You Must Use a Filter!: Deb Olin Unferth
Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the memoir REVOLUTION, the story collection MINOR ROBBERIES, and the novel VACATION. Her work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Believer, and the Boston Review. She has received two Pushcart Prizes and a 2009 Creative Capital grant for Innovative Literature, and was a Harper’s Bazaar Editors’ Choice: Name to Know in 2011. There’s a genius book trailer here and a wonderful excerpt here.
Michael Kimball: I think of you as a fiction writer first, probably because that is how I first encountered you, but REVOLUTION is a memoir, so I’m wondering about the differences between writing fiction and memoir. I’m asking because there are certain incidents that I wouldn’t have believed if I were reading fiction, but I read along amazed because I’m reading a memoir.
Deb Olin Unferth: Memoir and fiction are very different forms. When I decided to write this memoir, I read dozens of memoirs and autobiographies to try to get a sense of how memoirs are put together, how they have changed over the past hundred years, how I might contribute to the conversation that “memoir” is (a conversation about memory, time, the narrative of the self, and much more). I’d been terrified to write a memoir. I’d told myself this was because I doubted its intellectual validity (ha!), but I see now it was because I didn’t want to deal with the problems memoir presents.
A few of these are: the search for and commitment to factual and emotional truth, the willingness to reveal oneself publicly, the need to settle on one “self” or one interpretation of what happened, the filter — what sort of a filter to use (you must use a filter! you can’t just write every single thing that ever happened to you) and why you use that particular filter, and how to tell the reader what that filter is and what doubts you have about it — the need to resist building an artificial but tempting arc (life doesn’t work as an arc, though almost all our experiences with human-made narrative do), etc. None of these are problems in quite the same way in fiction.
I am now in love with the form, and I’ve written a “memoir manifesto,” where I talk about the development of memoir out of autobiography.
Michael Kimball: This is why I love interviews. Let’s talk about the filter. I think we use a filter in fiction too. There’s a pretty clear filter in VACATION and the filters are even more obvious in your short stories. Can you talk about the particular filter that you used in REVOLUTION and the doubts that you had about it?
Deb Olin Unferth: The hardest part was determining the voice I wanted to use — a voice is a filter. What sort of a stance did I want to take toward this subject? I had many doubts. After all, here I was, an American, turning up at someone else’s war and trying to “help,” and, all these years later, here I was writing about it (and writing about something is in a way owning it or laying claim to it). It takes a lot of audacity to do that. Furthermore, I wanted to have a sense of humor about it, mostly because I feel like I can only speak seriously through a filter of humor. And what kind of a person would write humorously about someone else’s war? It seemed inhuman, and yet I wanted it to be very human, and very respectful. For this reason, I abandoned the book over and over, but it felt urgent to me to finish it, and urgent on many levels, so I kept returning to it. All I could think to do was to integrate my doubts into the text, be very open about it.
Michael Kimball: The voice, the tone of the voice, is one of the things that is striking about the book. Some of what happens in the narrative seems so terrible or so absurd that humor seemed necessary — that is, the narrative would have seemed unbelievable without that sort of temper for it. Said another way, there are places where the narrative seems both earnest and ironic at the same time. Do you think of that as one of the ways that REVOLUTION contributes to the conversation of what a memoir is — or, what a memoir can be?
Deb Olin Unferth: Well, I hope so. I wanted to capture that feeling of simultaneous earnestness and irony. It’s the way I tend to feel most of the time — urgently earnest and yet aware of the absurdity of it. Even then, at eighteen, I felt that way, though the feeling was a little deeper below the surface. I try to get that across in places in the book, such as when I call my family to tell them I’m getting married and I feel a sudden surge of terror that I might not mean what I’m saying and doing the way George does.
I don’t believe irony precludes deep emotion in writing, the way some people say. Irony can indicate deep emotion — pain, fear, doubt, strangling desire. The important thing is not to stop at irony. Let the irony curtain fall around you, then push it away (it comes away so easily!) and look at what it hid.
Michael Kimball: I think that you were successful at doing that in so many places in the book and, that feeling, those multiple emotions, become a sense that underlies the narrative even when it isn’t as explicit. And it is most explicit, I think, in those places where you introduce your doubts into the narrative. Could you give us a short passage where you do that and maybe discuss how you came to introduce your doubts into that particular part of the narrative?
Deb Olin Unferth: Weirdly, as I paged through the book, looking for a passage, it seemed to me as if every page contained this self-doubt. I settled on a passage on p. 40, where I’m describing an encounter we had with some evangelical Christians from the U.S.
[I]t occurred to me that in fact we must have all looked alike to the Guatemalan people watching us. You have to look at a thing carefully to be able to tell it from the others, and you have to know what to look for. Most things are indistinguishable.
Here I’m trying to talk about a certain sense of self-importance and privilege that some people from the U.S. feel or are credited with feeling, going into other countries and trying to “help” the people — this was a very difficult topic for me to write about, but I needed to address it, since I’m hyper-aware of it and I myself was guilty of it, and even at eighteen I saw it and knew it and wasn’t sure what to do with it.
So there we were, George and I, standing there, being critical of these other Americans, and imagining ourselves to be the heroes in this story, but to Guatemalans watching us, we were just indistinguishable blurs, and none of the silliness we were engaged in had anything to do with their lives. We were comedy-relief for the real story, and in the real story, the Guatemalans were the primary characters and the heroes. And in that moment I understood this.
So I tried to achieve this effect by quickly and dramatically shifting the perspective in that first sentence — to the point of view of the Guatemalan people. Then in the second sentence, I try to shift the perspective again, pull back and make a more generalized statement. If the first sentence was political, the second was existential.
Michael Kimball: One of the fascinating things about REVOLUTION is the way that this shifting perspective happens in so many places, on so many pages — and it kind of teaches the reader to read the book in a particular way. This is partly possible, I think, because of the subject matter — we’re given a narrative with a very personal, idiosyncratic story that is set against a backdrop of a narrative that might be told in a history book. What I’m wondering is how you decided to balance these two narratives — how much of the war revolution versus how much of the personal revolution?
Deb Olin Unferth: The book began and stopped in fits and starts over a period of many years while I tried to figure out just what sort of book I wanted to write. I had written drafts of scenes of both the war material and the personal material. I had pieces of scenes and mini history lessons I’d written scattered all over, in different boxes and on scraps of paper, some typed into emails I sent to myself from Central America in the early 2000s, some in notebooks starting with the ones I’d written during the 1987 trip. Because I’d tried so many times to write this book, I’d done a lot of research over the years, also in fits and starts. I’d say there were four distinct periods when I read almost exclusively books about Central American politics, and I took extensive notes and made hundreds of notecards (I’d been taught to do this in eighth grade: when writing a research paper, put all your facts on notecards– probably no one does that anymore, right? why have them on notecards anyway? what’s the point? it’s mysterious).
When I finally realized what I wanted to do and surveyed the mountain of material, somehow the balance came very naturally and organically. I didn’t have that much trouble figuring that part of it out. I did not want the book to be a history book. I did want the political backdrop to be an important part of the book. The challenges were: 1. figuring out how much background information to put in (I assumed a lot was common knowledge that turned out not to be, so I needed to fill it out a little), 2. including the factual information in a way that didn’t lose my voice.
Michael Kimball: The two narratives are seamless and they create a really clean narrative arc, which isn’t always the case for memoir. Thinking of narrative arc, I’m curious about how and why you decided to include the last section of the book, the last few chapters, which are set in the very recent past.
Deb Olin Unferth: Okay, that part was hard to figure out. In early drafts of the book, the recent past material began in the first chapters and popped up again and again throughout the book, so that the reader was going back and forth in time. But with each transition I sensed that the reader was taken out of the story a little, had to regroup and re-enter the story, and I didn’t like that, so I gathered the recent past material into a few major chunks so that the reader would only have to transition a few times. But I kept pushing the chunks farther and farther back and deleting pieces of them because they were still interrupting the story. Finally my editor, Gillian Blake, called me — I was in a hotel room in southern Illinois, I recall — and said, “Move it all to the end,” and for a moment I was horrified, but then relieved.
The very final chapters, about looking for George in the past year, I added them because the book is a quest — not just the 1987 trip, but the writing of the book itself is a quest. I needed to know the things that I learned as a result of writing the book, and I was willing to search for them. And part of that was settling for myself what sort of a person George had wound up becoming.
Michael Kimball: Okay, I have one last question: Are you a fast runner? There are a couple of times when you run away from somebody who is trying to do something terrible and you always get away. I was always relieved when you got away, but I also thought, She must be fast.
Deb Olin Unferth: Ha! I run, but I’m not that fast. In one passage, I mention that a man “chased me through a field with his ‘thing’ out of his pants.” I still remember this vividly. I was on a path in a field (Managua at that time was so spread out, there were often fields of tall grasses between places you wanted to get to, with paths running through them) and I came on a soldier whom I walked by. He called out to me after I passed, and I turned back to look at him and he had his “thing” in his hand and he was running awkwardly toward me. He also had an enormous rifle slung over his back that was bouncing up and down. I imagine it is hard to run that way and the image seems comical to me now. I just took off and left him far behind.
The other place in the book where I mention running away is when I was mistaken for a prostitute and a man tried to offer me money and grabbed my arm and the back of my dress, and I took off running. He didn’t chase me. I just ran. Actually I have no idea if he chased me. If he did, I ran faster.
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”), is now out in paperback. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. His books have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages and Tyrant Books will release his novel US in May, 2011. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), I WILL SMASH YOU, 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES, and the 510 Readings.
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