One thing I noticed immediately about your book When History Is Personal is the way in which the title and the cover both function to cue the reader to the framework for all of these essays. By alerting the reader to the framing—and to the book's main question—you are then free to range widely within your own life experience. How early in putting this book together did you come upon this framing and this title? Was it your understanding even before you began to write the essays?
I've always been drawn to memoirs that move beyond the "I" by creating the world "I" lives in. Two favorites are Russell Baker's Growing Up, which made the Depression come alive for me, and Jill Ker Conway's Road from Coorain, which made life in the Australian outback real—and both inspired When History Is Personal. The idea came first: to write about key moments in my life with an eye to the history and politics that shaped those moments—be it migration, the women's movement, social [End Page 201] justice, or end-of-life issues. I kept asking, as I wrote, "How does my story fit into history's larger story?"
The cover choice came late in the process; it was selected by University of Nebraska Press from 25 photos for the book, one for each story. This cover photo—of children, black and white, playing—is from Glen Acres, New Jersey's first planned integrated neighborhood where my family lived in the 1960s. It seems a perfect image to represent what I see as the double strength of memoir: to look inward, telling your own personal story, and to look outward, telling history's larger story.
I'd love to hear how you chose the idea and title for Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. What a great title, incidentally! As a reader, it signaled a book about pain with insights I wouldn't find in, say, medical books. That promise was fulfilled by the richness of literary approaches you use to capture what pain is about: one essay feels like memoir, another like a lyric poem, a third, chock-full of factual information. And they all talk easily to each other. How did that all come about?
With Pain Woman, I initially didn't think I was writing an essay collection. I was trying out a variety of odd forms, searching for a container that would express and hold the experience of chronic pain as I was living it. After a while I began to be interested in voice. It was personally helpful to me to explore this subject from multiple directions—in effect, to have multiple containers for what felt like a toxic subject. The act of trying out these containers provides a counterpoint to the subject matter. The book has no narrative of cure or recovery, but there's a kind of narrative as the forms evolve and change.
Then, once I admitted to myself that I was accumulating enough for maybe two-thirds of a book, I realized that I had to continue that formal challenge throughout, and also that I had to find new subthemes, so that each essay would have both a new subtheme and a new form. That became kind of a game, and I found the process of writing those final essays very enjoyable. And I realized that the title had to signal the level of oddness in the book itself, but also to give a hint about what the heck this book is, hence the subtitle with the word "essays" included.
When History Is Personal definitely takes advantage of a wide field of reflection and memory as well as a broad thematic range, stressing that history is always personal, and the personal is inevitably part of...