Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Q&A with Bobi Conn




Bobi Conn is the author of the new novel Someplace Like Home. Her other books include the memoir In the Shadow of the Valley. She was born and raised in Appalachia.


Q: What inspired you to write Someplace Like Home, and how much of the story was based on your own family history?


A: When I told my mother that I had written a memoir a couple of days before it came out in 2020, she surprised me with her response. I thought she might be angry with me for telling our stories and for revealing the ways she failed to protect me as a child.


Instead, she acknowledged that failing right away and asked if she had ever done anything else to hurt me. We had never discussed her role in my experience of childhood abuse before—our conversations had always centered around my father, who terrorized us all for years.


As we continued talking about the book and her perspective of that traumatic era of our lives, I realized she had grappled with so much that I couldn’t comprehend in childhood. I remember a lot of terrible things my father did to her, but I wouldn’t have been present for all of them, and my set of memories wouldn’t capture each and every affront.


And my mother expressed a desire for her story to be known, so the audience who read my memoir would understand that she wasn’t a monster, herself—she didn’t fail her children due to a lack of love.


From there, I offered to write her story, or the best approximation of it possible. To get started, she sent me a list of her most significant memories and we spent hours on the phone, with her telling stories and me taking notes.


It took a while to nail down the structure of this story, and I ultimately felt that it was best to render it through fiction because she didn’t remember enough details to paint a vivid story for readers.


However, when I listened to her stories, I could see them all so clearly; almost all of them took place in the same places where I spent my childhood, with the same main characters. Some of those stories are also memories I share with her, though I remember them from my own vantage point.


To me, this novel is a strong representation of actual history, but I think it’s important to note that any attempt to tell someone else’s story carries the risk of getting something wrong that fundamentally undermines that story for their owner.


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: This title came to me after I had been writing the novel for quite some time. I was thinking about Jenny’s character and how she longed for freedom as a teenager but when she tried to escape the confines of home, she entered another, more dangerous prison.


One of the central questions I grappled with as I wrote was whether Jenny’s—and my mother’s—parents were to blame for her choices. We know that sometimes, people repeat their family dynamics and end up in abusive relationships because that’s what they grew up with.


However, my mother and her siblings have always proclaimed that their parents, my grandparents, were wonderful people who gave them a great life.


Ultimately, I don’t think my mother’s home life as an adult was a direct reflection of the home she grew up in, but rather that our choices are driven by a more complex set of factors, including cultural influences and a collection of personal beliefs that most people aren’t fully aware of.


Q: Can you say more about the relationship between this novel and your memoir In the Shadow of the Valley?


A: As I mentioned above, this novel came about as a direct result of my memoir. Even though the novel is fictional, I see it as a sort of prequel to my novel, and I want it to help people understand how the basis of my life story was put into motion by my parents’ experiences.


I am fascinated with the ways generations of people create a family history, sometimes perpetuating cycles and other times breaking them.


I view my own life as a triumph over the vast amount of pain I was born into, and I think this novel helps clarify that pain, while also highlighting the different world my children now occupy—one in which, despite my own mistakes and imperfections, they have always known they are loved and wanted.

Q: What impact did it have on you to write this novel, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: I set out with a couple of intentions for this book. One, I had a vague concept of knowing that I wanted to cultivate more compassion for my mother. I thought I had forgiven both my parents when my memoir came out, but writing Someplace Like Home quickly showed me that I still resented them for not giving me what I needed as a child.


I chose to write the majority of the novel from Jenny’s first-person point of view because I thought that would be the best way to draw readers into her psychology.


It’s hard to develop a deep empathy with a character who is clearly mistaken in how they see the world but—similar to writing from an anti-hero’s perspective—I thought this choice would draw readers in and help them relate to her.


It shouldn’t have surprised me, but doing that made me feel a lot more empathy for her as well, and I ended up seeing her story as something important not just in relation to me. And my new understanding of who she is (even if it’s not fully accurate) helped me forgive and fully let go of my childhood longing.


I hope this book helps other people who can relate to me by helping them look at their own parents as not just parents who failed them, but as people with their own stories that may have limited their ability to adequately care for a child.


And in those cases, when we can let go of the past, I think we turn to our present, knowing we are empowered to create a better future.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I currently have proposals out for a new memoir and another novel.


The purpose of the new memoir is to answer a question a lot of readers asked me in response to In the Shadow of the Valley, which was essentially, “How did you get out?”


That is, they wanted to know how I broke cycles of poverty and violence, and how I found a way to create a good life for myself and my children with no blueprint and no support.


I didn’t really know how to answer that question in the past; I was still working through certain aspects of trauma and couldn’t articulate my journey in a way that could help others. Now, however, I am in a position to do so and I’m eager to share it with the world.


The new novel will be related thematically to everything I’ve written thus far, but it will have a more dramatic feel to it.


I want to continue exploring psychological phenomena and personality development through this book, which will focus on a romantic relationship and the main character’s unconscious beliefs that drive her to sabotage herself, until she is forced to confront the demons she has long ignored.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I would like to draw attention to another theme in Someplace Like Home, which are the limitations imposed upon us by our local culture. Appalachia is a rural region, and there are a lot of rural communities throughout America that share a lot of the same struggles we do.


The characters in this novel are not only facing challenges from their family dynamics and personal belief systems; there are inherent limitations to living in a rural place. Those limitations have changed a lot in my lifetime, but there are still obstacles to communicating, accessing information, and traveling that a lot of readers may not fully understand.


I think it’s interesting to look at all the different facets of an individual life to see the forces they were shaped by—and I think it’s critical to seek this kind of understanding when we talk about any social or political issue so we can have productive conversations, regardless of our own backgrounds.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Bobi Conn.

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