Roberta Dewa. Evoking Memories of the Past
Roberta Dewa’s memoir, concentrating as it does on Wilford village in Nottingham, brought back many memories of my childhood, even though mine was centred around a village in Derbyshire. Roberta’s was the first memoir I had ever read and this sense of immersion was something I had never experienced before when reading a biography. This was when I began to realise that, compared to a biography, a memoir has its own unique qualities.
Can you tell me what the differences are between a memoir and a biography?
For a start, a memoir is a lot more like a novel, because it’s much more structured around the development of a set of events, whereas a biography takes you right through a person’s life, with everything in their life included. The best memoirs I’ve read take an issue and something that the writer wants to explore, as well as bringing in elements of biography. In terms of narrative expectation and what the reader’s expecting, it’s much more like a novel. There are memoirs that are full of unnecessary detail, and that’s the style of them. So I would say that a memoir is much closer to fiction than a lot of people might expect. In a sense, the reader’s also expecting the same sort of payoff as you would get in a novel, in terms of formal narrative structure and resolution. They need to understand the complication and what’s being done to put it right. That’s the major difference, although there are lot of stylistic ones.
I guess people who’ve written fiction would be far more drawn to writing a memoir than a formal biography, because they’re looking for the same kind of process. The fact that the reader is wanting there to be a problem and wanting there to be a solution to that problem, and the writer wants that too. So that’s another reason for this kind of process.
How did you decide what particular style of memoir you were going to use?
One of the things about memoirs is, I very quickly realised the kind of memoirs I liked reading, which were memoirs driven by the narrative and the characters. I’ve just started mentoring somebody at the Nottingham Writer’s Studio who is writing a memoir. What I want to know more than anything else is what she’s reading and what she likes to read, because I’ve read memoirs that are wonderful memoirs, but they are too full of research. An example that comes to mind is Miranda Seymour’s memoir In My Father’s House. A wonderful account of the strange man that her father was and how she tried to understand why she couldn’t get on with him. But she started off with a large tract of research about her aristocratic forebears. This is something a great many people will enjoy reading, but I began to wonder when the story was going to start. So what someone looks for in a memoir is very important.
One of the best ones I have read is Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up The Ghost, which is just superb, and is written less like a novel, which considering she’s a novelist is strange, but it never loses focus and concentrates on how she became the type of person who is a bestselling author. It’s about her childlessness and her ill-health, and although it pursues all the different stages of her life you’re never in any doubt about what the main theme is. The other thing about it is, as you would expect from her, that it’s magnificently, and beautifully written. The prose is stunning. Although the first memoir that I enjoyed was Angela’s Ashes, unfortunately Frank McCourt wasn’t able to successfully follow it up, maybe because he wasn’t a novelist. Jenny Diski, who’s a travel writer and novelist, wrote the most modern wonderful memoir Skating to Antarctica, about her search for her mother. So straight away you can see that searches for parents and difficulties with parents appealed to me. But also great writing appeals to me.
How did you begin to write your memoir?
There were a couple of things, one of them was literally, cliché or not, the dream I had about 10 years ago of my mother burning her writing, and this whole notion that there was unfinished business between myself and my mum. That was very much at the forefront of my mind. Also, whether these things are serendipity or not, it was around that time I began the creative writing MA at Nottingham Trent University. I spent the first year doing fiction, but the second year I did memoir with Tim Guest, who unfortunately is no longer with us. In actual fact it was the opportunity to do it. So everything came together, but also I realised it wasn’t just a matter of unfinished business with my mum, there was also unfinished business with Wilford, a place I hadn’t properly been back to for over 30 years. It was very much tied in with avoidance and not wanting to revisit the various troubles that had gone on in my life.
So the locations very much became part of the character of the novel, as I looked back at the wild places where I used to play. They helped me to go back in time and remember how it was when I revisited them. Obviously they tied in with significant events in my childhood. So the place was recreated in order to recreate my emotions that were felt at the time. That was the way in for me.
The narrative is fairly linear; although in reality it is an extended flashback. What I wanted to do was to rewind from the present as far as I could, in order to find out why my mother and I had the relationship we did. This meant going back as far as I could remember and taking some liberties with voice, which you have to do if you’re going to write as a child or baby. In the end I found out that the information I needed was even further back than that and I had to go back to the time before I was born in order to answer all the questions I had.
So it was necessary try to go back in time, but you can’t in reality actually recall all of the truth that way. I didn’t just want to go right back to the beginning to discover why things had been as they were, but I also wanted to take the reader on a journey, and at the same time allow the reader to make their own mind as to how this strange relationship developed and why I found myself, at a later stage, not wanting to go back to Wilford.
Why was it that you found out you had to go back further than your memories of childhood?
It was partly the process of writing the memoir. The crux moment in the story, when I realised going back to my childhood wasn’t enough, was the moment where I realised my memory was false. This is the episode in the book where I go back to the house where I was born and realise that it wasn’t the way I remembered it. Therefore the significant incident in childhood was not exactly how I remembered it. In that sense, it was actually the research that made me realise there were inaccuracies in my memories. This was because I was writing and going back to Wilford at the same time. So therefore it was to some degree the writing that made me aware that I had a problem with my memories. Each time I wrote another episode I would realise that I would have to research a particular thing. For example going back to see if the church at Wilford was how I remembered it, and the same with places I where I’d played. So it was partly that and partly, just delving deeper into my past and realising that if the information I needed wasn’t available in one place, I would have to keep looking in another. It was very much written as a journey of discovery, and the most interesting thing for me was realising how the whole act of trying to recreate the past is actually an act of fiction in itself, because the dialogue that I put into my own mouth and my mother’s mouth is something that is, more or less, made up.
That whole thing about creating fiction out of the past, is probably about discovering more than you just saying ‘Ok. This happened and I’m going to make it strictly factual.’ For a start I don’t know that you can make it strictly factual and even if you could you discover things about the dynamic of a relationship as soon as you try to create a character out of someone you think you know intimately. In that sense it was very much about the process of editing things that were going on while I was writing.
For example, there is the episode of my suffering a sexual assault on the riverbank, during my twenties. Immediately after this incident I went to my mother’s house, because she was supposed to have come out to meet me from work, and she hadn’t turned up. I realised when I came to write this episode for the book that I couldn’t remember a single word she said to me, and yet it was such a significant event in my life. I didn’t know whether my memory was correct. So not only did I need to render what I could remember, but also what I thought had happened, for the reader. This meant I had to create it fictionally, so I had to arrive at a compromise when my mother did say something, but not what I needed her to say. Again, that in itself, because the memory wasn’t available, was an episode of fiction.
It seems that writing a memoir is a bit of a forensic exercise, because you have to piece history back together from information that is not directly available to you.
Yes I think you’re right, because although the need to write the memoir came from an emotional background, the actual details did need some research. Once I started writing a bit and moving on and doing a bit more research, similar things began appearing popping up all over the place. A lot of writers will recognize the phenomenon that if you do a piece of writing about a murder, or an air crash, everything around you will start reflecting that. This happened, to some extent, when I went into the library where my mother had worked in the war. I found a scrapbook with a newspaper cutting from 1939 with her name in it. This might not seem much to anyone else, but to me it was hugely significant. Because of this, I found out that she was working in the library earlier than I had originally thought. So finding out that piece of information changed the way I read other things. But sometimes you have the information and don’t realize it. The whole thing about my mother’s commonplace book and discovering the airman’s poem inside the covers was surprising, because I’d had it in my possession all the time, but I’ve never looked at it before. So the research need for this sort of thing is not only a forensic exercise, but there’s also a psychological element involved, because of the surprise of finding something that’s been there all the time but I’d never looked at it. So I’d been going round in circles looking for pieces of evidence and trying to find out about the airman that my mother had been involved with, when in fact if I’d looked at that book and worked my way through it, and taken the covers off it and looked at what was underneath them I would have found that particular piece of history. The book had been sitting there for 30 years since she had died. It’s interesting that perhaps I finally found the book when I needed it, how I was discovering things that I had in my possession all the time, that were around me, but could only retrieve at the right time, when I’d reached that particular point in the narrative. That was a strange thing. There was also the issue of my old house going up for sale, just when I was writing about it. Then again you could say I wouldn’t have looked for it if I hadn’t been doing this book.
Over the seven years it took to write the memoir, what sort of things did you do, in terms of the writing process?
Over the seven years the structure of the book never really changed at all. I did a lot of editing, especially in the passages where I was drawn into talking about why we write. That was the one time I really went off message, when I got so absorbed in writing about what it’s like to be a writer and why we do it, and how the construction of an alternative universe can help make real life bearable. The King John episode is an example. In my twenties, just after my attack, I was writing a novel about King John, and becoming absorbed in that medieval world, but this was happening at the same time as my working life was falling apart. It was a real illustration of the way in which writers construct a remote universe that they can control to counter the one that they can’t cope with. That aspect of control is probably one of the reasons why we write. That section of the memoir was actually a great deal longer until I edited it. Other than that I didn’t actually cut an awful lot out. Although it was certainly a long process and it did go through three different drafts.
I then had the manuscript professionally read by Rod Duncan, who gave me lots of wonderful advice, some of which I took and some of which I decided not to use. For example, he wanted me to alternate chapters between the present day and the past. I know readers are accustomed to temporal switches these days, but I wanted the reader, as I did, to get immersed in that period, and follow it through rather than being knocked back into the present day every so often. His idea was to have me in the present day acting as a detective and then talking about what happened in the past. For me, it worked more smoothly to follow it through, in what is essentially a linear way. So that was the whole organisation of time to think about.
The other thing was interesting about the process was being a child and trying to recreate the child’s voice. The memoir was workshopped over a period of about three years, first on the MA, then with my wonderful group from the MA. They stuck with me through all the drafts and all the changes. The issue that came up, more often than anything else was the child’s voice. It’s such a tough one. I even go back to the baby’s voice, you either have to run with it or not. Because obviously as a baby I can’t be observing what’s going on in the church while I’m being christened, so you have to do the whole suspension of disbelief. But I thought the child’s voice was quite important, because I suppose what I try to do was to achieve a compromise between ‘I know you, the reader, know I’m an adult writing this, so how on earth can I appropriate a child’s voice? I’m using a vocabulary which is way beyond what a child of six or seven or possibly have’ – and creating the impression of a child and the kind of feeling, perceptions and the kind of observations, some of which feel firmly locked in my memory. For example the events in the doctor’s office when I had my tonsils out, I can see that office, although I was only a tiny child. Whether I constructed that over the years and it’s another false memory, I don’t know. All I know is that I can see it now. I can see myself standing up, my mother sitting down and this guy sat behind the desk. So it feels authentic, but I had to report it as though I were five years old, as far as I could. For that reason I did study other people who’ve used children’s voices in their memoirs, including Hilary Mantel who says things like ‘I am four and I am in the living room at…’ Then she expects you to believe what she’s saying so there is a kind of simplified thing but it’s probably a simplifying of the kind of observations that a child might make, because the child doesn’t know why she’s been taken to a particular place; her mother hasn’t said and she’s not going to question her mother because she doesn’t have the authority. In my memoir I tried to keep out of those chapters that kind of self reflective/reflexive things an adult might do while trying to speak in a child’s voice, in as far as I could. Sometimes people pick me up on things saying ‘Well would a child know that word?’ Then there would be a discussion in the workshop around ‘Well how would a child be able to use that sentence structure in the first place?’ The only things I really changed for the child’s voice were things that really stuck out. Those discussions were one of the most interesting aspects of workshopping, and something that felt necessary for me.
Do you think the memoir is really good at giving atmosphere of a place? For example, if somebody was writing a novel about Nottingham at that time, would a memoir like this be a good reference point for them?
Yes. For example, my account of my response to the guard in the railway that used to go past our garden, which is now no longer there. You can research a lot of factual information about the railway, but I find it difficult to relate to as a reader because it’s largely locomotive numbers and technical data. But it doesn’t actually tell you about that kind of life and the fact that the guard was an authority figure, but a friendly one. Also not only the location, but also the time where you’ve got this railway running over the river and wilderness around it where we played as children. So we would play under the railway arches and what we called the Willow Woods, which was the wilderness. I went back to Wilford on the day of the memoir launch and we walked the location and then I went back to Wilford later to give a talk to their community group. One of the things that came up in discussion was that no one plays around the river anymore, because of fear of paedophiles. In the late 1950s and early 1960s we played there all the time. We were out of sight. Our mothers vaguely knew where we were, but they never worried. So there’s been a huge social change in that area.
I think because the memoir allows the reader to immerse themselves in that environment, and they can be there with that person and living the life, then you can get a real sense of how things were then.
What you don’t want is a memoir that forgets the reader. That’s what happened to me when I started writing about my writing process. I forgot the reader for a while because I was so immersed in exploration of that process. So you always have to be aware of the reader because there are a lot of memoirs about growing up in Nottingham. Sometimes they’re not fully imagined, because they relate things in a way which does not allow this immersion to take place. It feels as if the writer is not emotionally present. Therefore what you tend to get is ‘We lived over the shop and this is what we did on Sunday.’ It’s more like reportage.
A way to get round that problem of reportage is to provide details like the smell of cooking breakfast but you also need to know why the person is there and what they are trying to find out, what are they trying to resolve? You should give details because they’re relevant to your story and not just for the sake of it. I don’t think facts are interesting for their own sake. I think they’re only interesting if they’re part of a journey. So it’s going back to novel theory really.
In my story the bridges are there not just because I want readers to know there was a railway bridge there in the 1950s and 1960s, but I want them to understand and feel that they have symbolic resonance. It’s because I know those bridges aren’t there anymore and it’s this absence, when they were so present in my past, that tells me something about my separation from Wilford.
If you’re writing about an episode that’s highly emotional, how do you avoid the writing becoming too loaded with emotion and too self-indulgent?
Distance and time is a big factor, because it does enable you to create something from an episode that happened a long time ago. So I didn’t feel emotionally connected with those particular episodes, as I might have done at the time. I also tried to keep it accurate, as far as I could, because I could remember what had been said, so I was able to report that. When you’re writing what could turn out to be ‘purple prose’, it’s a matter of self-awareness. Self-awareness will hopefully pick up for you where you are and when you’re going over the top. Less is certainly more, with any kind of emotional scene.
When I wrote the scene where I got attacked by the river, I didn’t write it on the page initially but worked my way through it in my head, revisited the location, then left the episode to cool for a while, so when I came back to it I could see it more objectively. Then I wrote it out as fully and honestly as I could. I tried to show, not tell how I felt, that writing mantra. By this time the emotion was at the back of my mind, but hopefully not so far that it came out flat on the page.
You did the special module in the MA for memoir writing. Obviously you’ve had an enormous amount of feedback from the people in your group on the MA, but to what extent do you think the MA generally helped your writing?
It helped enormously. The discipline, the need to follow through and keep writing, was invaluable. And of course the feedback. Any semi-professional group of writers will tell you straight away if you doing something that isn’t right. After a while, with enough experience, you stop doing the things you constantly had to be told about. If I think about the way I wrote in the very first novel I ever wrote, it makes me blush, because I simply wouldn’t write like that now. But writing is always a learning process. The learning never stops.