Orphans is such a powerful and heart-breaking memoir. I thought maybe I’d start the interview by asking for an excerpt from “No Day Was Brighter:” on page 39, beginning on page 39: “I’ve spent my life trying to explain/my mother . . . and ending with “God stealing her mother in every /face and gesture for the rest of her days.”
You were named after your grandmother who died in childbirth when your own mother was six. And you resembled your grandmother. How does one pronounce Siobhan, the Irish name for Joan? Did you feel as if somehow you were her mother? I’m thinking of these lines:
I’m named for my mother’s
mother. Siobhan translated
is Joan. Perhaps
that explains what goes on
between me and my mother.
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
Siobhan is pronounced Sha Vaughn (as Joan tells us in Confessions,it rhymes with fawn.
I felt like her mother in the sense that I felt responsible to make her happy and responsible for her sadness. As a child and as an adult. The lines refer to my feeling that she put all her hopes in me— I was her mother’s replacement so she was particularly possessive of me. With that as a background, our relationship was very complicated.
When I was reading Orphans, I was so swept up in your telling—it was as if your words were waves washing over me. And in the early section of the book, you wrote about a beach vacation. Did you start writing this when you were in Aruba? How did the book begin?
JOAN CUSACK HANDLER
The book began with the mother poems –the ones in my voice. My husband and I are great fans of cruises—particularly transatlantic ones. In the presence of the ocean or sea, I often feel inspired. If I’m not writing, I’m reading and vice versa. “Orphan at Sea”– the Aruba poem was written on a Caribbean cruise and is one of the oldest in the book.
I tend to write in clusters of poems. And in both cases, I wrote a great deal when my parents were close to the ends of their lives.
When my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my friend Karen Chase, suggested that I record her voice and my father’s. I did that. Though unsure of how I would use those conversations, I knew I wanted to write about my parents. At some point. What better way than to let them tell their own stories. My assistant, Donna Rutkowski, transcribed those conversations and I edited them as prose. When the book was 90% finished, another friend, Carol Snyder, commented that someday she’d love to hear my parents’ voices in poems. Needless to say, I couldn’t ignore what I thought was a brilliant idea, so I decided to try. The result are the Mother and Father Speaks sections. That process was amazing. I elaborate on it further down.
Read the full interview here.