A: I started with a list of 13 addresses, which my mother had written in my baby book. They were of all the houses I’d lived in before I turned 9. When I was in my twenties, mostly out of curiosity, I set the intention to one day go back and see them all. I’d been too young to remember half of the places I’d lived, and all that moving suggested a story I didn’t know. Then I raised a family, went to graduate school, started a career…and the trip didn’t happen. When my parents died in 1999, my daughters were mostly grown, and I decided that now was the time. Meanwhile, I had become very interested in what it means to have a sense of place, so that idea shaped the journey.
Q: Were there any surprises in writing it?
A: Yes. When I first started writing, I was determined to leave my father out of it. Which is absurd, since he’s the catalyst to so much that happens. So his inclusion was both surprising and not. Of course, I had to write about him. The ultimate surprise in doing so was that I arrived at a feeling of enormous compassion for him, which marks a real turn for me.
Q: What was the most challenging part of writing it?
A: Figuring out the structure. One of the pretty far-along drafts told the story of my trip in chronological order: this town then that town then that one in Colorado, THEN, about mid-way through the book, we get to Kansas. But Kansas had really become the heart of the book by then, and it made no sense at all to get there so late. So on good advice, I chopped it up and started over. Now the Kansas part of the journey is right up front, once I leave San Francisco.
I also struggled with how to weave together the cancer story and the Kansas story. I wrote about 100 pages where they were told in equal parts, first one then the other. That didn’t work, because I didn’t have a clear sense of what the two had to do with each other. So I started over and wrote a draft in which I didn’t even mention cancer. Which seemed silly, because that experience had so colored my expedition to all those addresses. Then, I wrote a draft that included it, but only fleetingly. Which seemed too cryptic. So with the pushing of a great anonymous reader at the press, the cancer part of the story became larger and richer. It traveled with me to Kansas and I revealed more about how it shaped both the journey and who I’ve become. I also finally figured out that both stories were about displacement and learning to be at home. So they grew to fit more naturally together.
Q: Still, the cancer part of the book isn’t that prominent. Why were you reluctant to include it, or to make it the central story?
A: When you tell people you have cancer, it’s like being at a dinner party and having brilliant things to say, and yet nobody can hear you because you’ve got a piece of spinach stuck to your incisor. Cancer is like that spinach. And I wanted readers to hear the story of my going back to Kansas, which for me, is really the heart of the book. It’s certainly where my heart is.
I also think that cancer memoirs are plentiful, and hard to write well, and I wasn’t interested in writing yet another one. Cancer’s not where I want to focus my creative life.
Q: You weave together personal and family stories with other histories: stories of Native tribes, for example, or John Brown. What made you decide to include these other layers?
A: I’m interested in place as a palimpsest of places, one story laid atop the other. And I think that the more we know about the place we live, the more we care about it and the more connected we feel. So including stories other than mine was a way of building that connection, and of deepening my readers’ idea of Kansas. It was part of dispelling the oversimplified myth that has come to stand for Kansas in many people’s minds. I also think that memoir can become too ego-driven—or maybe it’s that I shy away from self-revelation—and I was interested in finding connections between my story and others’. Building more of a collective sense of who belongs to Kansas, whose experience counts.
I am drawn to writers like Virginia Woolf whose essays are multi-layered and digressive, whose curiosity and thought lead in many directions and embrace whatever lies in the path. I also admire W. G. Sebald and Rebecca Solnit, who do the same sort of thing. So I wrote the kind of book I like to read.
Q: What is your writing process like?
A: Well, there are two parts to this answer: the discipline part, and the process part. Once I get my teeth into something, I’m very disciplined, writing daily unless I positively, absolutely can’t because of other obligations. When I’m working my way into something new, I’m like a skittish colt, alternately curious to find out what it is, and fearful of making a start, working a bit, scampering away—sometimes keeping away for weeks. When I am in a writing season, my process is organized chaos. I do lots of drafts as I discover what the thing really is, find my way as I go. I try not to worry about what it all adds up to, because I’ve learned that the insight or intuition will eventually come. At later stages, I spend a lot of time fine-tuning sentences. I like musical prose.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing some short pieces, one on a Virginia Woolf essay, one on my fascination with raising chickens (I don’t have them, I just want them). I also try to keep up with my blog on slow life and slow reading. And I’ve started a new book project about the 1918 influenza pandemic. But it’s only begun incubating, so I’m keeping mostly mum about it. Stay tuned.