Zibby Owens: I'm interviewing Michele Filgate today who’s the editor of the anthology What My Mother and I Don't Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, which was based on her essay on Longreads. A contributing editor at Literary Hub, Michele has published her work in The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Paris Review, Tin House, O, The Oprah Magazine, and numerous other publications. A former board member of the National Book Critics Circle and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, Michele is currently an MFA student at NYU. She was named one of “The 100 Most Influential People in Brooklyn Culture.”
Welcome Michele, to “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Michele Filgate: Thanks for having me.
Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what inspired you to write the essay on which the anthology you wrote was based and how it came to be a book?
Michele: I started writing this essay when I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire well over a decade ago. When I first started writing the essay, it wasn’t long after I had moved out of my mom and stepfather’s house. The essay really came, at that point, from a place of anger and confusion trying to write about the fact that my stepfather had abused me. What it took me many years of therapy and finding my voice as a writer to realize is that this was an essay about my relationship with my mother and the fracture that this abuse had caused in our relationship. I didn't know that when I first started. When I first started, it was more about trying to get the events on the page and figure out what I had just been through. I have never spent so long on a single piece of writing before. I needed to have those years to sort out what had happened and to figure out what the real story was here. In the end, the essay is really about a daughter longing for a stronger and better relationship with her mother.
The essay was published by Longreads in October of 2017 right after the Weinstein story and Me Too movement took off. It wasn’t originally supposed to be published then, actually. My editor at Longreads, Sari Botton, had slated it for around Thanksgiving since people who have to go home for Thanksgiving who might have complicated relationships with their family members could read it then and possibly relate. As soon as this news story broke, she was like, “Nope. We’re moving this up.” When it came out, I didn't expect it to have the impact that it had. A lot of my favorite writers like Anne Lamott, Rebecca Solnit, Lidia Yuknavitch, shared it on their social media. It went viral that way. I heard from so many people who related not just to the topic of my essay, but also to the idea of the title of the essay alone, which was “What My Mother and I Don't Talk About.” I’ll forever be grateful to my editor at Longreads, Sari, for telling me when I first submitted this essay with the title “Lacuna,” which I thought was a beautiful title, “No one knows what that means. No one will click on that.” [laughter]
I came up with a bunch of different titles. We ultimately went with this one. It became apparent right away, so many people were like, “I have something I don't talk about with my mom.” It made absolute sense to turn this into an anthology with different writers writing about it. It was important to me from the outset that I wanted it to be a diverse collection, not just of the writers themselves, but diversity in the types of relationships between mothers and children. Some of the people in the book are really close with their moms. Some might be estranged, or their mothers are no longer alive. What's fascinating to me is the threads that connect all of these different stories together, how you see some of these stories overlapping and speaking to each other.
Zibby: The end result was really powerful. Although to be honest, I left wanting to know more about your story. It was a beautiful essay, but I was like, why is this not a memoir of your story? Did you think about doing that?
Michele: I did, actually. It’s possible I will write my own memoir, for sure. The subtitle of this book is Fifteen Writers Break the Silence. For me, it felt like it’s much easier to break silence as a community rather than alone on a stage. From the outset, I saw this as a group project. There's a power in the collective. I wanted to represent a wide array of stories, other people’s experiences and backgrounds. That was always, for me, the vision for this particular book. It’s my first book. I didn't picture an anthology as my first book. It actually makes sense because I've been doing this kind of work for years. I ran events at indie bookstores for many years, both in Manhattan and Brooklyn and starting out in New Hampshire. I was on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. I have done a ton of author interviews and book reviews. I have my own literary series here in Brooklyn called Red Ink where I feature different women who are writing in all different genres. The whole purpose of that with the [indiscernible] series is focusing on women writers, past and present. I pick a particular topic that we talk about. It’s a salon-style event. I've been doing this literary community work for quiet a long time now. It felt like a natural extension of what I've already been doing. I would love to write a memoir at some point too.
Zibby: You are like a younger version of me, except more accomplished. [laughs] It’s true. I love doing all that stuff too. That’s so fun. Which indie bookstores did you work for?
Michele: I started out at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in college. Actually, when I first started writing this essay, I was working there at the time. My first job out of college was working at the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. I quit that after a year to move back to New Hampshire and start an events series at that bookstore and focus on my writing career. I did that for a while. Then I moved to New York City to run events at McNally Jackson in SoHo. After that, I worked at Community Bookstore in Park Slope for a while running their events. It’s really fun. I feel like once a bookseller, always a bookseller. That's where my heart is, is in indie bookselling. It was really fun because one of my jobs as an events coordinator was to curate and to put different voices together. I felt like I was doing that with this book as well.
Zibby: That's so cool. We’ll have to talk after this. Maybe there's some way we can work together. I have lots of events. I love to bring authors together and help form a community and that whole thing. Maybe there's some way to collaborate. Anyway, I won't take time away from your podcast. Aside from your essay, which of the other essays do you feel like you developed a really close attachment to? How did you pick the fifteen authors that you included?
Michele: It would be hard for me to choose just one essay that I formed the closest attachment to because that's like choosing your favorite children. I love all of these pieces in different ways. For me, that was the most interesting part of the puzzle, trying to pick essays that were different enough but also spoke to each other, and pick different writers who I admire. Also, it was a challenge because, as is the case in any anthology, some pieces that were assigned didn't end up working out, or people weren’t ready to write about their mothers even though they thought they were. It turns out it’s actually very difficult to write about complicated relationships. Even if you're very close with your mom, it can be complicated.
From the get-go, I had people in mind who I wanted to reach out to. Leslie Jamison, for instance, who wrote this fantastic piece about trying to understand who her mother was before her mom became her mom by reading the unpublished manuscript by her mom’s first husband that's based on their marriage, a novel that he wrote based on their marriage, I had reached out to her in the very beginning. She said, “I'm really close with my mom. I'm not sure what I’ll write about.” I thought that was fascinating. I said, “Leslie, you can write about anything.” I'm such a fan of her essays. I think she's one of our best essayists. I gave her the green light to work on whatever she wanted to work on and come back to me. That's what she came back to me with. It was amazing. Right from the start, I knew I wanted her in the book. Alexander Chee, who you mentioned, he's one of my favorite writers as well. Then there were only a few essays in the book that had been previously published. For the most part, I really wanted them to be original pieces that had not been published before.
There were two essays that I had read that I said, “I need these in the book.” That was Brandon Taylor’s “All About My Mother” that Literary Hub published where he writes about having an abusive mother. He writes about her after she passes away with such tenderness despite the really difficult relationship they had. It’s one of the most beautiful essays I've ever read. I had to include that. Then the other one that had already been published was André Aciman, the author of Call Me by Your Name, which is such an amazing book. He wrote this beautiful essay for The New Yorker about growing up with a deaf mother. I thought that fit the theme of this book as well. Everyone else, I reached out to writers I love and asked them if they wanted to write about their moms. That's how this book ended up coming together. It is hard. I can't say that I have a particular attachment to just one essay. I'm not just saying this because I'm the editor of the book. I'm really astonished by all of these writers in this collection. They all bring so much to the table.
Zibby: I agree. You did an amazing job of collecting different viewpoints and essays. As you mentioned, Alexander Chee’s essay “Xanadu,” I keep thinking about it. It was so good. They're all so good. Now I have a question about anthologies in general. When you decide to write, did you sell the anthology idea to a publisher and then go recruit the authors? Did you have to have the other authors on board first?
Michele: You have to put a proposal together. What really helped me sell this book right away was that I did have some big names already signed up to contribute. People like Leslie Jamison and Alexander Chee, that really helped when you can say you already have a commitment from certain writers who are already in it. The final contributor list changed from the proposal to the finished book. I think that most publishers understand that. It was a very short proposal. It was basically a letter talking about the essay itself, and then my essay, and talking about all the different writers I wanted to approach and those who had already committed to doing it.
Zibby: Let's go back to your essay a little bit, if you don't mind. First of all, in your essay you say that when you were at college that Jo Ann Beard’s essay collection, The Boys of My Youth, showed you that “A personal essay can really be a place where a writer” -- I'm quoting here -- “can lay claim for control over her own story.” You say, “At the time, I was full of anger toward my abusive stepfather, haunted by memories that were all too recent. He lived so large in my house that I wanted to disappear until finally, I did.” Talk to me a little bit more about all of that.
Michele: Jo Ann Beard is one of my favorite authors. I actually was fortunate enough to get to study with her at the Tin House summer workshop several years ago. I actually workshopped this essay in that workshop. She was instrumental in helping me come up with the final central image for my story. One of the things that she taught me in that workshop was that there's a darkness and a light to every person that you're writing about, to each person. That really blew open the whole essay for me because you don't want to make someone into some cartoon villain. We’re all human no matter what a person has done. When I thought about that, I ended up coming up with this central image in my essay of a jewelry box that my stepfather had made for me. That's where I learned how to keep secrets inside. I'm so sorry, I just forgot the question. [laughs]
Zibby: No, that's fine. I just wanted to hear more. I was quoting about one scene with your stepfather and how you wanted to disappear “until finally, I did.” What did you mean by that?
Michele: In that part, I'm talking about the effects of abuse and how you don't want to be in a situation like that. I finally got out of that house, but disappearing at what cost? I feel like I lost who I was for a while. I hid myself in that jewelry box too in many ways. It took a long time to unpack that experience and what had happened to me and to come to terms with even calling it abuse. One of the things that I'm really sensitive about that it’s taken many years to come to terms with is abuse can happen in all forms. There was some sexual abuse from my stepfather, like him touching me inappropriately, grabbing me. The verbal abuse was so incredibly damaging as well. I don't think we talk about that as much in our society. This constant barrage of verbal abuse I got, it took me a long time to admit that's abuse. I lost myself for a while. Writing this essay was a way to reclaim who I am. Laying claim to your own story like Jo Ann Beard does, I feel like that's what we do as writers. Anyone who's writing about their own life, there's a power to that. There is a power to writing your truth and to being able to articulate it and to stare it in the face and look at it instead of brushing it away or disappearing.
Zibby: I am so sorry that this happened to you in your life. I am just so sorry. It breaks my heart. It really does. To you, to many other people it’s happened to, it’s so unspeakably awful. The fact that you're brave enough to write about it and come forward and give voice to people who might otherwise not be able to articulate it, who aren't as brilliant as you, who aren't as great at writing even, it’s a gift that you gave so many people. I can tell it’s just starting. I can really tell. For what it’s worth, I'm just so sorry it happened to you.
Michele: Thank you. I teach creative nonfiction. I have for many years. One of the things I teach my students is to write about the things that scare them, that they're afraid to articulate. I myself was not doing that for so long. I was running away from writing the truth of this story. I finally had to follow my own advice. That was what led to the finished draft of this. It’s hard. I'm so glad that we are finally at a point where people are breaking the silence about this kind of thing because it’s really scary. It’s so many women in particular. Men too, as you know from this book, deal with this.
Zibby: At the end of your introduction -- because I want to hear about the effects that this had in your own family now that it’s out there in the world -- you said, “Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to give this book to my mother, to present it to her as a precious gift over a meal that I've cooked for her, to say, here is everything that keeps us from really talking. Here is my heart. Here are my words. I wrote this for you.” Wow. Did you actually come to that moment and give her the book? Tell me what happened.
Michele: It’s complicated. My mom was not happy with this essay or this book. I did write this essay and put this collection together for her. Ultimately, my essay is about longing for a better relationship. A lot of people have told me, “Your essay doesn't come across as meanspirited toward your mother, or vindictive. There's love there on the page. There's a lot of love.” I'm really glad when I hear that from people, even from strangers who have never met my mom. That makes me feel really good because I did write it with that in mind. This is written for my mom because we can't seem to have a conversation in real life where we can break through. There's a lot of denial there. When there's denial, it’s impossible to have a person really listen. This was the only way I knew how to communicate with her.
That said, it’s been complicated and difficult. I always tell my students when they ask me about what they should do if they want to publish something about someone they love and they're worried about hurting them, that they really do have to think about that, about the effect it will have. For me in my particular case, I felt like there was more damage being done not telling this story than telling this story. Ultimately, I reminded myself of what I would've needed to read when I was that girl in that house. I thought about all the girls out there who might be in a similar situation and might need to read this essay. That was what gave me the willpower to go forward with this and publish it, but things are really hard.
My book is dedicated to my two grandmothers because they’ve been like mothers to me. A few weeks ago, one of my grandmothers who really has been a mother to me passed away. It’s been really hard. I'm going to try not to cry talking about this. I'm still really grieving. This was actually my dad’s mom. My parents had been divorced for many years, but my mom came to the funeral service. I saw her for the first time since the book has come out. We hugged each other and told each other that we love each other. That felt like a really powerful moment. She knew how important my grandmother was to me. She came to this funeral even though we've been having a tough time ourselves. That felt like a really important moment in my life.
Zibby: I am so sorry. I wish we were in person. I would be giving you a hug right now. I'm sorry. So much to go through in such a short amount of time.
Michele: Thank you so much. It’s been a really hard year, a really, really hard year.
Zibby: Has there been a silver lining? Do you feel even more support even from people you don't know having published this? Not that there's an antidote to grief and losing someone you love, but does that provide a little solace in the sadness?
Michele: It does, in fact. I've heard from strangers while I've travelled the country on book tour and also via email. Some of the stories I've heard from people have really made it all worth it. In particular, I'm thinking of this email I got from a woman who is estranged from her daughter. It’s one of the most painful things in her life. She read just the introduction of my book and had to send me an email as soon as she read it. She started crying because she felt like there aren't that many books out there that can help her with that. She felt like my book can. That email alone made this whole book worth it.
Also, there's an essay in my book by Nayomi Munaweera, who's an incredible novelist. She wrote this essay about growing up in a Sri Lankan immigrant family and having a mentally ill mother. She was terrified to publish her piece and sent it to her parents before we even had galleys. Her mother wrote back the most supportive, incredible email saying that she loves her and that this essay is going to help a lot of people. We included that as a postscript to Nayomi’s essay. There's already healing that's happening because of this book. That is just astounding and incredible to me. As I said, not all of these essays deal with relationships where it’s difficult with the mom. There are some that are very loving as well. Again, it was very important to me and to my editor at Simon & Schuster. We were like, we cannot have all abuse stories in this book. We really want to reflect a wide prism of the different kinds of mother and child relationships.
Zibby: When you wrote about your teenage years and the times you were sitting on the ground with your back in the knobs of your dresser, it was such an image. It has stayed with me, the thought of you just sitting there with your back hurting and crying, the whole thing. If you could go back and walk into that room as you now and talk to yourself back then, not to do a therapy exercise with you or anything, but what would you say to yourself then? Is there anything you could have said to make it any easier to get through? Is there any advice you'd want to give yourself back then?
Michele: I would tell myself to keep writing because words have always been what have saved me, both my own words, but other people’s words as well. I talk about how books were really what saved me during that time. They continue to be my solace and what I turn to in all different times in my life. Right now because of losing my grandmother, I've been reading a lot of poetry. I've found a lot of solace in that in the last couple of weeks when I haven't really known how to process my grief. I know that I am going to be writing about my grandmother. I feel it building up inside of me. I know that will help me navigate my grief as well. I would tell that young self that what I was doing then is exactly what I need to be doing, which is to write and to try to make sense of what’s happening around me through words, and that that's always going to be what grounds me and what gives me solace.
Zibby: That's amazing. What are you going to do with all of this talent and ideas? What are you going to do next? What's your plan? What's your day-to-day life like?
Michele: I'm currently in grad school, actually, at NYU getting my MFA in fiction because I want to write both. I've been working on short stories over the past year. I'm really excited about that. I'm continuing to focus on my fiction. I'm also working on more essays. We’ll see whether my first solo book is nonfiction or fiction. I want to write both. The plan is to just continue writing and continue teaching. I teach for a lot of different places. I teach for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop where I teach memoir and personal essay writing. I teach a class for Catapult online called Building a Writing Career on the Internet, which is a class I love to teach. When I first started out as a writer, I felt like there wasn’t one place where I could learn the tools I needed to navigate to learn how to be a freelance writer and to understand the business side of things. My class focuses both on the business side of things and on workshopping actual writing as well.
I've taught for Stanford’s Continuing Studies. I've taught a personal essay class for them. In the fall, I'm really excited, I'm going to be teaching my first undergrad class at NYU. I'm going to be teaching Intro to Creative Writing. My grandmother who just passed away, MeMo, that's what we called her, which was actually a name she gave herself because it was an inversion of mommy. I just loved that name, MeMo. It’s so original. She was a piano teacher for most of her life. She always talked about teaching being a sacred act. I really agree with her. I'm a better writer because of my students, of what they’ve taught me. It’s crucial to my process as a writer. I feel like I'm following in her footsteps. That's the plan. Hopefully, I can have some short stories ready to publish sometime soon.
Zibby: That's exciting. I know you've given so much advice already over the course of this conversation. Do you have any last parting advice for aspiring authors out there?
Michele: I know a lot of writers give this advice, but it’s so true. The way to become a better writer is to be a voracious reader. I've met a lot of people who want to write, but don't read that much. It really depresses me. When I think about why I became a writer to begin with, it’s because I'm in conversation with all of the writers who have come before me or who are writing right now and who I feel a kinship with somehow. If you want to write, you need to be reading constantly. You need to be curious about the world and curious about other stories, and stories that take you outside of own perspective as well, for sure. That would be my main piece of advice. Also, support other writers too. I really am a big believer in being a literary citizen. What goes around, comes around. Go to independent bookstores and buy books by other writers. Attend events. Go hear writers talking about their craft and how they wrote what they wrote. I feel like before I got this MFA, I kind of had my own MFA by running events at bookstores for years and sitting through thousands of author events and hearing authors talk again and again about how they did what they did. That is an incredible resource, being able to attend a free author event and hear the writer talking about their craft.
Zibby: Totally. Come to my events! [laughs]
Michele: I would love to.
Zibby: Thank you so much. This has been a super inspiring interview for me personally. You've given me so many ideas. You're just so inspiring. You make people want to do great things. Thank you for that from me. I'm sure you've done the same for anyone listening.
Michele: Thank you.
Zibby: Hopefully I’ll meet you soon in person. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Michele: Yes, I'd love to [indiscernible].