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?
As a “memoirist,” I’ve had three different ranges of experience: Angela’s Ashes;’Tis; Teacher Man. Most of the people in Ashes were dead (still are). I didn’t have to worry too much about consulting anyone, though I once—only once—mentioned what I was writing to my brother, Malachy. When the book was published in Ireland, I was denounced from hill, pulpit, and barstool. Certain citizens claimed I had disgraced the fair name of the city of Limerick, that I had attacked the church, that I had despoiled my mother’s name, and that if I returned to Limerick, I would surely be found hanging from a lamppost.
’Tis was trickier. My publisher had me change certain names and alter certain scenes for fear of offending the sensibilities of teaching colleagues. You never know how some people are going to react. I also had to be careful about comments on my first marriage. There be dragons.
I had to exclude sections of my life in Teacher Man. Again, I had to change names of former students if there was any whiff of impropriety. I really wanted to take my chances, but Scribner, my publisher, wagged the old finger and said nay nay.
The only way around all this nervousness is the novel—and that is what I’m trying now. Yes, yes, I still have to cover my tracks—and my ass—but I’ll have greater freedom.