Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Interview with Robin Hemley, author of the memoir, DO-OVER

Robin Hemley is the winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on DO-OVER!. He has published seven books, and his stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and many literary magazines and anthologies. Robin received his MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop; he currently directs the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa and lives in Iowa City, IA.

I've used Turning Life Into Fiction in a number of writing classes, and I've long admired Nola, his memoir about his sister. I just finished reading Hemley's latest, a memoir titled Do-Over: In Which a Forty-Eight-Year-Old Father of Three Returns to Kindergarten, Summer Camp, The Prom and Other Embarrassments.

From the publisher:

Robin Hemley's childhood made a wedgie of his memory, leaving him sore and embarrassed for over forty years. He was the most pitiful kindergartner, the least spirited summer camper, and dateless for prom. In fact, there's nary an event from his youth that couldn't use improvement. If only he could do them all over a few decades later, with an adult's wisdom, perspective, and giant-like height...

In the spirit of cult film classics like Billy Madison and Wet Hot American Summer, in DO-OVER! Hemley re├źncounters papier mach├ę, revisits his childhood home, and finally attends the prom—bringing readers the thrill of recapturing a misspent youth and discovering what's most important: simple pleasures, second chances, and the forgotten joys of recess.

Diana Joseph: While reading Do-Over, I kept thinking about a line from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

"We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come."

What do you think of Kundera's claim? In a way, the do-overs allowed you to live more than one life. You describe in the book how re-experiencing certain moments have changed your perceptions about the past. Has it also influenced your attitude toward the future?

Hemley: That IS a great quote, and I agree with it in a narrow sense, but in another way, I think I disagree. While we might live only one life, we return to our experiences repeatedly, and relive moments, even changing or distorting certain outcomes over time. I think we live multiple lives within our proscribed lifetime. We live in our imaginations and memory as much as we live in the day-to-day world. The present often seems immutable to me, but the past and future are fluid.

So, in essence, we can compare our lives to one another. There’s the life I thought I was living at seven when, let’s say, I flubbed my line in the Littlest Angel. When I flubbed the line I thought it was a great tragedy. Years later, I saw the episode as funny and told it to friends and family as an anecdote. Then, when I was writing Do-Over, I remembered that this was the only play my father saw me in because he died of a heart attack several months later. Now the memory changed once again and I saw my mistake in the play, if not as a tragedy completely, then at least heavily tinged with sadness.

What we want changes with the different lives we lead, and we CAN compare our past desires with our fresh ones, and perhaps temper those desires, if not perfect them.

Our great enemy is not desire or “want” but forgetfulness. We forget what’s already been given us . . . to quote another writer as wonderful as Kundera, Walter Benjamin wrote: “The fairy in whose presence we are granted a wish is there for each of us. But few of us know how to remember the wish we have made; and so, few of us recognize its fulfillment later in our lives.” I used that as one of the epigraphs of my book.

Joseph: In the introduction you state exactly what your do-overs were and were not about:

"If I only knew then what I know now. How many times have I thought that in my life? The more I considered this project, the more I wondered if knowing what I know now would make any difference when I revisited my young life. That's not to say my do-overs involved moral or ethical tests I hadn't passed the first time. For me, a do-over wasn't a correcting of karmic imbalance, though there was some of that. It wasn't always a matter of my choices, my wrong-doings, either. It was a matter of road blocks. What were the roadblocks in my life that I had never completely negotiated?"

How did you decide on that definition?

Hemley: I didn’t want this to be a “My Name is Earl” book, a book about redressing karmic imbalance, and so I wanted to make that clear from the beginning. To me, “Road blocks” seemed a better way of phrasing it. The problems of my childhood were not always my doing: my crazy kindergarten teacher, for instance, or the death of my father, or my problems with bullies when I was a kid. The “moral or ethical test” route risks too much self-seriousness in my view. I was always trying to strike a balance between the humorous (the sheer absurdity of a 48-year-old man going back to kindergarten, etc) and the meaningful. The corrections I wanted to make were ones of perspective not necessarily judgment.

Joseph: You've called the book "an immersion memoir." Can you explain what you mean?

Hemley: “Immersion Memoir” is a cousin of “Immersion Journalism.” My book is not straight journalism, nor is it straight memoir in that there is a lot of it that takes place in the present as a kind of chronicle of the way kids experience childhood in contemporary America.

Practitioners of Immersion Journalism, such as Susan Orlean and Barbara Ehrenreich are fundamentally different from writers like Danny Wallace (who wrote YES MAN) and A.J. Jacobs, who wrote THE YEAR OF LIVING BIBLICALLY. Some people might call them “stunt memoirist/journalists” but I prefer the word “immersion.” Stunt emphasizes the gimmick and trivializes the effort, but I see the immersion memoir as something that has more weight than a stunt, that is ultimately more reflective. The literary conceit (of saying yes to everything for a year, living by ALL of the Bible’s many precepts, or going back to the prom with the woman you had a crush on at age sixteen, in my case) are all ways of framing the story, but they’re not the story, not in its entirety at any rate.

Of course, all memoirs are “immersions” of some sort, but I’m using the word in the same sense as it’s used in the phrase “immersion journalism.” You take on a role out in the world as a way of understanding the self.

Joseph: How easy or difficult was it to immerse yourself in these experiences? How aware were you of the artifice? Did you find yourself embracing and/or resisting a particular do-over more than the others?

Hemley: There was always a moment of abject terror before each do over. It was always initially embarrassing to step into a cafeteria or on the playground with a bunch of five-year-olds, or play flag football with eighth graders. But then I settled into the experience each time, and enjoyed it. We all relaxed after the first hour or so.

Of course, I was aware of the artifice at times, but at other times I completely lost myself in the experience. Sometimes I had to pull back from the experience because I always had to keep in mind that I’m an adult. Sounds odd, I know, but there’s something I learned about called “regressive pull,” the idea that you tend to conform to the maturity level of those around you. And I sometimes had to snap out of it as a result of regressive pull. In one instance, I was going back to boarding school for my prom do over, and the school took a field trip to Chattanooga. Some of the kids invited me along (they were between 16 and eighteen) as they walked through Chattanooga. One of them lit up a cigarette and it soon became clear they were probably going to drink or get high or something. I pulled back and went off on my own, and that cost me my budding friendship with this group, who afterwards regarded me as warily as they’d regard any adult. But I’m glad I left them then and there.

As for embracing do over’s, I embraced them all with the exception of the ACT test. I also had a lot of psychic hurdles to jump with eighth grade because I hated eighth grade, but once I was into the experience, I enjoyed it as much as any other.

Joseph: The subtitle of Do-Over--In Which a Forty-Eight Year-Old Father of Three Returns to Kindergarten, Summer Camp, the Prom, and Other Embarrassments--is interesting. It emphasizes aspects of your identity--your age, for example. Is this a book you could only have written at middle age?

Hemley: I think I would have written a very different book ten years ago. Or 20 years ago. I’ve settled in my life enough to take on a project like this. Ten years ago, I was going through a divorce. Twenty years ago, I didn’t have enough perspective on my life. For me, it’s all about perspective, and while I wouldn’t consider myself wise . . . well, that’s not true. I think I’m a mixture of wisdom and foolishness that makes a project like this right for me at this time in my life.

Joseph: Why did you decide to focus on the roadblocks of childhood?

Hemley: Childhood roadblocks present the most opportunity for irony and humor, I think. In childhood, we’re trying to negotiate a world we haven’t yet experienced and each roadblock seems HUGE when in adulthood we know that they’re often not as big as we think.

Joseph: Your relationship with your daughters provides another subtext to the book: "I had kids of my own to raise," you write, "and I wanted them to be healthier specimens than I was. I had to set a good example." As you "do-over" some of your perceived failures or regrets, you encourage all three girls to pursue their own big dreams. When Olivia talks about how she might become a psychologist instead of an opera singer, for example, you're quick to tell her she doesn't have to live her life according to what's practical.

Hemley: Well yeah, life is full of risks and playing it safe is something I don’t believe in. My daughters have plenty of time to play it safe. I think it’s important for their sense of confidence and their enjoyment of the world for them to dream big. I’m delighted that my daughter Olivia has made the choice to pursue opera instead of psychology. As I told her, she can become a psychologist AFTER pursuing her opera dreams, but if she never gives her opera dreams full play then she’s almost guaranteed a sense of deep regret that she didn’t at least try. She’s going to be attending an excellent music conservatory in the Fall in opera. I’m proud of her, of course. Of course, she might have disappointment later on. That’s unavoidable. We all have disappointments, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of censoring our dreams before we’ve given them a chance.

Joseph: What are you working on now?

Hemley: I’m working on a novel. It’s funny . . . I think. At least, I’M enjoying it.

1 comment:

DeWolf said...

Do-Over sounds very intriguing. I'm definitely going to give it a read.

I like what Mr. Hemley has to say about memory and perspective in the interview. Those things fascinate me.