Welcome to another installment of Family Histories. Today my featured guest is KEVIN BRENNAN, an accomplished novelist and editor. Kevin discusses how other people’s family stories have influenced his writing–particularly a family he knew growing up in the 1970’s during the Watergate hearings. (The featured image is of my father and me during that same period–possibly watching the hearings)
I appreciate Adrienne’s invitation to write something for her Family History series, following a little discussion we had about phoniness and internet authenticity a while back. She mentioned her faith and I mentioned my atheism, and we both liked each other’s frankness on what can be a touchy subject online.
I’ve been thinking a lot about family history lately because I’m seeking an agent for my new novel about a unique family, the Heartneys. Their moment of crisis takes place in 1973, during the period of the Senate Watergate hearings, but the source of their pain occurred ten years before, when they lost a newborn child, then promptly buried their grief in order to function and survive. We learn through the course of the book that family history plays an even greater role than that in the story – always the gift that keeps on giving.
We all know that burying our feelings is no way to carry on, yet so much that surrounds family history concerns the well-meaning errors that we make in reacting to extraordinary circumstances. And the errors made long ago by an earlier generation can reverberate for decades. In my book, the parents of Mrs. Heartney – Arlene – protected her from her mother’s terminal illness, so that the sudden loss of her was a shock that Arlene couldn’t get over. It hardened her stance on life in a way that would come to affect her own family as the years went by, including the way she thought about her husband, a much more open man who could have helped her cope had she accepted his support.
The funny thing is, I knew a family like the Heartneys when I was a teenager, and though this isn’t their real story I took their dynamics and made up a story that seemed to fit them. And in that way they have become part of my own family history – someone who really existed and had a far-reaching effect on my life. I’ve never really stopped thinking about them.
I suppose that my family – hit with a difficult divorce when I was twelve and a pretty significant level of poverty that went with it – left an impression on others who were around at the time, wondering what our backstory was and how things got that way.
There’s always a timeline, a sequence of events. Family history is always a daisy chain of choices made along the way, and the consequences – good and bad – are what gets written down or photographed or just remembered in oral-history fashion. It can be inspiring, it can be cautionary, and it can be a source of pride, but it’s never just something that happened. It was created.
(And in the spirit of oral history, I use a hybrid point of view in this novel, with one of Arlene’s daughter’s telling the overarching story in first person but giving herself permission to tell us in third person about moments she wasn’t present for. It’s like leafing through a photo album but the pictures turn into YouTube clips before your eyes. We’ll see if it works for readers.)
The models for the Heartneys were the kind of people who, I could just tell, were going to have a hard time in life. I’ve tried to locate them over the years unsuccessfully, Googling the names I remember, but I was surprised one year when I went back to St. Louis, where they and I are from, to find that their house had been razed at some point and there was nothing there. No artifacts, no foundation. It was an empty lot. To look at it, you’d never know that a family had once lived there. Nothing about their history and their choices that had put them in that spot remained. Their choices might also have caused the loss of the house.
Who’s to say? That story will have to be a different novel.