Occasionally I receive inquiries from students who’ve been assigned the unfortunate task of keeping a dialectical journal or writing a paper on one of my books. I love chatting with students and I always make an attempt to answer student emails when time allows. Here’s an interview with a high school student in Chicago who read Live ’Til I Die for her AP English class.
Student: I wanted to know a little more about the last section of every chapter. From what I can tell it looks like a switch from the actual memoir to an update of the present day. Was the intention of adding these parts in the book more for the reader or for yourself? I personally liked reading the process that you went through trying to bring this book together.
Nan: Yes—the first-person interludes at the end of each chapter are updates from the present day (“present day” being the two-year period in which I wrote the book, 2000-2001). Although my main purpose in writing Live ’Til I Die was to tell my father’s story, the secondary story (intertwined with my father’s story) was my attempt to put the pieces of his life together and therefore gain a better of understanding of who he was. With this perspective in mind you can’t really have one without the other. If it was just a straight-up account of my father’s life it would have been a biography. That’s why the book is subtitled “a memoir of my father’s life”—because by using the term “memoir,” it’s understood that the telling of his story comes from a very personal place, colored by my relationship with him as his daughter as well as by his relationships with his friends.
Student: Reading your book was nothing like anything I have ever read. I enjoyed the format in which the stories were told and how you had each chapter in chronological order. Not that I had a problem with it, but were there any times in which you felt as though the stories overlapped too much and it seemed repetitive? Was this on purpose to emphasize that certain events actually happened?
Nan: The way the various voices were arranged and edited was extremely purposeful. I had hours upon hours of tape recordings of interviews with each person who knew my father. I transcribed these recordings verbatim, then printed out the transcriptions and made comparisons between and among the various viewpoints, finding patterns and common themes as well as discrepancies. As the story of my father’s life began to take shape through the cumulative telling of each person’s story, my goal was to accurately convey the key events and emotions presented by each person.
I never doubted the veracity of the events as they were described to me so no, the repetition was not meant as a means of corroboration—although by their very nature those shared recollections did ultimately serve as a sort of corroboration. And while many of the interviewees talked about the same events, the fact that each person’s recounting of that event came out slightly different was fascinating to me. People have different memories of shared events because we each recall and interpret a particular event based on our various life experiences, personalities, and world views. With that in mind I find it remarkable that the stories my dad’s friends told me were as similar as they were. I believe those similar perspectives are a result of my dad’s friends’ shared upbringing and cultural backgrounds in a very specific place (Chicago’s South Side) at a unique moment in time (1940s, ’50s, and ’60s).
Student: You clearly state that your goal “from the start was to explore a world beyond [your] own memories of [your] father, to get to know him through the eyes of his peers” (231), which is what you did. I cannot even imagine how much work that might have been! I bet it was such a rewarding experience for you to see all of it come to together in the end.
I know you must be super busy so I’ll try to keep this short. I would love to know more about your use of rhetorical devices. Specifically speaking, when Maggie Quinn said, “Of course, it was tempting to want to ask such patients, ‘How could you do this to yourself?’ and to ask the family, ‘Why did you let it get to this point?’’ (11), was this an appeal to pathos? If you could direct me to a few more examples that would be great.
Nan: I appreciate the citations! Yes, writing Live ’Til I Die was an incredibly rewarding and satisfying experience. It was also surprisingly uplifting. A lot of people might think writing a book about my father dying so tragically at such a young age would be depressing but it really wasn’t like that for me. Of course I am always sad at the loss of him, but the experience provided me with a sense of compassion for my dad that I didn’t have before I wrote the book—and coming from a place of compassion is always uplifting.
Re: rhetorical devices and pathos. I don’t think much about literary devices when I’m writing (and I’d venture to say it’s the same for most writers). Although it helps to have knowledge and understanding of such devices, when it gets down to the actual writing of a novel (or memoir, in this case) I’m going by instinct, trying to find the words and sentences that will most accurately and efficiently convey a particular scenario, emotion, or thought. When I’m writing I’m not thinking “Oh, a rhetorical device or an appeal to pathos would work well here.” That’s not to say that an after-action study of a particular work is pointless. As a student of literature it’s necessary for your understanding of the writing process and of the work itself to break it down and understand the various devices being used. But as a writer I’m not consciously thinking of anything but putting words and sentences together in a way that best expresses what’s happening in my head.
What I do consciously think about is the rhythm of the words I’m writing, which is why I often read my work aloud as I’m working. If I verbally stumble over a word or phrase, it’s a sure sign it needs to be written more efficiently. The other thing I’m conscious of when writing is using my words in the sparest way possible. I’m always searching for the simplest, most direct way to evoke whatever is going on in my brain. This is more a matter of style and the way I like to write; other writers take different approaches and that’s what makes it fun to read books by a variety of authors.
With that in mind I don’t think I could provide you with specific examples of particular literary devices in my own work because I haven’t studied my work from that perspective. Everything that’s there was written instinctively and whatever literary devices I may have used were entirely subconscious. Having said that, if you’d like to ask me about particular passages I am happy to explain my thought process at the time of writing each scene.
Regarding the specific example you mentioned where nurse Maggie Quinn says it’s tempting to ask how an alcoholic can do this to himself or how a family can let it [alcoholism] get to that point, these are common themes and questions that often come up among people who haven’t personally experienced addiction (either within themselves or with a loved one). I felt these questions in particular were important to reference because it’s natural to wonder how a person like my dad, who appeared to have everything—intelligence, good looks, successful career, loyal friends and a loving family—could throw it all away because of an addiction. This is really one of the key questions in the book and by having the nurse frame these issues right up front it’s setting the tone for everything that follows.
One of the main reasons I used the nurse’s perspective to bookend my father’s story is that I wanted to showcase the physical effects of alcohol addiction. Most addiction memoirs focus on the social and emotional fallout of addiction (losing a job, losing friends, divorce, legal trouble, etc.) but I don’t know of any other (non-medical) book that goes into such detail about what alcohol addiction does to a person’s body physiologically. This is why I took the time to interview a real-life ICU nurse who had experience treating alcoholic patients. Understanding the absolute horror of how a person’s organs deteriorate due to prolonged alcohol abuse really speaks to the power addiction has over a person and helps answer the questions mentioned above.
So to answer your question, no, it wasn’t an appeal to pathos so much as acknowledging a very basic, universal, philosophical question behind our desire to understand how a person becomes an addict, why it’s so difficult to overcome addiction, and why some people are able to recover while others aren’t. The second question (how can family members let it get to this point) acknowledges the genuine helplessness family members experience as they witness a loved one being destroyed by an addiction. The interviews with my dad’s family and friends that follow the prologue illustrate perfectly how one can witness someone crossing over to addiction and not even realize it, then being absolutely powerless to change the course of events once the addiction has taken hold of a person.
Student: And lastly this is more of a ‘thank you’ than anything. I appreciate that you added pictures of your family and of your father’s friends. I used it as reference when I was reading and it was nice to have a face with most names.
Nan: Thank you—I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. They are a treasure to me.