Daiva Markelis, a professor at Eastern Illinois University who blogs at The Adventures of Mighty Bear Woman, answered some questions for Narrative about her memoir, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life, reviewed in my last post.
RSG: The first thing I noticed about your book was your easy, seemingly natural voice. Was finding this consistent, personal voice easy or difficult?
DM: I belong to a writing group–the Eastern Illinois University Writer Babes; the babes are great at pointing out clunky, overly formal sentences. I revise a lot, so I think much of the voice comes from rereading with a pen in hand. And I think my parents influenced me to some extent; English was their second language. They liked prose that was direct and fairly uncomplicated; I think they were afraid of modifiers. My father loved Mike Royko, the famed Chicago columnist whose style was concise, funny, and well-crafted.
RSG: You use both past tense and present tense in alternating passages in your memoir. Could you explain how that came about and your thinking regarding using both tenses?
DM: I love the intimacy of the present tense, but to write an entire memoir in the present is like bathing a cat–frustrating and potentially dangerous. The sections written in the present tense are primarily the dialogues I have with my ailing mother at the end of most of the chapters. I wanted the book to be about Lithuanian-Americans as well as about my mother; changing tenses seemed a natural way do achieve this shift.
RSG: I don’t recall your mentioning early in the book, or even heavily foreshadowing, your period of heavy drinking and then serious depression. I admired your confidence in telling your larger story, and White Field, Black Sheep isn’t a memoir of trauma. But how did you trust your steady unfolding when today there’s such a pervasive “hook the reader with darker material” mentality? Would discussing your troubled years early in the book have skewed the story?
DM: Some of those self-destructive tendencies were in my life earlier in much subtler forms. But since I knew that mine would be the first memoir about growing up Lithuanian-American, I wanted the book to be more about the neighborhood, the customs, the educational experiences than my own personal problems. Of course, as I started shaping the book, I realized that something was missing. Drinking IS a part of my cultural heritage; it was only after I sobered up that I realized that most of my American friends did not drink every day, nor so heavily. I could have written about many of the drunken fathers in the community, but belonging to a relatively small immigrant means that you know many of its members; I took out a section where I wrote about a neighbor’s alcoholic father because there’s a good chance I’m going to run into this neighbor again. It was actually easier to write about my own complex relationship to booze.
RSG: Your portrayal of your parents is loving but feels honest: they have flaws like anyone, as well as the virtues and faults perhaps endemic to reluctant emigres from Lithuania. I was especially struck by the fact that although you write about your mother’s moodiness and ability to deny reality, and your father’s anger and his alcoholism, in portraying your own troubles you don’t blame them. You give the reader the pieces—a genetic tendency, your chaotic household, and Lithuanian culture—and you seem to lean at last toward the latter as an explanation. Was this part of the memoir difficult to write? Did you worry some people might think you were blaming your parents?
DM: I think it’s normal to blame one’s parents. But there should be a statute of limitations (or “statue” of limitations as my mother would say) concerning blame. I love the Mark Twain quote about his father: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” There’s nothing less attractive than people in their forties talking publicly about how their parents are responsible for their failed relationships, lack of friendships, money troubles, etc. One of the benefits of writing about parents in memoir is that the process of understanding them is often accelerated. I’ve seen students with difficult childhoods dig deeply into the past and come up with explanations for puzzling, often neurotic, even deeply destructive behavior. Understanding how the broader society works to foster certain tendencies and habits is vital to this understanding.
I did worry, though, that people would think I’m blaming my parents. An older Lithuanian woman came up to me a few weeks ago in Chicago and said that although she enjoyed my writing about childhood, she thought it was unnecessary to go into such details about parents. “It sounds as if you’re blaming them,” she said. Conversely, the people in my writing group thought I could have gone into more detail about the behavior of my parents.
RSG: You’ve mentioned that your memoir took you ten years to write. Could you sketch its evolution in becoming a publishable book?
DM: I should have been more specific here. I started writing the book ten years ago, but in those ten years I finished my dissertation in an area not related to creative writing, found a job, got married, bought a house. Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her deeply. I decided to take the material I had about growing up in Cicero and add sections about my mother’s life life and the year before her death.
When I finished the book, I sent off query letters to agents. Although I had published both fiction and nonfiction in a number of highly-regarded literary journals, many of the agents didn’t respond; those who asked to read the first chapter ultimately thought the book was too “regional.” One implied that no one would want to read about Lithuanians. I decided to try university presses. Robert Devens, one of the directors of the University of Chicago Press, took a chance on the book. I love Robert.