A Conversation Between Alexandra Fuller and Justin St. Germain
Alexandra Fuller is the New York Times bestselling author of Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Scribbling the Cat, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness,
. She lives in Wyoming with her three children.
Alexandra Fuller: This is a work of absolute restraint. The prose is in a class of its own. However violent and however uncomfortable or difficult the story gets, there’s this way in which the reader is skipping along enjoying the language so much. Where did you get your storytelling gift from, do you think?
Justin St. Germain: Well, thank you. I don’t know how true it is, but I think that whenever I trace anything that I’m glad for back into my childhood, it always comes from my mother. It’s always her influence. It’s funny because I didn’t really come from a family of readers. I mean, my mother read magazines and Chicken Soup for the Soul
. But, from a very early age, she was always giving me books. She was always buying me books. Even when we had very little money, if I was asking for books, it was never a problem. And so I just grew up reading a lot: Westerns and detective novels or whatever. I think that’s where being able to tell a story might come from.
AF: I always say to students that to write and to write effectively, you have to risk being kicked out of your tribe. You can’t be like, “Oh God, everyone back home is going to read this,” because that is terrible self-censoring. I did not think Son of a Gun
was an unkind book at all. But it is written about people who most often don’t get to put pen to paper themselves. Was their reaction something that worried you?
JSG: I asked a lot of people for advice when I first started writing and got a lot of different answers. But the one that probably resonated with me the most was that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.
AF: Carl Jung said that autobiographies should be written as if everyone’s in their underpants.
JSG: I’m going to have to borrow that one, I think. It might sound pretty callous on first blush, but it was a bit easier for me in some ways, because the person I cared the most about was my mother, and she was dead. And so I felt like the loyalty I had first and foremost was to tell her story. Not necessarily in exactly the way that she might have wanted it to be told, but in a way that I felt was both true to my own experience and still honoring her.
AF: She had this idea of herself as a freewheeling, free-loving person. But that’s not how her life ended up.
JSG: I think it was pretty inherent to my mom’s story that writing about her life would at some point have to acknowledge the fact that she did self-mythologize a lot.
AF: She was a serial mythologizer. All the way from her army days to being this sort of brokenhearted waitress to being a hippie to the way she fell in love with a “man in uniform.” She was addicted to this idea of mythology, as I think we all are.
JSG: You’re absolutely right. She was also drawn to the idea of the West and moving out West to a new life. And to that basic American mythology that a better life is just around the corner. In telling her story, I was going to have to get into some of that. But initially, I really, really wanted to avoid the Western mythology thing, because it’s what everybody in the world knows about where I come from. Tombstone, if they know anything, it’s the Wyatt Earp story, and I wanted to avoid it.
AF: What changed?
JSG: I met up with this boyfriend of hers, and he told me, in his own sort of mythologizing way, that the reason that he and my mother had gone to Tombstone in the first place was to see the O.K. Corral. I had never known that. I don’t even know if it’s true. But just the idea that that was what had drawn them there got me started on it. Then, once I really began reading up on Wyatt Earp, I realized that there were a lot of resemblances between the Earps in Tombstone and my family in Tombstone: the way in which they had moved there, wanting to put this old life behind, kind of like everybody did back then and maybe still does today.
AF: You do take your own personal story and make it a more universal, American story. As you were writing, were you conscious of that? Or do you think that with memoir, sometimes the more personal your story is, the more universal it becomes?
JSG: I started off just wanting to write a book about my mother. From the very beginning, I wanted it to be about her. In the process of writing about her, I knew I would have to reckon with the larger idea of violence, especially gun violence and violence against women. But I didn’t really know how to do that. That was one of the real anxieties that I had, and along the way, I just had to have faith that the particular story would start to reflect the larger themes on its own.
AF: As a memoirist, you are remarkably in the shadows. When you do step forward, it is so spectacular. It’s so restrained. And it’s so telling. I have this one favorite quote where you do step forward, one I underlined, and sent to everyone I know, saying, if you want to try and understand this country, you need to know this quote: “I ought to know better, ought to remember how it feels to live in a place like this, the grinding poverty, the lack of opportunity, all the kinds of self-defeat—alcohol, drugs, gossip—the gnawing fear that you haven’t gotten away from the world, it’s gotten away from you.”
I think that one paragraph describes the small towns that you drive through in America. There’s the idea in this country that if you just work hard enough, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps and end up anywhere you want. This is America. Anyone can become president. But you’re saying, actually, wait a minute, the ruts are so deep.
One of the things that you really make so brutally clear is, you don’t come out West, own a horse, and have all this land that you can then go be free on. It’s chopped up into little bits of barbed wire and guess what? You’re going to be working three shifts at a restaurant, just to make ends meet. You write about this kind of grueling hard work. Your mother kept working at these dead-end jobs and then the money always seemed to go to the loser men that she attached herself to. To what degree growing up could you see that and think, “I’m getting out of here. I’m getting out of this”?
JSG: That’s one of the things that is often difficult to explain, now that I am out of there and kind of run in different circles and don’t really know a lot of people who grew up in similar circumstances. And, it’s not like I grew up in the worst circumstances. There are a lot of people worse off in America, and there were a lot of people worse off in Tombstone. But I think the idea of getting out was another one of those myths. It was something that everybody always told you growing up. “When you’re eighteen, you’ve got to get out of here.” But nobody ever said what that looked like.
AF: I had a hardscrabble childhood in Zimbabwe, but I was raised by a mother who kept saying, “Well, of course, we’re terribly well bred. We’re different from everyone around us.” In reality, we were poorer! But what she was insisting on was that we were a class above everyone else. As a kid, it made no sense to me. On the other hand, it also meant that I grew up with books. I grew up with a bigger sense of the world. And, when the time came, I could step out of my childhood. Did your mother also imbue you with a sense of, “Actually, we’re all a bit too good for this, we’re just doing it in the meantime.”
JSG: My mom was born in a working-class, white, semi-suburban neighborhood of Philadelphia. But she still had the sense that there was this other larger world than Tombstone. And really, I think the only reason that I did make it out, and that my brother did, was that she was always telling us that we had to, and that we were going to.
And, in the end, even though she had no money, she found a way to finance our going to college. . . .
AF: Did you want to go to college? Was that a big ambition of yours or was that a big ambition of hers?
JSG: That was a big ambition of hers. I started at community college and it was the kind of thing that I did to get her off my back, thinking that I would go for a year or two and then drop out, like a lot of people did. It was really only when she died that I kind of turned it around. I don’t know how conscious it was, if I was trying to make her proud, but from then on, I was a pretty good student.
Now I think there’s a kind of survivor’s guilt, where if you get out of a place like that, you can never really go back. Whenever I visit Tombstone, which isn’t very often, it’s this oddly fraught thing, because the people who are still there kind of don’t acknowledge me as being one of them anymore.
And yet, I also have never really felt, since I’ve left, as if I belong anywhere else fully.
AF: I think that’s beautifully done in the book. You describe going back to Tombstone with your girlfriend after everything has happened, and you end up in a not good place with her. She’s flummoxed, because you turn into a bit of a jerk. You’re both an alien like her and you belong to this place.
If I were to go back to Zimbabwe, where I grew up, the mere fact of my having “gotten out” would produce resentment. There’s a very real way in which I think the people who have stayed there feel as if they have been in the trenches. And, I somehow got enlisted out of the trenches through no good deeds of my own. Now I get a sense that they think I’m too good for them.
JSG: That’s the phrase that is always used: You’re too good for the place. That’s how a lot of people in Tombstone would describe it, too. But you still never escape the place you’re from. I went to New York and I met my editor and a lot of book industry people, all of whom are really nice people. But I felt like I’d landed on Mars or something, because fifteen years ago, I didn’t even know that world existed. I still don’t ever know if I can really fully understand it, even though I’ve lived in the sort of upper-middle-class, educated world for years now.
AF: I loathe asking this, except that I think it’s true. People will say to me, how cathartic was writing whichever of my books, particularly Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
. My jaw hit the ground, the first few times. Cathartic, are you kidding? It was the most painful reopening of wounds ever. But, as time has gone on, I feel this enormous sense of relief and healing.
To what degree do you feel like once the thing was done, it taught you something about yourself and your history that helped you to sort of “heal,” if in fact you needed healing from the process?
JSG: I do get that question a lot. And, I had the same reaction that it sounds like you did initially. It just seemed like such a strange question, and also mostly beside the point. It wasn’t why I wrote it. I didn’t find it cathartic in the process, because I was reliving the worst experience of my life. Something that I had pretty much blocked out. After my mother died, it was almost eight years before I started writing the book. I had come to a point of just denying it, kind of erasing it from my personal history. In fact, the writing process was the opposite of cathartic, because I have to reimmerse myself in the emotional and psychological experience of the worst time of my life.
But, now I feel as if my answer to that question gets complicated a little bit, every month or so. I’ve been done with the writing process for a while, and it does seem as if I’ve found a place to kind of put my past.
I think before I wrote it, I was so anxious that the fact of my mother’s death might define me that I ended up defining myself by it anyway, in opposition to it. A few years ago, some of my closest friends didn’t know how my mother had died, but since the book came out, it’s the first thing that comes up if you Google me. It’s actually turned out to be pretty liberating, because I think you take control of that narrative. It’s not a shameful thing anymore.
AF: I couldn’t agree more. Until I wrote Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight
, my story owned me, because I was a little ashamed of it. After I wrote it, I owned the story. And it was liberating.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The author’s mother, Debbie St. Germain, tried on many different roles in her life: soldier, small-town businesswoman, “hippie” traveling the country by trailer. What do you think she was searching for? Did she remind you of anyone you know?
2. What did you know about Tombstone, Arizona, before reading this book? What do you think it would be like to grow up in a place that is best known for a gunfight? What is your hometown known for?
3. What did you think about the author’s relationship with the men in his life: his father, his mother’s boyfriends, his uncle Tom? What do you think it is like for a boy to grow up without a steady male figure to depend on?
4. Why do you think the author chose to tell Wyatt Earp’s story alongside his own? Did you appreciate learning the history behind the legend of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?
5. The author writes that for years he “denied my mother, lied about her death, kept her pictures in boxes, tried not to think of her.” What do you think changed that led him to need to tell his story and hers? Have you ever found yourself confronting something from the past that you’d been trying to ignore?
6. Did it surprise you that the author owns guns in his present life? Why or why not?
7. From an early age, books and reading were important to the author. Why do you think that was? What role did books play in your childhood?
8. Discuss the author’s depiction of the harsh landscape of Arizona. Have you ever spent time in a desert climate?
9. This memoir takes on large subjects: gun violence, violence against women, and issues of class in America. While you were reading, did your mind go to these big topics or were you concentrating on the story of this one family? Did the book affect the way you feel about any of these issues?
10. Near the end of the book the author writes, “There are no clues left, no mystery to solve. I know what happened. I just don’t know why.” Do you think closure is possible without full understanding? How long has it taken you to heal from a loss in your own life?