Will Boast was born in England and grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin. His story collection, Power Ballads, won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction and essays have appeared in Best New American Voices, Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. He’s been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford and a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book is the New York Times bestselling memoir, Epilogue. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Brooklyn, NY, and is currently a Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.
To read the prologue to Boast’s memoir Epilogue and an exercise on framing chronology, click here.
In this interview, Boast discusses structural challenges of memoirs, writing dialogue from memory, and using concision to handle emotion.
One of the challenges for memoir writers, at least in some memoirs I’ve read, is that they get trapped by chronology. They have something they want to talk about or some particular story to tell, but that thing or that story isn’t enough to fill an entire book. And so, at a certain point, the book moves into “and then this happened and this.” That isn’t the case for this book, and it seems, in part, to be due to the structure you chose, which is centered more on thematic units than chronological ones. Did you always have such a structure in mind? How did you discover it?
I agree. A strictly chronological telling is very tempting for writers starting on any story, whether nonfiction or fiction. And sometimes it does work. But, in memoir anyway, it can be deadening. Too much of life is mundane to just make it “and then and then,” and very few, if any people, have real experiences that naturally take the shape of a good story. So you splice and rearrange and follow patterns rather than doggedly follow a timeline. Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir is very good on this subject.
Every book finds its own shape, but memoirs seem to present special structural challenges. I often say that, If fiction is the art of invention, memoir is the art of arrangement. Honestly, only an enormous amount of effort and trial and error helped me move forward. But I did have in mind, through many drafts, an emotional progression. That, more than anything, was my guide. It’s difficult for me to talk about themes, because I think those only become truly clear in nearly the final drafts. Certainly, I thought about ideas I wanted to express in the book. But more often than not, I found that they dropped away in the long process of revision, and that the ones that stayed became so tightly wound into the story itself that I almost hesitate to call them themes now.
The book contains so much loss, but you write mostly about living in the aftershocks of the loss and only a little about the loss itself. For example, you cover your mother’s death in a single paragraph. Was such concision always part of your sense of the book? Or did you write a great deal that you ended up cutting?
I wrote an incredible amount that I ended up cutting: several very long drafts and many, many alternate versions of each chapter. A certain concision, even reticence, ended up becoming part of the way the book handles emotion. At times I found that passages that had once sprawled over pages could be condensed into single sentences, and gain in power because of it. That’s actually quite a realization, that editing out whole episodes of your own experience can help the whole cohere. At first, it all seems important. But then you start to see the most relevant through lines, and they begin to guide you.
One of the questions that memoir writers face is how to handle dialogue, how to write spoken lines that are only half-remembered. So, I’m curious how you handled these conversations. For instance, you talked on the phone with your dad on the day that he died. During the call, you were, as you write,”hungover and pissy about being woken early,” which would seem to not lay fertile ground for remembering. How did you approach recreating this conversation for the book?
That phone call I do remember pretty vividly. Even though my brain was a little addled at the time, it’s simply one of those conversations you can’t forget, even if you wish you could. There are several instances of that in the book. There were also moments where, later in the timeline of the book, I actually thought to take notes, so that helped in places.
But you’re also right to wonder how much of actual speech can be remembered. I don’t think that many people who’ve written memoir would claim to recall verbatim who said what and when. And, really, that isn’t the point of memoir. No one has tape recordings of family dinners from twenty years ago. It’s important to understand that memoir is not simply a transcript of what happened. It’s not even simply remembering things. (If it was, it would be rather easier to write.) There’s a necessary process of distillation. Every single person, after all, says the same things over and over again. Our little refrains are a huge part of who we are. And those I find very easy to recall with great accuracy. So some of the dialogue you see in the book is made up of those things that were said habitually, day after day, dinner after dinner, fight after fight, bad joke after bad joke.
At times, you mix present action (for instance, preparing for your father’s funeral) with memories from childhood (giving your father a knife that you prized so that he could sell it). Is this mixing simply the result of your imagination and unconscious churning out material? Or the result of something more logical and planned?
Memory is not linear. Though we always live in the present, our minds are constantly casting into both the future and the past. In a way, I think of the stuff of memoir as being that which is so constantly on our minds that it keeps intruding on and interrupting the present. (This is the definition of trauma, I think.) The process of drafting, then, should be in part associative. This moment recalls another moment. Some of this just happens in the notebook. But, by the final drafts, yes, everything is intentional and very carefully planned.