She is the author of To Have Not, which was named one of five “Best Memoirs of 2010” by SheKnows.com. It’s a true story of growing up poor in San Francisco in the 1970s, getting a scholarship to an Ivy League college, and discovering what it really means to have and have not. The former Senior Editor of Body+Soul magazine, she is now the book reviewer for Good Housekeeping and a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher. Her articles, essays, and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Utne Reader, Glimmer Train Stories, Fiction, Poets & Writers, Martha Stewart’s Whole Living, Health, and more. She has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, once for Best American Essays, and was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation food writing award, among other honors. She lives in Petaluma and surfs in Bolinas.
Here’s a hot-off-the-presses Q & A with Frances.
What was or is one of the trickiest things about writing memoir for you?
The hardest part about turning my life into a book was finding the through line, the main story. I’d written a series of essays, each about one aspect of my coming of age–money, sex, school, drugs. Then I put those essays together into a book manuscript, and called it “Every Girl Has Her Story.” I still love that title, and hope to use it somewhere, but the book got rejected by several dozen publishers, in part because it lacked a cohesive narrative. So I had to return to the material and answer the classic question, “What’s this story about?” At first, I had no answer; in fact, I put the project away for a year, because I could conceive of no other way of presenting it than in essays. Eventually I went back to it and saw that there was a through line of poverty, both a literal and a figurative sense of un-entitlement. Then I had to tear the book apart and rebuild it, deconstructing each essay, and organizing the events by chronology rather than theme. That was hell. But it taught me this: sometimes, you have to just walk away; and sometimes you have to push. I had to do both in order to figure out my story and how best to tell it.
Did you always know that you would tell your story/stories via memoir, or had you considered fictionalizing your material?
I never wanted to write about myself, in memoir or in thinly-veiled fiction. I started out writing pure fiction, and had stories published in GlimmerTrain, Fiction, and other journals. The real joy of fiction for me was being able to make up things that were very different from my own life. My stories were often about middle-aged men—somehow I felt old and jaded even in my twenties. But someone in a writers’ group, the novelist Ann Harleman, had heard me refer to bits of my life, and encouraged me to write about it. I sure hope I can still write fiction, because I’m pretty sick of writing about myself. And when I write fiction again, it probably will be about middle -aged men, or some other population that is very unlike me.
What have been the reactions of your family members to your memoir?
They don’t say much, and, except for one of my two brothers, I’m not sure they’ve read it. I did give them all a pre-press manuscript and asked them to tell me if there was anything that bothered them. But no one spoke up. I think my mom feels criticized, and I think my dad fears being criticized, and that’s why he won’t read it. And though my goal is not to criticize them, I understand that feeling. It seems natural for a parent to feel guilty or ashamed if something bad happened to their child while on their watch. But really, my intention is not to blame them but to understand me. And we’re all still talking to each other, and passing the ham at Christmas, so I think I did OK.
Assuming you got or get stuck sometimes, what methods do you have for getting unstuck?
It gets back to knowing when to push hard and when to walk away to let time, serendipity, mood changes, and the unconscious work their magic.
What are you working on now?
There’s a novel, if I want to get back to fiction. But the safer book (as in I know how to do it and I think it will interest people) is about surfing. I started surfing at age 36, and then, seven years later, I broke my neck surfing, so the thing that made me feel most fully alive nearly killed me. People are always so intrigued by the surfing, and I’m jotting down notes for a first-person look though the mystique of this sport and subculture.
What did you teach yourself by writing this book?
I learned how to write a long story. I’d written short all my life–essays, short fiction–and loved the short form for its poetic economy. So I had to learn how to write a book-length story, with more subthemes and threads winding in and out of the main points.
Any advice for aspiring memoirists? Or writers seeking to be published today?
Writers, write! Just keep practicing, honing, speaking on paper; that’s how you discover your voice, your story, your urgency. Publishing is harder than ever today, but at the same time new opportunities (blogs, print-on-demand) are opening up. But none of them will matter if you’re not writing regularly, finding your stories and learning how to best tell them.
What question would you have liked to have been asked? with answer, please!
What’s the biggest wave you ever surfed?
Oh, that would be the 8 -footer down in Playa Grande, Costa Rica, that I finally made after crashing over the lip a dozen times.
Come out and hear Frances Lefkowitz read and ask her your own questions, Feb. 10, 7 PM, Studio 333, 333 Caledonia St., Sausalito.