Andrea Jarrell is the author of the new memoir I’m the One Who Got Away. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and Harper's Bazaar. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Q: Over how long a period did you write your memoir, and did you write it in the order in which the chapters now appear?
A: Certain lines in the first and second chapters of the book I wrote almost 20 years ago. Back then my plan had been to write a novel-in-stories with some of the characters loosely based on my parents.
I put those stories aside for about another decade and was working on other projects. Eventually, I came back to them when I shifted to writing personal essay and memoir. Some of those true lines from the early stories remained — elements of what would grow to be my memoir.
I began working on the book in earnest in 2012. I wrote and published essays for about two years that became the core of the book. It took another two years to revise these previously finished essays so they would work in the book, as well as to write additional chapters and craft a cohesive whole.
Q: How did you choose the book's title, and what does it signify for you?
A: The title evolved from the first chapter, a version of which appeared in Full Grown People as a stand-alone essay called, “The Getaway.” The chapter weaves together the story of a woman who did not escape her abuser and the story of my mother and I who did get away.
But while we physically “got away” from my father we did not escape our complicated relationships with him. Neither did we leave behind the impact of those relationships on the rest of our lives.
The book is about how one’s parents’ shape us but how, ultimately, we are in charge of who we become. The questions I try to answer are: How do desire and desirability empower and endanger girls and women? How do we make ourselves both safe enough and vulnerable enough to love and be loved?
It’s about my escape from the old patterns of our family. When I first told my mother the title she said, “That’s perfect.”
As I have spoken with readers I’ve been fascinated by their interpretations — all of which are also true: They see that I also get away from old limitations and expectations I once placed on myself.
I love that some readers have pointed out that I don’t get away at all but rather through my own growth manage to bring my loved ones with me to a new place for all of us.
Q: The book focuses in detail on your relationships with various family members. What does your family think of the book?
A: My husband and children love the book. It has been a lot harder on my parents. From the start my mother has been very supportive of me, my writing, and the book but she was not sure she wanted to read it. She knew its content and helped fill in gaps and details for me but she didn’t know if it would be too painful to read.
She has now read it and while it has been painful for her she continues to be very proud and supportive, telling others about the book and attending my events.
I was not looking for my father’s approval of the book but I didn’t want it to damage our mended relationship. When I talked to him about it shortly before it was released, he said he knew he “had done bad things” and that he was proud and happy for me about the book. I’ve been very lucky to have such a supportive family.
Q: Who are some authors you especially admire?
A: Here are many of the writers who I read for pleasure and to study their craft: Jo Ann Beard, Bernard Cooper, Andre Dubus, Jennifer Egan, William Maxwell, Jill McCorkle, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro, Mary Oliver, Jayne Anne Phillips, Dani Shapiro, Megan Stielstra, Elizabeth Strout, Elizabeth Tallent, Abigail Thomas, William Trevor, Claire Vaye Watkins.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’ve begun to chase the next book: another work of narrative nonfiction that will again be episodic. I’ve always been enamored by the juxtaposition of short narratives that together become more than the sum of their parts — each piece enlivening another piece like adding another log to the fire until it roars.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Given that I have published my first book at age 55, some might call me a late bloomer. Lately, I’ve been thinking about this idea of late blooming.
The interesting thing to me is that I’ve bloomed late not because I suddenly discovered writing and decided to try and publish a book. I am a late bloomer in that I finally stopped sabotaging myself and did the work needed to make my author dream come true.
I’ve been writing about this and giving talks about how this change came about — what I did to stop the self-sabotage.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb