Janet Burroway: In a World of Chaos, This Writer Makes Sense.

Even for Janet Burroway—the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor Emerita at the Florida State University and the author of eight novels, plays, poetry, essays, texts for dance, and children’s books—2014 has been a standout. First, she received a 2014 Florida Humanities Council Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing. Her craft book Writing Fiction : A Guide to Narrative Craft, the most widely used creative writing text in America, published its 9th edition, and her multi-genre Imaginative Writing is out in a fourth edition. Her novel, Raw Silk, originally published in 1977, was reissued this year by Open Road. She is also the editor of a recently published collection of essays and poems by women, all now over the age of sixty—A Story Larger Than My Own: Women Writers Look Back at Their Lives and Careers, published by University of Chicago Press. In her memoir, Losing Tim: The Life and Death of an American Contractor in Iraq (Think Piece Publishing), Burroway recounts the unimaginable: her son’s suicide. Burroway allows her readers to accompany her on her examination of the way soldiers and military contractors are changed by their combat experiences. Her story is also a revelatory examination of grief, of loss, of love. In her praise of Losing Tim, Pulitzer Prize winning author Madeleine Blais writes, “This book is both an elegy and a call to action by one of our finest writers, who addresses us from the deepest place imaginable in a voice that is loving, memorable and overflowing with generosity.”

Janet Burroway was interviewed by Nicholas Garnett for Sliver of Stone Magazine.

0073-P_Stephan_Janet Burroway-2

Your son’s suicide took place in 2004. Losing Tim was published this year, a decade later. I imagine that you needed the distance of time—years—to be able to approach the material. Was the decision to write the memoir a revelation, or a more gradual process?

I began writing soon after Tim’s death, first an angry letter to the NRA, then, compulsively, journal entries about the wash and surge of every day’s grief. At some point I realized that the journal did not really take the pattern of my thoughts, which was: grief, memory, grief, memory, grief… I realized that I was writing only about my immediate experience, whereas I needed to write those memories, even more urgently, in order to hold on to them. At the same time, I was reading everything I could find, about grief, suicide, PTSD, war – and the insights of others were hugely important to me in my learning to live without my son. A year or so after his death, I began to see that there was a book to be culled from what I was writing, one that might help me as Didion, Styron, Alvarez, Finkel, Hillman and others had helped me. As for the distance of years – yes; the first maybe two-thirds of the book came easily, which is to say compulsively. The rest I wrote over and over and over again, and I think it’s true that I had to come to a place where I myself felt steady and at peace again before I could finish it as it needed to finish.

The reader experiences Losing Tim as a collage. There’s a chronological narrative. But there are also many vivid flashbacks and ruminations. How did you decide how to structure the material?

I believe that structure began as I described, with the need to capture my daily memories as well as my anguish. The book as it’s finally structured tells two stories more or less chronologically and interleaved: the story of his life and the story of my loss. There are interruptions of that pattern too, because anecdotes from his life seem to connect here and there to the immediate feeling or idea, but basically that is the structure, which was the structure of the days: I hurt, and I remember. I’m very conscious, and do acknowledge, that this is my story of his life, as clear and true as I can tell it, but not as he would have told it.

In the memoir you recount the influence of Tim’s death on a novel you began a year after his suicide. In that story you gave the heroine a baby that died a week after it was born. The fictional mother imagines holding her buried child as it disperses into the universe, an image you admit you could not have written about autobiographically. How does fiction present its own kind of truth?

Ah, a huge question. I guess my (partial) answer is that fiction is the truth that gets told in spite of you. Strangely and unexpectedly, once the memoir was in the publisher’s hands, I came to feel that, having told my truth as near as I could, I was now freed of the facts. And I began writing a play about Tim’s death – on which I’ve now been working for nearly two years, because it’s a messy, even chaotic process. I’ve felt free to change places and characters, objects, action, motives – the works. Things that were never mentioned among those of us who loved and survived Tim, problems that never arose, feelings never acknowledged, words never spoken, blame never assigned – those things erupt in the play in spite of me, and the domestic drama becomes a kind of courtroom in which everyone faces the failure to save this life. I don’t in any real-world practical way think Tim’s suicide was the failure of those who loved him. Still, there it is, the words write themselves, and I have to know that beneath the best logic there is a level of feeling extant, important, true, even though it is imperative not to act on it in life.

Near the beginning of the memoir you write that you’ve always told your students the end of a story “is the most important part . . . because we readers will look for whatever we mean by meaning.” By the time you’d written the ending of Losing Tim, what was your sense of what the story “meant?” Had that notion changed over the course of writing and revising the memoir?

Yes. Writing is the way writers make sense of chaos. It’s what we do. With a life-fact this enormous, it simply took a long time to write myself to an ordered place. I do think blame can be assigned to the war, the government that ordered it, the coalition bureaucrats in Iraq who mismanaged it, the contractors who cared more for money than for their men. I hope to have said something about their responsibility. But those are political facts, demanding action. They are not the purpose of either Tim’s life or of my book. I’ve just realized this: the book does not end with his suicide, but with the people his work may have saved. So I have also to the best of my paltry capacity also changed his “meaning.”

You write that “loss is another word for longing.” How are loss and longing related?

My point here is that when we are young we long for this and that, love, fame, money, home – projecting ourselves into a future that will surely be more marvelous than this mundane moment. But when there is more of life behind us than ahead, it is those mundane moments that are revealed as marvelous. Sometimes the most painful passages to live through are the ones most precious to remember. Why is that?! Because finally it’s story that matters most to us? And it’s our own marvelous shining particular narrative we long for?

In Losing Tim, you write about some of the ways being a young woman in the 60s and 70s influenced you.  In A Story Larger than My Own you assemble the work of a generation of women writers who also came of age during the feminist movement. How did you go about deciding on the authors and selecting their work?

A Story Larger Than My Own originated in a panel I put together for AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) in 2009.  I wanted to hear from other women like myself who were entering the late phase of their writing careers.  And I reasoned that others might need this perspective too.  We’re always telling young writers how to begin.  But what does it look like from the other end of a career?  What still matters?  What would you do differently?  What do you wish you had known?  The five of us on the panel were astonished at the interest of the audience, so we did the panel again, but with different writers, at the next AWP conference, and then a third time.  Somewhere in the middle of this I saw there must be more women than those at the conferences, writers or not, who were interested in these questions of looking back, of the long perspective, of assessment and reflection.  I started by asking which of the women on the three panels were interested in expanding their remarks or taking on the task of a new essay.  Some were, some weren’t.  Then I made a (long) list of women I myself would like to hear from, and began writing them.  Many were still too busy to make time for such an essay, and I must say many of the best known and most highly regarded of those turned me down very graciously, with good will toward the project.  But some of those I most wanted to hear from came through, and then U. of Chicago Press took an interest and made it happily happen.  One of the things that most cheered me as an editor was that, although many of us had had similar experiences in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, the forms and focus of the essays varied widely.  Some meditated on a single aspect of the writing life.  Some gave the sweep of a career.  Some pursued a metaphor, some an intellectual or political point, some a personal confession.  The writers have things to say about ambition, loss, joy, gratitude, the aging body, rage and hope — and as I had hoped, the book isn’t just for writers.

Is there one thing those of us under 60 should know?

Old people don’t walk that way because they’re old. They walk that way because they hurt.

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  1. […] with Janet Burroway, Joe Clifford, Anjanette Delgado, Barbara Hamby, and José Ignacio Valenzuela (also available in […]

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