November 2015

Jane Hawley

features

An Interview with Debra Monroe

Nearly twenty-five years ago, Debra Monroe first established her career with by winning the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction with her story collection, The Source of Trouble. A handful of acclaimed novels and story collections followed her debut, featuring hardscrabble characters on the quest for better lives. Then On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain, her first memoir and chronicle about her experience as a single white mother who adopted the only black baby in town, was released, opening up a more direct connection to her readership about the intersections between Monroe's life and her writing.

Her prose has been described as shimmering "like a jazz solo, full of sass and danger." This combination of wit and adventurousness first drew me to her work. Her stories are tightly constructed, yet her writing refuses to be neat. It is filled with messy people, messy emotions, messy situations. In other words: life.

Monroe's most recent memoir, My Unsentimental Education, returns to the topics of her early stories and novels: working class women searching for fulfillment, unpredictable men, and the hard compromises they both make to survive the hard reality of loving each other. The title reflects Monroe's approach to life and to writing memoir. She is unsentimental and unflinching. Her lovers transition straightforwardly from boyfriends to husbands, with the echo of Jane Eyre's simple and plainspoken confession -- "Reader, I married him." While Monroe picks up multiple times to move across the country in pursuit of graduate degrees and a career as an academic, she finds herself leaving lovers, being left by lovers, and finding love again.

The only constant is her raw and relentless search for self through literature. It is her lifeline, her mirror, her way out. Throughout the memoir, Monroe parallels the narrative conventions of our famous female Victorian authors -- Austen, Brontė, and Eliot -- with her own contemporary, no-nonsense, feminist wit. In her hands, storytelling becomes a way of organizing and illuminating the dizzying complexities of living and loving.

At the beginning of your most recent memoir, one of your previous students looks to you as a mentor -- a particularly modern role model for professional or academic young women. As I was reading, I felt like this student -- the "gentle reader" you occasionally address -- and I wondered what inspired you to write a memoir pairing your education (which also became your career) and your romantic life. Was there a moment when you became particularly aware of how these two arenas of your history converged?

There was a moment. When my last book came out, a memoir about raising my black daughter as a white single mother in small-town Texas, two intriguing but slightly off-topic questions came up over and over, from book page editors doing interviews, and from people at the Q&As at book signings. 1) How did someone with my past turn out to have my career? 2) Why, apart from two very short-lived starter marriages, did I stay single until I was fifty? (The blunt version of that question: Did you really date for more than 30 years?) I was flummoxed by both questions at the time. I didn't have answers. After I settled back into a daily routine, I realized that one complicated story answered both questions. Hence, the pairing of the themes. The book is almost an "anthology" of former selves and boyfriends who fit each self for a time, and then suddenly didn't.

My entry into higher education was so improbable, given where I came from, and given that I was raised before the feminist movement. Changing what I knew and who I knew meant that I spent years not just studying but feigning, acting, posing. My daytime self -- a pretense, a veneer, I felt -- was increasingly sophisticated, or at least increasingly educated, but my off-the-clock self lagged behind. Work was already hard work. I didn't want dating to feel like work. The answer to why I stayed serially monogamous for thirty-some years had everything to do with the fact that I'd changed milieus quickly, over and over, also with the fact that I'd moved from a backwoods town that didn't value education to the so-called ivory tower. It was hard for me to change fast enough to become the person I was becoming, so it's impossible to expect that a man would have kept pace with me.

There are a few times that you write about how pursuing higher education and becoming a professor required you to move around the country, which meant that people were constantly coming into and leaving your life. How much do you think moving from one location to the next -- either for education or for a relationship -- affected your sense of self? 

It was unsettling. I had no safety net, no one to call when life got dicey. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have married the second time, the most dire of the starter marriages, if someone who knew me well had been nearby and pointing out the warning signs. But moving that often was liberating, too. Every time you move, you have a chance to reinvent yourself. This gets emphasized in the book with my thrift store forays and my sewing jones. Every time I moved, I changed how I looked so I'd blend: "adventitious protective coloration," as biologists say. Those fresh starts were unnerving, but also thrilling. Every move was a new chance.

I was especially intrigued by your claim that people used to be able to better assess potential romantic partners based on character references, but that modern life, especially for those of us who have moved outside of our hometowns or social class structures, prevents us from forming a bigger picture of that person by getting to know them through a community. What kind of effect do you think this estrangement of romantic relationships from communal life has had on contemporary dating, especially for women?

If you stay in one place and fall in love, you have a lot of information about your beloved. You might even have met through friends. If it's a small town, you know the family, the siblings, the friends. You have the equivalent of "dating letters of reference." The absence of this information was a problem for me because I lived in five states in ten years, because I moved from a working-class past into a more white-collar future. So everyone was a new acquaintance, if not a stranger. But it's a problem for most people now, male or female. Few of us stay where we grew up. Our careers take us to new cities. As much as social media apps may have broadened the pool of people to date, they've made information about a potential lover difficult to assess. When I published an essay on Salon about this issue, I got emails and notes from women in their thirties who were expressing a bit of hopelessness about how Tinder is a lot like Uber, except it doesn't take them anywhere they want to go. Not having reliable information about a potential lover is a lot of people's problem right now.

The book is being published as the first in Crux: The Georgia Series in Literary Nonfiction by the University of Georgia Press, which describes its books as being both intelligent and accessible. How did your book come to find a home with this series?

Lucky timing! When it was clear I wasn't going to be able to sell the book in New York, because it didn't fit typical marketing paradigms for memoirs, I started to look at small presses. I got nervous because, if New York publishers were looking for memoirs about high-profile life experiences, most small presses don't publish memoirs at all since, as Mary Karr put it, memoirs have developed a reputation for being "literature's trashy cousin." I pitched my book to the editor at University of Georgia Press who acquires women's studies titles -- a long shot -- but I made a case for it as a memoir that is infused with insights about gender: how the Horatio Alger story plays out differently with a female lead. Two months later, she and the Crux series director, John Griswold, told me about the Crux Series they were getting underway and suggested that mine might be a good debut title.

You've written four books of fiction as well as one previous memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal, about the adoption of your daughter, Marie. Has your readership responded differently to your fiction and nonfiction? What was the initial spark for writing creative nonfiction?

When I was publishing fiction, so many more newspapers reviewed books, and, if you met readers, it was in a swooping-through-cities-into-bookstores way. Now, for me, most travel is to writer's festivals, conferences, and MFA programs, where you meet younger writers, and you get a chance to know your readers a little. And the Internet makes that possible too. So I'm not sure if the difference between how readers respond is the difference between two discrete eras in publishing or the difference between genres. Yet when I published my first memoir, Beverly Lowry, who also has written in both genres, warned me that the connection between the author and her nonfiction readers would be intensely personal. But that's okay by me. I think of writing as an intimate connection: you and one reader. Obviously, there are more readers. But each reader enters a text and its depicted reality alone. Each reader engages with your book alone. That's what I think as I write: one interested reader. And getting to meet one? That's usually wonderful. Readers tell me their stories sometimes, and I'm struck by how most lives are worthy of a well-written book.

As for why I started writing nonfiction. I like the way it insists on retrospection and hindsight as well as scenes and "plot." This means there's more speculation about forces that are larger than the self, or the self's individual will. It insists that the writer account for cultural or historical contexts in which these depicted events are imbedded and at least try to puzzle out causes and unintended side effects.

Creative nonfiction is also well suited to stories people would otherwise find far-fetched. The adoption of my daughter, almost nineteen years ago, was so novel at the time, and the small-town scrutiny made us more conspicuous. If it were fiction, I'd have been accused of having a plot premise that was trying too hard. The same is true about the subject of this book: my story of serially strange ex-boyfriends and my slow, steady slog up the career ladder is improbable but not impossible. It's an "improbable possibility, " which, as Aristotle pointed out, is to be avoided when one makes up plots for invented stories. It's better suited for nonfiction where the narrator comments on the improbability, or contextualizes it

If you could give your younger self (or any of your readers) one piece of dating advice, what would it be?

That mistakes and wrong turns are necessary; you get a chance to correct, reroute, and end up at the best destination. This reminds me of a recent SAT essay question: "How do mistakes sometimes help?" (My daughter is a senior in high school.) Short answer: Sometimes mistakes can be converted into to insight.