A Conversation with Amy Wallen

Years ago, I met Amy Wallen through mutual writer-teacher friends. At the time she was producing a spoken word series based in San Diego called DimeStories, which she also founded. Amy had published a novel and was also hosting salons at her home featuring her delicious pies (hence the name, Savory Salons). Like me, she was creating community through storytelling and I felt I'd met a kindred spirit.

Next week Amy's debut memoir When We Were Ghouls: A Memoir of Ghost Stories is being released into the world through the American Lives series edited by Tobias Wolff. In the interview below, I had a chance to ask her about the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction, how she found the keys to structure, and what advice she would have given herself in retrospect. You'll also find her upcoming readings and signings in LA and across the USA! 

Amy E. Wallen is the author of the soon-to-be-released memoir When We Were Ghouls (University of Nebraska Press, March 2018). She is the associate director at the New York State Writers Institute and teaches creative writing at the University of California, San Diego Extension. Her first novel, Moon Pies and Movie Starswas a Los Angeles Times bestseller. Amy is the creator of Savory Salons, an intimate gathering with a conversation springing from the author’s latest work. If you want to be invited, message her and she'll put you on the list!

When Amy learns her parents are grave robbers and her memory is out of focus, she tries to figure out what truly happened. When We Were Ghouls, A Memoir of Ghost Stories is about a search for family. It follows a family that has been dispersed around the world, a family who, like ghosts, come and go and slip through Amy’s fingers making it unclear if they were ever there.

"Lyrical and haunting."—Booklist

Buy the book


Karin Gutman: Tell me about your book!

Amy Wallen: When We Were Ghouls is, as the subtitle suggests, a memoir metaphorically in ghost stories. The book opens with a memory I have of my family digging up a pre-Inca grave in Peru. I soon discover my memories are not quite what I thought and yet at the same time frighteningly just as I remembered, so I start to dig even deeper into my family’s adventures. As a young kid my blue-collar family was transferred to Nigeria, Peru and then Bolivia. All of my family members, like ghosts, came and went during this time. I begin to question everything that happened, although the physical world suggests my memories are real, the stories seem unbelievable to me. The stories suggest that my family were looters, grave robbers and hideous people with no regard for humanity. The opening scene/chapter is exactly how the story came to me. I had no intention of writing a memoir, but I soon realized that’s exactly what I had to do. 
I know you have also published a novel. Can you describe the difference between writing fiction versus nonfiction?

I struggled with the transition from fiction to nonfiction. Not because I didn’t want to tell the truth, and not because I wanted to make things up (although I do find that to be more fun), but because I had a hard time with the narrators of experience and innocence. I had learned psychic distance in fiction but those characters felt more stagnant or controllable, maybe. To apply that to myself, to who I am now AND who I was then was a mind-bender for me. I had to learn compassion for my complicity, for my family, dig inside deep to admit to how I felt then versus how I feel now, or rather how I felt as I wrote the book. I say the last bit because I think even as I look at the pages now, a few years after they were written, I have a new way of looking at the story, but I had to realize that was the story I was writing then. Once it clicked, once I realized the juxtaposition versus the commonalities, once I realized that I was writing the story that I had to tell at that moment about that part of my past, even though it would be different at every stage of my life, I felt right at home in the genre of creative nonfiction. It’s a very “of the moment” genre and yet is about the past. Or at least, that’s how I came to decipher it.

What does your writing practice look like? Has it morphed over time?
My writing practice varies with my life, somewhat, but also stays the same. I believe in writing every day because otherwise I lose the momentum. But I have also learned that I can’t always make this happen because life gets in the way, and mostly I get in the way of myself.  I wanted to get another book started so it wouldn’t take me as long as it took me to write this last book. So, this time I’m writing every day but not putting on any pressure and I’m just committing to 250 words - no matter what. That’s about a page a day and so I figure at the end of a year I’ll have at least 365 pages. I usually write more than 250 words, but even if that’s all I have some days, then at least I’ve kept my finger in the pot and the momentum going. So far it’s working. I’m on page 73 and I started Dec 29, 2017 so I’m about 35 pages ahead of where I thought I’d be.

Writing memoir at times can be painful, as we go to our most vulnerable places inside. How did you take care of yourself during the process?

I’m not very good at self-care, then again, I’m too good at it. I tend to be a workaholic, but I also go to a lot of spas and get a lot of massages. As far as taking care of me as a writer, I really focus on only showing my work to the people I trust and only when I feel it’s got enough heft that the input won’t turn it to dust. I am way too sensitive and take everything that people tell me about my work to heart. So instead of trying to teach myself to be tougher, I try to find ways to receive input that isn’t going to make me quit writing, but instead will make me a better writer. Sometimes though I wish I had one of those mothers that would just tell me everything I do is perfect. 
To me, writing a memoir is about uncovering the deeper underlying truth of our experience… how did you do that?
I agree with you completely. I think I did this by doing what I mentioned above—showing drafts to only people I trust. When I say I trust them I trust that they will tell me where to dig deeper, where they want to know more, where I am being superficial. I think I also asked a lot of questions about myself and why my memories would be so distorted. I assumed that the answers were inside of me. I kept to the truth by realizing there is never just one truth—that everyone’s point of view and reality is valid. But the story I was telling was my reality and my truth wrapped up inside all those others.

What kind of feedback did you seek out along the way? Are you a part of a writing group? Did you work with an editor?
I have a very close reader and we share work. We have read each other’s books probably over 10 times. We have seen them at every stage. I did pay another good friend who is a professional book reviewer to also look at a later draft. He gave me the keys to structure. Then, after I got my book deal through the University press, the peer reviewer gave me comments that pushed the theme to a whole new level and I felt took the story to a much deeper and honest place. So yes, I sought feedback along the way, but very carefully. I belonged to a writing group when I wrote my novel and they were incredibly helpful, and I also learned the key to having trustful readers along the way. It’s not good to have the blind leading the blind, but to have a fabulous guide and teacher and a group of intelligent readers and writers—that’s invaluable, whatever form it comes in.

I am curious about what “keys to structure” you received?

It was David Ulin and he gave me the idea to start with the grave digging as the opening scene and then use the metaphor of digging up the remains of my family’s history throughout the rest of the memoir. It seemed so obvious when he said it, but it also seemed somewhat awkward at first since it changed the order of how I had it structured. Originally I had started with the grave digging, but hadn’t considered the slipping of memory and the continuation of the conversation with my parents in the current day. At first I tried to break the grave story up and spread it out, but I soon realized it was more about the metaphor, about slanting the details, than about scattering the physical scene. Again, another lesson learned about what memoir is about. But this “slanting of details” is something I really learned to the bone when I worked with Sue Silverman in grad school and from her book FEARLESS CONFESSIONS. She discusses the slanting of details, of taking the moment in time, finding the metaphors in the details and using them to create momentum and continuity to go into deeper and deeper places. So I guess I really was given the keys from many teachers and friends

How did you get a publishing deal for the book?
That’s always a question that I think every writer can answer differently, but still the same. I was seeking agents in New York since that’s what got me my novel book deal years ago. But this book was so different I also thought it may need a different kind of publisher. My NYC experience with my novel had been more about selling the book and getting it out into the world rather than about the words on the page. I wanted this book, maybe because it was so personal, to be treated with kid gloves. So I also researched independent presses. A good friend and mentor referred me to the University of Nebraska American Lives series edited by Tobias Wolff, and they made me an offer. They sounded like exactly what I was looking for and the perfect home for Ghouls. I have found the experience to be everything and more of what I dreamed of.

What has the publishing process been like?

A university press is so much different than a New York City publishing house. First of all, they only publish a handful of books a year and publish a more narrowly focused story, like the American Lives series which is basically memoirs of a variety of Americans. They also publish novels that focus on the Flyover States.  Because of the smaller focus they can spend more time on every word and detail. Before any contract is signed, the editor sends the book out to be peer-reviewed. This is when I was given the keys to the bigger question I needed to bring to the overall story. I never got this kind of depth of discussion before. This required another round of revisions, and the possibility that my manuscript would be rejected. I guess I must have done the job right. The cover was designed by an award-winning book cover artist, the editor read the manuscript with a fine-tooth comb, and again even after the copyeditor had cleaned it up. All this attention was both nerve-wracking and fabulous to have such intricate attention paid to my work. I feel I learned more in this process than in any class.

How encouraging to hear that your publishing experience was so positive. Again, you mention that the peer review gave you the keys to the “bigger question” that took the theme to a whole new level. Can you share more details about that?

The first round of peer review was positive, but only recommended publication with the contingency that I needed to find a bigger overall question that threaded through the entire memoir. See above where I am considering the slanting of details. I understood what the reviewer meant and he suggested that my early question in the grave digging scene—“Are we hideous people?” which my mother keeps calling us—seems the best question. That statement hit the nail on the proverbial head for me. I immediately saw how the question, which is asked in the opening, could be asked about every scene and memory and about myself and my family throughout the whole book. It also helped me see how to edit out some scenes because they were not essential to this question. The big question helped make the memoir feel whole, feel complete. Before that, it was a conglomeration of memories. The editing was so easy with that one key question.

You say you learned more in the process than any class. Can you elaborate?

I LOVE classes and take more than the average person. I think I went back to grad school after having published my novel because I just love being in the class setting so much. The camaraderie, the friendships created, and the bonds from sharing bad drafts (being vulnerable) are essential to surviving the writing process. But as someone who works on book-length work, I have found that it’s hard to get big-picture input when a class or group is only looking at 10-30 pages at a time. I craved to have someone read the entirety to give me those keys I mentioned before: David Ulin seeing the opening scene as a metaphor for the whole story; Sue Silverman teaching me to look for the metaphors throughout, the one metaphor that repeats itself; and the peer reviewer, Lee Martin, to see the Big Question that was hidden in the grave scene and that really was the thread that pulled all the repeating metaphors together. Maybe I’m dense and should have seen all of this myself, but I think that it becomes difficult to see our own stories from a longer perspective when we are so close to them. I think classes are fantastic for providing deadlines, to give input on the prose style, the intrigue of the story and the development of individual scenes. They teach us how to write, and I am an honest believer in that as writers we never stop learning how to write.  I think Big-Picture readers are essential for the later drafts. My own frustration with the later drafts and big-picture input is why I started the 200-page workshop I do with David Ulin in my living room. I think the peer review process at the university press was ideally the best kind of reader—one who wants you to get published, wants to make your book the best it can be—not the kind that is just looking for what isn’t working, but instead looking for what will make it work.

Did you have to deal with any legalities, in terms of exposing other people? Did you have any personal concerns about telling this story?
I have not had to deal with any legalities, but I did worry about it when I was writing it. I considered using a pseudonym so that if any of the issues of what my parents did came to the attention of someone who wanted to try to cause a problem, I could avoid it. I did a TON of research on whether or not I was exposing anyone, namely my parents, to some kind of legal hassle or even jail time. I called attorneys, museums, archeologists, and of course googled every variation of negative thought I had. Everything I kept finding out was that my parents would have had to sell the artifacts they dug up in order to be arrested or even fined. But I still worry that there will be some kind of problem that will arise. My parents are in their late 80s and that would be a real drag if they were hauled off to prison. I asked my mom if she would have a problem if Homeland Security showed up at her door, and she said, “Good gosh no, I wish they’d come and haul all that stuff out of here.“

Now in hindsight… looking back at yourself at the beginning of the process, what advice would you have given Amy?
I’d tell myself to not resist whatever story wants to show up on the page, and to remember that just because I am writing a book all about myself that I’m not a narcissist, but a storyteller. And, that even though I’m writing a book all about myself, people will want to know my story if I tell it truthfully. And to be me on the page, even if 'me' is sometimes a little shit.


~ Meet Amy Wallen ~

Upcoming Readings + Signings:

February 24th, 7pm @ The Foundry (San Diego)

March 3, 5pm @ The Book Catapult w/ Jim Ruland (San Diego)

March 8th @ AWP Tampa Bookfair (Florida)

March 15, 7pm @ The Innovative w/ Samantha Dunn (Orange County)

April 26, 7pm @ Book Culture w/ Philip Lopate (NYC)

See full details



To learn more about Amy Wallen, visit: www.amywallen.com

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A Conversation with Kathy Katims

My dear friend, the lovely Kathy Katims, has launched a new storytelling series, Saved by a Story, which she hosts at her home in Pacific Palisades. With each evening, 100% of the proceeds go to a nonprofit whose mission empowers voices that often go unheard. She is currently accepting submissions for the February 24th show (the theme is GREEN) and tickets are now on sale via the website. Read more in our interview below about how storytelling inspires her and the kinds of stories she is looking for!

Kathleen Katims is a candidate for an MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. She writes fiction and creative non-fiction. Her work has been published in Verdad Magazine, The Penman Review, Switchback and Lunch Ticket. She is working on a book called Second Acts, interviewing, researching and writing about people who had interesting journeys out of being stuck and moved in the direction of their dreams.

She is founder of Saved by a Story, a storytelling salon with a purpose–to share stories, build community, and to do social good in the world. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her awesome husband, two kids and big brown dog.


Karin: What inspired you to create Saved by a Story?

Kathy Katims: There were a couple of reasons as to why I wanted to bring people together to tell stories, build community and help others (at SBAS salon, 100% of the proceeds from admissions go to an organization that is helping underserved communities to tell their story).

One reason I created SBAS was that I was trying to think of ways to build community among writers. I am a writer, and it can be lonely. I thought coming together to share stories and working on a project with other people would be a rich experience.

Secondly, I have been feeling a mix of helplessness and outrage since November 2016. I was hoping such a simple thing as to listen to each other’s stories and to donate would be one way to foster peace, empathy and empowerment.

Lastly, I love reading, writing and listening to stories. So I thought to invite an eclectic group of people to come together to share stories on a theme would be so much fun. To me, there is nothing better. 

I love the name, “Saved by a Story.” What does that mean to you? Have you been ‘saved by story’?

I had a writing class many years ago and the teacher used to bring in great quotes to inspire writing. I looked for the exact quote now to see who said it, but I can’t find it. I remembered it as, “Sometimes a great story can save your life.”

I loved that quote. As a writer, it bolstered my feeling that writing and telling stories was important. 

But as a person, that quote really resonated for me too. There have been so many times when hearing or reading someone’s story has grounded me, lit the way, infused me with hope and helped me along my path. 

An example that comes to mind is when my first child was diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder at two and a half. 

On the car ride back from the meeting with the developmental pediatrician, after I’d gotten the news, I also (probably no coincidence) got the flu. I went to bed on a Friday, but between the flu and the terrifying worries, I had a hard time getting out of bed that weekend. I worried would my son ever talk? Would he look me in the eyes? Would he go to school? Would I ever be able to connect with him? Would he fall in love? Get married? It felt like someone had blown a hole open in my chest.

I had a book on my nightstand from a friend titled, “Let Me Hear Your Voice,” by Catherine Maurice. In the night, at one of my darkest moments, I started to read. Maurice wrote about her journey learning that her son had autism, how she felt, what she did and how she found help for him.

Her story was a roadmap. It was a reflection of how I was feeling. It was insight into how my son might be feeling. It was hope and direction for me. 

Through her story I could see that with intervention, her son got more communicative and connected and was able to go to school and make friends and be out in the world. Through her story, I felt understood and comforted. I remember the book ends with the boy and his brother having a conversation about dinosaurs, something I didn’t know could be possible, that she hadn’t known would be possible at the beginning of the book. With intervention, this boy’s trajectory was an incredible upward spiral. It gave me the idea that my son’s story, our story, could be like that. 

That story literally got me out of bed, ignited me to get busy and infused me with hope and purpose. So maybe it didn’t save my life literally, but it patched me up, straightened me up and sent me back out int he world to embrace my life. 

How lovely that you’re opening up your home. Storytelling is such a personal, intimate sharing, and to have a space that supports that can only enhance the evening. Do you agree?

I do. It is special to be in a home. It’s different than a theater in that it creates more of a party atmosphere and encourages people to connect during the breaks. 

When the salon first started we had 50. Now we have a 150, so I have started to think about finding spaces outside of my home. I do plan to keep it intimate, but also want to factor in having more impact to raise money for non-profits. I am exploring spaces where we would still have a party atmosphere and are not as formal as a theater, but where we could maybe have 200 people gather. 

You are forwarding the proceeds to great causes. How did that idea come about? What kinds of organizations do you like to support?

I was inspired by a friend who has an art show in her home and often will take a percentage of what the show earns and donate it to a local nonprofit. She loves art and uses it to help others.

I love and believe in stories and writing, and thought I could use the art of storytelling to help others.

I also have been at so many fundraising events that are not fun. SBAS is a rich, soulful evening that also does good in the world. That felt like a winning combination.

I love to support organizations that are empowering the voices of people we don’t usually hear from. So far we have supported at-risk girls in Los Angeles to learn creative writing from professional women writers. We’ve supported a therapeutic preschool for kids with special needs who are struggling with delayed language and we’ve supported a non-profit that is helping incarcerated people to get their Bachelor’s degree. 

The GREEN event is supporting a wonderful non-profit, Film2Future, that is teaching the poorest high school kids in Los Angeles to express themselves by making films and helping them to gain access to jobs in the entertainment industry.

What kinds of stories are you interested in? Is the evening devoted to personal narrative or do you also include fiction, poetry, etc.?

The stories at SBAS are mostly personal narrative written for the evening’s theme, though I have included a poet and some music in each of the evenings. In all cases though, people are telling something true about their life. 

Many of the stories are up on the website www.savedbyastory.com if people want to hear samples. The stories when read are a maximum of ten minutes long (5 double space pages or less), but can be shorter.

I know that you currently have an open call for submissions for the February 24th show GREEN. What kinds of “takes” would excite you?

I try to pick themes that storytellers can come at from different perspectives. When I thought of GREEN, I thought those stories can include the idea of being new at something, getting the go ahead to do something, being jealous, or stories about conservation or gardens. I’d love to include an immigration story about a green card. I’d love also to be surprised by a perspective I hadn’t thought of. 

Are you looking for polished pieces, or do you work with the writers to help shape and craft the pieces?

Most people submit polished pieces though I have helped people shape stories that I loved but I felt needed another pass or two. I’ve done this especially when I wanted to make sure to include a person’s unique perspective in the evening. For example, a writer who was also an Afghanistan war veteran submitted a story for the ENOUGH salon. It was excellent and I really wanted to include that perspective, but his story just needed another pass to get closer to his experience and let us in a little more. He did two more passes on that story, and it turned out to be one of the most powerful stories in all of our evenings so far. 

Can you give people a sense of what the format of the evening is like?

There is a warming in period where you can get a drink and a bite for a half an hour. Then I welcome everybody. The nonprofit that we are supporting presents their organization for about 5-7 minutes.

There are eight stories on the theme with a 15-minute intermission. I ask writers to read their work out loud at home before they submit to make sure their story is 10 minutes or less. 

I also try to include some music in the evening. For GREEN we are lucky enough to have two wonderful musical acts performing.

How often will you be doing these evenings? Can you share any upcoming dates or themes?

This year we will be doing three to four events. The next event will be in late spring and the date will be announced at the salon and on the website.

The theme of the next event is ICE.

Given that you are also a writer, I’m wondering if we’ll get to hear some of your stories, too?

I got to tell a story at the FIRSTS salon and do hope to read another again soon. I was nervous, but it was exhilarating and I’d love to read again. It was also a rich experience to write to the theme.

The last salon I had 22 submissions and 8 spots so I only want to include my story if it works well with of all the other stories.

What do you hope people who attend Saved by a Story will come away with?

For people who are coming to listen, I hope they’ll enjoy the stories. I hope they laugh or are moved or empathize or connect to someone’s narrative. I hope they hear a story that broadens, delights and surprises them.

For readers/writers and storytellers, I hope that it is a rich, soulful experience to share their story. So many of the people who have told stories told me that they loved the experience.

I hope people will feel part of a community.

I hope too that these nonprofits that are doing such important work will be embraced by people at the salon and that their community is broadened as well. I hope people will support by donating, but also consider other ways they can bring their particular skills or resources to bear. 

Come to listen. Come to share. Come to help others. Just come.


To learn more, visit: www.savedbyastory.com

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Publishing a Memoir Under a Pseudonym

When it comes to writing our personal stories, the question of exposure inevitably comes up. How honest are we willing to be on the page? How will others react to our stories?

This month I had the delightful opportunity to speak with MEG McGUIRE about her struggle with these very questions. Her memoir Blinded By Hope, recently published by She Writes Press, is a story about her journey as a mother through her son's bipolar illness. In addition to being a psychotherapist, Meg is an accomplished writer and teacher of memoir with five books already under her belt; she is someone whose work I admire very much. Given the deeply personal nature of this book, she chose to publish under a pseudonym (Meg McGuire). It was not an easy choice, but this was an important story for her to share; equally important was her commitment to honor and protect her son in the telling of it. 

Read our conversation below to learn more about Meg's process in making this big decision.


Karin: I remember talking with you about this book seven years ago, during the writing process. At the time you were not sure how the process would unfold given the deeply personal nature of your story for you and your family. Did you always intend on publishing it?

Meg McGuire: I think I always wanted to publish it, because I have already published five books and consider myself a writer. I felt like the material was really important, primarily because I could see how difficult it was for our family to get effective treatment for my son. He's bipolar and at that time had an active addiction. In terms of the mental health field, they either treated the mental illness or the addiction. There weren't any programs at that time treating dual diagnosis. So my experience was of enormous frustration trying to get him treatment. At the same time emotionally it was such a rollercoaster for me, dealing with the fallout from his illnesses. Writing was keeping me sane. It was enormously healing for me.

Three years ago I got an agent, Linda Langton, in New York. Linda was one of the agents on a panel at the International Women's Writing Guild in the summer institute. I pitched my book to her, and she was very excited about it because she had had a partner who was bipolar and understood the issues. What she had me do before we sent it out was create a blog. She felt like I needed to have a platform in the mental health and addiction community.

I worked pretty hard on that blog, so that when she did send the book out - and she sent it out to over 30 publishers - part of her query letter included talking about my platform and my other books. Nobody was interested in it. Part of it was that it was written by the mother. Several editors wrote back and said, “Why isn't her son writing the book,” which tremendously pissed me off, because I felt like it was my story, or certainly the family's story, and that was the viewpoint that I took.

I did ask my son if he would be interested in co-writing it with me and he said no. He also was not in any shape to be able to contribute to it. I didn't realize that then, because at that time I hadn't realized the extent of his addiction. He read the first 80 pages and did not like it at all. But he did make some corrections that were actually very helpful, because oftentimes I was looking at him through the lens of a psychotherapist and misunderstanding his behavior.

But he wasn't willing to provide feedback on the entire manuscript? 

No, he wasn't. He ended up in prison, six years ago now. I write about that in the prologue of the book. He was inside for almost four years. I sent him 40 pages of the book, and he said it was just too depressing for him to read. I imagine it was humiliating, particularly in the environment in which he was reading it.

What about the consequences for your son, say, in terms of employment? Was that a consideration?

That's a really good point. Thank you for bringing that up, because the lawyers who vetted the manuscript told me not to publish it until he was out of prison because they felt that would jeopardize his job prospects. That was when I was going to use my own name. The truth is, it doesn't matter what my name is. Anybody who comes out of prison has a horrible time getting a job, because on every application you do have to answer the question, “Have you ever committed a felony?” It has just been hell for him trying to get work. 

When did the idea of publishing under a pseudonym first arise?

Three years ago, around the time he got out of prison, I was going to pursue publishing even though it had been rejected by 31 established publishers. I had heard about She Writes Press, which is a partnership press, and I spoke with Brooke Warner who started it. She had been at Seal Press when I published an earlier book with them. She hadn't been my editor but she knew my name. I asked her if she would be willing to look at the manuscript, and she thought it was an important book. So I signed on with them. So when I made that decision, I talked to my son again and said, “Would you be willing to look at it now?” and he said, “No, I really I don't want to revisit that time in my life.” Since he hadn't read it, he didn't realize that I had used his sentencing hearing as a prologue; when he did discover that he was unhappy. So that's when we started to discuss my using a pseudonym.

Fast forward to last August, a year ago, the publicity arm of She Writes put the book out with my name on Facebook. I didn't know this was going to happen. I happened to be teaching on the East Coast, and the way I found out was, I got a very angry e-mail from my ex-husband who said basically, "How could you do this to our son? He's getting back on his feet. This can do nothing but hurt him." And then I got a second e-mail from him citing case law for invasion of privacy. So at that point I called up Brooke and said, “I need to pull the book, because I'm not sure how to proceed. I'm not sure whether I'm going to use a pseudonym or just pull the book completely.”

I met with my son and said, “We have three options here. One is, I pull the book completely. Two is, I publish it under a pseudonym, and three, we write an epilogue together.” And he said, “I'm not interested in writing an epilogue. I'm okay with the pseudonym.” So I said, “Okay, I'll pull the book now and then I'll make the decision.”

So last August I pulled the book, which was not a happy occurrence for She Writes, because they had already sent out all of the books for review. They had to recall 50 books. They were very kind to me. I have to say my experience with She Writes Press has been a pleasure. Both Brooke and Crystal Patriarche, who is the head of their publicity arm--which is called SparkPoint--said, “We understand this is a difficult decision. You always knew that this was going to be a difficult book. If you decide to come back and want to do it under a pseudonym, let us know, because we'd like to bring the book out.”

After I pulled the manuscript, I sent it to a friend who is a novel writer, and I asked her to look at it and see how I could tweak it to become a novel. She read it and said, “It's a memoir. You're either going to have to do it under a pseudonym or let it go.”

So I sat on it for a couple of months and re-contacted She Writes and said, “What will it take to publish it under the pseudonym?” And they said, “We already have it in in galley form, we just have to change your name.” We had to negotiate a whole new publicity package, so it took another six months for them to bring it out this June. It really was a hard decision because I can't use my author's platform. I have continued to write the blog, but I obviously can't put the book on the blog. In terms of publicity, they did a really nice job of getting it reviewed. Originally they said, “Oh we've got somebody from Santa Barbara News Press who wants to come out and interview you and bring a photographer along.” And I said, “I can't do that. What do you not understand about a pseudonym?”

What are your personal ethics when it comes to writing memoir? Obviously there's a legal dimension as well. 

My first question is always, “Whose story is this?” I felt like this was my story, the mother's story that doesn't get told. There are memoirs written by fathers about their child's addiction or mental illness but not by mothers. And the mother, for the most part, is the family member who has to deal with getting treatment for her child. People who are writing memoirs to embarrass family members are always wrong. But I always come back to, “Whose story is it?” If it's your story to tell, then you do have to be careful about other people's reputations. There are things that we can do. We used to just be able to change names and identifying characteristics, but that's really not enough anymore. If you can identify the person, the rule is absolute, meaning they could bring a suit against you. You do have greater latitude in writing about a public figure.

In terms of personal ethics, have you presented a responsible discussion of the other person's point of view? That gets left out a lot in memoir, and that's really something that we should all think about. If you are writing about living persons, what is your motivation? That question always has to be explored. That's why a lot of people will write their memoir and then decide at the end, “Well, I don't really want to publish this. Maybe my motivation wasn't as pure as I thought it was, maybe I really was trying to get back at someone.”

I have been asked this a lot in terms of my son, “Didn't you think this was going to hurt him?” The truth is, I didn't. Maybe that was near-sighted on my part. It could have been that I was so tied up with “What's the mother's story?” The other thing is, in writing that book I was trying to find an answer to how to treat his illness. So part of my motivation was, “Certainly I'll be able to figure this out.” Well I wasn't.

So would I do it again?

The writing of the book was tremendously healing for me, mainly because I had to come to terms with my own magical thinking, my own denial, of my own fantasy that, “Oh this time it will be different, oh this time it will be better, oh this can't possibly happen again.” I had to come to terms with that, and I think I do a fairly good job of talking about that in the book. My hope was that it would be helpful to other families, particularly to give them a language. Since there is so much stigma around mental illness and addiction, a lot of families don't talk about it and they just suffer in silence. What I have heard back from families who have walked this path is, “Oh thank God I'm not alone,” and, “Thank you for giving me language to what my whole family is experiencing.” So I feel good about that.

Once you made the decision to use a pseudonym, did it bring you closer to you son?

When I pulled the book, that certainly brought us closer. He was relieved. When I told them it was going to come out under a pseudonym, he said, “That's fine.” Whether it was really fine, I don't know. I feel like I did the most I could do and the best I could do to protect my son. That was my only concern. He has chosen not to read the book. My daughter read the book and was unhappy with me.

Why was she upset with you?

She felt like it would hurt his feelings. She's rather protective of him. 

What makes it so disturbing?

I think it's embarrassment; I mean, this is our family. There's a certain element of shame. She says she is a person who likes to be happy and she likes everybody else to be happy and she doesn't like confrontation. I would say she's the “light” part of the family; my son and I are the “dark” part of the family. So she didn't want her friends to know. It's kind of ridiculous, because all of our friends know what we've been through. But she is very private. So I tried very hard to leave her out of most of the book, and from the beginning she said, “I don't I don't want to be in your book.” So I only mentioned her twice. I was very careful about that.

Do you have any regrets? Or does the overriding call to get the story out in the world transcend any second thoughts?

It's something that I struggle with all the time. I really felt an overriding call to write this book in a way that I have not felt in writing my other books. A couple of people said to me, “Oh my God, after 31 rejections and then having to pull the book, why are you continuing to do this?” I just felt like it was important; I felt like it was an important piece for families who deal with dual diagnosis. I was reading the paper the other day; fifty percent of deaths right now are from addiction. Drug overdoses killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States last year. It's a worse epidemic than existed during the AIDS epidemic. Luckily my son is still alive. But, just think of all those thousands of families that are having to deal with some of these issues. So that's why I wrote the book. In terms of my daughter's anger, I knew that we'd get through it. She was able to express to me that she was unhappy with it. She also said to me, “I don't want my daughters reading it,” which surprises me, because her daughters went through quite a bit of my son's episodes.

What was the most challenging part for you in the actual writing of the book? 

The most difficult part was looking at myself, my investment, and how my rescue attempts were ultimately a failure. Also, coming to terms with the fact that I needed him to be well so that I could be well, and I really didn't get that until I wrote it.

That's a big revelation.

Yeah, really looking at myself and how addicted I was to his recovery. Also coming from an Irish Catholic addicted family, I didn't want him to repeat the same mistakes as my family. I denied the severity of the addiction for too long.

Did you have that revelation during the writing process?

Definitely. I had to experience that shift to be able to put it in the last chapter.

To be a writer is pretty remarkable.

Yeah, I think writing a memoir is. I've been a therapist for 32 years. I think writing a memoir is much harder than doing therapy. I don't mean doing therapy as a therapist; I mean being in therapy. I just think it's an extraordinary process, and it's a great gift to us.


To purchase the book, click here.

Read more about publishing under a pseudonym in these blog posts by Meg McGuire:

Unfortunate consequences: writing memoir about family members

Choosing to use a pseudonym for my memoir