When it happened, I assumed it was my fault. My latest book (The Drive: Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway) didn’t start out as a memoir. My non-fiction book proposal was a political comparison of every Latin American country I drove through in 1973 to what I observed thirty years later. Same route, by 2003, would there be progress?
I had a journalism masters’ from the University of Missouri-Columbia, a PBS documentary under my belt, almost a decade of reporting experience and a year’s worth of research invested before I even hit the road. My pitch flopped: I got no takers as straight-up literary journalism. The only interest came from memoir. At the time, the now-a-major-motion-picture “Glass Castle” was a huge memoir and I chalked it up to the publishing world’s irritating, just-like-the-last-bestseller attitude. One editor asked me to re-write The Drive from the perspective of 7-year-old me; others wanted me to focus on my relationship with Gary and still another wanted it to be about my parents’ nightmarish journey through grief.
Fast forward 11 long years and I found the right agent and editor and it’s water under the bridge. But should it be? I’m speaking at the Decatur Book Festival Saturday, September 2nd and I’ve just had a long phone conversation with my co-panelist, an exciting travel memoirist named Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Who is probably cringing while reading my description of her because she’s finally published a straight up literary journalism/political wake-up call piece of non-fiction called “All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands.” Hardly “just” memoir.
We haven’t met in person, but on the phone discovered more than a love of Spanish, travel and writing in common. She was “nudged” into memoir too and thinks it’s a little too much of a coincidence, given her professional background and expertise. We’re not the first to wonder why it is that women, particularly women of color, are considered more “marketable” in this genre.
Don’t get me wrong. It might be feminine and conflict-averse of me, but I don’t want any memoir-lovers out there to think I’m trash-talking my own genre. At its Beryl Markham, Sylvia Bedford best, memoir is transporting and transformative. So I’m not really sure it’s a slight to labeled “memoirist.” The itchy part is the less-than-transparent nudging and gender-based assumptions that accompany women writers along the road to publication.