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Rebecca Aronson
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Carrie Green
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Daniel Browne
Michael Gavaghen
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Bill Capossere


Henry Rollins
Alison Smith

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Contributor's Notes

An Interview with Alison Smith

Corey Ginsberg

Alison Smith's writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Granta, The London Telegraph, The New York Times, The Believer, Glamour, Best American Erotica, and other publications. Smith’s memoir, Name All the Animals, which was published by Scribner, was named one of the top ten books of the year in 2004 by People Magazine. It was short-listed for the Book-Sense-Book-of-the-Year Award. Smith has received the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the Judy Grahn Prize for Nonfiction and a Lambda Literary Award.

Smith currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Before she published Name All the Animals, she worked as a waitress, newspaper reporter, teacher, education activist, theatre director and fundraiser, tutor, assistant editor, dishwasher and receptionist.

Name All the Animals has been published in seven foreign countries, and is available in an audio book read by the author.

Smith spoke at Florida International University’s Writers on the Bay on October 30th, 2008, and was interviewed by Corey Ginsberg on October 31st, 2008, for Gulf Stream Magazine.

CG: Name All the Animals deals with many complex themes such as faith, family dynamic, sexuality and self-deprivation—each of which is revealed through your struggle to come to terms with the death of your brother Roy and the accompanying grief. Yet the word “grief” only appears two or three times in the book. How difficult did you find it to write about the grieving process without naming it such?

AS: I didn’t set out specifically to not use the word “grief.” But I did set out to avoid any words I considered to be shortcuts or shorthand. For example, after my brother died, I developed a wrongheaded notion that if I stopped eating most of my food and saved half for him, he would come back to me. I could save him this way. In depriving myself of nourishment and turning it into an obsessive ritual, I was becoming anorexic. But I didn’t use the words “anorexic” or “eating disorder” in the book. I felt that as soon as you say certain words, they are a shorthand, a cliché we go to that does not allow the reader to have a full experience step-by-step of the story. Instead, the reader is invited to make up the difference. I thought the writer’s job was to do more work than that, and the reader should do less work. The reader is paying for the book and for the full experience. The full experience comes when you don’t shorthand, sentimentalize or use clichés. With every scene I wrote I asked myself about the reader and the best way to invite them in. Not just intellectually, but physically and emotionally, too. Can they see it, feel it, touch it, smell it? I wanted very much to be in the point of view of a fifteen-year-old girl going through this experience who doesn’t know anything about the jargon around her, or about eating disorders. She was not living in that world and didn’t have the privilege of that worldly, savvy view. That child point of view was really driving a lot of the book.

CG: One of the most affecting aspects of Name All the Animals is the ending of each chapter. Many conclude with concrete images such as Van Gogh’s flowers, your father’s face as he blesses you with his relics, or the folds of muslin fabric on your classmates’ dresses. Others feature actions—Sister Agnes screaming, yours and Terry’s breaths floating on a chilly night, the ghost man running home. Could you speak a bit about the process of deciding where to break for a chapter and how you chose a final image or scene to carry the reader to the next one?

AS: One of the best things anyone ever told me about writing was that every chapter should answer one question and ask another. Before I heard that, I was going more on the “Well, we got to page twenty-five, shouldn’t we move on?” approach. But when a writer told me this, I started to re-read some of my favorite books, looking at character structure. It’s a fun and satisfying part of re-reading to look for a different craft issue after each read. You can learn so much that way. I thought about where each chapter begins and ends in Jane Eyre and in This Boy’s Life. Looking at all these beginnings and seeing where they went next, it helped me see how much you have to think about what your first image is, where you take it, and when the reader needs something such as a reflective moment.

It also made me think about the blank space between two chapters. You end at this moment of the girls walking up and down the hallway. Where do you go from there? Do you pick up one minute later? A day later? A year later? Those breaks are so artful. I learned basic things like how to jump forward to an image, a scene, et cetera, that is the core of the next chapter. If you need to, you can then add a little exposition in the next chapter to fill in the pieces.

All of writing is summary and scene. You have to summarize. What you have to figure out is scenes. If you turn something into a scene, it’s important and you have taken a huge spotlight and said, “Look at this.” That’s the only time we have scene. [Writers] summarize a lot. It’s part of our job. Not everything can be a scene. The funny thing is that there are all these rules about show don’t tell. The other thing we have to learn is to speed it up, to summarize. I find I have to write an entire scene, then revise it. After that, I realize the reader doesn’t need to know this—I can write this in two sentences and move on. This isn’t the heat of the moment. We can cut this.

Part of the game is to write those forty pages—to see them and realize I don’t need them—they are not moving my story forward emotionally, not moving my plot forward. And cut them.

CG: Since the scandal involving James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the ethics of nonfiction writing has been a hot topic. What liberties do you think a nonfiction writer can take when sculpting a story such as the one you tell, and what rules must she follow?

AS: Nobody has been able to answer this question. There are no editors out there answering it for writers. For me, the world is filled with people who are struggling at the margins of truth and lies. And a lot of us are writers. I feel we have a moral obligation to come up with our own yardstick of truth and ethics. First, because nobody is doing it for us. Everyone’s lost still. Everyone’s afraid to investigate too closely with the author. So I think it’s up to us. We have to ask ourselves, “What does truth mean to me?” because every memoir involves some mythologizing of the story.

The truth is not always the facts. Or you can have someone like David Sedaris who is pushing it. But you can feel it in the writing that he has a contract with the reader about how far he’ll go with exaggerating. The hard thing is to put your finger on why you feel safe and why you don’t.

I also think readers need to step up to the plate a bit more, too. There’s such a call now for over-the-top, sensationalized writing. It’s a real scandal country we live in. As readers, people just gobbled up James Frey. From my reading of it, it was a very unrealistic story of a twenty-year-old in rehab. Exaggeration is part of that world. And people like to listen to that. That’s what they wanted, that’s what they got.

I don’t think we’re in a moment of crisis of truth. We’ve been struggling with this forever. We don’t have an easy answer. Every reader and writer is going to have to make their own choices about what the contract is between the reader and the writer. People have been lying forever—it’s not a contemporary phenomenon. Storytellers vary in their relationships to their pasts. Family and memory is complicated. I don’t know what the answer is.

CG: You have experience writing fiction as well as nonfiction. Do you find it difficult to switch from fact to fiction, and to move from the longer form of memoir to the short story?

AS: I find it refreshing to switch from nonfiction to fiction. Portraying real people is an incredible responsibility. I tried to portray [the people in Name All the Animals] as authentically as possible—in the best light and with the most generosity I could. That’s a good contract to have with the reader. I’m really happy with that choice, but it was also a burden.

As a nonfiction writer writing the kind of story I wrote, I felt as though I was the tour guide to my life. I had to embody this fifteen-year-old girl and keep the reader in her mind, but also step back and offer the reader some wisdom. What I have found refreshing about fiction is that the characters who are narrating my novel can be as messed up as they want to be. They can be diluted about who they are, and can misinterpret themselves and behave badly. Fiction gives you more freedom in point of view and narration. I have enjoyed that freedom.

Audio Clips from Alison Smith's Writers on the Bay Reading:

Dan Wakefield's Introduction

Alison Smith Reading from Name All the Animals

Writers on the Bay Q&A