Editor and ‘Boomer and Me’ author Jo Case shared her thoughts on the memoir genre with Writers Victoria.
Your first published book was a memoir (‘Boomer and Me: A memoir of motherhood, and Asperger's’). Do you run the risk of being pigeonholed as a memoir writer forevermore?
Definitely! I risk pigeonholing myself as a memoir writer forever. I do think that some writers are better suited to non-fiction writing and that I’m one of them. It depends on whether you’re better at (or more inclined towards) shaping a story and mining meaning from found and observed details, or if you prefer the freedom of invention – and not being bound by facts. This doesn’t mean that writers can’t move back and forth between fact and fiction, but I do think many writers are intrinsically suited to one or the other. I recently went through a major life event and have had many people ask if I’m going to write about it, which I guess means that I am seen as a memoir writer.
I’m not offended by being seen that way; some of my favourite books and writers are memoirs, including Mary Karr (three memoirs), Mandy Sayer (three memoirs) and Craig Sherborne (two memoirs).
In writing your memoir, did you become an advocate for autism and Asperger’s?
In a way, yes. It was a valuable opportunity to spread awareness that Asperger’s presents in many different ways from the stereotype, and that it affects women as well as men, though it presents differently. It also gave me a platform to talk about the ways in which a diagnosis can be a positive, though initially painful, experience, for families and individuals. And finally, I was grateful for being able to present the positive aspects of Asperger’s as well as the challenges, and to be open about the fact that given the opportunity to take my son’s Asperger’s away, I wouldn’t: it is responsible for some of the things I like best about him, including his passion for the things he loves, his sense of social justice, and his quirky sense of humour.
Your day job is a writing and editing job. Do you have any tips on finding the energy to write outside of work hours?
Get a deadline and take it seriously! Everyone works differently, but for me, that was the most important factor. Being a professional writer and editor, I’m very deadline-driven, so having a date when I needed to deliver the book to an editor enabled me to make my writing a priority without feeling guilty. If you don’t have an editor to impose deadlines on you, a regular writers’ group (which I also had when writing, and which gave me lots of mini deadlines) can work wonders. If you know you have to deliver a new batch of writing every couple of weeks to others who will critique and encourage your work, you generally make the time to do it.
Schedule time to write. Make it a job.
Writing memoir invariably affects your loved ones – in this case, your immediate family. How did you reconcile portraying them as characters while protecting their privacy?
Oh, boy. That’s a huge question! I talked to key members of my family before I embarked on my memoir to make sure they were okay with it, and to let them know that I would not just be writing pleasant things about them, designed to portray them in their best light. One-dimensional, all-good characters are not just boring; they’re unbelievable. And ultimately not terribly likeable. There’s no point in writing about your life and the people you know if you’re not prepared to include shades of grey.
My husband told me to write anything I liked about him; at one point, he told me I made him look too nice. I appreciated that freedom. I was most concerned about my son and he was the one person I allowed to vet sections of text. I removed some sections he didn’t like. I felt a different responsibility to him than I did towards others: he’s the person in my life whose happiness is my responsibility. Writing about your children is tough. There were various degrees of negotiation and discussion with various family members. Luckily, most of them were happy with how they came out on the page.
When you were writing ‘Boomer and Me’, your greatest fear was “Who am I to write a memoir?” Now that you’re on the other side of publication, have you conquered that fear?
Yes and no! I’ve had some great feedback from readers who have connected with my portrayal of Asperger’s or everyday parenting, and the pressures of being a “good-enough” mum. I’ve had more than one person – some known to me, others strangers – tell me that reading the book has made them seek out an Asperger’s diagnosis for themselves or a family member, and that’s really meaningful. So, surely that means I’m qualified enough to write a memoir.
On the other hand, I can see so many flaws in the book – I long to pull it apart and put it back together and make it better. But maybe that’s because I’m an editor. Maybe not letting go is an occupational hazard. I’m trying to see it in a positive way; I have ideas for improvement on the next book.
What’s your take on “stunt memoirs”, where people take on a challenge in order to write about it?
I’m not a big fan of the stunt memoir; they’re often not that well written, because the writing is not the purpose of it and nor is discovery, which should be at the heart of any good memoir. But that’s a generalisation; as with any generalisation, I can think of exceptions to the rule.
Jon Ronson’s first book, ‘Them’, in which he infiltrates a series of strange extremist groups, starting with an eccentric radical Muslim group and moving on to neo-Nazis and believers that we are all aliens, could be called a stunt memoir. But it’s about discovery – trying to identify what makes these groups tick, the ways they are like us and different from us, and how beliefs can draw a person in.
‘Eat, Pray, Love’ is a stunt memoir. I’m not a fan of it – I couldn’t finish it – but I can see that it had a genuine purpose and mission of self-discovery.
AJ Jacobs, to me, is a good example of a stunt memoirist whose books exist to sell books, rather than because they have something to communicate or discover. His four memoirs include ‘Know-It-All’, about reading the whole Encyclopedia Britannia, and ‘The Year of Living Biblically’, about living literally by the Bible for a year. I don’t see the point of them.
About Jo Case
Jo Case is the author of 'Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s', which was shortlisted for the Russell Prize for Humour Writing in 2015. Her personal essays have been published in the anthologies 'Rebellious Daughters' (2016) and 'Mothermorphosis' (2015) and in The Age, and her fiction has been published in Best Australian Stories and The Big Issue. She has been associate editor of Kill Your Darlings and senior writer/editor at the Wheeler Centre.
Update: Jo will be running a fully-online Digital Memoir Intensive for Writers Victoria from July to November 2018.