As a literary magazine devoted to emerging voices, The Masters Review is particularly interested in how writers get their start in the literary world. Recently, Courtney Harler, one of our volunteer readers, corresponded with Michele Filgate about her forthcoming first book, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About. Inspired by Michele’s viral essay of the same the name, the collection includes pieces from celebrated writers such as Alexander Chee, Carmen Maria Machado, and Leslie Jamison. Courtney and Michele discussed the behind-the-scenes “story” of the collection, its genesis and development.
Courtney Harler: Tell us the story of your essay.
Michele Filgate: I started writing this essay a long time ago when I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire. I thought that I was writing about my stepfather abusing me, but it took me many years of therapy and writing and struggling with the material to realize what the real story was about: the fracture this caused in my relationship with my mother. Writers often become fixated on certain topics, and this is the story I kept returning to again and again because I can’t stop longing for a better relationship with my mom. I love her, and the fact that we haven’t been able to communicate effectively about what happened is a deep source of pain in my life. Sari Botton of Longreads published my essay the week that the Weinstein story broke and the #MeToo movement took off. It was the perfect moment to release this story into the world. But it was terrifying, too. I was really relieved when I heard from so many strangers who related to what I wrote about. The essay went viral and was shared by a lot of writers I admire.
CH: Tell us more about your experience with Longreads, especially the “terrifying” parts. What were your concerns, and how did you overcome them? Also, what’s it like to “go viral”?
MF: My main concern was releasing such a personal story into the world. Just the act of doing that made me feel extremely vulnerable—and as I say in the introduction to my book, it felt like I was setting fire to my own life. But I felt like this was a story that had to be told. Staying silent about shameful events in our life only causes the silence to grow, until it can become toxic. I’ve had emerging writers ask me how to give yourself permission to write about your most painful stories. That’s something that I was only capable of doing after finding a great therapist. I honestly believe that writers who are writing memoir should go to therapy before they even begin to attempt to make a narrative out of their own lives. Going viral was thrilling but also added to the terror. Suddenly my story was out there, available for anyone to read.
CH: Tell us the story of your book.
MF: So many people responded to the title of my essay: “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.” I quickly realized that the title itself is a universal topic. Everyone has something they wish they could talk about with their mother, even or especially if they’ve never met her or she’s no longer alive. So I reached out to writers I admire and asked them if they had a story to tell. It was really important to me (and my editor) that the stories were very different in order to reflect a variety of mother/child relationships.
CH: I had an instant response to the title, as well. My mother passed in 2010, and I’ve been writing about her ever since—to remember and honor her, but also, to find some peace there. Given the universality of your topic, how did you approach the editing process, especially when dealing with work by writers you deeply admire? Other than differentiation, what criteria did you use to assemble the book?
MF: I’m so sorry for your loss. I’ll repeat something that Joyce Carol Oates, my former professor, told me. You’re going to be writing about your mother for a long time. I really believe that writers have certain stories they return to again and again for a very good reason.
It was important to me to make sure that the anthology had uplifting essays in addition to the heartbreaking ones. I worked with each writer to see what they wanted to write about, and this anthology was very much a collaborative project between the contributors, my editor Karyn Marcus, and myself. The ultimate goal was to have each essay be a standalone gem, but I wanted them to speak to each other, as well.
CH: I’d say that you and your team certainly accomplished that goal. And the journey it took to get to this point—from undergrad to therapy to encouragement from JCO herself—has its own fascinating trajectory. What’s more—the story continues. I’ve really enjoyed following your book’s lead-up to launch on social media. Emerging writers are often advised to cultivate an online following prior to publication. What are your thoughts on this type of internet marketing, especially for artistic endeavors?
MF: I feel so strongly about it that I teach a class for Catapult on “Building a Writing Career on the Internet,” and I devote an entire week to social media! It’s a free and easy way to build a platform as a writer. There are positive and negative aspects of social media, of course. It’s easy to become addicted or compare yourself to others. But it’s also a great way to connect with other people and find a literary community. And the best part is that you can do that from anywhere in the world with an internet connection!
CH: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About launched on April 30, so let me wish you a belated Happy Book Launch Day! When you get a chance to breathe, tell us what it’s like to be on tour. What have been your best and brightest moments so far? Or conversely, your worst and darkest? Like you said earlier, maybe you can’t have the thrill without the terror, and this is an incredibly intense time for you. To put it more simply—how are you doing?
MF: Thanks so much! My tour is almost over at this point. I’ve loved connecting with old friends and strangers and visiting some of the best indie bookstores in the country. The greatest reward in publishing a book is releasing it into the world and knowing that someone who really needs to read it will find it. That said, I’m very excited to wind down the tour and get back to a quieter routine.
Interviewed by Courtney Harler