“Pure memories are like dinosaur bones … discrete fragments from which we compose the image of the dinosaur,” writes debut memoirist Nadja Spiegelman in I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This (Riverhead, August 2016). “They are only flashes: the examining room table in the nurse’s office, the soft hand against the forehead. But memories we tell as stories come alive. Tendons join the bones, muscles and fat and skin fill them out. And when we look again, our memories are whole, breathing creatures that roam our past.”
A family memoir, I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This sweeps four generations, exploring the matryoshka-like psychic legacy passed between the 29-year-old author; Nadja’s mother, acclaimed New Yorker art director and children’s book publisher Françoise Mouly — a Paris native who as a young woman fled to New York to escape her troubled family; Mouly’s mother Josée, a glamorous and strong-willed divorcée who lives alone on a houseboat; and Mina, Josée’s deceased mother, who did time in prison for collaborating with the Nazis during WWII.
The latter is of particular interest, considering Nadja’s father is Art Spiegelman, author-illustrator of Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, the 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel based on Art’s interviews with his harsh, Holocaust-survivor father. Some twenty years later, his daughter set out on a quest to fathom her great parental perplexity — Art’s wife: the deeply complex, self-assured mother Nadja both adored and resented. Seven years later, Nadja emerged with a lyrical take on her matrilineal history, a richly detailed love letter composed in a manner that both highlights the slipperiness of the truth, and forgives her forbears their unreliability.
Nadja recorded hundreds of hours of informal conversations with her mother and grandmother — revealing memories that contradicted each other, and Nadja’s own, at every turn. The author seems to have emerged with a clear appreciation for the ways each generation reshapes the past in order to forge ahead, with narratives eternally in conflict, the present states of family relationships constantly coloring the past.
The result is a beautiful, absorbing, and often heartbreaking memoir — one that does not spare the affairs blighting Nadja’s family history, the alleged rapes and instances of incest, the suicide attempts — and one that serves as evidence of why sometimes, the ones who love us best hurt us hardest. What makes it stand out most, however, is the fact that Nadja’s research process is fully transparent and laid out on the page — indeed, her mother’s and grandmother’s reactions to individual interview questions can be more revealing than the stories they themselves share. While Nadja takes stylistic liberties and borrows from magical realism — describing her mother as a fairy, and physical pain as inter-generational — her research is so thorough, the book’s conflicting stories so carefully examined from every angle, that her memoir functions somewhat as a treatise on the emotional distortion of human beings’ memories. By the end, I found myself questioning my own past; family memories in particular.
The author graciously agreed to Skype with me during a weekend stay at a country cabin in France, where she moved to interview Josée, and where she still lives, part-time, when not in her native New York City. Nadja, whose speech is nearly as articulate as her prose, was, not unlike her own interview subjects, remarkably forthcoming about her process, her inspirations — and the complications inherent in penning a family memoir.
Tell me about the moment you knew you needed to write this memoir.
There was a time when my mother and I visited my grandmother in France when I was pretty young, and listening to them talk, I realized how little I knew of this mother’s experience of having a mother — and then realizing my grandmother had also been a child, with her own mother. I had never seen them as daughters or children before. And as I wrote, I realized this project was a way of creating space for myself to write, of having my own name. I always had this worry that everything I ever did would be compared to my father. Before this book I’d published very little, but even back when I had a blog about furniture, there were headlines stating, “Art Spiegelman’s daughter launches furniture blog!”
At what point in your writing process did “exploration of the faults of memory” become such a major theme?
That was always what was most interesting to me about writing this book. In college I had a writing teacher who said, “If you’re ever writing about a childhood memory and you think your mother was wearing a blue dress, but you’re not sure if your mother was wearing a blue dress, then don’t write that.” And it’s great advice, but it sent me into this whole tailspin about what it means about myself if I imagined her wearing that. What else would be inaccurate? Did it mean the whole memory was fake? So, I became very interested in family stories as a place where narrative, and the facts, are constantly in contention. It’s a sphere where there is no proof, no objective truth of any matter, and I think that among all people who share large parts of their lives — families, couples who’ve been together for a while — this argument is very common. In my family it was extremely common — we fought about minor details all the time! So, this idea was definitely part of the inception of the project, and I’d say it became super present about halfway through.
I love how your memoir bounces around in time — not unlike actual memory — from vignette to vignette. How intentional was your structure? Were you working with any models?
I’d actually read incredibly few memoirs. I mostly read fiction, and it was only after finishing this book that I realized there was this whole genre of family memoir, and that I experienced the works of great memoirists like Mary Karr and Jeannette Walls. So I wasn’t using a model — just transcribing all these interviews and printing them out and color-coding them by story and spreading them out everywhere and waiting for this beautiful moment to happen when everything would be illuminated and I’d know exactly what to do [laughs]. That didn’t happen. So at the beginning, I tried to order the stories in a way that kept something constant in the chronology, but I didn’t actually realize how I was going to order everything until much later in the writing process, as I was discovering what each of these stories really meant.
It seems like your mother really threw herself into your project, and took you seriously as an interviewer — she was a remarkably forthcoming subject. How did you originally present this project to her?
The very first iteration was for my senior thesis in college, so I’m sure there was some safety in the idea that this was not for wider publication. But also, my mother doesn’t just do anything halfway — she either doesn’t do it, or she’s all in. It’s not like she had this burning desire to revisit her past, but when she saw how much it meant to me, she gave herself over to it. And one of the things I most admire about my mother is that she genuinely does not care what others think of her.
Your father and brother play notably small roles in this family memoir. How conscious was this decision?
Very conscious. I didn’t want to write a tell-all, but rather a very shaped telling. So I wanted it very pared down — to me, my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother, but to have us all exist in relation to one another, as characters. I left a lot of people out, like my aunts [sisters to Francoise and daughters to Joseé], who had very different versions of the stories, too. If I’d been trying to write a biography it all would’ve been useful, but I was trying to write more of a self-mythology, an exploration of these conflicting stories.
It’s clearly not lost on you that your exploration of your relationship with your mother mirrors the relationship your father explored in Maus, with his own father.
Oh, yes. This project brought me so much closer to my mother, but it was also a way to talk to my father about what his process was like — how he transformed his contentious relationship with his father into something that was fixed and permanent on the page. During this process, I must have re-read Maus five or six times, partially seeking structural advice about how to make things work.
I have to ask … how did your family respond to the final version?
It’s been hard. I think the line I quoted in my book about how having a writer in the family is like having a murderer in the family is really ringing true. And the title — my mother and grandmother are like, “Hey, weren’t you supposed to protect me from all this?” As characters, my mother and grandmother have these strong narrative versions of our family stories that are theirs, and those versions are part of what gives them their power, so it’s not easy for them to have my version — the daughter’s, the granddaughter’s — be the one that makes it into print.
Your book boasts incredibly rich sense of place — whether scenes are set in New York City, or in France. Can you tell me about your writing process here, vs. abroad? Do the words flow any differently?
Most of this book was written in Paris, and embarrassingly, I had this vision that I’d find my cafe to write, where the waiters would know my order, and I’d sit on the terrace working and drinking my cafe au lait. But that did not happen, because in Paris, if you show up with a laptop and try to sit all day, they’re just annoyed by you. It might’ve been better if I’d been working more romantically, in a notebook, rather than on a laptop [laughs], but I’m embarrassed to say I spent a ton of time writing in Starbucks, where no one bothered me, until I discovered libraries. France’s libraries are a fantastic place to write. I know I felt a different sense of time, writing in France. Every time I come back to New York, it’s so changed — I try to imagine the SoHo my mother would’ve come to in 1974, but it’s invisible now; it’s not even the same SoHo it was when I was growing up. But Paris is more static. I always felt more sucked into my mother’s and grandmother’s worlds — like I was going to turn the corner and run into characters from their pasts.
Which writers and books inspire you?
Elena Ferrante is just amazing. I often turned to the Neapolitan quartet in the morning, to get the cool lucidity and strength of her language — it’s so powerful, yet so simple. I also really love the rhythms of James Baldwin’s language, and I really loved The Liars Club and The Glass Castle. I also love contemporary young women writers, like Helem Oyeyemi and Karen Russell, who manage to weave magic into their fictional worlds and retain this child-like sense that magic — a profoundly feminine magic — can exist in the world.
What’s next for you, writing wise?
Right now I’m focusing on writing not about my family — but rather several shorter articles. I’m working on one right now about the Bureau des Objets Trouvés in Paris, and simultaneously also working on some longer fiction. It’s a novel, but it’s still too early to describe!