Q&A: a memoirist’s decade of discovery

Nina Hamberg, author of Grip

Nina Hamberg, whose award-winning book Grip: A Memoir of Fierce Attractions I recently excerpted, answered questions about her motives and process. In the manner of Tobias Wolff’s great memoirs, Grip’s meaning is embedded in its story. A narrative of Hamberg’s fraught relationships with men who are afflicted with their own baggage, Grip is frank sexually without being overly graphic or salacious.

Why did you write Grip?

I’d never planned on writing memoir. I thought I had a novel in me, one based on the year I was ten and my mother left my father and took me with her to Florida. But when I sat down to write that story I found myself using the first person and telling what had happened. Without planning it, I’d gravitated to memoir. I took many writing classes, did a lot of reading, and spent the next two years writing about that period. I’d completed the first draft before I realized that the manuscript didn’t hold enough of a charge to continue. In a way, I wasn’t surprised, just aware of a kind of dread. I knew the story I’d been in training to write. I’d been hiding from it for years.

Ultimately, I wrote Grip because I had to. I’d kept so many parts of my life shuttered away from the people I cared about, as well as from myself. The assault. My family’s silence. My relationship with Stephen. My willingness to stay with a man who’d punch holes in the wall. If I was going to fully feel, I needed to face the past—both the things that I hadn’t chosen that had caused me pain as well as those I was ashamed that I had.

What did you learn in writing it?

 Many things. For one, I gained a deeper understanding of my parents. The process of making myself see and hear them as a writer, not a daughter, revealed their confusion and pain, showed them as people feeling their way. For another, I assembled pieces of my own life. The writer has a fragment of a memory, and it’s her job to place that piece into its context. To do that, I used a technique many memoirist use. I created a written timeline of the key events of my life year by year – in some cases, month by month. You’d think this would be easy, but it isn’t. Once you get the basics down, you layer it with information about key events in the lives of your parents or your lovers. Then you move outside that familial room and ask who was the President, what music was playing on the radio, when did the Iran hostages come home. You don’t end up using much of this, but for me the timeline proved invaluable in lifting memories out of a fog and grounding them in a firmer reality. As strange as this sounds, I hadn’t associated my father’s illness with my compulsion to marry Lee until I’d assembled the timeline.

You depicted relationships with minimal interpretation and reflection from present time, choosing to embed the meaning in the narrative itself (a la Tobias Wolff). Most academics teaching memoir writing advocate an alternative approach. They want the story grounded in “the now” with extensive reflection. How did you decide which approach to take?

I wrote the kind of story I like to read, one in which the reader is brought into the scene, introduced to the characters, and allowed to draw her own conclusions. I didn’t want to insert a strong musing voice that pulled the reader out of the moment or tied up the loose ends. That said, the perspective of the present informs almost every aspect of this story. I don’t see how it could be otherwise. It is the writer’s present self who distills down what is important, who is strong enough to face the little horror that was her former self, and solid enough to let all her characters come alive on the page unbound by her judgment.

Maybe the choice of styles gets down to our writing nature, and not really theory at all. I’ve got to tell you, the few musing glimmers that do appear in Grip were a lot of work. I felt I had to crack into the narrative flow very carefully to insert them.

Sex is always tricky to write about. How were you able to depict sex so frankly and so personally while keeping the description to a minimum?

First off, thank you—both for the question, because those sections were difficult to write, and for saying it seemed minimal. Phew. (I’m still dealing with the image of my brother reading Grip.)

A story about lovers has to have sex but my earliest versions didn’t. I remember reading an excerpt to my writing group from an early chapter about Stephen. I’d described him as an amazing lover or something like that. During the critique several women (the group was all women which made this experiment much easier) pointed out that if I was going to say the sex was great, I’d have to show how specifically. So I wrote a scene, a specific bedroom scene, which was very explicit. It got quite a reaction when I read it aloud, lots of whoops and laughs. The group admired the audacity. But it was too much. I backed down the detail, realizing the reader doesn’t need to be in the bedroom for long to understand the intensity.

So in answer to your question, my advice would be to overwrite it; be as detailed as you can. Then scale the scene back to its essence, leaving telling details that reveal something about you and your characters.

What memoirs inspired you in your writing?

 There have been so many amazing memoirs in recent years. Among my favorites are: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Drinking: A Love Story, The Glass Castle, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and Long Quiet Highway. I also really liked Fierce Attachments (in fact, I tried to pay homage to Vivian Gornick in the subtitle of my book), This Boy’s Life, The Kiss, After Long Silence, Falling Through the Earth and one of the first memoirs I ever read, A Country Year.

You’ll notice some contemporary classics are missing. I started reading The Liar’s Club early on but had to stop because Mary Kerr’s voice was just too strong. When I went to write about my childhood, my New York Jewish neighbors had suddenly developed a Texas twang.

 How long did you work on the book?

It took me a long time to write Grip—just over ten years. I didn’t really have the narrative thread until six years into the project. Once again, I overwrote. There are many chapters that were in early drafts, pieces I loved, that didn’t make the final cut once the theme became my relationships with men. A good part of the last year was spent editing, adding connective tissue, tightening up the writing. I hadn’t expected any part of this would take as long as it did, but looking back, there isn’t anything I would have done differently.

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2 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, memoir, working method, workshopping

2 responses to “Q&A: a memoirist’s decade of discovery

  1. David C. Bailey

    Richard (and Ms. Hamberg),
    How very powerful and encouraging. Though I’ve made my living as a writer for decades, a professor convinced me I could never write fiction and I’ve been scared to death of writing serious biographical narrative. You don’t make it sound easy — and what about writing other than putting your pen down — but you somehow manage to make it sound doable.
    Thanks!

  2. I found everything Nina Hamberg had to say here interesting and valuable (both as a writer and teacher). The timeline thing is great–as is overwriting and then paring down. Also the memoirs she’s liked. Thanks again, Richard, for this good post.