- Inter-ReviewA Conversation about Memoir-in-Essays, Memory, and Survival
Early in March, Sue William Silverman published her seventh book, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences (University of Nebraska Press), a collection of essays, wide-ranging in form, voice, and perspective, addressing her lifelong fear of death, her survival of various deaths-in-life, and the role of memory and writing in that survival. Ten days later, Gail Griffin published her fourth volume of nonfiction, Grief's Country: A Memoir in Pieces (Wayne State University Press), a group of ten essays and four poems charting the terrain she wandered after the body of her husband of four months was found in the Manistee River, just outside their cabin door. The books touch at interesting points—including unscheduled visits to Graceland—as well as share common ground in looking squarely and unsentimentally at the strange, terrifying, grotesque, and comic faces of loss and grief.
Let's start with genre: We both produced memoirs-in-essays, a form that is enjoying great popularity lately. Did you begin writing How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences with the form in mind? [End Page 229]
My situation might be a little different from others. After writing two straight-through, chronological memoirs—one about growing up in an incestuous family, the other about recovering from sex addiction—I knew I didn't have another traditionally structured memoir in me. That led to writing essays, which in turn led me to think about how those essays could be thematically structured into a book. What about you?
Ultimately, the "memoir in pieces" seems obvious for my subject and approach, but in fact it snuck up on me, because the book snuck up on me. I didn't set out to write a book and was, in fact, really loath to write about my husband's death and its aftereffects. About two years after he died in 2008, I wrote a short piece about the night my cat brought a live snowy owl into the house, and it was published in a local magazine. But I knew that beautiful, terrifying bird had more to say, and I began to revise the piece to turn it toward my husband's death. I published that essay and wrote another, published that. This process went on for a few years until I finally had to concede that a book was evolving. I left it "in pieces" because that reflects my experience of prolonged traumatic grief.
That makes much sense. The best way to discover a structure for any given book is to let the structure evolve. To listen to the work itself and let it dictate the shape. That said, it's true that memoir-in-essays is popular right now.
Why do you think this form of memoir has emerged? What makes it attractive to a writer, or to a reader?
I think the memoir-in-essays structure allows a writer to explore variations on a theme and employ different tones of voice. This new book—about my fear of death as well as a search for the origins of the fear—is wide-ranging. With each essay I turn the lens a bit and approach the theme from a different vantage point. I also modulate the voice. For example, I discovered a gallows humor as the book progressed.
Oh, so did I. Lots of it. One of my chief survival tools, and a great writing tool. [End Page 230]
Right! So I think the popularity of this format stems from offering this wider range of exploration. For example, in How to Survive Death …, I write about both the pop singer Adam Lambert and the cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer! They are both metaphors, albeit in vastly different ways, for my obsession with death. I don't think I could have pulled...