Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Sharon Harrigan talks about her devastating memoir, PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE, about her search for the strange truth about her father


Sharon Harrigan has written a thrilling memoir, PLAYING WITH DYNAMITE, about searching for the truth about her dad, a man who blew off his hand with dynamite before she was born and died in a very, very weird accident.Both about the danger--and relief--of finding the truth, it's also a gorgeously written page-turner.

Sharon teaches  memoir writing at WriterHouse in Charlottesville. Her work's appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Pleiades, Slice, Narrative, Pearl, Prime Number, Silk Road, Mid American Review, Louisiana Literature, Apercus Quarterly, Rain Taxi, Hip Mama, Fiction Writers’ Review, Streetlight Magazine, Passing Through Journal, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus. She is a contributing editor at The Nervous Breakdown and at Silk Road Review.

Thank you so much for being here, Sharon!

What was the why now moment which had you write this book? What surprised you in the writing of it?

“The thing you need to know about me is my father died when I was eight.” That’s the opening of Mary Gordon’s memoir, Shadow Man, but it could have been the first line of Playing with Dynamite, if I changed “eight” to “seven.” My father’s death was the defining event of my life, and his mysterious accident haunted me. He went hunting for a deer and a deer killed him? That never made sense.

So I was always obsessed with my father’s story, but for a long time I didn’t know how to approach it. I first tried by writing a novel, but I had too many unanswered questions, questions I was afraid to ask. Without the answers, I couldn’t get deep enough beneath the surface, so I put that novel aside and thought I was done trying to write about my father.

Apparently, I was wrong.

After my daughter’s eighth birthday party, I wrote a blog post that began, “My father never got to see me turn eight.” My brother responded, and I used his memories to write an essay. After my mother read it, she seemed compelled to tell me her memories, things she’d been waiting my whole life for me to be ready to hear. And so many other people responded so strongly to that essay—more than to anything I’d ever published before—that I knew there was something about my father’s story. Something universal. Something everybody seemed to respond to.

But to get to your question: Why now? It was now or never, since I had to rely on the memories of others, and I needed to interview people while they were still alive. One person, in fact (my father’s best friend) died shortly before I was able to talk to him.

What surprised me was how much the book turned into my mother’s story. She, like so many other women she’d grown up with, had been silenced, as if her story didn’t matter. What I discovered was her incredible resilience. Here was a woman who’d had every obstacle thrown at her, and yet she developed into such a strong and resilient person.

The other “why now” question I’ve been thinking about is, What makes this story so timely? In one of my many conversations with my mother in the book, she tells me that my father was “a man of his time.” I began to see that his story might be the story of a generation—at least a generation of white working-class men, blue-collar Midwesterners juggling two or three jobs to support their families in a changing economy. Men who, as my mother put it, “thought if they changed a diaper they’d grow breasts.” These are the kind of men everyone wants to know more about now, especially after the election.

This memoir is so much about family secrets—has this made you more open yourself? Or do you see the value in keeping some secrets secrets?

Yes to both of your questions.

I’ve become more open, for sure. One of the big emotional take-aways from the research I did for Playing with Dynamite was that openness can create intimacy. It’s always possible, of course, that revelations can upset people, but I think it’s worth the risk. I don’t want to live my life only on the surface. I want my relationships to go deep.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in keeping some things private. For example, I have a personal essay coming out in Real Simple magazine, and I had a hard time telling the story I wanted to tell without bringing readers into my bedroom. If I hadn’t figured out how to avoid the X-rated parts while keeping the fundamental narrative intact, I wouldn’t have submitted the piece.

And I’m not going to post embarrassing things about my kids on Facebook or reveal things people ask me not to. So, you know, your secrets are safe with me.

Was there ever any moment when you felt unnerved in the writing—as if you were going too deeply back into the past?

Lots! My mother’s story about what happened to my sister on the night my father died. The story of my parents’ wedding. My father’s driving record. The saga with the Harrison Township Police. . .  I could go on. It was unnerving to hear people tell me about these things, in the moment. But now I think they’re beautiful stories that have a lot to teach me, and I’m grateful for them.

What did you learn that you didn’t expect to learn in writing this?
I had no idea what I was going to learn, so everything was unexpected. I started Playing with Dynamite kind of like a detective starts a case, hunting down a few clues.

One thing I learned was that the act of writing requires empathy, so to be able to write about my father, I had to see the world through his perspective. I had to try to get in the heads of all of my characters, including those I have a hard time understanding, like my sister. Because you can’t write fully rounded characters unless you imagine what life is like for them.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My next book is a novel about identical twins who are so closely bonded they speak in the same voice, so that carries forward my obsession with sibling relationships. My brother and I aren’t twins but we’ve always been super close, so I take that idea and stretch it to its furthest extreme. Researching this book has been fascinating, since there are so many twin studies out there.

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

I always like to talk about the books that inspired me. Probably the first memoir I read was The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster, which was a revelation. It’s about how he coped with his father’s recent death and his struggles to father his own son after divorce. But it’s also a tour de force of style and wit, and I was fascinated by the way he let us see a mind at work, thinking on the page, bringing in a whole world of ideas and literary references. Joan Didion is another writer who does that so well, which is why I like to assign The Year of Magical Thinking to my classes.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been fascinated by father memoirs, so, in addition to Mary Gordon’s Shadow Man, I loved Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. And there are so many others.  Kirkus Reviews compared Playing with Dynamite to Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle and Mary Carr’s Liar’s Club, which were seminal books for me and are also about larger-than-life fathers.

But the two most important books were Benjamin Percy’s novel The Wilding and Michael Hainey’s memoir, After Visiting Friends. I couldn’t have written Playing with Dynamite without them.

So I guess I’m also answering your first question, about what made me decide to write my memoir. The answer is, partly because of things that happened to me and partly because of things I read. I’ve always been a voracious and grateful reader. That’s another thing you need to know about me.

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