MARNIE MUELLER ON MEMORY, LOVING THE CHASE, AND THE LONG HAUL.
Interview conducted by Kate Culkin on SEPTEMBER 28, 2015, for Women Writing Women's Lives 25th Anniversary.
WHAT INITIALLY DREW YOU TO YOUR SUBJECT?
For fifteen years I was friends with Mary Mon Toy, a Japanese American showgirl who had been interned in America during World War II. Our bond was the fact that I, though Caucasian, was born in the Tule Lake Japanese American High Security Camp in northern California, where my parents, young leftists, had gone to work. As Mary Mon Toy aged, I became her Power of Attorney and, when she died, the executor of her estate. It was only upon her death that I learned that during her entire theater career she had been passing as Chinese American. She even regaled me with the story of her Chinese father, though she did confide in me that her mother was Japanese. When I discovered that she had been masking her Japanese heritage for over fifty years, I decided I had to know why on both a personal and a political level. And thus my search and the makings of a book began. Simultaneously, I had questions to answer about myself, in particular the fact that during my formative years and on through college I had passed as Christian, hiding my Jewish heritage behind my father’s last name. A parallel question for the book became how my own passing was related to my connection to the egregious act of incarcerating 120,000 people of Japanese descent in the name of protecting our democracy during wartime.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT THE RESEARCH AND WRITING PROCESS??
I love the chase, the deep research, the detective work and the act of synthesizing the discoveries into a coherent, dramatic narrative.
WHAT ARE THE GREATEST CHALLENGES YOU'VE FACED WHILE WORKING ON THE BOOK?
Though I’ve had access to an enormous amount of documentary material through the National Archives’ personnel files on everyone who was interned in the camps and I have my subject’s own scrapbooks, photos, and reviews as well as letters to her from lovers, family, and friends, I have very little in her own voice from the decades before I knew her. It has helped that I knew her well, so to some extent I can extrapolate from the material as to just how she would have reacted, but I’ve had to reach out far beyond the immediate documents to understand the why and wherefore of the impact of the camp experience on her post-camp life.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE BIOGRAPHIES OR MEMOIRS?
My current favorite memoir is OUTSIDE PASSAGE by Julia Scully.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE A BIOGRAPHER OR MEMOIRIST EMBARKING ON HIS OR HER FIRST PROJECT?
Understand when you set out that you’re in it for the long haul. You must be willing to mine the same material over and over, before it will begin to yield the story. Only with patient attention even to details that seem inconsequential will the narrative and subtext of a life gradually appear.
HOW DO NARRATIVE STRATEGIES IN MEMOIR OR BIOGRAPHY WRITING DIFFER FROM THOSE IN FICTION?
As a novelist it has been quite difficult for me to switch from fiction to non-fiction, primarily because in fiction I can go anywhere, make up a characters and actions out of whole cloth, infuse drama into any scene with fabricated dialogue and events. Even when dealing with historical material, as I have in my novels, I can change the reality to some extent to serve my purposes as I work to animate the text and engage the reader. But in memoir based on historical and biographical material, I’ve often felt held back and have almost tipped over into fabrication, tempted to throw reality to the wind just to get the story churning. And then I’ve had to remind myself that honesty is the best policy and go back and invent other devices to achieve a certain amount of excitement in the text even as I hone closely to the documentation.
HOW FAITHFUL TO ACTUAL MEMORY MUST WE BE WHEN WRITING MEMOIR?
A portion of the book about Mary Mon Toy deals with our relationship, some of which came from my journal notes, but much from memory. Fortunately for me, I began writing the book shortly after her death, so my recall of the events was still sharp. But memory is not a faithful partner for any of us, writers and non-writers alike; we do the best we can to stay as true as possible to the remembered source. We may unintentionally veer off the path, but most of us know when we’re about to cheat. It’s then we should give ourselves a good talking to and get back on the road to the real events.
Marnie Mueller is at work on a biography/memoir about Mary Mon Toy. During the Oct. 2, 2015 WWWL 25th Anniversary Conference, she will participate in the “Sources and Secrets” panel, which will address finding the papers of non-famous women and if any secrets should remain secret.
AN INTERVIEW WITH MARNIE MUELLER ABOUT MY MOTHER'S ISLAND
by Jane Blanshard
JB: Was it difficult to write My Mother's Island?
MM: It was surprisingly easy, given the material. But let me be clear about what I mean by easy. The material was very painful, based as it was on my own mother's death in a small community in Puerto Rico. I had a complicated relationship with my mother, but by the time I set out to write My Mother's Island I had already psychologically resolved the stickier aspects of it. Perhaps I had done much of the hard work in those days by her bedside as she lay dying. So when I sat down to write, the words literally fell onto the page. In a strange way, this was one of those books that authors speak of as a gift. Even the sadness generated in the writing process was almost a pleasure. I call it an 'ecstasy of sadness'. Though it is something of a paradox, I'm sure people can identify with the pleasure of such a heightened emotional experience.
JB: Knowing you as I do, I know that this is a very autobiographical novel. How much did you fictionalize?
MM: You're right; it is autobiographical, as is most of my fiction. In this one I stayed pretty close to what happened, but I did change characters, such as the husband of the daughter. He is a totally fictionalized creation. In fact, Sarah had an entirely different fictional husband in the first draft, but my early readers said he was a no-go, so I thought a while, and Roberto, Sarah's Argentinean husband, came to me like a vision, as a complete person with history and particularized personality quirks. Again, a gift. The people from the neighborhood, the mother's friends, and the doctor take off from real people, but they developed into fictionalized characters as I wrote, becoming composites of a number of diffe rent individuals I know. Many of the plot twists and flashback episodes are based on real occurrences, but have been altered to fit the fictional integrity of the novel.
JB: Did you do much rewriting? The book reads seamlessly.
MM: Yes, I did do a good deal of rewriting. When I said before that it was an easy book, that doesn't preclude a lot of editing, restructuring and rewriting. I've mentioned the husband.?I had to throw out many, many pages and start over on him and then integrate the new character into the book, chapter by chapter. I also had a lot of enlivening of sections to do, to make the plot work and to develop simple subplots having to do with some of the minor characters. But most of the rewriting had to do with structure. My problem was, how could I integrate the long flashbacks, which I thought were crucial to understanding the relationship between Sarah and her mother, Reba? After many different tries someone suggested putting them all into the third person and the past tense so they would contrast with the first person, present tense of the day-to-day story. I liked this solution because it broke up the tone of the story a little and pulled the reader out of the claustrophobic atmosphere of the house and the dying mother. It gave breathing space, so to speak. It also gave you painful information that wasnít immediately accessible to Sarah. But back to easy; it was a pleasure to do the rewriting of this novel, similar to solving a puzzle.
JB: Choice is a very strong theme in the novel. Sarah chooses to care for her dying mother even when she feels her mother has damaged her. She chooses to give her mother's house to the woman who helped her care for Reba, even when she had earlier misgivings about the woman. It is very clear to the reader that these are positive and liberating choices for Sarah.
MM: I agree. Though we don't know by the end of the book exactly how much this will help Sarah in the next stages of her life, the reader suspects that Sarah will be the better for having given herself over entirely to her motherís care and for having the generosity of spirit to give the house to Lydia, the woman who helped her through her motherís death in a very profound way. Also, in signing over the house to Lydia and Lydia's adopted child, Sarah symbolically thanks the people who were her surrogate caretakers throughout her own life. In my case, and this occurs outside the walls of the novel, after my motherís death I felt in a state of grace. I had done everything I could for her and I was left completely without hatred, guilt, or remorse. Cleansed, so to speak.
JB: A more complicated choice is Sarah's decision not to have children because of her own painful childhood. She doesn't want anyone to hate her as much as she hated her mother . But clearly Reba loved her as much as she was able. Do you think Sarah comes to love Reba in the end?
MM: I think Sarah reaches a place akin to love for Reba. She has deep empathy for her mother's plight, sadness that it wasn't possible that they could ever find a place of real communication, and respect for who Reba was in her life and for Reba's courage during the ordeal of dying. I think Sarah comes a long way in the course of the novel. She puts her anger and resentment aside and can see Reba in all her aspects and embrace who this woman was. Perhaps thatís a kind of love.
JB: What do you want people to take away from this novel?
MM: So far the response to it has been a tremendous surprise to me. The secrets revealed in it are ones I've kept all my life, certain incidents I never even told my husband and my closest friends, mostly out of shame for myself and for my mother. But people reading it have so far said to me, in essence, You have written my life's story. Even people who have had decent relationships with their mothers. This is what has surprised me. So many people keep secrets in their hearts about their ambivalent feelings for their mothers. Many have the fear I had, that because of certain hostile impulses they wonít be able to take care of their mothers, or fathers, when the time comes. What I want the reader to carry away is that it ís all right to have these feelings and that usually when the time comes, we are able to rise above them and fulfill our obligations to our parents. We may not do it perfectly. Sarah certainly didnít. We may not do it with love in our hearts. Sarah couldn't find that place. But we do what we are able to do. And in the end, we're usually grateful for the opportunity to do the right thing.