homereadings and workshopsbooksinterviewsetcetera
biopress kitcontact



Judith Barrington interviewed by Ruth Gundle, publisher of The Eighth Mountain Press

"On Writing Lifesaving"

How long did it take you to write Lifesaving?
It was about twelve years from the time I first tackled the material about living in Spain. But when I wrote those first chapters, I didn't conceive of the book as a whole. I thought there were a number of interesting short memoirs about being the only foreigner living in a small Catalan town during the Franco years. At some point, I realized that they could go together as a book, but it was still quite a while before I confronted the real story underneath those pieces.

Which was?
Well, I had gone to live in Spain in the early 60s at the age of nineteen, less than six months after both my parents had died in a disaster at sea. I was, of course, profoundly affected by that, even though I refused to pay conscious attention to it. I reacted as teenagers frequently react to tragedy—not wanting to draw attention to myself, not feeling connected enough to anyone to grieve. So in order to write this book I had to uncover the particulars of that denial which took the form of living what seemed at the time a glamorous life: working in a castle, drinking too much, having a lot of sex, driving fast sports cars, and knowing a lot of people along what was then a fashionable stretch of the Mediterranean coast.

I should think it's hard to write about denial, since it doesn't have much outward manifestation.
It was very hard. I couldn't just write about the fast life that had kept grief at bay; I had to stop seeing it the way I had seen it back then, and acknowledge that it had been a distraction-a way of getting by. I used a lot of imagery-water images in particular—to convey the feelings that I couldn't acknowledge to myself or anyone else. I tried to allude to the repressed feelings, even while telling lighthearted or funny stories about my life in Figueras and my job as tour guide at the Perelada castle and winery. I also began to realize why some of the stories that I wanted to tell were important to me: they had a connection to the loss of my parents, even though that connection only emerged through writing and rewriting. The chapter "Paco's Mother" is an example: Dolores was one of many women who worked at the bottling plant in Perelada, but I remembered her very clearly even thirty years later because she looked a little like my mother. I'm sure that is why I was interested in her at the time and why I was motivated to write her story after so long.

One thread of the story involves lesbian relationships that were, in the Spain years, very secret. Would you say this is a "lesbian book"?
What is a "lesbian book"? If it's a book written by a lesbian, then yes. In Spain I was struggling with my sexual identity, though I was still romantically and sexually involved with men. By the later chapters, I am settled into a life with my partner, and it's no longer an issue. But that struggle is not the focus of the book; it is simply part of the psychological landscape in which the story unfolds.

In Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, you say that memoirs must be true in order not to violate the contract between writer and reader. Is everything in Lifesaving true?
What I said in Writing the Memoir was that memoirs are not fiction. That when you write fiction you are only limited by what the reader will believe, but when you write memoir you are limited by what actually happened. You can't make up events that you never experienced. Of course, when you come to write about events that happened twenty or thirty years ago, you find that your memory has holes-there are people whose names you can't remember, things that are only shadows of events. Sometimes as you try to flesh out these fragments, you feel as if you are making it up. And in Lifesaving, I certainly did make up things like names. I also put events in a different order than they occurred. I lived in Figueras for three years, going home to England for a few months each winter and it would have been confusing to the reader to track these comings and goings exactly. Truth is a slippery thing. In every group or family, one person remembers events differently from another. In the later parts of Lifesaving, I bring in memories of my parents from my childhood. It seems pretty likely that my brother and sister could dispute the way I have described our parents: they each had a different relationship with them than I did. Since they are a lot older than I, for instance, they have more adult memories of them. For me, my mother and father were gone before I could see them through grown-up eyes. But a memoir is the way one person remembers things and makes a story out of those memories.

Was the writing of this book a kind of therapy for you?
No. I know that some people use writing as therapy, and I have on occasion used a journal that way. I don't think I could have written this book if I hadn't first done some therapy and in other ways worked through the aftereffects of loss. I do think that the writing itself brings new insights, and in that sense I suppose it is a part of one's spiritual growth. But the purpose of therapy is to come to terms with events or to understand one's behavior. The purpose of literary writing is to create a work of art.

You have previously published two books of poetry. How did you move from poetry into memoir?
Actually, both my poetry books contain a short memoir, so I always saw the two genres as related and compatible. There were some subjects that seemed to get too long for poems, or to need more analysis than I could put on the page in a poem. I think, though, that my prose is a poet's prose, if there is such a thing. In Lifesaving I was led most often by the rhythms and sounds of my sentences. It was often imagery that took me into deeper layers of the story. My strengths were poetic ones, my challenges lay in the structuring of a longer prose work. It took me a long time to find the right form for the book.

The first and last chapters are both ocean related: the first a story from your childhood about sailing with your parents, and the last a meditation on their drowning and your lifelong preoccupation with how you might have saved them. I was struck by the way the book seemed to come full circle. Was that always how you saw it?
The first chapter, "Umbilical," was initially written as a separate piece. It contains a funny story that was often told in my family-even after their deaths—about my mother's fear of the sea and my father's ineptness at sailing. We held on to the funny story and never talked about the later tragedy, but I didn't see that until I wrote the story down. The last chapter, "Lifesaving," was by far the most difficult one to write. I had to move away from the few static pictures I had in my mind about my parents' experience on that ship, and use my imagination, together with the facts that I was able to track down from narratives of survivors, to piece together what it was probably like for them.

Do you have any more to write about this episode?
I've written about it in poetry and now in a memoir. I keep thinking I've finished with it which is quite a relief. But I notice that writers tend to have a few subjects that they write about in different ways over and over. I might never write again directly about my parents' deaths or about my years in Spain, but I'm sure the legacy it left me-my fear of travel, my reaction to public disasters, and so on-will find its way into other pieces. However, at the moment I'm working on a book-length poem that traces my connection to events of World War II. So far, that feels quite different.