LORI SCHAFER: DEALING WITH EMOTIONS IS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE
Posted by Ognian Georgiev
Lori Schafer’s memoir On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened is a very deep and brutal book. When I read the answers in the interview it was like something scary passed through my body. The author earned my respect for the bravery to tell such a personal things. Are you ready for some real deal life story?
– Lori, What is your book On Hearing of My Mother’s Death Six Years After It Happened about?
– On Hearing of My Mother’s Death: A Daughter’s Memoir of Mental Illness commemorates my adolescent experience of my mother’s psychosis. I was sixteen when it happened, and I watched helplessly as she became violent and dangerous, to the point where I literally feared for my life. Her fears and delusions grew so powerful that for a time she took me out of our house, and even out of school. After several botched attempts at escape, I finally succeeded in running away from home just a week after graduation, only to find myself facing months of homelessness and hunger – and the ever-present fear of her finding me again.
– How did you decide to write the story?
– The book actually came about by accident. After I completed my first novel, I rapidly discovered that no publisher was going to look at it if I had no other publishing credits to my name. So I began composing short works – flash fiction, short stories, essays – any idea that came into my head, I wrote something about it. Naturally, a number of those ideas were inspired by this incredibly trying period in my life.
Still, I had no intention of making anything of the story until May of 2013, when I quite coincidentally discovered my mother’s obituary online while doing a search for myself. That was when I learned that she had died – in 2007. Needless to say, this brought those painful memories nearer to the forefront of my mind, and several months later, when I had amassed nearly thirty publishing credits and was ready to start submitting to publishers again, I reviewed my body of short work and discovered that I had nearly enough material about my mother for a book. It was at that point that I decided to assemble the individual stories and tie them together into one connected work.
– What was the biggest challenge during the write up process?
– The biggest challenge was – and still is – dealing with emotions that I buried somewhere inside me years and years ago. To a certain extent, I’m able to remember the things that happened to me in a clinical fashion – objectively, as if they’re someone else’s story. After I completed what I thought was the final draft of the book, I set it aside for a few months, as I always do, so that I could give it one last edit before finalizing it. When I went back to it, I realized that it was missing something, something rather important. Emotion. The story that I had written was interesting and compelling, but it lacked any real feeling. I had no trouble describing the events of my youth – but I hadn’t permitted myself to remember how I felt about them.
If it weren’t for the book, I don’t think I would have dug any deeper. It’s been very upsetting to me on a personal level, and I’m frankly not convinced that forcing myself to relive the traumas of my past has been beneficial to my emotional health. Yet I realized that, to succeed as a memoir, the story needed it. Because, of course, a memoir like this isn’t just for the writer; it’s for the reader, too. Maybe I know how I felt, but readers can’t know unless I tell them. I had to force myself into a place where I could communicate those experiences as more than just an objective observer, and I found that very painful. I shed a lot of tears, more than I’ve cried in years. It was worth it in the end, though. I even wrote an essay about the process, which I’ve included in the book; it was featured in Diane DeBella’s I Am Subject anthology, which was released in September. The overwhelmingly positive responses I’ve gotten from readers who have read the essay and been inspired to share their own stories because of it convinced me that it was the right thing to do.
– Tell us something more about the main characters? Are they all taken from your real life?
– The main characters are my mother and I, and yes, I’ve sought to portray us as we really were during this time. In addition, I’ve attempted to reconstruct events as accurately as I can, but the fact is, I simply don’t remember every detail. This is one of the reasons I composed the narrative in fragments – this allowed me to skip over pieces that are missing from my recollection and focus only on those I remember vividly and well.
There were a handful of other individuals who were tangentially involved in our story, and although I’ve changed all of their names in order to respect their privacy, I’ve also made them as true-to-life as possible. Anyone who knew me back then would recognize the real-life characters for who they were – I didn’t use composites in any way. Interesting side note, however – quite a lot of the information I obtained about some of the people in the story was through my mother, who was, at this point in time, highly delusional. I’ve therefore sometimes wondered about the reliability of statements she made about my sister, or my stepfather, for instance. I’ve attempted to convey these doubts at appropriate intervals in my memoir.
– How much time did you need to finish the story and to publish it?
– I couldn’t even guess. About half of it I wrote in segments, as individual short stories and essays, without having any notion of eventually compiling them into one connected work. I wrote the first set of transitional sections over a few weeks, then the last few some months later. All told, I guess it took about eighteen months – during which time I also completed a full-length novel and got halfway through drafting two more! I guess you could safely say it was not my fastest moving project.
– What about your other works?
– On November 7th I am also releasing my autobiographical short story collection entitled Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past, which tells the story of the rest of my life in short stories and essays. My first two novels will be published in May; one is a work of women’s fiction entitled My Life with Michael: A Story of Sex and Beer for the Middle-Aged and the other is a very funny romance called Just the Three of Us: An Erotic Romantic Comedy for the Commitment-Challenged. I’m about halfway through a rough draft of a sequel to Just the Three if Us; I hope to get back to it one day if I survive my first book’s launch!
– Who are you?
– I am a speck – a tiny, meaningless collection of electronic particles occupying, for a very short span, a tiny, meaningless portion of the vast unbound emptiness in which our Earth resides. I am nothing to the Universe; I am nothing to Space, and I am nothing to Time. Yet I am everything to me. That the rest of it exists means nothing if I do not.
– What are your writing habits?
– I’m rather strict on discipline, even with myself, and furthermore, being a creature of routine and habit, I have some rather rigid guidelines on when I work. Afternoons have traditionally been my writing time, because I like to work outside in the sunshine – and since I live in California, this works pretty well for me! I even have a small greenhouse up on my roof so that I can sit outdoors, even in winter, and still be fairly comfortable as long as the sun is shining. For the last few months, however, I’ve been so busy with promotional work, audiobook recording and editing, social media, etc., that I’ve had to forgo most of my actual writing in favor of promotional activities, which makes me very sad. However, I do appreciate having something to look forward to – I really can’t wait to get back to working on my books!
– Are you satisfied by the sales of the book and do you plan another one?
– I’m still in the pre-order phase (the interview was sent about a week ago), so it’s too soon to tell how the sales are going to go. I’d like to see the numbers a little higher, of course – who wouldn’t? – but as a former accountant, I’ll admit I find it fascinating watching the patterns of the numbers as they accumulate. For example, I’ve made exactly the same number of sales in the U.S. as in the UK, even though the latter is a much smaller market, and what’s more, I’ve made them on nearly the same days. I also get a real kick out of seeing how sales influence ranking in the various categories, and I’ve been quite surprised by the results. One day I’d like to sit down and really analyze the figures mathematically – I think there’s a wealth of information in there for authors.
I expect to have a total of six books coming out in the next year. In addition to On Hearing of My Mother’s Death and Stories from My Memory-Shelf, I will have my first two novels, the sequel that is my work-in-progress, and a romance short story collection entitled To All the Penises I’ve Ever Known, after my open letter by the same title. It’s going to be a busy year!
– What are you doing to promote by the best possible way your book?
– My main pre-release strategy has been to publish free self-contained excerpts from my forthcoming books. Because both of the books being released in November are comprised largely of self-contained segments, this was fairly easy for me to do. Since I’m very active on Twitter, I’ve been able to advertise those to a large audience, which seems to have generated quite a bit of interest in the story. If everyone who has said that they want to read it actually buy a copy when the book comes out, I will be very happy!
I’m in the process of narrowing down my post-release promotional options but, boy, there sure are a lot of them. I’ve already listed Goodreads giveaways, scheduled some guest blog appearances, and have been sending out review copies like crazy, but there’s a lot more yet to do. Yesterday I ran across a fabulous list someone had compiled of websites offering book promotion opportunities. There were ninety sites listed. Yikes! You can see why I haven’t had time for writing.
– Why do you prefer to write short stories?
– I wouldn’t say that I prefer short stories, although I have written about seventy of them in the last two years, but there are certain circumstances in which I think short form works better than long form. As in my memoir, for example. It would be very difficult for me to present it as one chronological narrative, particularly when I don’t always recall the details of what happened between one event and another. And that story in particular I think makes more sense as a series of disjointed recollections, because that’s exactly how it feels to me – fragmented, and a bit unreal.
Sometimes I will choose to write a short story because I’ll have an idea that I’d like to write about that’s simply too small for a novel – perhaps a concept, even a phrase that strikes me as clever or interesting. It’s nice to stretch my writing muscles a bit, too – the short story form is so different from a novel or nonfiction work that it forces you to focus even harder on storytelling requirements.
– Tell us more about your family?
– There isn’t much more to tell. My mother and biological father split up when I was five, and except for one visit maybe a year later – when I no longer even knew who he was – I never heard from him again. My half-sister was eight years older than me, and as she had her first child when she was eighteen, she moved out of the house when I was only ten years old. I was too young to remember any of the relatives on my father’s side, and my mother’s parents both died before I even knew that they existed. Therefore our entire extended family consisted of my mother’s brother and his wife and children, although we even fell out of touch with them when they moved up to New Hampshire when I was perhaps middle school-age. After my mother and father split up, she briefly married his brother, my uncle, and then my stepfather, who lived with us for eight years. He moved out of the house during her psychotic break and we basically lost contact after that. It would be fair to say that when I think of family, I think of Mom. She really was the only constant in my life as a child; she was the physical embodiment of my idea of family.
I’ve often wondered how much different my life would have been had I had more of a family, if there had been another adult around who could have intervened in our situation. Perhaps then my mother could have gotten the treatment she needed; perhaps then I wouldn’t have ended up living on the street and nearly starving. There is definitely an advantage, especially for children, in having a support system that goes beyond a single parent. One of the greatest obstacles for me was the helplessness I felt because of my youth – for a long time I was literally unable to get away from a woman who was mentally unbalanced and dangerous, and that should never have happened.
– On what jobs you were employed before you start writing?
– I have a Bachelor of Arts in Film Studies from the University of California at Berkeley. It was a fun degree to get, but not very commercially viable unless you want to teach, which I did not. I worked in a bank for a while, and then as a professional eBay seller for several years, during which time I discovered how much I really enjoy being self-employed. It was while running that business that I taught myself bookkeeping, which I also really enjoy, and when I gave up on eBay I found several regular jobs in that field. In 2009 I completed my Masters in Taxation at Cal State East Bay; I am now an Enrolled Agent and am licensed to do professional tax preparation. However, although I find the theory and mathematics behind taxation intriguing, the nuts and bolts of running a practice can be rather tiresome and tedious. A couple of years ago I began writing in my spare time and discovered that I loved it! So I abandoned numbers all together and turned my energies towards words. But who knows? Maybe eventually I’ll get tired of literature and want to do something mathematical again.
– Ask yourself a question (And don’t forget to answer!)
– Are you sorry that you waited so long to begin writing? No, not really. I was what you might call a budding writer in my youth – my school district even arranged for author Jane Yolen to come and mentor me – but by the time I left home, I had lost most of my creative impulses. I don’t know what it was, exactly – perhaps the strain of my mother’s illness made it unpleasant for me to explore my own feelings, which is a vital part of the writing process. Or perhaps at that time, I simply didn’t have much to say. It wasn’t as if I spent years thinking, “Oh, I’d like to write a novel,” but never got around to doing it. Until a couple of years ago, I had simply never wanted it before. And when I did finally have that thought, I got right on it. I suppose it came out when it was ready.
I do, however, grow impatient sometimes with the length of the process. Not of the writing itself, but of the months of querying publishers and agents, of the months of waiting for responses, of the hours and hours you have to put in on administrative tasks when you’d rather be working on your next book. Those are the times when I wish I’d started sooner – I’m not getting any younger, you know! But at the same time, I know now that the next book can wait, that it will wait. It will be ready for me when I am ready for it. We’ll meet when it’s time.
To learn more about Lori check out her web page