Sunday, July 22, 2018

A Memoir of Murder and Redemption: Notice of Release by Stephanie Cassalty


  Left--Doug Holder,  Center--Stephanie Cassatly, Right Dr. Mark Herlihy


Interview with Doug Holder


I am always looking to use different memoirs for my creative writing seminars at Endicott College in Beverly, MA. In the past I have use Alan Kaufman's Jew Boy, Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Patti Smith's Just Kids, Richard Hoffman's Half the House, Michael C. Keith's  The Next Better Place, and others. So when I had memoirist Stephanie Cassatly as a guest at the Ibbetson Street Press/Endicott College Visiting Author Series, I was very open to her new work:  Notice of Release: A Daughter's Journey to Forgive her Mother's Killer.

It seems that Cassatly ( who will be teaching at Endicott this fall), has written a memoir that deals with her mother's brutal death. When Cassatly was eighteen her mother was killed in a convenience store robbery in New Orleans. After twenty years she forgave the murderer-- just before he passed in the notorious Angola State Penitentiary

Cassatly eventually comes out of this tragedy as a whole person.  The reader witnesses her trauma-ridden journey and her redemption in this evocative book.

Recently I had the pleasure to interview the author....



Doug Holder: You wrote that it took over 20 years for you to forgive your mother's killer.  How long did the memoir percolate in your mind?


Stephanie  Cassatly:  It took seventeen years, with many fits and starts and long hiatus periods. Writing the book was emotionally intense, so I had to take breaks. I needed time to process events of the story, almost as if they were happening to me for the first time. The story kept unfolding even as I wrote it; it was a process that could not be rushed. I did not originally set out to write a book. I simply wanted to record the experience of forgiving my mother’s killer for my daughters, as I had not shared very much with them. I wanted them to have a record of the story, incase anything ever happened to me (mothers can die young, right?) I was not a writer at the time. Once I started, I realized how much I enjoyed the process and began taking writing classes at community college to become better at it. Then, I started writing for the newspaper and eventually found my way to an MFA program. For a long time, I wrote about everything else, until a very wise instructor challenged me to write the story I was meant to write. I began writing shorter essays that circled around my mother’s life and death, which were published in different anthologies and journals. Essays were easier, because the idea of writing a book was daunting. Eventually, I wove them into my memoir as chapters or parts of chapters. Each essay that was published felt like validation for the larger work.


DH: You move back and forth in your memoir--from your childhood-- to the time you were investigating your mother's death, her killer, and the final resolution of forgiveness. Why did you choose this route instead of a straight chronology?


SC I realized in my MFA program the many possible structures for a story, chronological being the most obvious. I wanted to try something different and not be bound by time. Writing this story was a deep exploration for me…in every respect. I allowed it to flow like my mind, which often moves from one thing to the next in no particular order. That being said, I think it’s essential to maintain enough of a thread between time periods in order to give readers a linear picture. I definitely worked to accomplish this and hope I did.

DH: You use dreams often in this memoir. Why do you find them an effective vehicle to tell your story?


SC:  I wrote much of this book in the early morning hours before my children woke for school (4-6 AM). Because the house was still dark and quiet, and my mind was a clean slate from sleeping, it felt like I was writing in a dream state. Additionally, I abide by the rule of consulting my pillow. Whenever I have something to figure out in my writing (or life), I pose a question or problem before sleep. More often than not, I wake with a solution (having worked it out in my dreams). The best example I can think of was the chapter in my book called “Turbulence,” about my husband and I buying a new home after the owner died in a plane crash. I knew I had to connect the dots between his story and mine. I was unclear on the relevancy, so before I went to sleep one night, I asked myself why I was so obsessed with him. The next morning I realized that he represented a combination of both of my parents (my father’s life and my mother’s death) and that his surviving daughter reminded me of younger self. I worked all this out in my sleep and the next morning the writing flowed like honey. I believe dreams are powerful, telling and helpful. Used as a device, they deepen stories and offer insight into inner landscapes of characters and authors.

 DH: Primary sources play a big role in the memoir as well: court transcripts, letters, etc... What does this add to the work?


SC:  In my MFA program, I read several books written in epistolary style and realized how much can be revealed through letters, photographs and documents. I think these add an interesting dimension and texture to an otherwise more traditional style of storytelling.

DH: The old writing adage is "show don't tell". In your memoir you certainly "show"--but you also tell how things connect-- for the reader. When do you decide it's time to go into the didactic mode?


SC:  I struggled with this. I once had an editor tell me to “trust the reader more.” I think it’s a balance that requires finessing, because sometimes readers need a little help connecting the dots, but they shouldn’t feel like they’re being hit over the head. Dialogue, for instance, is a great device to “show,” because it puts readers in the moment or scene. It only works, however, to the degree that it serves the plot or theme. Like anything else, it can be overdone. I think this is where revision comes in. After I wrote large chunks of my manuscript, I went back to see what needed to be handled more “in the moment” of showing, versus telling. I did a lot of shifting between these two modes in the latter stages.

DH: Was it hard to decide what to leave in and what to leave out?


SC:  Yes. At different points I felt like I was throwing in everything, plus the kitchen sink. That’s where a good editor comes in. I read a book called Tell it Slant, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, which essentially teaches writers that everything needs to slant toward theme. The question we need to ask ourselves is how does this serve the story? If it doesn’t, that’s usually an indication that it needs to be cut, as painful as that can be. It’s called “killing our darlings.” I try to recycle them my darlings into other works, instead of burying them.

DH: Memoir is part of the genre of creative non-fiction. Tell me how your writing differs from standard non-fiction?


SC:  I once had a historian writer friend turn his nose up at me when I told him I was writing creative non-fiction. I think standard non-fiction is a more historical and factual account of someone or something, where as creative non-fiction and memoir is also fact, but the boundaries are slightly blurred. My writing differs from standard non-fiction in that it is fact mixed with creative extrapolation, and a narrower focus and theme. Unfortunately, in the wake of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, memoirists (and publishers) are much more cautious about blurring the line.

DH: Tell us about your revision process?


 It’s endless. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so it’s hard to stop editing and revising until it’s printed. Even now, I still think of things I’d revise. I don’t have a set process, but I think it’s important to have a large enough body of work before revising too much. In the case of my memoir, there were many incarnations of it, with different structures, endings, etc. I made large and small changes all along the way. Mostly, I went chapter by chapter (multiple times), thinking both globally (how things fit within the whole story) and line by line (making sure every sentence was as good as it could be). My biggest challenge was to stay open to change, even if it meant giving up favorite passages. A sense of willingness and a trusted editor helped tremendously. A good editor is almost always right. There are never any guarantees when revising, but if we don’t try things, we will never know. That’s why it’s good to save drafts.

DH: Hurricane Katrina was a major prop in your story. The storm seemed to be a metaphor for a good deal of your life. Can you expand on this a bit?


SC: Sure. I’ll group Katrina and the Mississippi River (both powerful forces of nature) together in answering this question. Much of my story takes place in an around the Mississippi River, where I set scenes of my grandfather’s serene farm, a cleansing baptism, a chilling maximum security Prison and Katrina, the mother of all storms. The contrast of peace and violence and how storms destroy and people rebuild felt relevant. I wanted to juxtapose opposites in order to show how things such as joy and sorrow, peace and violence, hope and hopelessness, life and death coexist. Katrina took my family down, but it also provided a rich opportunity to care for my aunt in a way that I could not care for my mother. Katrina and the Mississippi symbolized death and destruction, yet resilience and rebirth.

DH: Do you think writing this book was necessary for full closure for your mother's death?


SC:  Yes, absolutely. It turned the tide for me. I think writing this book forced me to face her death (and life) head-on. Digging so deeply and for so long provided some kind of desensitization, maybe like they use for PTSD? That being said, it was also an excellent and fulfilling creative endeavor in and of itself. As I went along, I started to see myself more as a character outside of myself. I think writing this memoir wrote me as much as I wrote it. I am a different person because of it and so grateful for having endeavored it.

Give us the five top elements of memoir writing.

  1. First and foremost…Let go of fear. Telling our stories can feel like standing naked in front of a room of people, but we can’t underestimate the power and benefit of sharing them. If we censor too much or worry about who will be hurt, we’ll never write it. Write first, edit or apologize later.

  2. Narrow the focus. Memoir is not autobiography. It’s a slice of life, so stick to a theme or particular aspect of your life.

  3. Elevate life to art. Writing memoir is a cocktail of memory and imagination. Be creative without lying. There is plenty of leeway.

  4. Use elements of fiction: plot, characters, theme, setting, narrative arc, etc. While it is a history of sorts, it’s not just that. It has to captivate readers like a novel.

  5. It’s an internal narrative, so use inner mind workings: flashbacks, dreamscapes, memories, ruminations, letters, songs, poems, thoughts, etc.

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