OF FATHERS AND FIRECRACKERS:
An Interview with Sharon Harrigan
by Tabitha Blankenbiller
When I met Sharon Harrigan, we were both first-year students in Pacific University’s MFA program. She was studying fiction while I was running in the CNF crowd, but we became good friends and post-grad writing group partners. It was during one of our MFA residencies that her essay in The Rumpus, “Revenge of the Prey,” went live. That essay, the first Harrigan published about her late father, germinated to become Playing with Dynamite, her debut memoir out now from Truman State University Press. Along with her MFA, she holds a BA in English from Columbia University and teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville. Her essays have been published in a number of journals including Virginia Quarterly Review, Mid American Review, and The Nervous Breakdown. We chatted this summer a few weeks before the book release, which was a chance to catch up after Harrigan’s pre-book-release whirlwind.
INTERVIEWER: Your memoir began as an essay in The Rumpus (“Revenge of the Prey”), and at the time you were studying fiction in your MFA program, and had a background in poetry. Had you explored the themes of your family relationships in more abstract ways through your fiction and poetry before plunging into CNF?
SHARON HARRIGAN: I love talking to you about this, because you were right there with me at the beginning. The essay went live during one of our MFA residencies, and you’re probably one of the first people I told. I was hyperventilating because I’d never published creative nonfiction before. I’d published poetry and fiction, but telling the world true things about my life? And, more to the point, about people I love, things that might make them uncomfortable? That was terrifying. I wasn’t prepared for the rawness and vulnerability.
I’ve since totally gotten over that. Just kidding. I don’t think I ever will. Don’t you still feel that punch in your gut, that “I think I’m going to throw up” sensation every time you get a piece published?
INTERVIEWER: I know that punch feeling you're talking about, but I would say I feel it only rarely with certain pieces that are especially wickedly sensitive or vulnerable. Most of the time it's more of a mix of relief and excitement. Do you feel that nausea with all the pieces you've published, but is this a very special CNF symptom?
HARRIGAN: Only CNF. It has a special place in my heart. I mean my stomach.
At Pacific, I wrote a novel about a girl growing up in Detroit, trying to find out how her father really died. I changed enough of the details that I thought I could hide behind the label of fiction. The fact that I felt the need to hide says something, but I didn’t know it then. I was obsessed with my father, but I didn’t dare ask the questions that would make the story come to life. I couldn’t get at the emotional truth until I found the right genre.
I think it’s common for memoirists to start in other genres. A lot of my favorites, like Mary Karr and Nick Flynn, started out as poets. And I’ve heard a lot of writers, like Jane Allison and Jay Varner, say their memoirs started out as attempts at novels.
So, I’m in good company, right? That’s the story I’m sticking to, anyway.
INTERVIEWER: What was it about that publishing experience that made you feel you had to go deeper--what did you feel you wanted to uncover that was too limited in short form?
HARRIGAN: Two things. First, the response to my essay was stronger than to anything I’d published before. The second thing was that publishing the essay showed me how many questions I still had. People asked me, for instance, how much my sister was hurt in the accident that killed my father. I didn’t know, so I had to ask, and each time I got an answer to one question, more emerged.
As I went beyond my own memories and asked other people for theirs, the story took on a life of its own. I had to keep following the trail, and as I did, the story got bigger and bigger.
INTERVIEWER: What were your greatest sources of inspiration and encouragement during your process? What in your life echoed the idea that THIS is what you needed to be working on?
HARRIGAN: Pam Houston was the first person to put the idea in my head. I was working with her in my MFA, on fiction, but I sent her my essay and she said there was something “essential” about my father’s story. I don’t think I would have had the chutzpah to start the book without that initial encouragement.
I owe a debt to Nick Flynn, who led an unorthodox but amazing workshop at Tin House. And to Debra Gwartney, who worked with me long-distance while I was in Paris. I wrote a whole book proposal and showed it to her, and she said, “But where are you?” That was one of the most helpful things anybody said to me. I thought I could write a book about my father without inserting myself. It sounds naïve now, doesn’t it?
INTERVIEWER: You mention Debra Gwartney, who has been a mentor to both of us in and outside of the Pacific University MFA program. I always think about the story she tells about sitting on the Adirondack chairs at Breadloaf with Vivian Gornick and being asked "what kind of mother would drive her own daughters to leave her?" It's the cruelest, harshest question imaginable, but sets the bar so high to earn the excavation that we embark on in memoir—kind of forcing us to earn the reader's attention and consideration. What were some of the hardest questions you had to ask yourself when you were writing your memoir?
HARRIGAN: I remember hearing about that question and thinking it was so unfair. But now I see the utility of it. It’s another way of saying that the narrator has to be fully fleshed out as a character on the page. And to do that, the writer has to figure out exactly who the narrator is.
One of the hardest questions I had to ask myself was, “What if my father’s death wasn’t a tragedy at all, but instead I was lucky he died?” This question came from Debra, too, and it seemed like heresy to even consider at first. But it turned out to be fruitful because she was asking me to question all my assumptions, to start with an open mind and try to figure out what my life meant, instead of just accepting the story I had told myself, that my childhood was “tragic.”
INTERVIEWER: Your memoir involves quite a bit of interview and conversation with family members. Would you describe your book-writing process as collaborative?
HARRIGAN: That’s a great question because I think this is one of the ways Playing with Dynamite is different from a lot of other memoirs. Writers often write memoirs alone. They remember all they can and let other people write their own books if they disagree.
Because of my reliance on other people, I didn’t think I had a choice about showing the book to them before it was published. I know this is a controversial topic among memoirists: to show or not to show your characters what you say about them before it’s too late to make changes. A lot of people advised me (warned me) not to show anybody anything, but I had to ignore that advice. I think each memoirist has to do what she’s comfortable with, and I don’t think there’s one rule for everybody.
INTERVIEWER: What was your most striking discovery while venturing home to the midwest to research your father and your family life, after so many years living away across the country and world?
HARRIGAN: I discovered my other half. That’s one way to put it.
I think of a lot of us feel like we have a divided self. I’m beginning to think it’s the human condition, or at least the seed that all memoir grows out of. I felt the pull not from two different places as much as two different classes—my rust-belt working class roots and my aspirations to be part of the East Coast (and even international) intelligentsia.
There was the self who went to an Ivy League school with a scholarship, who then went to live in Paris and sent her daughter to an elite school with the progeny of politicians. But there was also the self I had tried most of my life to run away from, the daughter who was descended from a man who blew his hand off with dynamite and drove with his knees. The daughter of a hunter and welder who hit his wife and bullied his son. The daughter of a man who was so frightening that my brother was relieved when he died. For a long time, I didn’t want to think about that other self, that daughter self. I was afraid of what I’d find out.
Maybe my situation is extreme, but I think a lot of us find a chasm between who we’ve become and where we came from. That’s what makes Thanksgiving reunions so much fun, right? Is there a secret (or not so secret) NRA member or anti-abortion protester lurking behind the turkey platter? And if so, what are we going to say to them?
The trip to Michigan I recount in my book changed my life, and that’s no exaggeration. I discovered that my father, as a child and a man, had been a show off and a smart aleck. That he was gruff and domineering and unapologetic about it. But I also found a man who had wounds—both physical and emotional—that I could only begin to fathom. I found a man who had been the victim of bigotry and discrimination, because of his disability. I also found a man who loved his children so much he worked two or three jobs at a time to support us. I found someone who had a lot of insecurity and vulnerability, which means that I found someone, in that way at least, remarkably like me. I found the other half of my divided self.
INTERVIEWER: One of the most striking and lingering themes of the book is your relationship with your mother, who opened up substantially in your research process. What has her reaction been to such a large part of her life being told, especially here on the eve of publication? Does she feel a sense of ownership in this story?
HARRIGAN: I only hope that if my daughter decides to write a memoir, I can be as generous as my mother has been. During that visit in Paris, she gave me blanket permission to share any of her stories. After I had the whole book done and the contract and everything, I asked her to repeat all her stories to me, so I could fact-check them. She wrote me long letters, what she called her “essays.” I added some of what was in those “essays” that wasn’t in the book before, so now I hope the book gets even closer to her truth. Then, once the book was in galleys, she read it and made a few changes. I think some of the things about her childhood and about her marriage are difficult for her to read about, but she said that she could never get upset with me about the book because I wrote it “with love.” So I’m lucky.
INTERVIEWER: The man you discover in researching your father is, like any human story, full of contradictions and problematic issues. Do you feel that much of what we would now describe as toxic masculinity was a product of his culture, or personality?
HARRIGAN: At the beginning of my book and my fact-finding journey, when my brother told me about our father bullying and humiliating him, and when I remembered my father hitting and shaming my mother, I had a pretty one-dimensional view of him. And when my mother said he was a man of his time, I thought a lot about the “toxic masculinity” of his generation.
But, as I said, the plot of every memoir is “the narrator changed.” My views became more informed and nuanced. I gathered more context. I tried to imagine what life was like for my father—a welder with one hand, working two or three jobs to support a family, a man with a disability in a culture that did not tolerate any show of male weakness—and by the end, I gained more and more empathy for him.
I also looked around and realized not all men of his generation were the same. Not my uncles, for instance.
I think both culture and personality play a role. We’re all products of where we come from, all influenced by our milieux. Mine is the first generation of women who were expected to go to work or college, instead of becoming housewives. Gender equality is a recent idea, and it’s still a work in progress. Body shaming and harassment and boys being boys (I mean assholes) is something my daughter tells me happens regularly in high school, still. Toxic masculinity? This isn’t just a story about my childhood. This is a story about America today.
INTERVIEWER: Much of the memoir is imagining what your father was actually like, how you would regard him as a much-changed adult, and how modern America may have changed him. What do you imagine his favorite part of your book being? What do you imagine him taking the biggest issue with?
HARRIGAN: I think he would be proud that I wrote a book. He didn’t get a college degree and was a manual laborer, but he valued books. He was a voracious reader with a photographic memory of everything he read.
I think he would be interested in the way I used The Odyssey as a thread in the book, the way I’ve turned him into a Homeric figure. Who doesn’t want to be Odysseus, right? Though I bet he would take issue with my poetic license, the way I change that myth to make it serve my own purposes. He would tell me I didn’t get The Odyssey part right. We’d have a heated debate about it, then he’d storm out of the room and slam the door.
INTERVIEWER: My parents get SO MAD when I get things "wrong," even if it's mixing up which family road trip happened exactly when. Any license, even unintentional, seems to really set the relatives off.
HARRIGAN: Even though you write so affectionately about your childhood? No matter what we do, there are going to be people who feel betrayed.
So much of my father’s reaction depends on how much he really would have changed. Not everyone evolves with the times, though. If my father had lived, he would be the same age now as Donald Trump—who has not become more tolerant and progressive, to say the least.
INTERVIEWER: Who do you think your father would have voted for in the last election?
HARRIGAN: His demographic—white working class men in the Midwest—would predict that he’d vote for Trump. But I want to believe that he was too smart for that. As I say in my book, I can imagine whatever I want.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program living outside of Portland, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Lit, Catapult, Hobart, and other venues. Her debut essay collection EATS OF EDEN is forthcoming from Alternating Current Press in March 2018.