As a memoir writer, there is a necessary moment when you self-indict. If you are going to offer something useful to a reader, self-questioning is crucial. It was very natural for me, halfway through the book, to ask, “Am I a monster?”
Which monsters did you see yourself reflected in?
The person I identify most with in the book is Raymond Carver. He was a drunk and was abusive toward his first wife. He was kind of a rotten person in his early life, and then he had this golden second act when he became sober. During the writing of Monsters, I became sober. Raymond Carver had been important to me my whole life. I looked at my own sobriety through the possibility of redemption I saw in Carver’s story, but also the realization that I too had a monstrousness, otherwise I wouldn’t have had to quit drinking. You don’t have to stop being an addict unless something’s gone wrong. That experience became a place for me to find, I don’t want to say forgiveness, but more compassion for the humanity of these rotten people.
That reminds me of the Mary Karr quote you include: “The problem isn’t that your mother hit you on the head with a brick. The problem is that you still love her…” How did you realize that this book is about the larger question of what to do with the monstrous people in our own lives?
It was about halfway through the writing of the book. I was sitting around a campfire with some friends, and one of them said to me, “Hey, are you still writing that book about monster artists?” He began to tell me the story of his stepfather, who’d been a pretty bad guy. My friend was dragged from state to state in this really difficult situation, and there was a lot of volatility and abuse in his childhood. My friend wanted me to know that he still loved his stepdad, even after everything. Sitting there by the fire, the top of my head just about lifted off—my friend was forcing the question into a larger arena, the arena of human love, and this reignited me about the project of the book.
What was your writing process like?
It was chaotic. There’s an E.M. Forster quote, possibly apocryphal, that goes, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” There was a long first draft that was just finding out what I thought, which then had to be rewritten with much more biographical material. And then the whole thing had to be rewritten because my own thinking and politics were so dramatically affected by the events of the last four years.
Which events specifically?
Certainly the George Floyd protests, and then the pandemic and the response to the pandemic. And then, strangely, probably the most powerful event that shaped my thinking were the West Coast fires over the last few years. The horror of what we were living with dramatically affected how I looked at not just the problem that I was writing about, but all politics.