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Claire_Hoffman_Greetings_from_Utopia_Park

So Claire, why did you decide to write a memoir?

I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been working on this project forever. I’ve always felt like it was really important and meaningful despite a number of obstacles. But now, on the eve of its publication, I can’t help but think of all the other things I could have done with my time.  Why didn’t I use all that grit and perseverance on something…bigger?

 

Like what?

I could’ve gone to medical school.  That’s just like one thing that comes to mind.  Or, you know, written a novel. Or been a better mother.  Or become an international newspaper correspondent.  Or maybe all of those things—I could have become a medical doctor who wrote a novel on the side while also being a much better parent and also doing some dispatches from war zone.

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Claire Hoffman is the guest on the latest episode of the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast. Her new memoir, Greetings from Utopia Park, is available now from Harper Books. 

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Transcendental Meditation 

51VevgN9+YL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When I was five, my father, an alcoholic playwright, left $50 on the kitchen table and vanished. My mother quickly found herself broke, unable to keep up with the rent for our Upper West Side apartment in New York.

She had no money, but she did have something else very precious to her: a guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who earlier that year had issued a call to his followers around the globe. Come to Iowa, he’d said, to meditate and create world peace. So after a tumultuous year of moving, getting evicted, and living with my grandmother in Florida, my mother decided that our path to stability would be found in the endless cornfields of Fairfield, where Maharishi was founding a Transcendental Meditation community, complete with a university and a private school for the children of his followers. My mother, my brother, and I moved to the heartland along with 7,000 others. It was 1982.

 

harley-and-me-front-cover-v3.inddPrologue

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

—T. S. Eliot

 

The day is finally starting to soften with the onset of evening as a storm assembles to the southeast. The sun has been scorching my retinas all day and is just now starting to dim. I’ve been riding my motorcycle more than eight hours today, winding first through the stunning canyons of Utah, veering into Idaho for a bit, and now entering the spectacular open range of western Wyoming. My forearms are leaden; my shoulders sag. I vaguely remember the tasteless lunch I ate hours ago, but now I’m hungry. The air is hot, even hotter inside the road armor I’m wearing. I am saddlesore and this is only day two.

Rebecca and I are trekking by motorcycle from Los Angeles to Milwaukee and back, a sixteen-day, five-thousand-mile adventure, the first extended road trip for either of us. We originally met in the mommy realm, room parents together at the small, parochial grade school our kids attended. Now, our children are mostly grown and both of us have only recently left long-term marriages. Having fled the cocoon of the suburban world we’d long inhabited, we find ourselves at midlife, crossing the country on motorcycles, unsure of the road ahead but determined to move forward anyhow.

PROLOGUE TWO                   POP!_Cover

PORCELAIN GOD

The dudes who remodeled my mom’s master bathroom forgot to take away the old pink toilet. So there it stood, in the middle of our front yard—a constant amidst the turning, falling leaves of autumn.

We figured they’d be back for it, the toilet. After a week or so of rousing suspicion among the other residents of Green Street, the unspoken realization hit us: that pink throne was our problem now.

One crisp November afternoon, my mom and brother and I all found ourselves standing around the thing with steaming cups of coffee in our hands. My mug had a chip and read: “Nobody’s Perfect.”

“How heavy is it?” My brother tried his best to surmise the toilet’s heft with his mind then tilted it with his free hand.

I'dRatherWearPajamas_CoverFront_OnlineFormat (1)Is it Just Me, or Does Everybody Want to Go to Law School?

One night while I was in middle school, I came to the family dinner table and boldly announced out of the blue that Bert (of Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie) was holding Ernie back. The record player scratched, dinner paused, and my entire family looked up at me completely confused. Their baffled looks didn’t discourage me. I continued with my prepared rant about how Ernie was the real show-stopper of the duo, and could do so much more if Bert wasn’t around with his negativity and unibrow. I have no idea where these thoughts were stemming from, or why I felt it so important to relay them at that moment, but I just had to get it off my chest. For the record, I still stand by my arguments. Ernie, I know you love Bert, but you could do better. Do you really enjoy finding pigeon poop all around your house? I’m just saying.

Allow me to interject here briefly with some advice for all you parents (and aspiring parents):

skythecolorofchaosAfter the guests left, Soeur came clomping in the scraggly grass across the yard, making the bugs fly, yelling about a book I’d borrowed without permission. She who never yelled. She who was small and skinny with dark, soft eyes that avidly studied the world around her. A quiet child who concentrated intensely, her fingers trapped in some science book. Sometimes she read detective novels, sometimes the lacquered glamour ads in magazines. She read books thoroughly from beginning to end, as she did not believe in skimming or jumping pages. She studied hard in the evening, doing her homework, one subject after another, one, two, three hours straight.

In photos of Soeur and me, I was always much bigger: heavier, thicker boned, thoughtless in the way I claimed space. She was skinny but filled the air with her presence.

M.J. Fievre’s memoir A Sky the Color of Chaos (Beating Windward Press, 2015) chronicles Fievre’s childhood during the turbulent rise and fall of Haiti’s President-Priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide—a time of nightly shootings, home invasions, robberies, and the burning of former regime members in neighborhood streets. During the late 1980s and 90s, from when Fievre was eight-years-old to 18, Haiti’s government changed forms eight times; the Haitian people endured fraudulent elections, three military coups, a crippling embargo, and a United Nations occupation. A Sky the Color of Chaos will be featured at the Miami Book Fair International on Nov. 21.

In connection to the release of the book, Fievre had a conversation with writer Jan Becker. They addressed some of the themes explored in the book, including domestic violence, father-daughter relationship, and PTSD.

bookcoverNotes on My Sister, the Fox

Around Maple Shade, people still refer to me as “Meri Nester’s brother.” Meredith Ann Nester’s look perfectly suited the early-1980s: long, blonde hair (enhanced by Sun-In), Bongo jeans from Merry-Go-Round, cut sweat shirts, and jelly pumps. I wore husky Wranglers, tube socks, and glasses that remained tinted indoors. Meri made varsity cheerleading by eighth grade. I played trombone and sent away for free pamphlets from the Consumer Information Catalog. Meri was the barefoot girl in Bruce Springteen’s “Jungleland” who sat on the hood of a Dodge and drank warm beer in the soft summer rain. I’m the misfit who listened to Rush’s “Subdivisions,” and wondered how a Canadian band knew that the suburbs had no charms to soothe the restless dreams of my youth.

If Meri Nester reacted to Maple Shade like I did, I might not have gone crazy. But she didn’t react to Maple Shade like I did. And so I did go crazy.

photocredit Thomas V. Hartmann

Let’s look over your writerly bio. It says here you’ve written two books on your love of the rock band Queen (God Save My Queen I and II), a book of poems (The History of My World Tonight), something called “humorous nonfiction” (How to Be Inappropriate), and edited a book of sestinas (The Incredible Sestinas Anthology). What’s this book called?

It’s called Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects.

 

That’s a pretty long-ass title.

You can call it Shader for short.

MonroeComp1.inddA date gone this awry might turn out fine if, for example, we could have gone back to my apartment and slipped off my shiny dress and made love like James Stillman and I used to do in Wisconsin, like Max and I used to do in Kansas, where you get into tried and true positions that take you to brief ecstasy. Then we’d relax, agree that the joke-telling had turned awkward. If the sense of intimacy lasted, in time I’d even be able to tell my date he needed to dry clean his sports coats. But the sex was polite, muted. Because he was polite, muted? Because his feelings were? I’ll never know. He left afterward because he had to teach folklore at a community college fifty miles away in the morning—by which time I was packing up my laundry to take to a laundromat a block away.

author photo 2015, chair, b&wThe blurbs say your book is funny, and yet it explores that era just after the feminist movement. Feminism is serious, necessary. How did this turn out to be funny?

It’s not a slapstick book, no. But the gap between what you expect and what you get instead—the ludicrously unexpected—is the definition of a punchline. If readers find the book funny, that’s probably because it’s about a life in which incompatible values coincide. I straddled social classes. I straddled opposed definitions of womanhood. This made for predicaments: the wrong words and behaviors in the right setting; the right words and behaviors in the wrong setting. And I prefer being amused, not stricken.

Kate Christensen 4 KB copyI fell in love with Kate Christensen’s fiction for the smart but deeply flawed characters, the vibrant settings, the good old-fashioned plot twists and, of course, the prose, once described by Janelle Brown in the San Francisco Chronicle as “visceral and poetic, like being bludgeoned with an exquisitely painted sledgehammer.” Always in the mix, lusciously omnipresent, was food and booze, flavoring the titles (In The Drink, The Epicure’s Lament) and served generously through the scenes. There was no doubt the author was deeply involved with eating and drinking.

HOW TO COOK A MOOSE_COV_hr copyA Tale of Two Kitchens

Right away, when we first moved to Portland, I noticed the large numbers of homeless and mentally ill and drug-addicted and hardscrabble people on the streets. Walking Dingo through our new neighborhood, I saw a lot of strung-out-looking people talking to themselves with unselfconscious intensity as they took refundable bottles from recycling bins, and couples screeching at each other, enraged and incoherent, often many feet apart on the sidewalk. Every time we drove to buy groceries, passing by a series of homeless shelters on and near Preble Street, I’d look out the window of our warm car at the faces of the people standing there, huddled groups of down-and-out men and women, a few black but mostly white, hunched in wool pea coats and hats with earflaps, or watch caps and down jackets, rubbing hands together, kibitzing and standing around waiting for the soup kitchen to open and exhaling cigarette smoke as if it had warming properties.

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Were you concerned that people would be put off by the story you were telling? It’s difficult material, your family with its two lobotomies.

I was worried all the time. I knew that life had given me an incredible story to tell—six siblings, two lobotomies: one third of my mother’s family.

 

Incredible, yes. But who would want to read that?

I’d tell people what I was writing and watch as they turned green when they heard the word lobotomy. But it turned out that there was a story behind the story. People have since come forward to tell me they too come from families with mental illness. Allen Ginsberg, whose mother was lobotomized, wrote: “It would seem odd to others…that is to say, familiar—everybody has crazy cousins and aunts and brothers.’ What I first thought was strange turned out to be a universal story.