In a nonfiction thesis workshop in 2015, Phillip Lopate gave a group of Columbia MFA students—including me—an important piece of advice: “When we write about our parents, we must see them as autonomous individuals, not just how they impact us.” This nugget of guidance landed in my notebook alongside countless others from Lopate—a preeminent voice on the essay and renowned personal essayist himself—and it’s one he has taken to heart in his latest book, A Mother’s Tale.
The mother in question is Frances Lopate, who was born in 1918 and died in 2000. She was a powerful and difficult woman whose parents both died when she was a child; who ran away from the older sisters raising her in Queens and Long Island; who was married young to a brainy, Hermann Hesse-reading, austere factory man whom she resented bitterly and cheated on with several lovers; who was a mother to four, a war factory worker, a candy store owner, and, later in life, an actress and singer.
In 1984, when Lopate was 41 and his mother 66, Frances told her life story in more than 20 hours of tape-recorded conversations. “I suspect she had been waiting for her close-up all her life,” Lopate writes, “and so this oral autobiography became, in a sense, the fantasized full-length interview.” But while his mother was candid during these conversations, Lopate found that he and his mother could still not overcome their mutual mistrust; at a loss for what to do with the tapes, Lopate packed them away in a closet. More than 30 years later, he listened to the tapes again, and A Mother’s Tale—the story of Frances as an autonomous individual, though never as autonomous as she would have liked—is the result.
Lopate has written four personal essay collections (Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and Portrait Inside My Head) and edited the anthology of the genre (1994’s The Art of the Personal Essay), as well as a book on the craft of literary nonfiction, To Show and To Tell. It might seem appropriate, then, for A Mother’s Tale to be labeled as part of Mad River Books’ 21st Century Essays series. But this book, which unfolds as a three-way conversation between his mother, his younger self, and his current self, defies its categorization: yes, its sections are imbued with the reflection and retrospection that Lopate preaches to his students, but essays they are not. Rather, what we get is an intimate seat in the room as Frances tells the story of her life as she sees it—her self-mythology—and as her son resists her telling, both then and now.
In his book-lined office on the top floor of his Carroll Gardens brownstone, Lopate and I discussed the stories we tell ourselves about our lives, the difficulties of empathy, and how to categorize A Mother’s Tale.
Kristen Martin: You taped the conversations with your mother more than 30 years ago now—it was 1984—and you didn’t listen to the tapes again until somewhat recently. What led you to revisit the tapes and to turn them into a book?
Phillip Lopate: I guess there they were, sitting in my closet, and they kept eyeing me, and I think that my desire or my need to hear my mother’s voice conquered my fear. She was a very powerful person, and I think that it was hard for me for years to encounter that. But then when I started listening to them, her voice was loud and clear—she articulated well—so suddenly, in this very room, she was filling the space. I had forgotten so much that she had told me that I would sit there transcribing and be stunned by. I’d say, “Oh no, that can’t be.” So, I took my time transcribing them, and as I was transcribing them I felt that they told a very powerful story. They told maybe two powerful stories—one story was my mother’s rendition of her life; the other was my relationship with her and how I both accepted and showed resistance to that telling. Every family has their mythologies, you know, and in a way when I taped my mother I was trying to get her to examine these mythologies and try to move her away from certain grudge-holding and bitterness. I don’t think I was very successful [laughs].
KM: Unfortunately! What genre do you consider this book to be? Because it doesn’t quite read like a straightforward memoir—although we do get a pretty linear description of your mother’s life—or like essays, though you do utilize essayistic techniques; we do see you think against yourself a lot.
PL: I think it’s closest to a play. And I think it could be staged, in fact. It does seem to me like a dialogue. Now some people think that dialogues have a relationship to essays, coming out of Plato or Oscar Wilde, and in any case, an essay is something that usually necessitates taking different parts of yourself and talking with each other. But I don’t think of it as essentially an essay, and I don’t think it’s a memoir either. It’s a bit of an oral history, because something that struck me a lot was how her own life was playing against the history of the times—particularly as a woman going through all of these periods.
KM: Yeah, from the end of World War I up until practically the turn of the 21st century, right?
PL: Exactly. I think she died in 2000, so she didn’t see 2001. But she had been through a lot, and of course, she’d fought her own feminist battles. In any case, I do feel that it’s a drama, and I wanted to get the sound of her voice in there—I didn’t want to paraphrase everything—because part of the tension that existed between us was that she had this voice that would take over. If I were to paraphrase it, then it would become my voice. But I wanted people to encounter this. And of course, many people have ambivalent tensions toward their parents for the simple reason that their parents are the first voices they hear, and then they internalize these voices, and they have to become independent of these voices.
KM: Speaking of choosing not to paraphrase your mother and to let her speak more—you have this book structured as a conversation between your mother and you in 1984, but then with the you now commenting on it as well. How did you decide how much of the tapes to include in the book as transcribed?
PL: It’s a storytelling impulse in me—I was trying to shape it, and if there were repetitions, I cut them out. I didn’t feel that it had to be pure, but I did feel it was a kind of oral history. So if you think about other works of oral history, like Studs Terkel, or Svetlana Alexievich, or Oscar Lewis’s Children of Sanchez, I’ve always been very interested in the way people talked and how their speech would lead them either toward revelation or towards rationalization—how they began to see something and then fended it off. So a lot of this book is about that very process. And that goes for both of us, because I would be rationalizing or defensive just as my mother would be.
KM: In shaping the narrative, you’ve broken down the conversations into little chunks with titles—the first one is “My Mother’s Key Memory,” which tells the story of her father’s death—and then in some of the sections, you insert quite a bit of your own commentary, where you sometimes set the record straight, or comment on the themes of the conversations, like your mother’s tendency to be bitter towards your father. But then in other sections, you’ll allow her to speak for pages at a clip without interruption. How did you find the balance in terms of where to intercede with your own commentary and where to let her story stand alone?
PL: I think that’s where the artistry comes in, not to sound immodest. But I wanted to give the reader some credit, and I didn’t want to have to interpret every single thing, like, this is an example of her doing such-and-such. So I tended to intervene where I thought that there were key issues involved that needed some elucidation. My training is as an essayist, so this was something that I knew I could do, but I didn’t want it to take over completely. It allowed me to be succinct in summarizing certain things, and that also interested me—not to let my own voice go on and on.
KM: One of the minefields of writing about parents—and especially dead parents, as we both know—can be sentimentalizing them, this urge to make things seem like they were better than they were. And you really sidestep that completely here.
PL: This is not a sentimental book.
KM: No! And you know, your mother was in many ways a difficult person, and in these conversations you were frequently led into “a place where she was frustrated, stymied, and thwarted.” She seems to always be seeking a kind of empathy for her self-pity that you weren’t willing to give back then and that you’re not willing to give now. Towards the end of the book, you write, “When I showed an earlier draft of this manuscript to someone, he was dismayed that there seemed to be no change in my views of my mother from my earlier self to my present one—no softening.” So why was it so important to you to present this relationship in all of its mistrust, rather than to try to go towards that place of softening?
PL: Well, I can say a few things about this. First of all, I interviewed my mother when I was about 40, and by that time a lot of my attitudes towards her had congealed. There’s not going to be that much of a difference in the way that you think of a parent between the ages of 40 and 70. As you know, I’m not much of a sentimentalist, and I like the friction that comes with that, and I’ve always resisted a too-easy redemptive or transformative ending. And I also ultimately felt it was more real—that is, in a way I wanted to give aid and comfort to all of those who cannot seem to find a peaceful sentimental softening in relation to their parents. I remember a period with my father where I took him to a baseball game, and we had a good time, and I thought, oh, how wonderful. And then he went on and lived for a few more years and became impossible again! [Laughs] And so, that On Golden Pond-ending does not often happen in life—that is, you reach an understanding and then it goes backwards. It was particularly mystifying with my mother, because she was quite an intelligent person, and she was also a psychologically astute person, so we’re not talking about someone who avoids all psychological understanding. We would reach an understanding, and then there would be this backsliding, because she was quick to be offended.
I think part of what intrigued me about this book as a literary project is that there’s something raw about it—it remains raw. It’s not been smoothed out; the tensions are still there. That’s exciting to me. I’ve always tried to write in a manner that is as honest as possible, but I’m aware that in having at my fingertips this very conversational smooth voice of the essayist—in spite of the kind of honesty and realism I wanted—that I was always kind of making it go down easily. And in this particular case, I’m not protecting the reader or myself from the power and the hurt of reality. There are lots of things that happened in my mother’s life and that my mother did to others that were really painful. So, I felt like at last, I’m delivering realism through the only vehicle that could do it, which is my mother’s voice, since I can’t! [Laughs].
KM: One of the themes that emerges across this book is how even those closest to us—our families—can misunderstand us so much. And related to that is this sense that the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the ways that we self-mythologize are unique to each individual. At one point you write, “One person’s trauma is another’s footnote.” So what does this say about the challenges of writing about other people, the lives of other people, even the ones that we seem to know best, like your mother?
PL: Well, in this particular case, let them have the floor sometimes! [Laughs] I had already written several times about my mother, and she had been a character in several of my essays and even to some degree in my fiction. But I never was sure that I understood her. And I think a lot of the fireworks in the book are gender-related—they simply have to do with, not only is it hard for family members to understand each other, but it’s particularly hard for men and women to understand each other. And that was one of the initial spurs to writing the book; the question I asked myself was, “Why am I not more sympathetic to my mother?” I wrote an essay called “The Limits of Empathy” in Portrait Inside My Head, in which I took the position that empathy is harder to arrive at than we’re told, and I would be happy to settle for sympathy, or even for pity, because there’s something presumptuous about believing that you can get inside someone else’s shoes or soul.
KM: Speaking of gender—it’s interesting that throughout this book we see you sympathize and align yourself more with your father, especially as your mother is launching these attacks against him. But then something that you also write about in the book is how difficult it is for you to remember your father’s voice and how much of a ghost and enigma he was in life. I guess I’m answering my own question of why focus a book on your mother instead of on your father, but are you still interested in writing more about your father at this point?
PL: Well, I did write “The Story of My Father,” which is a rather long essay, and my father is certainly inside me to a great extent. But my mother was an actress, and she’s a more exciting character on the page than my father was—my father was very defeated and accepted or even embraced the idea of being defeated, which my mother never did. She really was a battler. And in spite of my saying that it was hard for me to empathize with her in exactly the way she wanted me to, I took from her a great deal of that stubbornness, not giving up the fight—just a will to live that she had.
KM: Something we touched on earlier is how in this book, obviously you’re telling the story of your mother’s life, which you describe as a 20th-century life, since she lived through all the major events of the 20th century, but you’re also kind of having her stand in for a larger story of a woman living that 20th century life, in a particular social class in Brooklyn and Queens. In these conversations, we see you try to encourage her to see herself as living within that wider context a lot, particularly focusing on socioeconomics and the fact that she was lower-middle class. So I’m wondering how that commentary—even as you were just speaking with her—how that figured into your project for this book, of presenting her life?
PL: Well I was always trying to figure out when I was working on this book how much of her responses were characteristic of a certain generation of women. In other words, what was the sociological dimension involved, aside from the personal dimension. Part of what made my mother so complicated was that she saw herself as somebody from the middle class who had fallen into the working class, or at best the lower middle class. She couldn’t entirely embrace the values of the working class, but she embraced them somewhat, and particularly in rebellion against her own family. They rejected her in a sense, and we were poor, and so she availed herself of the support of other women who were of her socioeconomic group. So, I would say that I was trying to deepen my range of sympathy by seeing her historically, against that background.
But it did fascinate me, for instance, her responses to people who had returned from the concentration camps. You know, here she was, Jewish and lower middle class and running a candy store, and she was suddenly surrounded by these people who were very angry and very damaged. And she couldn’t quite rise to the objective challenge, because she felt that she herself had a hard enough life. So, I was fascinated by that, I was fascinated by the fact that she was essentially a tolerant person, but she had friends who were Italians, and then suddenly she would start speaking against the Italians. It was a question of, are we individuals, or are we socially-constructed? It does seem to me that women of her age were great grudge-holders, so what was that about? And sometimes they would really hate their husbands—she was not the only one, you know. So I wanted to understand the dilemma that she had gotten herself into, or that she had faced as a woman with not that many choices, and how some of her responses were healthy to find other channels of expression, or even other boyfriends, and some of them were unhealthy, which was to fester.
KM: How much was she thwarted because of her particular situation, and how much was she thwarted because she was a woman living through this time period, when certain options weren’t open to women . . .
PL: Exactly, and beyond that, how much was her sense of being thwarted theatrical, narcissistic—a choice. To some degree, we do have some choice over how we regard the hand that has been dealt us. I have strong tendencies toward stoicism, and I’m interested in stoicism and the whole idea of stoicism, that you have some choice in how you regard your misfortunes, so that was part of it.
“Immensely readable essays. . . As riveting as short stories, with arresting openings, sculptured scenes worthy of fiction, introspective passages fingering his own feelings, and haunting conclusions that resonate. . . .What holds it together is an engaging voice, the projection of a curious, appealingly modest, sometimes self-mocking character behind that voice, and the “the fluent play of a single consciousness.” He’s gifted at staging his inner conflicts, radiating intimacy without descending into the confessional. . . . [Lopate] remains “a storyteller at heart” who can liven up any subject with nimble anecdotes from his life. . . . Delightful.”
– The New York Times Book Review
"An engaging collection of personal essays. . . . [Lopate] draws you in, playcing you in his writing space, and you feel his impatience to get to the page and draw you into his mind and through his world."
– San Francisco Book Review (4 stars)
"A connoisseur of the personal essay. . . [Lopate's] style and mileu are reminiscent of novels by Henry Roth and early Saul Bellow."
– Christian Science Monitor
"Phillip Lopate is America's Montaigne, bringing the same sense of moderation, warmth, and curiousity to the personal essay."
– Baltimore City Paper
“Hilarious and tender… Meandering merrily along in the footsteps of the great classical essayists Montaigne and William Hazlitt, acclaimed cultural critic Lopate traipses breezily through family life and literary, cultural, social, and political matters…with his typical elegance and peripatetic curiosity.”
– Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Esteemed essayist and poet Lopate offers 'a motley collection of essays, personal and critical' . . . Readers are well-rewarded for his obsession."
“Lopate does the essay proud. He is elegant in style and a real slugger when it comes to content….Lopate is an ardent, shrewd urban chronicler, piquantly incisive in analyzing film and literature and unnervingly candid and combative in addressing intimate relationships, sexual performance, and his loving rivalry with his brother, Lenny, the well-known New York radio host…[An] ensnaring book.”
“Phillip Lopate is one of the greatest essayists of our time, and Portrait Inside My Head proves it again. His writing is provocative, intimate, intellectually curious, clear-eyed, and funny as hell. He’s a fearless, exquisitely aware chronicler of thought and feeling. Being Phillip Lopate, he’d probably also be skeptical about so much praise, but in this case he’d be totally (tenderly, tragically) wrong.”
– Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask and The Fun Parts
“It’s impossible to overestimate how completely Phillip Lopate’s anthology The Art of the Personal Essay reframed and revivified the personal essay for contemporary American writers and readers. In his new collection of essays, Portrait Inside My Head, Lopate demonstrates his own immense virtues as an essayist--his ceaseless ability to “think against” himself."
– David Shields, author of How Literature Saved My Life
“Few living writers have done as much to shape the contemporary essay as Phillip Lopate, but he’s clearly not done. Portrait Inside My Head is a welcome reminder of how good he is as an essayist and how vital he makes the form, in all its miscellany, reverie, sparkle, and spectacle. Memoir is for suckers. The essay is—and these essays definitely are—where the jam’s at.”
– Ander Monson, author of Vanishing Point
“There’s something tremendously absorbent about Phillip Lopate’s essays. . . . The reading experience he assembles for us always commands my attention like the wise and mysterious shrug of someone smart.”
– Eileen Myles, author of The Importance of Being Iceland
“The personal essay is one of the most intellectually satisfying and most entertaining literary forms that we have in our day and age and Phillip Lopate is its undisputed master.”
– Charles Simic, author of Selected Poems
“Phillip Lopate's new collection of essays is refreshingly, delightfully, and justifiably acerbic, a miscellany that consistently delivers thoughtful and touching insights that sway from sadness to hilarity, to tenderness, grumpiness, exasperation, etcetera. The result is not only a portrait of what's going on inside Lopate's head, but of the mechanisms of essaying that have made this genre vibrant for millennia. "Essay" doesn't look as cool as some other words do on coffee mugs or tote bags, but its legacy is one that doesn't need a lot of bling. Pardon my potty mouth, but it takes balls to insist on eschewing the momentary fads that grab attention, and to vigorously align oneself instead with an art form that has fallen out of fashion. It's a risk that he's taken on behalf of the essay for more than thirty years. God bless Phillip Lopate's balls.”
– John D'Agata, author of Lifespan of a Fact