By Elizabeth Tammi
In addition, many of her short stories and personal essays have been published in national anthologies. Hite said her journey of writing her memoir was a process completely unlike how she approached tackling her previous writing projects. She looks back at the complex and sometimes gruesome aspects of her heritage and family, and tells us what it felt like to put that truth on the page.
After the publication of your novels, what inspired you to write a memoir?
I thought if I told the “truth”, the dark themes that fill my fiction would become less prevalent. This was a naïve idea. I have just finished a short story collection last week, and you probably guessed the themes are still coming through. But this isn’t the only reason I set out to write a memoir. I never set out on this journey with a book in mind. But I did decide to find out exactly what happened to my family. In doing this, I hoped, at the very least, I would come to understand some of the reasoning. Many of the mysteries and legacies surrounding my extended family touched my life and not in a good way.
How did the process of writing a memoir differ from how you approach drafting a novel?
When I begin writing the first draft of a novel, much has taken place first in my head. Characters speak to me long before I get to the place of writing. I explore who he or she is. What story do they have to tell? So when I sit down with notebook and pen—I write most of the first draft by hand—I know so much about the character the flow kicks in, and I’m off and running.
With this memoir, I was at a loss on how to even attempt to tell these stories. That’s when I met Jessica Handler at SIBA—a conference for independent booksellers—and she introduced me to her book, Braving the Fire. I took her workshop soon after and this changed my whole way of writing about grief and trauma. One of the most helpful tools I learned was writing down the events I wanted to include in the book on index cards. Then placing them in an envelope for a short waiting period. When I did begin writing, I drew one card. This would be the only subject I would approach that day. One event a day. Out of order. Just thinking about this one memory. This is a much different process than writing fiction.
What factors did you consider when deciding the structure of the book?
Structuring a book, whether fiction or memoir, is an intricate process for me. How do I tell the story? Sometimes I write two drafts before I know what structure to use. With Roll the Stone Away, I finished the third draft and found the story held the reader far away, which I would imagine is the first instinct of a new memoir writer. You’re revealing the core of yourself, the stuff that made you who you are. But for the reader to come on my journey, I had to be brutally honest. I had to show them up front just what my history was and my role in the making. So I began the process of truth-sharing in the introduction and continued this into the first chapter before I regressed into the extended family history. The parts in the book about me were told in present tense. These chapters, or stones as I called them, were strategically placed throughout the memoir, so the memories were not told in chronological order. More than five complete drafts later, I finally released this body of work to Mercer University Press.
How did your life change when you began writing?
I began when I couldn’t write. I told stories, long intricate ones that were “too old for my age” according to my mother. My life has always been about reading and writing. I did not live in a house with big readers. Mother never read anything outside of an occasional magazine except Little Women, a book she read to me at a very young age. Those who know me well, know I have a very strong faith in God. I believe that writing was the gift bestowed on me before I was born. And using this gift has always been my peace and home. That’s not to say I don’t struggle with this art, but writing is a deep part of me.
Family ties can be complex and painful. What, if anything, do you believe people owe to their family members?
This is a question many ask and debate, and there are as many answers as there are writers writing memoirs. My answer is that our story is most important. I believe we all have a right to our truths, no matter who agrees or disagrees with us. Truth is fluid and changes shape from one person to the next. Two people can experience the same event and have much different takes on what happened. Does that make either person a liar? No. Each perception is the truth for the person who owns it. With that said, I began writing this book after all the parties involved had died with the exception of my brother, who lives within a hundred miles of me. I explained my project to him. In all truth, had he told me not to write the book, I would have anyway. I wasn’t asking for permission. He supported my decision with encouragement but explained he would not be able to read the work because it would cause pain. Fair enough. He understood I was not writing the book out of revenge or malice. He was well aware that I had forgiven all parties involved. Remember forgiveness is not forgetting or saying what happened was okay. My children know some of the stories, but shocking points do exist. I think a writer has to approach personal stories with compassion and empathy for those who play roles in your history. This does not mean the writer has to change their truth.
What does it mean to “own” one’s history?
Owning my history means no longer hiding what happened to my family or the choices they made. I don’t feel the need to sugar-coat the story to fit into a group of people. I don’t have to have the best childhood or parents. Our pasts do not have to be squeaky clean. Owning my history is looking the bad and good dead in the eyes and understanding good and bad can be mixed on a paint palate and become the grayest of gray. But most of all owning my history is pure freedom from the expectation that I will forget and stay silent.
Do you think more memoirs or autobiographical materials are in your future?
Two weeks ago, I would have said no way. Then my brother threw me a real zinger. A package from UPS arrived on the doorstep containing all our dad’s military files, along with old photos of us when we were little. This was packed in the old briefcase he carried to work every day until he retired in 1974. The inside still smelled of cigarette smoke and peppermints. I did not know this stuff existed. My brother said, “This is a book for you to write.” As I went through the papers, I realized the story was much larger and deeper than I could ever imagine. Yes, I will write this story that spans from the CCC (Civil Conservation Corp) to NATO in the 70s. I don’t know how I will shape this narrative. Maybe fiction or maybe memoir. It is too early to tell.
This memoir deals with dark, toxic behaviors and incidents; was writing about these times more cathartic or painful? Or both?
This is a good question. I would say both, but I discovered a lot about who I was and who I am while writing this book. When I first began writing Roll the Stone Away, I jumped straight into it, ignoring what I learned from Jessica’s workshop. In one week, I wrote 13,000 words. I promptly became very ill. I’m not one to get sick at all. But a simple cold morphed into something larger, and I was down for the count. Later I spoke with other writers who have written memoirs and was told this often happens when taking on too much at once and ignoring the signs I was stuffing feelings. There is a reason why one has to take writing a hard story slow. Much of the first draft was spent with me in denial. How could any of the things that happened to me be that bad? To others, this was very clear, but I couldn’t see much of the abuse pointed at me was abuse, even though I could see the pain it inflicted when pointed at others.
I learned to cut myself a break and that I was worthy of telling this story.
How did the stone metaphor come about? What do you think it represents?
The stone metaphor came to me one Easter. I thought of how the women went to Jesus’s tomb and the giant stone that had blocked the opening had been rolled away. This was a miracle and a sign that nothing is too large for God. I saw the index cards in the envelope on my desk and how each one represented a story, an obstacle, I couldn’t get my head around. Of course the weight of carrying them around was paralyzing at times. They kept me from running and playing like a child when I was a kid and influenced each book I wrote. And maybe that was my strength, not my downfall. Maybe if I looked at every stone, I could find a part of me.
This is when I began to collect stones, placing them in a pottery bowl on my desk. I have one from the grave of my great grandmother, who was murdered by my great grandfather. There is a rough jagged stone I dug up from the land where my grandfather was stretched and tied between two trees and beaten to the brink of death. One each off the graves of my mother, grandmother, and grandfather. And one from the middle of the Nantahala River, normally deep and raging with water but because of a severe drought reduced to a light trickle. The rock is smooth and worn from thousands of years of water wearing away the rough edges. This rock represents me, standing in the middle of what should be raging water, finding my way through the drought of family history.
What projects are in the works now?
I just finished a short story collection entitled, Haints on Black Mountain: a haunted story collection, that will release in late 2021. And I’m hard at work on a nonfiction narrative about Lucille Selig Frank, Leo Frank’s wife. I came to know about Leo Frank through my grandmother’s stories when I was young. Then as an adult I was captured by his wife, Lucille. She has a story that should be heard.
In the future, I have my sights set on beginning a new novel series based on Jeff Clemmons’s book, Atlanta’s Historic Westview Cemetery. This book is full of rich history and stories concerning generations of those buried in the four hundred acres plus grounds. There are so many stories Jeff couldn’t put in his book. These interest me to no end. What ghost story reader doesn’t love a series of novels set with a cemetery as the narrator?
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