- Inter-ReviewSarah Gorham and Ladette Randolph Talk with Each Other About Their New Books
I’m calling my book a collection of essays, yours is a memoir. What’s the difference?
What a good question. In some ways our books are structured in a very similar way; both have a framing device that is interspersed by stand-alone chapters (essays). From the beginning, I saw my book as a memoir because the framing story chronicling the nine months of gutting and rebuilding a house (which I hope acts as a structuring metaphor for the intervening chapters) is a story in its own right, and those chapters don’t stand alone. Nor are they necessarily a philosophical inquiry or meditation on the meaning of home in the way your book works to essay the idea of perfection. What are your thoughts about this question of genre? [End Page 211]
I agree with your assessment of both books. The slow, troublesome, physically exhausting act of building a dream house gives your book natural structure, and in between, you jump into your own house-history, beginning with the earliest place you lived. Those narratives mirror each other nicely. When I began to write prose, I had no specific theme or philosophical point of view, no book in mind either. I was commissioned by an editor to write an essay about mothers and daughters, eventually called “Woman Drawn Twice.” I had also read John D’Agata’s superb anthology The Next American Essay suggesting to me that elements of poetry, criticism, drama, recipes, even bumper stickers could enter into the process of writing in this form. I loved this notion and wrote a few more essays on various subjects (my disabled sister, the art of lying, ceramics). After several decades of writing poetry, it was a real rush. Finally I hit upon the theme of perfection (and imperfection) and began writing toward it, instead of randomly.
I’m curious what you began with? What was the first piece around which you built your memoir? Did you always know where you were going?
I truly loved your book, Sarah, and felt on every page a keen intelligence at work. I admired your generosity of spirit, your sense of humor, and your eye for detail. What stood out even more, though, was your exquisite prose. Sentence by sentence your book stunned me, from the first sentence, “The Ohio is rising.” I stopped and reread that first amazing sentence three times before I could start to read the book. I knew you were a poet, but as soon as I read that sentence I understood you were also a masterful writer of prose narrative.
To answer your question, I didn’t start with the idea of focusing my memoir on houses. It was the result of having written two book-length manuscripts (one the story of rebuilding a wreck of a house and the other a series of essays attempting to understand something about how my past had shaped me), neither of which was working on its own. I set both manuscripts aside for almost ten years, and it was only when I realized that many of the essays I’d written (sometime before I wrote the story of the house) were in fact centered around specific houses where I’d lived, that I saw a way to structure the book.
It was important to me to add to my own story a historical context, specifically about Nebraska, which has shaped me, for better or worse. I did quite a bit of research to accomplish that. [End Page 212]
I was struck not only by the thoughtfulness everywhere evident in your book but also by the amount of information you so skillfully wove into each chapter. It’s a very erudite book, though you’re...