Please help us welcome Kelly McMasters, author of Welcome to Shirley. I volunteered to read this book not because I am deeply fascinated by memoirs of Long Island living, but because I’ve been on tour for Fifteen Minutes of Shame, and felt both guilty and grateful that the other Debs have graciously stepped in to take up the slack while I’m tromping through every B&N in the country.
So I volunteered to read Welcome to Shirley, even though it was not what I usually think of as “my kind of book.”
Boy did I luck out. I loved this book, couldn’t put it down, stayed up all night to finish it because I could not wait to find out what happened next. I thought it was well-written, funny, sweet and heartbreaking, all wrapped in one wonderful package.
Welcome to Shirley was exactly my kind of book — the good kind.
Please join me in welcoming Kelly McMasters.
Welcome to Shirley
I wrote a memoir.
There. I said it. And I didn’t even wince.
It has taken me two years to be able to announce this fact proudly and without an eye roll. Two years of deep investigation, into both this centuries-old genre, and into my own writing prejudices. When I first started writing my book, which is a first-person account of an environmental catastrophe in my blue-collar hometown on the east end of Long Island, I used the term narrative nonfiction to describe my work. And when I wrote my book proposal, I called the project a hybrid—a combination of the journalistic and the personal.
But shortly after the contract was signed, it became clear that my publisher intended to market my book as a memoir. I immediately blanched. That’s what you think of my work? I thought. Simplistic, navel-gazing slop? The book is written in first-person, but it’s also intensely reported and leans on history, science, and primary source material. At the time, the word “memoir” to me connoted fluff. Could this manuscript I’d spent years working on really feel this way to my editor?
Since that moment almost two years ago, I’ve taken a hard look at the genre and have been surprised at what I discovered, about both memoir and myself. I found the memoirs I grated against most weren’t classic memoirs at all, but tended to be diaries in book form, behind-the-scenes looks rather than true literature, tell-alls coming from a misaligned place of retribution or revenge or preaching. When I took an honest account of my bookshelves, I realized I’d been reading
and loving memoirs for years, including books as disparate and moving as A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I co-direct the KGB Nonfiction Reading Series, and some of the books I’ve most looked forward to hosting this season are memoirs, including Without a Map by Meredith Hall and Felicia Sullivan’s The Sky Isn’t Visible From Here.
Recently, I was particularly struck by the ending of Janice Erlbaum’s memoir Have You Found Her? — its complication, its unease, its honesty. And I realized this was what most of the memoirs that I loved had in common: how closely they cut to the bone; how the writers used their own stories as prisms to tell a larger, more universal truth; how each book was about the writing and not about the writer. These are also the same things that I hope people will take away from my own work.
One of the moments I’m most looking forward to as a first-time author is walking into my local bookstore (McNally Robinson) and running my finger along the spines on the shelf to find my book. Thankfully, I won’t have to look too hard since I already know my way to that section by heart.
Kelly McMasters teaches writing at Columbia University and mediabistro.com. Her first book, Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, is available now and you can find more info at www.kellymcmasters.com.
***The Debs would like to congratulate Amy Nathan, the winner of last Saturday’s Linda Francis Lee book giveaway!