Butchering Eels

Publish Date: October 11, 2019

I dreaded the moment for years—through the early drafts and the revisions, through the long slog to complete the novel, through its acceptance by a small press, through several rounds of copy-editing, right up to the printing of advance review copies (ARCs). I worried and I wondered: What will my mother think when she reads it? Will she view my story as a betrayal?

Fiction often, perhaps always, has its roots in a writer’s feelings about her family. Ben Novotny, the character at the center of my first novel, Degrees of Difficulty, resembles my youngest brother, Robert; both the fictional and the real chromosome that led to multiple physical impairments, brain-wracking seizures, and severe developmental delays. Both were born into a loving family that struggled to ensure the special child not only survive but live the happiest life possible. Both families, despite good intentions, made costly mistakes, and lived through great heartache.

What would my novel show of my feelings towards Ben/Robert? To my family? To my mother?

Elena Ferrante, pseudonymous author of My Brilliant Friend and other brilliant novels, says that writing is like “butchering eels.” She pulls from the depths of her experience everything that is “alive and writhing,” including unbearable memories hiding deep in the murky waters. Her description of capturing the slithering, slippery past seems perfect to me. My stories begin with a fragment (a memory, a moment, an image or inchoate feeling) from my past; I then create characters, shape points of view, structure a narrative —that is, use all the tools of fiction—to find the larger truth within the fragment. Sometimes, I am afraid of what I pull up from the depths. What will my family recognize in it, and in my telling of it? Will my mother think that I am blaming her for our family’s pain, for our losses?

I arrived at Mom’s condo in Florida back in January for a three-day visit; I came to see how she was doing in her new home, but also with an ulterior motive: I wanted her to read my book before its publication in October. Near the end of my stay, I showed her an advance review copy, with anxiety swirling in my stomach and a nonchalant comment: Check this out, whenever you have the time.

I flew home to Chicago and got on with my life, leaving behind a little girl, eagerly awaiting her mother’s approval. Over the next few days, I imagined Mom scanning the book—where’s Waldo’ing each page to catch a glimpse of herself in the narrative. Days turned into weeks. I heard nothing. The weeks became months. I tried to not feel hurt. But I did. She finally emailed me in May to say she’d finished it. Turns out that she’d been dreading reading it, as much as I had dreaded sharing it. She said she’d started it once or twice and had to put it aside. Each time, though, she’d picked it up again after a few weeks, made herself push on, through many reminders of trauma and loss.

Could I blame her for these feelings? Of course not. Of course. As her daughter, I have spoken words and lived a life that has been hard for her. I will not wear pink. I hate dresses. I cannot stay in a marriage to my high school boyfriend. I am a lesbian. She knew that my fiction would express ideas that are similarly hard for her to accept.

We are told that a child must separate from her parents. We know this is true. I have never wanted to hurt my mother, but I am interested in telling the stories that are the hardest for me to tell. Anyone who “kills eels” risks injuring others. My mother said, I love your book, the story you tell. It was incredibly painful for me to read. As writers, we hope that the fragments we unearth, examine, and fictionalize lead to a new literary truth. Our readers, even the mothers we wound, want nothing less.

Photo by Saskia van Manen on Unsplash

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