Monday, September 19, 2022

TBR: We Are Not Okay by Christian Livermore

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe.


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


I grew up a shy little girl in a turbulent family sunk in poverty, violence, substance abuse and mental illness. I ate government cheese, suffered from malnutrition and struggled to defend my body against threats both outside the house and within it. And even though I made it out, I have suffered a lifetime of consequences since: excruciating health problems, fear and shame. Especially shame. In these deeply personal essays, I explore what it means to grow up poor in America and ask whether it is possible to outrun the shame it grinds into your bones. I excoriate the inhumanity in how the United States treats its poor and ask the nation to confront how growing up poor in America brutalizes us and warps our perspective on ourselves, on other people and on the world.


 Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?


Hmmm, the one I most enjoyed writing. I have to say it's the one about my mother, Drugs My Mother Took. It's about what it was like to grow up with her as a practicing alcoholic and drug addict who also had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. It was chaotic and messy and heartbreaking, but she's also brilliant, interesting and incredibly witty, so it could also be hilarious and great fun at times, and as I was writing it I found that I was looking back with great fondness on all the fun things and not having any begrudging feelings about the not-so-fun things, which was nice and also revelatory for me. It was also great and very illuminating on a purely personal level because she participated, talked with me extensively before I wrote it, and gave me all kinds of information and amazing quotes for it, so I learned loads of things I didn't know and found out some hilarious reasons for many of the things she doesn't remember, like getting kicked out of Boston and told never to return and that she and my stepfather may or may not have taken me to Graceland.


As for which essay gave me the most trouble, it's the essay about my father, My Father Died Today. I had kept all this stuff bottled up for years, swallowing and swallowing and trying to keep it all down, particularly things about my father, and that creates an incredible pressure and an incredible darkness, a feeling of darkness and ugliness about yourself and the world. You feel it rising in your throat 24 hours a day. But I really did not want to write the essay. I didn't want to even think about it. The impetus to finally start writing it was a question my master's degree supervisor, John Burnside, asked us in class one day. He asked us to think about the worst thing we had ever done to anybody, and my answer to myself was so much more complicated than that. It had to do with my father and the impact he had on me and how I dealt (or didn't) with that, the things I did and failed to do as a result of it all. Then over the course of several one-on-one meetings in his office we talked about our backgrounds and his first memoir, A Lie About My Father, and he kept encouraging me to write about my experiences. He said that we don't write these things for sympathy but so that other people will understand they're not alone in such traumas. I had an essay due in a few weeks, so I decided to take a crack at writing about my father. When I saw John the first time after I submitted it, he was so positive about the essay and so encouraging. I also noticed a lightness in my mind, the peace that came with finally saying it, so I decided to keep going. Ultimately, I wrote this collection.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


The only low was the extraordinary number of agents and publishers I submitted it to who said no. They just didn't seem to get it, or they didn't think it would sell, or they thought that nobody wants to her about poor White people, which I think they're right about.


Once I found Indie Blu(e) they wrote back very quickly and said it resonated very deeply with them and accepted it. From that point on it's been nothing but highs. They are so talented and so insightful and empathetic and creative and capable. The editing was so smooth and drama-free and before I knew it the editing process was finished and the manuscript was with the editor-in-chief for final approval and the marketing director for a marketing plan. The editor-in-chief designed the cover herself instead of using a designer as she sometimes does, and I am not exaggerating when I say it is the best book cover I have ever seen in my life. It says exactly what the book is about in one image, and it's stark and high-impact and really stands out against a sea of books that are a riot of color. Indie Blu(e) are just amazing. They have given me the best publishing experience I've ever had. I'm also particularly delighted to have gotten a blurb from Junot Díaz. I was writing to all these sort of newish writers with maybe one book because I thought they would benefit as much from demonstrating that they're somebody who's asked to blurb books as I would from receiving a blurb from them, which would make them more likely to say yes. But it was instant rejections from the vast majority of them, who said they simply didn't have time, and from the rest, crickets. So, I thought, well, who would be my dream blurb? I thought of two people and the first was Junot. He's one of my favorite writers, so when he wrote back through his assistant and said he would be very happy to provide a blurb and here it is, I was dumbstruck and absolutely over the moon. Here's what he wrote: “A moving meditation on American precarity. If, as Baldwin has written, home is an irrevocable condition, We Are Not Okay argues that the same might be said for poverty. Livermore is sensitive, insightful and provocative and her book is not to be missed.” I mean, come on. That's amazing. I still go back and re-read it sometimes and think Junot Díaz likes my book, and then I giggle like a little kid.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Oh man, it's hard to pick a favorite, there's so much that's so important and there are so many great insights from so many great writers, but one thing I always make sure to tell my students is something that V.S. Naipaul's father wrote to him because it cuts to the heart of what isn't working in a lot of writing: "If you say exactly what you mean to say, you will have achieved style." This is not only true of style but also of clean writing. As writers we spend a lot of time trying to say what we want to say, and we keep adding words and adding words and adding words, when really the solution is almost always to remove them. A really clean, spare sentence can be devastatingly powerful, not in the way Hemingway did them (sorry, Hemingway fans) but in the way Baldwin and McCullers did them.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


To be honest, once I really zone out and let go of control over what comes out of my pen, I'm surprised almost all the time. One minute I'm sitting there writing and the next I look up and it's two hours later and there are three or four handwritten pages of stuff, and I think, who the hell wrote this?


But in terms of something in particular that surprised me in the writing of We Are Not Okay, what I didn't expect was the sense of relief and liberation I began to feel by getting it all off my chest. As I said, I had bottled this stuff up for years, and I didn't realize the degree to which that was weighing me down. I was worried that writing about it would feel incredibly exposing and humiliating, and I worried what people would think about me and that I would regret it and feel great shame. But the opposite happened. I felt remarkably liberated. You know that feeling when you've overdone it on cardio, you've been on the treadmill or the bike or the ski machine for like two hours, and you get off the machine and feel instantly lighter, like you're walking on air because of the relief of not working your muscles so hard for that long? It feels like that. I feel like I'm not carrying all that poison around inside me anymore. Robert Lowell suffered from bipolar disorder and struggled for years about what to tell and what not to tell, and in his poem “Epilogue” he writes “Yet why not say what happened?... We are poor passing facts, warned by that to give each figure in the photograph his living name.” That's what writing this memoir has been—giving each figure their name, which means of course naming their actions, and that goes for me, too. Naming my actions, the things I did and failed to do and shouldn't have done, and trying to be really honest about it and not try to make excuses, to say instead mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I feel as though I've done as honest a job of that as I am currently capable of, and I have been surprised about how that has freed me.



How did you find the title of your book?


I had been racking my brain trying to come up with a title, as I always do with everything I write, and when I do that the title is always terrible, just terrible. So, like I always do, I stopped thinking about it. And then one day a while later a friend and I were talking about the state of the United States, its poor healthcare coverage, even with Obamacare (which the Republicans gutted thanks to a tie-breaking vote from Democrat Joe Lieberman from Connecticut, home to so many insurance companies), its lack of a social safety net and concomitant lack of social trust, mass shootings, the potential for violence always bubbling beneath the service, etc. This was before Joe Biden won, and thank the gods he did, but it all still applies because it's a systemic problem, not something one president can fix. And I said something like "We're really in terrible trouble. We are not okay." And my friend and I both looked at each other and simultaneously said, "That's the title."


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Government cheese. LOL. Good luck coming up with a recipe that makes that palatable.


But in terms of recipes, my grandmother grew up in the Depression, when everybody was poor so there was no expectation that anybody feel ashamed of it. She continued to make Depression meatballs (half meat, half bread) and other foods like that for the rest of her life, and she fed them to me my entire childhood. So here's one of my favorites, with the typical "measurements" old people use that leave you having to guess what they mean:


Potato pancakes (she was Polish, so that's the kind she made)


Potatoes (enough)

Egg (maybe one, maybe two, depends on how many potatoes you're using)

Milk (just a bit)




Oil for frying


1) Finely grate the potatoes. My grandmother used a box grater and did it on the small grate edge that turns it into a slurry.


2) Add an egg, mix well. If you think it needs another egg, go ahead and add it. (I usually find it's fine with one.)


3) Add a tiny bit of milk, just enough to turn the potatoes and egg into a batter.


4) Salt, pepper and parsley to taste. (Or not. If you don't like them, absolutely you can leave them out.) Mix to combine.


5) Heat some kind of vegetable oil in a skillet. She used cast iron, and so do I, but any skillet will be just fine. She used old-timey vegetable oil, I use safflower or sunflower oil. You could also use olive oil, but it doesn't give it the traditional flavor. Flick a drop of water into the skillet. If it sizzles, the oil is hot enough and ready to fry with.


6) Pour dollops of batter into the oil (careful; you don't want oil spattering in your face). They should be no larger than the size of a drink coaster (a bit smaller is better). I use a ladle and pour slowly until I have the size I want, but you could also use a tablespoon and spoon in the batter a spoonful at a time.


7) Fry. Cook one side until it's fully solidified, and I like to wait until it's got a nice toasty brown color. Then flip. Obviously do this gently because you're dealing with hot oil. Cook to desired doneness. I like it when they get nice and brown and there are lacy bits all around the edges, but do cook them however you like them.


8) Transfer cooked pancakes to a paper towel or tea towel to absorb the excess oil. Let rest a minute.


9) Eat 'em! I have them with a side of sour cream, which is how my grandmother always did them, but you can also use applesauce (or anything you like, actually).








ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: (although it will be available on Bookshop, Amazon, all the usual places, and I would also encourage readers to order it through their local independent bookstore)