Q and A with Kevin Fenton about his memoir LEAVING ROLLINGSTONE
Tell us a little about your new book. On the one hand, it's a pretty straightforward story: I was born into a loving family on a working farm in a tight-knit village where life revolved around the Catholic school. By the time I was twelve, we'd lost the farm, and the school had closed. The town was struggling and our family was threatened. It's a book celebrating that place and mourning that loss. But it's also a book about my attempt to both understand that past—and to shape a new self out of the fragments of my past. It's about the tension between the farm kid I was an the urban adult I became.
You write so movingly about your family, your early childhood years on a beloved farm and your family's subsequent loss of that farm. How did you begin this book, i.e. what was the impetus behind your desire to write this story? I knew that I wanted to wrote about the farm and I knew that I wanted it to be a memoir. I had a few false starts and then, in 2001, i wrote a draft of what is now the first chapter and that felt right--it felt like this was underway, that I'd found my way in to the material. That first chapter hasn't changed much, for all the other reconsiderations I went through. 3. How has your family responded to Leaving Rollingstone? (I always wonder about this memoirs - whether authors' families feel anxiety, anticipation, pride, suspense - a mix of emotion that's generally conflicted, I suspect.)
Very well. As someone from Rolllingstone said to me, "Your book said that our lives were important." I suspected more negative reaction--the picture of my family isn't entirely rosy--but people understood that comes with the territory. Being Minnesota, certain silences may contain implied criticisms but generally people have been positive.
The one criticism that has stung is that I'm an egomaniac. That hasn't come from Rollingstone people, who I think see that I was at least trying to make it about larger themes and a historical reality larger than my personal biography. It comes from Goodreads reviews. Of course, to a certain extent, all personal writing, whether it's poetry, fiction or memoir assumes that our personal experience and private thoughts are worth sharing. But, the idea that I might be, at bedrock, a boor has troubled me.
You've published a well-received and award-winning novel, Merit Badges, and so you know how to write long-form prose. There are some similarities between memoirs and novel, the main one being, I think, how each form must have a strong narrative arc, but I'm curious - what were the main differences you encountered when writing this memoir (aside from the need to describe real events and people)?
I've been thinking about this a lot. I think memoir has some formal imperatives that it shares with fiction--the basic requirements of a successful story--but that it is also a very distinct genre. And I think that distinctiveness is rooted in two things: 1) it is an historical account. This imposes a responsibility that goes beyond mere factualness to something like a trustee relationship to the subjects of the memoir. This will probably be the only historical account of many of the people i wrote about, so you have to get it right. You have to be fair. 2. Memoir and fiction also have a very different relationship to the self and I've come to believe that that relationship to self--not necessarily one's own, in the case of fiction--is what is at their foundations. Fiction inflames the self. Memoir interrogates the self.
What were some of the books that inspired you as you were writing or preparing to write Leaving Rollingstone?
As a memoirist, I am deeply indebted to Patricia Hampl both as a writer and teacher. She really established the reflective literary memoir as a vital genre. D.J. Waldie's Holy Land (the memoir of place), Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York (an essayistic approach to place), Eva Hoffman's Lost In Translation (the memoir of loss and movement), and James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time (the self-critical account of one's own culture) were also very influential.
If you don't mind sharing it with us, what are you working on now? For the first time in a long time, I don't have just one project and that's fine. I've got a chunk of a novel written, some starts on some essays about my college years, a critical essay, and I've even dabbled some in poetry, much to the chagrin of the English language.