Reviewing the authors that you listed as having most influenced you, or whom you were drawn to as a reader, you began with Ludwig Bemelmans’ “Madeline” series, H.A. and Margaret Rey’s “Curious George” picture books, and then progressed to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” memoirs, and the numerous children and young adult fiction works by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. You were also influenced by Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” (1947), as well as Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt’s tragicomedies, and Wally Lamb’s psychologically-intricate dramas. Wilder, Frank, and McCourt were of course memoirists (or close to), and Lamb is himself a language teacher in addition to a writer. But I can only guess how all these affected your inspiration as a writer. How would you describe the way they influenced you?
Let’s start with Wally Lamb. He comes with a helluva plot and all the sub plots, which are sometimes better than the actual plot but build up all the characters in the story. It’s hard to not get hooked or, well, addicted! I’d like to be able to create stories like that. In “Akin to the Truth,” I tried to do a lot of that with a sub-plot about my adoptive father’s inner turmoil going on as I was growing up and emerging into adulthood. We both had our own reasons to hide some truths about ourselves.
With McCourt, my favorites were “Angela’s Ashes” (1996) and “Teacher Man” (2005). “’Tis” (1999) was okay, but it showed a lot of anger and resentment toward his former life situation in Ireland and his parents’ behaviors. What I do love in all three books was how he overcame so many odds and roadblocks of society to find a way to better himself. He followed the so-called “American dream” and attained it as a teacher and again as an author.
Wilder I could relate to as a kid to her as a positive female role model, as someone seeking creativity, wanting to become a teacher and again, as someone who overcame hardships associated with living as a pioneer. Her stories, at the time, got me out of my protective, controlled, cozy suburban environment and took me through history. They showed me how other people used to live. I loved how she brought her family to life to live on for other readers, which was one of my goals when I wrote my first memoir.
Then around 6th grade I became fascinated with Judaism. My best friend since age 10 is Jewish. I began to read stories about Jewish people. The “All-of-a-Kind-Family” series of books by Sidney Taylor were another favorite of mine. Those stories had the history and girl-power things I want seeking plus the Jewish aspect. Then in class we started learning about the Holocaust and Anne Frank. I became mesmerized. As a pre-teen to early teen I could relate with how she did not always get along with her mother, how she felt lonely, how she adored movie stars and of course the creative writing and interest in teaching thing. As an adopted person, I fantasized that maybe I was originally Jewish or had ancestors who perished in the Holocaust or made brave escapes out of Europe. I started keeping a diary because of her.
Frank’s writing apparently had that sort of effect on a lot of girls and boys around the world, getting them to write diaries covering their daily lives as adolescents. She couldn’t have realized she was going to be such a major role model for such a large audience when she was writing her diaries – one can only imagine her astonishment.
I, too, tried to keep up a diary but was never able to do so for very long, and all of my notes from growing up have long since vanished, probably into a wide variety of recycling bins. As I try to write my father’s story, I find more and more that I wished the writings had somehow been preserved, but nevertheless, I can still recall quite a bit, possibly from having written them down at some point in the distant past. Do you find that writing journal entries helps your memory, even if parts of the journal might not have survived to present day, or did you succeed in keeping your works intact?
I saved my journal(s) until my first book was finished. I pitched a lot of it after a time. No one needs to know who I crushed on or whose guts I hated now. No one cares that my mom fixed tuna surprise two nights in a row. LOL
While writing, I used old journals to double check years for accuracy, but I have a pretty good memory regardless for stuff that happened in the past. Writing information down at the time, I am sure reinforced that, much like taking notes in school.
I’ve heard it said that just the act of writing longhand is enough to reinforce memory. However, in reflection, are you sure that pitching your journals was what you really wanted to do? Granted, there is an unedited version of Frank’s diaries out there that has every little detail she wrote down, but the edition that was published in 1947 to great acclaim was apparently heavily “sanitized” by her father. Nevertheless, some see value in her original writings, whether it is just empathizing with “having tuna surprise two nights in a row,” or the names of crushes and rivals. Probably nothing that can be done about it, but had to ask the question, as a habitual pack rat…
Oh, I am a pack rat too, and I am married to one! LOL I get that! I hit a point where I decided I didn’t need to keep every page in every journal. I am who I am now, and my 5th – 12th grade journals did not reflect that. I wrote pregnancy journals. I have those. One day my daughters can look at those notebooks, now that they are in the beginning stages of parenthood themselves.
That’s pretty cool. I was only able to do that with the first child (my poor son doesn’t have much primary source material as his older sister to look back at if he wants to know what his infancy was like). Looking at your other influences, do you think McCourt achieved his dreams as a teacher and a writer?
I get the impression that he did. He wrote. He received praise. He was successful and like I think I said before, achieved the American dream.
What does achieving the American dream mean to you?
Well, in Frank McCourt’s time, it was because he was an immigrant and came to the US for a better earning opportunity, did not avoid hard work, found a niche / purpose professionally and personally and felt successful. He became self-sufficient, happier than he would have been in his former land, educated himself better (either via actual school or through living life) and contributed to the good of society.
For me it’s all pretty much the same things aside from being an immigrant, which I am not. My husband and I have had the discussion about every generation doing a little better than the generation before. For us, we feel our parents were hard to top because we both came from nice neighborhoods, had good educations and privileges in society. Neither of our moms had to work outside the home.
The recession/depression, circa 2007-2013-ish when the housing market bottomed out, etc., set us back on savings, and I lost my job. We had to endure and struggle a few years to pay bills on time, and I have been piecemealing work ever since between working as a school aide, teaching fitness, tutoring and selling books. We had to find other ways to maintain by being innovative, willing to work whenever and however, finish raising our kids and also care for aging parents. I am not sure we have been able to top the generation before us except for in the use of technology. That may be a shift in what defines the “American Dream”.
Definitely, that is food for thought. You also mentioned Lamb, and he seems to get quite a bit of positive reviews these days. Thornton Sully even included a quote of his in “5×5: Keeping the Dream Aloft” (2019): “If the book is true, it will find an audience that is meant to read it.” What do you think is Lamb’s best work?
The first book of Wally Lamb’s that I read was “She’s Come Undone.” It was good. I could relate well as a female who experienced a lot of negative body image issues growing up and as a young adult. I absolutely LOVED “I Know This Much Is True.” I fell in love with the cover one day in a Barnes and Noble store. Of course, one of the main character’s brothers in the story has mental challenges, so I was hooked from the get-go. My kinda story! I also enjoy Lamb’s ability to set the scene in the late 50s-60s so vividly. I hear they are making that one into a movie, so I am super-excited to see that some day! If you have not read or seen the film version of “Wishin’ And Hopin’,” it is hilarious! It partners well with Little Ralphie’s “Christmas Story”! The school kids’ anticipation of all the “magic” and splendor of “Christmas Break” is very well captured. The character of Zhenya, the bossy Russian girl…She’s like Lucy from Charlie Brown!
Lamb sounds like someone I’m going to have to check out at some point. Certainly, the use of song lyrics as the titles of his works is an interesting concept. I’m guessing his plots and subplots are a lot more complex than Wilder’s?
Absolutely, yes. Wilder wrote about innocent times, traditional Christian lifestyles and never anything controversial or “touchy”. Her books are very kid-friendly. I still think in modern times, they have a place and value, and all kids should experience at least some of her story telling for the historical value and to hear the “voice” of that generation.
Lamb, on the other hand, addresses current events and issues of society today. He hits on variations of lifestyles, terrorism effects, women’s issues, prison life, family complexities, mental health as well as life in the 50s and 60s. His language is contemporary but eloquent. His characters might cuss. He’s definitely for readers who are older teens on up.