Rebecca McClanahan’s tenth book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change, a multigenerational memoir, is forthcoming from Indiana University Press in 2013. She has also published five books of poetry and a suite of essays, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, winner of the Glasgow Prize in Nonfiction. Her three books of writing instruction include Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively, which is used as a text in numerous writing programs. Her essay “Everywhere at Once, 1903” was published in the Winter 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review. Rebecca also teaches in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop each summer, find out more here. The following interview was conducted by KR’s editor at large G.C. Waldrep.
Rebecca, as I think you know, I was trained as a social historian, so I’m intrigued by this new project of yours. Can you tell us more about the book from which “Everything at Once, 1903” comes?
I had to smile when I saw “this new project of yours.” Yes, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is my newest book, but I’ve been working with the material for more than twenty years, so it doesn’t feel new to me. The book that finally evolved, after several incarnations, is primarily a multi-generational family memoir drawn from hundreds of documents and artifacts spanning more than a century. But it’s also a hybrid text that combines memoir, biography, narration, reflection and speculation, oral history, and social and cultural history. Perhaps more literary modes, too, but that list is probably enough to make your head swim, so I’ll stop there. “Everywhere at Once, 1903” (another Tribal Knot essay appeared in The Kenyon Review a few years ago) concerns the intersecting lives of some of the main characters in the book. The myriad ways in which lives intersect is one of my obsessions, and also one of the themes of The Tribal Knot–how lovers connect and families are made, of course, but also how larger communities form around shared values, beliefs, and rituals, and the challenges that emerge from such connections. Is like-mindedness a force for good, or evil? Does a strong network of “us” survive only because we have excluded “them”? How far do the ties-that-bind reach? Does individuality trump community? These are some of the questions the book interrogates.
I’m also interested in the source materials. You mention in your author’s note that you are drawing on “nearly one thousand primary documents”—mostly family letters. Who has the actual, physical letters? Are they in your possession? Some other family member’s? An archives?
I doubt that any university or library would be interested in archiving my ancestors’ possessions. These people were not famous; they were for the most part hardscrabble laborers–trappers, carpenters and farmers. Almost all the personal effects are in my possession, passed down from my mother, who inherited them from her parents’ cache. There are hundreds of letters– the oldest was posted from a Civil War encampment–but also dozens of other artifacts, including quilts, dishes, diaries, receipts, eyeglasses, shoes, locks of hair, my grandmother’s century-old wedding dress, my great-uncle’s 1896 school notebook, fishing baskets, butter churns, song books, wills, fraternal organization applications and cards, legal papers, newspaper clippings, book marks, calling cards, livestock breeding records, pension papers, inoculation records, report cards, tape recordings, Dionne quintuplet paper dolls, photographs, train schedules–and the list goes on.
What are the challenges working back and forth between documentary sources (especially a rich documentary trove) and your imagination? Do you find yourself skewing one way or the other, i.e. towards the document(ed “truth”) or towards the imagined reality? Have you experienced any sort of “permissioning” issues—in your own head or within your extended family—in terms of placing yourself in the consciousnesses of the dead?
At first, the challenges were enormous, but, like Wile E. Coyote, I just tried to not look down. The more I researched, the more directly I moved into the physical realm of the artifacts, and the more I wrote about what I was finding, the more natural the moves between source and story became. In some segments, I report the facts, period; then, on the next page, the fact becomes a springboard I jump from into the deep water of speculation, reflection, or memory. In other places, imagination steers the ship. But the facts always serve as the rudder.
As for placing myself “in the consciousnesses of the dead,” I hadn’t thought of it that way, G.C., but yes, that is exactly what I do in some parts of the book. It’s been said that history is “breaking bread with the dead,” and I definitely felt a sense of physical communion with the lives that opened up for me. With each letter I studied or artifact I touched, I inched a bit closer, fitting my feet into the tracks left for me. I can’t overstate the power that these personal effects had on me. Effects: that’s a great word, isn’t it? Their personal effects affected me deeply. Some of them had an almost totemic weight–like my great-grandfather’s spectacles, which I removed from their case one writing morning. I’d never known Robert Mounts in life, but I’d heard dozens of stories about him from relatives, read about him in letters, ran my hand over the list of neighbors who signed his funeral book, walked along the stream where he’d run his trotline, and now, I was putting on his eyeglasses, seeing the world as he might have seen it. Maybe it was moments like this one that eased me so naturally into their inner lives. Of course, you can never know the innermost thoughts, desires, wishes, or dreams of another; you can hardly know your own, and that’s another thread in the book, my ongoing search for understanding and connection in my own life. Imagining yourself into the consciousness of someone else is a form of communion, and I needed this communion. This breaking bread with the dead. In short, I needed all the help I could get, including help from the dead. Over the years I worked on the book, I questioned and re-questioned my motives, but I finally came to a sense of peace–of permission, to use your word, G.C.– to access their lives in this way, from the inside, out, as well as through documentable fact. I wanted the reader to feel as close to these people as I had grown to feel.
I’m interested in myth, and one of the questions I’m going to be asking each of the writers this round will deal with myth in contemporary American literature: whether or how it works. History, of course, bears a close (narrative) relationship to myth. What, if any, is the relevance of myth or mythic process to your work?
The mythic journey, starting with a search for personal myth, has been an important part of my life, and I have written about this journey extensively, to the point of tracing various incarnations of my personal myth within my poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Most people, I believe, try to piece together the stories of their lives, either consciously or unconsciously, looking for patterns of meaning. Some design that is larger than mere event or happenstance. Myths play an important role in The Tribal Knot, too; the narrative is fueled in part by pitting one myth against another. The myth of rugged individualism, for instance, warring against the myth of community: one for all, and all for one, is this even possible? According to several sources, an ancestral “hair picture,” woven from the hair of thirteen members of our tribe, was a factor in a family murder-suicide: father vs. son. It’s difficult for me not to see that artifact as a physical incarnation of an essential, ancient myth. The myth of the golden age is another myth that figures strongly in The Tribal Knot. Each generation seemed to believe that a golden age had existed for the family, once-upon-a-time, though each generation placed that age at a different spot on the timeline. Another particular set of beliefs–that a society of true Americans exists, and that certain people are part of that society while others aren’t, and that true Americans must right the wrongs imposed by “the other”–had serious implications for our family, leading to at least two members of the tribe, along with thousands of other “like-minded” citizens in Indiana, Ohio, and in every other state in the U.S. to become part of the post-war, 1920s resurgence of the KKK. The stories we hear, and that we come to believe, shape our lives and our destinies, for good and ill. My ancestors were no exceptions.
Is there anything that surprised you during the writing process? Anything that you had not expected to find?
I was surprised at every turn during the research phase. Some of what I found was difficult to process, especially the story of my great-grandmother’s lonely, difficult childhood, as well as my parents’ and grandparents’ dark moments, and of course the unwelcome discovery of certain documents, like the 1920s Klan membership card. Mostly, though, I was humbled by the sheer tenacity, grit, humor, and vulnerability of my ancestors, especially those I had known in life. As a child or adolescent, it’s hard to imagine your grandmother, or great-aunt or -uncle, or your own parents, aside from their relationship to you. You can’t know their multiple selves or all the journeys they’ve taken. You are the child and they are the old folks, simple as that. But when you are presented with hundreds of letters spanning a century, their whole lives are spread out before you, from beginning to end. You become the old one, the one with knowledge that they can’t have.
That was the biggest surprise of all, the powerful realization that because of my access to all these documents of the past, coupled with my knowledge of how their lives played out, I knew more than my ancestors knew. These letter writers, these diarists, knew only their present and their past; I knew their future. I knew which marriages would last and which ones wouldn’t. I knew my grandmother was pregnant before she did. I knew that Uncle Charlie wasn’t telling the whole truth, that things weren’t “all okay,” that they were indeed so far from okay that he would end up killing his own son and himself. Writing The Tribal Knot placed me as close as I’ve ever been to the omniscient stance in nonfiction. I could move through space and time, foretell my ancestors’ futures, yet I was helpless to intervene. I wanted to reach through time, to post a letter of my own. A letter of warning, yes: Be careful whom you love, what you say, what city you move to, where you hide the ammunition. But it would be a love letter, too, for that is finally what happened, which was the biggest surprise of all. I fell in love with these people, the living and the dead, even–no especially–the most flawed. I wanted to keep living inside their lives. I wanted the letters to keep coming.