“Why Should I Read Your Memoir?”

Why Should I Read Your Memoir?”

March 2014

Several months ago, a rather blunt fellow in the book business in Vancouver asked me, “Why should I read your memoir?” I was taken off-guard, and didn’t have an answer that satisfied him. Or me.

I do now.

Why should you read my memoir, Coastal Lives, published by Pottersfield Press and on the bookshelves any day now?

Have you ever been single for some years – and really hated it?

Have you ever been lonely, and wished you could share your life with someone who sees the world as you do?

Have you ever been scared out of your wits, almost frozen in place – and changed your life anyway? Has the word home ever confused you – I mean really confused you!

Have you ever said, I need to go home – and realized you had at least two homes you needed now?

Are you passionate about the place(s) you call home?

No matter where you were raised and now live, have you ever felt that you were a Come From Away – someone new to a region who sometimes has to scramble to keep up to new ideas and realities?

Have you ever lived far, far away from your family and old friends– and missed them terribly?

Do you love learning – about history, music, new cultures, geography, weather and food?

Do you have dogs and horses in your life?

Do you live to go horseback riding?

Do you you need oceans and rivers in your life?

Are you an adventurer?

Have you lost a beloved sibling to addictions, or a spouse to early death?

Have you ever been so sad and discouraged that everyday life was a struggle?

Have you ever been so injured you were unable to walk – or to even turn over in bed?

Have you ever healed from a bad injury – but still had fears of re-injury to deal with?

Do you accept the inexplicable or even magic in human lives – or do you fight it?

Do you like a fast-paced memoir?

Do you like drama and surprise?

Do you enjoy a good laugh?

Do you like “hybrid-memoirs” – memoirs that blend different genres to tell a story?

Do you demand “a good story”?

Well, I hope you’ll find these features and others in my memoir. Why should you read Coastal Lives? Why should you read any memoir? To enjoy a good read – and visit someone else’s life, just for a short while. With luck, to come back to your own life, with new insights and gratitude. Or perhaps, you may decide to change your life, take on some new adventures and experiences. You may even decide to write a memoir of your own.

Olivia Chow, My Journey. (In loud praise of the memoir ghost writer/memoir project manager.)

This blog post is in loud praise of the memoir ghost writer/memoir project manager.

Olivia Chow – member of Parliament, would-be mayor of Toronto (yes, please!) and widow of former New Democratic Party leader, Jack Layton – has written an appealing and moving memoir, My Journey. I particularly enjoyed learning about Chow’s country and family of origin (Chow and her parents came to Toronto from Hong Kong when she was 13 years old), and how Olivia and Jack met, merged and married. These personal details are not as well-known as the couples’ political lives, and the battles, losses and victories therein.

I recommend the book as a smooth and entertaining read – and a heart-breaking one. Most Canadians are still so sad about Layton’s untimely and difficult death from cancer in 2011. He could have been our Prime Minister! And a splendid one. But how much more would his soulmate wife still miss and mourn him, these scant three years later … Chow’s writing on loss and re-invention of self after it, will touch any reader, not just those who have lost spouses.

There is a particular point I want to make about the book, though. It has little to do with whether or not you, the reader, may pick it up to read and enjoy, and everything to do with how the memoirs of busy and brilliant people sometimes come to be.  I’ll hand the mike to Chow herself here, who addresses this subject in her acknowledgements: “But for this book project of mine, I needed a great deal of help and professional assistance. I also needed a plan. With a demanding career as an MP, and many personal and political commitments, I had limited time to conduct research I would require to accurately recount all the key events of my life and career. My real forte is organizing and strategizing, as I have for countless political campaigns in the past. So I pulled together a team and set a process in place.”

Heading the team was none other than bestselling author and journalist Lawrence Scanlan – who has ghost-written/memoir-managed for other Canadian memoirists, Margaret Trudeau, among them. What Scanlan is particularly brilliant at is helping the memoirist find and keep their own voice throughout the book. He’s also a dazzling researcher and a dogged project manager: the people he aids, finish excellent books.

Here’s Chow on his contribution: “He waded through mountains of material – electronic folders of my files from my time as a school trustee, city councillor and MP. Old articles and reports. Transcripts of interviews with myself, Layton family members and close political colleagues. Larry spent many months working round the clock, enduring my late-night e-mails. Without his assistance, this book would not have been possible.” (bold, mine)

Brava, Olivia; and bravo, Larry. ( Lawrence Scanlan, I love your books: The Horse God Built;  Wild About Horses; Little Horse of Iron; Big Ben, etc), and am amazed at your skill in helping others write theirs.)

Seaworthy – A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea, by Linda Greenlaw

Reader alert: If you are against commercial fishing of all sorts – read no further. If you have tolerance for some well-regulated and sustainable fisheries, such as the swordfish fishery on the eastern seaboard of the U.S., then keep reading.

I have all of Linda Greenlaw’s books – except the cookbook she co-authored with her mother, Martha Greenlaw.  In total, there are four memoirs: The Hungry Ocean; All Fishermen are Liars’ The Lobster Chronicles; and the most recent, which I finished last evening, Seaworthy. I was so hoping that Seaworthy would be as good a read as her first memoir, The Hungry Ocean.

It is not. And I really dislike saying that. I guess when you’ve been dazzled by a writer before – lifted right out of your quiet life and flung down atop lashing waves and roaring winds – you’re hoping you can feel that level of excitement again. Remember the movie The Perfect Storm (2000), with George Clooney? Remember how terrifying it was to watch? How that last sky-high wave swallowed the swordfish fishing vessel and all her crew? Well, Linda Greenlaw was featured as a “character” in that film, and also in the earlier, eponymous non-fiction book (1997), by Sebastian Junger. The only woman swordfish captain on the Eastern Seaboard, Greenlaw was also a “high-liner,” or high producing captain, respected by her seagoing male peers and crews alike. You went on a boat she captained, and you made money. Lots of it. You also came home safely, unlike the captain and crew aboard the Andrea Gail, another sword fishing boat out of Gloucester, MA, which disappeared in the “perfect storm” of late autumn 1991 – never to be seen again.

I spent many years in and around the commercial fishing world in British Columbia. I worked on trollers, and I wrote about the entire fishing fleet, both the commercial fishermen and later, the sport fishing world. So I know a bit about the men and women who fish for a living in northern waters, and about the vessels they go to sea in. I am happy to tell you that in some parts of the book, Linda Greenlaw entertains me wonderfully well. This is one “fishy” (successful) captain; she knows fish, is fascinated by them, and oddly, respects them. She has spent a lot of time thinking about the ways of fish – and also about the term “lucky,” which she both accepts and rejects, as it is applied to her career. It wasn’t “luck,” after all, that made her decide to return to port and miss the deadly storm that sank the Andrea Gail … it was a carefully calculated decision, which put safety ahead of monetary gain.

I may not have been shaken up by Seaworthy – but damn, I still liked sharing time with Linda Greenlaw again. Her passages about the feelings that fishing evokes – elemental, immense feelings, which go straight back to earliest times, man against “beast,” look, see, there’s the harpoon raised high and descending – were as exciting and as precise as ever. There is an undeniable thrill to “the hunt” – if not to the killing and then “butchering,” or cleaning of fish. If you haven’t fished in this way, I may be leaving you cold and queasy by now. If you have fished this way … yeah, go ahead and read the book. You’ll enjoy it.

Greenlaw is a dependably crisp and evocative writer. She is also candid when she writes about her quirky and competive nature. Uncommon people living uncommon lives are always interesting – to me, at any rate. I enjoyed even the quietest of her memoirs, Lobster Chronicles. She always reminds me that well-written memoirs, like the best of fiction, are the ones we remember.