In a recent interview about the novel with Publishers Weekly, you mention that the book is about a group of women “caught between two eras.” What interested you about this group of women? How did you come to write about them?
At a certain age I became aware that my mother was older than my friends’ mothers (I’m the youngest of three by six and nine years). Because of a margin of no more than a few years, everything about her experience as a young woman differed from theirs. She didn’t protest Vietnam; she didn’t go to Woodstock: in short, she didn’t match the vision of American youth during the 1960’s I’d pieced together from my friends’ parents’ photographs and stories. As I got older, I became fascinated by the idea that there was an entire pocket of women history had passed over. My mother’s generation was born late enough to glimpse opportunities for women beyond marriage and motherhood, but they were also, cruelly, born too early to benefit from second-wave feminism and the changes that swept the country in the late 1960’s on into the 1970’s.By the time leaders like Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer appeared on the horizon (not to mention NOW and the Equal Rights Amendment), it was too late: my mother and her friends were married with children, settled into lives that turned out to look very much like their own mothers’ lives. So much changed over the course of that one little decade. All it took was graduating college a few years earlier, and the world into which you entered was a very different one.
How did the story for your book originate? You’ve mentioned that you used your mother’s life as inspiration—how personal was the endeavor of writing this book? Did you learn anything about your mother in the process?
Autobiography originally grew out of that same curiosity about my mother, who was raised in Pasadena during roughly the same timeframe as the book’s main characters. Though I grew up in Boston, my family flew to California every year to spend time with my maternal grandparents, so from a very young age I knew Pasadena as the place where my mother had grown up. I think it must come as a shock to all children, that moment when you realize your parents were once young. Suddenly, they’re people. With that peoplehood comes a past. I could say something nobler drove me, but the truth is that I started this book – a book which explores women coming of age during the era in which my mother came of age – out of sheer frustration with what I perceived as the limitations facing the young women of my own era. In many ways, Autobiography is less about my mother than it is about me.
You capture amazingly vivid details of the time and essence of 1960s Pasadena, California including: how people dressed, what they ate, how they interacted socially, their worries and joys, the highlights in the news, and the social practices. What kind of research did you do for AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF US? Did anything surprise you?
I used two types of research while writing the book. One involved looking up news headlines and double-checking dates, making sure I had all the facts down right – what time did the sun set in May of 1962? Was I remembering the correct kind of palm tree for that area of Southern California? The other kind of research relied on sheer imagination. It’s always important to get the facts straight: as a fiction writer, you’re building a dream, and that dream needs to progress without any logistical snags, or you risk the reader getting nudged awake. But the crucial truths in story-telling are emotional. And to my way of thinking, a lot less changes from decade to decade in terms of what people want and regret than we’d like to think. It’s made me happy to hear women of that era say that the struggles the main characters face in the book ring true, but, sadly, it hasn’t surprised me.
This story is ultimately about a friendship between two women who have grown up together. Did you rely on any of your own experiences with girlfriends to articulate the ins and outs of their relationship?
I tend to deliberately avoid using specifics from my day-to-day in my writing: I find the hard facts of my own life distracting when I’m trying to create a world with its own truths, its own peculiar climate. That said, Rebecca and Alex’s relationship is undoubtedly a mish-mash of dozens of different friendships I’ve witnessed and experienced, particularly during adolescence. There’s a fluidity to teenage girls and their sense of identity that makes those intense friendships so many women have during those years possible. Over time, that intimacy is generally (and quite naturally) replaced by romantic relationships. It occurred to me as I worked on Autobiography that it would have to be both an extraordinary friendship as well as an extraordinary set of circumstances to break that natural progression. There was so much about these two women and their lives that seemed to me to create the perfect storm of disappointment and desire, exactly the kind that might allow a relationship like theirs to continue to carry so much weight. In the end, I wasn’t surprised to find myself writing about a friendship that looked a lot more like love.
How did you first become interested in writing?
Like most writers, I spent my childhood buried in books. I think of those years now as the seed that would eventually appear above ground as this, my life as a writer. I never consciously considered writing books of my own; in fact, I spent the first twenty-odd years of my life training to be a musician. I suppose what I was searching for all those years was a way to communicate – I just had the medium wrong. When, in my mid-twenties, I realized I didn’t have the talent to achieve what I wanted to through music, I went back to my childhood love. I had the wild idea I might be able to speak through words the way I couldn’t through music. Luckily, it was the first of many endings that turned out to be a beginning.