George Hodgman is the author of the new memoir Bettyville, which debuted at number nine on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list last month. A much-loved New York editor (Vanity Fair and Henry Holt & Co.), George left New York City to return to his native Paris, Missouri when his elderly mother, Betty Hodgman, needed assistance. As George soon discovered, ninety-one-year-old Betty was struggling to maintain her independence, something that had always been deeply important to her. After she lost her driver’s license, Betty’s mobility and freedom was curtailed, making George more and more necessary. What began as a temporary stay turned into years of helping his mother live the best life possible. In the process of living with Betty, George came to examine his relationship with his parents, his past, and his identity as a gay man. As Bettyville reveals, sometimes we need to go back home to find the future.
The Rumpus: When you told me that you were writing a memoir about moving back to the Midwest to take care of your mother Betty, I was so intrigued. You and I met when you edited my memoir about my father, Falling Through the Earth, and as an editor, you were very savvy about helping me find the right way to write about my relationship with my father. Tell me about the path that led you to write about Betty. Was it a difficult decision to make? Did you find the right voice immediately?
George Hodgman: The book began out of mourning. My mother is a very American creature; she feels better when moving, traveling, with wheels turning under her. When she lost her driver’s license, it was a little death. Her sense of self and independence was threatened, and I lost a part of her. I had a memory I had been carrying around for years—her driving me to school in the ’60s in our blue Impala, flooring it with her bare foot on the pedal with us listening to KXOK St. Louis. Johnny Rabbit was the DJ. We listened to “This Diamond Ring” and the Supremes and sang along. My biggest pre-K life accomplishment was learning the lyrics to “Baby Love.” For some reason, I wrote this memory down. It seemed to capture not just Betty and the fun we had, but also a kind of American innocence that was so sweet and which I associate with my parents and their generation.
Anyway, I put it on Facebook, and people really responded. Then a lot of people who had not seen my mother and I together for a long time started commenting on how funny we were together. I started thinking of Harold and Maude, a quirky funny pairing. I started doing what I’ve always done—that is, sort of listening for the funny stuff, the odd off-notes. The trick with the tone was blending the various shades of my voice—the lyrical tone of loss with the kind of acerbic, eccentric comedy that comes easily to me. At first it was like two people were writing the book, but ultimately I think it’s this mix that gives it whatever originality and personality it has. A lot of the stuff about me, the really personal stuff, which I seem to have written in some sort of state of denial or semi-consciousness, was originally done in second person. I had to find the courage to actually step up to first and claim those acts.
Rumpus: Memoir is often thought to be a kind of self-portrait. But when you’re writing about a relationship with a parent, that shifts, and the focus is on two people. Did you feel that this book helped you to understand Betty better? What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing Bettyville?
Hodgman: I very much wanted to avoid writing a “just me” book. Maybe because I have lived a self-centered existence at times, I wanted it to be about more than me. It grew out of what I was feeling about my mother. It couldn’t not be about her, but because I was back in this tiny town in Missouri, this place that had seemed so magical to me as a child, the place also had to be a character, a unique colorful survivor, like my mom.
People who read it early on really had to coax forth a lot of the stuff about me. I may be a narcissist disaster area, but I’m smart enough to hide it. I tried to leave myself out in the early drafts. I’m not so proud of everything in my life, and I didn’t want to sound like a loser, but I sort of had to go with how I felt at that moment, which was, well, not terrific. However, it gave me a place to go, a journey, and I was, in real life, having a journey, learning to feel competent enough to care for my mother, to step up.
What I learned about myself is that my consciousness is not just interested in the present. I am simply not interested in a straight, chronological telling of a tale, despite the number of readers who think it a terrible offense to deviate from that. That feels too simple to me. I learned that I am constantly going back and forth from external to internal experience, dialogue. I am inside, thinking, running commentary on my life. And I exist, internally, in the past a lot. I guess you could say that I have only a passing interest in the now. Unless someone comes around and really drags me back to real life, I am here, there, and everywhere. When I was a little kid, I remember Lucille Ball on the Tonight Show saying that she picked up Japanese radio broadcast on her dental work during World War II. My experience is similar I think.
Rumpus: As an editor and now as a memoirist, you must have strong opinions about memoir. What makes a good memoir? What do you expect to find in a memoir?
Hodgman: Voice, voice, and more voice. You need to feel that the story is being told by someone, a sensibility, a consciousness that you haven’t quite encountered before, someone who is honest but who is telling you the truth in a way that is more special and engaging than the kook you are overhearing at Starbucks. You have to be very real but also, I think, a bit of a performer. I’m sure Mary Karr is going to put me into Memoir Prison for saying that. I’m not saying you should be James Frey or anything like that. I’m saying that it’s more interesting if you are engaged in the sensibility and want to know more than what they are saying. Of course, there’s also place. Memoir needs to take you somewhere you haven’t been before or offer a new perspective on it. I think there needs to be a background locale, or that is what I prefer.
Rumpus: You and I have often talked about memoirists we’ve read and loved. Have you been influenced by anyone in particular?
Hodgman: When I was in high school in Paris, Missouri, I started reading Joan Didion. People were talking about homecoming. I bought Pall Mall unfiltered cigarettes, wore sunglasses, and began to consider adopting a daughter who I could name after a region in Mexico. I wrote her several letters, and she wrote back once. I remember my mother crying out one Saturday afternoon, “George, who is writing you from the Pacific Coast Highway?” Didion taught me a lot. Later I began to become suspicious of her, but she invaded me when I was a teenager.
A lot of people with really distinct voices influenced me, not necessarily memoirists or even writers. Lily Tomlin and her brand of humor—mixing funny and tragic—influenced me. Joni Mitchell’s images influenced me—those beautiful brief descriptions in “Edith and the Kingpin” and on the Hejira album. Lori Moore influenced me. David Sedaris whispered, “Yes, George, you can be as crazy as you really are.” Mary Karr is a genius, I think, but I wish she weren’t so cranky on Facebook. I could go on for six months about the voices of writers I love. Right now, I am totally grooving on Jenny Offill, a novelist. And I just reread Renata Adler’s Speedboat. I love Alan Bennett, Frank O’Hara, Auden. I’m not big on those hetero men who come at you with their big, fat important books and lots of claims about what constitutes “high lit.” I have a puppy now. I don’t have time for that, you know?
Rumpus: I am often surprised by the number of book editors who have a manuscript of their own shoved in a drawer. Were you always writing books? What allowed you to write Bettyville?
Hodgman: Most editors I know like being editors. Of course, most editors I know have jobs. I did not. I had a ninety-year-old woman, rent on a Manhattan studio, the hours between four a.m. and nine a.m., and the Missouri sky. I wanted to be an editor. I had given up on being a writer. Then Houghton Mifflin Harcourt decided to send me into exile, and freelancing was really hard, and well, it kind of just happened. Necessity is the mother of invention. I think I was always collecting images and bits. I didn’t ever bet on remembering them. It was a huge shock to realize that all those things were sort of earmarked in my mind. I am conscious that I have always noted, remembered, reused, and filed away dialogue that I loved, but I was pretty convinced that I was destined to use it only at dinner parties.
Rumpus: What’s your advice for a writer struggling with his or her memoir? Are there a few techniques that you might share for creating authentic representations of real people ?
Hodgman: Relax. Give up. Don’t push too hard. Do a little. Let it breathe. Let your mind use your time away from the computer and try to follow where it wants to go. All my life I have tried too hard at everything. I thought writing and editing was getting up at five and sitting down at six and getting up twelve hours later. Just do a little dab, run off, let it sit.
Rumpus: Did you feel that you needed to protect anyone while writing this book? Were names and places changed?
Hodgman: I felt like I wanted to protect my mother. I worried so much about her privacy, took out dozens of scenes, tried to find what showed her struggle without taking away her dignity. At the beginning, I didn’t think she would be around or lucid when I got to publish the thing. The book was kind of a gift I was giving myself to make up for losing my mother. But she lived, and I am grateful. However, as she’s alive, I question and agonize over a lot of the decisions I made. The name changes were pretty much decided upon by the lawyers who vetted the manuscript. I would have preferred to always use the original because they were colorful, regional, and because they were so absolutely attached to these people who I had thought about and remembered for thirty or more years.
Rumpus: What’s next for you? Another memoir? More editing?
Hodgman: If I could have anything, it would not be a swimming pool—though I always wanted one—or a convertible or a heap of money. I would have an idea that I can do. I would be so grateful to the governing forces to be given the chance to have the magical experience of writing, creating, watching a book find itself. It has always been so fascinating, this process, the things your mind is doing that you aren’t aware of, the secret of what the book is that you only find out at the end, the finding of it. I love this mysterious journey. I am so thankful to have been given this opportunity to preserve the things and people I love. I would give anything to get to do it again, but probably not a memoir—a novel, a comedy of voice or maybe some linked stories set in Missouri.