Marcia Aldrich is the author of Girl Rearing (W.W. Norton) and her new book, Companion to an Untold Story, selected by Susan Orlean for the 2011 AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction, was published this September. Aldrich is the former editor of Fourth Genre and teaches at Michigan State University.
Interview with Marcia Aldrich
by Jill Kolongowski
Jill Kolongowski: I read Companion to an Untold Story as a beautiful, extended collage essay, rather than a memoir or a biography. The catalogued, fragmented craft of the book reflects your attempt to piece together meaning from your friend’s suicide. Did the form of this book (both its alphabetical and collage structure and its status as a companion) come naturally, or did you edit to shape it in this way? I imagine this arose from a much-larger collection of pieces—how did you choose which to use? Were you influenced by other writers?
Marcia Aldrich: The published Companion to an Untold Story is not where I began. A prior version of the book was organized chronologically and told a fuller, more conventional story about Joel. I attempted to give a biographical account of his life under the mistaken assumption that if I amassed enough material and narrative drive, the result would explain why he chose to kill himself and what my role was in his story. At one point I thought of it as a literary biography of a suicide, in the spirit of the much-shorter “Biography of a Dress,” by Jamaica Kincaid, in which she uncovers layers of detail about the unhappy occasion of her mother’s making a yellow dress for her second birthday. Kincaid finds that her probing excavation does not answer her questions about why her mother undertook the elaborate preparation to mark the day, and what she intended for her daughter. My early versions included chronological tables, family trees, a detailed account of Joel’s diabetes, a long narrative of his relationship with his brother, and a march through all the educational institutions he attended. At some point I realized that I was traveling away from my subject, not closer.
I came to see that my subject was not Joel’s biography or a sociological study of suicide. The form of the earlier version implied that I had grasped Joel’s life and death, and that I had succeeded in my investigation, whereas questions still haunted me. I had discovered at nearly every turn an inexplicable gap between two personalities of my friend: one who was gifted and the one who suffered many disappointments. Why do people blessed with ability struggle to survive? Why can you help one person, while another person turns away from your help? There were mysteries to his life, and I needed to find a form that allowed me to reveal them and create a truer picture of the aftermath of his death, making use of smaller pieces than those I originally tried to assemble.
In addition, a few people who read that early version commented that I had disappeared. Where was I in the story, in the writing? I had so desperately wanted to serve Joel’s story that I had lost sight of my own. What was my experience, my role? I needed to puzzle through my own unruly feelings. There is the story of Joel’s actions, and there is the companion story of my actions in response to his suicide. These are not neat strands running in parallel, but narratives that cross, tangle, knot, and break.
While the first version was a failure, I couldn’t have written the final Companion without it. I did a number of things to the earlier version in reconceiving the book—one could say I did some violence to it in the service of defamiliarizing the material. I broke pieces apart; I threw material away, I subjected it to an alphabetical organization. The alphabetical ordering imposes an order upon the material that includes randomness, an order that undoes order. I created a system of cross-references—a forward sweep that simultaneously loops backward. The reader moves forward but is turned back to pick up stitches. Accumulating and qualifying, revising and adding to, the reader puts the story together. Thus, even the final entry returns the reader to the beginning through a cross-reference. Part of the reason I employed a system of cross-reference is to suggest that there’s always more to this business of feeling and dying. You don’t come to the end and say, I’m done.
The form and the processes that guided me allowed me to re-see the original material and then re-orchestrate it for entirely different effects. Suicide imposes a narrative on the life of the one who killed himself and the writer who survived. Suicide has an uncanny power to impose a narrative upon the book one is writing. The companion form with its alphabetical structure counteracts that narrative inevitability and predictability.
I was influenced by writers who don’t narrate chronologically and who don’t write arcs of grieving and redemption. D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land contains 316 numbered sections that combine personal narrative with a history of real-estate development in his community. Paul Auster’s The Invention of Solitude and almost anything of Anne Carson were sources. And then I found myself returning to my training in modernist poetry. I thought about the great quoting poems of modernism, what you might call collage poems.
JK: While being fragmentary, some of the sections also seem to fall chronologically (the L’s of the alphabet, as well as the ending with an imagined scene of Joel’s suicide, for example). Was this something you did purposefully to maintain a narrative thread, or did you want to focus more on the fragments?
MA: I was not committed to chronology in any direct way. In some places, the reader needs to be able to figure out the sequence of events, as for example those surrounding the telephone calls described near the beginning of the book. But I was satisfied to make the precise order of things available to the reader through, for example, dates, rather than tell the story chronologically.
Still, the imagined scene of the suicide, the end of one part of the story, comes near the end of the book. I hope that the scene is made more powerful by foreknowledge of the conclusion, as in our experience of tragedy. So in this instance there’s chronology working against anti-chronology, if that makes sense.
Given the alphabetical order of a reference book, I had the tools of selection and naming at my disposal. The entry “Years, Under the Influence of the Additive Property,” for example, was originally titled “Ghost Ranch.” But I wanted it near the end of the book.
Of course, work went into how I broke things apart, what was cut, where I placed the parts in the book. I had the challenge of making the order seem right. Some of this process strikes me as instinctual, as I carried the whole inside me for so long that I sensed how to break it down and reassemble. Once I figured out what I was doing structurally with the companion form, the rest came naturally. I had labored so long in creating the first version that something clicked into place when I finally let that structure go. I can imagine that the reader moving through the book might simply absorb the titles to the sections as primarily informational, like “Certificate of Death.” But then, there are other titles like “Chain, chain, chain” that do not work to classify, or not in a straightforward informational manner. I spent a good deal of effort in naming the entries and creating sequences—figuring where things should go.
However, some things I was willing to leave to chance, what I call the “lady luck of language” in “English 1B.”
JK: Not only is this book innovative in its form, but you also play with voice. Some sections are journalistic and take the facts of the death at face value, others are fragmentary dictionary definitions, others are more like short essays, and still others are more lyric and voice-driven (like the more frantic voice in “Buteo regalis” or the chopped voice in the imagined death scene). How do you see these different voices interacting?
MA: This is an excellent question and one I haven’t been asked. The first thing that comes to mind was my desire to get Joel’s voice into the book. I didn’t want to speak for him or summarize who he was. I wanted to quote him prominently. My husband and I possess a large number of letters from Joel over decades. I wanted readers to see him from different angles over many years. He was smart and witty and sometimes he said devastating things about himself (and others!), and I wanted all of that in the book. Many times what he said about himself expressed more than I could. I needed to frame his words and then get out of the way.
In the aftermath of a suicide, survivors are put through an emotional wringer. I wanted to get at the different voices of my personal emotions. But I didn’t want the book to be filled only with my emotional trajectory alone. I juxtaposed my feelings with the hard facts of his suicide. I put documentation next to personal struggle, next to dreams and imagination. There is data attached to such a story—time of death, coroner’s report, certificate of death, place of burial, cause of death, the kind of gun, and so on. I gave the facts a stark presentation, whereas the more speculative and emotional sections lean towards the lyric. One of my favorite sections is “Manhattan,” and that’s an example of document joined with lyric, of writing over the documentary status with the lyric impulse.
I wanted to create strong juxtapositions between types of material—to create reactions where one entry would reflect surprising light onto another. I wanted the reader not to get settled in a rhythm or pattern, to be lulled to sleep. I think of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, with its shifts between voices around one central consciousness.
JK: As a reader, I found the shorter sections jarring, as if much was left unsaid. How do you see the white space in the short sections functioning?
MA: I wanted a roughed-up surface to the text—to create abrupt changes and shifts, using different lengths and types of entries. To speak again of chance, some of the short entries surprised me because of the rhythm they create with adjacent entries: “Heart. 245 grams.” “Hole. Vacant interiority.” “Marital status. Never married.” These short entries look stark on the page, surrounded by all that white. They stab me (and I hope the reader!) with bluntness. I am fond of white space—it speaks its own story. I like fragments that suggest but do not supply the whole. I like writing that asks me to be alert, to pay attention to sequences, to fill in the gaps. Perhaps more importantly for this specific book, the fragmentation, the dissonance, the multiple voices, and the white space are all formal means to get at what can’t be known and to show how the narratives crack under the pressure of suicide.
JK: Signs play an important role in this book—intended signs, missed signs, a struggle to interpret signs. You utilized cross-references in this book, and they also serve as signposts for the reader, directing the reader to find and re-find the threads of this book, visibly establishing the narrative’s interconnectedness. Did you intend for readers to read this book in order? Flip back and forth? How did you imagine the cross-references would affect the reader’s experience? (I read this book on a plane, in one sitting—I wondered if reading the book in several sittings would have changed how I experienced it.)
MA: I sense that most readers are reading the book straight through, from front to back, but one friend said she first read straight through and then followed the cross-references. (If you follow them faithfully, do they lead through the whole text? I actually don’t know). She said that with the second approach the reading experience is different, and she enjoyed constructing a new book from the cross-references. I’d like the ideal reader to follow the cross-references for a variety of reasons. That method encourages the reader to participate in the constructing the book, moving backwards and forwards, picking up bits of information and details that might have flown by. The reader has to slow down to consider what she is reading. That seems like a good thing.
JK: You helped shoot a book trailer to promote Companion. What made you decide to use this medium to promote the book? How did you decide what choices to make in shooting the video? Do you see it as an effective way to break through in an advertising-overloaded world? Do you think it may help your book reach a more atypical readership?
MA: As you know, authors are assuming more responsibility for marketing and promoting their books. I prefer the word launching. I am fortunate to have the Association of Writing Programs working on my book’s behalf, but the University of Georgia Press, a noncommercial press, does not have the resources available to commercial publishing houses. The publicist sent me a list of things I could do to promote my book. The list involves a range of social networking. The one item on the list I actually wanted to do was make a trailer.
I saw the trailer as primarily an artistic venture and challenge. I had never made such a thing and I was excited by the prospects of learning what was involved. At the time I was considering whether I could pull a trailer off, I viewed a documentary made by Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai and felt we might work well together. The trailer is largely his directorial vision, one that appealed to me and that I could participate in. I ended up writing ten blog posts describing the process.
I loved collaborating with Pillai and two former students over much of last summer. I’m proud of the trailer. It is discrete, with its own emotional and aesthetic satisfactions, but it evolves from the book and leads back to it.
It’s impossible for me to know whether it has brought new people to my book. I’d say I have uncertainty about whether anything I’ve done through social networking or any other means has helped launch my book. The trailer has been viewed, and that’s about all I can say.
JK: Do you see yourself writing more collage books like Companion in the future, or is it just that the form was the right form for this subject?
MA: I am drawn to innovation, to formal and structural experimentation, and I can’t see abandoning that interest. Yet not all my writing is formally experimental. Some of my essays follow the example of classical essayists such as Montaigne. I’ve had essays in anthologies of humor and anthologies of innovative nonfiction. I feel the appeal of a diversity of styles, but the subject matter dictates the right form for any project. What’s most important to me is that I don’t settle into a style, a way of writing, thinking, and feeling. Right now I have two book projects, and they couldn’t be more different from one another. I’m trying to write a real memoir and let the sentences rip. On the other hand, I’m writing about a specific place in Michigan, a book that will probably be closer to collage, or at least a mingling of personal essay and research.
JK: To me, Companion reads like the nonfiction of the future, reflecting our ever more fractured mindsets, the tension between what (objects, memories) to throw away and what to treasure, the increasing urge to document our lives. Do you see this book as pushing the boundaries of traditional nonfiction? Do you think the boundaries need to be pushed? How do you see the genre evolving?
MA: I like the diversity of writing that we currently find under the large heading of nonfiction. I celebrate the abundance of forms and types of nonfiction being written across the spectrum; for me it’s an indication of the health of the genre. Nonfiction is exploding, not just memoir, but essays. On the one hand Wild, a big traditional memoir, is finding great success among mainstream readers. And, on the other hand, a collection of essays, Notes from No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss, won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. I am guessing that more nonfiction will be produced that combines personal memoir with research and investigation, as Kristen Iverson’s recent Full Body Burden does, while simultaneously writers will explore hybridity and innovation, as in the book I just received—Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction.
We’re writing in a time of debate. Sometimes the debates are silly, as when memoir is targeted as the literary bad guy or scarlet woman. A myopic focus upon a handful of troubling memoirs misses the larger point, which is that nonfiction of all types is bursting at the seams and for me, at least, represents the most vital and lively writing being produced.