Click here to read more from Slate’s Memoir Week.
The other week, Slate posed the following question to a group of memoir writers: How do you choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you do?
I wrote my memoir, Falling Through the Earth, about my relationship with my father, who was a tunnel rat in Vietnam in 1968, while I was living in Sofia, Bulgaria. All of the people who would appear in the book lived thousands of miles away, and for this I was thankful: I wanted to write from my point of view, drawing on my personal vision of family history and events and conversations. The few times that I spoke with family members—I tried comparing memories with my sister over the phone—only seemed to fragment the voice I was developing for the book, and so I kept this kind of research to a minimum.
Instead, I focused most of my research energies on understanding the history and culture of Vietnam and the military history of the Vietnam War. Falling Through the Earth cuts back and forth in time between my childhood relationship with my father, my dad’s memories of his time as a tunnel rat, and the trip I took to Vietnam to go through the tunnels as a young woman. In order to effectively braid these three sections together, I needed to present Vietnam as fully and as believably as the Wisconsin of my childhood. I had interviewed my father before I began the book about his work exploring the underground network of tunnels and rooms built by the Viet Cong, making tapes of our conversations. As I had these tapes with me when I wrote Falling Through the Earth, I felt that I didn’t need to speak much more with him about the specifics of the tunnels. My father had been diagnosed with throat cancer (thought to have been caused by Agent Orange exposure) just before I began writing Falling Through the Earth, which made it difficult to discuss the war. Much of the book is about my dad’s struggle with the effect of PTSD and his cancer, but a large part of it is about how I learned to work around the war in our lives. The war was always an overwhelming presence.
With the factual side of the story researched to my satisfaction, I entered into a more imaginative process, where I attempted to reconstruct characters and scenes from my life. I made a conscious decision to rely on memory, keeping all of the nuances and colorations of my own point of view. I looked at pictures from the time I was writing about (the ‘80s) and listened to music that brought back feelings I had when I was 11. I also had very extensive journals, beginning from the time I was 15, that I used to reconstruct scenes from the past. I wanted to be as accurate as possible, without the story becoming dull or journalistic. My first attempts at writing were as a novelist (I wrote a novel that was not published before I wrote Falling Through the Earth), and my instinct was to write a memoir that moved in the same way a novel does.
But, of course, a real story affects real people. To protect those who might not want to be included in my book, I changed names and physical characteristics of minor players (and included a note in the book that explained this choice) to help protect the feelings of those who appeared in the book without having been warned. There are many such people, and they have not always been happy. I wanted to spare my family members, but full protection is impossible in such a detailed account of our family life. In the end, I felt my memoir had to reflect my unique perspective about the people and events in the book, and this is, like writing poetry or fiction, a highly subjective and personal process.