By Leslie Lindsay
A curated newsletter on the literary life, featuring ‘4 questions,’ reading & listening recommendations, where to submit, more
Leslie Lindsay|Always with a Book
~MUSINGS & MEANDERINGS~
I’ve been a little remiss in updating author interviews here, as they go out, as promised. If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you know that I have been in the practice of interviewing bestselling and debut authors right here, on my website, Always with a Book. I’ve done this for a good decade or so.
What I learned was many authors were simply ‘too busy’ to contribute to a blog. I shifted my focus to publishing in lit journals. So, if you’ve been wondering where all my interviews went, that’s where.
But I want to catch you up!
Going forward, I will do my absolute best to re-post those interviews here, incase they slipped past. Also, in my newsletter, ‘Musings & Meanderings,’ I always make mention of them. Just click on the link and it’ll take you directly to the piece.
Other ways to stay in touch: Instagram and Twitter.
Juggling a website and several pages on Facebook was just getting to be too much. The world is a mind-swirl of images and electronic platforms, am I right? Something had to give.
So come on over, grab a drink, and settle in as we chat with Erin Keane, EIC at Salon, and author of this razor-sharp investigative memoir, RUNAWAY (Belt Publishing, September 2022) about her young mother who ran away at first at 13, then again at 15, met and married her father (who was a whopping 36!).
This interview was originally published in Autofocus on November 12.
If you like this one, you’ll also want to check out my interview with Sheila O’Connor, author of EVIDENCE OF V (Rose Metal Press, 2019), which was published in Fractured Literary in October.
~Leslie : )
There’s more to this newsletter…keep scrolling!
THE MYTHS THAT MADE ME:
An Interview with Erin Keane
Leslie Lindsay :: Originally published in Autofocus Lit Mag :: Nov 12
From The Brothers Grimm to Woodstock, Woody Allen to The Gilmore Girls, The Pogues and Star Wars and even Tarot cards, Erin Keane’s Runaway: Notes on the Myths that Made Me (Belt Publishing, September 2022) is a razor-sharp investigative memoir with a biting edge.
Keane, known for her essays on cultural criticism with the verve and sophistication of a trained journalist, delves deep into forensics, films, and fashion as she bravely—and obliquely—walks us through her family’s complicated dynamic.
As the editor-in-chief at Salon, Keane is privy to social and cultural touchstones, pop culture, art, and more. What she didn’t know was why her mother ran away from home thirteen-years-old in 1970. She didn’t understand how her parents came to meet and marry, her mother a mere fifteen-year-old, her father thirty-six.
She didn’t know there were rules to hitchhiking, but she does now:
1. Never get into the back seat of a two-door car.
2. Never fall asleep in someone else’s car.
3. Never believe a word the driver says; everyone’s liar in these situations.
4. It’s not easy for two people to get picked up
5. It’s easier for a boy to hitchhike with a girl; it makes him seem less dangerous,
Throughout this nonlinear collection of essays, Keane sifts through the dusty history of how she came to be, by making sense of the myths she was told, discovering in the process, that it’s not just hitchhikers and drivers who are liars, but her own parents. Keane’s writing is shrewd and lucid.
What began as an inquiry based on pure speculation, Keane dug her journalistic chops into (re)creating, (re)imagining, and (re)living her parents’ lives.
We never learn Keane’s parents’ names, their real ones, that is. Her mother started as Someone Else, became Megan Shane for a couple of years, and then, Alexis. That was 1972, when she was fifteen and met Keane’s would-be father at a bar in NYC.
I found myself relating to this tale, not because I was a runaway, nor was my mother, but I started to believe my mother was a ‘saved runaway,’ that she had the potential to be exactly a runaway.
Erin, I read this story of your young mother running away from her Atchison, Kansas home with an eye toward my own mother. Our mothers are approximately the same age, which means you and I might be, too. Our mothers were also both nineteen when we were born. My mother grew up in Missouri. She wore bellbottoms, she told a plethora of lies and did drugs. She married my father a month after turning eighteen. It’s natural to believe stories like this don’t happen in the wholesome Midwest, instead we conjure grittier landscapes: Detroit, Chicago, Jersey City. Let’s start by clearing some of the clutter: runaways come from all towns and socioeconomic backgrounds. What did you learn about the concept of ‘the runaway,’ in general? And can you speak to this idea of mothers and daughters being close in age, because, like you, I got the ‘you must be sisters’ comment frequently, which I hated.
Traditionally there’s this romantic notion of the young man hitting the open road in search of himself,
or America (same thing, I guess). But a girl in search of such experience? That experience is assumed to be sexual, and she’s cast as a bad girl, a dangerous girl. Or else she’s a damaged waif who needs rescuing. Or both at once. So the meaning of “runaway” changes with gender; you have Jack Kerouac, or even Huck Finn, on one side, and Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, and Sandy West ripping through “Cherry Bomb” on the other. In reality, boys of that era, the early 1970s, were also often written off and discarded; many of the teenage boys who were victims of the horrific Houston Mass Murders were just assumed to be runaways when they disappeared, when in fact they were abducted and killed. Dozens of boys going missing like that for that long before anyone connected them was shocking to me until I read that somewhere around a million kids had run away during that early-‘70s period.
So many of the stories I found on runaways from that time did end up being crime stories. In 1971 more than 200,000 kids were arrested as runaways. In 1972, 55 percent of girl runaways in New York City were in the 11-14 years old range. That’s a highly vulnerable group, and the response was to form a special NYPD task force to target the problem. I suppose they thought arresting those kids was better than the alternative as they often saw it, abuse or trafficking or addiction or death, or all of the above. Nationally, the U.S. needed federal legislation in the form of the Runaway Youth Act to standardize a structural response more robust than throwing them in jail, and it didn’t go into effect until 1974.
But while there are elements of a crime story in my book, I also thought it was important to show my mother in her more independent and strong moments. I wanted to show her having a good time, too. Girls have agency and an impact on other people. They aren’t just having things done to them.
Growing up, I resented the pop culture trope of the “cool young mom” who treats her daughter like her sister because that seemed like an utter fantasy to me. My mom was a cool mom if that meant she had a closet full of great vintage outfits and good taste in music. But she wasn’t permissive at all. She was pretty strict. And I think that had a lot to do with her knowing how dangerous it could be for a girl to be running wild out there, how un-invested the rest of the world would be in looking out for me. But also, raising her kids to be polite and well-behaved was important, I think. We were proof that she could be a good mom even if she hadn’t been “a good girl,” if that makes sense.
You take an interesting dive into forensics when you uncover—somewhat—the skeleton of a young girl, Sandy, who was also a fifteen-year-old runaway no one claimed. The Smithsonian apparently got ahold of this ‘specimen,’ but then, ironically, couldn’t locate it. You juxtapose that with this skull grandfather carried from his days as an Army officer, which was passed to your dad. How did you see these two pieces fitting together? Are they sort of one in the same: a remnant or a remain of who you thought your parents were? A skull, a shell? A structure?
The idea of remnants—of ghosts and hauntings and the power of the physical pieces of ourselves we leave behind—does play a large role in this book. Megan, my mother’s first chosen identity, was a kind of ghost; a girl who died, in a way, when my mother went home the first time, but who left something of herself behind in the world that I could feel but not see or name.
My father’s absence haunted me through much of my life, until I learned more about him through my investigation.
I guess maybe it was weird that a human skull was such a normalized part of the home décor? My mother was a nurse and her father was a war veteran—family dinner conversations often veered into talk of death, bloody injuries, medical grotesqueries. I think we were all just pretty used to the idea of death—I don’t remember, really, a time in my life before I knew that someone could just disappear from your life forever.
The story of Sandy stayed with me because she was abandoned in the end. My heart aches for her unresolved death, how nobody has been held responsible. I suppose Sandy is a kind of shadow twin of my mother, but she is also only herself, and deserving of her own story. I hope someone finds it.
While Runaway is technically a memoir, it’s not exclusively about you, or even your direct response to events, but contains a good deal of investigation, interrogation, and piecing together, which I love. In some ways, it dances around facts by peering through the lens of movies and counterculture. Can you give us some insight into your process, how you chose this structure? Maybe it chose you?
I would classify this book as memoir-plus—or, to be even more granular, an essay collection that blends personal narrative and family memoir with cultural criticism, original reporting and research—
about what we lose when we downplay the complicated lives of girls and women in favor of men’s stories and narrative lenses. This book is an attempt to use the frame of my family’s story to explore the idea that men who abuse their power over girls and women, such as the celebrity men exposed by #MeToo reporting, aren’t special, even if the ones we read about in headlines occupy a heightened level of notoriety. They are products of (and in some cases, creators of and collaborators in) a culture that privileges and elevates men’s perspectives and experiences—which includes, but isn’t limited to, their excessive or destructive behaviors—over those of women and girls. Those imbalances of power and narrative are replicated at pretty much every level. Along the way I attempt to detangle a version of the truth from the myths I believed and had a hand in creating and perpetuating, and that’s work that I found more suited to essay than to straightforward narrative memoir, at least for the writer I am. I’m a journalist and a culture critic first, so I approached this project with those sets of tools.
Your father died when you were young. The American Journal of Psychiatry, as you state in the book, indicates the loss of a parent (presumably to death), is one of the most traumatic events a child can experience. That might also apply to loss of a parent through other means: abandonment, substance abuse, prison, mental illness. Can you talk about, please? Did that loss propel your investigation?
Definitely. I thought I was writing a book that would explain how my father could have become the person who made such a terrible decision—marrying a 15-year-old girl—because if I could explain him, I could reconcile the difference between the man I loved and missed so much and the reality of what he did. It was only after I had done the first big round of reporting that I realized this tendency to want to explain Why The Man Did What He Did is part of what keeps men’s stories in the foreground even when we are ostensibly focused on the women they’ve harmed. Why did he do it? Because he could. Because she agreed to it and even made it happen. (I doubt he would have been as resourceful as she was in the procurement of the fake documents needed to get around the law.) Because he made the choices that made the most sense to him given the tools he had to navigate life at that time. Because a lot of people around him were invested in him finding stability, which was seen as more important than a girl’s future, so they didn’t intervene.
After I finished writing the book, I discovered that I don’t long for my missing father in the same way anymore. I found him on the page and made my peace.
There’s a lovely line in the book—and I’m paraphrasing—but something about filling in holes in understanding the past when so much of the world doesn’t make sense. I think that’s an elegant way of putting it: when we feel moored in the world, we try to make sense of what we can: our own past. Can you expand on that?
I think humans are driven by narrative, and we tend to want to craft narratives that make sense, even if it means working around some blank spaces,
because so much of existence does not make sense. We want to resolve the dissonant notes and make the picture snap into focus. Sometimes we overcompensate and tell ourselves a story that isn’t entirely true. Every family has these stories. Sometimes they can do more harm than good. But also, every story gives us opportunities for revision and reclamation.
Let’s shift to the subtitle for a moment: Notes on the Myths that Made Me. I’m interested in word ‘myth,’ because it could easily transform to ‘fantasy’ or ‘lie.’ This idea of a lie surfaces frequently: accept lies you’re told and make them yours…the best lies are close to the truth…white lies even…in the end, it’s about identity and self-preservation. Could it be that we are all a conglomerate of what we’ve been told, our memories, our experiences? Would you agree with that, or did I miss the mark?
I do believe that. But I’ll also push it a little further. We’re all capable of reassessing the soundness of the myths that made us and changing our minds about what we believe. When it comes to celebrities, I think often we are reluctant to admit that we had been fans of, say, the man now in the headlines for doing the bad thing—or, if we want to remain fans, to admit that the man could have done the bad thing in the headline—because fandom can be such a strong element of identity. We need to embrace the idea that actively changing our minds can be a good thing, not always a betrayal.
Leslie Lindsay’s writing has been featured in The Smart Set, Brevity, Fractured Literary, The Millions, The Florida Review, Levitate, The Rumpus, ANMLY, The Tiny Journal, Essay Daily, Hippocampus, Psychology Today, Mutha Magazine, Ruminate’s The Waking, Visual Verse, Manifest-Station, Literary Mama, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver Magazine, Motherwell, with forthcoming work in ELJ, The Cincinnati Review, On the Seawall, DIAGRAM, and Craft Literary. She was recently accepted to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop and has participated in continuing education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Northwestern University, Story Studio Chicago, and Corporeal Writing. She resides in the Greater Chicago suburbs and is at work on a memoir excavating her mother’s madness through fragments. She is a former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. and can be found @leslielindsay1 on Twitter and Instagram where she shares thoughtful explorations and musings on literature, art, design, and nature.
Erin Keane is a critic, poet, essayist, and journalist. She’s the author Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me (Belt Publishing, 2022), three collections of poetry, and editor of The Louisville Anthology (Belt Publishing, 2020). Her writing has appeared in many publications and anthologies, and in 2018, she was co-producer and co-host of the limited audio series These Miracles Work: A Hold Steady Podcast. She is Editor in Chief at Salon and teaches in the Sena Naslund-Karen Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University.
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