The Rumpus Book Club chats with Meghan Flaherty about her debut memoir, Tango Lessons (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, June 2018), how the book found its current format, and writing a memoir at a young age.
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 Nicole Chung, Idra Novey, Tom Barbash, Esmé Weijun Wang, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Hi, and welcome to The Rumpus Book Club chat with Meghan Flaherty about her debut memoir, Tango Lessons!
Meghan Flaherty: Hi, Marisa! Thanks so much for having me.
Marisa: My first question: do you still dance tango?
Meghan Flaherty: Yes! And no! With an eight-month-old baby at home, my tango dancing happens mostly in the kitchen these days. I also injured my foot a couple of years ago, so I haven’t been dancing nearly as often as I’d like.
Meghan Flaherty: Although we did take our baby (at three months) to a tango práctica here and ended up having to dance holding him between us!
Eva Woods: Hi, all! I have so many questions about this one!
Meghan Flaherty: Hi, Eva!
Marisa: Eight months old is such a great age!
Eva Woods: Hi, Meghan! I am so happy to be talking to you! I loved the history in the book. How did you decide how much to include?
Eva Woods: (Also legit eight months might be the cutest age of all time.)
Meghan Flaherty: Eva! My ideal reader! Blessings on your house!
Eva Woods: Haha, thank you! I also danced tango for about a year, but it was very much not for me, so reading this was very interesting about how it can look from different viewpoints.
Meghan Flaherty: This book was originally supposed to be a super-geeky treatise on tango, rather than a memoir. Then I succumbed to pressure from readers and editors to add in more (and more… and more…) of the personal story. In the end, I haggled to keep as much about tango itself as I could.
Eva Woods: OMG if you ever want to send anyone your history notes HI IT ME I WANT THAT.
Meghan Flaherty: Eva, I just might take you up on that! 🙂 I can also steer you towards some really great tango scholarship.
Eva Woods: It wasn’t just the dance, but the connection to the political and sociological origins and history of it that were SO GOOD TO ME.
Meghan Flaherty: Eva, YES! It’s what makes the dance so wonderfully complex! It carries so much within it!
Eva Woods: My dance background started with ballet I only did to continue with gymnastics, and moved straight into hip hop and pole. Those last two are both very, very, very different than tango, so when I tried it, my body revolted.
Marisa: How did you decide how to structure the book, in terms of the personal sections and the interspersed history sections?
Eva Woods: Marisa, great question. I also want to know. It seemed like such a tightrope to walk.
Meghan Flaherty: I originally thought to use the personal narrative as a kind of clothesline, finding places where I could hang the more theoretical stuff as I came to engage with it. Eventually the clothesline became larger than the clothes… or I started being asked to hang so much of my own dirty underpants on it (or something like that! :))
Eva Woods: You did a great job of explaining why tango worked so well for you, though. Like the structure of it was mirrored in other things you found comfort in throughout the book. The minimalism you embraced toward the end, for instance. I thought that was really interesting.
Marisa: I never danced (not well, at least, or formally) but I did break my foot badly several years ago. Meghan, did the back injury, and then the foot injury, change your relationship to tango and dancing?
Meghan Flaherty: The injury absolutely changed my relationship to dancing. It made me feel fallible in a way I wasn’t prepared for at the time. And now it complicates everything. It’s made me be a lot more patient with myself. And it’s made me reincorporate tango into my life with a lot more balance.
Meghan Flaherty: Sorry about your foot!
Marisa: I have some cool scars, so it’s not all bad.
Eva Woods: The way you talk about tango reminds me of yoga so, so, so much! And I think everyone who does any sport long-term, but especially yoga, goes through a period of ego-reckoning. Do you feel those effects even though you aren’t dancing as much, in the rest of your life?
Eva Woods: Oh also, don’t let me forget, I want to talk about your relationship with Peter for one million hours. I also have a dude best friend and, like, it’s so much and also so fulfilling.
Meghan Flaherty: I think when you fall in love with something so thoroughly, to the point of obsession, it makes you so vulnerable. Your highs are higher and your lows are lower. You open yourself. So then when something happens and you’re no longer able to dance/practice/etc. at the rate you’re used to, you have to step back and figure out how to tap into what you were getting from it in some other way.
Eva Woods: Meghan that’s so wise!
Meghan Flaherty: (Which is also what got me started listening to the music more carefully and digging into the history more deeply…)
Marisa: This is the least original question to ask a memoir writer, but how did the people in your life (and therefore, in your book) react to being written about? How did you navigate sharing details of others’ lives?
Marisa: I’m thinking of your parents and Peter, but also separately the more minor characters like the Mogul.
Meghan Flaherty: Eva, oh my stars. Yes, it’s… a thing. Marisa, yes, but good question! It depends so much on the person.
Marisa: Did you let anyone in the book read the book before it went to print?
Eva Woods: Did anyone have specific fears about how they’d come across?
Meghan Flaherty: With the nearest and dearest, I did my best to keep them in the loop, letting them preview their sections and give feedback/make corrections. My dad, Marty, Edward, etc. Peter didn’t want to read beforehand, but he gave me carte blanche to tell whatever truth I needed to. (And I was so conscious of wanting to honor our strangely beautiful dynamic and try to describe it in all its idiosyncrasy. So many people thought we were the weirdest, most dysfunctional people in the world—particularly after our breakup. But it works for us and I wanted to show how… if that makes any sense.)
My editor asked me not to try and take Enzo or the Mogul out to hash things out over a beer, so with them I used pseudonyms and tried to be as generous as I could. I figured, as long as I made myself look every bit as bad as my suitors, it would all come out even!
Eva Woods: I think this is a great approach, honestly. I have a particular ex that I know would be like, “do your worst, love, I earned it and you’re nice,” and then like fifty other ones that would be pseudonyms.
Meghan Flaherty: Ha! Yes! I’m also painfully aware that my memory is imperfect. There may be things I got wrong, but I hope it’s clear I did my level best to be as honest and accurate as possible.
Eva Woods: Okay so my next question you’ve half-answered already, but I would like to know more specifically: how do you feel about writing a memoir so young? I know it wasn’t your original concept, but did you think about it in terms of not being like, Diana Vreeland yet?
Meghan Flaherty: How did I feel about writing a memoir so young? Nauseated!
Eva Woods: Tell me so much about this. There are a lot of memoirs (that don’t have even half the peg or content yours does) by women our age and I can’t imagine doing it, but because I read all of them, I think about it so much. I definitely would have also been nauseated. I think you did a great job making it not navel-gazey.
Meghan Flaherty: Oh, Eva. Thank you so much for that! Major sighs of relief from over here.
Eva Woods: Listen, I wouldn’t have even asked the memoir question if I didn’t think you made it work. I would have avoided it to the ends of the earth!
Meghan Flaherty: I partly wanted to write a book about tango to avoid writing a memoir so young! (I have a lot of material about my childhood and mother that I’ve been working on for years, but I wanted to sit on it longer.) Tango Lessons became a memoir very much against my will (at least at first). But then I had a very patient editor who helped me take the book in the direction it wanted to go.
Meghan Flaherty: I’m trying to relax into the memoir thing. Dance with the one that brought you, etc., etc. 🙂 It might just be my bane in life. But thank you so much for making me feel better about it!
Marisa: Do you feel more or less anxious now that the book is out in the world?
Meghan Flaherty: Marisa, so much more anxious! Part of me hopes that people buy it, but no one actually reads it! And then the rest of me just hopes that something in it resonates with a reader or two, or perhaps inspires a couple of lost souls to take up tango dancing. I’ll happily make a fool of myself for either outcome.
Eva Woods: What was the process like of deciding that this wasn’t just a passion for you, but a subject you wanted to write a book about?
Meghan Flaherty: Eva, tortuous! I think it started when I first was injured. I was desperate to stay in tango any way I could, so I started digging into the history and sociology of the dance as well as the music. Then I had an opportunity to use tango as a subject for a research seminar in grad school. I wanted to write the kind of tango tome I was desperate to read, and of course, I ended up writing my personal history of the dance instead.
Eva Woods: OMG “buy this and then hide it in a corner of your house no one will ever find” is so relatable.
Meghan Flaherty: YES! I had to pretend I was writing in a vault! Hard to keep that delusion up now…
Eva Woods: Okay let’s keep this uncomfy train going then! You talked about sex very frankly but also it was super-hot! How did that part of the writing work for you?
Marisa: That is such a great question!
Meghan Flaherty: Such a great question! I’m delighted you thought it was hot. That took… multiple drafts. My tendency was (and is) very much to pan to the fireplace.
Meghan Flaherty: Thankfully, my early readers weren’t having that. They kept saying, “Meg, for the love of god, give us the sex.” My first attempts were…. terrible. The first time I tried to write about Enzo’s body I ended up referring to his “smooth baton.” That phrase didn’t make it into the book. LOL.
Eva Woods: LOL, AMAZING. It ended up being really good. Not too much, but also not glancing and precious.
Marisa: Did your mom read the book ahead of publication? I can imagine her giving that feedback. 😉
Marisa: I loved her character, and your relationship with her. The love was so palpable.
Meghan Flaherty: Yes, my mother read several early drafts. She wasn’t thrilled with the geeky tango treatise aspect, and was always at me to be more honest, to complicate what I might have oversimplified, to not let myself off the hook. Particularly when it came to the sex! She is largely responsible for my coming to understand the distinction between intimacy and sex. Those parts of the book were very much steered by her. Tragically, she passed away before the book sold and so she didn’t get to see it take its final shape. I really believe she would have approved wholeheartedly of the finished product.
Marisa: Yes, I apologize; I forgot that (I am an avid reader of the acknowledgements sections of books, though you might have mentioned in within the book, too, if I’m now remembering correctly). I’m certain she’d be proud.
Eva Woods: The way she came across in the book really made it seem like she would have been happy with any way it ended up as long as it was clear-eyed and honest.
Meghan Flaherty: Thanks! I agree. She was all about honesty, even and especially at your own expense! 🙂
Eva Woods: Since I’m asking the touchy questions today, what kind of thought went into telling the story of a dance, and country, populated by people of color?
Meghan Flaherty: Oh jeez. So much thought. What it came down to was reverence. I partly wanted to paint a picture of this art form that I loved so much that would go beyond the stereotypes and sound bites in the popular imagination. I tried to approach it with as much respect as possible and defer to the voices of porteños wherever I could. There is so much wonderful tango scholarship in Argentina—but of course most of it is in Spanish. I just hoped to give people a taste for what was out there. Also, most of what I wrote about the dance itself and the social scene was particular to tango as it exists in NYC and the US.
Eva Woods: I really dig that outlook on it. You definitely got me reading more about Argentinian history!
Eva Woods: This isn’t a question at all, but I also really appreciated you not glossing over the machismo in tango. Like, it doesn’t render the dance invalid! But acknowledging it is really important, I think.
Marisa: We only have a few minutes left, and I always ask the following two questions: 1) Who are your writing influences? and 2) What books are you reading right now, and what forthcoming books are you especially excited for?
Meghan Flaherty: Like every writer of literary nonfiction, I remain in total awe of Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf. I’m gobsmacked by Jo Ann Beard, Jesmyn Ward, Maggie Nelson… Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk blew my mind as far as braided narratives go. Katherine Boo is a total god for turning journalism into literature. And, I mean, Mary Karr. “God is in the truth”—the memoir writer’s mantra. (Or at least it should be!)
Marisa: That is a wonderful list of writers!
Eva Woods: Jesmyn Ward!!!!
Meghan Flaherty: JESMYN WARD. her sentences slay me.
Eva Woods: Sing, Unburied, Sing is maybe a flawless book.
Meghan Flaherty: Yes! And Salvage the Bones was also flawless.
Meghan Flaherty: Currently reading Celeste Ng‘s Little Fires Everywhere and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Plus a whole load of “how not to eff up as a new parent” books. Also reading Patricia O’Toole’s incredible bio of Woodrow Wilson, The Moralist. That book is an absolute master class in nonfiction.
Marisa: We’ll be running a great piece about Giovanni’s Room and reading queer literature as a closeted queer teen later this week!
Eva Woods: My almost-thirteen-year-old is sitting next to me and honestly the only parenting advice I ever heard that was good was: “It’s just a human person who lives in your house now.” Like, it’s a relationship, like all of the other relationships.
Meghan Flaherty: Amazing! It’s so beautiful. I’m just impressed when another day goes by and he’s still breathing!
Eva Woods: Babies are so durable and resilient. I miss that age! Little cheeks, etc. How has having him around affected your writing habits?
Marisa: Enjoy the adorable but not walking/talking/sassing! I love my kiddo (nearly four years old) but they are little whackos at this age.
Meghan Flaherty: Well, I have much less time to write, so I try to cram as much as I can into the few hours I’m given!
Meghan Flaherty: Marisa, he’s crawling and, frankly, a little pissed that he can’t yet manage walking. He’s currently overpowering his dad to try to claw at my hair for attention! The poor wee piglet!
Marisa: Mine flopped around for months before finally figuring out walking (after his first birthday). But he was an early talker, and now he NEVER stops. Not ever. He talks in his sleep.
Marisa: I’ve definitely kept you longer than promised. Meghan, thank you so much for joining us tonight!
Eva Woods: I really loved talking to you, Meghan!
Meghan Flaherty: It was so absolutely my pleasure! Eva, thank you so much! It was mutual!
Marisa: Go enjoy your baby! Have a good night, and thank you both for the great conversation!
Feature photograph of Meghan Flaherty © Kent Corley.