Q: What made you decide to write a memoir?
When I finished Settling the South Carolina Backcountry in 2016, we were already living in Atlanta, and I had been helping take care of my grandchildren for five years. I was keenly aware of the impact I had on their lives and thought about my own childhood and how important my grandparents had been to me. I was ready to return to the letters and family photographs I had discovered in my attic eight years earlier and piece together a family narrative of my grandparents’ and parents’ lives before it was lost forever. It suddenly occurred to me, especially after my own near fatal illness, how little my son and grandchildren might know about me. I decided to write a memoir, incorporating my family’s history.
Q: What was the process as you first began?
I put together a large notebook, color coded by decades, to write down random thoughts. I established a routine and for several months would sit in bed almost every morning and let my thoughts flow without trying to edit them. This process slowly stirred my subconscious, almost like a séance. I sometimes compared it to pealing back layers of wallpaper, uncovering forgotten events, earlier points in time, with some memories more stained or faded than others. I also read a number of memoirs by different authors, thought about various ways to organize a life, and interviewed people who might remember my parents or brother or who knew me during different periods of my life.
Q: Anything about Unlocking that is unusual for a memoir?
Telling a life story is not the most common format for a memoir. Most focus on a specific transformative event or a discreet period-of-time.
Q: What surprised you most as the manuscript evolved?
I realized early on that the writing process was organic, and I needed to allow it to have a life of its own. In my initial construct, for example, I didn’t envision my career as a central theme. Yet how I changed as a woman and embraced my more ambitious self, became increasingly more important. I didn’t anticipate I would dig so deep as to actually tear away the amnesia that clouded my memory of family dynamics and my feelings for my father. I was able, finally, to understand him better, an unexpected and healing gift. I came to appreciate the trajectory of my life in surprisingly new ways.
Q: What advice would you give someone thinking about writing a memoir?
Find a routine that works for you, because continuity is important. Keep a notebook to write thoughts which seem particularly revelatory. At the beginning, try to be as open and flexible as possible with no preconceived ideas about what is most important. Finding a good editor to read at least the first draft is important.
Q: What are some of the most important things to emerge from the process that you hadn’t anticipated?
I think I was stunned to realize the degree to which I was my father’s daughter, how similar we were, and how I had embraced his love of gardening, the opera, and photography as well as his generosity toward others. Uncovering family dynamics provided unexpected insights into my insecurities, and I understood better some of the choices I had made. I always knew I had a great eye, but I had never focused on what I describe in the memoir as the gift of seeing. I realized my ability to see connections among artists and similar artistic impulses across millennia was linked to my intuition and capacity for empathy.
Q: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
In practical terms, finding uninterrupted time. My office is in our home and given the circumstances of our lives, my thought processes were constantly interrupted. Because I am disciplined, I could return to writing, but it could be hard to recapture where I left off or the “brilliant” phrase that didn’t get written down. Also, it was painful to construct a path back to my childhood, to revisit emotions so long repressed, and sometimes disturbing to read letters to and from my parents, especially from college. I had forgotten just how filled I was with angst.
Q: How did you feel when you finished Unlocking?
There is always a letdown when you complete a project, and when it’s a memoir, you keep thinking about what you didn’t include or how you could have framed your story differently. But, in the end, I felt peaceful and strangely wise. I understood my life’s journey so far in more profound and meaningful ways. Writing a memoir was liberating – it allowed me to play with language in a whole new way. I will miss that.
Q: What do you hope readers will learn from this book or think about after reading it?
That is a hard question. I hope certain themes and emotions resonate and can be meaningful in terms of thinking about their own lives. It would be wonderful if they felt inspired to think differently about travel and looking at art or how they might approach adversity. I hope they find some meaningful life lessons.
Q: What are some of your favorite books in recent years?
I prefer nonfiction, especially biographies. My list is eclectic and follows in no particular order: Khaled Hossein, And the Mountains Echoed; Robert K Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman; Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey; Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air; Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking; and Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Right now, I am reading Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women.