Before I spoke with Kathleen Hill for the first time, I had been talking with a friend about aging and watching the adults in our lives, some who’ve passed away, struggle with memory in their later years. We were both saying how we wished they had written down some of the stories of their lives, memories of events that would have given us and our children a bit more insight into family histories and reveal how certain events in the lives of those who are connected to our pasts ultimately impact who we are in the present.
So we both committed to writing our own memoirs. I became keenly aware, early in the process, that everything I wrote was linked in some way to either music, Soul Train or books and essays I read. Every memory had either a song or some quote from literature and speeches of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s attached to it and I realized these things were woven into the fabric of my being in a way I really needed to explore. It was at this point in my own personal discovery that I had my first conversation with Kathleen Hill, author of the new book, She Read to Us in Late Afternoons, published by Delphinium Books.
Hill’s journey didn’t begin with the books, it was memory and a recollection of a person from her past that led her to begin this writing journey.
“It wasn’t about the books, it was about memories. I used to drive the New Jersey Turnpike. I used to go by an exit named Carteret and every time I saw that name, it reminded me of a boy I went to school with named Norman de Carteret. Norman and I had music class together and our teacher singled him out because she said he had a gift for listening to music in a way most of us were unable to do. So it began with remembering Norman de Carteret and I started to recall how he had a very tragic life and each time I thought about him, I thought about how there was a book I was reading at the time— Willa Cather by Lucy Gayheart— and how I took and read the book because it had the name of a girl in the title. I remember how, at the time for me, it was a very grown up book about grown up things like despair, something I didn’t know about, but Norman did and I felt a connection to him, probably deeper than some of the other children because Norman, who lived in a boarding house, had family members who knew mine, so I knew more about him. I went back to the book and read it again. I hadn’t read it since I was 12, but I went back and as I read it, I saw how our lives were almost parallel to what was going on in Willa Cather. There was a very traumatic event that had shaken our whole town and I was astonished to see how closely the book mirrored these events in our lives. I couldn’t believe that I couldn’t remember this about the book. This book did not have a happy ending. I had only been reading things with happy endings and because of what was going on around me, I learned that life didn’t always have happy endings, either.”
From there on, Hill began to look at other periods of her life and how her kinship with books fostered her personal growth and led her to have some thoughtful recollections of very deep and moving personal life occurrences in her lifetime. One of those other experiences she talked about and also writes about in her book is a year she spent in France as an outsider and how the book The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos got her through.
“I spent a year in France, in a very cold village in Northern France. At the time, the book and the work that came to me was The Diary of a Country Priest because it was set in exactly the same place. I didn’t understand anything about where I was, this was my first time there, and the novel told me about the place and the history of the place. This was another memory I had and realized how this book and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achibe really had an impact on me and that all these memories I was having, some like little flashes of light, were all connected by books. Each memory triggered a new one and then another— things I had all but forgotten about. I was thinking and remembering. I decided I wanted to write about my life and the things I was remembering, but the novels almost by accident appeared with each memory and just like the narrators in these books tell us something about their lives and give us some frame of reference, the books I was connecting to each memory did the same for me; they gave me a frame of reference for the time I was in at each particular moment.”
Hill goes on, “I think all of us must have memories of these kind, it must be something, a landscape or a place and we connect to the past in a visceral way, where when you go back and read these books and you remember that period in your life, you’re really in it, you are really back there and you can remember things like sounds and smells and even people or names you forgot.”
This is where I shared with Hill the connection I made just before our first conversation how the death of someone I admired most of my life caused me to go back and reflect, listen to songs I listen to all the time, but to hear them differently— in the way I heard them and at the age I heard them for the first time and how from that tiny revelation, a door was opened into my past that I hadn’t walked through since I left it behind; it was my youth and this loss caused me to have to remember things I, too, had all but forgotten. Hill contemplated that revelation for a bit.
“It’s exactly the same thing. I’m intrigued that we all do this. You see how you made that connection? It is amazing how the past returns to us, it’s always there but we don’t always access it. My book leaves you with a reading Proust (a sense memory that floods the mind, in the style of and in relation to French novelist Marcel Proust), a memory, but there’s wisdom to it as well: Be alert to the things that actually take you to the experience. With me it was seeing that sign on the Turnpike that took me back to the experiences of my childhood, to Norman and to the teacher we had together.”
This was another interesting point in our discussion— the memory of this teacher that made such an impact on Hill’s life. I shared with her that my mother was a teacher for 45 years and all her friends were teachers so, I probably took that impact for granted a bit, but I was then and still now am able to see the impact my mother had on her students as a teacher, so I wanted to explore this more with Hill as Norman reminded me of student my mother once had who, like Norman de Cateret, also did not have a happy ending.
“When I first began exploring these memories and writing the stories, Miss Hughes (Hill’s music teacher) was in back of all these stories. I remember how she told us that very similar things happened to her when she was young and was able, through the suffering in her own life, reach out to this boy, Norman in a way no one else could. She also demonstrated to us something I have never forgotten. I still remember her words to him when we were all stricken by what happened: ‘Is there anything we can do for you, Norman?’ We were all terrified by the events and she broke through that fear. She was showing us something about the connection between art (music) and how to live as a human being, how to be a human being in the world towards ourselves and how to be toward others. She was showing us how to deal with suffering in our own lives and, for a moment, it shaped how we saw art.
It really was a lesson in how to BE, how to try to honor your own suffering and that of other people. I didn’t know the connections back then, but when you start writing the memory comes to you and the connection is made. I’m fascinated how we learn to be who we are. We’re not always the same way particularly when you remember your whole year. When I think about that time in France, I was miserable and I don’t like that self. But like you were saying with music, art does help us, writing does helps us. It shapes how we see where we are and this is what I love in how certain details of my life emerged. I wouldn’t have known I cared so much, but it our connection with people, with art, and our connection to the natural world, you can’t just remember it if you just start writing about it, it demands solitude, that’s the requirement. You have to be with yourself and the memory to really put yourself back in that space. I think about people who don’t have that.
Suppose someone can’t get solitude? In the midst of chaos, they don’t have the luxury of paying attention to their own responses to things that happen in their lives or to reflect, to focus on themselves and be aware of their connection to the moment. I think we all go through that at some point so to be able to take the time now to reflect on those things of the past and see the connections to the present is amazing.
I think about my book, it’s not until quite late in the book that the title appears, and it appears like a memory that comes to the narrator— me. It wasn’t the story that triggered the memory of being read to in the late afternoons, but it was the tone of voice that I remembered and the story followed. It was that tone, that sorrow.
The voices of our ancestors are hidden in our memories when we read aloud, we hear those voices, we read in their voices. All their histories from the past can be heard in our voices now, you can hear their suffering. That’s what I remembered and it was something like what I was taught by the music teacher when she asked Norman if there was anything she could do for him; that voice of suffering has to be acknowledged and we have to reach out to it and acknowledge it when she tells us kids about suffering in her life saying, ‘we may honor many things in our lives, but someone else’s suffering is our deepest vow.’ Listening to ourselves and other people, those voices vibrate. Miss Hughes’ voice is what vibrates for me throughout the book. She taught me— she taught all of us— these are the things that connect us to each other and to ourselves and we are able to recognize it.”
Hill’s book is not just about the importance of literacy across one’s life span. It is about how the events in our lives are merely chapters in a larger book that is the whole story of who we are. Whether we get to tell the story or not, we all have one. As I said in the beginning, I think about my life mostly in terms of music. Different events I remember by the songs that were out at the time or that I listened to often at various periods in my life. Like Hill told me at the end of our conversation we should all write our own story because it is very empowering. I am happy that I am doing that now.
Are you ready to write your own story? I hope so because here’s your chance to write and be published!
Inspired by this interview and Hill’s memoir, BookTrib is hosting our first writing contest where anyone with a story to tell can write one for a chance to be a 2018 BookTrib Contributor. Do you have a memory related to or triggered by a book? Write your story today! The two Grand Prize winners will be selected by Kathleen Hill along with Walt Gragg, author of The Red Line, and James R. Hannibal, author of The Fourth Ruby. The submission period closes on January 31, 2018 at 11.59 pm. Visit our site for details and additional entry information.
Also, be sure to pick up Kathleen Hill’s book, She Read To Us In The Late Afternoons. Her book is not only a great read, but will give writers an idea of how to craft a memoir entry for the writing contest. You can also hear a wonderful podcast with Hill from Writer’s Bone here. Hill is available for book clubs and workshops to discuss The Art of Memoir Writing as well as her new book.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
As a young woman in my early twenties, I lived with my husband in Nigeria, gave birth to two children there. Africa was the great good fortune of my young life. Nothing had prepared me for an entry into this world, and I even now imagine I would have had to be reborn – as perhaps I have been – to insure the glimpse I was given. A few years later – now with a third child – we lived in Niger, a country just north of Nigeria on the rim of the desert. It was here that I encountered the face of famine in the young children who were brought to the local clinics. Although I think now it was the sight of these children and the extraordinary landscapes in which they lived that first prompted me to write, I didn’t begin writing fiction until I was in my forties. I had read Anna Ahkmatove’s poem in which asked by someone in a crowd if she can write the horror they experience outside the prison walls where they wait, she replies, “I can.” So in my arrogance, never having written a word, I said to myself, inspired by my brief stare, “I can.” I whispered this to myself having no idea at all of the consequences.
So was born my first novel, Still Waters in Niger. But again I was in ignorance that a dream figure who played around the edges of that book, my great grandmother, Bridgit Fitzmaurice McDonough, would open the way into my next, Who Occupies This House. Bridgit left Ireland in 1846 during the time of the potato famine, lost a child at sea on the passage over. Her husband, who’d preceded her to this country, had secured a small leasehold in the Mohawk Valley, met her at the station in the midst of a snowstorm on Christmas Eve, caught pneumonia and was dead within a week.
Famine is endured in silence – unlike the catastrophe of war, for example – and it’s the legacy of silence and the ways in which it’s played out over many generations that led me to track, to reimagine, to release if I could, the ghosts who lived in the house where I grew up.