Interview with Memoir and YA Author Author Beth Kephart

By Jerry Waxler

A couple of years ago, I heard Beth Kephart deliver the keynote speech at the Philadelphia Stories “Push to Publish” conference. She offered an interesting perspective on memoir, having written more than one, including an unusual first person account of a river. After the talk, I went up to meet her, and that was the last I thought about her until I picked her memoir “Slant of Sun” out of my ever-deepening pile and started to read. The book impressed me as a lovely, deep, impeccable memoir and I stopped and stayed with it for quite a while. The longer I lingered the more I saw and appreciated. Within the pages, I identified twenty lessons for memoir writers, which I shared in previous posts. In this entry, I interview Beth Kephart about her experience as a writer.

Jerry Waxler: Considering the authentic feel of your dialog, I’m guessing you kept a journal. So did you?

Beth Kephart: The truth is that essay writing and, now, blogging is my form of keeping a diary or a journal.  The chapters that ultimately became A Slant of Sun were often written in the near wake of the events they record.  “Waiting for the Red Baron,” for example, was written the evening and next morning following an experience I’d had on the playground with my son. Dialogue in memoir is, indeed, very tricky.  It, above all else, can lead to doubt in the reader’s mind.  I tried to record only that that was fresh in memory or that which had remained there, indelible, for good reason.

Jerry: When did you decide to write a book about this period in your life?

Beth: I never planned on writing a book per se.  I was simply writing down the stories as they happened and reading them to my son–a way of memorializing the days we had together.  It all came together as a book after Jayne Anne Phillips and Rosellen Brown and others saw the pieces and suggested that they may make a meaningful whole.  I spent a long time considering whether or not to follow that suggestion.

Jerry: Do you keep a writer’s notebook now?

Beth: My blog serves, in many ways, as my notebook.  And my last many books have been fiction, and so I scrawl things to myself in strange places and hope I can find them later.  But mostly, when I write fiction, I am writing sentence to the next sentence.  Each new sentence unlocks an unforeseen door.

Jerry: When I read the memoir a month ago, it didn’t matter to me that you had written it years earlier. Your experience moved me just as much as if it happened yesterday. As a reader, that seems kind of obvious. But what does it feel like as a writer? Do you love your old books or are they hard to relate to?

Beth: I don’t, by and large, go back and read anything I’ve written once it is published–it’s even difficult for me to do readings from books I’ve just recently put out into the world.  I imagine that that has to do with a certain kind of fear that the book isn’t all I might have wanted it to be, or all I would do now, and that there simply is no way to change things.  Memoirs are particularly difficult to return to.  When I do–when I must–I am left raw with surges of emotion.  A sense of loss.  A sense of what if?  A sense of if only.  But mostly a sense of time passing.  The people we write of in memoirs grow up.  We grow up, too.  Nothing is permanent, save for those words on the page.

Jerry: I imagine most memoir writers don’t think (or can’t even guess) how this memoir will feel to them ten years later. What have you learned about memoirs and the passage of time that you wish you could have told yourself when you wrote it, or that you would tell other memoir writers as they aspire to publish their stories?

Beth: You are absolutely right:  We are incapable of imagining ourselves ten years on, our books beside us.  Incapable.  I have written five memoirs.  In each, I was working and writing toward universal messages and themes, and not toward a simple chronicling of my own small life.  With each I thought I was speaking for all of time.  I wasn’t.  I’m still learning about those themes.  I’m still making decisions or changing my mind.  I’m still emerging, despite my age.  My advice to writers of memoir is to be aware, always, that a memoir is not an absolute, not a black and white, not a he said, she said.  It is a grappling toward understanding, and that grappling will continue long after the book is out.

Jerry: To the reader, a memoir looks like a complete book that starts on page one and proceeds to the end. But the author has to do a lot of work to decide where to start and how to focus the book. Can you tell us about that process for you, how did you make those decisions?

Beth: It all comes back to those themes.  I have done all my shaping–all my deciding about what goes in and what stays out, about how much emphasis to put on one thing or another–by standing back and asking myself:  Does this scene advance your themes? Often some of the very best stories must be set aside.  But memoir is not autobiography.  The point is to leave the reader understanding more not just about you, but about him or herself.  It’s up to the writer to help the reader in that process.

Jerry: How did writing the memoir fit into your journey of becoming a lifelong book author?

Beth: Well, I’ve been very lucky, in many ways, with writing.  Before I wrote memoir, I published dozens of short stories in literary magazines, and each time out, I learned something new.  Memoir taught me many things — and the published books and the honors they received opened more doors, let me experiment with new forms, gave me a platform from which to speak and teach.  That is not to say that it is easy.  Ever.  In many ways, in this publishing environment, it gets harder.  But everything you write, published or not, teaches you something about what you are capable of and what you are still battling.  And every reaction you get to your work helps you see your best efforts from the outside.

Jerry: How did the memoir writing inform your later YA novel writing? (Note: Beth Kephart’s fifth YA novel Dangerous Neighbors is winning critical acclaim.)

Beth: After I wrote the five memoirs, I wrote an autobiography of the Schuylkill River called Flow, which felt, very much, like a river’s memoir.  I clung to that first-person voice, because I understood it, because through it I could speak most honestly.  My first four young adult novels were all first-person novels, and in each of the books the main characters contained aspects of me that I understood and unfurled, just as if I were unfurling my own thoughts in memoir.  The other day I was teaching in a classroom and the students, who had read one of my YA novels, were sure that the novel was memoir.  I asked them why.  They said because it felt urgent and honest.  The blog, too, allows me to exercise the first-person voice.

Jerry: Writers have many responsibilities: to say a thing clearly being in my opinion number one, and get to the heart of it, perhaps number two. But to do those two things and at the same time to add beauty of language seems to me to be almost a transcendent goal. Not only is it difficult to find colorful language. It can even be risky.

Beth: You are very right about language being risky.  But in my mind, there’s no point to writing a book if you aren’t willing to put your heart, soul, and imagination on the line, in almost every sentence.  Push as hard as you can, then edit back. Try to create something original and new.

Jerry: As a writer, I limit my use of metaphors and other artistic devices, because I fear they could be distracting, calling attention to the words and away from the purpose of the sentence. Then I read a book like yours and remember how uplifting and invigorating language arts can be.

Beth: Thank you.  Part of my “style” comes from the fact that I was a skater as a kid and I’m a dancer now and I believe in choreography and movement and color.  They are like religions to me.

Jerry: On many pages of Slant of Sun, I caught my breath, gasping at the simplicity, elegance, and originality of your word choices. Your phrasing lifted me, made me happy, and at the same time brought me deeper into your experience. On only two or three sentences in the entire book, I thought the word-image was a tiny bit out of center, but instead of distracting me, those moments merely made me grateful for all the passion you had put into your writing.  Could you give me some idea about how you achieve your style or voice? Do you practice? Is it a lifelong obsession? Did you go through a period of honing your voice? Do you remember some of the tools, techniques, or strategies you used to develop the knack?

Beth: Thank you (again).  I think voice–real voice–comes from an authentic, untrained place.  The impulse for an image, the idea for a metaphor — it can’t be taught.  What can be taught is self editing.  Toning it down.  Making it work.  I work on that all the time, and sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I don’t.  There’s no getting anywhere, though, if you don’t read a lot.  I do that all the time. Just this morning I finished reading and blogging about one of the best memoirs I’ve read in years–Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home.  I think it’s pitch perfect, all the way through.

Jerry: Will you write another memoir?

Beth: Sometimes I wish I had the courage.  I teach memoir writing at Penn.  I think about it.  I do.  But nothing is in the works.  My blog is my memoir at the moment.

Jerry: What are you working on now?

Beth: I am in the midst of finishing two novels — one, ten years in the making, the other, three.  I have just released a book that took me five years to write. It means a lot to me, for it is about Centennial Philadelphia.  Normally I run from promoting a book.  This new book, Dangerous Neighbors, is a book I am fighting for.  I’ve prepared a teacher’s guide (which is on my blog) and I am spending the time and energy it takes to share the book with teachers with the hope that local students will read the book and be transported back in time to a city I love.

Visit Beth Kephart’s Blog
Amazon page for “A Slant of Sun: One Child’s Courage” by Beth Kephart

Here are links to all the parts of my multi-part review of “Slant of Sun” by Beth Kephart and an interview with the author:

Use this memoir as a study guide: lessons 1 to 3

Lessons 4-5 from Beth Kephart’s Memoir, Slant of Sun

Four More Writing Lessons from Reading a Memoir

Memoir Lessons: Mysteries of emerging consciousness

Memoir Lessons: Moms, Quirks, Choices

Lessons from Kephart: Labels, Definitions, Language

Memoir Lessons: Buddies, Endings, and Beyond

Interview with Beth Kephart

More memoir writing resources

To see 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.

Memoir Interview with 60’s Celebrity Dee Dee Phelps

by Jerry Waxler

When I look back on the decades I’ve lived through, the 60’s stand out as being filled with energy and conflict. And one of the things that made the 60’s so powerful was the music of that decade. So I was intrigued to discover a memoir Vinyl Highway from a singer from the 60’s, Dee Dee Phelps.

Since the memoir was written recently, it can offer some insight to anyone who is trying to reach back through the decades to write about the 60’s. And since Dee Dee wrote the book recently, she can share tips about her experience writing it. Here is the first part of the two part interview.

Jerry: When did you first start thinking about writing a memoir? How long did it take, from the first draft to the completed book?

Dee Dee: I first started thinking about writing my memoir, “Vinyl Highway, Singing as Dick and Dee Dee” in early 2001. It took me three or four months of mental struggle to finally commit to making this happen. The total process, from page one to the final manuscript took four and a half years.
Jerry: What were your writing habits like?

Dee Dee: At first, I could only commit to writing one half hour a day. I was working part time in an attorney’s office, and managing four apartment buildings in Santa Monica full time. I set the alarm clock to rise a half hour earlier than usual and wrote before getting ready for work. I meditate first thing in the morning, so right after my meditation, I went to the computer. I soon made an interesting discovery. If I made writing a regular habit, even though I was unable to think about it throughout the day, when I sat at the computer the next morning, much had been worked out subconsciously and after simply reading back a few pages, I knew exactly how to proceed.

Jerry: What did you do about slumps?

Dee Dee: I only had two “slumps” in the entire process. When I had to go out of town, I took a week breather from writing. And although it was difficult getting back in the “flow,” once I did it was easy to stream forward with greater speed and efficiency. The second slump was when I took a left turn and wrote about my family for three months, thinking I would start the memoir with a story that took place before I was born. At the Maui Writer’s Retreat of 2003 I was told by the group of 12 writers that that whole section had to go. A memoir is about a specific period of time, in my case the Sixties. I was turning it into an autobiography and a family history and it didn’t work. After my initial shock, I dropped about 120 pages (three months of work) and focused on finishing the memoir the way I originally conceived it to be.

Jerry: I read that you went to school for creative writing. What was it like going back to school as an adult? What was your favorite part about it?

Dee Dee: I did go back to school during the process of writing Vinyl Highway. After I read the first seventy five pages I’d written, I realized that this was simply the worst thing I’d ever read. I saw nothing redeeming about it. It was then that I realized I needed to sharpen my skills so I enrolled in a memoir writing class at the University of California in Los Angeles. It was the first of three classes I took, in addition to the Maui Writer’s Retreat. My favorite part about memoir classes was hearing all the amazing stories coming from the most ordinary people. I realized that everyone has something special and unique that happened in their lives. And the classes kept me focused on the goal and kept me writing. It was a process of discovery, uncovering the layers of the proverbial “onion.”

Jerry: As I read your memoir, I find my emotional reaction often seems to be stronger than yours, like when I was getting upset with the behavior of your singing partner Dick St. John, but you simply told the story. How did you stick to just showing the events rather than trying to convey your own emotional tangle?

Dee Dee: I learned that technique from my memoir classes. If there was one theme that was repeated over and over it was “Show, don’t tell.” I imagined the scenes visually, as if watching a movie. I distanced myself from the memory for a moment and imagined I was writing a novel. When I imagined I was writing about someone else. That made it easier to describe thoughts and feelings effectively and still keep the story going. I love reading fiction writer T.C. Boyle. Although his stories are so over the top, he really conveys the characters emotions, not by saying that they were angry, sad, etc. but by showing how they reacted. He’s particularly able to show over the top rage, a very difficult thing to write about.

When I wrote about Dick pulling me away from the microphone by the back of my dress, remember that we were on a stage. I had to pretend nothing was going on, smile and keep singing. In writing that, I just tried to run the scene as it happened. Yes, in remembering the past we re-experience the good and bad feelings that went along with our experiences. But it’s a fine balance to write about what we feel and to continue the narrative.

There really is no right or wrong way to do this. It’s up to each person writing a memory. I can only say that after reading literally hundreds of memoirs, I discovered early on that the ones that told too many facts, such as “Then I did this, and that made me happy or sad” are the ones that I usually put down unread. People want “story.” If it isn’t a story, it isn’t interesting to people. It’s as simple as that. So…if you are going to work with describing feelings, you have to show how you felt, not tell it.

Jerry: What sort of research did you do for the book?

Dee Dee: Sadly, during a move in the late Sixties, my photo album with personal photos I’d taken of Sixties performers vanished. I also lost my book in which I had recorded our itineraries. Trying to pull together the various dates and places was difficult. I researched the internet, old newspapers, read all the memoirs from that period I could get my hands on, anything to discover facts I needed for the book.

Jerry: What was the remembering process like?

Dee Dee: I’m blessed with a good memory. My mother used to tell me I remembered incidents from when I was three years old (I also have a clear memory of dialogue that took place between people). The facts, such as the dates and times things took place, are harder for me to pinpoint.

Jerry: Was there any concern about needing to fill in things you didn’t remember precisely in order to turn it into a real scene?

Dee Dee: Everyone who writes a memoir has to fill in the blanks to keep the narrative going. Obviously, we don’t run around with a tape recorder, recording conversations our entire life. When we write a memoir, we are re-creating scenes as they happened to the best of our ability.

Jerry: In addition to writing the book, did you reach out to share your story in other venues (public speaking, 60’s nostalgia groups, or article or story writing)? If so how did that go?

Dee Dee: Eventually, after Vinyl Highway was released, I started doing book readings at book stores. I’ve also read at book festivals. I’ve talked on numerous radio shows and still do so, both am and fm and internet radio. It’s all a great experience.

To see part two of this interview, click here.