Monday, April 23, 2018

Q&A with Amy E. Wallen

Amy E. Wallen is the author of the new book When We Were Ghouls: A Memoir of Ghost Stories. She also has written Moon Pies and Movie Stars, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Gettysburg Review and The Normal School. She is associate director at the New York State Writers Institute and teaches creative writing at UC San Diego Extension.

Q: You begin your memoir with a memory from your childhood in Peru. Why did you choose to start there?

A: I never expected to write a memoir, had no intention of writing one. In fact, over and over I swore I was a novel writer only. But I started to write a personal essay about the time my family dug up a grave.

When I discovered that my memory of who was graveside with me, that my brother who so vividly stood out in my memory was missing from the reality, a journey to explore ALL my memories of those years living overseas became insistent.

The discovery of what really happened throughout my childhood became the nagging resource for all the scenes in the memoir. After I realized I had a book-length work and not a short essay I tried out all sorts of structures for how to tell the bigger story.

The metaphor of digging up my family’s history was too great to not use it for the opening. That scene was what truly started my journey down memory lane, so it felt right to make it both the beginning of my story and the opening metaphor. 

Q: What do you think the book says about memory?

A: I hope what it says about memory is that all perspectives, everyone’s view is valid. The science says that memory is a re-creation of an event, that each time you remember something it is more about you. Memories are not facts. But memories are important for how and what each person recalls.

My intention is to show that the Truth always lies somewhere in between all the memories. For instance, what my mother, father and I each remember is all true to each of us, while the fact may never be proven, the Truth of what the situation gave to us—who it made us, how we were moved by it emotionally—this Truth lies inside the pieces of the story and says more about who we are rather than what happened to us.

Another for instance—my mother denies she remembers a body being in the grave. She doesn’t want to think of herself as someone who would do such a heinous act. But when my father reminds her of where we kept the skull—physical proof—she finally admits to what we did, and she immediately blames all of us, calls the whole family “hideous people...ghouls.”

Her denial illustrates her self-perception, just as my macabre search to make certain the details are real show mine. If she’s going to admit we did this crime then she’s going to take us all down with her. I want us all to be together no matter what the crime. 

Q: The book focuses in large part on your childhood and the role of your family members—what do they think of it?

A: My brother said he was both touched and found it very poignant. He also said he liked the guy that represented him much better than the one he has to live with every day. I idolized my brother, so I suppose that’s the best answer I could receive.

My sister said she sat down when her copy arrived and read it cover to cover. She said she related to so many of the incidents, and that she had felt abandoned most of her childhood too.

My 88-year-old father has dementia, a diagnosis that came after the book publication was in process. So many of his memories I share in the book have a different meaning than they did when I wrote them.

For instance, in one chapter I show my father revealing more evidence of his work with the CIA, I feel he’s about to give away his secrets to me. His stories that he has always told are becoming more detailed, more vivid, more intricate—they reveal important facts that say he knew more than he was telling me before. I felt in the book that he revealed this to me because he wanted ME to know.

I found out after his diagnosis that part of dementia is that the long-term memory becomes more detailed. When I wrote the book I had no idea he had dementia, so my interpretation was valid only in the moment.

My mom says she never drank as many daiquiris as I have her drinking in the book. She also says she probably should have left me with someone instead of alone in Nigeria. A little remorse, perhaps?

No one has called and told me I got it all wrong. No one has called and said they were mad at me. No one said I am out of my mind. I don’t expect them to, and I hope they all feel they were fairly represented.

The subtitle, “A Memoir of Ghost Stories” is meant to represent, among other things, how the memories easily slip through walls, how we are never sure whether we saw what we thought we saw, and my family all understand this probably better than most.

After learning about my dad’s dementia, I could now write another book on how memory plays out for my family in new ways. Perhaps memory and its nuances will be a fascination for me always. Maybe it will always appear and disappear revealing itself to me in surprising ways. 

Q: What led you to write this book, and how long did it take you to complete it?

A: As I mentioned in the first answer, I had no intention of writing a memoir. I just wanted to write an essay about a family digging up a grave. It was a cool story that I thought I could turn into something that represented Americans' disregard for humanity.

Instead it turned into some of that, but when the truth hit me in the face that the most emotionally potent moment for me was not only not true but impossible, I found myself upside down inside the story unable to leave it alone.

A grad school professor told me I was writing a memoir. I told her she was wrong, but she kept insisting. She was right, of course. And I’m grateful to her for pushing me.

I learned a tremendous amount about the art of memoir (so much different than fiction) and I was enthralled by the exploration of memory and how to put it on the page with honesty and understanding and compassion for everyone’s memories. I didn’t want to crush anyone’s remembrances.

It took me about three years to write it from that first graveside scene which was published as an essay in The Gettysburg Review, to finding the structure and how to tell all the stories that were my memories and how to delicately weave everyone’s truth in with mine so we could find the Big Truth.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: This is the hardest question to answer because I’m working on about five things, which is driving me nuts.

I have a novel in the works about a retirement community in Burbank where has-beens and wannabe Hollywood folk live. This book plays on memory too—one resident has dementia and is scared everyone will forget HER. Another resident has had a tragic life in war-torn El Salvador and wants to forget everything.

Death is a character in this story too, of course, because you can’t have characters who are in their 80s and 90s and not have death lurking around.

I have a collaboration with a writer friend of mine who is also an irreverent illustrator and we are working on a how-to book for novel writers about how I survived writing my first novel by baking pies. It’s quirky and fun, hopefully a companion for writers since writing is a hard business, and we all need to laugh in the darkest of times to keep going.

And, I have another memoir going that has to do with the letters my mom wrote us kids each week from 1986 to 2001.

And, I have another novel about a sin-eater, which is a small-town character based on an old tradition that used to exist in the South and other backwoods communities where a biscuit was placed on the chest of the corpse in the coffin where the dead person’s sins would be absorbed.

The sin-eater would then eat the biscuit thus allowing the deceased to pass into heaven without the burden of these sins. I want to know what happens to the sin-eater who consumed all these sins. Who is this person?

All of this schizophrenia over all these stories is crazy, but eventually my mind will settle on one, I hope. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I love to bake pies. I love to bake savory pies mostly. Comfort food. And some of my favorite memories are of when we came back to the U.S. after living all those years overseas, and I loved those frozen Swanson’s chicken pot pies. I’d pick out all the little pearl onions (yuck!) but I’d eat every last crumb of one of those pies in its tin foil pan.

When I got older I couldn’t stand the cardboard crust and the gooey sticky glutinous filling with the frozen cubes of carrots and too-chewy chicken, but I still craved the comfort the pie provided, so I taught myself how to make a pie crust and made my own pies. Now it’s my way to relax, to meditate, an excuse to eat, well, pie!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. Great interview with Amy Wallen, and her memoir is urgent and riveting!