Sunday, July 5, 2015

Melissa Cistaro talks about Pieces of My Mother, why writing letters matters, how as book events host and book seller at Book Passage, she got to ask George Saunders to sign her arm in black sharpie and so much more!

Who doesn't revere the incredible indie, Book Passage, in Northern California? Melissa Cistaro is the amazing events host and bookseller there, but she's also a phenomenal writer.  Her brave and brilliant memoir, PIECES OF MY MOTHER tells the story of how her mother left the family one day, leaving behind a legacy of guilt, grief, and longing, and how, when Melissa found a cache of her mother's unsent letters, the whole story of her life changed for her. There's no easy answers in the book, which I love, but what really got to me was the sense of yearning she had and has for her mother--much like the yearning I have for mine, which is even stronger now that she has dementia. Sometimes the right books come to you when you need them the most--and this one did.  Thank you, thank you, Melissa!

(And Melissa will be at Politics & Prose on Wednesday at their Busboys & Poets location!)

I think it’s so fascinating that you began to write this book while you were pregnant. For me, too, having a child, made me reassess my own difficult relationship with my mother--and my father, who had been dead for many years. In a way, don’t you think that motherhood links us to our own childhoods and to our mothers more than we might expect?

Absolutely. When I became a mother, my memories of childhood became even more vivid and I began to question how it was that my mother could have ever left us as young children. I hadn't considered what kind of mother I would be until I felt the first fluttering kicks of my own child inside of me. Each turn and movement stirred a memory. And also a fear. I had studied the ancient Greek tragedies in college and marveled at how powerful the fates and prophesies prevailed in each story. When gods or commoners tried to escape or outwit their pre-determined destinies, it always ended poorly. I couldn't help but wonder what my fate might be having come from a mother I loved so much - but one who had left her three young children by choice. I knew she was overwhelmed by motherhood and I feared whether the same thing could happen to me.  It was as if a window had been sealed shut for many years and then suddenly flew open the instant I became a mother. I wondered if I had opened Pandora’s box.

This is such a brave and compelling book, and I love that you found your mother’s letters (I hate that people don’t write letters anymore. I actually have a filing cabinet filled with letters that a friend sent me all through college and a bit beyond and I treasure and reread them.)  Why do you think it is that we can sometimes write the things we are afraid to say?

My mother’s letters are the greatest gift she left me. In them, I meet her as the creative, smart, free-spirited woman she was. She struggled with being a mother. She suffered from the choices she made. I won’t ever have all the answers I hoped for, but I have her letters and they are tangible evidence of her deepest thoughts and feelings. I treasure them on several levels - she was a gifted writer and I loved discovering her playfulness with words and phrases and intentional misspellings. In her letters, I gain insight to a more intimate side of her. I can hear her cadence and voice as I read them. She writes in her letter, “There is such a need, a compulsion to write. I am trying so very hard to release all that is in me - to spill my very guts so they can fall loose and be observed.” Like my mom, I write to understand myself and to lure the voice inside me out of hiding. Through writing we can salvage our truths.

So  much of this astonishing memoir is about our terror of repeating the mistakes of our parents. (For a long time, I was afraid to have a child because I didn’t know if I could get beyond that whole idea). But instead of terror, you found a kind of grace. Please talk about this.

I wrote this book over the course of twelve years.  It was very important for me to to tell this story from a place of forgiveness and compassion. When I began writing, I felt that I didn't have a voice - and the only way I could crawl out of the silence was through writing this story. It wouldn't let me go. I got to the point in the process where I knew it was never going to be ‘good enough’ - and that I could keep writing and rewriting this story for another 12 years. But I had to let it go. It was a giant slippery fish that I could no longer hold on to. I didn't want to tell the story of “my mom left and it was awful and she was wrong.”  I wanted to make sense of who my mom was - and why it was so hard for her to be a mother to us. I also needed to understand how I fit into this history of mothers who struggled and what kind of mother would I be to my children. I wrote about the anger and darkness for a long time and eventually the light filtered in through the window and onto the page as I wrote.

Sometimes a bad mother can give birth to a good person in spite of herself.  You talk about worrying if you, too, have the leaving gene, but don’t you think we all have that--but what matters is that we don’t act on it, we stay for  “the messy, maddening beauty”?

I wondered whether I had a leaving gene because it was so difficult for me to understand how my mom - or any mother for that matter, could walk away from her children. I was fearful. What if there was a “leaving gene” that had been passed on to me? What if it lay dormant in mothers like me?  When my son and daughter were young, I was afraid to tell them that I didn't grow up with my mom. I deflected my daughter’s questions because I didn't want her to worry that her mother could disappear. We all have our poor mothering moments - and the feelings are terrifying - not because we are going to walk away but because the emotions have such a powerful current of anger, frustration and love. Somehow the love comes bobbing to the surface and we carry on.

You tell your story, alternating between the past and the present, which I really loved, because I honestly feel that  we are all living our pasts as we live our present lives. Would you agree? And how does revisiting your past in the light of the present make it different?

I agree that each day we are living both the past and the present. We cannot betray our truths of  where we have come from. Writing about my experiences of growing up helped me understand the present - and writing about the present guided me in understanding the past. Memory can be abstract and confusing. And yet, I felt fortunate because I had a deep well of memories to draw from with my early childhood. When children grow up in a chaotic or unpredictable environment, they often become collectors of details and learn how to tip-toe through the unpredictable world around them. I think that is how many of us end up as writers and storytellers.

How did you expect to feel and what did you expect to learn when you began writing this memoir--and what did you feel and learn both about yourself and your mother?

I started this story as a work of fiction. It was easier for me to dive into it as someone else’s narrative other than my own. The last thing I imagined was publishing a memoir but I eventually got to point where I had to claim the story as my own. For years, I wrote calling myself ‘Paisley Chapin’ but eventually I realized that I wasn't very good at drifting away from the truth as I knew it. Early on, I showed my oldest brother some chapters and he said to me, “Sorry Sis, but this ain’t fiction.”  I think I absolutely needed to tell this story and that it has helped me to lean in to who I am as a mother - and gather a deeper understanding of my mom.

You write, most beautifully, that “sometimes amends come in ways you don’t’ expect.” I love that line, because I know it’s true. Can you talk about that please?

This was something my brother Eden said to me on the day our mom died. He said that we think we have the answers, but we don’t. We want people to say “I’m sorry” or “I made a mistake” but sometimes they can’t and that’s okay because their amends may come to us in other ways. I had been so focused on getting answers before my mom died, hoping for that “aha” moment of closure. What I found was something different than closure. I hope this translates when people read the book. The answers and conclusions we seek do not always come in the tidy package we imagine - and yet sometimes they do.

What kind of writer are you?  How did you craft a story? What surprised you in the writing, both about your mother and about yourself?

I work slowly (hence the 12 years for this book). I need long stretches of time to write and with raising a family, this isn't always possible. I tend to hit my writing stride about 3 hours into process. I tinker a lot. I discard a lot. I handwrite mostly in spiral-bound notebooks. When I first began this story I was mainly attempting to get the childhood stories down on the page. It was only after my mom died that I began to write about the last six days I spent with her. Those were some of the most complicated and painful times and became the alternating chapters to the childhood stories.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Obsession might be my middle name. I’m thinking a lot about what to write next. I have written so many off-shoots and stories and beginnings over the years that I’m curious to see what surfaces as the story I must tell.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I love to talk about my current job of working in an independent bookstore. For the past 3 years I have been working as a bookseller and event host at Book Passage in Northern California. This job nourishes and inspires me every single day. I meet authors of every genre and discover new books all the time. I have introduced many of my favorite writers and artists. I dared to ask George Saunders to sign my arm in black sharpie (he obliged). I dined with Colum McCann and sang for Sebastian Barry! At home I keep a notebook called “Gifts from Book Passage” where I write about the wonderful and unexpected things that happen when you work in a bookstore.

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