By Staci Greason
Hannah Sward’s compelling memoir, Strip (Tortoise Books, September 6) is a meditative, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful story about the lasting effects of childhood trauma and the perilous path to breaking free. I had the great fortune to speak with Hannah about her approach to writing memoir, finding the perfect balance between innocence and trauma, and writing in the shadow of a literary father.
1. Congratulations on your memoir Strip! The prose is beautiful, vivid, and unsentimental, and the story is deeply moving. I want to talk a bit about how you managed to do that, but first, what made you decide to turn your life experiences into a book?
Thank you so much Staci. I love that, unsentimental. From a young age I think there was always a part of me that had a sense I’d write about my experiences. From living on a houseboat with my father to walking the streets at night in Montreal hoping to run into Leonard Cohen to working for the Russian Madame in Los Angeles.
But it’s strange, especially since I never had a desire to be a writer. Far from it. Writing? The no money, the constant revisions, the loneliness. Which is ironic since it’s writing that kept me company all along.
2.Writing a memoir must be like taming an unwieldy beast. How did you approach the beast? On tippy-toes or barreling straight ahead with gusto? What is your writing process like? Your childhood memories are vivid; did you have old journals or diaries to draw upon?
I barreled straight ahead with writing two pages a day no matter what. Pen to paper. I gave myself permission to write about anything, as long as I wrote. Sometimes I’d scribble the words down so fast I wouldn’t even sit down. I just wanted to be done with it. It was probably helpful that I didn’t know I was writing a memoir. Not until, with the help of my mentor, I was able to step back and look at what I had written. That was a very slow process. I was so full of self-doubt. But I knew I wasn’t going to stop. The unwieldy beast was loose.
As for childhood memories, more than journals it was old photographs and my father’s poems. Both helped evoke feelings and images from that time.
3. Your father, who was also a writer, was a great influence in your life. Was there ever a time you felt that you were writing like him and had to break free to find your own writer’s voice? If so, how did you do it? Or have you always heard your own voice?
Maybe if my father had been a prose writer, I would have struggled with that. But he was a poet, and as much as I love poetry, I’m no poet. What I needed to break free from was comparing my path to his especially since he was so prolific. He was never not writing or publishing. Wherever we went he had a notepad and pen with him. Always scribbling something down. I remember one time while he was doing laps at the university pool, he called out, “Lifeguard, lifeguard, I need a pen and paper.” The end of a poem had come to him.
Voice isn’t something I ever really thought about. I’m not sure why. But I know it has changed. Especially when I go back and read old work. Like this piece I had written twenty years ago about being an extra on 90210. It was terrible. Terrible writing.
My voice also changed while writing Strip. The initial draft was one long, breathless sentence after the other. Maybe a reflection of the urgency I had felt to get it out of me. Out onto the page.
4. In Strip, the voice and story work seamlessly together. In your childhood, you manage a delicate balance of being in the moment, but not being fully present, because of trauma. As you grow older, the disconnection remains, but it’s colored with desperation and increasingly unhealthy behaviors. This dramatic tension builds until the end when the reader is finally allowed to feel the weight of it all with you. How many drafts did it take to find the perfect balance? Was the structure always linear or did you experiment with other ways to tell it?
Four or five drafts. I began writing adulthood first and I really had no intention of writing about my childhood, so it definitely wasn’t linear. In fact, I began in the middle, which really made for a mess. The whole process was messy. So many fragments of my life that I had no idea how to piece together. It would have been very different, of course, had I sat down at the very beginning knowing I was writing a memoir. All I knew then was that I needed to write again.
Structure is interesting. How do you create structure if you don’t know what you are writing? I did experiment with that though. Not with this book but another book. I wrote it just to see if I could write from an outline. It did make the process easier. If there is any such thing as easier when it comes to writing.
6. When did you show a draft to someone you trusted? Did their notes help or hinder the next draft?
The first official draft was to an editor of a literary magazine who, a few years later, became my first agent. After publishing a piece I had written, he asked if I was working on a book. At the time I was working on the first draft of Strip and by the time I sent him that draft we had formed a relationship as writer/editor, and I trusted him implicitly. His notes were a tremendous help. Mainly they had to do with structure, or lack of.
7. There are fractured familial relationships in your story, and yet you write about the adults in your life without harshness, blame, or anger. Do you think you wrote this way because you’ve had enough time and healing, or was it a conscious choice to focus more on your behavior than what was done to you? Were there times you felt that you were censoring yourself? Did you change any names or let people know you were writing a book?
There has been a lot of healing, yes. But pointing the finger, blame – I don’t think that has ever really been my style as a writer. I’ve always been more interested in writing without the commentary and leaving it to the reader.
As far as names, all were changed except one. And that one name was one I had simply forgotten to change. I didn’t actually remember until someone who had read the book pointed it out in the middle of a reading I was doing. A memorable moment in the midst of the book tour.
I didn’t censor myself as I was writing, no. It probably helped that I wasn’t really focused on the publishing aspect, not until later. I also didn’t let people know they were in the book. Although I’m sure they suspected it.
8. Was it cathartic or healing? Are you satisfied, or is there another memoir coming?
I dedicate the book to sitting in the hours. In that sense yes, it was healing. The very nature of writing required me to learn to sit with myself. Something I could not do prior to writing the book. But word by word, page by page, I grew and as I did, I was able to tolerate sitting with myself for longer periods of time.
Another memoir? I don’t think so. Then again, I never thought I’d write one to begin with, so I may just surprise myself. At this moment though, I am satisfied. Satisfied and grateful.
9. Strip is open and courageous. There’s the writing of your story for yourself, but then there’s the exposure of putting yourself out into the world. If you’d like to share, what has it been like to have your memoir out in the world?
It’s been an amazing experience and an integrated one. Had it not been such a slow process, not only writing but bringing it out into the world, I think it would be a very different experience. Perhaps a disconnected one. But it wasn’t and I think by the time it came out I was ready. By ready I mean having enough distance from it to be more of a witness to how it’s being received. I think it also helped that I had been publishing excerpts, reading at venues, and speaking on panels before it came out, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t shared any part of it before.
10. On being a memoirist, Mary Karr says, “Unless you’re a doubter and a worrier, a nail-biter, an apologizer, a rethinker, then memoir may not be your playpen. That’s the quality I’ve found most consistently in those life-story writers I’ve met.” I would say these qualities apply to most of us who write. Which one(s) are you?
A doubter, a worrier, an apologizer, a rethinker — all but nail biting. I’m sure I make up for nail biting in other ways though. Like sugar and Bubblemint gum. I chew gum all the time. I’m trying to quit or at least cut back. Which is kind of ridiculous when I think of all the drugs I used to do, so really, who cares about bubblegum. Chew all you want. But I digress. My apologies!
Photo credit: Jad Nickola Najjar
Hannah Sward is the author of Strip, A Memoir (Sept. 6, Tortoise Books). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous literary journals including Arts & Letters, Yemassee (University of South Carolina), Halcoyne (Black Mountain Press), Red Wheelbarrow, Porter Gulch Review, Other Voices (Canada), Anthology of The Mad Ones, Milk, Alimentum, Anthology of Women Writers, Hypertext, Pig Iron Malt, Pindeldboz, Nerve Cowboy, Afternoon, Wimpole Street Writers, and Word Riot. She has been a regular contributor at Erotic Review since 2015 and was Editor and Columnist at Third Street Villager Los Angeles and a contributor at The Fix and YourTango. Hannah is on the board at Right To Write Press, a nonprofit that supports emerging writers who are incarcerated. She lives in Los Angeles. Find out more at hannahsward.com.
Staci Greason is the author of the novel All the Girls in Town (TouchPoint Press, July 2022). Her other literary achievements include award-winning television pilots and screenplays. Her short stories and essays have been published in Brevity, Slate, Lunch Ticket, AFLW, the Same, and the Huff Post. In her past life, she played the late Isabella Toscano Black on Days of Our Lives. Staci lives with her husband in Southern California. Visit her website at www.stacigreason.com.