What Are You Working On?
The book is at the stage where I'm trying to find a publisher and I'm still unsure if it is truly and actually complete.
I've been interested in trying to create authentic-seeming narratives in my fiction. With the ascendancy of so-called nonfiction narratives such as memoir, there is a border war going on between fiction and nonfiction. Where does memoir sit? Is it fiction or is it true? I hope the border war remains unresolved.
I began thinking about how this material, my family's troubled genetic history, might be a book after my mother retold the story of her life in the late 1990s. At the time I questioned some way in which she had framed part of her story. I said to her, "I don't agree with how you are saying that happened." As soon as I did this, it tripped my mother's retelling of her entire story. She verified each portion with me. She would tell me about the time my father moved us into a derelict farmhouse on the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River. After she went through all of the incidents, she would ask, "That is what happened?"
I became aware in this exercise that my mother had raised me on these stories and that these stories were a form of control. They built a history for her, as she wanted to be known. Maybe some of these stories weren't even real, but she believed in their veracity and I also believed in them for many years. I wondered what these stories were doing; what was their function?
In 2000, my wife and I had a baby girl and I became aware of this huge responsibility I had as a parent to make sure she turned out all right and that she had access to the facts, just as she required access to proper food and rest. But what were these facts? Could I even know the facts, or were they always modulated by the underlying agenda of narrative? I believe a story is always a lie in that it is always trying to benefit and deceive both the teller and the audience. Sometimes we want to be lied to. Sometimes a lie ends up allowing us to see more clearly than the truth.
The book is called Stick a Needle in My Eye, being a foregone conclusion of "If I should lie, stick a needle in my eye."
In the kind of fiction I write, I tend to present a seamless and integrated surface that actively tricks the reader into accepting what they are reading as a complete representation of observed life. I get a kind of satisfaction when a reader wonders if such and such "really happened." This nonfiction book, I hope, inverses this. I want readers to question not the events of the book but how I am telling these events or how my mother has told the events. I haven't done this before. I don't know if it works or not.
By creating something that is constrained by the facts as well as I can remember them, I can see how it would be very rewarding to write on a more general nonfiction topic. I've been reading a lot of children's books to my child and my favorite children's book author is Margaret Wise Brown -- she wrote Goodnight Moon. She died pretty young. It would be interesting to write something about her. There is a biography already, so the book would have to be something else. There is a genre of literary grave robbing, such as the new novel about Charlotte Bronte's drug-fiend brother, Branwell Bronte. Perhaps I could pull a stunt like that with Margaret Wise Brown?
I wrote this nonfiction book because I had a pile of material. A friend, Ava Chin, had asked me to contribute to an anthology, Split: Stories from a Generation Raised on Divorce, and I wrote a section. When the piece was done, I realized I could write a nonfiction proposal and sell the book before I even wrote it. (This is common practice, I guess, with nonfiction books.) So my initial hope of the book was to sell it for cash and use the cash for time to write the book. The proposal didn't sell, and by the time it was clear it wouldn't sell, I was too far into writing the book to turn back.
So I hope to sell the book to a publisher who has the large, impersonal muscle to deal with chain bookstores. And then if that doesn't work, I hope to publish the book with a small press. And if all else fails, I'll Xerox it and sell it on street corners.
Bellingham Herald, 2 Feb 2006 interview: "Novel Explores Family Tragedy"
20 Dec 2005 interview by Kevin Sampsell on the Powell's Books site
Punk Planet, issue 69: Interview by Anne Elizabeth Moore
The Stranger, 9 Oct 2003: Genius Award profile
A story, On the Radio, in the Cortland Review
The Remains Of River Names reviewed on Salon, Oct 1999
See more What Are You Working On? interviews.
published 6 Feb 06 on Too Beautiful. email copyright 2006 Mark Pritchard, Bernal Heights, San Francisco