I work with many memoir writers (and am one myself) and I know that we have things to say that may help other aspiring memoirists. Every month I feature excerpts from my interviews with those who have written and published a memoir, and here’s the next one.
This month my interview is with Hadiyah Carlyle, author of Torch in the Dark: One Woman’s Journey published this year. You can buy this book online at Hadiyah’s website, www.torchinthedark.com or Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.com.
Torch in the Dark: One Woman’s Journey tells the story of how Hadiyah Joan Carlyle, as a single mother, pioneered as one of the first women since World War II to enter the trades as a union welder. Beginning in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood in New Jersey, the story moves through San Francisco’s colorful Haight-Ashbury in the sixties to arrive at last at Fairhaven Shipyard in Bellingham, Washington. For Hadiyah, welding became both a path to self-reliance and economic survival, and a metaphor for healing from early childhood trauma.
Q: Why was it important for you to write your memoir? (ie, leave a legacy to your descendants; educate, enlighten, or inspire others in similar situations; heal your emotional wounds; entertain; make money; etc.)
Hadiyah: It started out that I just wanted to tell my story. It ended up being a healing for me and for my family.
Q: Does your memoir cover your entire life up to the present day, or a particular portion of your life? If a portion, why that portion?
Hadiyah: My memoir covers twelve years of my life from 1964 to 1978. These are the years that had a great impact on my life and also a great impact on the country and world.
Q: What was the most challenging part of your memoir to write? Why?
Hadiyah: The most challenging problem was the structure. There was a crucial and emotionally charged childhood rape scene, which was buried in my unconscious mind at the point where the story begins. It was difficult to decide how and where to put it in the story.
Q: What part of writing your memoir came easiest to you? Why?
Hadiyah: I wrote my memoir in writing groups using writing practice designed by Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones. I just wrote. One part wasn’t easier than another.
Q: How long did it take you to write your memoir? Did you write every day?
Hadiyah: It took more than ten years. I wrote regularly but not every day.
Q: What is your favorite memoir, other than your own? Why?
Hadiyah: I read many, many memoirs. Most of them touched me in some way. One of the outstanding ones was The Color of Water by James McBride. I like the structure, alternating his mother’s story with his. I was touched by his mother’s story.
Q: Which element do you think is most important in a memoir – setting of time and place; underlying theme or focus; storytelling plot; characterization? Why?
Hadiyah: For me, the underlying theme is the most important in a memoir. That’s what pulls it together.
Q: What years does your memoir encompass? Do you relate the happenings in your own life to historical events of the same period? How did the events of “big history” impact your life?
Hadiyah: The story takes place in the 1960s and ’70’s. Yes, I was in Haight Ashbury. Yes, I was a hippie. The world was changing and I was a part of it. I truly believe that it is because I came of age in the ’60s that I am alive today and have had a meaningful life. I defied the system, which would not have been possible the ’50s.
Q: How did/do you make use of sensory details (smell, touch, sight, sound, taste) in describing the people, places and events in your memoir?
Hadiyah: I developed a lot of my ability to use detail in descriptions in classes with Priscilla Long. Her teachings are available in her book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life.
Q: How did you handle sensitive subjects with the other “characters” in your memoir? Did you preserve their anonymity? Disguise them in any way?
Hadiyah: I thought about this, conferred with my son, and decided to keep the real names of most of the people. A couple of names of “minor characters” were changed to prevent any possible issue.
Q: What publishing options did you consider for your memoir, and what were their pros and cons? How did you eventually publish your memoir?
Hadiyah: I sent out queries, many, many of them to publishers whose names I got through writing magazines and the internet. The responses I received convinced me that very few existing publishers are open to work from unknown authors, and I didn’t want to spend more time looking. I decided to self-publish through Book Publishers Network, which enabled me to use their imprint and distribution channels. Book Publishers Network is a Northwest publishing house, and I wanted to be able to promote the book here in the Northwest.
Q: How did/do you promote your memoir?
Hadiyah: I had a very successful launch at Elliott Bay Books, a well-established Seattle bookstore. Many of the people who came were from groups I belong to—the Jewish community, yoga, writing and hiking groups. I’ve had several other readings since then and plan to do more. I have a radio interview coming up and will be on a memoir panel at the upcoming Northwest BookFest. I also plan to promote the book to women’s studies programs and women’s trade organizations.
Q: What do you wish you knew before you wrote your memoir, that you know now? What advice would you give someone who wants to write the story of their life?
Hadiyah: Publishing now is a minefield. It has changed and changes all the time. There are so many new options—ebooks, print-on-demand, social media, online marketing. It’s important to know the audience you want to reach and make the choices that will help you reach them. I’ve been learning as I go. I could have saved some money if I had started out knowing everything I know now.