By Leslie Lindsay
A tender and often darkly funny portrait of a family ravaged by alcoholism, death, and more, THE AFTERLIFE is about a writer discovering his origins and his future.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS~
ALWAYS WITH A BOOK|MEMOIR MONDAY
SPOTLIGHT, WORKSHOP, PROMPTS: The Afterlife by Donald Antrim
Donald Antrim is an American novelist. His first novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, was published in 1993. In 1999, The New Yorker named him as among the 20 best writers under the age of 40. In 2013, he was named a MacArthur Fellow. His most recent book, a memoir, ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL (October 12, 2021, from W.W. Norton & Co.) is profound, thought-provoking, and infused with clear-eyed examination of one’s life, but the bigger issue at hand: the human condition, sigma.
ABOUT THE AFTERLIFE:
Last week, I featured Donald Antrim’s most recent memoir, ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL: A Story of Suicide and Survival (W.W. Norton, 2021).
Link to read that Q&A HERE.
ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL struck me in so many ways, maybe it was because it was written about such a vulnerable and yet–vital–time in the author’s life. It’s about his suicide attempt, his psychiatric hospitalizations, his ECT treatments, but it’s also an urge for others to look at suicide–and mental health issues–in a new light. Throughout that book, there are references to his first memoir, THE AFTERLIFE (FSG, 2006). This book was released when Antrim was hospitalized following that suicide attempt in ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL. Can you imagine releasing a book while a patient in the psychiatric hospital? We’ve heard of the challenges of releasing a book during the pandemic/quarantine, but for the world to ‘be open,’ and yet, you, as an author, are unavailable? The books are stand-alone and do not need to be read in order, but I quickly snatched up his previous book after reading ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL.
There are just a few references to THE AFTERLIFE in ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL, but the ones that struck me were along the lines of things about his mother. Antrim’s mother was also a seamstress, like mine, who could be very manipulative at times; both mothers smoked like chimneys and were once quite beautiful. Both of mothers had Southern roots with English and Scottish ancestry.
But it was the writing of this book–a memoir–intended to be about Antrim’s mother’s death, her alcoholism, that catapulted his anxiety and depression leading to his suicide attempt.
Just one day after his mother’s death, winter: 2000, Antrim began writing about his family. In pieces that were excerpted in The New Yorker, and anthologized in Best American Essays, Antrim explores his intense and complicated relationship with is mother, Louanne, but also his relationships to others: a girlfriend, his grandfather, and father, who married his mother not once, but twice.
The AFTERLIFE is not a linear memoir (in my mind, those are the best kind; I’ll explain later). Instead, Antrim follows a sort of flow-of-consciousness, a logic of dreams and memories, vignettes. It veers off-topic (or so it seems), only to come back with a bigger, overarching meaning.
I had the opportunity to speak with Antrim about this book (and also ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL), and was struck with his candor and authenticity, the ease at which we conversed about mothers, writing, mental health, and more, and I learned, too, that his mother was also an artist and seamstress like my own. Antrim attempted suicide; my mother died by suicide. I was a psychiatric R.N., he was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital. We both wrote about about our mothers and family of origin.
And while this isn’t that conversation (forthcoming from another publication in December), I will happily share some writing prompts for those who are interested in these topics.
What exactly is memoir? How is it different than an autobiography? Do the two share similarities? Are the terms used interchangeably? When someone says they are going to ‘write their memoirs’ what comes to mind?
Here are my definitions:
An autobiography is a beginning to end of a person’s life. “I was born and then…and I did this…and thought this…and…maybe I learned this and that and then…I died.”
It’s an entire life, almost like a timeline, written by that person. (A biography, of course, is an account of a person’s life written by someone other than that person).
“Writing One’s Memoirs’ is usually undertaken in midlife, maybe at a crisis point (an illness, death of a family member, retirement, etc.). They are a general accounting of life events, often told in a vignette-style, “I remember this…and my bestfriend at the time…” They are often (but not always) loosely jointed, lack cohesion, and are a cobbling of remembrances often passed along to descendants maybe in the form of letters or similarly constructed narrative.
A Memoir is more along the lines of a story about a certain time period in a person’s life; it is not about the whole life. For example, Antrim’s ONE FRIDAY IN APRIL is a memoir about his experience with wanting to jump off a 4-story apartment building, going to the psychiatric hospital, receiving treatment, how he feels the ideas surrounding suicide should be different. That’s it. There are a few backstory moments where we learn about his writing, his significant other at the time, his family of origin, but they are not THE story.
He goes from a desperately anxious and depressed man clinging to the edge of a fire escape to a man receiving treatment and support to getting better, relapsing, and finally, ending with hope.
We see a CHANGE.
There is GROWTH.
A memoir is particularly difficult because the writer must wear many hats. He is at once the author, reader, character, and editor. He must curate and prune what to share. Plus, it’s a challenge to one’s memory.
If your mother/father had only just died and you had stories about them you wanted to explore, or maybe a traumatic childhood, would you write about it? Could you extract an event–or three or four–and weave together a story? Here are the elements Antrim took and turned into THE AFTERLIFE:
catalyst–>MOTHER’S DEATH + HER INTEREST IN ART/SEWING + HER ALCHOLISM
exploration–>WHY IS MY LIFE THIS WAY? How can I learn from this and change? Was my childhood traumatic because of mother’s alcoholism?
Which elements might you choose? Where would you start your story?
It doesn’t have be linear.
Antrim begins with his mother’s death, NOT the day he was born, even though he’s writing a memoir.
In my (unpublished) memoir, I start with my mother working on her drapes and quickly move into the last time I saw her alive. I then backtrack and fill in the blanks, adding elements of mystery and suspense (although not as a device, but as truth), plus other characters, scenes of my mother’s psychoses. There are brief pieces of backstory, but overall, it’s an intimate exploration of motherhood, complex grief, the horrific summer my mother devolved, and her death.
Many folks won’t touch memoir because they feel it’s a betrayal, as Antrim felt about his book, THE AFTERLIFE. Others say you can’t write memoir because what if your memory has failed? What if you recall events differently than someone else who experienced the same thing? That’s the beauty of memoir–it’s no one else’s truth but yours. We all see the world through a different lens, based on our life experiences, psychoses, memories, etc. In this sense, one might see memoir as a fluid form. Is it truth or fiction?
Do you feel you have a ‘right’ to pen your own memoir? Permission? If not, why?
If you tried one of these exercises/prompts, let me know.
For more information, to connect with Donald Antrim, or to purchase a copy of THE AFTERLIFE, please visit:
- Publisher’s Website
- The New Yorker FINDING A WAY BACK FROM SUICIDE
- L.A. Times Book Review
- PEOPLE Magazine’s Review
If you are in crisis and need mental health assistance, seek the nearest emergency room. You don’t have to fight alone. Additionally, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK(8255), will connect you with a certified crisis center near where you live.
- Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
- This title may also be available through other online sellers.
You might also like:
Browse all books featured on Always with a Book since 2018 on Bookshop.org
Browse all books featured on Always with a Book in October 2021 HERE.
Further Reading/Additional Resources related to Mental Health can be found HERE.
November kicks off titles about home and mothers with featured #MemoirMonday titles from Michelle Orange (PURE FLAME), Violaine Husimann’s THE BOOK OF MOTHER (fiction), but also GENTRIFIER (Anne Elizabeth Moore), Deborah Levy’s REAL ESTATE and Naomi Kupitsky’s highly anticipated novel, THE FAMILY.
To Browse all books/authors featured in NOVEMBER 2021, click HERE.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Donald Antrim is the author of three novels, including Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, and a memoir, The Afterlife. He has received awards from the MacArthur Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.