Memoir

The Other Mother’s First Birthday!

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The Other Mother: a rememoir is one year old today! November 5th was the national release date and the start of a fabulous dance with readers. If I had to make a David Letterman-style “Top 10 list” of the first year of a book’s life it would look something like this:

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#10 The thrill of seeing my baby in the window of my hometown bookstore

#9  The pinch-myself moment when I saw it in the main Columbia library during the SC Book Fair – where I got to be on a memoir panel.

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SC Bookfest
SC Bookfest

#8  Book signings galore — it turns out men love to buy the book for their wives, and women for their sisters, aunts and other mothers.

#7  A sold-out crowd at Litchfield Books’ Moveable Feast luncheon – where one woman told me she bought the book as a gift for her daughter, hoping she’d “get herself an other mother right quick!”

#6  A blog tour that introduced Byrne to dancers and readers around the country and got rave reviews you can check out on the “reviews” tab of my website.

# 5 An “Other Mother’s Day” PR campaign that introduced the book to newspaper readers in North Dakota, Utah, Ohio and Pennsylvania; morning talk radio listeners in New York and Providence and public radio fans in Berkeley, California.

#4 Hearing all the stories of how other mothers transform us at the fabulously elegant Other Mother Soiree’s hosted for the book in Beaufort, Charleston and Washington DC

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#3 Signing 18 copies of the book for Pat Conroy to give as gifts to all the daughters and mothers in his life!

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#2 Winning the Independent Book Publishers Association’s 2014 Benjamin Franklin Award for Best New Autobiography/Memoir in New York

The Mockingbirds: Lolita, Louise, Margaret, Bonnie and Maura

 TOMyurt

#1 My favorite part — talking to bookclubs (including one in a yurt!) and hearing perspectives that always surprise and delight me!

 

Other Mothers in Memoir

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I read every book about mothers I could when I started writing The Other Mother. Most weren’t comforting. It seemed like only the most egregious, unforgiveable mothering behavior made it into memoir. And then I found an Other Mother character who resonated with my idea of Other Mothers.

honeymoonbookcover

She came in the form of LaRue, the ninety-nine-year-old step grandmother in Franz Wisner’s “Honeymoon with My Brother.” Even though this memoir starts with a jilted groom story, it ends up being a travelogue of the heart. What grounds Franz is his relationship with LaRue. This is how he tells her of the honeymoon with his brother:

“We’re going to quit our jobs, sell our houses, and travel around the world for a year.”

“Wonderful!” she said without pause.

“You know, you’re more than welcome to join us for a stop of two,” I said.

“Well I just might,” she said. “I love travel. It’s one of the few things in life you never regret.”

He writes to her along the way.

“Dear LaRue – I won’t tell you much about our accomodations (felt more like a Ralph Lauren showroom than a middle-of-nowhere safari) because I want you to be under the impression that we roughted it. Don’t want to completely ruin our backpacker image. Love, Franz.”

I knew had finally read the memoir I was looking for. When I asked Franz Wisner for a blurb for “The Other Mother,” he cheerfully wrote back from travels in Spain. “Of course,” he said. “I love the book. Byrne brings back a little of LaRue for me.”

Mothers in Memoir, still Mommy Dearest?

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When I started writing the memoir of my relationship with Byrne Miller – “The Other Mother: a rememoir” – I collected recommendations. I devoured any memoir recommended by a trusted friend, even some from dubious readers. My goal was to be different from all of those memoirs, while at the same time learning all I could about the genre.

What struck me was the fate of mothers in those memoirs. I wasn’t a fan of the genre and expected to be inundated with Mommy Dearest airing of dirty laundry. I was curious about mothers in memoir mostly because I was trying to decide how much of my mother’s story to include in my other mothers’.

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One of my favorite research reads was Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club.” The title actually refers to her father – the champion liar. “His stories got told and retold before an audience of drinking men he played dominoes with on days off… Certainly not much of the truth in any technical sense got told there,” she writes.

But it was her mother’s story that stuck with me. “All Mother’s marriages, once I uncovered them in my twenties, got presented to me as accidents.” She was a flawed but fascinating character and I moved on to another memoir searching for mothers.

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In Alexandra Fuller’s memoir of a white African childhood, “Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight,” I met a mother I recognized. One who loses not just one child, like my own mother did, but two. A mother who can’t fight the grief head on and a daughter who found a way to write about it. “I watch Mum carefully. She hardly bothers to blink. It’s as if she’s a fish in the dry season, in the dried-up bottom of a cracking riverbed, waiting for rain to come and bring her to life.”

the glass castle

In Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” I found a mother whose crazy had crossed over into her daughter’s seemingly perfect life. The first line crystallizes a feeling that every embarrassed daughter will recognize– but a hundred times worse. “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”

So far my search for the best way to write about mothers wasn’t comforting. It seemed like only the most egregious, unforgiveable mothering behavior made it into memoir. And then I found an Other Mother.

honeymoonbookcover

She came in the form of LaRue, the ninety-nine-year-old step grandmother in Franz Wisner’s “Honeymoon with My Brother.” Even though this memoir starts with a jilted groom story, it ends up being a travelogue of the heart. What grounds Franz is his relationship with LaRue.  This is how he tells her of the honeymoon with his brother:

“We’re going to quit our jobs, sell our houses, and travel around the world for a year.”

“Wonderful!” she said without pause.

“You know, you’re more than welcome to join us for a stop of two,” I said.

“Well I just might,” she said. “I love travel. It’s one of the few things in life you never regret.”

 brothers

He writes to her along the way.

“Dear LaRue – I won’t tell you much about our accomodations (felt more like a Ralph Lauren showroom than a middle-of-nowhere safari) because I want you to be under the impression that we roughted it. Don’t want to completely ruin our backpacker image. Love, Franz.”

I knew had finally read the memoir I was looking for. When I asked Franz Wisner for a blurb for “The Other Mother,” he cheerfully wrote back from travels in Spain.
“Of course,” he said. “I love the book. Byrne brings back a little of LaRue for me.”

franzblurb

 

 

 

Why “rememoir,” not just memoir?

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One day I hope you’ll look up “rememoir” in Wikipedia and see the word credited to me, and “The Other Mother.” Right now each time I type it, Word underlines it red as a misspelling, like a red flag of warning. Something’s different here! Pay attention!

It would have been simpler just to call “The Other Mother” a memoir. But I invented the word rememoir because it’s the truth as I remember it. I am the only one who could tell this story – it’s about a relationship that defined me. The thoughts, dialog and emotions I write about come from my own recollection, from the stories Byrne shared with me, the womenisms she told her other collected daughters, quotes she gave to reporters (including me), letters she invited me to read and events she documented in her personal journal. I sifted through these memories and arranged them in a way that represents the truth to me.

Me (and Wipeout) helping Byrne sift through her own memories -- this was the visit where she met the man taking this picture, my husband Gary
Me (and Wipeout) helping Byrne sift through her own memories — this was the visit where she met the man taking this picture, my husband Gary

There will always be a place for the pure biography. At its best, it is research elevated to an art form. But in this age of instant access to worldwide “facts,” readers want something more than readily knowable facts when they buy a book.

I’m not frightened by this, as a writer I find it freeing. Truman Capote gave us the nonfiction novel, with every cold blooded detail recorded and reconstructed by his photographic memory. Not everyone can do that. So luckily there’s a whole genre out there of creative non-fiction, and now there is novelization, the art of imagining the story and thoughts behind a person already in the public eye, like “The Girl With The Pearl Earring” but no longer an anonymous character.

Rememoir, a remembered memoir, is even more personal – it finds the story in a personal truth, told by the imperfect human being who experienced it.

Time Travel with Beaufort Rotarians and Byrne Miller

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Photo courtesy Wayne Heath
Photo courtesy Wayne Heath


I just had the privilege of speaking about my new memoir to the oldest group of Rotarians in Beaufort SC. I say oldest not because of the age of its members, but because it was chartered in 1934.  And some things really do get better with age.

I used to love covering the Beaufort Rotary Club luncheons when I was a young reporter at WJWJ-TV.  The ‘90s were the beginning of a pesky objectivity phase in journalism when it became unprofessional to accept donations of any kind from an organization you were filming. But I made all of $16,000 a year back then and the Rotarians always insisted on feeding me lunch before I set up my Beta camera.

We reporters actually argued over who would get to cover luncheon addresses whenever the speakers were remotely newsworthy. If the Sheriff was speaking, we could always corner him afterword and get a soundbite about some ongoing investigation. If it was a county councilman at the podium, there was always some legislation he was pushing that became a news story that day.

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The problem was the visual. Back when I was covering the Beaufort Rotary Club, it met in a hotel banquet room that would have taken more lights than WJWJ owned to not look as though I was shooting in a cave. So I’d grab my muddy-looking interviews and hope that back at the station I could find some file footage to cover up the voice-over. The infamous WJWJ archives even made their way into my book “The Other Mother: a rememoir.”

Recycled, three-quarter inch tapes lined the entire back wall of the WJWJ newsroom in a floor-to-ceiling shelving system that housed the television station’s file footage. It fell to an assortment of unpaid, questionably motivated interns each year to alphabetize the index card database. Even after six years of working at the station I couldn’t intuit the way the mind of a Beaufort High School senior worked. Footage of accidents might be listed under “Ax” instead of “Acc.” Coverage of airshows for the Beaufort Marine Corps Airstation could be filed under “P” for planes, “F” for fightertown or “J” for jarheads. — from “The Other Mother: a rememoir” Joggling Board Press 2013

Fast forward twenty years and I was the one behind the microphone, speaking to the Beaufort Rotary Club, and no reporter was in sight. Like the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre, the local media in Beaufort has all but disappeared. But what hasn’t changed is the small-town spirit of Beaufort, South Carolina and the Rotary Club is one of those foundations of community.

Rotarians were regulars at the Golden Eagle Tavern
Rotarians were regulars at the Golden Eagle Tavern

Ever since 1934, members have met for lunch each Wednesday. The only thing that’s changed is the venue. The Golden Eagle Tavern on the Beaufort River was torn down in 1971 and the club has outgrown the dingy hotel banquet room that made for such dark and grainy television footage in the ‘90s. Now the oldest group of Rotarians in Beaufort pledge allegiance and sing “God Bless America” in an enormous hall at the Catholic church on Lady’s Island.

Members have to put a dollar in a plastic bucket to earn the right to brag on another member or plug a personal cause. A financial officer dutifully reports the total expenses for the group last year: a $50 filing fee with the Secretary of State’s office. Each year they hold crab races to raise money for causes like swimming lessons at the Y and scholarships to the Technical College. The club’s biggest fundraiser requires every last member to sell 100 pounds of Vidalia onions each year. It’s small-town America at its finest – hip enough to have a female president named Harriet Hilton and retro enough to sport members with names like Fly Flanagan and Guy McSweeney.

I don’t know if Byrne Miller was ever invited to speak at a Rotary Club luncheon but several of her collected children were in the audience for my talk. Many of them graduated from the old Beaufort Elementary, where Byrne first demanded to teach movement therapy in the 1970s.

The old Beaufort Elementary - where Byrne first taught and many Beaufort Rotarians went to school
The old Beaufort Elementary – where Byrne first taught and many Beaufort Rotarians went to school

You’d think after spending five years writing a book about Byrne and Duncan Miller I’d have heard all the stories. But after my presentation, a physician in the audience elaborated on Byrne’s incredible toughness (she survived five spinal surgeries and still taught modern dance into her eighties). “We’ve done medical studies on dancers,” he said. “And it turns out they can take three times as much physical pain than ordinary people.”

Duncan in Connecticut

byrne's toastA former neighbor of Byrne’s told a story of how Duncan used to complain about a barking dog who lived two doors down. I knew only the utterly romantic and melancholy Duncan – a writer who adored his charismatic, modern dancer wife. But it turns out before he lost his speech and memory to Alzheimer’s, Byrne’s muse could also be that quintessential cranky old man yelling “get off my lawn.”

It’s a good thing he was married to a woman with a self-described “whim of iron.” Rotarians who were members of Byrne’s board of directors remembered how prickly Byrne got too — when anyone suggested she book more classical, ballet companies for the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre.

“Ballet they can see anywhere,” Byrne would say of her audience. “I will make them the elite; connoisseurs of modern dance in the Deep South.”

I had to chuckle. The genteel, very Southern members of the Rotary Club of Beaufort ended their meeting by reciting what they call the Four Way Test: questions all Rotarians are supposed to ask themselves before they speak or act.

1. Is it the TRUTH?

2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?

3. Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?

4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

So would Byrne have made a good Rotarian? She always spoke the truth, even when it wasn’t fair to all concerned. She was more concerned with building sophisticated audiences than goodwill, but would do anything for a friend. And I can’t speak for all concerned, but having Byrne Miller as an other mother was certainly beneficial for me.

Photo courtesy Wayne Heath
Photo courtesy Wayne Heath

Book Club in a Yurt

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As a brand new published author, I still pinch myself when I’m invited to book club meetings where the members are discussing the book I wrote. Each time it’s a thrill but the setting for such rewarding encounters will never be more exotic than this yurt.

The Peggy Verity Book Club reading "The Other Mother"
The Peggy Verity Book Club reading “The Other Mother”

That’s right: a yurt.  As in, wall-to-wall luxurious Persian rugs and velvety soft pillows. My camera lens wasn’t wide enough to capture all the women who fit inside but they included the leaders of practically every important committee, museum and social organization in Beaufort, South Carolina. This particular yurt is hidden inside the home of a member of the Peggy Verity book club. If I had to invent a backdrop where the spirit of Byrne Miller would infuse a discussion about her storied life, this would be it. Just stepping inside the yurt reminded me of the night when Byrne taught belly dancing at a bridal shower for one of her collected daughters.

So it wasn’t surprising that, sheltered in such dramatic romance, a dozen denizens of Beaufort society freely discussed everything from open marriages to what, officially, counts as crazy. Some of these worldly women studied modern dance in college, back in the 60s, and nothing about Byrne was as shocking to them as their distinguished public personas might lead you to presume.

I was brought to the yurt by a woman I’d only recently met at an Other Mother Soiree. But when it was Katherine Lang’s turn to pick a book for her regular monthly book club she chose the story of how a complete stranger showed me the person I was supposed to be. The book club in a yurt brought it full circle: me sharing a deeply personal, even intimate story with a group of women who until that moment had been strangers.  Many of them had known of the fierce, strong-willed woman who planted the seed of modern dance in the Deep South through the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. But even those who had been season-ticket holders hadn’t known the full story of the woman behind the brave front: the Byrne Miller who did it all while caring for two family members battling schizophrenia.

I think that’s why the book speaks to so many different types of readers. We all fight internal battles invisible to the outside world and it’s a tightrope act to know when to inquire or intervene. Even though I’ve now made my story public, it was still easier for the women in the yurt to ask me about Byrne’s secret battles than my own.

The Mockingbirds: Lolita, Louise, Margaret, Bonnie and Maura
The Mockingbirds: Lolita, Louise, Margaret, Bonnie and Maura

An equal and opposite experience came four days later when my own book club – The Mockingbirds  – devoted its monthly meeting to “The Other Mother.” We are a much smaller harem, only a half-dozen women, and I’ve known some of them for ages. The scholarly reader perched above my right shoulder, Lolita Huckabee, even appeared in an earlier draft of the book.  (The story didn’t make it through the final revisions, but Lolita and I, long before we met the men we love today, started a man-hater’s club in Beaufort. Judge Ned Tupper was an honorary member.)

So it came as a surprise that Lolita was worried, when the book first came out, that I had shared so much of my personal history with domestic abuse. She’s a book guru and knows that the criteria for publishable memoir is go deep or go home. But Lolita is an other mother to every reporter who has ever passed through Beaufort and feels particularly protective of me – the reporter who came back to make this place home. That friends like Lolita care so much is one reason I did.

Most of the Mockingbirds arrived in Beaufort after Byrne’s time, so they were more interested in my story than hers. Their questions were clearly attempts to reconcile the friend they know in real life and the young woman who narrates the book. I’ve tried to prepare friends for reading “The Other Mother.” I’m not a particularly private person and I like to think I’m a good listener. But even if they’ve heard some of the same stories over glasses of wine on my back porch, it’s startling and disconcerting to read them on the printed page. I tell them to pretend it’s not me, that it’s a story about some other woman who just happens to have the same name.

Yes, that's actually me
Yes, that’s actually me
And that's me too -- with members of the Owls book club
And that’s me too — with members of the Owls book club

The beautiful thing is that they can. Not because my hair was dyed blonde back then but because the TV reporter in the story is both me and not me. Identity never stands still, and women are necessary experts in reinvention. If we weren’t, we’d never be wives, or mothers or other mothers.  The toughest part of my story is communal and shared, known in the way women have always known the truth.  I can’t keep count of the number of women who linger at book signings, a little squeeze of the hand telling me that they too, have been there.

If I could reinvent myself one more time, my new career would be human cheat sheet. I would gladly travel to any yurt in the world to meet with book clubs reading “The Other Mother.” I may have written the discussion guide questions but I’m still discovering the answers.

Why Blog Tours Rock

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I’m on tour with “The Other Mother: a rememoir” – right now, from the comfort of 75-degree Beaufort, South Carolina, where I watched dolphins gliding through the creek this morning. Yes, tour – only this book tour isn’t the usual sit-near-the-bookstore-door-and-politely-tell-tourists-where-the-bathroom-is kind of tour. It’s a virtual tour, with each stop over a ten-day period “hosted” by a blogger I’ve come to know and admire. Or, in the case of a fellow writer Ann-Marie Adams – a Q&A everyday of the tour!

What? Doesn't it look like we're working?
What? Doesn’t it look like we’re working?

The beauty of blog tours is their flexibility – and not just because I can jump into online conversations in my slippers. What’s been so fun about this one is reaching out to a wide variety of bloggers to see if they’ll read the book and share their thoughts and questions with new audiences. Some are planning on posting reviews and others on challenging their readers to pose questions of their own. It is as creative as the bloggers themselves – and if this collection of writers is any indication – you might want to subscribe to their blogs now and follow them for years to come.

So here are the official blogs stops on “The Other Mother: a rememoir” tour:

annmarie Beaufort and Philadelphia readers might already know Ann-Marie Adams. She’s a study in reinvention herself – which is why I knew she’d love Byrne’s “womenism” that “there is no contract on earth, especially between a man and a woman, that cannot be rewritten.” Like Byrne, she’s taken her gift with words and illustration and segued it into a career ranging from a lobbyist for Cornell University to the Hilton Head Island Hospitality Association. Her blog “SC Mornings” kicked off the tour and every day she’s pulling quotes from the book, turning them into a provocative question and blogging my answers as well as comments shared by her readers near and far.

The only other semi-local blog stops on the tour are two of my favorites – and they couldn’t be more different.

steph writesStephanie Hunt writes even more than I do – from Charleston Magazine (I’m still pinching myself over her November issue review) to SKIRT to her own, fascinating blog called Charleston Grit. We discovered we have a mutual friend through Byrne – one of Stephanie’s closest friends is a modern dancer who used to make the trek to Beaufort for Byrne Miller Dance Theatre master classes. The cool thing is, Stephanie’s blog tour stop will include the review she wrote for the magazine – available for the first time only on-line!

hotlouiseLouise Hodges is a chameleon – a very sassy chameleon. She turned a small-business incubator grant into the way-environmentally-cool Green Bug All Natural line of pesticide free bug sprays, right here on Lady’s Island. In her business blog she writes about everything from how to get rid of bed bugs to why Monsanto is the scourge of the earth. The connection to Byrne might not be obvious, but Byrne Miller’s first professional writing gig was writing for a magazine in the 1930s called Nature’s Path. But Byrne would have loved her for another reason. She can sing and hustle a tambourine with the best of them – which is handy since her husband is in a band.

The point of a blog tour is reach – so I’m also excited that several far-from-Beaufort bloggers have agreed to host a stop. Not all of these will be posting between December 1 through 10 – but start following them now so you won’t miss it when they go live with “The Other Mother” tour.

heatherdanceDance fans will be twirling in their imaginary tutu’s because Heather DeSaulniers has signed on. She’s a former professional ballet dancer, now dance critic and host of her own dancer’s blog which got tapped as one of the top ten dance blogs in the country. I love her blog because, unlike dance critics in New York, she isn’t about impressing you with snarky reviews. While Byrne herself was a tough dance critic (she wrote for Jacob’s Pillow and reviewed Spoleto dance performances in The Beaufort Gazette) she would have seconded every Heather motion.

Then there’s possibly the coolest indie bookstore west of the Mississippi – Santa Fe’s Collected Works. Byrne Miller Dance Theatre began in Santa Fe, in her home studio on Canyon Road, and while I was out there doing research for the book I stumbled onto Collected Works. It’s the kind of bookstore that builds community, that author’s dream of reading at.

cwbooksOnly it’s too far away for an actual tour stop so I was thrilled when reviewer Christopher Johnson said he’d read “The Other Mother” and ask questions via the official bookstore blog. I can’t wait to get his questions (no pressure Christopher, I know you’re swamped) because he never falls back on the usual, pat Q&A. Check out this question he posed of poet Shaun T. Griffin “What is the difference in your mindset when you are working on a poem or a translation or a book of scholarship? Do these works all come from the same place inside of you or are they separate places?” My writer friends — commence drooling.

labelsimageI knew I wanted Melanie Page to be on the tour when I read her “about” quote at Grab The Lapels. She went straight for Maya Angelou’s “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch and you’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Any blogger who writes about women writers and books about women is kick ass. Plus that quote reminds me of one of my favorite Byrne “womenisms:” – “A whim of iron simply rejects rejection.”

The final two stops on the blog tour might not be what you’d expect. They’re in the category known as mommy-bloggers and why not? The title of the book is “The Other Mother” and I’m curious to know what these modern-day moms think of Byrne’s unconventional parenting techniques (her daughters lived in a treehouse, for a spell) and the concept of other-mothering.

powermomI’ve always believed that needing and cherishing the love of other mothers, as I did, in no way competes with biological parents. While it’s cliché now to say it takes a village – there’s a reason cultures over the world and through the ages have embraced the concept.

Now we’ll get a chance to see what hip young mom and pro-blogger Andrea thinks – I learned of her Northern Virginia Housewives blog through the friend who hosted my Other Mother Soiree last week in Washington DC. And no – she’s not in any way connected to the hot mess of the other “real housewives” of NOVA. She’s just getting the book now, so it’ll be a while before she can join in but I can’t wait.

amythemomAnd last but not least is Motherhood and Miscellany. Amy had me at Oshkosh, Wisconsin – which is where she blogs from. Followers of my blog know that the family that “adopted” me when I married Gary is all from Wisconsin. So when Amy said yes, I poured a glass of Leinenkugel and sent a book off to the wilds of northern Wisconsin. I especially loved her “The Mother Comparison Game” post. It reminds me of why Othermothering can be so rewarding. I admire any woman who becomes a parent in this era of labeling – if you’re ambitious you’re a “Tiger Mom” and if you’re too involved you’re a “Helicopter Mom.” I’m hoping Amy’s blog will help “Byrne” the tables and encourage women to stop judging and start loving. Let the comments flow!