Showing posts with label Memoirs. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Memoirs. Show all posts

27 January 2021

This Time Next Year

Not my usual line of country, nor your usual memoir, Jackie Winspear’s This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing.

If you know the Maisie Dobbs books (number sixteen, The Consequences of Fear, comes out in March) or the engagingly sly Care and Management of Lies, you might think you’ve made Jacqueline Winspear’s acquaintance, but you don’t know the half of it. We imagine we’ll learn something about a writer, or the engines of her imagination, if we’re invited inside her life.

Nothing is a one-on-one equivalency, not John LeCarre’s rascally father Ronnie, or whether Anne Hathaway cheated on Shakespeare with his brother, but we nod with a certain familiarity when Jackie tells us her grand-dad was never able to adjust to loud noises after he came back from the trenches: she was a high-energy kid, and bouncing off the furniture needed less of same.

This is one of those intersections of biography and the imagined that stands out in This Time Next Year. Maisie is herself a veteran of the Great War, and her generation is shadowed by loss. For a writer, this can be a second cousin once removed, the shadows inhabited with someone just off-stage, concealments. We observe an absence, what got left out of the story. It’s a narrative device.

Jackie cheerfully confounds this. It’s not that the story is relentlessly sunny, far from it. The voice is one of speculation, and doubt, and a kind of fey suspension of disbelief, but grounded in exactly remembered detail. The dress. The overturned pot of scalding water. The smell of hops. Nothing is sentimental; everything is vivid.

The trick, if I can use that word, is that Jackie reimagines her childhood. She does something that I think is extraordinarily difficult, from a technical point of view. She gives you the child’s perspective. The girl of six. And then she casts an eye back. The girl of six might well be more wary and less forgiving, but the key is that the grown woman sympathizes with the importance of the event, then. This pulled focus is riveting.

Jackie’s mom, Joyce, looms large. “‘Look at the time,’ she’d say, which was a bit pointless, because the black Bakelite clock on the mantelpiece above the stove, the one in the shape of the grand Grecian palace that came from Nanny, never kept good time, though she had the watch Dad had bought for her when they were engaged. That was the watch that, if it stopped working, she’d take it off and, grasping it by the strap would slap it across the table a couple of times, look at the dial, hold it to her ear and then say, ‘There, that did it.’ Slapping the TV, slapping the watch, slapping the radio – which we called a wireless – if something wasn’t working properly, she would always sort it out with a sharp slap. It was a method she also employed when her children didn’t seem to work properly.”

You get the idea. The ironies. The astringency. It’s very affectionate, though. She seems to lay all her cards on the table, but much is withheld. The silences are quite surprisingly loud.

Late-breaking. This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing is up for an Edgar, best Critical/Biographical.

20 June 2016

Memoirs Are Made of This

I've taught classes on writing the mystery for several years now, off and on, and feel I know the genre well. Recently I was asked to teach a writing class to a group of seniors, but, unfortunately, mystery was not the focal point of this group. Mostly the participants wanted to write memoirs – something I know next to nothing about.

I like make-believe. Fiction. Making up a story and telling it. I've been doing that since I learned to talk, much to my parents' dismay. But I did manage to entertain my captive babysitting charges a great deal with my abilities – such as they were. But memoirs? That's a whole 'nuther ball of wax.

I tried for several sessions to translate what I actually knew about writing into something these participants could use. And I did – to some degree. Then one day, as the class was winding down, we started talking about experiences we've had in our lives, and I told a couple of stories. One of the women looked at me and grinned. “You should write a memoir,” she said.

Well, I may not go that far, but there were a couple of things I thought I should probably put in writing, just for my grand kids, and maybe even their grand kids. Because I was witness to some world events that will still be part of history when those further away grand kids are up and running.

I remember in high school reading a book entitled something like “When FDR Died,' and asking my mother where she was when that happened. This was history from before I was born, and I wanted to know. And she could tell me every detail of her day and where she was when she heard the paperboy's cry.

And so I thought maybe my grand kids might like to know that their grandmother was standing in the road that led out of Love Field Airport in Dallas and was close enough to touch President Kennedy on the day he died. Actually, I did try to touch him, but a secret service man looked at me and I backed off quickly. My mother had taken my older brother and I out of school and the three of us stood there, not knowing we were about to become a part of one of history's darkest hours. I remember going back to school. I'd missed lunch with my class and had to go eat alone. When I got back to home room, a boy came over and told me the president had been shot. Knowing he knew where I'd been and why I was late, I just told him it was a really sick joke and to leave me alone. Some of the other kids came up and tried to tell me the same thing – I shooed them away, getting madder and madder at such a stupid and mean joke. Then my teacher came to my desk, squatted down, took my hand and convinced me that it was true. It was my first experience with the death of a person I felt I knew and knew I admired greatly. I still have the slip of paper the school secretary gave my mother to get me out of class. It has the date on it and as for the reason, it simply states, “President.”
Many, many years later, my grown daughter was in a car wreck on I-35 from Austin to San Antonio during a bad rainstorm. Her little Toyota Celica was T-boned by an over-sized Ford F-150. Her head cracked the driver's side window. Basically she wasn't physically hurt so much as emotionally wrecked. She couldn't get back on the freeway and, since her job was half-way between Austin and San Antonio and the only way to get there was on I-35, she lost her job. I thought she needed a vacation. And to get her mind off of the trauma, I decided the two of us would fly to Las Vegas. We boarded a plane at nine a.m. on September 11, 2001. Not a good way to get over a trauma, you say? Agreed.

We, of course, didn't know what had happened until we landed. There were little clues – like all the flight attendants disappearing into the cockpit for longer than seemed reasonable, and the fact that the people who were taking this plane on to Los Angeles were told to deplane ASAP. When we got into the airport, I noticed they were playing the old films of the bombing at the World Trade Center. When I asked a man standing there why, I found out those weren't old films. The long and short of it was we were stuck in Las Vegas for five days, away from home and family, horrified, in mourning, scared of what could happen next, and unable to get out as all planes were grounded and all rental cars were gone. Finally I was able to get a rental car and we left all the seemingly inappropriate bells and whistles, drunken laughter, and revelry, my daughter and I singing “Leaving Las Vegas” at the tops of our lungs as we vacated that city. It was a long drive back to Austin, but in some ways a cathartic one. Driving through the dessert with no traffic and watching the changing of the colors from midday to midnight was soothing on the soul. But that didn't stop us from jumping out of the car when we got to the Texas state line and singing “The Eyes of Texas”, again at the top of our lungs. (Which is not a pleasant thing since I can't carry a tune in a bucket – even with a wheel barrow attached.) Getting home to where my husband and her father awaited us was the best part of the trip. But I think being so close to real disaster helped my daughter put things in perspective. She never got her Toyota Celica back – it was totaled – but she got a new car and eventually got a new job, and, yes, has been able to drive on I-35 since then. It was a bonding experience for mother and daughter, one we'll always share, and one her kids and their kids need to know about.

Okay, maybe not memoirs, but I think I'll write this stuff down.