Monica Wood, author of When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, visited with us on Thursday, March 7, for a lively discussion of her recent memoir.
Before reading from the book, Wood wanted to talk a bit about her process of revising the text. “All writing is revision,” she explained. Having been a novelist up until now, trying her hand at memoir was a new challenge. Once she had finished her first draft, which she had felt pretty confident was complete, Wood asked her sister Cathy read it. Cathy’s feedback was that “the people of the story were not really in it,” and Wood realized that she had perhaps kept too much distance between herself and the figures in the story. Where it was a memoir and not a novel, she had been hesitant to include thoughts and dialogue that did not adhere strictly to what she knew or remembered to have happened. In revising the narrative she found that, once she gave herself permission to treat the real-life people as characters in a novel, they came alive. She based her imaginings of inner lives and spoken words on truth, on what she knew about the people, and with that awareness she took creative license.
Once Wood had finished reading from the text, the room was filled with questions and comments for the author, and she generously responded with illuminating answers and entertaining anecdotes.
One guest asked, “Did you deliberately place the scene where the family uses the last sheet of paper (of the supply remaining from her late father’s work at the paper mill) where it is, about halfway through the book?”
“I’m sure it was very deliberate but can’t remember now why or how,” Wood replied. “I didn’t change the chronology to the story. Writing memoir is a lot about what to leave out.” Wood then shared a story from a recent reading that an audience member told about herself and her husband. They both planned to read the book, and it was the woman’s turn first. As she was reading in bed one night she began sobbing, and her husband asked her why she was crying. She replied, “They just ran out of paper!” Of course, being so out of context, the husband couldn’t understand why that would be so tragic. Wood added, “At the time, I didn’t even realize that you could actually go and buy paper!”
Another group member asked, “Why did you title the book, When We Were the Kennedys?”
“The book is not just about our family, but about when America was a certain way at a certain time,” Wood said. “It was a time of endings and beginnings. (The assassination of the president) was the end of a kind of innocence for the country…when things were suddenly this way and not that way.”
Wood also said that before the book was published she had a drink with a friend who asked what the title was going to be, and “I told her the bad title I had in mind!” Wood shared. The friend was less than enthused and encouraged Wood to list some of the chapter titles. When she mentioned “When We Were the Kennedys,” the friend picked up on it and suggested she use that for the book title, with a subhead that included Mexico, Maine, to create intrigue from a couple of angles.
One guest shared that he grew up in Madison, a similar Maine mill town, and that he was “old enough to be (Wood’s) father.” His personal history contains many elements parallel to Wood’s—his father died when he was nine, just as Wood’s did; he himself worked in the mill; and his high school team played against Mexico. He praised the accuracy of Wood’s depiction of the inner workings of the mill in her book, and asked, “How did you come to such a depth of knowledge?”
“Thanks, I did a lot of research,” Wood said. A friend who worked in the mill (and who, incidentally, was recently laid off) was very helpful in describing the ins and outs of the process. In addition, by an interesting chain of events she ended up meeting one of late father’s coworkers. While working on a history of Rumford, the small Mexico Historical Society invited her to come and speak to them. Once she had finished her talk, one of the group volunteered, “You have got to talk to Bunny Carver! He worked in the mill and knew your father, and took his place when he died.” Wood went to Harry “Bunny” Carver’s house, and on greeting her at the door he said, “Oh, one of Red’s little girls!” (Red being Wood’s father’s nickname.)
In addition to providing her with information as to the workings of the mill, Carver gave Wood something even more precious. In sharing with her the reaction in the wood yard to the news of her father’s death that morning, he offered her a view into the story that she hadn’t even considered until that moment. She’d only been able to recall that day from her own 9 year-old experience – being in the house, people coming and going, the home filling with food and flowers. She’d never considered what those same hours had been like at the mill. “When my father was two seconds late that day, they knew that something dreadful had happened. My father was never late.” Carver filled in such details. “It was very touching to me,” Wood reflected.
Later in the discussion MWWC curator Cathleen Miller shared that she found in When We Were the Kennedys many similarities with her own story, growing up in a part of western Pennsylvania dominated by the coal mining industry. Wood agreed, saying, “Everywhere I’ve read with this book someone says, “This is just like my town,” referring to the presence of all kinds of various manufacturing, not just the paper industry. Wood has seen that “people are not only attached to their towns, but also to their industries. The industry itself feels like a person with influence over you.”
“Their grandson now lives in their apartment and says that people have been going by to take pictures of the house.” This elicited quite a reaction from our group, and Wood went on to say more about this fascination with her childhood home. On her way to Haystack one day she stopped at the bookstore in Blue Hill, where the book has been heavily promoted. As she was signing stock for the shop, a couple from England who were great fans of the story explained that they had just made a pilgrimage to Mexico to see the house and town for themselves. Wood seemed quite surprised!
As the gathering was winding down, a question came from a visitor from the San Francisco Bay area, who referred to himself and his wife as Wood’s “unofficial publicists.” In commenting that she had shared a bit about how her fiction writing influenced this experience of writing autobiographically, he wondered how her memoir writing might influence her writing of fiction going forward. Wood replied, “I don’t know right now. I’ll have to see…writing characters in a memoir is a thousand times easier than creating characters in a novel. It took me half the time to write this, and I’m so glad I waited until I was older to write it. This is my favorite book and I’m glad I waited until I had the skill to do it.”
Currently Wood is working on a play, explaining, “I wanted to do something collaborative. I’m tired of working by myself. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it yet.” When asked if she would write another memoir, Wood said that she might write more about her sister Betty, who has developmental challenges. She loves to write about her, and recently published pieces about Betty in Reader’s Digest and Yankee Magazine.
When We Were the Kennedys is now in its fourth printing, and Wood has just received the 2012 May Sarton Memoir Award for best memoir by a woman writer published in the US or Canada. Congratulations, Monica!