Stephanie is my friend and colleague in the Association of Personal Historians. In this interview she reflects on writing Mountain Girls, her memoir published in 2013. Last week I posted an excerpt here on True Stories Well Told.
Sarah: What got you started on this project?
Stephanie: I had originally thought, back in 2003, which is where the book begins, that I’d like to use the skills that I’d been developing as a personal biographer to get to know some of these stories of women in West Virginia, which was where I had lived until I was 16 years old. I was really interested in this whole sense I was getting from my projects about how much had changed in just a generation’s time. When I started thinking about my friends’ mothers and other older women in the state, really, we were talking about the difference between subsistence living and modern life and that they lived to see that transition. If you lived in the mountains, you might not be able to get into town in the wintertime, so you would have to know how to can and store food without refrigeration and be able to feed your family for several months. It was that cultural history that intrigued me at the beginning.
I started interviewing these older women and hearing their stories. That was really what I had in mind for the book. I wanted to use my interviewing skills, my research and writing skills.
I wasn’t thinking memoir at all, but what happened was, I kept going back to my hometown and meeting up with my friends, and especially Lisa Armstrong, who’s the other main character in the book. She was living in Baltimore at the time and I was in Ann Arbor. We would meet up together and stay for a few days, and I would do the interviews, and we would drive around. At night I would sit up writing on my laptop, about what we had done that day, what we had found out about our own past, and that would lead to my memories about us as friends when we were highschoolers.
All of a sudden, I was generating much more personal memoir material. But as we know about the writing process, you never get what you thought you were starting out to do. So I got out of my own way and started piecing it together as a combination of historical stories and memoir stories, and then more contemporary stories because I was thinking about why we both longed for West Virginia even though we had very successful and enjoyable lives in other places—what we missed about the community where we had grown up.
It took on this other life of musing about women’s choices and modernity. I ended up finding the structure of each chapter being a different cultural or women’s issue like music or food or or nature or sex and motherhood. That gave me this way I could put together all these different stories from these different time periods. Once I figured that out, I knew what the book was that I was writing.
Sarah: I think the structure is very successful. I really like the feeling of being with you on this journey. How did you make time to do all this work?
Stephanie: Well, I will remind you that the book started in 2003 and I published it in 2013 and it’s only 135 pages. In some sense, it was definitely a when-I-could-find-the-time project. For a long time I had a box of files on the floor in my office and it was always staring at me. Sometimes a year had gone by and I hadn’t looked at it. But at the same time, every year I would always put on my Do list ‘finish West Virginia book.’ Then I started working with a writing partner where we agreed to meet every week. Once I had that deadline, I would make the time to do it. All of a sudden, I was making progress.
That was around 2010. The final push came when I asked a client who had a cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan if I could go there by myself for a week to complete the first draft. I felt like I was far enough along that if I just had uninterrupted time where I didn’t have to do anything else, I could get it done. That was a real game changer. At the end of that retreat, I had a manuscript.
Sarah: I was delighted when I came to that, because for me, the U.P. has also been a productive place for writing. The combination of physical activity and then burrowing in with my writing work feels heavenly to me.
Stephanie: It was really special. I walked every day on the beach and then I’d come in and meditate. It felt right to spend the time just breathing and envisioning what I want this book to do for people. Each day, I had a different thought: The book would be beautiful, it would be meaningful, it would make people happy, all these goals I had for it as a work of art, I infused into that last push to get the tone right. That was an unexpected process for me.
Sarah: How did you decide what to put in and what to leave out? How do we describe our adolescent experiments without embarrassing ourselves and revealing too much? I thought you did a very graceful job of that.
Stephanie: Part of it is that you write a lot more stuff than you actually end up using. There definitely were a lot of stories from my teenage years on the cutting room floor. It becomes, well, what is your overall narrative and what is the message that you’re trying to get across through the story itself? By structuring it with these themes, I could say, ‘Okay, that scene with Lisa doesn’t have anything to do with music or food or babies or nature.’ If I already had a scene that explains how close we were or that shows our personalities as teenagers, then I don’t need a second scene to do the same thing. And the same with the stories about the other women too, I just needed a little bit to talk about what it meant to feed your family and a little bit to talk about the choices women make to have children early or late or not at all. The story drives the choices of what to include.
Don’t forget that I worked on it for 10 years. I would never suggest that somebody purposely take 10 years to write a memoir, but I benefitted in that I didn’t feel that close to some of that writing anymore, so it was easier to delete it. And another thing is all during those years, my writing was improving and growing. I could have published the book years before, but I think it’s a much better book because I got more experience as a writer in the meantime.
And then the other weird thing, when it’s a contemporary memoir, is that you’re still living your life. Things happened in my life and in Lisa’s life while I was working on the book that got incorporated into the story.
Sarah: And that leads into my next question: other people in the book. Clearly, you worked very closely with Lisa. She knew she was becoming a protagonist. Tell me how you handled the sensitive question of writing about other people?
Stephanie: Well partly, you ignore that at the start so it doesn’t get in the way of your ability to get it down on paper. Eventually, I asked Lisa to read the whole thing. She did make some changes. I didn’t want to do anything that would make her feel uncomfortable, and I was happy to do that because my memory could certainly be skewed.
I showed the relevant chapters to the other people who are in the book, so that they would have a chance to see how they were portrayed and what I quoted them as saying. Not only was that important for honoring and respecting them, and for making sure that there wasn’t anything objectionable, but it makes it a lot easier when you start marketing the book, like in my hometown, to know that they know that they’re in there, and that they approved it. It would be really awkward if I showed up with this book and they didn’t even know.
Now all of that said, I did not include my mother in the process, and she’s a big part of the book. I didn’t interview her, and I didn’t have her review it in advance, and that was probably unfair, but it was also just the nature of our relationship. I took the risk to say, ‘Alright Mom, this is going to come out, and I hope you’ll forgive me, and remember I’m talking about my teenage perspective…’
It turned out fine. She loved it and she told me it made her feel like a good mother. I was very relieved.
And then the other thing, of course, is my own revealing. I did talk about my sex life as a teenager, and my awkwardness. I just decided that I couldn’t, for example, talk about the issue of having babies when you’re young if I didn’t admit what I didn’t know about having babies while young.
Sarah: What was hardest to write?
Stephanie: The chapter that I really wrestled over the most was when I started reflecting on my and Lisa’s career choices and our current lives, our work and the art that we do. It was hard to really get to the truth, and I think it was because I was so close to it. I really went through a lot of drafts to get the right tone in that chapter.
Sarah: I understand that Lisa is a graphic designer. Let’s talk about the mechanics of getting the book published.
Stephanie: She did everything, which is part of what makes it such a fun book to have out there in the world, because it’s a story about me and my best friend and I’m a writer and she’s a designer, and the book is our book. She took the photograph on the cover. She designed the cover. She drew the map. She did the layout. She helped me figure out where to get it printed and bound. She’s been a partner to the whole effort.
Sarah: Where did you have it printed?
Stephanie: Lightning Source, which is a print-on-demand company. I ended up choosing Lightning Source for a variety of reasons, but one was because they had a distribution service but you don’t have to use that, and I haven’t yet pursued those services. My thought was that I want to sell as many of them one-to-one to my personal connections upfront, to maximize how much I can earn from the book until I run out of my connections. Then I will expand my distribution and earn less per book by using other outlets.
I do have a lot of readers now and people have sent me nice emails. I’ve told some of them, ‘I might ask you if you wouldn’t mind doing a review for me when the time comes that I put it on Amazon.’
Sarah: I hope it does wonderful things for you.
Stephanie: I would have to say it’s been just complete joy to have it out there. I love my work as a personal historian, but this is whole new realm of fun and learning and excitement. It’s a new injection of joy in my work. I highly recommend it.
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To purchase Mountain Girls or read more about Stephanie and her work, click here.