ARCHIVE: The War, At Home and Abroad

1054687292_cb57858329By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit March 19, 2010)

On paper, it looks to have been a pretty sweet existence. Having a father who was a famous writer — not just any famous writer, but the award winning and best sellingJames Jones, author of the WWII generational touchstones The Thin Red Line and the hugely successful From Here to Eternity. There was mother Gloria Jones, who worked as an actress and a big-time book editor, and who counted among her friends the likes of Lauren Bacall and Jackie O.

There was the re-energized setting of postwar Paris, where the family made their home — and where their apartment overlooking the Seine was regularly overrun by the most celebrated writers, artists and actors of the day. There were parties with Truman CapoteNorman MailerGeorge PlimptonKurt Vonnegut — and what more impetus would a body need to die and/or kill for a life like that of Kaylie Jones?

Peer between the lines, however, and you’ll discover that life for Kaylie Jones was hardly a Technicolor fantasy set against the City of Lights, or its MGM backlot equivalent. In a household defined as much by liquor as by literature, keeping up with the Joneses meant going drink-for-drink against people who could be as competitive about their consumption of cordials as they were in their passionate professional pursuits. And, while “alcoholic” was a dirty word chez Jones, alcoholism would cut short the lauded career of Kaylie’s father; send her mother on a decades-long descent into emotional ruin and devastated relationships. The bottle would play a part in Kaylie’s estrangement from her brother as well — and contribute to Kaylie’s own spiral into disease and depression.

Kaylie Jones would eventually shake herself free of the distilled demons; starting a family, becoming a respected writing teacher, and establishing a lauded career as a writer of novels — including the intensely autobiographical A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries (made into a film by the esteemed Merchant-Ivory team). With the publication of her memoir Lies My Mother Never Told Me, Ms. Jones lifts the veil and faces her family history head-on, in a frank piece of nonfiction that Janet Maslin of the Times called “a bright, fast-paced memoir with an inviting spirit.”

On Tuesday evening, March 23, the author drops in at NovelTeas Authors Aromas & Gifts, for a 7pm reading and book signing event that’s keyed into the theme of “Memoir March” at Kim Widener’s recently inaugurated book salon/ tea room/ gift boutique  on the Left Bank of Red Bank. The shop invites guests to enjoy a complimentary cup of tea and share their own “six word memoir” (a la Hemingway’s profoundly brief “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”) — and if we here at Red Bank oRBit are often guilty of being intoxicated with our own run-on ramblings, it’s only because we love bringing you prose like our exclusive interview with Kaylie Jones, which you’ll find around the corner when you Continue Reading.

RED BANK oRBit: I think what’s most interesting about your book is that it hasn’t emerged as your calling card, meaning you’ve established a career and a reputation as a fiction writer and a writing teacher before taking on the memoir. Is your family history something that you’ve been carrying around for years with the intention to publish it someday — or is there another reason behind the timing of the book’s appearance? 

KAYLIE JONES: I never, ever considered myself a memoirist; I don’t think that anyone really sets out to be a memoirist. But the circumstances of my mother’s death — her horrendous, visible, painful, ugly end from alcoholism — made it a story that I felt needed to be told.

I couldn’t have done the book before she died, and one of the reasons for that was the way she lived out her last years; the people she associated with. A lot of people who knew her pretended that there wasn’t any problem, but I was horrified when I saw how she would take in strays and thieves; let them into her home. They were getting into her will, stealing from her.

Another thing that inspired me to write the book was a meeting I had with Susan Cheever — whose father, you probably know, was John Cheever. We had things in common, of course, and when she talked about her next book being a memoir rather than a novel, that hit a nerve with me.

Once you started seriously considering putting this story down in memoir form, did you take a certain inspiration from any other autobiographical books?

I don’t read memoirs in general — I just don’t find a lot of those books appealing, and a lot of the people who publish their memoirs are simply not writers. But I thought that this was definitely the right way to address my family’s story. I don’t think of it as a vanity issue — this is what I went through.

There are some examples of memoirs that really stand out — Nick FlynnJoan Didion’s memoir is marvelous. And Caroline Knapp, who wrote Drinking: A Love Story, which is a book that had a profound effect on me.

Well, it’s not that you shied away from alcoholism as a subject in your other works.

I’ve addressed alcoholism in my fiction, as something that happens to ’someone else’s family.’ But the true story is that alcoholism was a huge part of my life. Certainly a major part of my relationship with my mother — and my father wouldn’t have died so young if he hadn’t suffered from Post Traumatic Stress due to his experiences in the war. He would drink because of that; to self-medicate.

Back then they’d say he had “shell shock.”

Right; that goes back to World War I, which was really the first time in which the chivalry of war was truly gone — most people would not have even been able to tell you how it all started, and why we were fighting in the first place.

A great deal of the World War II veterans also experienced a lot of difficulty adjusting to life at home after the war. They took to drinking heavily because they didn’t have any other medication. My father came back from the Battle of the Bulgewith shell shock, and he drank for medicinal purposes.

From what you’ve suggested, though, your parents surrounded themselves with champion drinkers, regardless whether or not those friends had fought in the war themselves.

Anybody who was a writer, an artist, an actor, a movie star who was an expatriate in France after the war, passed through that house we lived in at some point — it was truly an open house, and one of the tragedies is that I wasn’t old enough to appreciate what was going on around me at the time.

Another tragedy is that a lot of new readers don’t even know who a lot of these people were — but some of the ones I remember are Romain Gary, who had fought for the French Resistance; plus Albert CamusMary McCarthy — Richard Wright, before he died.

You mentioned that James Baldwin was a particularly frequent guest at the house.

Oh, Baldwin and my father would have incredible arguments about racism in America, long into the night. And Baldwin was a renowned heavy drinker himself. They all were — Irwin ShawWilliam Styron, that whole gang.

Was it a post-war, disillusionment kind of thing, all of this drinking, or does it fall more into the stereotype of the writer? 

Writers are often loners, who overcompensate for that singular sort of existence with drinking and drugs. But a heavy drinker can be sociable with another heavy drinker; they don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed matching each other drink for drink.

So there was a whole lot of drinking going on at the house. And most of them were American expatriates, living there in France, basically a liberal-minded group who were disillusioned with the climate back in America at the time; they were reacting to the conservative direction that the country had taken.

Some reviewers have tossed around the word “drinkalog” in describing your book, or in talking about other people’s memoirs in which they detail their own addiction or problems in their family histories. Working with young writers, do you see a lot of this sort of thing from your students?

I’ve been teaching writing for 20 years, and I’m drawn to students from drug-filled backgrounds; people who’ve looked that sort of thing in the eye.

I’d like to do some research into this subject — it seems that a great number of writers have been people who come from families with a history of alcoholism and depression. DostoevskyTolstoy, certainly F. Scott FitzgeraldHemingway.Thomas Wolfe, who wrote about his father in Look Homeward, Angel.

Does it show in their prose when a writer has lived too comfortable an existence? 

A lot of writers will do research on what it’s like to live with addiction in the family, but you feel that they’re not in it somehow. You feel they’re not coming from a place of emotional strife.

So, having confronted your own history head-on like that, where do you take it from here? Are you looking forward to getting back to writing fiction? 

I started writing another novel — one with an unreliable first-person narrator who doesn’t tell the truth. It’s a complicated narrative; she’s so much in denial that she commits a crime out of rage.

But if we can’t trust a first-person narrator, who can we trust? What are we gonna do if this guy Ishmael turns out to have made up everything in MOBY DICK, just sitting there on the next barstool? 

Our job as storytellers is to convince the reader that we’re telling the truth. We get in trouble when we contradict ourselves!