Recently I had the pleasure of corresponding with Joseph Gross about his essay from our current issue (vol. 9, no. 1), "Picnic Geese." As you'll see below we talked about memory, the 1980s, how to write about emotional moments, and so much more. Enjoy!
Ninth Letter: The essay engages with the idea of memory, specifically how different members of your family remember the events of the essay differently, which is immediately introduced in the opening sentence when you say, "we disagreed how and when we picked up the shotgun the time my dad, younger brother, and I killed two geese in a public park." When you decided to write the essay was the memory issue something you knew up front that you wanted to tackle or did that come about as you wrote the essay?
Joseph Gross: I intended for years to write that story, but I focused on my family’s differing opinions because they simply dominated our renditions. I sought out and taped my brother and dad’s version of events because the events took place so long ago, and because there wasn’t a hell of a lot to the narrative—we drove to the park, shot the geese, and drove back. There was plucking. So the story lay in the details, and the details differed wildly. They differed so much, in fact, some of us felt a little insulted. When you write nonfiction about your family with whom you hope to continue close relationships, some compromise finds its way into your work, and in this case no compromise was necessary, a pleasant by-product of the approach, at least. Pointing out our differences seemed more interesting, too, than rectifying them. I learned more about myself from what I didn't remember. I learned, of course, that my memory makes me look better when it gets a chance, but it’s the memoir writer’s job to scrutinize the way we twist and slide into who we become and how we represent the past.
9L: The narrative and the issues of memory are woven together nicely, so it never feels like, okay we're stopping the story to contemplate the idea of memory, it just happens very naturally. What was the process like of bringing those two strands together. I guess this is more of an actual writing process question. Did you work on both aspects at the same time or did you write out the narrative first and then looked at places where you could address the memory issues?
JG: Thank you! As I wrote the narrative, most of the reflective writing emerged with it, in part because I tend to write slowly (painfully). I did spend a lot of editing time later balancing how long and how often I split from the action—moving some elements around, shaping or even removing others. The long list of guns on my dad’s bedroom wall, for example, seemed to threaten the narrative flow, but I really wanted it! Thank you, Ninth Letter Editors, for your tolerance. The slow process of interviewing my family and the distance in time of the story provided opportunities for reflection before writing, too. Although that approach might kill some of the wonderful discovery process in writing out a story, I was comforted to have an idea where I was going.
9L: When it comes to writing about family, or really anyone you know, how difficult is it to balance creating them as a character for the essay as you see them vs. how they might see themselves? It's kind of an unique characteristic to nonfiction in that you're representing actual people. That can happen in fiction too, but it's also a little different in that genre. You said you didn't have to compromise for this essay, but in cases where you have, if you have, is that something you worked out on your own as you wrote it?
JG: Depicting real people, some of whom you love, reveals the blessing/curse at the heart of personal nonfiction. Priceless bits of personality and relationship return from the edge of disappearance! Sense, or at least some kind of redemption is approached from our suffering! But our actual relationships affect the creative desire to shape a character how we’d like, and we have to weigh the emotional consequences of revealing. Creating trust in the reader with honesty can risk loss of trust in real life. Still, I think balancing artistic impulse with real life helps achieve the believability nonfiction requires, and this balancing, this compromise, happens for me during even the initial phases of writing. While I write about them, I imagine my mother or wife reading about themselves. I want them to be pleased and I want to write well, too. If a writer finds that impossible, the subject might not be worth exploring. And, of course, the whole process is flawed as any art: the character of your father never achieves becoming your father. The character father’s an impostor, trying with all he’s got to fasten your real dad to the impermanent world.
9L: The events of the essay take place in the early 80s and the time period makes it seem like you could get away with shooting geese in a park more easily than if it happened now. Were you concerned at all with trying to capture the spirit of the early 80s as much as telling this family story?
JG: I was really thinking more about the difference between my dad’s childhood in the 1940s and mine in the 80s, but the continuing trend toward caution in childcare does make the action of the story stand out. My hopes were more to preserve my dad’s attitude and sense of adventure than the popular culture of the period. And although I did make some references to the looseness of the era, like the approach to seatbelts back then, I thought making that a distinct thread would undermine the sense of the softness of my childhood in comparison to his. The story might have held up well with more 80s culture included, of course. It would be fun to dress a piece in a polo shirt and skinny leather tie and put it in pin-striped jeans with penny loafers. Maybe.
9L: This question is a little more about the general experience of writing nonfiction. Essentially, how do you handle writing about personal, perhaps emotional things, then sharing that with the world without being able to hide behind the veil of fiction?
JG: Writing about the personal and emotional as nonfiction just requires a writer who doesn't mind telling everybody he meets about himself. The kind of person you learn a lot more about on a bus ride than you’d hope. And that’s me, I guess. Sometimes a story gets worked out through telling on a bus or a car ride (sorry, passengers!). Then I tell as much as I’m willing on paper, which may still be more than you’d hope. Writing about others, as we discussed, is trickier, but I worry about my fictional characters making inferences to family and friends, too. One problem I do have with emotional nonfiction is that I cry when I read it out loud. I've cried in workshops, at readings. Embarrassing.
9L: The goose you and your family eat for dinner in the essay ends up tasting, well, not great, which makes me wonder if you now have a favorite recipe for chicken or turkey or whatever your fowl of choice might be?
JG: My fowl of choice has remained decidedly non-gamey. While I like to barbecue, my favorite recipe for chicken is coq-au-vin, which seems to translate directly as "chicken of the wine." I think the name speaks for itself.
Thank you very much to Joe for taking the time to answer my questions. To read "Picnic Geese" and all the other wonderful fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in vol. 9, no. 1, pick up a copy in our webstore.