March 2011

Courtney Tenz

features

An Interview with Deb Olin Unferth

In what might have been a nightmare for her parents, 18-year-old Deb Olin Unferth dropped out of college and lit out for war-torn Central America. After camping out in a brothel and hanging with the Sandinistas, Unferth realized there wasn't much use for an unskilled American in Latin American civil wars and came back to the US to wow us with her witty, insightful prose (and to munch McDonald's). After publishing two works of fiction, Minor Robberies (2007) and Vacation (2010), Unferth finally decided to talk about herself, and we're really glad she did so. Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War is the funny, self-mocking memoir of her adolescent adventures in socialism.

So, why this book? Why now?

I had been trying to figure out how to write about that experience in Central America for a long time. The book went through several permutations, everything from a thinly-disguised autobiographical novel to a spy thriller set in the '80s in Central America, which was a disaster, to a series of stories to essays. It never came out right, and I eventually gave up.

Several people over the years told me that I should write a memoir about it. Finally I decided to try. I already had a lot of writing about the trip from all my previous attempts. Plus I'd kept journals during the trip. It became a matter of gathering, organizing, figuring out the tone and the shape of it.

It was interesting, too, to figure out what the difference is between writing fiction and writing nonfiction, or writing memoir. That was a fun challenge.

So what did you learn? What is the difference between fiction and non?

For one thing, I couldn't make anything up, which was hard, at first, because when I started writing it, Iíd be scribbling away (I write by hand), thinking, Wow, this is pretty easy, this is fun, and then I would look back at what I had just written, and realize none of it had happened, I had just made it all up. So I had to go back and stop at every paragraph and ask myself, Is this what really happened? Is this how it happened? until I got used to writing nonfiction. If I wasn't sure about something, I tried to write my uncertainty into the book. I say a few times in the book: I'm not sure about this. I also showed the manuscript to some family members and made changes as a result of their comments.

Another matter, however, is that the arc of a memoir is very different than, say, a novel or a story because the tensions are different, the ambitions are different. A novel, traditionally, follows an arc with rising conflict that reaches some sort of climax, and then falls into a resolution. Even if you're trying to write a novel that is not following that track, you're still in conversation with that model. But a memoir doesn't do that. You canít depend on certain tensions that are natural in a novel. For example the readers know a bit about what happened to the protagonist: the author lived, wasn't severely brain-damaged or destroyed because there she is, writing this book, bio right on the back cover. So you have to find different ways to develop that tension.

A memoir is about time and the imperfectness of memory and the invention of the self. And it is from those considerations that you find your tensions.

Did you do a lot of research to write this as nonfiction?

I did a tremendous amount of research. Of course, this topic has been of interest to me for a very long time. As a child, I spent a lot of time in Mexico and I spoke Spanish, so I was already interested in Latin American culture. Then I learned a lot and read an enormous number of books when I went to Central America at age 18, and ever since, I've been following the politics of the region, reading new books as they came out. There were three separate periods in my life that I mostly only read books about the politics of Central America. Still, my book is light on the politics and history of Latin America -- it wasnít my ambition to write a history or an analysis. There are plenty of excellent books that fit that description. But any historical material that's in there is absolutely well-researched, you wonít find any mistakes or misinformation or misrepresentations. One strength of my book, in fact, is that Iím not someone who just went to a region for a few months and came back thinking that I knew all about it. Mexico and Central America have been a part of my life since I was four years old.

What about including real people in your book, like George (the man you followed to Central America)? Or your parents? Did you include them in the process, to make sure the story was accurate?

I looked for George, I hired a private investigator, that's all in the book. I wonít give away what happened. He wasn't able to read the book before it came out, so he didn't, but he knows all about it. I wanted him to read it before it went out into the world in case there were things I misremembered or things that he'd disagree with or ask me not to include, but he missed that chance.

But my parents read it -- both of my parents read it before the final version went to my editor -- and my mother asked me to take out something (I did take it out). She also had comments about small facts here and there that she thought I had wrong, and I reacted to those. Either I changed them or I argued with her, and we settled on it together. Or in one case, I just put my mother's disagreement right into the text. There's a scene where I'm telling a story and my mother keeps interrupting me, saying, ďThat's not how it happened.Ē

Your writing has been referred to as somewhat experimental. Is that playing with form intentional?

I guess I never think of my writing as experimental. I think of this particular book as perhaps being somewhat impressionistic in that I present scenarios in some places without a lot of interpretation and analysis. In El Salvador, for example, I have many images of San Salvador and I try not to make statements about what the images mean. I present them as I perceived them at 18 or as I remember perceiving them at 18.

For example, there's a chapter called ďParade,Ē where George and I are standing in a plaza and a parade comes marching by and there's hardly anyone there to watch the parade. I recreated it impressionistically. Iím recreating how I was feeling at that time, arranging the impressions in such a way that would create the effect of the feelings I had.

Partly I did this also out of respect: I didnít want to presume to say I understood what it meant to have a parade marching through the plaza in the days of the civil war.

Let's go back to that first question: Why now? Has the time that's passed changed the story, made it more relevant somehow?

I think I needed those 20 years, partly in order for the story to end because who I am now is not who I was then and between now and then I've only been becoming. I think that now, finally, I am. (laughs) I think that before now, I was becoming and it took me a long time to reach that point. Now who knows, maybe I'll launch into some other sort of becoming again and all of that I am stuff will vanish. In that case, I'm glad I took advantage of this moment to write this book.

I feel the story hadn't ended -- at least that's what I think now, but while the years were passing, I just couldn't understand why I couldn't write this book. At the time it felt like failure.

That must be hard -- writing a book about yourself and feeling that sense of failure. Do you think the delay had anything to do with it being a memoir?

Well, I think it wasn't until recently that I developed a healthy respect for memoir. When I was first becoming a writer, I valued fiction highly. Memoir felt like a lesser category -- it felt less intellectual, less artistic, potentially self-indulgent, maybe whiny or self-pitying. Memoir, I worried, could be born of arrogance (as if fiction isnít -- ha!), and certainly not worthy of artistic merit. That continued for a long time. I cringed thinking of presenting the book as a memoir. But then I started reading memoirs and that's when things changed. I read a lot of memoirs and I realized that memoir is a fascinating genre, very intellectual, and it has a lot of creative energy behind it, a lot of potential, a lot of places it could go because it's a very new form. Artists have a chance to make a new sound by working in the memoir form. So then I was excited and honored to be working in the memoir form.

Any memoirs you find especially fascinating?

I wrote a memoir manifesto for Guernica Magazine recently, in which I list a lot of memoirs I think are good. And I guest-edited a section for them that includes six contemporary authors writing in the genre.