Leslie Lindsay on reading to write: the long journey to her memoir

Nearly every Wednesday since sometime in early 2013, I have hosted bestselling and debut authors on my Author Interview Series. I can trace the time period to this particularly warm Chicago spring because it’s when my first book came out and I met fellow debut—now bestselling—author and mother Mary Kubica for coffee. Her publicist had arranged a meeting because “you live in neighboring suburbs, I think you’d have a lot to discuss.” As if suburbia somehow would connect us. But it did.  

“Did your children insist on wearing shorts during that freak warm streak?”  

Mary grinned, “Oh yes!”  

“I had to run out and buy flip-flops for my daughter!”  

Years before meeting Mary, I had been blogging about my daughter’s speech disorder. It was fine, but growing stale. Mary and I spoke about books we were reading and authors we loved.           

“Tammy Greenwood?” she asked.  

“Yes!” I said.  

“Check out her newest book. You’ll love it.”  

“How about Lisa Unger?” I asked.  

“Love her!” Mary gushed. “And also Heather Gudenkauf.” 

It turned out we had very similar taste in books. And this is where the magic happened. I went home, pumped about Mary’s debut, The Good Girl, but also with the germ of an idea: I would turn my blog over to authors.  

The next book I read, Caroline Leavitt’s Is This Tomorrow, I loved. I contacted her. Would she be up for an interview? An enthusiastic “yes!” came back. And when Lisa Unger had a new book coming out, I contacted her, too. 

What began as a love letter to authors blossomed into a part-time job of sorts. For the last eight years, I have curated a robust list of books and authors—over 700 and counting.  

Read Her Like an Open Book has moved to Substack. This account will become inactive on April 30. Please visit the new home at billwolfe.substack.com.

As I evolve in my own writing and reading, my motivations for interviewing authors do, too. There was a time when I wanted to try my hand at psychological thrillers. “No, no,” said an instructor a writing conference, “Your style is much too literary to write this; it’s not effective.” “Too much detail,” said a fellow participant.  

Still, I persisted, inviting numerous psych thriller authors to my author interview series. B.A. Paris, Shari Lapena, Gilly Macmillan. Lisa Unger, and Mary Kubica again. I asked questions about structure and getting stuck. I asked lame questions like, “Where do you get your ideas?” and “Where do you write?”  

After several failed attempts at writing a psych thriller, I shifted to nonfiction. My critique partner said, “You love houses and architecture. Write that, but don’t give up.”  

I turned to literary authors who wrote about houses and homes and the strange things that go on behind closed doors. Here was a lovely coalescing of psychological thriller meets literary fiction in the hands of Lauren Acampora and Helen Phillips and Helen Klein Ross.  

Deep inside was the story I really wanted to tell: when I was ten, my interior decorator mother devolved into psychosis, splitting the façade of our suburban home forever. Still, I wasn’t ready. The story wasn’t ready. My mother was still there, in another state. We were estranged, there was something unacceptable about writing about her.  

I read more about writing. I plowed through Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I read The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell, Robin Black’s Crash Course, and Stephen King’s book on writing. Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story crossed my desk.  

Yet I kept revisiting memoir. I read oodles of them, promptly inviting memoirists to my author interview series. Better still if they were mother-memoirs. Melissa Cistaro joined me for Pieces of My Mother. Heather Harpham graciously appeared for Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After. So did Tessa Fontaine for her luminous The Electric Woman and then Dani Shapiro for Inheritance, though this is more of a father-daughter tale, hinging on shared DNA.   

My mother was still alive. She was tormenting me, really. Odd calls came through at any time of day or night. Hang-ups and long-winded, nonsensical voice mails. Hateful mail arrived, mother’s lip-sticked kiss sealing the envelope. I wanted to be rid of her, but she made it impossible.  

I developed a love for historical fiction, diving into past worlds imagined by Christina Baker Kline and Margaret George, Jamie Ford, Chris Bohjalian, Lynda Cohen Loigman, and authors who braid history with contemporary tales, like Diane Chamberlain and Fiona Davis and Andromeda Romano-Lax in Annie and The Wolves. The past, the present, and the future all work in tandem. Often with themes of family and dysfunction and sometimes mental illness.  

Mary had another book coming out. We met for coffee again. I was still writing. My mother died. She had been found in her home after what had been a long, indeterminate time.  

It was too fresh. I couldn’t touch it.  

I read books on madness and psychiatry. I invited those authors to my interview series. I read Erika Swyler’s books, The Book of Speculation and A Light from Other Stars. I felt a kinship, so I reached out. She shared that she is a suicide survivor as well. She said it’s a group of some of the most empathetic people you’ll ever meet. Kathryn Craft’s sophomore book grabbed my attention and I had her on the interview series, too.

My father passed along volumes of my mother’s medical records. Boxes and binders and files clogged my office. He visited again, hefting cracked photo albums filled with faded images of the two of them building their first house, infant me. He and my mother had divorced more than thirty years earlier. He and my stepmother were purging in preparation for a move. My mother’s weighty legacy was mine. “You’re the writer in the family. It’s yours if you want it.”  

Did I want it?  

By writing about my mother, do I somehow give her power? Am I somehow resurrecting her? Writing is slow. Tedious. It requires every ounce of attention and focus. It invites rejection. Did I want to bring that into my life?  

I read more. I wrote and wrote. And wrote some more. About my mother. In different voices and POVs, a novel, a memoir, even a suite of poems. None of it was working. I hired Caroline Leavitt to do a developmental edit. How the tables were shifting. I was no longer fan-girling, but a writer in my own right. She said, “You must cut this stuff about your mother’s early childhood. It’s fascinating and you write that cruel grandmother so searingly, but she has to go.”  

I loved that horrific grandmother.  

“People want to read an intimate story about your relationship with your mother. How you are fighting to not be like her, to change things for your daughters. Write that.”  

So I did.  

Here’s what else she taught me: You must have a question you are asking yourself, something you want to answer within your work.  

That in turn shaped the questions I posed to authors on my interview series. Caroline asked what haunted me into writing this memoir. She asked “why now” and that made me think, too.  

So now the questions I ask of authors on my interview series are of this nature. Not “What is your inspiration?” and “Do you ever get stuck?” Now I want to know what gets writers out of bed; this taps into their passions, their daily life. I ask what they think about when they are staring at a blank page. I want to know what stories they consume—even if it’s not a book but maybe television or the newspaper. I want to know what keeps them tossing and turning at night because this often occurs when we’re feeling less rooted, veering down the wrong path, hitting roadblocks.  

Sometimes authors ask me questions or give advice. When Meredith Hall, author of Beneficence and the bestselling memoir Without a Map, appeared, she sent me emails suggesting I write about untold maternal stories. Another author suggested I write stories about the photos I take because, for each one, she imagines a sort of narrative, and did I approach them in the same manner?

These women authors ask if another woman nurtured and sustained me when my own mother was unable to do so. The answer to that is complex, but yes, there are women in all walks of my life who have mothered me in some way; many of them probably do not realize the impression they’ve made.  

When I signed with a literary agent for the memoir about my mother, Mary Kubica and I met again, this time for a walk, all of the cafes being closed due to the pandemic. We cupped our coffees to our hearts and talked about writing and reading and teaching. She commented on the amount of reading I did and the variety of authors on my website. “Do you ever want to give it up?”  

“Sometimes,” I admitted. “But I can’t. It makes me a better writer.”  

Mary recently completed the virtual Chicago Marathon. She mentioned that her son is running and how big his feet are, how long his legs. “He loves it, but struggles at times, too.” 

Writing is like a marathon. Training, stumbling, pushing, and also: the desire to give up.  

Mary may not recall our near decade-old conversation about preschoolers insisting on wearing flip-flops in March in Chicago, but it’s interesting how much we’ve grown, as writers, as mothers.  We will continue to purchase larger running shoes for our growing children. We will continue to show up at our desk every day, and we will continue reading voraciously. Because we too, have bigger shoes to fill.   

Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series, “Always with a Book.” Leslie was named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of GoodReads reviewers, and has conducted over 700 conversations with authors. Her writing and photography have appeared in print journals and online. A former Mayo Clinic psychiatric R.N., she is the author of Speaking of Apraxia: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech and is represented by Catalyst Literary Management. 



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