BE: What appealed to you about writing someone else’s story, and how is that process different from writing about your own experience?
TMK: The appeal part is easy, I think. Navigating the afterward is trickier. We hear a good story, and we intuitively want to hear it again. It’s why we’re afraid to delete the Sorpranos series finale from our DVR, and it’s why I can’t listen to Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman enough times to constitute as enough. Storytelling is this awesome familial tradition, but once I read enough to know about something, and once my grandfather died, it terrified me that his stories might have died with him. So the appeal in this personal context—for this story—felt more like responsibility. My grandfather and my great aunt and my father are all better storytellers than me. When any one of them is holding court, people are afraid to take a piss because they might miss something. But I have to be the one to write them down. Because no one else will.
When writing the first draft, I felt like I had to get it right. That there was this story that my great aunt had brilliantly told me with all of her quick eye movements and impersonating tones and island cursing that feeds an Aunt Moe story. So I put myself in the room and the draft turned out to be a recording of Aunt Moe telling me a story and it was an awesome literal replication of her sharing a memory—which was taking everything interesting about the memory, the actual story being told, and shoving it into the background behind this thing about a grandson learning about his family—and that was monumentally more commonplace and less interesting than the story about the crass-talking cook for the Louisiana Mafia. So in trying to get it right, I missed out on the good stuff. So I had to get rid of the me in the story (though I’m aware that I cheat in the end and write in as the listener).
But then I had to shake that idea that it wasn’t my story to tell. Sometimes, a neurotic notion would dig into my ear that I was stealing my Aunt Moe’s story. But it had to be mine, right? I saw it happen as she told me the words. And in understanding that, I realized how little I knew about the thing. Aunt Moe gave me most of a working plot, but the guts were still all out in the world. And so a difference from writing from my own experience is that I didn’t know what it smelled like in that kitchen. I had to go find that. And I didn’t know what it sounded like in that back room of the fishing camp, so I had to go find that too. And I hadn’t heard Carlos Marcello speak, so I had all of these things I didn’t know and all of these things I didn’t know I didn’t know. And the more I discovered, the more the story started to feel like it was mine all along.
So I feel like kind of a dick in saying, the story was my own experience and I don’t feel like I was writing someone else’s story. And like a lot of writing about our own experiences, I think it got a hell of a lot better after I got out of the way.