The Rumpus Book Club chats with T Kira Madden about her debut memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls (Bloomsbury, March 2019), writing sections of her story in real time, how the book’s attention-grabbing cover came to be, and more.
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 Michele Filgate, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Elissa Washuta, Trisha Low, Ayse Papatya Bucak, Leigh Camacho Rourks, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Welcome to our chat with T Kira Madden about her debut memoir, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls!
T Kira Madden: So happy to be here!
Eva Woods: I love the book’s title, by the way.
T Kira Madden: Thank you, Eva!
Eva Woods: Good book titles are too rare.
T Kira Madden: The title was actually not my idea! Took me years to warm up to it. Grateful that I did!
Marisa: How are you feeling, T Kira, with the publication date just two days away? (!!!)
T Kira Madden: I am feeling TIRED, but thrilled and finally ready (I think!).
Eva Woods: Can you tell us a little about the overarching process of writing a memoir? How did you negotiate deciding where the lines of what you want public to be? I’m just kind of realizing how much therapy I would need while writing a memoir lol.
T Kira Madden: I have always studied and written and taught fiction, so I mean it when I say I learned how to write this memoir by writing it. No planning process, no boundaries in the beginning. I asked mentors and authors for answers and soon realized those answers are, unfortunately, different for everyone
I knew from day one that I cared about my mother and her feelings and boundaries most, so I worked very close with her throughout the process. She read every piece and every draft, and we always had a dialogue running.
Eva Woods: I love that!
T Kira Madden: I always honored her wishes, but I was lucky that she never told me to take anything out. She really wanted me to be true to my experiences, with hopes that I could also offer some light to hers.
Eva Woods: She seems really lovely and was really lovingly written.
T Kira Madden: Thank you, Eva! She really is. She shows up to every reading, too. She’s been a champ!
Sarah Gonzalez: The video of your mom holding your book for the first time was beautiful. I teared up.
ahf2101: Piggybacking on Eva’s question: you describe details from your childhood/teenage years so vividly. How were you able to trace back those experiences?
T Kira Madden: I kept many journals, and BOXES and BOXES of photographs; I also interviewed members of my family. But, for the most part, I relied on my memory. Since many of the events in the book surround trauma, I remember them more sharply than I do, say, the events of last week
Sarah Gonzalez: I loved your book. I always think about the people in the room with you when you write, either symbolically or real. Who was your initial audience?
T Kira Madden: Great question, Sarah. I think, in a way, I was initially writing to and for my father. I’d just lost him, and it was my first time alone since those horrible weeks in the hospital, and I felt like he was in the room with me. As is written in the book, I had dreams about him every night when I started this book, and he would tell me what I got “right” or “wrong.” I’m not really a spiritual person, but that’s where my grief took me.
Sarah Gonzalez: Also, how much is boxing part of your process?
T Kira Madden: Boxing, the sport?
Sarah Gonzalez: I lost my dad four years ago and cried so much reading your memoir. You gave me the courage to finally write about him. So, thank you. Yes, boxing. I became a black belt to deal with my grief.
T Kira Madden: Wow, that’s incredible! Boxing is new for me—maybe two months, if that? I am loving it so much. I went in, initially, for the basic exercise (gearing up for tour!) but I’ve found so much more. Really finding my center of gravity with my coach, something that’s been especially helpful since I’ve been talking about the assault quite often during pre-pub.
Eva Woods: Boxing is so great y’all, and I am super into the idea of athletics as trauma healing.
Eva Woods: As a former Bad Kid, I really liked how you brought us right to the age you were with your writing style. Was that something you did purposefully or did it happen on its own? Like, there were definitely parts where I recognized my young self.
T Kira Madden: I tried to stay as close to that voice as possible, yes. That’s where journals really helped! The way I’d recall AOL instant messenger conversations, for example.
ahf2101: Was the process of interviewing your family cathartic?
T Kira Madden: I think the most interesting part of interviewing my family was realizing that they would all swear by their versions of a story, and all their stories would be different and cohnflicting. That’s where the final movement of the book comes in, this idea of “so many revisions” and never getting it right. It was a trip but also an honor to go back in time with them.
Kristen Felicetti: Hi T Kira! Thanks for talking to us; I really liked your book and it moved me a lot. What other books do you consider your book in conversation with?
T Kira Madden: Thank you! I’d like to think it might be in conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, and shares some elements of Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body, and maybe (though I am probably flattering myself) Lynda Barry’s Cruddy. Oh, and Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth has always been important to me!
Marisa: You mentioned that it took a while to come around to the title; how long did it take to write the book, as it exists in its final iteration?
T Kira Madden: Three and a half years, Marisa. Not at all a long time for me. I wrote FAST, but I did work harder on this book than I’ve ever worked at anything. There wasn’t a single day I took off until the day we went to print the final hardcovers. My editors will support that (they had to pry it from me!).
Marisa: How did you handle what was changing in your real life as you wrote? It felt like you almost must have been writing “in real time” for some sections.
T Kira Madden: I did write so much of it in real time! When my agent picked up the book I hadn’t found my sister yet. It was a 110-page “essay collection.” Soon after, that discovery, and my agent, pushed me to grow the book, reach into the corners more, and I began “Kuleana.”
Eva Woods: WOW. Writing things while they’re happening is so wild to me.
T Kira Madden: And when it sold to Bloomsbury, there was no brother at the end. It was a happy ending; it ended with us meeting my sister in the park. But I wanted to honor the unfinished story as it continued to unfurl. I wanted more of an “inhale,” as Nelly Reifler once wrote in an essay on endings. What’s true to my life is the question, not the answer. I still haven’t found my answers or conclusions. It couldn’t end in that park. I wrote the ending even after galleys came out!
Marisa: That is kind of amazing. Quite a feat.
Sarah Gonzalez: Your memoir is the first I’ve read highlighting Hawaiian traditions and family legacy. Was that important for you? I loved it.
T Kira Madden: It was, yes. Hawaiian mythology and Hawaiian language has historically been stripped (literally, the language was banned from schools when Hawaii became a state) so it was an honor for me to bring some of that into the text. To have it live there. I wanted to do right by my family and our history.
Eva Woods: It’s so dope to see anyone talking about Hawaii. I feel like a lot of mainlanders don’t know the history.
ahf2101: I generally like memoirs, but as I was reading this, I really felt like you brought something new to the genre, taking risks (that really paid off) with form, structure, chronology (i.e. “Collected Dates with My Father”), and pockets of philosophy among all the chaos you experienced. How is the final output different from your first drafts? Did you shift sections around? What were you thinking structurally before you started writing?
T Kira Madden: It was a real mess before my agent started moving things around, asking about thematic sections, encouraging me to try something slightly more linear. The book had about eighty different shapes before the final three-act structure.
ahf2101: Thank you! Really incredible.
Eva Woods: Can you talk a little bit about the role your editor played in shaping how you wrote, especially the more difficult and traumatic parts?
T Kira Madden: My agent, Callie Garnett, is a genius. We speak the same language (the language of weirdos) and she always allowed me to lean into the weird. She’d let me try one-sentence essays; she let me try the photos; she let me try any and every structure. I think she would agree we had a blast finding this book together, a book that feels more like ours than mine. She could see it from day one. Regarding trauma, I wouldn’t say she guided me through any of that, but she and Bloomsbury certainly had my back as I went through my legal proceedings with “Chad.”
Eva Woods: Great pseudonym, by the way.
Sarah Gonzalez: This memoir is the first time I’ve seen hidden family secrets shared that could have destroyed many. I’ve seen firsthand how damaging they are. But you managed to achieve [sharing these secrets] on the page with such grace and respect for all sides. How did you balance that?
Eva Wood: Sarah, I agree so hard! I love how you didn’t demonize anyone, T Kira.
T Kira Madden: Transparency! I’d never reveal anything that would destroy the people I love. Which isn’t to say everyone should stand by that rule, but I made that decision from the get-go. I’d be transparent and always in dialogue.
Sarah Gonzalez: I personally get a lot of pushback from my family about publishing family secrets. I think it’s great you were transparent from the get go and still protected them.
T Kira Madden: It is TOUGH WORK. I can’t remember if it was you who mentioned therapy but there is a reason my therapist is in my acknowledgements! Clearly there was so much that went unsaid in my family, and this was the first time we brought those things into the room.
Kristen Gantt: Do you see/live your daily life differently now that so much of you is published? Will you go about finding those answers with the continued story in mind?
T Kira Madden: What a thoughtful question. Hmm. I think, as readers and writers, we are always looking to create a story arc from our lives (and I don’t mean specifically nonfiction). We think dramatically, and we pay attention to details, and we like finding those inhales and exhales and resolutions in our daily lives—that’s why we’re drawn to story. I am always trying to push myself away from this tendency, to be honest. I don’t want to be so consumed by my work and the work of others that I tidy my experiences; I don’t want cliches of thought. I wonder if that makes any sense?
Eva Woods: I feel like “do it for the story” is on the fatherless girls’ coat of arms.
Marisa: That makes a lot of sense to me. Sometimes I feel so caught up in the story/stories of my and others’ lives that I can’t even write (if that makes any sense).
You mentioned that your mom read the book as you wrote; did you show the work to anyone else along the way?
T Kira Madden: My partner, Hannah, reads everything before anyone else. She’s my greatest editor.
Eva Woods: You mentioned journals from when you were young; do you still keep one?
T Kira Madden: Not a traditional journal, but I’m always writing down recipes—what worked and what failed—and those recipes feel a bit like journals.
Eva Woods: Oooh I love that! Recipes as journals is something I would read.
ahf2101: You write that your rage is never directed toward your mother or father, but their dealers. Is that still the case? Did you always have hope that each incident was the last? With the opioid crisis being taken more seriously now than ever before, how does your understanding of just how severe their addiction was change things for you/put things in perspective?
T Kira Madden: As a young person I certainly thought in binaries, and all drug dealers, to me, were EVIL. All I knew was that they were killing my parents and they were doing it for money. Now that I’ve worked in jails and shelters and rehabilitation centers, I understand the nuances and gray areas and reasons why people use drugs and also why they deal. I had no grasp of the criminal justice system or class system when I was growing up in Boca Raton. My relationship to crime has changed enormously.
That said, I still hate those dealers in the book. #lol
ahf2101: As you should!
Marisa: I’m going to ask a kind of shallow question that I’m just too curious about. Can we please talk about the book’s cover? And how it came to be?
Kristen Felicetti: A bunch of people have asked me about your book based on the cover. Like, stopped me on the subway to ask about the book, or when I bring it to my office. That makes me happy because I can then tell them about the book. And I love the cover; it’s beautiful and feels like a party and a life-affirming triumph. How did this cover come about and did you have any input on it?
Kristen Felicetti: Omg, jinx Marisa!
Marisa: HA! Jinx!
Eva Woods: Omg y’all jinxed jinxes. That is so cute.
T Kira Madden: I’m so glad you asked! The cover was a long, tedious process. My book designer, Tree Abraham, is actually publishing one of those “Secrets of the Book Designer” pieces on Lit Hub soon, where you’ll be able to check out the other drafts. This cover was difficult—I think everyone on team LLtT would agree—because the book itself was so difficult to summarize (and we were continuing to discover it as I kept writing it!). We tried images of me; we tried images that felt a bit melancholy; we tried hot air balloons and tigers and more atmospheric covers (palm trees). Tree read the book so carefully and created an exquisite map of thematic threads and different directions (which will also be in the Lit Hub article) and glitter was the design teams final, whacky idea. I loved the idea of glitter immediately.
From there we just toyed with different colorways, and went with the one that felt most like a sunset. Since we went with Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls as a title because it felt, somehow, “triumphant,” we decided the cover shouldn’t be so sad. We wanted to feel that celebration you mentioned, Kristen.
I worried, at first, because the cover didn’t feel like “me”—the person I am now (a “me” cover would probably be more gothic and moody), but I soon realized the cover felt exactly like the “me” of the book—that kid sprinkling the Tiger Beat ad with craft glitter—and I trusted that. She’s more important.
Marisa: This is such a great answer! I can’t wait to read that Lit Hub piece, and yes, the cover feels like the “you” of the book in Boca and makes so much sense.
Eva Woods: What’s your writing process like?
T Kira Madden: Eva Woods I write slowly. I spend hours or days on a single sentence if I need to (which is often!) I’m spiritual about my desk and how it’s decorated—my companion books, the photos and lights and props on the desk itself. I’m in the process of rebuilding my desk for the new book because the LLtT lava lamp is just a different mood.
ahf2101: With a major book tour about to kick off, how are you preparing? What sections do you intend to read at readings? You are going to have a lot of folks sharing their stories with you because of how much this book will touch them. Is that something you’re looking forward to?
T Kira Madden: I’m told to read the same section every night to put less pressure on myself, but that doesn’t feel right to me. I think I’ll choose based on the place, and the people I might see there, and even my mood on any given day. For example, when the Kavanaugh hearings were happening, I had a reading and I chose to read “The Feels of Love”—something I’d never typically choose to read—because I needed that story to be in the room and heard.
T Kira Madden: Regarding other people sharing their stories. I always feel very honored to hear them. It’s heavy, for sure, but I wrote this book for the dialogue, not for myself. So I’m not going to close that dialogue down unless, for reasons of safety or self-care, I see no other choice. I feel that I need to meet people there, at the page.
Eva Woods: I’ve never been to Boca, but I lived in Orlando as a kid and you really nailed Florida. How do you approach building a sense of place?
T Kira Madden: Place is so difficult for me! I constantly have to remind myself of it, since my inclination is always to focus on the people and thoughts/dialogue/language etc. I’m glad it came through for you!
Marisa: I always like to wrap up by asking what you’re reading right now and/or forthcoming books that you’re especially excited about?
T Kira Madden: I just picked up Mitchell S. Jackson’s latest book, Survival Math, and I am SO excited about it (heard him read from it last week—holy beautiful). Also reading a galley of Chelsea Bieker’s forthcoming novel Godshot, which will knock you over. I’m really excited about Jaquira Díaz’s forthcoming memoir, Ordinary Girls, because it’s another queer/Miami memoir and I rush to read anything and everything Jaquira writes; she’s the real deal. And wow, SO MANY OTHERS. This year is such a terrific year for books!
Marisa: T Kira, thank you so much for joining us tonight and talking with us! You know I love your writing and this book, and I’m super excited for it to be out in the world this week!
Sarah Gonzalez: Thank you so much for your time this evening, T Kira. I wish you supportive love and light as your story comes out in the world this week. It must be nerve racking. The writer’s “vulnerability hangover” must be a real thing. Thank you for telling your story on the page on behalf of all the “fatherless girls” and those of us who were hidden as a second family. I wish you so much success and blessings.
ahf2101: Thank you! Going to try to catch you in New York this week! Just want to say that this book is amazing and I cannot wait to recommend it. Best of luck with the media whirlwind, your tour, and your next project. And, congratulations!
T Kira Madden: Thank you all so much for your whip smart and thoughtful and kind questions. This has been a blast. Hope to meet some, if not all, of you in the near future!
Kristen Felicetti: Thank you T Kira!!
Marisa: Thanks to you all for the great conversation, and have a good night!
Eva Woods: Thank you so much for your time! This was awesome.
T Kira Madden: Much, much love to you all. Wishing you the best of reading and writing!
Photograph of T Kira Madden © Jac Martinez.