction. The 2012 anthology she edited, Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction, is already a staple in graduate seminars and workshops across the country, and her interrogations of genre boundaries and truthfulness in creative nonfiction are at the leading edge of those conversations. Her language is lyrical and lovely. So much so, that it’s possible to read her newest book, The Way We Weren’t, published this month by Soft Skull Press, and be so taken by the beauty of its prose that the reader loses sight of the very real hardships about which Talbot writes.
But make no mistake, the struggles Talbot describes in this book are real, not only for her, but for millions of other mothers raising abandoned children, and thousands of other academics toiling in the increasingly fragmented and temporary jobs that are available to creative writers (or, really, anyone in the humanities) as universities increasingly rely on adjunct and visiting professors to make up for a lack of state funding and an ever-growing roster of well-paid administrators. And although this is a very personal story, it is also both universal and political. Talbot’s story requires of us more than empathy; it requires political action.
I first encountered Jill through her writing, and have been an ardent fan for several years. Because the creative nonfiction community is both small and generous with new writers, she has more recently become my friend and, sometimes, my mentor. We conducted this interview via email, as she was preparing to move on to yet another visiting professorship.
The Rumpus: The Way We Weren’t is, in many ways, the story of your life after the father of your daughter abandoned the two of you. In fact, it seems like it might be the book you intended to write when you started Loaded: Women and Addiction. In the introduction to that book—which looks at your stories of addiction but also the stories of many other women—you write, “When I began this book, I wanted to tell the story of how My Blue-Collar Man left me, but as I began going back into the patterns and the people that led me to him, a background emerged: alcohol.” These are very different books. Loaded is a hybrid between memoir and literary journalism, and it places your experience solidly in the community of women. The Way We Weren’t is a collage of artifact, lyric essay, and memoir that focuses very specifically on the absence of Kenny (the Blue-Collar Man from Loaded) and how that shapes the life you live with your daughter now. As a reader, it feels to me as if the process of discovery that takes place in Loaded was a necessary part, too, of writing The Way We Weren’t. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how having written Loaded informed your writing of this new book.
Jill Talbot: I think of Loaded as the preface to The Way We Weren’t. In the essays in Loaded, I’m trying to figure out how I came to be a single mother in a rehabilitation facility at the age of thirty-five, the same year Didion wrote of in “The White Album” and what Jane Smiley refers to as “the age of grief.” So I began with my grandmother, who was an alcoholic, and went forward through women in my family and women I’ve known in an attempt to expand the idea of addiction beyond substance abuse (we’re all addicted to something(s)). For example, one of the most distracting addictions in my life has been to the wrong men—so in Loaded I’m also looking at those bad choices from as early as high school all the way through graduate school and beyond—all those choices that lead up to Kenny, and of course, the aftermath of his leaving—the grief that had me pouring Chardonnay from a bottle like a faucet that ran all night, every night.
When I was writing Loaded, Kenny’s absence was mine alone, because Indie was so young. I felt alone in it. But when she was four, she asked if she had a father. She didn’t mention it again until she was eight, when she asked what his name was and if I had a picture of him. Suddenly, this loss, this absence was no longer mine, it was ours. The Way We Weren’t is our story.
Rumpus: Several of these essays appeared first as stand-alone pieces (including Kitchen Table, which originally appeared on a writing and food blog that my husband and I used to host, Writers for Dinner). In many of these pieces, what has changed as they’ve been rewritten to be part of the book is that Kenny’s absence has come more to the fore. It’s almost as if he’d been lurking in the shadows of these stories all along, and that part of the project of The Way We Weren’t is to pull him into the light so that the reader can hold him accountable for the damage he’s done. I’m wondering if you can talk about how the process of reinserting him into these stories worked, and why you first had to write them as if his actions were more context than cause for some of the issues—particularly the financial ones—you and your daughter Indie have faced as a result of his abandonment.
Talbot: I wrote the first essay in 2010, the one about listening to the NPR “Talk of the Nation” program about the stigma of single mothers. It wasn’t until 2012 that I recognized I had a series of essays that could be arranged by location, as each section of The Way We Weren’t is devoted to the city and state where we lived at the time. But even assembled, they were essays, not a cohesive memoir. There was so much I left out, as you mention, from the original versions, but mostly what was missing was Indie. Take the essay about trying to find a place to live in Missoula, Montana, when I lived in a hotel for two weeks. In the original essay, my persona, the “I” of the essay, is not a mother—she’s a woman who has resigned from her tenure-track position in Utah to wait tables and pursue her writing. Sometimes I choose not to be a mother in a particular essay because my actions in it are not very “motherly.” Yet when my editor and I started working on shaping the essays into a cohesive memoir, he kept asking, “Where’s Indie? Where was she at the time?” So that was a lot of it, going back in and explaining where she was, who was keeping her while I was in Montana or rehab or wherever. One of the reasons Kenny had to come in more was that the memoir is exploring my lingering grief over losing him—but also our competing versions of our relationship and its ending, so when I was revising the essays into the memoir, I had to go back to the elasticity of his leaving—how he kept coming around, how he kept calling—how difficult it was to let go of a love who wouldn’t leave all the way.
As to the financial issues, part of the struggle has nothing to do with Kenny’s abandonment. I have been on the academic job market for over ten years trying to land a tenure-track job, which means I’ve been in an adjunct, visiting, or Writer-in-Residence position at various universities around the country. My salary has never allowed us to live without struggling. The financial information in the memoir works to show the reality of what people call “the adjunct crisis” in this country, the flooded creative writing market that has many, many writers living this gypsy life, as well as the financial truths of raising a child on one salary without child support.
Rumpus: You include several court transcripts from your custody and child support hearings in the book as stand-alone chapters. They were really helpful to me, because you write in such a lyric way that I have a very “intellectual Marlboro Man” image of Kenny when I read him mediated by the art of your writing. But when he writes, in a letter asking the court to release him from the obligation of child support and to forgive the forty thousand dollars in back payments he owes you, “Dealing with any of these issues could break a person and I need help rectifying this issue quickly so I may focus on my life before it falls apart,” any romantic notion I might have had of him is completely shattered. I find these artifacts necessary to the book because, without them, the version of him that is mediated through the beauty of your language would be too sympathetic, too likable. I’m wondering if you can talk about that tension and the need to write him as someone it’s okay for your daughter to have as a father, and maybe even that it’s okay for you to have loved, when in fact he’s really just a deadbeat dad who clearly has no interest in anyone’s well-being but his own?
Talbot: Passages in that letter, in the memoir, have been redacted because they concern an aspect of his life I want to protect, because it has nothing to do with me and Indie, and he does care for people, immensely—it’s one of his strongest qualities and one that Indie inherited. It’s difficult to be angry or bitter about a man you loved when you’re raising his child and you see his strengths of character, his mind, his sense of humor, and his heart in her. The things I loved most in him I see in her. Every day. I think that keeps him gentle on my mind.
The letter and the hearing transcripts were the final additions to the memoir. I decided to include them to trouble the idea of “official record,” because honestly, it doesn’t exist. Even in a court document we’re both only telling our sides of the story.
I was interviewed on a radio station in Sante Fe last week, and I asked Indie if she wanted to listen to it before I left the house to go to my office to take the landline call. She said, “No. You need to say what you want to say without worrying what I’ll hear.” (Indie doesn’t yet know the full story, and she knows this.) Later that night, when I found the podcast on the station’s site, I asked her if she wanted to listen, and she did. At one point, I remembered something I had said and told her, “You’re going to learn new things here.” She never knew about the 2009 hearing, when he asked to have the forty grand in backpay forgiven and when the state of Colorado modified the child support amount. When the program was over, we took a long drive and I filled her in—carefully, because regardless of his inactions and his absence and his lack of support, he is her father, and as I learned in a court-mandated counseling session required of all parents in child support cases, the child’s identity and sense of self-worth derives from her parents, so one parent should never say anything disparaging about the other because the child might interpret the comments to be about herself. I’ve always kept that in mind—and I’m very aware when I write that one day she’ll read it all, which no doubt influences how I write him.
Rumpus: I think that way in which the book calls for accountability is so critical and important to both The Way We Weren’t and to the conversations we are having about parenting. This is particularly true when you explicitly refocus the conversation away from the idea that single mothers are somehow an issue, and instead on the impact of absent fathers. This is, at its heart, a deeply political memoir that focuses on the damage that is done to women and children when men aren’t held accountable for their own actions. It’s a book that calls for political solutions, but it never suggests any. I’m wondering if you could suggest some now? What would you like the reader to do—what policies should be changed, for instance—in order to confront the truths found in this book?
Talbot: One of the first things my wonderful editor, Dan Smetanka, told me when he called after reading my manuscript was that with this memoir, I give a voice to single mothers, and it’s a voice that is not often heard.
I’m so grateful to Cheryl Strayed and Jesmyn Ward for the way they honored and celebrated their mothers, the women who raised them on their own, in their respective memoirs, Wild and Men We Reaped. In fact, reading Strayed’s memoir in 2012 got me thinking about the significance of speaking as a single mother, of giving a voice to my experience and mine and Indie’s lives. I remember reading Wild and thinking, I want to speak to this.
I read Ward’s memoir only last year and underlined most of it. I’d read passages aloud to Indie, about Ward’s own thoughts and actions about her absent father, and Indie would tear up and say, “That’s exactly how it is.” I don’t know about solutions, but I know that allowing someone to feel seen is a significant act.
Just the other day when Indie and I were at the post office, the clerk asked what my book was about (I was mailing copies to friends). I gave the short answer I always give: “It’s about her father abandoning us when she was four months old and our lives after he left.” We held up the line that day while the clerk told Indie that her own father left her when she was only three and that she was a better person for it and that her mother is and has always been the strongest person she knows. Indie beamed, and when walked out to our car, she told me how much she loved that woman for sharing her story. She said, “This is so important, Mom. You’re telling these people’s stories.”
I’d love to see the stigma of single mothers replaced by empowering stories of their strength and fortitude. Maybe The Way We Weren’t is a start.