Monday, January 31, 2011

Q&A: Ana Maria Spagna

Ana Maria Spagna won the the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize for Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, an account of her search to understand her father's role in the civil rights movement.

In 1957, her father, Joseph Spagna, rode a bus in Tallahassee, Florida, with five other young men who planned to get arrested and take their case to their U.S. Supreme Court. In her book, Spagna chronicles her journey to learn what really happened. Last fall, from her home in the remote town of Stehekin, Washington, she answered some questions about how her book came to be.

About a third of the way through your book, you write: “Whatever I’m learning, it’s not about protest or politics; it’s about courage. And it’s not about my dad; it’s about me.” Even earlier than that, you write that the story “seems to have little to do with my dad.” Did you know how much of this book was really about you as soon as you set out to write it, or was that something that dawned on you only after you had been writing for a while?

I most definitely did not know it would be about myself. I'd written my first book, Now Go Home, a collection of personal essays that lean personal and after I went around doing some readings I felt very exposed. I thought: whatever I write about next, it's not going to be me! So as I researched Test Ride for those two years I really thought I would eventually write a history of sorts, or maybe a biography. Only once I started writing did I realize: this is about me. That was hard.

“Sunnyland” also seems to be about how nothing is really as clear-cut as we might be led, or would like, to believe. You talk about the “fickle cracks of history” and at one point write: “… here was a saga full of complications & nuances and raggedy loose ends tidied up neatly for the retelling.” I’m guessing your book is intentionally “untidy” for exactly this reason—to underscore its deeper subject. Is this true?

Absolutely. Part of my decision to write it as a memoir was, as I noted above, a realization about my own role in the story, but part, too, was wanting to give voice to, say, Johnny Herndon's and Jon Folsom's wildly different versions of the bus story. I could have chosen to play god (historian/researcher) and parse out the truth (e.g. I'm pretty sure there were six riders even though Johnny insists there were three) but I wanted instead to show how "untidy" memory and by extension history is. That's at least a partial answer to your question.

The Tallahassee of your imagination, as you describe it, almost has a dreamlike sheen, a certain unreality to it. Beyond the research opportunities there, how important was it for you to actually to see Tallahassee for yourself to be able to write about your father’s experience there? 

Place is important to me. It affects me. (My mother and my siblings, by contrast, insist that it makes no difference to them whether they live in California or Missouri or New Jersey - this attitude baffles me.) So it was crucial for me to see Tallahassee. Also, as you note, I needed to see it now rather than continue to fabricate it in my mind, in black and white, in the 1950s. And traveling there turned out to be more of a shock than I thought it would be: geographically, culturally, emotionally. I often remember the day that Laurie and I left the city to head to the coast. I describe the drive briefly at the beginning of Chapter Five. I can remember how everything looked, smelled, sounded and felt foreign - yes, that distance from Stehekin is critical as a metaphor - but also how my father felt closer than he ever had since he died. I don't think I captured the power of that moment completely but I at least took a stab.

Although you mention plenty of original texts and documents in the body of the book itself, you don’t include citations or a bibliography. Is this because isn’t really about the history itself, about getting it just right, but about a more personal accounting/reckoning of it? 

I did not want to pretend that it was a traditional history in part because I did not do that hard work of parsing out fact from non-fact, but I also don't want the book to be seen only as my personal history: it's mine and Johnny's and Jon's and Clay Barbeau's and to a lesser extent my mother's. And I guess I believe that kind of history is more "true" than a merely factual account. The nuances are the story. I suppose that by the end of my visit to the 50th anniversary celebration I also felt some frustration/distaste for the arrogance of historians so I did not want to adopt any of those trappings.

You open your book with a somewhat discouraging scene early in your search—in front of Speed’s Grocery—then go back in time to the “official” version of what happened to your dad in 1957. This seems to mirror much of the way you structure your book: grounding the reader with your current search for the “truth” about your father, then going back to look at history (including your own history) from different angles and perspectives. Did this feel like a natural narrative strategy for you from the beginning? 

That first chapter was the hardest to write by a long shot. I drafted and revised and re-drafted. Each time I did I felt more confident that the mix was right: my story as front story - dad's story as a continuous narrative backstory, and that with that structure in place those other bits of history and perspective could be hung onto the story arc more easily. So it did feel right, but it took a lot of work.

There have also been several family-type memoirs in recent years, some of daughters and fathers, that I read. If I didn't exactly use them as models, they certainly gave me more faith in my strategy: Danielle Trussoni's "Falling Through the Earth", Lucinda Frank's "My Father's Secret War", Bliss Broyard's "One Drop" and to a lesser extent in terms of structure, but hugely liberating/inspiring in terms of reflection heavy, non-linear, fiercely honest style: Kathleen Finneran's "The Tender Land."

Considering the subject, it could have been easy for the book to veer into sentimentality. But you never do; your voice throughout is plainspoken, gritty, sometimes self-deprecating. Was sentimentality something you had to really guard yourself against while writing this? 

I think in this case it's pure luck or my own nature. I don't tend to be sentimental. If anything, it was harder for me to let my own wonder and / or earnestness shine through when necessary.

To follow up, how easy or difficult was it to get the narrative “persona” right in “Sunnyland?”

Again, that part came naturally. I just had to hope that the reader would accept "me" especially early on (say in Chapter Two) when I'm really hard on my dad and liberalism in general. Of course some of my dad's living friends did bristle there, but at least they kept reading.

You revisit your “official” version of history often, adding and subtracting, revising, considering, based on what you learn, until you finally realize you can never learn the real truth. You do the same thing as you continue to size up your father.

By the end of the book, many of your illusions are gone, but so is your cynicism. You decide it’s not about courage any more. “It was about grief, common as dirt.” This is a hard-won revelation, and I think its power comes because you’ve spent so much of the book refining your understanding of your father’s role in history and refining and reframing your understanding of your father himself, and what his act of protest meant. Could you talk about this a little bit?

There were many many unexpected aspects to the journey -- both in terms of the search and the writing itself -- but none was as surprising, flooring really, as the sense of reconciliation with my father. It sounds odd since he is so long-dead, and I'm not sure I fully realized how much I needed the reconciliation but that is certainly the deepest and most real part of the story. A kind of lightness or freedom or settledness.

Did you intend from the start to include your mother’s experience with cancer in the book? Because it really seems to add another layer to your internal struggle and growing sense of guilt and urgency.

That was a real moral quandary, one I try to explain in the book on P257 when I talk about the Prodigal Son. How could I write a book that makes a hero of my dad for what he did on one day when here was my mom who raised us alone then fought cancer etc? If that paragraph (257) sounds emphatic it's probably because there's a little backstory: I originally shopped TR with a NYC agent and many editors said this: Ditch the mom story. Cancer memoirs are overdone. Of course those editors wanted the story streamlined in other ways, too, to make it more marketable. I actually wrote that streamlined book. I switched agents and spent six months on a straight linear, no mom version. It was excruciating. The very day that agent took the book out on the street, I heard I'd won the River Teeth contest. What a relief!

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