Saturday, August 27, 2016

An Interview by Glenda C. Beall with Steven Harvey, essayist and author of The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a memoir

Steve Harvey, author 
Steven Harvey is the author of three books of personal essays. A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove. He has also edited an anthology of essays written by men on middle age called In a Dark Wood. His memoir The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, was recently published by Ovenbird Books. I appreciate him giving his time to answer a few questions for this interview. 


GCB: Steve, I’ve known you for more than twenty years and always admired your writing and your teaching. You were a poet and you are an essayist. How was writing a memoir different from writing your other books?

STEVE: All of my writing has a personal component, but the memoir required a different kind of digging. Armed with only a few vivid memories of my childhood, I was asking myself to reconstruct a past. I did have more than four hundred letters that covered all but the last year of the book, but they served primarily as a mnemonic evoking images, thoughts, memories, and events that I had not thought about in years.

It was intense, all this remembering. As usual, I wrote in the mornings and taught in the afternoons, but this was the only book of the many I’ve written that I could not leave back at the writer’s desk when I drove in to teach my students.

GCB: The story in this book is that of a little boy and his mother, and then it is the story of a man who discovers his mother many years after her suicide.

STEVE: Yes, and I think that is why the Peter Pan Story—of the lost boys in Never Never Land—was so important. The only time I became overtly emotional in the actual writing of the book is when I recreated the scene of Mary Martin as Peter Pan singing “Distant Melody” as a lullaby to the Lost Boys. There, the Lost Boy Peter, played by a woman, sings a lullaby that his mother sang to him. When I watched the clip on the screen of my computer the intertwined stories of boy and mother united in one actress seemed to recapitulate my attempt to collaborate with my mother in our story. When it was over my hand was on the screen.



Steven Harvey and his mother in 1952
GCB: Adults tend to keep children in the dark when a family tragedy happens. Do you think your father and grandparents did not talk about your mother’s death in an effort to protect you, to keep you from feeling the pain they suffered?

STEVE: I think that they were protecting me, but maybe trying to get some distance themselves from what had happened. It is awfully hard to carry that kind of thing around with you. I also think they were waiting for me to ask about it, but I was too busy putting the events behind me to do that. Part of the discovery of the last section of the book is how much of my time I spent shoving the memory away through withdrawal into solitary artistic activities such as playing guitar until my past was all but forgotten.

GCB: I felt your pain as a child who had to figure out how to suddenly handle the fact that your mother was gone and would not ever return even though you write about it with no self-pity. Do you think that all the years that have passed helped you deal with the pain you felt then? Was this pain buried so deeply inside you that it was difficult to open it up and feel it all again?




Steven with the Book of Knowledge, ten volumes beautifully bound, given to him by his parents.
STEVE: The experience of writing the book was intense, but not painful. My problem was that I had repressed almost everything. So writing the book was more about making discoveries—knowing and wondering as the title says—than about agonizing over the discoveries. When the emotions did come they were actually feelings of affection and love. I was grateful to feel anything for my mother and the boy I was. The emotions were the victory of the book.


GCB: I find it interesting that your grandmother talked openly with your wife, Barbara, about your mother’s death and gave her the letters on which you based much of your research for the book, but she did not talk to you even when you were an adult. Why do you think she did that?

STEVE: I don’t know. I suspect my grandmother was baffled that I did not ask. Barbara is easy to talk to. She’s curious and asks questions and is a great listener with a prodigious memory. She also writes wonderful, newsy letters and like my mother wrote regularly to my grandmother. In the end she was my grandmother’s closest confidante, I think.

GCB: Our audience is made up primarily of writers. I will try to ask the questions they would ask. How did you handle parts of your story that involved family members still living – your brother, for instance? Did you feel you had to leave out or change anything?

STEVE: There is no easy answer to this one. I wrote the book as honestly as I could, but when I was done I showed the manuscript to my brother. It was hard for him, he told me, but in the end he said he was glad that I wrote it all down and did not ask for any part to be changed. My stepmother is in her 80’s and I planned to show her the book, but she is having a rough time with her health now so I decided not to. These are just hard decisions that each writer has to make. There is no formula.

GCB: We know that my memory of an incident could be very different from the way another person would remember it. In memoir, we can only write what we remember or what we find to be true in our research. You had the letters your mother wrote to her mother and they paint a detailed picture of what she thought at the time. Did you enjoy reading the letters and did they bring back the past that you had forgotten?

STEVE: The letters were one half of a conversation I needed to have. I am extremely grateful that I had them. I found myself moved, delighted, sad, furious, and joyous by turns as I read them, but they were so direct and frank and detailed that they simply invited me in. My mother and I talked every day for nearly two years as she and I wrote the book together. Collaborators. They were an amazing gift.


Steve's most honest critic 

GCB: How much influence did Barbara have on your writing this book?

STEVE: Barbara is my source of information and the protector of my morning writing time. (She sleeps late in the morning which helps!) She is one of the most well-read people I know. I once heard her go book by book against Phillip Lopate when my writing friends and I had dropped out of the conversation. She held her own against one of America’s greatest readers. She is also my first reader and my most honest critic.

GCB: You have been a teacher and a writer for as long as I have known you. You have written a number of books, A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove, edited a book of essays and published in other ways. How did you manage to be a participating father, husband and professor of English and find time to write?

STEVE: I don’t know! I write every morning because I can’t help myself.

GCB: Did you wait until you had retired from Young Harris College to write this memoir because you knew it would be taxing psychologically and physically with traveling back to the places you lived as a child and going to the place where she actually shot herself?

STEVE: No, I wrote the book during my last two years at the college--which was a pretty intense time since I also taught in an MFA program. The traveling happened to coincide with the AWP writer’s conference which was in Chicago that year, a lucky break.

GCB: We are told that we have to be honest and not be afraid to bleed on the page if we want to successfully reach our readers. We want them to feel something. What do you want your readers to feel when they read this book?

STEVE: I want them to register the sadness of the loss, yes, but also to feel the victory of the collaboration in a story that was almost miraculously reclaimed.

GCB: Your other books are different from this one even though the subjects are still personal. In what way was writing this book different for you? Did you have to reach deeper inside yourself or did you worry about protecting yourself from exposing too much emotion?

STEVE: My essays are more thematic than the memoir—they are personal, yes, but they use my life to explore an idea I care about. Since the memoir, I have happily returned to the essay, the most congenial of forms for me.

GCB: Finally, I know the late Judith Kitchens of Ovenbird Books was your publisher, a wonderful essayist herself. Did she have any input as to what was included and if so, how did she help you?

STEVE: I did get help on the book from writers who are friends of mine: Joe Mackall, Bob Root, and Tom Larson. Judith and I have been friends for a long time, but I had not worked with her in many years. We reunited at the Ashland MFA, where I teach, after I finished the book. She read and accepted my manuscript soon after that, and completed the forward, days before she died. She is a great spirit. We all miss her.

GCB: I read memoirs more than I read fiction these days and I think The Book of Knowledge and Wonder is one of the best I’ve read in many years. Thank you for this interview and I look forward to your teaching a class at Writers Circle in September.

STEVE: Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about the book. I look forward to the class as well.





Steven Harvey, his mother, and his little brother watching Peter Pan
See more photos from the book here












9 comments:

Elephant's Child said...

I may be wrong (and am certainly open to correction) but it seems to me that not only does it take a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to bring a book to the very best it can be.
I love that this memoir was a collaboration, and a renewal and affirmation of the relationship between Steve and his mother.
My (half)brothers' father died suddenly and unexpectedly when they were quite young. They were kept away from the funeral and my eldest brother still feels 'robbed'. It was done with the very best of motives, but....

Brenda Kay Ledford said...

This is an excellent interview and I enjoyed it very much. Thanks for sharing this with us, Glenda and Steve. I look forward to reading Steven's new book.

Bill Ramsey said...

Glenda, Terrific interview. Both you and Steve will touch many writers with it. Thank you, Bill

Anonymous said...

Glenda, each interview you have done with Steve allows me to know him a little better. This was so interesting and makes me want to read his new book. Thank you both for sharing this information with your readers.

carol said...

Thanks for this interview, Glenda. The Book of Knowledge and Wonder was one of Steve's most interesting and moving. It brings up all kinds of memories about how people communicated (or didn't) with children about death during that time. It makes you glad all those letters survived.

Glenda Council Beall said...

Thanks, Carol, for reading the interview and making a comment. I hope many people read Steve's book, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, because it is not only beautifully written, but shows us how we can write about a tragedy and still make it uplifting. He has a special talent.

Anonymous said...

Well done!! The interview peaked my interest to find out more about the book and the author. It is hard to understand why such an attractive women with two young boys would find that life was not worth living. The pictures and comments by Steven were very interesting in trying to get some insight about his mother. Thank you for sharing.
Richard C.

Glenda Council Beall said...

Richard, I am glad the interview made you want to know more about the book and about Steve. I think you will enjoy reading the book and Steve's other books as well.
Thanks for taking time to comment.

Anonymous said...

Glenda, Another gem of an interview. What a conversation you must have had.

Bill Ramsey
www.authorbillramsey.com