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Life Stories #101: David Hallberg

Mon, 18 Dec 2017 06:25:43 +0000

I met David Hallberg at the midtown offices of the American Ballet Theater, where they'd set aside a conference room for us to talk about his new memoir, A Body of Work. It's about his relentless quest for perfection, from his earliest days as a ballet student in Arizona to his role as a principal dancer at ABT (and as the first American to hold a position of comparative stature at the Bolshoi's dance company). But it's also about realizing that, even though he thought he was pushing himself to the limit, he was really holding himself back—and about how a career-threatening injury drove him not just into physical therapy but into a complete overhaul of his emotional approach to his craft.

As I was reading A Body of Work, I started thinking Jim Bouton's classic baseball memoir, Ball Four. Both books are by young men who've dedicated themselves to their field but find themselves coming face-to-face with the prospect of no longer being able to do the thing they love, far sooner than they'd ever anticipated. Fortunately, Hallberg was able to make the comeback, and as this episode goes online he's approaching the first anniversary of his return to the stage.

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Steve Wiegenstein: Utopia & Me

Tue, 12 Dec 2017 23:02:49 +0000

photo: Kaci Smart The Language of Trees is the third in Steve Wiegenstein’s series of novel about Daybreak, a fictional utopian community in 19th-century Missouri. I’d not come across the previous two, Slant of Light and This Old World, but it doesn’t matter; you’ll be able to dive into the world Wiegenstein’s created and sort out [...]

Jan English Leary on Antonya Nelson

Mon, 11 Dec 2017 04:53:56 +0000

photo: John Leary Many of the protagonists in Skating on the Vertical, the debut short story collection by Jan English Leary, are women on the edge: A young teacher frustrated by a system rigged against one of her immigrant students; a mother desperate to persuade her teenage daughter not to have an abortion; women struggling not [...]

Life Stories #100: Kat Kinsman & Andrea Petersen

Thu, 07 Dec 2017 05:07:55 +0000

For the 100th episode of Life Stories, the podcast where I've been talking to memoir writers about their lives and the art of writing memoir, I wanted to do something special. So, in the spring of 2017, I sat down with Kat Kinsman, the author of Hi, Anxiety: Life with a Bad Case of Nerves, and Andrea Petersen, the author of On Edge: A Journey Through Anxiety, for a wide-ranging discussion about their personal experiences with anxiety disorder, about maintaining their mental health while dealing with the pressures of their careers in the media industry—like, what does and doesn't work for them, and why it might or might not work for someone else suffering from anxiety—and about the battle that was then raging to protect our government health care programs. (A battle that we'll undoubtedly have to fight again before too long.)

Sometimes it's hard to believe that it's been nearly six years since I uploaded my first Life Stories interview, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to have talked to so many fascinating people about their experiences, and about how they've striven to communicate their experiences to others. There's several more interviews already in the pipeline, and while the schedule has been somewhat erratic at times, I'm hoping to establish a steady rhythm in 2018. I hope you'll continue to join me for those conversations!

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Life Stories #99: Lauren Marks

Fri, 01 Dec 2017 19:00:15 +0000

Lauren Marks was an actress in her late twenties when she went to Edinburgh in 2007 to direct a friend's play in the city's annual Fringe Festival. One night, they went out to a bar, and she was in the midst of a karaoke number when an aneurysm in her brain burst. When she regained consciousness, her ability to communicate with the people around her was massively impaired. A Stitch of Time is the story of her recovery from that aphasia—which was so severe at one point that she lacked a conscious interior voice.

There's a lot of personal story packed into Lauren's memoir, and into this conversation. We talk about her frustration at what felt like a parent's attempt to co-opt her "story," about her then-boyfriend's attempt to essentially treat her brain injury as an opportunity to "reboot" their relationship, and about how the injury forced her to fast-track a re-evaluation of her life that had already begun. As she explains, "It's not unusual for someone twenty-seven in New York to say, 'This is not enough for me. Do I take a dramatic turn?'"

"I promise you, I did not want to write a memoir. That was not something that I would have wanted—I didn't even like to read memoirs at the time. It is a weird choice to go from I'm struggling to conjugate a verb and to then think, yeah, I'll be a writer, great idea! But also, what else could I do?

"I couldn't do anything entirely independently anymore. I mean, lucky for me, my physical self is okay; I didn't lose my ability to walk, I can still dress myself, things like that. But I couldn't manage an independent life. The fact was decided, I was going to be at my parents' house; I'd be with my parents, in my childhood home, for a while: decision made. I was not an actor, I couldn't memorize any more, so: decision made. I couldn't go through a textbook so: decision made, no longer Ph.D. student.

"As these things were off the table, so to speak, then it was much easier to say, well, I'm a writer because I'm writing. I don't think that means I assumed this book would ever eventually come out to any kind of general audience. But writing is what made me able to write. The more I could write, the better I could write."

And, as her writing improved, Lauren began to learn more about the neuroscience behind her condition, and that education makes its way into the memoir as well. And we discuss how she drew inspiration from the life stories of Helen Keller and... Casanova?

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Life Stories #98: Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Tue, 21 Nov 2017 18:31:26 +0000

When Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich was in law school, she did a summer internship at a Louisiana law firm. She was firmly against the death penalty, and then they asked if she would be prepared to work on the case of convicted child murderer Ricky Langley. Attempting to familiarize herself with the case, she was overwhelmed by memories of being molested by her grandfather—and though her career as a lawyer was pretty much over before it had even begun, her future as a writer was just beginning.

In The Fact of a Body, Marzano-Lesnevich writes about her efforts not just to confront what had happened to her and her sister, and how her family had suppressed it, but also to understand Rickey Langley—not to sympathize with him, as we discuss in this interview, but to understand what drove him to commit his crimes... and how his attempts to seek help before then had gone unanswered.

During our conversation, she also described one of the long-term effects of her grandfather's molestation, how even as an adult her body would sometimes "freeze up" in a dissociative state—and how, since the writing of this memoir, that had stopped. It led us to discuss the clich&@33; about memoir writing, which is that it's supposed to be cathartic, a notion she vigorously challenged. We also talked a lot about the true crime genre, from the reasons writers choose to write about certain crimes to the creative effort that goes into developing a narrative rooted in the bare facts of a case.

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Life Stories #97: Andrew Forsthoefel

Mon, 20 Nov 2017 17:11:45 +0000

As I was talking with Andrew Forsthoefel in the spring of 2017 about his 4,000-mile walk across the United States, which he writes about in Walking to Listen, I asked a kidding-but-not-kidding question: "So, what were you walking away from?" Because you don't set off on foot to talk to random strangers unless there's something you don't want to deal with at home—but, as Andrew explains, the journey actually forced him to confront everything he'd been dealing with since his parents' divorce a few years earlier. And while he did talk to people that he met along the way, I realized that for the vast majority of his journey, he was out there alone with his own thoughts; as I told him, he could just as easily have gone up to the top of a mountain to meditate, but instead he chose to put one foot in front of the other.

Listening to this conversation again a few months later, I was struck by Andrew's thoughtful determination to really listen to others—to meet them with the full force of his empathy, even when (as we discuss) what they're telling him is rooted in prejudice and hate. In a political climate where pundits make a lot of noise about "listening" to "forgotten" Americans, Andrew's story offers a model for genuine conversation.

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Life Stories #96: James Rhodes

Sat, 18 Nov 2017 06:14:36 +0000

In the early months of 2017, I met the British concert pianist James Rhodes, who had come to the United States to discuss Instrumental, "a memoir of madness, medication, and music" as the subtitle puts it. Rhodes has a fascinating personal story: He'd played the piano some in his adolescence, then gave it up for a career in financial publishing. When he was twenty-eight, he decided that if he couldn't be a musician, he'd be an agent for musicians, and reached out to one of the best agents around, who agreed to take him on as an apprentice. But then they met, and the agent, having asked Rhodes about his interest in music then inviting him to play his own piano, realized that Rhodes was meant to be a musician. And so he went into training—but, in upending his entire life like this, Rhodes was forced to confront his memories of being repeatedly raped by one of his teachers as a child:

Instrumental is a powerful memoir of surviving sexual trauma and coping with mental illness, but it's also a work of fierce advocacy for the power of music—Rhodes hates the term "classical music"—to make a difference in our lives. And so our frank and uncensored conversation takes on everything from what's wrong with today's classical music scene to the consequences of living in a society that makes an admitted serial sexual assaulter its political leader to the legal battle that threatened to keep this book from ever getting published.

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Life Stories #95: Lauren Collins

Fri, 17 Nov 2017 06:17:22 +0000

Back in 2016, I had a fantastic conversation with Lauren Collins, a staff writer with The New Yorker who had just published When in French: Love in a Second Language, which is simultaneously a personal story about how Collins fell in love with a French man without really knowing the language—he spoke perfect English, sure, but there was still a significant aspect of his life, his personality, his identity that was closed off to her until she could become fluent—and a broader account of how language helps shape the way we see the world, and how we work to maintain control over that power. (In particular, I'm thinking about how the French government has an académie whose job it is to maintain the purity of the language, coming up with alternatives to pesky English words that threaten to slide into usage.) How, I wondered, had Collins decided to combine her personal narrative with the reportage and research?

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Melina Sempill Watts: The Roots of Tree

Mon, 23 Oct 2017 16:36:14 +0000

photo: Elizabeth Jebef, Eyebright Studios Every author faces a challenge in coming to understand their characters, but Melina Sempill Watts set herself a particularly tough task, in that the protagonist of Tree is, well, a tree, named Tree. Watts has to figure out the perspective of a character whose ideal lifespan makes human life seem brief [...]