Saturday, January 30, 2010

Half Broke Band Directors

I heard a great radio show recently about one of my favorite topics: writing family stories.  Kerri Miller, host of Minnesota Public Radio's Midmorning program, interviewed Jeannette Walls on Jan. 20 about her new book, "Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel."  Here's a link to the podcast: The story after a hardscrabble childhood | Minnesota Public Radio NewsQ.

Walls' first book was the memoir "The Glass Castle," about growing up with nomadic, eccentric parents.  Her new book is a story about the life of her maternal grandmother, a spunky, adventurous woman named Lily Casey Smith, who grew up in the early 1900s.  Although much of the book contains true family stories and events, Walls had to fill in some gaps in her grandmother's life.  Because of that, and because she felt she could best capture her grandmother's voice by writing in the first person, she decided to write it as fiction.

I found this to be an interesting approach to writing about an ancestor – particularly interesting to me because I have been researching the life of my great-grandfather, Bandmaster G. Oliver Riggs, for several years and still have some unanswered questions.  Do I write about what I know?  Do I wait until I have more information?

This photo of my great-grandparents, G. Oliver and Islea Riggs, was taken in June 1926 on a trip to Yellowstone National Park.  G. Oliver was organizing bands in the Northwest for instrument manufacturer C.G. Conn.  If you look closely, you can see the Conn logo in the car window.

Walls said during the interview that she approached the book as a retelling of oral stories handed down by her family.  She tried to stay as close to the truth as possible, with the goal of taking the reader back to that time and place in history.

I liked it when she said she hopes people who read her new book will be inspired to learn more about the lives of their own ancestors.  I hope they will, too.  She said she was surprised, during her first book tour, by how many people would come up and tell her their life stories.

“I want folks to start writing these stories down before they disappear.  I think that they’re incredible resources and gifts that we’ve all been handed down.  These patterns emerge in our families.  I think it’s important especially as we’re facing tough times in this country, economic tough times, to sort of be reminded that we all come from hardy stock.”

She touched on this topic again, toward the end of the interview, when she talked about the power of storytelling to turn sensitive or difficult experiences into stories of triumph and perseverance.

“Everybody has a story to tell.  You don’t have to tell the world like I did, but tell your children, put it down on paper, as a gift to them, this is where you came from, this is why you’re as strong as you are.  It might explain some of your quirks.  I think patterns emerge.  We should never be prisoners of our past, but our past does influence who and what we are.”

I look forward to reading her new book, as I continue to uncover and write my family's stories.

1 comment:

  1. I love these quotes from Jeannette Walls, especially the bit about coming from hearty stock :) I read The Glass Castle and have her new book and am anxious to start it to see how she tells her grandma's story with the "true-life novel" method. I'm also anxious to have you write the story of G. Oliver - can't wait to see it in print!