Interview with Debra Gwartney, this year’s nonfiction writer for the In Print Festival of First Books

Deborah Gwartney

Debra Gwartney is this year’s nonfiction author for the In Print Festival of First Books, and also the star of our second excerpted interview from The Broken Plate. She is the author of the memoir Live Through This, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2009, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a former reporter for the Oregonian and worked as a correspondent for Newsweek for ten years. She teaches writing at Portland State University and is the mother of four daughters. Here is our excerpt of her interview:

What was your thought process on how to structure the book? I noticed the events were mostly chronological, but you use quite a few flashbacks. Why did you include flashbacks?

When I first began writing about this time in my family’s life, I found I could structure a fairly decent two- or three-thousand word piece. I wrote, and published, maybe six such stories and then I figured I’d just put those together and have at least a good hunk of a book. Um, no. That didn’t work in the least. I wasn’t after a book of essays—nor did the stories succeed as a book of essays—and yet the over-arching arc of a book-length memoir eluded me. After many failed attempts at discovering a structure, I finally one day sat down and wrote a list of the, say, ten integral scenes. Ten scenes onto which I’d hang the rest of the narrative. I didn’t worry that much about the chronology of those scenes (although of course I had to consider chronology eventually), because I was determined not to let the narrative get trapped in the plodding episodic, “and then this happened, and then that happened…” I was much more interested in the themes I was watching emerge organically from the text, and in glimpses of metaphor, which I tried not to over-think but let take shape as they wanted. Flashbacks would occur to me here and there as ways to deepen the meaning, to sharpen the symbolism, of certain sections. I felt the reader needed to know at least a little something about my younger self—my childhood, and my young adulthood—in order to relate to the woman who, as narrator, was ready to face her own responsibility in the conflagration of her family.

What’s the future in writing look like for you? What are you working on now?

I’m working on another memoir, even while I have to ask myself how one person could have enough life experience, really, to justify two books about herself. I’d like to think I do, and so on I go collecting pages of drafts and continuing to research, in order to discover that “over-arching arc.” I’d like to write about growing up in the west, a fifth-generation Idahoan, my relationship to my region and my people, as well as my conflicted desires regarding place and family: to both celebrate and cling to my heritage, and to run from it as fast as I can.

*(Interviewed by Phoebe Blake)

We would like to thank the editors of The Broken Plate for allowing us to excerpt these interviews. We can’t wait for the new issue to be released at this year’s In Print. Here’s a breakdown of the In Print info as a reminder:

Wednesday, March 23, AJ 175, 7:30pm: In Print Reading.
Debra Gwartney, Paul Killebrew, and Tina May Hall will read from their recently published books.

Thursday, March 24, AJ 175, 7:30pm: In Print Panel Discussion.
The authors will be joined by James Tadd Adcox, editor of Artifice Magazine, for a discussion about writing and publishing.

As a bonus for attending this year’s festival, all In Print attendees will receive a FREE copy of the 2011 issue of The Broken Plate! There will also be a book signing and reception immediately following each event. We have one more excerpt in the works from an interview with poet Paul Killebrew, so keep watching, BSU!

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