Novelist and memoirist Kate Christensen is a bit of a pioneer for me, leading a Lewis and Clark expedition to a new life.
Seven years ago, she moved to the White Mountains and then Maine after spending much of her adult life in New York City. She had grown tired of urban life and all its intrusions on the soul, and was ready to make the leap into the unknown.
“My entire being felt as if it had shaped itself around the familiarity of urban life, so completely I’d hardly noticed any of it anymore — traffic noises, sidewalks full of crowds, strong smells, twenty-four-hour lights, the crash and squeal of the subways, the constant sense of millions of people around me,” she writes in her latest memoir, “How to Cook a Moose.” “Now I felt all my internal musicales relaxing with relief; I hadn’t even realized they’d been so tense and clutched.”
I moved to Maine from Los Angeles just two months ago, for much the same reasons, and when I read “How to Cook a Moose,” which just won the Maine Literary Award for Memoir, I found myself nodding in recognition and turning down every other page. (Starting with the epigraph, from longtime Maine resident E.B. White: “I would really rather feel bad in Maine than feel good anywhere else.”)
When I found out she was giving a chat recently in my favorite local town, Belfast, I had to go. Christensen, the winner of the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction for her novel “The Great Man,” was drilling down on one topic: the differences in creating characters in fiction versus memoir.
We chatted for a bit afterward, and I followed up with some questions — not 5 but 5ish — on that topic, plus a love we share: Maine. (Favorite quote about Maine from her talk: “It was like falling in love — where have you BEEN all my life?”)
So talk a little about the differences between approaching characters in memoir versus fiction.
Superficially, it’s the difference between remembering and imagining. In my memoir, I had to take a real, living, complex person—my mother, my sister, an old friend—and reduce her to a number of lines, words on the page, carefully chosen but always vastly incomplete, since any character in a memoir is part of your own story, not the protagonist in her own right. It felt like artful, difficult compression, the kind of compression that happens in poetry. In fiction, I create a character out of my own observations and interior apprehension of what it is to be human. At the beginning, I glimpse a gesture, an attitude, and from it I create an entire (I hope) complex, real-seeming person out of nothing but words. This feels like expansion. So fictional and nonfictional characters are created through essentially opposite endeavors. But ultimately, and more deeply, creating a character, whether a living one in a memoir or an imaginary one in a novel, is an act of empathetic imagination, of trying to see through someone else’s eyes, feel what they feel. In memoir, it’s crucial (for the good of the book and, ultimately, the writer) to see others’ points of view, even people who have hurt you. In fiction, it’s equally crucial to allow characters to have some say in their own fate. All of it comes from a practiced discipline of visceral empathy.
I loved one of your quotes at the Belfast talk: “The only person who should be an asshole in your memoir is you.” And you went on to talk about treating characters in memoirs as empathetically as in fiction. Tell me more.
That quote comes from my dear friend Rosie Schaap, whose “Drinking with Men” is one of my favorite memoirs. It is crucial to avoid grinding axes, settling scores and pointing fingers in your memoir. It only serves one purpose: that of making the reader feel uneasy, as if she’s been asked to arbitrate a boxing match in which one of the fighters has their hands tied behind their back. The more you take responsibility for your own actions, and the more you try to see the other person’s point of view, and the more you, as the person telling her own life story, try to avoid seeming heroic or downtrodden by making others look bad, the better your book will be and the more the reader will trust you. A memoir is a tricky animal: It’s your own story, and everyone else in it is seen through the lens of yourself. It’s key to remember that and respect their autonomy and separateness from you. In other, blunter words, don’t be a narcissist. The art of writing about real people is to allow them the benefit of the doubt without appropriating them for your own purposes. “No one should look like an asshole but you” is a handy mantra. It’s like those bumper guide rails at the bowling alley that nudge your bowling ball back into the lane if it threatens to go into the gutter.
You said the magic of character is that you get the interior soul of a person. Memoirs deal with real people — is it easier or harder to get to that interior with nonfiction?
SO much harder! For me, anyway. I’m not convinced I can do it yet. I’ve written only two memoirs. I still feel like a beginner. The primary challenge for me is that these living people I’m writing about are going to read the thing, sooner rather than later, because I send people my manuscripts for factual and other corrections and to make sure they’re OK with what I’m saying. At this stage, I’m more concerned with not offending people than I am with capturing their souls. I try to present them accurately, fairly, with respect. No one likes being a bit player in someone else’s life story. All you can do, as the memoirist, is to allow their appearances weight and dignity and avoid blaming or trying to come out on top in some private battle you’re waging with them. A memoir is not the place for such battles.
I found it very hard to write about my failed marriage. My ex-husband vehemently hates being written about, but I couldn’t write a memoir and pretend our 14-year relationship had never happened. And I couldn’t minimize my feelings about either the marriage or its end. I knew, though, that I had to try to tell it in a way that made me as culpable as possible and made him as invisible and dignified as possible. In other words, I tried to make myself the asshole without stretching credulity. It was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done, and in the end, he hated what I wrote. He found it cavalier and superficial. But I published it anyway, because it was the best truth I could tell about our marriage. It was my own story, not his. His, if he wrote it, would naturally be very different. It’s a tightrope walk of taking responsibility for your own mistakes and actions, not whitewashing the truth, and hewing to your own core of experience. If you write about real people, you will offend and anger some of them, even with the best of intentions. This is how it goes. And this is why I vastly prefer to invent people and to write fictional characters.
A memoir is a tricky animal: It’s your own story, and everyone else in it is seen through the lens of yourself. It’s key to remember that and respect their autonomy and separateness from you. In other, blunter words, don’t be a narcissist.
The title of “How to Cook a Moose” is a riff off the great MFK Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf,” which also mixes recipes, her love of food and place, and the magic of locally grown food. How does she inspire you?
She inspires me because of her unapologetic passion for food and her elegant but down-to-earth brio in writing about it. She was not a woman who counted calories or denied herself pleasures. “How to Cook a Wolf” is about hardship in wartime, how to eat on a very limited budget with limited resources. “How to Cook a Moose” takes off more from Fisher’s literary preoccupation with and enthusiasm for feeding hungers of all kinds: emotional, physical, spiritual—the hungers for community, love, nature, solitude, inspiration. I wanted to write about my own version of Fisher’s abundant sense of joy in food, her ability to take equal pleasure in a supper of beer and potato chips and a sumptuous lunch in an Alpine inn. I feel the same way: What matters is the time and place, the people, the atmosphere. “How to Cook a Moose” is about falling in love with a soul mate and finding my true home after a lifetime of starving loneliness and the uneasy sense of not quite belonging where I found myself. It’s about the richness of love and home. And I found these things in a place where the food is synonymous with its history and with community and nourishment, close to the ground and pulled from the gulf—a way of life that feels fragile now, endangered by climate change, which makes me love it even more, as well as the resourcefulness of the people who live here, who are already coping with the challenges of a warming ocean and changing weather.
Has your writing changed since you’ve been in Maine? How has your quieter, happier life manifested itself in your writing, if it has?
When I was younger, I wrote out of a burning fire in the pit of my stomach that I would call ego, the need to meet and join all the books I’d read and loved, to answer them, to make my mark in the road. I also wrote out of a profound, aching, constant loneliness. I felt an urgent need to connect with readers. Living here, I feel increasingly… invisible as I write. I want to say things. I want my characters to live and breathe, as much as I ever did. But I feel an easement of self-consciousness. I’m more interested in the world around me, in other people. It’s such a joy. In New York, self-consciousness was in the air I breathed, it was part of the social currency. Up here, in order to belong, to feel at home, I underwent a radical transformation. It was radical to me, anyway. Edginess, sharp aggressive self-assertion, they have no place here. People up here are sharp, they’re quick, they’re frank and forthright, but they’re not interested in being one-upped by cleverness or envying someone else’s social cachet or feeling cowed by a sneer. You live here, you work hard, whether you’re a writer or a farmer or a chef. Work is the thing, and quality, and keeping your head down. Moving here allowed me to relax and get over my own damn self. It’s a very grownup place. Hardships and challenges are the commonality. Edge and bluster are viewed with commendable suspicion.
In the book, you cite my favorite memoir of all time, with my favorite title, “We Took to the Woods,” by Louise Dickinson Rich, a Boston schoolteacher who fell in love with a Maine guide and went off with him to live a self-sufficient life in the Maine woods. Can you be a bit fangirl and rhapsodize how she makes memoir look so easy — both hilarious and moving, matter-of-fact and loving?
Exactly what you said! She makes it look so easy, and she makes it all so funny, so madcap and delightful and essentially urbane—it’s amazing! In her voice, those long Maine winters up in the wilderness are as glamorously fun as Manhattan penthouse cocktail parties, and through her eyes, backwoods Mainers, loggers and hunting guides and wardens and out-of-staters alike, are as funny and fascinating as Wodehouse characters, and her life with her husband is like “The Thin Man” transported to the northern backcountry. She’s like the Nora Charles of the Allagash. I’m crazy about that book. It’s so good, and it rewards rereading. Also my favorite memoir of all time. Talk about creating characters out of real people. She is such a great character herself, her view of everything—weather, people, landscape, seasons, food—is compelling and riveting. Maybe that’s the key to writing great memoir: be a great character. That’s what she does, and it’s a great achievement, to seem to leap to life on the page and bring the reader into your life and head. And she makes me want to stay there. Her life, as she writes about it, feels far more vivid and interesting than my own: another hallmark of a great memoir writer.
Moving here allowed me to relax and get over my own damn self.
The quote you end with really resonates with me: “I just had a sense that this was the right place. I think maybe there was a recognition of something to spoke to the deepest part of my humanity.” I have this theory about music, that we all have this tuning fork in our chests, and when we hear a certain type of music, our music, it starts to hum in sympathy. Now I feel that about Maine too. Do you?
I was born in Berkeley, California, and lived there during the 1960s, a very exciting time, and my parents were political activists, so I had a front-row seat to it all as a small kid. My family moved to Arizona when I was 8; I never felt at home in the desert, in those sprawling hot cities and suburbs and later, in the northern mountain towns. I left home at 16 and moved to the East Coast, then to France for a year, then Oregon for college and Iowa for grad school, and then I was a New Yorker for 20 years. I loved all those places, except Iowa (although I went back to teach and loved it as an adult). I passionately loved New York, especially. But I never felt that resonance in my chest, the hum of my internal tuning fork that you describe so well, until I came to New England in my mid-40s, the White Mountains of New Hampshire first and then Maine. The air, the landscape, the weather, the people, the food, the ocean, the trees.… I don’t know, it’s mysterious, it just feels like Home to me. Who I am resonates with this place, my deepest self, the things I most love and want and need and value, I find here in such abundance, but I couldn’t have named them before I came. The longer I live here, the more I understand how essential this feeling is for sanity and well-being. Corny as it sounds, living here makes me feel like a better person.
In her voice, those long Maine winters up in the wilderness are as glamorously fun as Manhattan penthouse cocktail parties. She’s like the Nora Charles of the Allagash.
What is it about Maine that seems to attract more of these searchers, from the old back-the-landers of the ’60s and ’70s to the new ones, to the people like you and me who might not grow everything we eat but want a … more grounded life?
The word “authenticity” is bandied around a lot and I’m tempted to bandy it around again here, but it’s tired, so I’ll leave it alone. How else can I put it? Maybe by saying what there isn’t up here instead. There’s not a lot of artifice. Life in Maine is not easy. People generally don’t come up here to get rich, famous or wildly successful in the kinds of industries that reward self-promotion and egomania and flash and social moxie. I think the attraction to Maine is a recognition of bedrock beauty, bare-bones loveliness, the grace of getting through a long winter, the sheer plain gorgeousness of a rocky cove or dense woods, the excitement of eating vegetables grown by hand in organic dirt, the satisfaction of living quietly and well in a rough place. The beautiful simplicity of Maine has been confluent with and sustained by its challenging ruggedness through the centuries, even into this new millennium. It’s almost self-regulating, somehow, and I hope it stays that way. Agribusiness hasn’t ruined Maine farming solely because it’s not profitable to farm on a massive scale up here. If a restaurant is too overpriced or pretentious, it stands out here as out of place (although Portland is starting to feel unfortunately hipster-Brooklyn-y lately…). The citizens of South Portland have banded together to fight to keep Tar Sands oil out of the pipeline and its refineries away from Bug Light. There’s a sense of what’s right here, what belongs, and what doesn’t, and what’s wrong. I would not call it xenophobia, and it’s not narrow-mindedness. It feels almost as if the culture of Maine has its own immune system that fights intruders on a cellular level. I admit I am romanticizing this place. And I wouldn’t be the first to do so, and I won’t be the last. But Maine is the kind of place that stands up to breathless rhapsodizing with a flinty wryness, a deflating bit of granite in the dewy eye. It puts me in my place. That’s one of the things I love most about it. The reality of Maine is that it’s changing, and not necessarily for the better. It’s being “discovered” right now in a whole new way, and its authenticity (that word) is in danger of being commodified. But this is part of Maine’s history. Hopefully the winters will remain harsh enough to deter anyone who doesn’t love this place exactly as it is.