On “Pieces of My Mother”: An Interview with Melissa Cistaro

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Dysfunctional families are certainly far from uncommon—a stroll through any bookstore’s memoir aisle will confirm that. What’s rare, however, is the writer who can tell the story of her broken family with compassion and insight, who can convey familial tragedies via fresh forms, who can use her story to pose universally resonant questions, to explore the aftermath of trauma. When one such scribe, San Francisco bookseller Melissa Cistaro, set out to tell the childhood story of how her hard-drinking, chain-smoking mother took off from their San Jose duplex to “take a break” from the responsibilities of motherhood, she framed her book as more of an inquiry.

Cistaro is no longer angry about the flight, nor does she paint her mother—or any of the other complex, troubled characters in her family—in any sort of shaming light. Rather, she’s fascinated by her mother’s decision to leave, by the forces that kept her away. The author also wonders whether she, an occasionally frustrated mother herself, could have possibly inherited the “leaving gene” that seemed to afflict her mother and female forbears before her. The result of such inquiries, Pieces of My Mother, is arranged around something Cistaro uncovered in 2003 in her dying mother’s home: a cache of personal journals and “letters never sent.”

These found documents are pained and reflective, revealing a woman complicated, confused, bright, and aware—a mother who loved her children but who struggled with addiction, and with societal expectations. Cistaro includes many of these letters in the book. In fact, these documents serve as its structural backbone.

Throughout her memoir, Cistaro alternates between the tail end of 2003, when she was suddenly summoned to her mother’s Washington home, and the 1970s, when she and her two brothers were growing up in the care of their overburdened and heartbroken, hard-drinking father—a time when they saw little of their mother, who bounced from one boyfriend to the next, working occasionally as a cocktail waitress. Each letter serves as a springboard, propelling Cistaro back into charged moments from her childhood. Each chapter comes equipped with one of two directional subtitles: “Now”—meaning it’s part of the extended scene that sees Cistaro in her mother’s home, reading and processing the letters—and “Then”: 1970s Northern California.

The result is a nonlinear and often poetic exploration of wounded memories, laced with meditations on motherhood. While this builds into no tidy reckoning between mother and daughter, the letters offer Cistaro closure—they bring her closer to the woman who’s leaving her one final time. Incidentally, Cistaro concludes her story by going home to her own two children and husband, only to discover she’s harboring an unexpected and unplanned-for third child, an event that intensifies the complexities of her book’s main theme: the triumphs and trials of motherhood.

I recently spoke on the phone with the warm and generous Cistaro, an events coordinator/bookseller at Book Passage, a legendary independent bookstore in San Francisco. As we talked, she graciously revealed the triumphs and trials of memoirist-hood.

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Tell me about the moment you knew you had a memoir in you.

I did not want to write a memoir [laughs]. I spent a lot of years working on this book as novel, in which my name was Paisley Chapin. I think I needed to start it as fiction, to tell myself I was telling someone else’s story. But I just kept circling back to the story as I knew it, the truth as I knew it. And it must have been obvious, because during a consultation with an editor, she just said, “You really need to put your name in this book.” It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I actually made the commitment—that I went through and changed everything to reflect my actual life. Of course, it was always a memoir; it just took me a while to admit that.

I love the “then” and “now” format. How did that model come about?

I stumbled into it pretty late in the process, when I was writing about being at my mother’s deathbed. That’s when I had to go back and think about the most difficult days of all. I just realized, as I was writing, that all of my questions were most vivid and present in those scenes. They were, after all, when I found her letters and journals and physical documents, all of which gave me access to her personal story, and to who she really was—not only as a mother, but as a woman, one who was struggling in so many ways. I remember having this This is it! epiphany. Because for a long time, I kept changing where the story began.

Was that when you came upon the “leaving” motif, too?

Yes, because at the time I was away from my kids at Christmas, really feeling like I was floundering as a mother—as I suppose we all do sometimes. And then I really thought about the women in my history; I opened my mother’s journal and read things like, “If I settle down and have a family, I’ll regret it every day.” I read about how my grandmother was dropped off at a convent to be raised by nuns. And the whole time, I was just thinking, “Where do I fit in here?”

Geneticists, after all, are studying to see whether there are genes for empathy. I kept asking myself how people are really wired, what traits from our ancestors we carry. This motif is about all the little things we don’t know or aren’t told, or that are kept from us, but that we carry with us—the pieces of us that feel not right, or that are confusing. I’m very much fascinated with the trauma or grief that’s conceivably locked into our bodies—I believe in all that. And in many ways, those women in my past helped me tell my story. I think about them all the time—the choices they did and didn’t have, and how sad and complicated parts of their lives were. So in some ways I felt like I was writing the book to honor these women in my history.

Did you have any specific audience in mind as you wrote?

Not at all. One of the biggest surprises has been meeting people who’ve read my book. At first, I was so startled. You did?! How? Why? I just wanted to share my story, and I didn’t think about anyone responding back—I wasn’t prepared to have people standing before me, saying they’d read it. I’ve gotten past that now. I get a lot of personal emails from strangers, as well as from people I haven’t seen since kindergarten, and from family members I’ve never met.  I keep a file on my computer called “Readers’ Thanks,” and I go there during moments of self-doubt. It’s good to know in my heart that the book has touched a lot of people. That’s more than I could’ve ever hoped for.

How has your family responded to the book?

As I was writing, I kept very private. My father had read some of my published pieces over the years, and he was nervous. I would try to assure him, “It’s about Mom,” but of course he was also part of the story. He didn’t read it until the advanced reader copy came out, and then I didn’t hear from him for twenty-four hours. Finally he called and said, “This is really hard. Lots of tears. Let me finish and get back to you.” And after he read it twice, he called back and said, “I have some notes for you. For starters, I didn’t drink rum and coke; I drank rum and tonic.” [Laughs.] So I said, “Okay, I’ll change it if you think it makes a difference.” And then he thought about that, and said in that case, he actually had nothing else to say. Nothing that would make a difference in the truth of the story. Ever since, he’s been incredibly supportive, and he’s such a champion of getting people to buy the book. He even sent a copy and personal letter to Ellen Degeneres! He’s such a wonderful dad, and my publicist just loves him—although not surprisingly, we haven’t heard back from Ellen [laughs].

My brother Jamie [also featured prominently in the book] had read four or five chapters back in the beginning, and had been one of the first to tell me, “This is great, but it’s not fiction.” Throughout the writing process, I would call my brothers when I needed to know who was there with us when we went to this or that ice cream place, etc., and they were really helpful. I think they were really proud to have someone telling their story. Ultimately, the reception from my family has been great, though it’s been hard for my mom’s side. I couldn’t look at her sister after she read the book, because there was so much pain in her face. But she, too, was ultimately supportive. The last thing I wanted to do via memoir was hurt anyone in my family. I had to get to a place where I could tell the story from a place of compassion and love—not with any judgment or anger. Just, “Hey, this is my story and my attempt to understand who my mother was, and how she came to make the choices she did, and how I fit into that.” And, I think that’s how it’s been received.

Which memoirists have influenced you?

I really like authors who write in shorter vignettes, like Abigail Thomas, author of What Comes Next and How to Like It, and of Safekeeping. She writes in chapters that can be three sentences, or two pages. She switches tenses and is all over the place. I love it. The other storytelling model that comes to mind is Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. I like when books are a little messy and not necessarily linear. I also read a lot of Joan Didion, and fell absolutely in love with Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family? It’s a really powerful, condensed, tight story about grief. I tried to read a lot of memoirs while writing this book, but I couldn’t read the ones that hit too close to home—like [Cheryl Strayed’s] Wild, for instance.

Do you have any other projects in the works?

Because I work at an indy bookstore, it was surreal and thrilling to be on tour, going into other indy bookstores. At Book Passage, I host and introduce authors. So there I was on the other side, having a hard time getting out of “event brain.” It was strange because I know all the lingo you use to soften the blow for the author when no one shows for the reading—Oh, the weather’s really great, and the Giants are playing [laughs]. I took a ton of notes while on tour, and I’m working on a couple of essays about that experience, of wearing both hats.

I also want to write something about my mother’s mother, because she was this very fascinating woman. But it couldn’t be nonfiction—while I have her journals, I don’t have all the pieces of her story. So she might be a leaping-off adventure to a novel. But I know for sure that it’ll include a huge loss, and that it’ll explore how we get through these kinds of losses and how they impact later generations. I’m so excited to start something new, because I always knew this memoir was my long project, the one I needed to finish to be freed up. To be able to tell your story and give it physical weight and have people receive it? That has been hugely healing.

How long did it take to write this book?

Twelve years. I think it couldn’t have been completed any earlier—not in the state I wanted it to be in, anyway. I put it away for a year once, and had this turning point, where I realized I had nothing to lose anymore, that I had to let go of my notion of what the outcome had to be, and just forge ahead. And that’s when things totally switched for me, when things started happening.

What’s your writing process like?

I can sit down and write for twelve hours straight—I’m the type of personality where I need three hours to just get into the flow. I’m not good at short little bits of time; I needed big swatches, and that made it hard. Sometimes I’d drop the kids off at school and go to a coffee shop and write until it was time to pick them up, and it’d be hard to switch gears and go back to being a mom—especially because I was writing about motherhood and childhood, and I might be a little cranky, might still be in my head. This past summer I was really busy, so a friend suggested I spend some time in nature with my littlest one, who’s six now. So we went out and climbed a hill and spent some time at the park, and then we sat down with muffin and a coffee, and he just looked up and said, “You know, I wish I could time-travel back to this day.” And I just thought, you know, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing—going back in time, often to days that were dark rather than joyful. As writers, we really can do that—we can time-travel. It really spoke to me about the simple importance of just being present.

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Pieces of My Mother is available through Sourcebooks and Amazon.

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