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Kaylie Jones Discusses the Art of Memoir

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Kaylie Jones' newest endeavor is her imprint with Akashic Books, Kaylie Jones Books. Her flagship publication is Laurie Loewenstein's Unmentionables, published in January 2014. Kaylie's most recent book is a memoir, Lies My Mother Never Told Me (Harper Collins, 2009). Her novel, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries was adapted as a Merchant Ivory Film in 1998. Jones is the editor Long Island Noir, published in Spring 2012. Her non-fiction essay, "Judite" is included in Ann Hood's Knitting Yarns, published in November 2013. Kaylie and her daughter spent last summer studying kung fu in China with Shaolin monks.

Loren Kleinman (LK): In your memoir Lies My Mother Never Told Me you talk about your struggles with alcoholism, your famous father (James Jones) and your mother's emotional abuse. How do you write about yourself without getting in the way?

Kaylie Jones (KJ): Every time I sat down to write, I prepared myself, like an actor before a stage performance. I became The Memoir Writer. I separated myself as best I could from the events I was describing. I tried to be precise and correct in the historical facts (my father kept meticulous records, and his papers and photographs are all well preserved in several university libraries). I also had kept a daily journal for years, so I had my dates and facts pretty straight.

In memoir, especially in early drafts, most often the writer as a character seems absent, almost nonexistent. I had to work to insert myself into the story as a character (who lacks hindsight) to whom these things happened. The writer as narrator is the one who always gets in the way, who judges the events for the reader before they happen, inserts opinions, posts billboards along the road, such as, "Bad thing coming up in five pages!" That is what the memoirist must watch out for, in my opinion. Getting rid of judgment, subjectivity, opinion -- that was hard, but utterly necessary.

LK: Do you need to be brave in order to write memoir? Why? Why not?

KJ: I think you need to be angry enough, and justified enough in your position, to not care what anyone thinks about your story. And disciplined as a writer. After my mother died, I was in a rage. At society, for its misconceptions about alcoholism, at the bottom-feeders, who coerced her into actions she could never have taken on her own. The only person whose opinion of my book mattered to me was my brother, Jamie, who has always been staunchly supportive of my work. When people asked him how it felt to see himself portrayed in the movie of A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, he'd look them straight in the eye and say, "It's fiction." When I started the memoir, I called him and said, "Well, there's good news and bad news. Good news is I'm writing a new book. Bad news is it's a memoir. You won't be able to use your 'it's fiction' line this time." He laughed and replied, "I'm still going to say it's fiction."

One last small point: Only one person out of the dozens who were furious at me for writing the memoir ever expressed disapproval to my face. She was not anyone I knew, but the third wife of a relative. She stood in line for an hour and a half after a reading I gave to tell me, "Some things should never be said in public." "Look how well that worked out for you," I replied. I won't even go into the horrors that occurred on that side of the family due to alcoholism. Everyone hates everyone else, no one talks, etc., etc.

LK: How do you balance writing intimately and honestly while still paying attention to style, structure and tone? How did you stay true to your story?

KJ: I tried to follow Chekhov's six principles for good story writing, which he wrote in a letter to his brother, Alexander, who wanted to be a writer too: "1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature, 2. Total objectivity, 3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects, 4. Extreme brevity, 5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype, 6. Compassion." [From the introduction to Anton Chekhov: STORIES, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.]

I tried to write as if I were writing fiction; in other words, I tried to be objective. The opinion of the writer in a memoir should exist only in the choice of scenes, in the structure of the story -- not in the voice. If you feel the need to convince the reader of your righteousness, you're f***ed.

LK: Let's talk about sense of place, specifically about growing up in Paris. How did the city influence your writing of A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries?

KJ: I wanted Paris to be a character in the story. A kind of strange elderly lady who is not quite understood by the American expatriates. It was not until I sat down to write the book that I understood that my brother and I never quite fit in, in either culture, though God knows we wanted to be American. I still feel most at home in Paris. Though my other personality emerges: the good, polite, well-brought-up girl. When my husband and I went to Paris together for the first time in 1993, he said, "Who are you? I don't recognize you." "Oh, don't you know? I'm French," I told him. I wore that persona like a shield, but it was natural to me, as natural as my American self.

LK: Can we embrace life again even after abuse and addiction? Do you believe in second chances?

KJ: On good days, I believe wholeheartedly in second (or third) chances. On bad days, I believe the wounds we carry will stay with us till the grave. Survival -- I don't mean just living, but living well -- is about unlearning learned, reactive behavior. No one can stir me up the way my daughter can. And I have to talk myself down from a kind of blind panic, a madness: She is not your mother. She is not your mother. She is not going to abandon you.My mother was had a narcissistic personality disorder. For narcissists, their children are an extension of themselves. That I did not like the same foods, clothes, haircuts as my mother sent her into extreme rages. "What's the matter with you?" she'd say. "You're stupid." Or whatever. Did she mean this? I don't know. Probably not. But that instinct to react to what we perceive to be an attack on our fragile egos is very dangerous, especially when we have children. Or are in love.

It's a panic button, I think, that is set off, that is as old as my first unconscious thought, probably as I stood up in my crib, wanting to be held: My god, this woman is my mother, and she is not taking care of me. I am going to have to learn to protect myself. Those self-protecting instincts are like the long, curved, canine teeth of the saber-tooth cat. They were necessary to the cat's survival when it had to fight huge beasts. But the beasts got smaller and the cat no longer could catch them, and died out. I have to divest myself of my long, curved teeth. I don't need them anymore.