David Tromblay’s forthcoming memoir As You Were (Dzank Books, February 2021) will about break your damn heart. And if it doesn’t it’ll at least rip it out your throat, stomp on it, spit on it, and dare you to pick it back up and keep going.
This is not an Oprah feel-good memoir. It’s brutal and ugly and in your face and has no time for self-pity or self-aggrandizement. Its redemption is in the author’s survival. “Survival is triumph enough,” Harry Crews once wrote in the epigraph of his own memoir.
As You Were has that epigraph tattooed across every page.
The writing never gets cute, never calls attention to itself, never lets the reader off the hook. It just drives and drives and all you can do is go for the ride. No wasted moment to catch your breath and feel sorry for yourself (if you’re looking for proof, here are two excerpts that Bull published earlier this year).
If you are looking for a memoir that tries to suck every ounce of pathos out of every tragic moment, this isn’t for you. If you are looking for a memoir that’s going to wallow in its lowest of lows and wax saccharine about redemption, this isn’t for you.
This isn’t a woe-is-me memoir. This is a none-of-us-are-innocent memoir, a nobody-gets-off-easy memoir. Anger begets anger, alcohol and alcohol, the cycle of abuse and trauma, of poverty and oppression. Its small salvation is the grit to keep on kicking and fucking up and finding ways to forgive yourself and others but only sometimes, those times where it’s between life and death.
As You Were is the brutal truth of an ugly childhood. In other words, it is required reading for the times we live in.
– the drevlow
BD: I should probably save this one til the end, but I’m just going to go ahead and lead with it since survival seems to be at the core of As You Were: What kept you going through all this?
DT: If by this you mean the subject(s) of AYW, there’s a scene in Good Will Hunting where Will recalls a time he was forced to choose between a wrench, a stick, and a belt. Will chose the wrench, “Because fuck him, that’s why.” Him being my father and everyone who enabled him.
BD: So then what keeps you going these days?
DT: My dogs, my cat, my weed (which I have swapped for the mouthfuls of pills the VA once prescribed me), and the fact I, like my father, have an estranged son. I am working to make myself someone he would want to know one day when he learns about me.
BD: In an interview with Jason Arment, you mention that you use the second person point of view here because you “wanted the reader to feel as hypnotized as a bystander” and that it made both you and the reader “passive-bystanders in our own stories.”
I really loved the idea of the second-person memoir to start and that idea of it as hypnosis completely nailed for me what I’d been trying to put my finger on throughout.
It’s this combination of talking to yourself and putting the reader inside your head at the same time, but at the same same time, you aren’t giving us much context to be able to put these events in perspective or know how you truly feel about them. It’s all very one thing after another.
But there’s also these great little moments of sarcasm and humor and then these rhetorical questions which in the second-person adds to a kind of headfuck where it’s the reader looking inside out and not really having any answers.
I was wondering how that all evolved for you from start to finish? Did you always have the idea for the second person? Was there an aha moment where it all clicked?
What were some of the struggles with putting it all in the second person—especially within this “hypnotic” version of the second person?
DT: The book began in first person, but after hearing Stephen Graham Jones say second-person really is the best mode for reconciling one’s own memories, that was it. I tweeted about it, so there was no backing down. I publicly committed to second-person, the absolute hardest POV to use in storytelling to tell my story, which I know too many others have and do live, so I didn’t want to sound like I was the first and only ever person to be raised in said manner. That’s why I left the self out of narration. I got asked about this in my first semester of MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. People who had childhoods like mine did so comfortably numb. It was normal. It was all I ever knew. But here’s something I didn’t put in the book: in high school (after I got away from my father) I had friends who lived inside the foster care system. I used to go to their homes and hang out after school sometimes, because when I was little, I used to fantasize about being taken away and put into foster care. I knew it would be so much better. Struggles with using the second-person POV is that it becomes annoying and people will balk and say, “No. No, I didn’t just do [fill in the blank]. So you bury the pronoun, which I do when writing in any mode. Some books written in first-person sound like Axel Rose right before he asks, “Where do we go now?” and says, “Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay, ay.”
I also wrote another book (The Essentials coming out from Whisk(e)y Tit Books January 21, 2021) at the same time of As You Were that is pure dialog, and the antagonist is “They.”
BD: I really dug the way the chapters unfold stream-of-conscious style without real transitions or sense of time frame. Obviously this goes with the hypnotic point of view we just discussed, but I also know as someone who’s written long-form in this same style, that it’s fucking hard to make it seem to flow so naturally and effortless in its execution, or maybe that’s just me?
What was this like for you? How much of it just “flowed” versus how much of it you had to tinker with and move chapters and events to keep the forward propulsion going?
How much did you go back and forth with editors or readers about how much to leave it ambiguous versus how much context was necessary to help the reader follow the time-line without holding their hand?
DT: That Stephen Graham Jones guy, again. He was my mentor for half of my two years in graduate school, but it was broken up, second and last semester, so it wasn’t one year out of two. When I first handed the manuscript in he said it didn’t work because there was a huge gap after junior high until I was in the military. Rather than writing about a relatively docile time of my life, he proposed we look for echoes in the two wars (childhood and military time) and bounce between those chapters. After the shuffle, 282-pages became roughly 120 for my MFA thesis. After that I put the other chapters back into the manuscript and wrote transitional pieces, and finally submitted it to Michelle Dotter at Dzanc Books. She never offered pushback or asked me to add context to stories, she was sold on the voice, but what was too much for a reader to be shown and then quietly ushered on to the next chapter, she recommended those chapters not go in the final copy or be offered elsewhere without heavy rewrites So, there’s somewhere around sixty pages of omitted stories stashed somewhere on my desktop.
BD: I didn’t have to go through anywhere near the trauma that you write about in As You Were, but I do write a lot about my brother killing himself when we were kids and me trying to kill myself for most of my life and other fun little eccentricities like that, and I feel like for most of my life I’ve struggled with not wanting to tell other people about this stuff while at the same time not being able to not tell people about these things as excuses for how much of a fuck-up I’ve been for most of my life.
And obviously, every time I write about it, I am also saying, Jesus Christ, here we go again with the family-trauma card. And probably the only reason people put up with my shit is because they feel sorry for me.
It’s the ultimate midwestern guilt running through my veins. That and all that shit about writing about the self or the other.
I know that you have a bunch of other fiction in the hopper and you are a world’s better writer than I am, so I can’t imagine you getting type-cast, but still: Is that anything you worry about? Having your experiences—as completely fucked up as they are—defining this memoir more than all the art and hard work that went into it?
DT: I didn’t mean for this to be my debut book but my father got sick, so I wanted to finish this before he died. I did. That was my final fuck you to him on his death bed. He lived with my sister in home hospice the last six months of his life. During that time, he didn’t soften or say he was sorry, or ask anyone’s forgiveness. Some of his last coherent words were, “I am going to Hell.”
Having my experiences in the memoir known about me or defining who I am when I am a fiction writer doesn’t bother me. Maybe it will lend me more authority when I put emotion and reflection into my fiction, which I tend to do with characters who are very emotive and knee-jerk. I think my fellow writers and readers will learn that when I use violence on the page, it comes from a place of authority.
BD: What about having these experiences define you as a person? Do you struggle with confiding things with other people?
DT: I don’t struggle with it. My daughter died of suicide nine and a half months ago. I shut down emotionally, but I never hid my struggles. No one learns from that. I believe in community, ironically, after the isolation and abandonment I experienced when I was young. For a time, I didn’t tell new people about my daughter. But omitting her from stories that took place over the last sixteen years of my life made me sound like a sputtering idiot, so I stopped. As far as my childhood and military traumas, I keep a small circle and if anyone is traumatized by my trauma, I apologize. I’ve had people tell me that the stories were too hard to read as I stand there thinking, try living it.
BD: It’s not everyday that I get to talk shitty childhoods with a fellow twin harbor’ite. I grew up an hour away from where you grew up in Duluth and I went to college at UW-Superior across the bay. I’ve always fixated with the cultural divide there. On one hand, Duluth up on the hill running right down into Lake Superior was a vacation destination and had all the tourists and the yuppy co-eds from UMD, whereas Superior across the bay was more a working-class shithole in the shadow of Duluth (I think once I even came across some bullshit local folklore about Fitzgerald basing West Egg and East Egg off of it).
On the other hand, the more time I spent working around Duluth the more I started to see bits and pieces of the experiences you describe within the cultural divide of Duluth itself, west versus east, hillside, etc.
Growing up there, what was your sense of the culture? Was there a conscious us-versus-them mentality that defined your identity? And then throw into the mix of being Native American in a land settled by Native Americans now a hotspot for rich white people to go on boat rides?
DT: I remember Duluth in the 80s nearly going the way of the dodo and Detroit. Spirit Island and Spirit Mountain were once sacred sites, now it’s where kids with cash go play. I’ve never gone there voluntarily. I remember going for field trips as a kid. I grew up in the industrial portion of West Duluth which is connected to south Superior by the Bong bridge which I think is a bit too on the nose. We only went over the bridge on Sunday to go to the Pagoda or on the way to the Applefest. I was raised to hate the Packers, but I wasn’t made to love the Vikings. I don’t care about sports anymore. I was a girl dad. Being Native in Duluth is weird, weirder when you’re white passing. I thrashed a bunch of White kids in school over the years who teased and bullied obviously Native kids. People never really put two and two together, they just said I had anger issues. I made beating up bullies a passion for a long time. I think that’s why I went in the military because I defeated the final boss (my father) and wanted to move on to the next level of my life. Those commercials must have really spoken to me. But, really it helped me put a wedge between me and my past life. The military was a breather for me until 9/11.
BD: A lot of times, I think there’s this sense that writing it all down and publishing your memoir will give you perspective and peace with the material. But even as you mention towards the end of the book, it’s not like all the shittiness of life ends with the publication of the book. It’s not like you can just “turn the chapter” on all the shit you just wrote about and think—whew, it’s all over, period, the end.
I don’t want to give away the concluding lines here, but you very much directly address this issue at the end. Was this book—for better or worse—“therapy” for you? Are there wounds that writing this reopened for you that you might have rather left to scab over?
Do you ever feel like you should have all this shit figured out now that you put it all together but then it keeps on cropping up (maybe like going through rehab and then having a relapse)?
Or again maybe that’s just me.
DT: An early reviewer compared this book to A Child Called It. That made me think. Crafting this book made me an alcoholic for a while. I dug deep into my guts and wrote with every ounce of angst and bile I could transform into words. Putting these stories on the tip of my tongue versus carrying them around in the back of my subconscious for how many ever years, didn’t help. What did help is having my therapist read this book and discuss its contents with me after he spent a year going over coping skills with me. I wasn’t taught, or witness to, healthy lifestyles choices while growing up. From the beginning, life for me was a lot like when you take a bite of something new and you say, “This tastes like shit,” but you keep eating until its gone because we don’t waste food in this house. My hope is if a reader sees similar things happening to another young person, that they will intervene.