Hand Me Down
A Kirkus Reviews Best Fiction Book of 2012
“Hand Me Down, which recalls the gritty power of Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, is fiction with the ring of truth.” –San Jose Mercury News
Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Reid has spent her life protecting her sister, Jaime, from their parents’ cruel mistakes and broken promises. When their mother chooses her second husband and their new family over raising her firstborn girls, Elizabeth and Jaime are separated and risk losing the shelter of each other. Hand Me Down indelibly captures a contemporary family journey--how two young people, against incredible odds, forge lives of their own in the face of an uncertain future.
Events in your own life inspired Hand Me Down. What made you choose to write a novel instead of a memoir?
When I first started writing Hand Me Down, I had this idea that when it was published, it would say “based on a true story” on the cover. There was a part of me that wanted the world to know that the basic outline of events in the book had really happened, but there was a bigger part of me that wanted the freedom to manipulate the truth of what happened in order to tell the truth of the story.
The whole James Frey controversy was exploding just as I began this project. I thought it unfair that he was being slaughtered for his choice of labels, so I wanted to avoid the restrictions of calling my book non-fiction. In a novel, I could adjust timelines, consolidate multiple people into one character, change details, invent conversations—in short, make stuff up—without worrying about the limitations of “what really happened.” While I don’t necessarily believe that non-fiction is any truer than fiction, memoirs bear the responsibility of at least attempting to remain as accurate as the author’s memory allows. Fiction let me have free rein over the details so I could get at the larger truths, the bigger emotional truths, more easily, and bring the more important issues to light.
If I’m being completely honest, there was also an aspect of protection in writing a novel. Non-fiction bridges the gap between what exists on the page and what exists in the physical world. Real names are used, so the characters are not characters, they are actual breathing people who didn’t ask to be written about. In creating a work of fiction, people become characters once they’re on the page so I can shape them as I see fit. I also get to walk the line between me and not me, between my life and Liz’s, and that uncertainty makes me a little less vulnerable than if I’d written a memoir. Fiction provides a bit of shelter.
It’s bold and brave to share such a deeply personal story as a debut work. Why did you decide to share this story first?
Since I was a pre-teen, writing has helped me make sense of my life and this world. In grad school when I started writing about what was important to me, the things I had experienced or witnessed and needed to understand, pieces of this story kept bubbling up. Liz’s voice—my own pissed-off and left-out teenage voice—dominated my writing; I couldn’t get her out of my head. My mother’s choice was one of the defining moments of my life and I realized I needed to examine it closely in order to conquer the demons it had spawned, even if it was difficult. I wanted to write something that mattered, to dive into this abyss of unknowns and work my way out with words. Writing the hardest thing is how truth is reached, and I couldn’t move on without exploring the truths of those years.
In writing Hand Me Down, I was able to pick apart the perfect storm of circumstances that forced me to leave home. The series of events leading up to and following my mom’s decision changed the course of all the lives involved and hugely and impacted my self-identity in ways I am still discovering. But writing this book allowed me to explore multiple aspects and perspectives, figure out the motivations behind the actions, and then put it all back together into a cleaner, fictionalized version that taught me a lot about myself and my family. I was able to heal and forgive, and began to conquer those demons. It is my hope that by sharing my story and exposing some of the hard truths that are often swept under the rug, other people may speak up, get help, heal, and ultimately be able to move on.
Hand Me Down is written from fourteen-year-old Liz’s perspective. How did you get back into the mind of a teenager? Did you find it challenging?
My mom used to say I was fifteen going on thirty and now that I am thirty, I don’t feel that different from my teenage self. Or rather, I feel like my teenage self is still inside my head, mouthing off and whining and kicking walls, but I’ve learned to censor her outbursts as I’ve grown. I’m smarter now, calmer, more aware and more patient, but slipping back into the brain of a teenager wasn’t hard for me.
I did still do research, by which I mean I read journals of mine from my early teens. I relived my memories through the eyes of my fourteen-year-old self, and while much of it was horribly embarrassing, there was a lot of good source material. Reading the pain and the rage in those pages helped me connect to Liz in a way I may not have been able to without those old journals. The challenge, I think, was in experiencing the raw emotion of a teenager again, which is weighted with an intensity I had forgotten. Being a teenager is full of daily tortures and going back to that time in my life was not fun, but it was an important part of the creative—and healing—process.
Liz is a very strong and independent character. Do you share these or any other traits with her? Did you intend for Liz to be a version of yourself?
I like to think of Liz as a stronger version of my teenage self. Liz is braver than I was at fourteen. She says the things I wish I’d said, she takes action when I would have retreated. Liz is quicker to learn the lessons it took me years to figure out; she has the advantage of my ten years of hindsight.
I was independent, and I certainly acted tough even when I felt broken inside just like Liz does, as do millions of other teens, because I didn’t want anyone to see how much they’d hurt me. I think Liz and I share a lot of other traits, too, both good and bad, but maybe most noteworthy is our determination to be better than the world expects, to succeed beyond what our environments dictate, to rise above our parents’ mistakes. It’s that drive that helped me complete this novel in the face of the world’s skepticism, and Liz has that same drive inside of her, which is how I know she grows up making the smart choices. She probably even chooses the better option more often than I did, but I think we’ll both turn out okay in the end.
Hand Me Down tackles some serious issues—alcoholism, abuse, neglect—but it is also filled with moments of hope and humor. Were you conscious of toeing this line, and were there certain scenes where you found it especially difficult to find that lighter tone?
I knew I was dealing with material that could be difficult for some readers so I was conscious of trying to keep a balance between the disheartening and uplifting parts of Liz’s story. There are almost always moments of joy to be found in even the darkest circumstances, and I included those times when Liz felt loved or safe or appreciated, even if they were fleeting, because without hope, Liz, like most of us, would give up.
I think books without hope feel unsatisfying. I wanted readers to feel Liz’s pain, but also understand how much she wanted to have a full life. To quote Pam Houston, “the world is both heartbreakingly sad and heartbreakingly joyful,” and any complex story will show the beautiful moments along with the sad ones. In a really complex story, they are often the same moments.
Clifford Chase described Hand Me Down as “grimly funny,” and I love that description because it captures exactly what I was going for. I think some of the most interesting humor is the kind that makes you laugh and then think, oh, that’s actually kind of awful; the kind of writing David Sedaris is a master of. Humor can highlight issues subtly, allowing the reader to see them from a different angle, which is sometimes the most effective way to gain attention. Balancing the light and the dark in any story is a challenge, and I hope I succeeded here.
Like Liz, you were separated from your little sister in your teens. How has your relationship changed since that time?
Like Liz and Jaime, my sister and I are very different people. We don’t always talk as much as I’d like, but in some ways we are still the people who know each other the best. I can tell her mood by hearing two seconds of her voice and there are jokes we share that no one else laughs at, secrets we’ve admitted to no one else. We can communicate with body language and eye contact, and like Liz does with Jaime, I often get a feeling when my sister is in trouble, right before she calls me. We may not have the same friends or interests as adults, but there is nothing I wouldn’t do for her.
There is something about growing up together that bonds you for life; no one else can ever fully understand the exact environment of your upbringing like a sibling. My sister and I never got to live together again after our adolescent separation, but like Liz and Jaime, we were always connected. We will forever be the only two people who share the same parents, who faced the same obstacles. One of the first things she said to me after she started reading Hand Me Down was, “I forgot what a jerk Dad was.” Regardless of how closely I describe certain aspects of my childhood, my sister is the only other person who survived it. No matter what, we both know we can rely on each other for support and love for the rest of our lives.
You started Hand Me Down in graduate school. What has it been like to take the story from grad school thesis to published novel?
It’s been a lot of work. I wrote the first draft of Hand Me Down as my thesis in less than four months. I had thirty usable pages from previously written short stories that got sprinkled into the draft but I produced 150 pages between January and April. It nearly gave me a heart attack, but my committee liked it and I left my thesis defense feeling optimistic about its potential.
Then I entered the real world. With two degrees in English, I am qualified to write or teach and no one was paying for my writing yet. I taught composition classes and test prep and worked part time in office management and accounts payable positions. I didn’t look at the manuscript again for almost a year; I was too busy paying the bills. For the next three years I wrote in spurts during the weekends, revising first with the notes from my thesis defense, then from writing conferences, then from the judge of a fiction contest I won.
The second agent I queried signed me and I spent another year making improvements with her suggestions, which were often the opposite of the comments I’d gotten in grad school workshops. Graduate creative writing programs tend to focus on the craft of writing, which is a blessing while you’re in school, but the business of publishing needs its own manual. Luckily the book sold to an editor I love, who had a few more comments, and about six months later Hand Me Down was finished. The final version is a very, very different book from its thesis ancestor.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m trying to slow down and enjoy the release of Hand Me Down. This is literally a dream come true and I want to make sure I celebrate reaching this goal, appreciate this amazing result of all my hard work. The next step is seeing my book on shelves in bookstores next to other real books so I can be one hundred percent certain I didn’t make all of this up.
I plan to write another book, of course, and I do have an idea brewing. Stories are subject to change during the actual writing; characters take over their own lives and tell the writer what they want so I can’t say too much this early in the process, but I am fascinated by family dynamics and will continue to explore issues families struggle with but don’t like to talk about. People are so interesting, so full of contradictions, and there is something about digging into the shadow lives of complicated people that I love. With a buffet of possible topics provided by studying family relationships, I think there is enough meat here for me to chew on for a while.
Beyond that, I’m hoping to teach some creative writing workshops either on my own or through a university or other writing program or conference this year. On a more personal note, I recently got engaged to my long-time boyfriend, so we are looking into getting married, or possibly eloping, sometime this summer. I’m trying not to think much past the next year, though, because I can’t fully anticipate all the ways my life will change after my book comes out. It’s going to be an exciting ride for me in the upcoming months. I can’t wait to see what happens.
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