Thursday, April 3, 2014

Q&A with author Selby Fleming McPhee

Selby Fleming McPhee, photo by Bill Geiger
Selby Fleming McPhee is the author of Love Crazy: A Memoir, which tells the story of her parents. She has worked as a staff writer and editor at various educational institutions, including Tufts University and the National Association of Independent Schools. She lives in Maryland.

Q: What made you decide to write a book about your parents?

A: When I was born, in 1943, my parents, Peggy and Jack, had already been married for 20 years and had raised one child -- my brother Tommy. I had heard stories of their romance and impulsive secret elopement in the summer of 1923, followed by the chaos that ensued when their families discovered that they were married. 

The whole story had a romantic, 1920s feel to it, and I only had the sketchiest of details. So when I discovered a box of letters, I confess I chose to ignore the admonition on top of the box -- to destroy the letters "unopened" -- and asked my father if he would allow me to read them. 

The letters not only gave me a day-by-day picture of the elopement drama, they outlined the hopes and dreams of my young parents, kept apart for the first year of their marriage, as they came to know each other in a daily epistolary conversation. The letters gave me scenes from Jazz Age Chicago, their first home together, in 1925, and from the small towns along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, where my father worked  in the late 1920s as a young engineer on dams and bridges that were a part of the last burst of American industry before the Depression brought the world to a halt..

So the letters came first.  What I read in them made me want to write their story.

Q: How difficult was it to view your parents objectively as you wrote about their lives?

A: It was very difficult!  The mother I grew up with was a troubled, unhappy woman, and I went into the project inclined to see my father as heroic and my mother in emphatically unheroic terms. 

What happened, though, is that through reading and reflecting on the letters, I found the sweet, hopeful, flirtatious young woman my father fell in love with, and I also saw challenges that he, lovable as he was, presented to her. 

So the letters, and the book, were a gift to me. I ended up feeling tremendous empathy for both of them, and admiration for their courage in the face of economic hardship and some bad luck. I hope readers will, too. 

There were times, though, when I relived some real anger at my mother, and at some of the people who judged my parents so harshly, and it took me a few drafts of the book to put all that in perspective and tell their story more dispassionately.

Q: What did your family members think of the book?

A: My brother died before the book was finished, but he was enthusiastic about the project, and wanted me to write it. My daughters and my brother's children have found their grandparents' lives interesting and full of drama. I think they have gained some perspective about us -- my brother and me -- and the environment in which we were raised. 

And we are all interested in the family patterns that reveal themselves in an examination of that generation. There have been provocative discussions of the ways we all carry my parents, Peggy and Jack, in our own lives.

Q: Why did you decide on Love Crazy as the book's title?

A: Jack and Peggy were besotted, bamboozled, crazy in love. There was an intensity to their attachment that never really changed, though time and circumstances altered their lives. 

At the same time, each of them had a fragility that made them sometimes unreliable as partners and as parents. My father could not, for the life of him, hold on to money -- it just ate its way out of his pocket. And my mother suffered from some emotional imbalance that I don't think was ever quite diagnosed, but it made her fearful and tyrannical, needy and sometimes cruel all at once. That meant that there was a constant undercurrent of chaos in our family life. 

But in the end, it was all held together by this ferocious love they had for each other and for us. So "Love Crazy" seemed like a pretty good description of the couple whose story I tell.

Q: What reaction have you received from readers to the book? 

A: It pleases me that my readers have been swept up in the drama of my parents' turbulent relationship. They also seem to appreciate the history of the times that set the letters in the context of the era (I loved doing the research! And for such interesting times - those pieces of history, the twenties, the Depression, World War II - that did so much to shape our world).  

And readers often mention old family letters of their own they are now curious to read. Men seem to particularly like the war letters - makes them think of their fathers' war experiences. Once in awhile, people are uncomfortable with the personal revelations.

Q: Are there any particular memoir writers who have inspired you?

A: My favorite memoir is Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am thinking of a book about my age cohort at Vassar College --- the Class of 1965 -- and the beginnings of the second women's movement. Betty Friedan published her book The Feminine Mystique when we were sophomores, and though the effects of the book, and the movement, were not immediate, I think it began to turn our world on its axis even then, for a lot of us. I, for example, went into college, thinking of nothing more than a kind of 1950s life as a wife and mother, and I came out wanting more than that -- to define myself through work. 

Anyway, I'm doing some reading right now, and I hope to get the help of friends, who might be willing to tell their stories, now that we're all turning 70 and can look back on our lives.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I feel that I learned so much -- of history, family, myself -- from reading family letters and I would like to encourage people who have mouldering boxes of family letters and papers in their attic to look at them.  There are surely stories to be discovered there.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Selby Fleming McPhee will be participating in the Bethesda Literary Festival, which runs from April 11-13, 2014. For a full schedule of events, please click here. An earlier version of this Q&A appeared on July 20, 2013.

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