Ann Putnam holds a PhD in literature from the University of Washington. She teaches creative writing and gender studies at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She has published short fiction, personal essays, literary criticism and book reviews in various anthologies including Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice, and in journals, including the Hemingway Review, Western American Literature, and the South Dakota Review. Her latest work is a memoir, Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye.
Q: Thank you for this interview, Ann. Can you tell us what your latest book, Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye? is all about?
Yes, thanks for asking. I’m going to give you a little excerpt from my “Preface”: “This is the story of my mother and father and my dashing, bachelor uncle, my father’s identical twin, and how they lived together with their courage and their stumblings, as they made their way into old age and then into death. And it’s the story of the journey from one twin’s death to the other, of what happened along the way, of what it means to lose the other who is also oneself.
My story takes the reader through the journey of the end of life: selling the family home, re-location at a retirement community, doctor’s visits, ER visits, specialists, hospitalizations, ICU, nursing homes, Hospice. It takes the reader through the gauntlet of the health care system with all the attendant comedy and sorrows, joys and terrors of such things. Finally it asks: what consolation is there in growing old, in such loss? What abides beyond the telling of my own tale? Wisdom carried from the end of the journey to readers who are perhaps only beginning theirs. Still, what interest in reading of this inevitable journey taken by such ordinary people? Turned to the light just so, the beauty and laughter of the telling transcend the darkness of the tale.”
And the next day the trespass of her picture in the paper, her life so suddenly laid open for all to see, how she was carried off, half out of her mind. She was twenty-one. Then the violence of the hooks and barbed wire and dynamite to bring the bodies up. And the taste of the day bitter on her tongue forever after, and the plums, where were the plums? Who had eaten the plums?”
They’d spread the tablecloth on the grassy hill above the beach, where they’d gone for a picnic—the bowl of fried chicken covered with a white linen napkin, and potato salad and cucumber pickles, fresh bread, and fruit. There would have been chocolate, of course. Pearl would have brought it from the candy store where she worked.
As they carried Alfreda off the dock, she looked back one more time to that place in the water where the boats now circled, so still, so dark. How could he be so suddenly gone? That night she lay numb and disbelieving in her boardinghouse room, while thunder cracked against the house and the wind blew the curtains and someone came in but who? to shut the window. She lay with her head in the pillow and tried to sleep, but every time she closed her eyes, she saw him floating over the bottom in that green, murky water, his arms outstretched in astonishment. She did not see Pearl anywhere. It was better to keep her eyes open. So she watched the lightning flash across the sky as Will lay at the bottom of the lake, and she knew her prayers had gone unanswered. When the lightning shattered the sky, she wondered what goodness ruled the universe now.
“Once the boat flipped over, she’d gone under fast, her skirts weighing her down, but she’d pushed through the dark green water with her strong, swimmer’s legs, to see William swim away from her and toward his sister, :Pearl, to see her grasp his neck and pull him down, no thrashing to the surface for a second try. She saw the rush of water knit itself back again, still as glass. When the other boats reached her she’d called out to leave her and save the others. She’d stayed like that, hugging the boat for over an hour, refusing rescue until it was clear even to her that they were gone. It was the first of May.
I’d like to illustrate this with an example from my memoir, which involves my paternal grandmother, whom I had never met, who watched her fiancé die in a boating accident. It was the event that marked and marred the rest of her life. I needed to understand this and the only access I had to her was through my imagination:
That being said, I must tell you that many scenes had to be invented, as it were, out of memory, dream, intuition, but invented from absolute fidelity to the “truth,” if that doesn’t sound completely contradictory.
Thank you for a wonderful question to think about! Now I’ve published short fiction and written two novels, which I’m currently revising, so fiction is the logical choice for me. In fact I was in the middle of revising a novel called Cuban Quartermoon, which is set in Cuba just after the discovery of Che Guevara’s bones, when life intervened and my duties as caretaker for my father and his identical twin brother took over everything. When my uncle died, I began taking little notes—just words or phrases or lines someone had spoken, or first, quick impressions of what my family was going through. When my father died six months later to the day, I found I had collected several little notebooks full of such things. Now the really interesting take on this question for me is why didn’t I render this family drama in fiction? Why did I choose memoir? My first novel was autobiographical and so this narrative of my parents might seem a natural for fiction. Still, it was the voice that emerged from my little scattering of writings that felt like a memoir to me more than fiction. I needed to be wholly, fully myself, with no masks at all, to tell this tale.
Q: How difficult was it writing your book? Did you ever experience writer’s block and, if so, what did you do?
I would say the first rough draft was the hardest. The first thing I wrote described the death of my father, which comes late in the book as it was finally sculpted. But I’d written that part for a reading at a conference. It was about six months after my father had died and I thought I was ready to write about it. I didn’t sit at my computer with tears running down my face at all. I was cool and very much the writer at work, telling herself that she could do this just fine. But after about an hour, I would begin to feel ill. And sure enough found myself running a fever—the aches and weariness, the works. I’d take a couple of Tylenol and lie down for an hour or so, and it would pass. So I learned that I could only write about an hour at a time through those summer months. That feeling eventually just sort of left me, and only returned now and then. But as I wrote the memoir, I experienced more losses—the death of my mother, and then when I was doing final revisions, the death of my husband. So I guess now that I look at it, it was all very very hard.
Q: How have your fans embraced your latest work? Do you have any funny or unusual experiences to share?
So many readers have told me how my book has touched their lives. There is no end to loss or to our experience of it. After my readings, people come up to me for a signing and want to tell me their own stories of loss and thank me for having giving voice to their own.
A magical story: I received a message out of the blue on Facebook from someone named Susan, who asked me if I perhaps remembered her, as she was the nurse who cared for my uncle in the ICU at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle, when he was dying. She has no idea why she chose that moment to write me. I had just published my book, and had not seen her since I walked out of the ICU years before.
I wrote her right back, and said, “Susan, I not only remember you but I wrote a book about it with you in it!” And so we met over coffee and became friends. I asked her how in the world she would remember my uncle and me across so many years and so many families that had crossed paths with her in the ICU. She said, “How could I forget it? What happened was as deep as it goes.”
I hope this little excerpt catches the magic and depth of her:
I still have not met Susan.
That night I do. “Where do you hurt, Henry?” Susan croons to him like a love song. She’s the night ICU nurse who is an angel on this earth.
“Everywhere,” he says. “I hurt everywhere.” And in a choreography of such lightness and air, she shifts his pillow, smoothes out the blankets, adjust his meds, and he can breathe again. Then she tucks him in for the long night, and he find his way back to the comfort of sleep.
“What’s happening to him?” I ask Susan. She explains how systems are shutting down, one after the other.
“What is happening to his spirit?” I ask Father Bill.
“He’s becoming pure spirit now, what he was and always will be. He’s going to it now. Everything else is falling away.”
His chest is quiet now, and the light has gone from his eyes though they are still open. “We can give him something to close them,” Susan says. Tears run down her face. I am grateful for her tears because right then she is everybody who loves him who is not here. And then as if on cue, his eyes close slowly, sweetly as in a dream, because that’s exactly where he is now.
Q: What is your daily writing routine?
Ah, this is always such an interesting question. I’m always asking this of others. Still, turned to the light, I’m not sure I can answer this so easily. I usually begin with little jottings and scribbles in a tiny notebook I always carry with me. This way I’m not so intimidated at starting a big project. At some point those jottings turn into free-writes. And this I can do easily and apparently endlessly. Once I produced an eighty-page free write for a middle section of a novel. It was a glorious time. Words came unbeckoned and without end. But then it stopped, and I had eighty pages of this and that and hardly any idea how to organize it. So I’m very easy with right-brained writing, but seem to have little of the logical, left-brain to work with. So the next part can be terrifying and seemingly endless. So I try outlines at this point but never ever before, as I try to encourage all apparent side roads. I never know where I should really be going until I get there. Eventually I have what I call a “working rough draft,” and at this point I begin to sculpt and shape and polish. This is a calmer, saner process and I feel more in control. Actually, at this point the terror leaves me and I can see what’s good and what’s really awful and does not deserve the light of day. These sections I move to the bottom of the manuscript in case I see later that they are worthy of redemption.
Q: When you put the pen or mouse down, what do you do to relax?
I try to find some Law and Order re-runs. In this series, we don’t care about the victims because we only get to know them through flashback or refracted through the disingenuous views of others. We don’t care about the killer because, well s/he’s the killer, after all. After my husband died, this was the only thing I could do. I have no idea why. I’d sit in this special place which was his special place, turn on the fireplace, and you know you can always find a Law and Order re-run somewhere. It requires a left-brain engagement and unfolds without effort. Reading is too difficult after a long stretch of writing. Or if it’s in the middle of the day, I’ve stopped writing because the demands of life pull me out of it and rarely into anything relaxing. I do like the hot tub.
Q: What book changed your life?
A farewell to Arms. I read it as a college sophomore and it indeed changed my life. After Catherine dies in childbirth and Frederick Henry walks out of the hospital into the rain, the book ends. I remember putting it down and being unable to function for about a week I was so moved and taken with this book. From then on I knew I would be an English major and that I wanted to live my life in the magic and power of language. I wanted to be someone who could do that with words. I wanted to be someone whose work in the world was to teach others how to do this.
Q: If someone were to write a book on your life, what would the title be?
Q: Finish this sentence: “The one thing that I wish people would understand about me is…”
Inside I am very shy, and public performances come at great cost, though I do them very well. All through graduate school I lived in fear that I would be found out as an imposter—I rarely raised my hand in class because I knew my answer couldn’t be right. Now, as a new “widow,” and how I hate that appellation, I wish people knew how much I needed them but how shy I am of telling them.
Thank you for this interview, Ann. I wish you much success on your latest release, Full Moon at Noontide: A Daughter’s Last Goodbye.
Information about her book and how to order it can be found on her website at www.annputnam.com, which includes reviews and radio interviews and bio. Her book can be ordered at any bookstore, through Amazon, and directly from the distributor at www.tamupress.com or by phone: 1-800-826-8911. She has a Facebook page also, as well as a website through her University: www.ups.edu/faculty/aputnam.html.