An Interview with Author Lucia Greenhouse

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Angie Hunt, a Writing Institute student, sat down for a conversation with classmate Lucia Greenhouse, author of the recently published fathermothergod: My Journey Out of Christian Science.

fathermothergod is Lucia Greenhouse's story about growing up in Christian Science, in a house where you could not be sick, because you were perfect; where no medicine, even aspirin, was allowed. As a teenager, her visit to an ophthalmologist created a family crisis. She was a sophomore in college before she had her first annual physical. And in December 1985, when Lucia and her siblings—by then young adults—discovered that their mother was sick, they came face to face with the reality that they had few—if any—options to save her. Powerless as they watched their mother's agonizing suffering, Lucia and her siblings struggled with their own grief, anger, and confusion.

In this haunting, beautifully written book, Lucia pulls back the curtain on the Christian Science faith and chronicles its complicated legacy for her family. At once an essentially American coming-of-age story and a glimpse into the practices of a religion few really understand, fathermothergod is an unflinching exploration of personal loss and the boundaries of family and faith.  

Angie Hunt: First of all, congratulations on your publishing debut. fathermothergod is a courageous, controversial, and heart-wrenching memoir. How long ago did you start writing this book, and what was the timeframe from first word on paper to first word in print?

Lucia Greenhouse: I started writing fathermothergod in late 1986. I have been working on it on and off since then, at a rate (annoyingly calculated by one of my kids) of eight words per day. In truth, I worked on it in fits and starts, and wrote several drafts before shopping it.

AH: During the writing process, you took several workshop classes at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. With so many institutions offering workshops for adults, why this one?

LG: Someone, at some point, suggested The Writing Institute to me, saying it had terrific classes. My sister graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1981, so I was familiar with the school's reputation. I requested a catalogue and found Joelle Sander's class, "The Art of Memoir." I remember feeling intimidated by the idea of submitting a piece of writing before being accepted into her class. But I did it, and I'm glad I did.

AH: Your writing is creative as well as factual, throwing you into the new genre of creative non-fiction. Did you take both fiction and memoir workshops at The Writing Institute?

LG: No, I stuck with "The Art of Memoir" class. Joelle Sander is insightful and encouraging, with an ear for cadence and truth and a critical, thoughtful mind. I loved my fellow writers in the class, and having to "present" every other week gave me the structure I needed to stay on task.

Ah: What do you consider the most challenging about writing a memoir, or about writing in general?

LG: Setting aside time has always been the most challenging aspect of writing in general, at least since I've become a mother. In terms of writing memoir, the hardest part is the worry over what impact publishing the story might have on loved ones. 

AH: How did being in a workshop with students with no previous knowledge of the Christian Science faith hurt or help your writing process?

LG: It only helped. I came to the class with the goal of telling my story to a broader audience than my family and the ex-Christian Scientist cohort (a very tiny group!). I realized there was much in the way of doctrine that I needed to explain without getting heavy-handed about it. The other writers in the class were extremely helpful with this, letting me know when they needed more or had enough. The first time I read to the class, I was extremely nervous, agitated even. I knew there was a Christian Science church (recently closed) in Bronxville. I looked around the table convinced that at least one—maybe more—of the other students were Christian Scientists! Joelle reminded her students that "what happens in the workshop stays in the workshop." I took a deep breath and started reading out loud. I think I may have been crying.

Writing about my Christian Science upbringing, and what happened to my mother and my family, was a very difficult process. I could not have done it without "The Art of Memoir" class.

AH: How many semesters at The Writing Institute did you take before you found an agent?

LG: I think I started in the fall of 2006. But I got my agent by going to my 25th college reunion at Brown—something that I had dreaded! Back in 1988, I briefly temped at a small firm unrelated to anything literary (I think they sold stud rights to thoroughbreds or something) in the Village with Kim, a classmate of mine. At the same time I was trying to finish (ha-ha) my memoir, she was breaking into the Lit Agency world. Fast forward twenty-some years. I bumped into Kim at the reunion, and she asked what happened to that memoir. She had become a real-deal agent. I said I was still working on it. She said if I ever finished it—she was pretty jovial about it—she'd be happy to take a look. So I went home and finished it. Eight weeks later, I sent her the manuscript and she liked it.

AH: What was the process of working with an editor? Did they take your work and return it edited or did you work together on it?

LG: First thing I had to do before submitting the manuscript to be worked on was change all the names in my memoir back to the real ones. (I naively thought I could change names to protect the innocent, but no. Especially since the James Frey incident, publishers are very cautious.  Everything gets a thorough vetting.) Sydny Miner—my editor—went through the manuscript three times. The first two rounds of edits were done electronically. I would accept or reject the edits, or respond to questions or comments she posted. The penultimate and final go-round with the copy editor was done in pencil on real pages of paper, which I accepted or rejected in a different color pencil.  

AH: Publishing houses are a mystery to many new writers. Can you tell us about what they do and how the author works with them with regards to publicity, advertising, and book tours?

LG: As I was told repeatedly, the days of the twenty-city book tour are over. Those are pretty much the exclusive domain of the famous, infamous, and bestselling authors. For first-time unknowns, with few exceptions, the book tour is more of a friends-and-family effort. Because my book's pub date was in August, when everyone is on vacation, the only events I did were in communities with a lot of summer folks: Stonington, Connecticut; Fire Island; Southampton; and Chautauqua. In September, I [had] events in New York and my hometown of Rye. Because my daughter is moving to L.A., and because I have a cousin out there who has graciously offered, I will have an event there in October. Ditto, San Francisco. The Pratt Library in Baltimore, Maryland, is also hosting a book event in November. I am trying to visit book groups, too, because I'm told if my book is to do well, it will be largely a word-of-mouth effort. 

Social media is extremely important, and I was way behind the eight ball in this area. I am a Luddite, a very late, heel-dragging adopter, but thanks to my friend Liane Carter—a fellow "Art of Memoir" classmate—I now have a Facebook author page and a Web site. I'm on Goodreads. Even though my teenaged kids have discouraged me from tweeting ("Mom, you may as well just talk to yourself in a dark room…."), the publicity folks pulled me into their camp, so now I tweet. (And LOL, I tell my kids, "Oprah's Booklist" and "Washington Post: On Faith" are following me.)

AH: Many writers, like artists, never feel their work is "finished." How did you determine when it was done and time to let it go out into the world?

LG: Great question, and here's my editor's answer: She has one writer who has published eight books. He will tell you he has published eight, but he has only ever finished one! That sort of sums it up pretty well. Even now, I find myself editing, especially for the few book events I've done.  Joelle has always impressed upon her students the importance of reading out loud, and she is so right. I find that in preparing for a public reading, I axe a word here, change a word there. (Not sure I'm supposed to admit that, but oh well!) Maybe if there's a paperback edition, I'll get to make some more little changes?

AH: And now for the sixty-four-million-dollar question, which students in The Writing Institute are always worried about: Did your family know you were writing your story? What were their reactions at the beginning of the process when publishing was far into the future? And did you worry or compromise the story at any point to avoid causing pain to family members?

LG: My family has known for a long time that I was writing a book about what happened to my mother. They have been very, very supportive (although I don't think anyone ever dreamed I would find a publisher!) I didn't share the manuscript with anyone for several years. Before I could decide if I was ready to go forward with looking for a publisher, I gave the manuscript to my brother to read. I was extremely worried that the process of reading it would bring him back to a very dark, painful place. But he wanted to read it, assured me he'd be okay, and after he was finished with it, told me he felt strongly that I should pursue publishing it, that he backed me completely.

AH: Do you have any regrets about the process of writing and publishing, or about the book itself?

LG: I have a few regrets about publishing the book: One, that by doing so, I have put my extended family in a spotlight. I published fathermothergod when I was ready (or when I was as ready as I thought I'd ever be, but even for me, it was not without a good deal of trepidation). But my family has been exposed in a way that I regret. I wish I could have written the story without impacting them in this way. But I knew I couldn't write it even as "fiction." Doing so would have let the church off the hook in some ways, and I wasn't willing to do that.

AH: Would you either attend or recommend The Writing Institute to other writers in the future?

LG: I recommend The Writing Institute all the time, and I fully expect I will take courses there again when things settle down. I really miss it.

AH: What advice would you give to students of memoir at The Writing Institute who are currently at various stages of their work? Any pitfalls to avoid?

LG: Listen to your writing teacher, and read your writing out loud.
 
AH: Proust said, "Memory is an accusation." (You are recreating things, which, of course, change your memory). When recapturing the past to write fathermothergod, how did you balance memory as accusation with memory as illumination?

LG: Very, very good question, and I will answer this as best I can. Memory is fuzzy, especially early memory. In truth, there are a few parts of the book that I wasn't sure happened the way I remembered, until family members verified. For example: There is a scene I recount about one Christmas Eve when I heard the word "quackery" for the first time and didn't know what it meant. It is a memory that came to me as I was writing the book. Suddenly, there was the word, with a clear association to a Christmas Eve. Then I remembered my sister and I overhearing a conversation between my two parents, where the word was used. It wasn't until I spoke with my uncle last year that he said, "Oh sure, we had those discussions all the time."

Another example has to do with the difference between remembering that something didn't happen, and not remembering something that did happen. I recount one of my earliest experiences of someone dying. I remembered the man being taken away on a stretcher (still alive), and being told a few days later of his death. I remember there was no explanation given by anyone in a position to share one. And I said there was no memorial service. A few months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and suddenly wondered, was there no memorial service? Or did I not remember a service? Maybe there was one—maybe I even participated in one and simply forgot about it. The book had already gone to print. What was I to do? I did nothing. Or, more accurately, I did nothing but worry.

AH: What has writing this book taught you about yourself?

LG: Writing the book has taught me a lot. For starters, I now know more about social media than I ever thought I would. It is extremely important in book publishing. I also know that even though I am almost fifty, I can do things I never dreamed I'd need to do. (For example, I got through a public reading and a Q&A with angry Christian Scientists present.) Also, I learned that a story I had every reason to believe would have a niche audience at best is capable of broader appeal. Never thought that would happen. That's not to say fathermothergod is going to sell a lot of books. But I wanted to tell my story, and I did. I am extraordinarily lucky and very grateful to everyone along the way who helped make the book happen.

fathermothergodfathermothergod is available now at Amazon.com. For more information, or to book this author for an event, contact Gretchen Crary at 212.255.2034.