Sarah Hutchins' interview with Deborah Gwartney in today's Vanguard was interesting and (unfortunately) too long for our print edition so here's the full version in all its literary glory.-Editor
Running away was decriminalized in 1974 in the United States.
This is not a widely known fact but one that Portland State Professor Debra Gwartney is only too familiar with. About a decade ago, her two oldest teenage daughters ran away from their home in Eugene. They jumped on freight trains, traveling to Portland, San Francisco and other major cities. They mingled with a subculture formed by other runaway youths living on the street. Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love is Gwartney’s story of how she coped through this period of her life, continued raising her two younger daughters while trying to help her two older daughters and how her family was finally reunited.
Sarah Hutchins: A lot of people are likening your book to David Schef’s A Beautiful Boy. Is either of your daughters, Stephanie or Amanda, thinking about writing a memoir from their perspective?
Debra Gwartney: They’ve talked about it but there’s nothing in the works right now. The whole being part of the book’s publication has made them think about stories in a new way about what they went through. I of course tried really hard not to tell their story. They have their own stories. And I wasn’t there. I didn’t see it. I hope that they write about it. I think that would just be wonderful. It would be way different than Nic Shef’s book (Tweak) just because they had a much different experience. Drugs were involved but it wasn’t such as drug oriented story as his was, which good for him about it for writing it. That was very brave but theirs is more of a traveling story of jumping on trains. I just don’t think that story is told very often. People probably don’t even know that kids jump on trains and travel around the country and I think that there are quite a few of them that do it.
SH: What made you decide to write the memoir?
DG: I didn’t just wake up one day and decide I’m going to write about this. We’d been through this very difficult time and I knew that I wanted to write about it but I didn’t know what shape it was going to be or even what genre. I never seriously thought about writing fiction but it crossed my mind. I wrote just a very small piece about looking for Stephanie, the second daughter, in San Francisco, in the Tenderloin District and it helped me sort out a lot of my own feelings about what had happened. It was good in both the sense that I could practice what I want to do, which is to write nonfiction, and also just confront some of the unsolved emotions around that whole time. So I wrote that piece and I published it in a literary journal called Creative Nonfiction. It got quite a bit of attention and just made me start thinking maybe something bigger is here so then I wrote another piece for Salon and then I wrote another for a journal called Fourth Genre and several other pieces. I wrote a longer piece about the wilderness therapy for The Oregonian. They all just kept adding up so I thought maybe I could start putting them together in a book, which was not anywhere as easy as just compiling them as I thought it would be because then the book had to be shaped and shaped and reshaped and that took years. It’s been a long process but there was never one moment where I thought, “I’m going to write a book.” It just kind of evolved that way. SH: Did you start writing because it’s therapeutic to write?
DG: I didn’t start writing because it was therapeutic to write but it turned out that it was therapeutic to write. I wrote because I felt like I had a story to tell and I wanted to tell it and see how well I could tell it. I wrote more out of a writer’s aims than a therapy aim but in the end it was helpful.
SH: Do you think that your book will help moms that may be going through something similar?
DG: Well, I hope so. Of course I hope that but I don’t know. I’ve heard from a few people who saw early reader copies that they found it helpful just to see how someone else had gone through it but I didn’t write it for that intention either. I hope that’s something that happens but I didn’t go into it thinking, “I’m going to help other people figure this out” because my story is only my story and their stories are completely different. Hopefully people who read it will feel less alone maybe that’s kind of presumptuous for me to say but it is nice to hear that someone else had a traumatic experience that maybe bears some similarity to yours.
SH: When I went to Powell’s I was surprised to see the book not only in the memoir section but also under parenting.
DG: Yeah, it should be under parenting. I hope it’s under memoirs, too, but it is a book about parenting for sure. I’m glad that they put it there.
SH: How is your relationship with your daughter’s today?
DG: Great. Really good. Very positive. I do think that the actual writing of the book and showing them the different versions as I was writing it really opened up this whole new realm of communication among us. We talked out a lot of things that we hadn’t talked out before. And there are still little pockets of resentment and fear and sadness and all those things but mostly we’re just really good friends now. They’re well into adulthood. They have their own lives and they’re doing very well so it’s just been great. They have their heads together in ways that I think maybe they wouldn’t if they hadn’t had this early experience of tremendous self-reliance. Now they are both, well all four of them, focused and super responsible.
SH: Do you think that they ran away due to the constraints of society?
DG: There were very personal reasons in our family that made them decide to run away. But I do think that they felt that constraint. They talked a lot when they were younger about the rich kids at school who had a lot of privilege and entitlement. It was difficult for them at that middle school and high school setting. There does seem to be a kind of class hierarchy that some kids struggle against and just the mainstream expectations where not a lot of creativity is allowed in. I think that they were revolting against that in some ways. I don’t know if it was conscious for them at the time but they were very angry about it. They were really well read. We talked a lot about politics and human rights and things like that in our household and suddenly they felt that they were the ones being held back from what they wanted to do. It was all very complicated.
SH: What do you think of the subculture of kids living on the street? Do you think that it gives them more independence or is it a tragedy of our society?
DG: I think it’s horrendous. We need to have much better solutions. I just recently read another report about runaway kids and there are 2.8 million teenagers living on the streets. That’s more than Portland’s population living on the streets in the US. That’s not worldwide. There are 2.8 million homeless kids in this country. It just seems like a population that we never talk about, that we never think about. Bush signed a bill in October, not long before he left office, that I have some real problems with because it doesn’t support parents. It more supports runaway youth shelters and education on the streets, which I think is all good, but I also think that we need to start paying attention to bring families back together. Those kids out there on the streets are angry at their parents but a lot of times it’s because they have a curfew or they’re not allowed to drink in the house or they can’t stay out all night, things that parents should be able to say, “Don’t do this.” It’s just too easy for a kid to walk out the door, go downtown and find someone who will teach them how to jump on a train. I’m very concerned about it but I don’t want to become some kind of runaway youth advocate. That’s not what my life’s mission is about but I do hope that it opens up some type of dialogue about it.
SH: How does teaching affect your writing?
DG: Teaching is great for my writing, actually. It takes away time for writing but there’s never been a class where I haven’t learned along with the students. I’m challenged to think about my writing in a different way or I see a kind of technique or style or craft element that I can improve in my own work by talking about it with the class. So, it’s hugely helpful. I read a lot of manuscripts from students and I see a lot of the same problems cropping up over and over and over again so it reminds me to watch for those things in my own work. And I just like talking about writing. It’s a subject that’s very much alive for me.
SH: What are your current writing projects? DG: I have a big project going but I’ve put it on the back burner while the book’s being published because I’m going to be gone so much on book tour but I’ve been writing a lot of individual essays for magazines. I just want to keep my work out there so I have a bunch of pieces coming out. I wrote an essay for Modern Bride about helping my daughter chose her wedding gown and I have a piece coming out in Hallmark Magazine, which is a women’s magazine and one coming out in Modern Love in The New York Times. But I’ll go back to the other big project that I’m working on in the summer, I hope.
SH: What is the big project?
DG: It’s a memoir more about my growing up years, my youth growing up in Idaho. I don’t really know the shape of it yet but I’ve been working on it for a year or so. Hopefully it will progress. More hard work ahead.
Debra Gwartney will be reading from her book Thursday, February 12, 2009 07:30 PM at Powell's City of Books on Burnside.