As we move along with The Ghosts Who Travel with Me, it’s a perfect time to get to know our author, Allison Green. In addition to teaching writing in Seattle, Allison wrote the novel Half-Moon Scar, and her essays, stories, and poems have appeared in publications such as ZYZZYVA and Calyx. Allison and I spoke recently over email about the inception of Ghosts and the journey that brought her to the finished work.
How did the concept of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me come about?
In 2008, The New York Times published an article about literary pilgrimages people might take: to Kesey’s Mexico or Kerouac’s San Francisco, for example. It included Brautigan’s Idaho and that sent me down memory lane to my adolescent obsession with him and upstairs to a bookcase to find my copy of Trout Fishing in America. That was in spring. In September, my partner Arline and I went on that pilgrimage.
When did you start writing the book? How long did it take to finish?
I started writing immediately after returning from Idaho. Every morning I got up early, read a chapter from Trout, and used it as a prompt to freewrite for an hour. After that, I continued to write short pieces that expanded on ideas and themes. The first draft was finished in 2009 and revised over the next few years. My writing group gave me feedback along the way, and in 2010 the first chapters were workshopped at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference. By 2012, it was largely finished.
How does the finished Ghosts differ from what you had originally imagined?
I did not intend anything as the project began. It was an exploration. In fact, I had never seriously written nonfiction before. For several years, I had been struggling with a novel that never gelled. So by late 2008, I abandoned all attempts to control the process and surrendered to wherever my freewriting took me. It was a surprise when the pieces began to coalesce. My writing group encouraged me; they saw something interesting in the project and told me to stick with it.
What was the most difficult part about writing this book? What obstacles did you encounter while writing, and how did you overcome them?
Two challenges emerged as I tried to create a coherent manuscript out of all these short pieces: where to begin and how to organize the chapters. Dinty W. Moore at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference gave me good advice for the former. He said I had to convince readers of three things as they began to read: that they wanted to spend time with the adult me, spend time with the adolescent me, and read about Richard Brautigan. You’ll notice that the first three chapters introduce these three elements in order: who I am now, who I was then, and who was Brautigan.
As for chapter organization, at first I tried to weave the chapters together, continually cycling through the major topics: growing up a late baby boomer, my Idaho ancestors, Brautigan, and the trip to Idaho itself. I wrote the name of each chapter on a Post-it note and experimented by moving the notes around on my office wall. But this structure felt too chaotic. Finally, I used the trip as the narrative thread to tie everything together and organized the other topics into sections. Now there is a whole section, for example, on being a late baby boomer.
Your writing style differs from typical memoir writing. Who are some authors you admire for their unique approach to the genre?
The memoir in short chapters has become more prominent recently. Beautifully written examples include Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians, Elissa Washuta’s My Body is a Book of Rules, and Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping. So I don’t see my work as particularly unusual, but it certainly has more of an affinity with poetic and lyric creative nonfiction than with traditional memoir.
A book that has profoundly influenced me is Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere, a collection of essays that I probably read in the late 1990s. Cooper’s topics are always accessible, sometimes ordinary, but he is very attentive to language; his essays are often prose poems. His work is pleasurable on multiple levels, and that’s what I aspire to. Of course, Brautigan is the original influence. The poetic, nonlinear narrative of Trout Fishing in America still feels new. If it were being published today, maybe it would be marketed as creative nonfiction.
This idea of searching for an America (sometimes bygone, sometimes a place only in the mind) and one’s ancestry is a strong theme in the book. Coupled with the idea of belonging to a lost or displaced generation, this theme becomes incredibly universal and relatable. Can you elaborate on this?
I love how you capture the theme here; as I was writing early versions, I was always struggling to explain what the book was about. Lost/displaced/elusive—the desire to find, be found. The desire to connect across time and place. This has been an ongoing theme in my work. Maybe the reason is as pedestrian as the fact that my family moved around a lot when I was growing up, and I was always craving connection and feeling nostalgic for past experiences of connection.
Too, I was raised in a household where organized religion was often criticized, so my nebulous questions about whether I was part of something larger had no obvious answers. Today, I am surprisingly religious for a nonreligious person, by which I mean that I am profoundly moved by such things as conversations with my mother, passages in books and music, and moments when a student confides in me. Not to mention campsites where Richard Brautigan and his family slept.
What would you say to someone about Richard Brautigan who is unfamiliar with him?
I would say that while some passages in Brautigan’s work haven’t held up and it’s completely fair to criticize his work’s white, male worldview, undergirded with sexism and racism, in other ways his writing is surprisingly engaging. The combination of wry humor; fragmentary, poetic prose; and critique of dehumanizing aspects of society is still captivating. Our work as readers is to notice and understand both the poisonous and the transcendent in the books we read. Brautigan has inspired many readers and writers, and he is worth reading still.
What’s next for you?
I am currently working on a memoir about my family’s experiences living briefly in St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands when I was five. My family had some hard times there—an intruder fractured my skull—and I grew up fascinated with the scars on my forehead and the stories behind them. Like my obsession with Brautigan, my obsession with St. Croix eventually led me to travel. Last December I went to St. Croix, forty-five years after I had left. That’s what I’m writing about now.
For updates, essays, and prose, check out Allison’s blog at allisongreen.org. Photos courtesy of Allison Green.