Rachel Simon on fiction versus memoir, writing versus speaking, and highway rest-stops

Building A Home with My Husband, by Rachel SimonRachel Simon’s bestselling memoir, Riding The Bus With My Sister: A True Life Journey, was adapted for a 2005 Hallmark Hall of Fame movie starring Rosie O’Donnell and Andie MacDowell, with Anjelica Huston directing. The book garnered numerous awards and is a much beloved selection of many book clubs, school reading programs, and city-wide reads throughout the country. Its success led to Rachel developing a second career in professional speaking, and she is now a frequently sought-after speaker at conferences, fundraising events, and universities across the country.

Her second memoir, Building A Home With My Husband: A Journey Through the Renovation of Love, was published in June 2009. In it, she recounts how renovating her home with her architect-husband inspired her to confront memories she had long since tucked away, and repair fractured bonds with those closest to her. Kirkus calls Building A Home With My Husband a “spiritual pilgrimage” that offers a “poetic, unsentimental appraisal of life’s big questions.”

Check her website for updated appearances, tips on writing, and details on the Rachel @ Home book tour.

Q: How did your writing process, or your approach to the craft in general, change after the success of Riding The Bus With My Sister?

A: Fortunately, it was my fourth book, and since I’d also written many others that had never been published, some of them when my personal or professional situations were either euphoric or depressing, I’d had a lot of practice with persistence regardless of life’s circumstances. In the case of Building A Home With My Husband, my circumstances amounted to frequent travel to all parts of the country to give talks for organizations in the disability community and public transit industry, among others. So the main change was that, instead of doing my first drafts in libraries, I needed to write on airplanes and in hotel rooms. This proved far easier than I would have anticipated, as airplane flights and hotel stays tend to eliminate all other distractions. I also produce my first drafts by hand, so I was able to be delightfully low-tech about my needs: one pen and one spiral-bound notebook did the trick. My process, therefore, didn’t really change.

However, I did experience a lot of self-consciousness about what I would write about. I’d begun my career as a fiction writer, with a collection of stories and then a novel, yet my breakthrough book was a memoir. I kept feeling I should return to fiction, but the material that kept presenting itself to me was nonfiction. I tried fighting this, and wrote a short, entertaining novel about a woman in love with a ghost. I also tried giving into it, and wrote two-thirds of a book consisting of linked personal essays about major turning points in my life. My agent was not interested in either. I also tried to find a true story that wasn’t mine, but kept being told, by people with really good stories, that they were going to write them on their own (which most likely meant the stories would never get written).

Finally, right after the movie of Riding The Bus With My Sister aired, I got on a train to visit a friend. My plan when I took my seat was to write a short story before I reached my destination, so I could try returning to fiction yet again. I had no particular idea in mind other than the desire to produce something. To my surprise, when I put the pen onto the paper, I found myself writing about what I’d just been living, which was the packing up of my house in order to begin a major home renovation.

Packing had been very emotionally draining, because, I’d realized, so many of my possessions were mementos of relationships that were no longer in my life, some from death, and some from lost friendship. As I wrote the piece, recounting that experience, I found the writing taking two paths: one through the outer world of the actual packing, and one through my inner world of grieving the lost friendships, and coming to terms with how to let them — and therefore the possessions — go. I finished the piece as the train reached the station. Within a day or two, I wrote another essay about the inner and outer journey I was living as the renovation proceeded. Within a week I had a third essay, and realized I was writing another memoir.

So my process didn’t change, and in a way my material didn’t either. But I suppose I knew, from the success of Riding The Bus With My Sister, that I needed to let myself be vulnerable and flawed on the page, and that readers would attend to every detail, so I was able to accomplish more with the second memoir because I already knew the basics of what I needed from the first.

Q: In Building A Home With My Husband, your frequent public appearances and hectic traveling schedule are a running theme. How do you strike balance between maintaining a public persona, and the private act of writing and revising? Are you more comfortable in front of a crowd, or in front of your own words on a computer screen?

A: This is a very interesting question, and one I haven’t gotten before. It probably deserves a long, complicated response, but I’ll try to be succinct. (At least relatively.) I love both the public speaking and the private act of writing and revising, and I suppose I negotiate the public and private parts of me the same way everyone else does, whether they’re in medicine, the clergy, education, bus driving, or anything else.

In public, I am genuinely myself while at the same time being aware that I’m saying things that could make a huge difference for people in the room. I take this responsibility seriously, having discovered that some people who attend my talks are in serious need of hope or guidance, or who have a need to unburden themselves. That is, I realize I’m playing a role, not just of writer and speaker, but of someone who can provide something deeply important to others. So I keep myself on track during my talks, stay lively even when I’m fatigued, and am fully engaged with everyone who asks a question or needs to talk.

In my writing life, I might aim to have the same effect on readers, but I know I can make many errors as I produce the text over months or years, so I can take my time to find the best way to communicate effectively. I can also berate myself (and I do), go days without engaging with anyone (except my husband, and he’s gotten used to my bleary-eyed trances), and do things I’d never do in public, like chew gum, wear wrinkled clothes, and leave my hair a moppy mess.

I don’t find the transition difficult to make at all. Perhaps this comes from doing a lot of writing when I was a kid, often in the school lunchrooms or in the back of the class, so I acclimated myself early on to shifting from the writing trance to the social world and back. That said, I do use some tricks to help me make the transition. As you can tell, I put on make-up and nice clothes. I also switch into using pseudonyms for the people in my life whose real names are disguised in my books.

But, all that said, perhaps I don’t make as much of a transition as you might imagine, because when you write memoir, people assume they know you before they’ve ever met you, and as a result they tend to approach any interaction as if you were already old friends. So in a way, the transition is pretty easy, because I don’t have to be a fake me in public, and because no one else is being a fake them. This is one of the never-discussed rewards of writing memoir: it opens the door to authentic and honest exchanges with strangers. In turn, I’ve come to understand the inner workings of thousands of people, and that, as any writer would know, can only deepen one’s craft.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from Building A Home With My Husband?

A: I can say what I hoped would happen, but it might be better to share what people have actually written to me after finishing the book, which is a great deal, but which differs to some extent by who they are as people.

First, pretty much everyone feels caught up in the story. As I’d hoped, they find it to be a strong, fast-paced, emotional story that’s compassionate and loving, with likable characters, a serious disaster, multiple “Aha” moments, and an everything-comes-together ending. It’s also populated by the kinds of people, and sometimes challenging relationships, that readers have in their own lives—an ailing parent, a long-standing stepparent, an estranged sibling, a difficult in-law, a best friend left behind, a cherished neighbor, a beloved spouse who doesn’t fit a conventional description of a romantic hero. So everyone seems to relate to it.

More specifically, the readers who are inclined to think about issues that are psychological or relationship-oriented have said that they were prompted to re-examine and reconsider their own intimate relationships and feel hope that they might move them toward repair. Among the specific details they’ve commented on are the sections where I share my own formidable experiences learning forgiveness, compassion, acceptance, and respect for the other person’s differences. Then there are the readers who are spiritually-inclined, and they’ve come away feeling pleased that someone else is asking the big questions about who we are, how to love, and whether there’s a grand design to the universe. The readers who are building professionals have said they picked up a detailed understanding of the emotional journey that their clients go through, and hence they’ve realized how they could provide better customer service. And the readers who have done their own renovation, or are contemplating doing so, have seen themselves, either in me, a renovator who was essentially clueless, or in my husband, who, being a professional architect, had a level of knowledge that helped him move forward with a sense of composure.

Q: What inspires you?

A: What doesn’t? I’m inspired by everyone and everything and every moment I live. I can zip into a highway rest stop and emerge with a full-blown story.

Q: You’ve published novels in addition to memoirs. Which medium do you prefer? How is your “head space” different when working on fiction, as opposed to memoir? Which is more difficult to write?

A: I love writing both book-length fiction and book-length memoir, and see the two forms as quite similar. They use the same kind of craft: scene, character, setting, dialogue, conflict, etc. However, with fiction, you create something out of nothing, whereas with nonfiction, you peel away a whole lot of everything to get to the essential something. The shorthand I use for this is that fiction is addition, nonfiction is subtraction. So really, they’re inverses of each other, though they use the same techniques.

I can’t say I prefer one over the other. It’s more a matter of what I feel drawn to write at any particular moment in my life. The last several years I’ve felt more drawn to memoir, though for the first many years of my writing career, I was much more engaged with fiction. I’m now back to fiction, though I don’t wish to say I’ve now returned to the fold; it’s just what I felt like writing at this particular moment.

As for level of difficulty? I think both forms present challenges, but the challenges tend to be specific to the material and project at hand. Both forms also present many rewards.  So I can’t say I see either as being harder, or easier. They’re both best friends.Author Rachel Simon

10 Replies to “Rachel Simon on fiction versus memoir, writing versus speaking, and highway rest-stops”

  1. I feel I can learn a lot about writing, and life, when I read your words. Thank you for your candor and willingness to share at The Debutante Ball. Here’s to being “vulnerable and flawed on the page”!

  2. “I’m inspired by everyone and everything and every moment I live.” Beautiful! Great Q & A. It is easy to see why you have had and will continue to have so much success. Thanks for these good words.

  3. What I loved most about Rachel’s most recent book–which I highly recommend!–is how much it taught me about forgiveness. This is not a topic we address very often in our culture and society (except, perhaps, in religious terms) but I really did re-examine many of my relationships to see where I might learn to forgive. It’s a hard lesson, but so very valuable. Thanks for a great interview!

  4. What a wonderfully affirming interview! Words the published and not yet published could learn from, that are generous and supportive. And everyone should check out Rachel’s site for more words of wisdom on this writing life!

  5. Terrific interview, and I loved hearing about your ups and downs after the first book. I’m just now learning that for a lot of authors, it’s really the second book that is the struggle. It’s great to know you triumphed. I also really enjoyed hearing about how straddle the public and private aspects of being an author!

  6. Thanks for joining us at The Debs and sharing your experiences. I’m interested in the idea of writing longhand, but honestly, my handwriting is so bad I’d never know what I had later! Still, it was fun to picture you doing that on planes & trains.

  7. “Building a Home” sounds beautiful! We built our home from scratch four years ago, and I still feel raw from it. I’m not surprised that your experience had enough emotional drama to fill a book. Thanks so much for sharing here.

  8. Wow, this was a great interview. I read “Riding the Bus…” and now want to read “Building A House…” The whole idea of sorting through posessions and feelings, deciding what to hang on to and what to put aside as no longer needed, rebuilding, and starting over are so universal and yet so unique for each person. Writing such a book requires a lot of vulnerability. Its not easy to put yourself out there this way but so many people seem to have been touched and moved by this level of honesty. We are all flawed, so reading memoirs about others who are also flawed is reassuring and makes the author instantly more credible, in my opinion, because they don’t pretend to be so saintly or wise or perfect. Great stuff.

    Carmella Broome
    Author of Carmella’s Quest: Taking On College Sight Unseen (Red Letter Press 2009)

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