Ghost Wrote Her Mother’s Memoir, Interview Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

Linda Austin was the daughter of an American serviceman and a Japanese mother. Her parents met in Japan when he was stationed there after World War II. They then moved to the United States where Linda was born and raised. When Linda set out to understand her mother’s early life, she decided to write it as a first person story. Based on extensive interviews and research, she wrote Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. Click here [link] for my thoughts about the memoir and the first part of my interview with her. I continue the interview here.

Jerry Waxler: Did your mother talk much about these experiences, as you were growing up? Many kids have the experience of hearing about a few specific stories over and over. We roll our eyes and think “I’ve heard that story a hundred times?” Did that happen in your house?

Linda Austin: My mother did tell us the same stories over and over, but it took a long time for my sister and I to get bored of them because they were just so different than anything we knew growing up in the U.S. Actually, I had decided by my early twenties that I should capture those stories somehow since they were so unique. In those days, that meant audio tape recordings, and I did do a couple of those on cheap equipment because that’s all we had in the house. I never heard the WWII stories until I was a prying adult.

Jerry Waxler: What convinced you to make the transition from a bunch of anecdotes to a continuous, sequential story?

Linda Austin: It always was going to be a memoir. My mom had just too fascinating a life. She’d complain while I interviewed her that nobody wanted to hear about her tough, sad life, not understanding that that’s what was so interesting. The hard part was segueing the stories together and blending the mix of anecdotes, history, and culture–thank goodness for word processing! Many memoirs have transition bumps from story to story, but I think I did a pretty good job blending. An elementary-school librarian helped with organization and editing.

Jerry Waxler: When you started the memoir, were there places where you felt you needed to fill in but were afraid to ask? Did you ever feel you were prying or disrespectful? If so, how did you handle those feelings?

Linda Austin: My mom is very open about her life, unusual for a Japanese woman, but I guess she’d become Americanized quite well. I was afraid to ask some things because she would be way too open! I had to work on stories about my father very carefully to avoid upsetting her for days. I would only ask a couple questions at a time and then avoid the topic for awhile. That was a very difficult dance, and I stumbled many times. Editing was a fight because she would have liked some revenge in the book. My dad was amazing in that he never asked about what I would write and seemed to trust me. Incidentally, he and my step-mom love the book.

Jerry Waxler: Describe the interviewing process. What sort of questions did you ask? What was your mother’s attitude? Describe a situation when you were interviewing that might help us understand some of the challenges of interviewing your mother.

Linda Austin: My mother liked telling stories and talking about the festivals, but hated being interviewed, and she thought I was crazy for writing about her life. She thought her life was difficult and sad so who’d want to hear about that. She also thought since everyone in Japan had lived through those tough times that her story was nothing special. Her best friend at the time, Frankie, pushed her to get her life written down and actually started typing the stories while I was out of the country for a year. If it weren’t for Frankie, there might not be a memoir. Still, Mom would get really irritated when I wanted to know little details, like explaining the Japanese bathroom or kitchen. “Who cares about that?!” I repeated many times during the questionings, “I want to know, and your grandchildren will want to know. This is all new to us.” Sometimes telling stories and explaining details led her to make beautiful sketches, usually on scrap paper, which I tidied up for printing and added to the book.

The other difficulty was when she didn’t remember what she thought about events and experiences, if she even thought about some of them at all. Kids don’t always analyze how they feel, and in Japan in those times people were not supposed to think for themselves and were to do and believe what the government told them. I think the Japanese are more stoic and definitely more reticent about feelings anyway, at least in those days. One reviewer complained there wasn’t enough about how my mother felt. Well, I did the best I could with what I had to work with. Therein lies the difficulty of ghostwriting and the value of fiction.

This finishes part 2 of a 3 part interview

Click here for Part 1 of article and interview with Linda Austin
Click here for Part 3 of my interview with Linda Austin

Notes

Linda Austin’s home page:

Cherry Blossoms in Twilight By Yaeko Sugama Weldon and Linda E. Austin

For brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

2 thoughts on “Ghost Wrote Her Mother’s Memoir, Interview Part 2

  1. Dear Jerry & Linda,

    This interview is so fascinating to me because it highlights the amount of work that goes in to interviewing a family member. It seems it is all about timing, respect for boundaries and ultimate patience for the person doing the interviewing. I interviewed my Dad the year before he died for about an hour. Everything had to be in place so that he was not tired, hungry, distracted,etc. I only did it once but captured a treasure trove of stories. When I think of all the time and effort you have spent Linda, I am imagining you have a very rich memoir and one I am looking forward to reading.
    Thank you both for a very interesting interview.

  2. Pingback: Is this the year to write your parent's memoir? | Memory Writers Network

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