The Rumpus Book Club chats with author Terese Mailhot about her debut memoir, Heart Berries, writing candidly about one’s personal life, and the good that can come from anger.
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. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Melissa Broder, Amy Fusselman, Nicole Chung, Idra Novey, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Terese Mailhot about her new memoir, Heart Berries! Terese, thank you for being here (and for writing this wonderful book).
Terese Mailhot: I’m so excited to be here. Thank you.
Marisa: You’re just two days out from publication! And the book is being widely touted as a must-read. How does it feel to know it’ll be in readers’ hands so soon?
Terese Mailhot: I can’t believe it. I really don’t know what it’s going to feel like to walk into a bookstore and see my book. It’s really just a feeling of disbelief. It’s unreal.
Marisa: I can imagine. (I have imagined!)
Terese Mailhot: It’s what I’ve been calling a “happy panic,” where I’m anxious but for great reason… Kind of like having a new baby in the world.
Marisa: That makes perfect sense.
Marisa: Heart Berries is intensely personal. Was it difficult to write so candidly about your own life? Did you worry about how those you were including in the book would react?
Terese Mailhot: I knew it would honor my mother, so I wasn’t afraid to use her name, or discuss interviews she did for the Broadway play, Capeman. I felt comfortable using that material. I had my brothers read it to approve of how they were written, and with my children—they’ve been supportive, but won’t read it until they’re ready. It’s a very odd thing to write about your life, and I tried to be self-effacing enough, where the people in the book know it’s not an indictment of them—except with my father and the men who are unnamed. My ex-husband actually congratulated me when I told him, and we have a relationship now I didn’t explore in this book. I believe that healing will be explored in book two.
AnnB: Hi, Marisa and Terese!
Terese Mailhot: Hey!
Marisa: Hi Ann!
AnnB: Will “book two” have a similar structure?
Marisa: Terese, I’m glad to hear that healing came out of this. And I hope it means you are able to see your son more often. Did Casey read the book before you wrote it? And piggybacking on Ann’s question about structure, were you purposefully concerned with form and pushing against “traditional memoir,” or did the book just take the shape it did as you worked?
Terese Mailhot: Book two might be a book of fiction informed by my experiences now. I’m writing fiction and essay. My essays are focused on violence against Indigenous women in North America, and my fiction has been quite fun—and a little scary. I just wrote a horror story for West Branch and Roxane Gay.
Terese Mailhot: Casey read each chapter many times, and I do see my son more often now. Especially now that I can afford more visits.
Terese Mailhot: As far as shape and structure, and form: I wanted to write a traditional novel, but it just never felt right. I kind of wrote Heart Berries thinking the whole time, What is this? Is this okay? And I guess it was. Hah!
Marisa: Do you have any background in poetry? There is, for me, a lot of poetry in this book.
Terese Mailhot: I read a lot of Emily Dickinson as a child, and was always familiar with Momaday and Joy Harjo… I loved the Romantics very much, and pastoral poetry. I think my mother was the first poet I ever really read. I see her voice in my work. Parents really don’t leave us.
Terese Mailhot: I always have access to my mother’s voice—I think I can hear her voice in most of what I do.
Marisa: The chapter “Thunder Being Honey Bear” is powerful and fills in some important information about your past. In it you write, “I am the third generation of the things we don’t talk about.”
First, we share similar stories in that regard, and I wanted to thank you for the careful, thoughtful way you write about your father’s abuse. Those pages had me holding my breath; I know that fear of being too ugly, too much, too broken.
Second, how does it feel to break the cycle of not talking about it? And publicly, at that? (I have been open publicly about my father’s addiction and abuse for many years, but it’s a strange kind of weight, still.)
Terese Mailhot: Thank you, Marisa. I read that out loud at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and so many people came up to me to thank me. The line that I am not too ugly for this world felt healing to read out loud for myself, and for them.
It is strange. The weight of it is different than the weight of carrying a secret. It’s almost like you carry a responsibility to not give up on yourself after you publicly speak your story. You’re carrying on for people who need to see you can recover from something like that.
Terese Mailhot: The best thing is my brothers are overjoyed. They saw me read recently, and both were just happy. It’s healed our family in a few ways.
Marisa: That is really heartwarming, in a genuine, non-cheesy way.
Terese Mailhot: I’ve been very cheesy lately. I really can’t contain it. Haha.
Marisa: I mean, cheese is great, so I’m all for it.
Terese Mailhot: They just mentioned my book in the New York Times inside of an article about pizza, so. It was cool, very weird, and cheesy.
Marisa: Ha! Amazing.
Marisa: Where did the title “Heart Berries” come from?
Terese Mailhot: My Anishinabe friend Denise told me the story of Heart Berry Boy, who was the first healer. He was a boy who left his village and followed a bear, and observed what the bear ate when it was sick, and took that medicine back to his people. Denise gave me that story and it stayed with me. I felt okay leaving my nation when I heard the story, and I felt like I could come home with something to offer.
Terese Mailhot: I was originally going to title it “Indian Sick.” Sherman [Alexie] told me it wouldn’t sell what the book is doing, or something like that, so I literally took two minutes and knew it would be “Heart Berries.”
Marisa: Ah, I completely forgot about that story by the end of the book. I will definitely be rereading this book.
Marisa: It’s clear that you are very connected to your heritage, but also push against it when it constrains you. I think that is admirable, and the way you write about your family is both respectful AND true, which can be a delicate dance.
Terese Mailhot: It’s delicate, and how we love each other. We’re broken people, and very vulnerable. We’re tender with one another, even when we’re asking simple things from each other. So, writing them had to be handled with a lot of concern for the truth first, which is a delicate thing to articulate. It’s a dynamic thing really.
Marisa: Let’s go back to your mom for a minute, if you are willing. It seems that she is a very big presence in your life and writing. Did you find your writer-self as a child, because of her work as a writer? Do you feel writing strengthens that connection?
Terese Mailhot: I think I became a writer because my mother always wanted to write and take care of her community. I wanted to do something that would make her proud, and I knew it was also where my power was. Casey became a writer for the same reasons. His father always wanted to publish a book.
Terese Mailhot: Yuck, in the background of this conversation I can hear the Super Bowl in the next room. JT is not doing very well. Just an FYI. I’ll drown him out.
Marisa: Ha! We only have one TV and my husband is not a football fan, luckily.
Terese Mailhot: So lucky, Marisa. lol
Marisa: Your self-awareness is uncanny and kind of remarkable.
Terese Mailhot: Thank you. I think that might just be how I appear on the page. When I’m irritable over small things, like the line at Starbucks—I wish I had some self-awareness in those moments.
AnnB: How are you promoting the book in Canada?
Terese Mailhot: Yes! I have an honoring ceremony in March on my rez. I’ll be in Vancouver and Toronto in March as well. I can’t wait to see my cousins and friends. We usually only see each other at funerals.
Marisa: What is a question you wish someone would ask you about Heart Berries?
Terese Mailhot: It would depend on the day. Some days I wish people would ask about the review of my mother’s character in the Broadway play, where she was referred to as an Indian Hippie Chick. I wish I could say how awful it is to see people reduce her that way.
Marisa: What did it feel like to read the review? Remind me, how old were you?
Terese Mailhot: I read it when I was an adult, and after my mother passed away. I was researching her life and pulling material for an essay. It was disheartening because when that’s the only record of a person that can be found, it… it feels like they didn’t really care to consider her as a real human being. They didn’t examine how Paul Simon had reduced her. They simply called her something she wasn’t without considering the art of cultivating that character, and how she was probably failed.
Marisa: Well you certainly consider her in her full complexities as a mother and woman in this book. I do think she’d be very proud.
Terese Mailhot: Thank you. I think it’s probably good the review is there. Good things come from anger. Occasionally.
Marisa: I recently wrote (maybe in a newsletter for the site, I don’t recall) that anger has always been one of my biggest motivators, so I feel that.
Terese Mailhot: I feel that way. I’ve had to prove myself for so long. Being underestimated has motivated me to push forward. Not sure what I’ll do now.
Marisa: Why did you decide to include a Q&A (with Joan Naviyuk Kane) in the afterword of the book?
Terese Mailhot: I think we wanted Sherman to introduce me as an author, because he would help set the tone. And then Joan would help give insight into where the book fits and how it’s disrupting some of the tropes within Native literature, or how we’re compartmentalized. She’s an exceptional person. She’s brilliant, and I knew she’d be able to ask some things that many would be asking, concerning the craft.
Terese Mailhot: We weren’t sure it would be a Q&A until the Q&A happened naturally over the phone, and she said, “Maybe I should write this stuff down.” I appreciate when things happen naturally, or organically.
Marisa: It was a very informative Q&A. To be honest, I was a little intimidated about this chat because I felt Joan really covered a lot of ground in those questions and you reveal a lot in your answers. But as a reader, I loved it. It informed the book and felt necessary but not like too much information, if that makes sense?
Terese Mailhot: She went to Harvard. She intimidates me often. Ha.
AnnB: I was curious about the Q&A rationale, too. Thanks for that. I thought it complemented the essays and intro effectively.
Marisa: Can you share some of the other writers who have mentored you and who influenced this book? Either directly, or through their work.
Terese Mailhot: Maggie Nelson wrote one of the first nonfiction books I ever truly loved, Bluets. It is stunning, and slender. I am very much influenced by her work. Gaitskill‘s dialogue is humorous and I wish I could do that. Amy Hempel. Roxane Gay mentored me here at Purdue and meeting her inspired me. Her presence is so strong. She’s a striking human being, and then she’s so brilliant. Her support and feedback has made my life so much better. I would like to do what she does concerning her support, and how she lifts up other voices.
Terese Mailhot: There is something profound about how Roxane owns herself, and does not seem to fall in line with people’s expectations of her. I’d like to be that way.
Marisa: Bluets is… I do not have words to adequately describe how much influence that book has had for me, and how dearly I love it.
Terese Mailhot: It’s one of my favorite books. Part of liking it is defending why it’s good to men who don’t understand. Part of liking it is sharing that appreciation with people who love it too. It feels like holding a secret sometimes.
Marisa: And yes, to everything you’ve said about Roxane. She became an advisory board member when I purchased The Rumpus, and has taken time to give me advice about the site and more personal matters related to owning a website and being out in the public. She is a dynamo, and busier than anyone I know, and still makes time for others.
AnnB: I just finished I Am I Am I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, and I’m struck by how effective the memoir in essays is. How do you approach ordering with essays?
Marisa: Yes! The Bluets fan club. Totally.
Terese Mailhot: I ordered the essays according to an emotional trajectory. I wanted the reader to experience the healing I was experiencing. So, it begins with an assertion, and a synopsis of my beginnings. Then it moves into falling in love, committing myself, graduate school, memories of my father, and then transcendence.
Terese Mailhot: I stay within three or four focuses. Grief, pain, compassion, the acquisition of voice. That was also important.
Marisa: We are approaching the end of our time. I always like to ask what an author is reading right now, and/or what forthcoming books you are especially excited for. Any you can share with us?
AnnB: Also will you be at AWP, by any chance?
Marisa: (Also, I have like ten million more questions I wanted to ask, about motherhood and writing, teaching and writing, etc. So, if you are at AWP, I’m gonna find you!)
Terese Mailhot: I want to read Morgan Jerkins’s This Will Be My Undoing. I have been reading articles by her and following her on Twitter. I’m a big fan, and I just ordered her book. I believe I will be at AWP! I am doing two panel events and I can’t wait to meet everyone. [Please note that due a change in scheduling, Terese will not be attending AWP 2018. – Ed.]
AnnB: Then this is not good-bye; it’s see you both in Tampa!
Terese Mailhot: Thanks so much for this opportunity. I haven’t chatted in a long time. lol
Marisa: Oh, yes, you are on a panel with Melissa Febos, moderated by Kelly Thompson, right? I will be there!
Terese Mailhot: YES! I can’t wait.
Marisa: Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us, and see you in Tampa! Cannot wait to celebrate the book with you.
Author photograph © Isaiah Mailhot.