Confab with a Contributor: Sharon Dolinby Soniah Kamal · March 04, 2016
1) “The Man Who Knew Too Much and the Girl Who Knew Too Little” (Vol. 17 No. 1) is an intricately braided essay about the fear of being kidnapped by your mother, your father-the-rescuer-who-may-yet-turn-abandoner and the role pop culture plays in triggering memories. Your title invokes all of these complexities and more. How did you come about it?
I had already decided I was going to write a book-length memoir using Alfred Hitchcock’s movies as the lens through which I examine my life. The idea for this essay came to me quickly: that it would focus on the early experiences I had of feeling like I was being kidnapped. I knew I had to start off with the earlier version of the movie and the mother’s shock at her daughter being kidnapped, then the viewer’s experience of seeing the look of terror on the face of the girl, adolescent and blonde, as she is being kidnapped. I knew the leap to my own experience would come after that. As for the part of the title “the Girl Who Knew Too Little,” it is true that the experience of childhood is often the experience of having little or no agency. Parents just do things for or to their children and make decisions without consulting them. In my case, the consequences were more harrowing because it was my schizophrenic mother who was making those choices. Or, my somewhat overburdened, simple-minded father. My use of pop culture? Hitchcock is in my blood the way, say, the poet Whitman is in my blood. They were mainstays in my youth and have continued to be so.
2) This essay in Five Points is the first chapter of your upcoming memoir Hitchcock Blonde. Can you share a little about the memoir with us?
Of course! Hitchcock Blonde: A Cinematic Memoir is my attempt to read my life through ten Alfred Hitchcock movies and to read Hitchcock movies through the lens of my life. No other director has been such an integral part of my life since childhood. Hitchcock gave me a way in to writing about my life by using this very large metaphor. Perhaps the braiding back and forth between discussing an aspect of Hithcock’s movie, discussing an aspect of my life, is what allowed me to handle some of my emotionally fraught memories. I needed distance. I also needed a different way in. Who needs to read or write another memoir about a schizophrenic mother? Of course, the memoir does move on to other chapters of my life, up to the present, though I suppose you could say my mother haunts all of them.
3) Did you always know this was going to be part of a larger work, or was it written as stand alone? In either case, how do you think that affected writing it?
I always knew it was going to be part of a larger work. I wrote it as a companion chapter to “The Lady Vanishes and the Absent Mother.” I knew that my memoir had to begin with my relationship to my schizophrenic mother. It seemed too difficult to cover all that ground in just one chapter, so I divided things up; the choice of which movies to use came to me almost instantly. In The Lady Vanishes, I focused on the times my mother disappeared into a mental hospital and then, from the time I was ten, her disappearance (sedation) under the influence of too much medication. In The Man Who Knew Too Much essay, I focused specifically on the terrifying experiences I had when my mother would have a breakdown and try to run away with me. In some ways, it was easier to write because I wrote it second. I gave myself permission to use the term “kidnapped” as loosely as possible, as a metaphor for my experience. Thus, the sections about my mother’s abductions of me, my time as a model, and the ending with my time at a Fresh-Air camp—in all of which I felt the way a kidnapped child might.
4) Your essay weaves in and out of both Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much and the 1956 American remake. In both versions, you identify with the kidnapped child. Did your mother ever watch these films? If so what was her reaction? If not, what do you think she would have thought of them? Your father?
I watched the Hollywood Technicolor version with my parents, I’m sure of it. By then, my mother was heavily sedated and didn’t react much at all. Nor did my dad. And it took me until the writing of this memoir for me to identify with the kidnapped child in more than a hypothetical way. That has been the amazing, sometimes painful, journey I have had in writing this memoir: I made connections that I otherwise would not have made to these movies because of the context in which I was viewing them. As soon as you rub two ideas up against each other, in this case my life against Hitchcock, the commonalities spring to the surface more and more readily. It is the same way we make metaphor, a basic human impulse.
5) I was fascinated by your concept of the ‘good-enough-mother’. In the essay, your sister Marla and you have an interesting relationship in the essay. She makes you cry and at one point you attack her with a hammer, yet you two sisters are allies when it comes to you mother, for instance when Marla runs to the police to report that “Our mother is running away with us.” Would you say there is such a thing as a ‘good enough sister/sibling’?
The good-enough mother is, of course, not my idea, but that of the famous psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. It’s an interesting question to think about in terms of my sister. I suppose, in relation to what went on with my mother, she was. My sister protected me, she took care of me, she often allowed me to accompany her and her friends to the movies. I can remember riding down Kings Highway (on the sidewalk) in a line of bicycles, with the older kids like my sister up in front and the younger ones like me taking up the rear. So we played together with children of all ages. There was less segregation by age back in the Sixties, at least in my Brooklyn neighborhood. So, yes, I’d have to say she was a good-enough sister during my childhood, though I always felt keenly how different we were and still are from each other.
6) Has your sister read your essay?
She has read it. I was afraid of her reaction. Actually, she quite liked it but had no memory of the hammer incident. It confirms the idea that things happen to each of us differently, and we remember differently, even if we grew up in the same household.
7) At one point in the essay you say “Knowing too much and knowing too little.” One would think that it is always good to know too much. Would you agree? Or does knowing too little serve as a sort of cushion when it comes to unpleasant memories?
As a young girl, I knew far too little, and wished I had understood more. For example, I am sure no one asked me if I wanted to be a child model or explained to me that I might be in the company of grown-up strangers, that this was all make-believe, just for the sake of a photo, and I would get to go home with my own mother. Perhaps I would have been less frightened when I was suddenly thrust into the hands of a stranger or had water poured on my head. In a later chapter, the one on Rear Window (which is being published this spring in Witness), I struggle with knowing too much. Yes, I think it is possible to know too much. Not about political assassinations, which is what happens in The Man Who Knew Too Much; there, in both versions, the father and mother save a foreign diplomat from being assassinated because of their knowing too much. Knowing too much in terms of the family is possible. You’ll have to read that chapter to see what I mean.
8) What was the process of writing this essay? How did you tackle revision?
The best advice I got for writing prose was from another poet who has written several books of fiction. Victoria Redel said (and I’m paraphrasing here), just write one scene, one moment at a time. Then you can figure out afterwards how it all fits together. So that’s what I did. Revision is all a blur to me now. In looking back at the drafts of this chapter that I saved, I see it always began with a quick-paced description of the shots in the movie of the mother and then her daughter. Some times, my edits amounted to what to cut out, what to leave in. There’s so much more to my childhood than the part that focuses on my mother. The challenge was to remain focused on the way my memories were triggered by these specific movies. The biggest eureka moment for me in this essay was my decision to put together two memories: that of belting my sister in the stomach with a hammer and the one time my dad threatened to have me hospitalized. Frankly, I don’t remember when he made that threat, other than the fact that it was after I had been crying for too long a time, for him to take. It made sense to connect those two episodes. No memoir is entirely factual. I took my method from Vivian Gornick, who admits she condensed many walks with her mother into the one she describes in Fierce Attachments.
9) You are such a prolific poet. How was the experience of writing an essay? Did the poetic form inform the essay’s structure in any way?
I’ve written literary essays, even an entire dissertation, but writing a prose memoir is an entirely different enterprise. I began the process by enrolling in a 4-session class on writing memoir with Wendy Salinger at the 92nd Street Y, where I taught poetry workshops for 20 years. The class gave me a structure. I understood I would have to write dialogue, probably the most unnatural thing for me to do. I had to push myself to write 10 pages. How was I going to turn it into 20? But I did, knowing I had an audience who would be reading it. I also knew where I would begin: with a recurring childhood nightmare, which still opens the book. The rest was a mystery and writing poetry made me comfortable with the unknown.
10) Which medium do you prefer?
Poetry. It is my native tongue. Prose will always feel a bit like I’m speaking a foreign language. A difficult one.
11) When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I never wanted to be a writer. I just wrote. I never questioned what I was doing. It seemed as natural a thing for me to do, particularly writing poems, as skipping rope or playing stoopball.
12) Can you tell us about your typical writing day? Do you have a routine?
When I left a teaching job in order to finish up the memoir, I remember worrying about how I would structure my day. I read a book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey to see what other artists did. It consists of very short chapters about lots of artists, writers, philosophers, scientists and their daily work routine. In about 90% of the examples, the artist has a very rigid schedule. For instance, every morning Flannery O’Connor had breakfast with her mother at 7 a.m. after morning prayers, then they both went to Mass, and then she came home and wrote from 9 a.m. until noon each day. Yeats wrote from 11am to 2 pm. Then there are the 10% who cannot stick to a schedule, like William James. What’s so laughable about that is that James felt one should have a regular schedule in order to be productive, yet he never could maintain one himself. I realized that I am like William James. I decided I should be kind to myself, not turn writing into a painful experience. It is difficult enough already. So being a rather disorganized person who abhors routine, I decided I’d come up with a minimum of two hours a day (except for Saturday, my Sabbath day, which is work-free). Most days I work for longer than two hours. But I can choose where those two hours occur. Some days I work for 6 hours and not at all the following day. Sometimes I start at 10 a.m. (never earlier). Other times I have errands to run, a class to prepare, my son to attend to, and don’t sit down until 4 in the afternoon. At other times, I write at night, like Kafka did. The important thing is to know one’s nature. As long as I’m getting the work done, who cares if I have a regular schedule? I try to keep in mind something Neil Gaiman said: Writing should not feel like work. It should be joyful.
13) A novel, short story, poem and/or essay you believe should be mandatory reading?
I think it’s important to read widely in the genre in which you’re working. We writers are sensitive, moody people. There’s a right time and a wrong time to read particular works. When I was an undergraduate at Cornell, for example, I could have been reading and studying with A. R. Ammons. But his poetry, at the time, didn’t speak to me, a Brooklyn girl from a working-class Jewish family. It took me until my late thirties before I was ready for his poetry. When I decided to write an essayistic memoir, I began reading many memoirs and essay collections. My favorites are the quirky ones: Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast and Firebird, Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is the Bomb, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Patricia Volk’s Shocked. While I admire the immersive memoirs of Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls, I knew I was trying to do something else.
14) Is there any classic novel you wish you’d pushed through in your teens?
David Copperfield. I remember loving the book, but never finished it.
15) A book you wished you’d written?
That’s tantamount to wishing I’d lived another life.
16) Which writer and book has had the most influence on your work?
That’s an impossible question. To be a writer is to be open to a constantly changing group of influences—from books, to art, to film. Here’s a dark answer: Franz Kafka. His story “In the Penal Colony.” I read it when I was about 14. It has haunted me ever since. I feel as though the words of it are written on my skin.
17) What role do you think literary journals play today in a writer’s life, as well as in the overall conversation about books and reading?
Literary journals are crucial for writers. As a poet, I always feel I have to publish individual poems in journals and to read as many as I can. Five Points is the first print journal to say “yes” to one of the essays from my memoir. It has been wonderfully affirming, and I am certain it helped convince my agent to represent me. Especially after Witness took yet one more essay.
Photo Credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis
Sharon Dolan is the author of five books of poems, most recently: Whirlwind (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012) and is the recipient of the Witter Bynner Fellowship. She also directs and teaches in the international workshop, Writing About Art in Barcelona. Visit her at: www.sharondolin.com.
Soniah Kamal’s An Isolated Incident is a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction, the KLF Fiction Prize, and an Amazon Rising Star pick. Her work has appeared in Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, The Normal School, and more. She is an Assistant Editor of fiction for Five Points.