There’s a change in the air, and I don’t mean the weather. When Hope Edelman returns to Iowa City — the place she calls her second home — a new kind of thoughtfulness pervades the writing scene. Edelman, a UI Nonfiction Writing Program alum and author of the best-selling Motherless Daughters series (not to mention her stunning memoir, The Possibility of Everything), is a writer whose emotional sensitivity is as evident in person as it is on the page. In anticipation of her upcoming reading at Prarie Lights Bookstore and her three-day writing workshop at the Iowa Writers’ House, Edelman and I talked about time, place and the legacy of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program (NWP).
Tell me about the workshop you’ll be leading at the Iowa Writers’ House. What do you have planned?
In my own work, I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of time and place and how many of our personal narratives unfold as they do, not just because of where they happened, but also because of when they happened. I do a lot of writing that takes place during my adolescence and young adult years. That’s partly because I do firmly believe that if you’ve lived until you’re 25, you have enough stories to tell for the rest of your life. It’s also because those were the most tumultuous — and therefore to me, as a writer — interesting years of my life. Plus, I have an agreement now with my husband and daughters that I won’t write about them for a while. [Laughs.] So I need to reach further back, to the time before they came into my life.
I’ve come to really appreciate how the culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s and the early ‘90s informed the stories that I’m telling. When I started encouraging explorations of time and place in the work of my students here in L.A. I began to notice how the writing just blossomed, and how readers could really relate to the stories in ways that were new and fresh. So I thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be fun to do a workshop on time and place and see what happens!” So we’re going to be doing a series of short exercises since we’ll only have a few days together.
This is the first time I’m doing a weekend workshop on this topic, and I love that I get to do it in Iowa City because Iowa City occupies such a strong sense of place and time in my own development as a writer. I was there as a student from 1989 to 1992, and I’ve been coming back almost every summer, with a few exceptions, since 1995. I really think of it as my second home and quite a few of my stories take place in Iowa City, during that particular time period.
I’ve heard you tell the story living in Iowa City at the end of your time in the NWP, and finding out that your first book had just sold. You rendered such a clear sense of that moment.
That story alone really illustrates what I’m talking about, because of the way that book sold. It could sell like that in the early ‘90s, but it wouldn’t today.
[Motherless Daughters] went to auction when I was still in graduate school, and I thought, “Oh, we’ll be lucky if we get one offer.” So my agent sent it around and started the auction that morning, and by evening it wasn’t finished yet. By end-of-day in New York, I mean. That night, I bought a bottle of Korbel champagne — which also speaks to a certain time in my life, because there’s a certain age when you go buy Korbel champagne, versus any other — and I walked over to Karen Bender’s apartment and we popped the cork and sat on her apartment floor and drank it. There were certain details of the way the book sold and where I was living, and how it all unfolded — that I could walk to Karen’s apartment, the way we were living — that was very specific to that time and place in our lives. If I ever wrote that story, I’d be sure to put those details in. They’re essential.
It’s timely, then, that you’re doing this workshop in December. This is a season when essays and stories rife with particular emotions and family dynamics tend to pop up.
Right! I’m doing the workshop right between the two trigger holidays! Thanksgiving and Christmas are probably the most emotionally loaded holidays of the year for many people.
Is that the case for you?
I suppose. Not as much this year. I’m actually looking forward to both holidays. Over Thanksgiving my daughter, a freshman in college, is coming home for the first time since leaving in the fall. We’ll have a fun weekend with her, and we always have a really good party at our house the night after Thanksgiving. And then over Christmas we’re planning a family vacation. But you know, when I think of my extended family, those holidays are often fraught with emotions.
The Motherless Daughters series has a huge following. A lot of people who read that book and the series reach out to you after they’ve finished it. Does that increase during the holiday season?
I have noticed that there is an increase during the holidays. One year, I wrote a [Facebook] post admitting that Thanksgiving was my least favorite holiday because we never had family to spend it with. Both of my parents are gone, my husband’s family all live overseas and my siblings spend it with their spouses’ families. I had an enormous response to that — people saying “Thank you so much for admitting that this holiday is hard for you,” because people don’t like to talk about it! It’s supposed to be such a fun, happy family time. We need to talk about all varieties of experience at this time of year, though, and those who don’t have that kind of experience around the holidays often feel marginalized and silenced because they think they don’t know others who feel the same way.
When you talk to your students about time and place in essay and memoir writing, what are some tools or markers you ask them to draw on?
Some of the exercises we’ll do will focus heavily on place, so, setting. Some will focus on time, meaning the year or month in which the story takes place. That may mean talking about the holidays, but the holidays in 1973 will have different cultural markers than the holidays in 2013. And if you’re having a New York Christmas versus a Nebraska Christmas, for example, that will be different. But we’ll be looking at a given year and all the different cultural markers one might point to from that time. Songs that were on the radio, movements that were taking place at the same time, war, brand names that were popular.
When I think of my childhood in the ‘70s, I think of the Carter Administration, I think of the Iran Hostage Crisis. I think of Hawaiian Punch! [Laughs.] I think of all the crap food we ate — Wing Dings and Ding Dongs. But the songs that were on the radio back then — I mean, the soundtrack of our lives changes very much year to year, decade to decade, and can help evoke a real sense of atmosphere, too. So we’ll be looking at all those details and we’ll be talking about how details help tell a story.
You’re coming back to Iowa City to read at Prairie Lights from a new anthology — I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program.
Yes! [Former NWP Director] Robin [Hemley] and I worked on it together. Nine years we worked on that book. That’s the longest I’ve ever worked on a book. We initially thought it would come out sooner, but 2006, when we started, was before the big change in publishing, and so we retreated for a while and tried to think about how we wanted to position the book. I’m so glad that it took as long as it did, because it allowed us to bring in some of the more recent graduates that wouldn’t have been in the book otherwise. I think their pieces add a lot to the mix.
Publisher’s Weekly called the anthology a “Best Of” collection. Is that accurate?
No. In their review — which was excellent, by the way — probably the best book review I’ve ever gotten — they did call it that. That’s not what Robin and I intended, and our introduction specifically says that. It’s impossible to do a “Best Of” collection of the NWP! You’d have to put in everybody’s best work, because everybody that comes out of [that program] is such an extraordinary artist. What we had to do was hand pick 18 pieces that we thought both worked well together and covered the 30-year period we were covering. And we didn’t want to duplicate material. We didn’t want 12 out of the 18 to be coming-of-age memoirs! [Laughs.] We wanted to show the variety of the work that comes out of the program so it’s a representative example, but it’s not a “Best Of.”
That’s a key distinction.
I think it’s really important for the NWP and the writing community to know, too, because that really misrepresented our intent. We had almost 70 essays to choose from, and they were all terrific. They all belonged in the book! It was only too bad that we had limited amount of space. The University of Chicago Press gave us a page limit, and we’ll just have to forgive them.
Gemma de Choisy is skipping town to finish her book. She will miss Iowa City, this magazine and you. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 189.