Taking a Break from the Kingdom of the Sick

There’s still no news on Richard’s pathology report. His slides are on the desk of a top neuropathologist, and she’s out of the country at a professional meeting until next week. Richard and I are pretty tired of living in what Susan Sontag called “the kingdom of the sick,” so after we get home from Denver, where we are now for three days of follow-up tests and consults, we’re taking off on a road trip to Texas and New Mexico.

While we’re there, I’ll be doing several appearances with an author I admire: Susan Wittig Albert, creator of the China Bayles herbal mystery series, as well as the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter mystery series, plus others co-authored with her husband, Bill Albert. Susan is also the founder of Story Circle Network, an organization devoted to nurturing the voices of women writing about their lives. She’s former English professor and university administrator, and a voracious researcher. She’s also the author of a new memoir, Together, Alone, published by University of Texas Press, hence our “two Susans tour,” where we’ll read from and talk about our memoirs, both of which look at place and our relationship to it, as well as at making space for ourselves in our lives. So here to break us out of the kingdom of the sick is Susan Albert, talking about her memoir and the decisions she made in telling the story.

Q: You open Together, Alone by describing the late April day when you and Bill parked Amazing Grace, the tiny RV you had spent the past seven months living in, on a hilltop at the edge-of-Texas-Hill-Country land you now call Meadow Knoll. After an afternoon of walking the creek and sitting by the lake, you write that the two of you return to Amazing Grace, where you heat a pot of soup on the propane stove and make sandwiches, and then take your food outdoors to eat while watching the sunset. Much later, still awake as Bill sleeps and watching the black sky through the camper window, you watch “a star fall like a blazing gift. We didn’t know it yet, but we had come home.” Why begin there, and not at some other point in the story?

Susan A: As you know, life stories often don’t have a “natural” beginning–it’s up to the memoirist to choose the opening that fits the story best. But stories can take so many different shapes, go in so many different directions, and it’s hard to decide just where to start.

In this case, the beginning (as did the ending) emerged after I had been writing for a bit and more of the focus of the story began to emerge. Then it became clear that Amazing Grace (nomad that she was) was an important aspect of myself (nomad that I had been, to that point in my life). So I went back to my journal, found my entries for the weekend that we decided to commit ourselves for the foreseeable future to Meadow Knoll, and used those as a starting point. Coming to a stop, as it were. Parking that RV and leaving our nomad, wandering ways to settle down, to root ourselves, to find a home, to come home.

Q: When you say, “We didn’t know it yet,” you (the narrator) switch from being immersed in the present of that day more than two decades ago, to the you now, a different person in many ways. Was it hard to call up what Zen Buddhists sometimes call “beginner’s mind,” and remember what you didn’t know then but you do now? It seems to me that being able to remember you as you once were is critical to writing memoir, and being able to switch back and forth fluidly  helps create the dramatic tension that memoir requires. Is that a switch you made consciously, or does it come without thought, polished by your practice of writing novels and switching from narrator to character and back again without tripping the reader in the process?

Susan A: Memoir is a wonderfully open form that allows us to move from points in the past into the present and back again–as well as from one voice (the naive narrator/storyteller, embedded in the story time) to another voice (the knowing commentator, the one who reflects on the story). This play with time and voice can lend memoir a richly ironic tension.

But it also imposes an especially difficult discipline on the writer: the responsibility to return as fully as possible to the remembered moment that she wants to write about, and report it faithfully, even though that moment is gone, buried by layers of subsequent experience, feeling, reinterpretation. How can the memoirist become that naïve narrator when she has already gone through the experience, forgotten so much–now, perhaps, knows too much?

I was incredibly fortunate, because those years of my life were so deeply documented. I was journaling like a madwoman, situating myself in a new life, in new commitments to marriage and place, unmoored from my nomadic, uncommitted past. And in those journal entries, my “beginner’s mind” was right there on the page, in front of me: myself, in all my clumsy naïveté, with so many lessons ahead of me. I don’t know whether it was my experience of novel form/practice that helped, or whether it was the availability of such rich primary material. But there it was. I loved working with it.

Q: You’ve said before–on your blog as well as in other contexts–that you love research and immersing yourself in the details of a story. That comes across in Together, Alone especially in the early chapters telling the history of Meadow Knoll: you picture the geology of the area, where it fits in its bioregion, the inhabitants you know only as fossils, and you conjure up the people who have lived their before you and Bill. That ability to dig up beneath the surface and tell the story of a place also comes across in the chapters from Lebh Shomea, the retreat center where you go for time away. It seemed to me as if you are painting a portrait of yourself using what visual artists call the “negative space,” the area around you, or in this case the places you chose to live in and love. Were you thinking of it in those terms as you wrote? Is this a device you’ve used in your novels?

Susan A: “Negative space.” I like that! It’s a rich idea, and I’m pleased that it came to you as you read.

But what was in my mind was more basic than that. I am a creature of place, and the place that shapes me exists in a te
mporal continuum, within an evolving history. That’s why the idea of nomads–a motif that ties together the two places in the book–is so important to me. The residents of my place (plants, animals, people, from pre-history to the present) are all a part of my own story, whether I meet them as fossils or find their relics (an iron wagon wheel–that nomadic symbol of westward expansion) or meet them face to face. We are all (plants, animals, people) searching for a place to anchor ourselves within the flux of time and change. We can’t know who we are until we know the place where we are, whether we’ve chosen that place deliberately or simply find ourselves in it by accident.

And of course, setting (that’s what place is about, isn’t it?) is an important element in every novel. But I do try to foreground setting, and the books of mine that I like best include a great deal of setting material: the history novels I’ve written with Bill (as Robin Paige), and in some of the China Bayles novels: Bloodroot and Wormwood. These are books about people who are shaped by the places they live and the times they’ve lived through.

Q: Together, Alone is a book of two places, Meadow Knoll, where you live with Bill, and Lebh Shomea, where you retreat to be alone. That structure and that dichotomy are very much a reflection of your marriage, which you describe by saying that although you and Bill live and work in close quarters, you are still “alone, individual, not a both but an each.” It seems to me that dichotomy also describes you as an individual, and perhaps all of us, as we try to find a balance between the seemingly opposing desires to be part of a pair and at the same time to find space alone to maintain our individuality. In writing the book, was it hard to weave those two parts–the two places, the concept of marriage as a union of “eaches,” and the two Susans–into a coherent and compelling whole?

Susan A: Yes, it was blasted hard! At one point, I thought: this is really two books–why am I trying to pull all this together into one? But I finally recognized that this duality/dichotomy was the crux of the issue: that I want to be in a place with Bill and I also want to be in another place where he is not. This is the trick of our marriage, and the trick of the book. It’s not easy to live within this dichotomy, and it wasn’t easy to create a narrative structure that embraces both of the parts. Finally, I had to rely on the continuity of the voice as a bridge between the two places. I’m present in both places. I hope that’s a strong enough force to hold the two halves together.

Q: I’m struck by where you end the book: Back at home in Meadow Knoll, at the end of an extended retreat to Lebh Shomea. After a walk around the place, you describe a literal and metaphorical coming back to where you began the story, down to the details of the meal and your view of the night sky from the window over your bed (even though it’s a different window now): “And later, after soup and sandwiches and a quiet evening, lying in bed with the window open and the room flooded with the moon’s silver brightness, I hear a coyote singing, her coyote self filled with the infinity of night and stars, at home in the wholeness, loving the loveliness of the world, in place and free.” Did you plan the arc of the story this way, or did it just come around in a circle on its own?

Susan A: The ending came on its own, through the force of the story. (And I have to say this, as a writer: when this happens, I’m delighted. I love to sit there and let the story find itself.) There’s an earlier chapter that describes the ancient European tradition of “beating the bounds”–walking around the place where you live, marking its boundaries, re-placing the self in a changing and often conflicted world. The ending grew out of that chapter and is true to the many times that I have come home and felt compelled to walk around the place before I did anything else. But as I wrote it (or watched and listened as the last paragraphs wrote themselves) I remembered the place where I had opened the story: the walk to the lake, the simple meal, lying awake in Amazing Grace. As an arc of understanding, it felt right to me. It felt complete, a kind of peace.


If you’re in the Austin and San Marcos area, join Susan and me in our Women & Place: Two Voices, Two Perspectives tour next week. Here are dates:

  • 10/28  Texas State University-San Marcos, Allkek Library, 3:30 – 5:00 p.m. Reading and book signing
  • 11/01  Texas Book Festival, University of Texas Press booth, Austin, 11:30 – 12:30 p.m. Book signing
  • 11/02  Be Our Guest Event, Garrison Chapel, First United Methodist Church, 1201 Lavaca Street, Austin, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m., Reading and book signing sponsored by Story Circle Network