Coty Poynter interviews author Brendan Wolfe on the nature of memory and truth in his creative nonfiction story, Linie Aquavit.
“ …An absence, in this case the absence of love, could swallow a life—. “
Your essay is intimate and self-reflective. Most of us often turn away from or deny the difficult memories you retrace. But you’ve such an interesting way to confront those harder moments of life through absence. What compelled you to write this particular essay?
My mom died in March, in the living room of my childhood home in Iowa. I had been there for three weeks taking care of her, and while the experience was natural and left me thankful (that she died relatively quickly, without much suffering, and at home), it also was traumatic. I came back to Charlottesville during the pandemic, and I was lying on the couch in my own living room feeling trapped and staring at all the stuff I have so fastidiously surrounded myself with. A lifetime’s worth of memories started swirling. So I began writing.
A few years ago I wrote a history of the University of Virginia in 100 objects. It was a fascinating experience, to think about the narratives embedded in certain objects, but also the way in which the book’s narrative was so contingent on what objects I chose and what order I put them in. Afterward, I told a historian friend of mine that it would be cool to try to do something similar with my own life. I started something then but it went nowhere. It took my mom’s death, and the pandemic, to feel sufficiently motivated.
Short story long, then, this essay is one chapter in that longer work: one object of twenty-three, an empty bottle of Linie Aquavit still sitting in my dining room corner cabinet. I had never written about either of my marriages before, or much, really, about the women in my life. But I found that embedding these stories in the larger narrative really helped give me the perspective I required to make sense of them. And that’s why I write about anything—to try to make sense of it, however provisional or flawed my understanding may be.
One question that we kept going back to throughout the essay is what happened with Jules? It seems that she’s both a major and minor character within the narrative. Was her absence intentional?
No, but it’s an interesting consequence of pulling this essay out of the larger narrative. There are two chapters/essays that center on Annie and three on Jules (out of respect for their privacy, I’ve changed their names). There came a point when everything I thought I understood about my marriage and split from Annie was suddenly and completely upended. That comes later. Jules, meanwhile, represented—aside from my parents—the most consequential relationship in my life. And I don’t mean that in a good way, unfortunately. The relationship was physically and emotionally abusive and destroyed my sense of self for years to come. When I first arrived in Charlottesville with Annie, I wasn’t eating; I needed beta blockers to get through the day. I flinched when she gestured in my direction. My references to this in “Linie Aquavit” are purposefully understated but they are part of the back story. Jules is a ghost that has haunted the rest of my life.
Often the line between fact and fiction is a tightrope when it comes to creative nonfiction. When focusing on an intimate essay, it can be easier to turn towards fiction, or at the least an unwhole truth. What’s your perspective on this topic? How did you navigate revealing these intimate moments of your own life?
I have strong feelings on the topic, actually. I was in grad school with John D’Agata, who has famously argued in favor of making stuff up in pursuit of a larger truth. I disagree. I think we should be as honest and accurate as we can. I once published an essay, though, where the editor asked whether the dialogue it contained was the result of my having recorded or taken notes on those conversations. Uh … no. So he italicized the dialogue to signal readers that it was reconstructed. I think his sense that readers play a role here is spot on. I happen to think, though, that most readers aren’t going to assume, absent italics, that I had recorded this dialogue (especially considering the context of the various scenes). They assume the writer is working from memory and trust the writer to stay true to that memory—with the additional understanding, of course, that memory itself is fickle and biased. In the book, I arrive home one summer with a digital recorder and ask my mom to participate in an oral history. I told her I wanted to interview other family members, too, so that I could juxtapose their memories against mine to demonstrate that my narrative isn’t “correct”; it’s just mine. That as a family we operate not on a single story of our experiences but a bunch of competing ones. She told me to buzz off.
In the end, I think you absolutely can make stuff up, just so long as your readers understand that’s what you’re doing. That understanding might be implicit (reconstructed dialogue) or explicit. I invent dialogues with various people in the book—historical figures, distant relatives, friends, my dead mother—but make it clear that this is what I’m doing through context or my stating so in the end notes. There are also a few places where friends or family told me they remembered something differently and I noted that at the end, too, without changing it in the narrative. We remember what we remember, and that is part of the story. The end notes themselves are a gesture toward the idea that research and accuracy were no small part of my process.
As for navigating the intimate moments of my life—I try to be honest and worry about the appropriateness of publishing it only when I’m done. I try to be fair and try to never make myself the hero of my own story. That generally keeps me on the right track.
This essay seems to take a braided approach — that is, you thread past and present narrative lines into a cohesive whole. What draws you to this choice? And how did this essay evolve as you worked on it?
That’s just the way I think. Moving back and forth, trying to find connections and make meaning from those. “Discursive” is the word, right? In grad school there was a course on the discursive essay, which I didn’t take because I had no idea what that meant. Merriam-Webster says it means rambling, but for me it just means following the often-wayward path of my thinking. The challenge always is to bring the reader along. To keep the connecting thread in sight. I also worked in public history for twelve years, and I have a very strong sense of how the past and the present are never out of each other’s company.
Memories, over time, can become hazy or incomplete. Even the most impactful moments of our lives can become points of confusion, riddled with gaps and lapses. Do you have any methods you use to access or flesh out these memories? How did you come to think about the relationship between absence and memories?
I don’t have any special methods. To me the points of confusion, the gaps and lapses, are part of the story. Not to be avoided but to be acknowledged and thought about. I came to think about absence and memories purely through the act of writing. I had no idea at all that this is what the essay would be about. When I thought about how an absence, in this case the absence of love, could swallow a life—that was a really powerful new understanding of my own life that I came to only because I wrote about it. I hadn’t understood my marriage in those terms prior to that.
How long did it take you to write this essay, and how many drafts did go through?
A day or two? I’m not really sure. I edited a whole lot as I went, so that by the time I reached the end, I felt like I was finished. It still feels a little ragtag to me. The thank-you note in the book meant a lot to me—evidence of my mom and my marriage suddenly appearing in this novel I had been thinking about. I still don’t know whether that belongs in the essay, but notes like this play a larger role in the memoir. And I didn’t understand how the clover would fit with what came before; I don’t think I even intended it to. I thought it was a separate story until I actually wrote it and thought about it.
Could you describe your writing process? Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? What is revision like for you? How do you know when a piece is finished?
No routine. I wrote this and the memoir it’s part of sitting on my couch because I don’t have an office. I eventually bought a nice dining room table and work there now. I have always written a lot for work, for pleasure. I’ve published three books in the last three years and written this fourth one, so in that sense I’m a steady worker. The Iowa work ethic. But that’s not where ideas come from. I have to be inspired to put in that kind of work. There has to be a good idea to begin with but something pushing me forward, too. Something I need to figure out. I had the idea for the objects memoir back in 2017, but I couldn’t write it until my mom’s death. And then I couldn’t stop writing until it was finished. I didn’t have it planned out—this essay, any of the other essays in the book. I had a larger arc in mind—it would begin with me on the couch after my mom’s death and end with my mom’s death. A strange backwards trajectory I guess, but that was where the emotional payoff was so I worked toward that. With this particular essay, I’m not sure how or whether I knew it was finished. Sometimes it just feels right at the end. I like endings to be a little abrupt maybe, and ambiguous. I look for those moments.
What topics or themes do you find you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
The ways in which we create stories and the stories turn around and create us. I’m interested in place, in family history, in history more broadly. I’m interested in the stories we tell but also the ones we don’t tell and why that is and what the consequences are of that silence.
What are you reading now? Is it inspiring or affecting your writing?
This summer, while writing, I read so much and that reading was provoked by the writing and in turn had an impact on it. Not so much stylistically, but in terms of ideas. I read maybe eight Graham Greene novels, five or six Kate Atkinson novels, a couple by Colm Tóibín and the Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson. The Life of the Bee by Maurice Maeterlink, the Berlin Noir trilogy by Philip Kerr, Tolstoy’s Gospels, his novella Hadji Murat, two novels by the Irish writer George Moore (who had an affair with a relative of mine), Rebecca West’s short biography of St. Augustine, Augustine’s Confessions, Dragon Hoops, a graphic novel my daughter loves, and the new Adrian Tomine. Logicomix and a graphic biography of the jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke. And lately I’ve been reading about Early Modern Spain for something new I am working on.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
I once took a writing course from a graduate school peer, and at the time I thought he was peacocking a bit for the undergraduates. He said you can’t be a writer if you don’t know whether you believe in God. I just rolled my eyes at what I thought was pretentious nonsense. But I later came to understand (and agree with!) what he may have meant: that in order to write effectively, you have to position yourself in the world. You have to have a point of view. You can’t be the voice from nowhere, and that means grappling with larger truths even if they don’t appear explicitly in your writing.
What is the most difficult part of your writing process?
Starting! I can write in my head forever, and it’s always really good.
Do you have any other advice to offer to other writers?
To be honest, I’ve never felt particularly comfortable or confident in giving advice. I love to talk about writing, love to teach workshops, but I don’t play the role of writer very easily.