Interview with author Andrea Cladis, about her recent memoir Tatsimou, Hold On!
What makes this story unique is how you weave in family history and show how the past still affects the present. What are some of the main takeaways you want to convey through your story?
I did my best to weave in family history and heritage as a fulcrum of this story. Some of the main takeaways I want the reader to leave with include the following: resilience in faith, grit, grace upon yourself and others, healing, family ties, renewal, respect, honor, and gratitude. I would emphasize the faith aspect and personal belief in self. So often we can be our own worst enemies in hardship, but we don’t have to be.
Your ability to bring the past alive with graphic detail, kept me turning the pages. Would you please share with us your research process and how you were able to recall those details so vividly?
According to The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, a writer must include the carnal details of the experience to draw the reader in and make them feel close to the experience. In order to be an authentic storyteller, you have to be genuine and unafraid to tell the raw truth. The first time I drafted components of this memoir, I did not include any carnal details. I avoided the parts that I felt would be hard to read or see or digest for the reader. In a sense, there was a story without the body of feeling that it needed. In order to elevate the story as a whole I took Karr’s advice and tried to get closer to my own story. In order to do this I read through all of my diaries and notes taken during that period of my life, I physically went back to the places that I talked about in the story and that held significance so I could pick up on details of setting that I had forgotten, I conducted interviews with therapists who knew me, and I also forced myself to pour through photos from that period of my life. My memory of that time is also rather vivid as the mental state I was in gave me a keen sense of awareness regarding the world around me. Also, when illness strikes and we struggle, it is rather difficult to ever numb ourselves from that pain completely. Experiencing pain is what makes us human; we are not invincible to it. Sharing our stories is what bonds us together; through survival there is hope and renewal.
As with any memoir, there are sensitivities related to family issues. How were you able to reconcile these issues and forge ahead with your story?
I recognized that no matter what, my family played a huge role in my story and in my recovery. They were not a factor I could leave out as they were an instrumental piece of the dialogue, action, and my resentment. I do not necessarily know if all of the issues I had with them were reconciled, but we all share a strong relationship now so I would say that healing for everyone did occur – hence my mention of the strength and resilience that family bonds can have in our lives.
How has your family reacted to the publication of your memoir?
My family has always been supportive of my writing, but they were hesitant to support the publication of my memoir as they knew they were all central characters in my work. They were thankful for my healing and my ability to speak openly about it. None of my family members have read my book other than maybe a few chapters here and there. I was nervous about writing about my family and what I was going to expose, but the advice I was given with memoir writing was “write it first, worry about them later.” It sounded harsh at the time, but I did my best to humanize my family members so that even though I had my feelings and opinions about them during my experiences and health challenges, readers would sympathize with them and their lens of the story.
At what point did you decide to compile your stories into a memoir?
During my time in graduate school working towards an MFA, I spent a lot of time writing poetry, short stories and nonfiction prose. I had one story that I started writing in college called “Mirror Wars.” That was actually the original title of Tatsimou, Hold On! I think I wanted to write the full story, but did not have the impetus to do it on my own prior to grad school. One of my professors noticed that a lot of my poetry was also trying to tell a story he felt like I had yet to tell. There was also similar imagery and themes prevalent in my work that indicated a deeper story was present. One of my professors recommended that I try to compile my stories into a fictional recounting of events. The original idea was to make this story of personal struggle and family dysfunction into a comedy. I agreed thinking that creating a fictionalized depiction of my high school years would be comedic. It was, but it suited a play better than a novel. Yet, the more I wrote and the more drafts I shared with peers and professors, the common consensus that soon evolved was that I had more to say and the true story that kept rising to the surface needed to be told. And with that, I dove studying how to write a nonfiction memoir and I started writing different sections of my memoir and drafting ideas and scenes that I could eventually weave together to recreate the whole tapestry of my personal story. In so doing, my other writing was finally liberated and its breadth and diversity of style and topic choice grew immensely. It was perhaps one of the best decisions I could have made for my growth and development as a writer. We all have a story we NEED to tell! Don’t shy away from it.
What is your writing process like?
Overall? It is messy. And that is coming from an OCD person. All creative processes are somewhat messy and you have to let them be because the organic part of creation is what makes room for the good stuff to come out! I generally start with a list of questions I want to answer through my writing. I then fill a page with words, phrases, and ideas that come to mind when I think about the topic or story I want to write about. After that, I pick a few that I think are most significant and I write separately about each.
After that, I dive into characters. Who are they? What is their internal and external motivation? What is that they want most? What flaws and quirks do they have? What conflicts do they face? Who do they have relationships with, etc. Next – setting. Where and when is this happening? Is the setting just a background or does it play a driving role in the story? What is the problem and is there a solution? What obstacles will the characters face along the way? Generally I create a big poster with lots of these ideas on them or I sketch things out before I even start writing. The last thing I do is make an outline to work from. I usually don’t really use it, but it gives me the structure I need to at least get started.
Lastly, I develop an inciting incident to start the story. In the case of my memoir, I dove right into a scene near the rock bottom time of my depression and anorexia. That scene served as a Launchpad for future scenes and also a way in to start telling the backstory. Throwing a reader right into the action is the best way to catch attention and keep them there. Think about dramatic movies?! They use a similar tactic by employing an effective inciting incident. The murder almost always happens at the beginning.
Past that, it is all a matter of making time to write and dedicate time and space to churning out scenes and pages. Writing is a slow process that requires attention, commitment, and a willingness for endless revision!!
You have an impressive list of publishing credits. When did you first know that writing was your passion? And how did you break in?
Thank you! I have been working at that for a while and hope it continues to grow! Writing has been my passion since second grade. I had an influential teacher who allowed us to write poetry and create books during second grade and I immediately fell in love. Ever since that time I wanted to pursue writing both personally and professionally. In regard to breaking in, it took a lot of patience, rejection and the acceptance that rejection is a huge part of this industry. I also kept writing and revising. The more practice, the better. The more submissions, the better. Being part of a writing group or writing community is also helpful. Getting feedback and critique enables you to question your own work and look at it more critically. I have also tried to be fearless in pursuit of this dream of mine. Every rejection is an opportunity to look ahead, try again, create something new, and of course, re-submit.
I’m also curious about the role any of your other creative activities played in writing your memoir?
I first wrote about anorexia through my poetry. It was the first outlet I used to expose the dark truths that rested within me. I found my way into this entire memoir through a poem with the refrain “wishful whispers.” Poetry can be an excellent gateway to prose work as it allows one to condense ideas and experiences, while critically analyzing the imagery and emotions of a given moment or event.
Do you have any favorite memoir writing tips you could share?
Be patient. Telling a personal story can be difficult to do tastefully. So I think taking your time with the telling is a good idea. You can’t rush through a memory or you will miss important pieces. You also have to assess how far away your lens is and decide what perspective you want to write your memoir through. I wrote as though I was presently in the events again, but carried the lens of time and a perspective of healing. This gave a layer of depth to my story. Readers want to see growth and discover, along with you, the way out of pain or the way to triumph.
Another tip I would share is organization. Memoirs can be written in a linear fashion, as a series of flashbacks or as a mosaic of scenes and memories. I spent a great deal of time trying to sort this out. I did not actually write any of my chapters in the order that they appear. Once I located the most important scenes to write for this story, I jig-sawed them over and over again until I figured out the best fit! Once I did that I then had to do some serious revision to make things flow together in a seamless way.
Now that you’ve written a memoir, what do you think the elements of a good memoir are?
From the feedback I have been given on this book, I believe the most important elements of a good memoir are the following:
1.) Relatability – does the author connect to his/her audience regardless of whether audience has shared a similar experience?
2.) Truth – tell the truth! There is no sense in embellishing a story. Use details as enhancements, but don’t change what happened. You can change names and places, but remain true to events.
3.) Detail – the more carnal, the better! Readers want to see and feel the events through details and imagery.
4.) Unexpected Elements & Character Growth – Think of a memoir as you would a novel. If you write it with the intent to surprise or shock your reader and reveal how characters grow and change, it will captivate and entertain.
5.) Education – If you are going to talk about something, teach about something! Maybe your memoir is about baseball or maybe it is about food or perhaps it is about a family tradition. Don’t assume your reader knows everything about events, customs, traditions, illnesses, addictions, etc. as you do. Be willing to weave in information that teaches your reader about what you are writing about. Give them an opportunity to honestly learn about what you are writing about. This gives a greater purpose to the reader and meaning to your story. If your reader has to engage in too much outside research, they will often lose interest in your story.
Do you think that memoirs must focus on harrowing experiences to be effective?
Not at all. Readers like happy stories, too! Remember this! I also don’t think a memoir has to be about a traumatic event. Anything that is exciting or changes you as a person, which makes the narrator a dynamic figure, is worth writing. Sure, harrowing experiences draw a reader in to wonder with you and sympathize, but a memoir just needs to have a heartbeat to be effective. If the author believes the story is worth telling, that will come across in how they write it and the reader will be drawn into that passion and energy.
How do you decide something is worth writing about?
At my base, I am a poet. And as a poet, nothing is too small or too insignificant to write about. Poetry is supposed to act as a celebration of being in the world. The poet gives life to that which does not have it and the poet also honors that which already breathes. I think if you truly value life and this world God put us in, everything has value and is worth exploring.
How have you handled the marketing of your work and could you share what is working for you and how you found your target audience?
Marketing is a challenge in a heavily saturated book market. Finding a target audience is tricky because you will have people read, buy, or like your book that you least expect. So don’t limit your audience or scope just because you wrote to a narrower audience. I write in several different genres so my audience is spread out among ages, genders, and reading preferences. I don’t know if I have found the secret yet, but I am doing my best! Social Media has been effective for me, but word of mouth has been better. Hosting events for people to come meet you or being a part of open mic nights, etc. grants the exposure that you need. Books don’t sell themselves, they get promoted so the more you can do to promote your book in various places, the better it will catch on for readers. I also preview my books at the gyms I work at or share with clients I think might be interested. If you have a good product and enough people read it, it will get into the right hands. Oh, and libraries and independent bookstores too! Go ask them about the policies for procuring books. Often they like to feature local authors and you can apply to have them put your book on their shelves or for bookstores, sell it with a consignment agreement.
What is one memoir you think everyone needs to read?
I would highly recommend the memoir, Colors of the Mountain, by Da Chen. It was an emotionally stirring and educational read by one of my mentors in graduate school. A smooth, informational read, worth every minute.
What advice do you have for any aspiring writers?
Keep writing! Writing is a skill that takes time. The majority of my writing has not been published, but it is still valuable and was time well spent in practice! And keep reading – especially craft books. Read about what works and what doesn’t. Follow the examples of other writers and keep experimenting with your own voice. You are YOU and no one else can take away your perspective and voice in the world, so use it! The Art of Description by Mark Doty is an excellent read for any writer diving into fiction, poetry, or nonfiction.
End of Interview
Andrea Cladis Hodge holds an MFA in Writing from Fairfield University and is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of Elmhurst College with degrees in English Writing, Interdisciplinary Communications, French, and Secondary Education. A former journalist and High School English teacher, she currently works as a college professor, freelance manuscript editor, ghost writer, and fitness professional. She has been published by SAGE Academic, The Greek Star, various literary journals, and several online publications including Americans for Liberty, Medium, and patch.com. She is the author of the memoir, Tatsimou, Hold On (Adelaide Books, 2018), the Christian nonfiction book, Finding the Finish Line: Navigating the Race of Life through Faith & Fitness (CrossLink Publishing, 2017), and the poetry collection, Forgotten Coffee (Adelaide Books, 2019). Her next book, Fearless Stride (Baker Books), will debut in October of 2019, so stay tuned! In addition to writing, Andrea loves to inspire others through high energy dance and fitness classes. And when she's not writing or dancing, you will find her cooking, reading, competing in Triathlons and marathons, playing tennis, spending time with her family, and serving at her church. Known for her local opinion columns, Andrea's writing has been described as “emotive, yet brazen, seasoned with thinly veiled cynicism, and a pinch of sarcasm.” Andrea is an Advisory Board Member for Cambridge Scholars Publishing and maintains a personal site about faith, fitness, and writing which can be explored at www.andreacladis.com. Her life verse is Proverbs 19:20.
Author of Finding the Finish Line (CrossLink Publishing, 2017)
Author of Tatsimou, Hold On (Adelaide Books, 2018)
Author of Forgotten Coffee (Adelaide Books, 2019)
Author of Fearless Stride (Alive Publications - Forthcoming 2019)