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Take Five: Local memoirist Kathleen Finneran on making her Florissant family an open book

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2011 - When Kathleen Finneran of Florissant was 23 years old, her 15-year-old brother Sean took his own life by swallowing an overdose of their father's heart medicine. The suicide of the fourth of five Finneran children gouged a wound in the family that festered as Finneran navigated a career path that eventually led to literature, and ultimately to a memoir of her brother's death.

Washington University students pay tuition to get pointers from Finneran in her non-fiction workshops. But writers and lovers of memoir will have the chance to ask Finneran about her craft for a small fee during a Wednesday, June 1, reading from a work in progress in a Lindell Boulevard mansion as part of the Beacon Festival.

We got the conversation started early with this interview, talking with the university's writer-in-residence about her 2000 book, "The Tender Land," and two hallmarks of memoir that seem to be diametrically opposed: honesty and lies.

You've written that memoir involves "a legitimate way of lying" and that most of the dialogue is made up because no memoirist can remember conversations word for word. Can you say more about that?

Finneran: The major rule of memoir is to try to tell the story as truthfully as possible, at least emotionally. But memoir is the manipulation of a story to create a narrative that is cohesive and compelling. To create literature out of life, there is crafting involved that I don't think people sometimes have a lot of tolerance for. I think if we memoirists didn't do those things, the same readers probably wouldn't be as tolerant of a story that's not as well-told.

I get that question all the time about how do I remember verbatim all these conversations that I recreate in my work. And of course, I don't. But some people have very purist and inflexible relationships to what is truth and what is not truth. And possibly those people should be sticking to fiction, I don't know.

Do you write any fiction?

Finneran: I've attempted it a few times but I don't have a very active or interesting imagination. I'm much more drawn to things that happen in reality and how those things get represented in literature. I really wish I could write fiction -- I'm sure my family also wishes I could write fiction.

So when writing a memoir that involves family, should you just go ahead and issue a blanket apology to all your family members?

Finneran: I always let my family know what I'm working on but I don't ever expect them to tell me that I can or cannot write what I'm interested in writing about. I never feel I'm writing about them in a way that's injurious or would require me to apologize.

But there is a kind of a naivete to that assumption, and I got a lesson in that when I was finished with "The Tender Land" and gave it to my family in manuscript form. The reaction my parents had was surprisingly negative and I was somewhat shocked by that. But a friend explained that it's as if someone took a picture of you and they think it's the best picture of you but it makes you recoil. It's not a typical thing to have your life exposed in detail to a wide public. I don't know at first that I really paid attention to the ramifications of that.

In time they've grown to like it more and more. Once it came out in published form and their friends and community members and church members read it and were saying really complimentary things to them about it, then it started to shift and they started to appreciate it in a different way.

In "The Tender Land," you reveal many personal things about yourself, including motives that are not always flattering. People often don't even know their own motives. Are you just particularly self-aware?

Finneran: I don't think I'm all that self-aware on an experiential level. That self-awareness is a byproduct of creating literature, for me. I probably would be less self-aware if I didn't write.

But I never really felt that I was giving away anything about myself personally. People ask me how it is to be in front of an audience who have read the book and they know a lot of things about my life they wouldn't know otherwise, but it never occurs to me that that's the case. I always kind of remember the things that are disclosed in terms of the language that was created to disclose them.

How did you come to write about your brother's suicide, and did it help you deal with it?

Finneran: I was writing all these different personal essays [in my Washington University program] and no matter what the subject, I would start writing something about my brother's death. For instance, I wrote an essay about the expansion of the suburbs in North County that were displacing farmland that was there when I was a child. And all of a sudden in the middle of that, I started writing about my brother's death.

It occurred to me that maybe I should write an essay that was totally centered on losing my brother — so I did. When I finally finished the book, I finished actively grieving the loss of my brother in a way that I might not ever have.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.