Anya Yurchyshyn’s debut memoir My Dead Parents is a gut-punch, but not for the reasons you might expect. Yurchyshyn’s account runs counter to traditional narratives of loss: after a fraught childhood and adolescence, she mostly felt relief when her parents died (her father in a car accident and her mother, years later, from alcoholism). Yurchyshyn said she had “untethered” herself from her “emotionally distant and occasionally abusive” father years before, and her mother, deep in the throes of addiction and unable to care for herself, had long been a burden. But while cleaning out her childhood home, Yurchyshyn discovered a stack of documents, letters, and pictures that made her question everything she had come to believe about her family. Curious and compelled, she travelled to Wales and Ukraine in an attempt to make sense of her findings: evidence of her parents’ deep love for one another, the tragic death of a child, and even a possible murder. My Dead Parents is an unsentimental examination of grief, and a diligent account of the ways our families shape us, whether we realize it or not.
Yurchyshyn and I first met as students in the Columbia MFA program and later in Gordon Lish’s summer intensive at the Center for Fiction. We spoke on the phone about gathering up the shards of a story, writing when you don’t want to, and revising your own history.
The Millions: The blueprint for My Dead Parents was your 2013 BuzzFeed essay “How I Met My Dead Parents” (which was based on your anonymous blog of the same name). Did you always know you wanted to spend more time with this story?
Anya Yurchyshyn: At the time, it was just that essay, and of course, the blog that had preceded it. I’d always wanted it to be a memoir, but I really didn’t know if the story was going to be interesting enough. I had no sense of what people’s response would be.
With the blog, I certainly had followers, but it’s not as though I had a huge audience. It was a little terrifying, not only writing the essay, but attaching my name to it, finally taking ownership. To me, it was really important to do, both so I could kind of claim all the work I’d been doing on the blog, but also because publishing something on the Internet is a really great way to see who is interested. The response was quite big, and overwhelmingly positive, and that was the encouragement that I needed. It was shared by a lot of people in the literary community and agents contacted me. I was living in L.A. but within three or four weeks of the essay being published, I was in New York with something like ten to 15 meetings. It was kind of a Cinderella story.
TM: That’s so amazing! What was the expansion process like?
AY: To go from the blog to the essay, and then the essay to a book, it really required me getting the book deal. I felt I had kind of reached the limit of what I could do without making a really large financial investment, both in terms of spending money traveling and taking time off of work to research the book full-time, which is what ended up happening. I had been reaching out to people slowly, but because I wasn’t sure what the project’s ultimate scope would be, it almost seemed like too much of a risk at that point, to invest even more.
My fantasy blueprint was actually something quite similar to the blog. I had this idea that there was a version of this book that was wasn’t chronological, where readers were kind of discovering things with me in real time, which also means that they would not be learning things in a chronological order, or one that fit my parents’ life or my own life. I spent a good month or two really trying to make that work, and bemoaning the fact that wasn’t able to write this incredible, not only non-linear memoir, but one with three different timelines of what I was discovering in real-time, my parents’ lives, my life, this and that. It was just impossible. I couldn’t even follow it, so I realized that no one else would. I really liked how the blog had happened organically, but then I also realized that what readers need from me as a writer is to actually take charge of the information, and to share it in a way that both benefits the story, and is workable for them.
As far as the actual writing goes—I really need to isolate myself when I write, so even when I was writing in New York, if I got edits back, I would email all my friends and be like, “I’ll see you in three months.” I needed to shut everything down. Like, “Sorry if you have a birthday. Sorry if you have a breakup. Consider me not here.”
TM: You were also traveling a ton, meeting with long-lost relatives and family friends as you researched the book. Were there things you discovered in your research that you had to leave out or wish you could have explored further? How did you decide whose input made it into the chorus of voices?
AY: A very challenging aspect of the book was synthesizing the research and figuring out what mattered, which was so difficult because I was convinced that all of it mattered, which wasn’t true. In my first draft, I felt obligated to the information I found, and I included all of it. And it really dragged the plot down, and the pacing and the narrative thrust. But also I somehow got through the entire first draft without writing anything about my childhood. I didn’t really see the book as a memoir; I saw it as just about my parents.
And my editor really kept saying, “Uh, no. That makes no sense. We need to understand your experience of these people as a child.” So it was really after the first draft, which of course took me months, that I then had to cut four chapters and write four new chapters from scratch about my childhood. And that was really hard because I hadn’t intended that. I was obviously lying to myself, kind of hoping I could get away with it.
TM: It was your blind spot.
AY: It really was. And I still had no idea, not only how to write a memoir, but how to write this book, because I didn’t know what I was going to find. So even when I was working on the proposal, and working on the overview, my agents and I kind of agreed that the story would end at a particular place emotionally. But the point of this project was that I didn’t really know what I was going to find out. That felt honest and important, and ended up being so much more true than I even realized, because what I learned about my father’s death, I didn’t actually learn until I was almost done with the second draft.
And from a writing perspective, it’s just like, “Okay, great. Slap on this extra ten pages.” But what I discovered certainly changed how I’d conceived of everything, and then I had present these new facts that were pretty…not exactly explosive, but definitely unexpected. I thought, how do I then balance this information with kind of a reveal at the end? It was this really big thing. Like, how do I make everything else as interesting as that?
TM: To me this is a book about the manifestation of grief, and how that experience varies so much from one person to the next, but also how it changes over time. Do you feel that, having written this book, your grief has changed once again?
AY: A lot of people had really tough relationship with their parents, but I was happy that my dad died, and when my mom died, I felt relieved. And while I’m sure those are somewhat common experiences, I have not found other people who are saying it, and it’s kind of a scary thing to say out loud. Plenty of people don’t feel that way about their parents, or find it incredibly disrespectful, or think that that is deeply uncompassionate. And they’re not wrong; that perspective is very understandable to me. But, it was important to me to be really honest about all of the aspects of my emotional experience, including feeling like I wasn’t having a traditional experience with grief, and feeling like, if I don’t say that I was happy that my father died, the eventual arc and emotional experience that I had isn’t going to have as much weight or gravity because it doesn’t matter as much. It’s a much bigger journey to go from, “I hated this person.” Now I kind of feel compassion for them, or understand them. To being like, “Oh, I was sad.” And now, “I’m still sad, but I have more information.”
TM: Anne Carson wrote about her dead brother after having not seen him for 22 years—she said, on choosing him as her subject: “He was a mystery to me. He died suddenly in another country, and I had a need to gather up the shards of his story and make it into something containable.” Was that part of your motivation, to know your parents better? And do you think you do, now that you’ve written this book?
AY: So, the easy answers are yes and yes, although by the time I wrote the essay, I had already kind of been blogging for two years at least. I think how I articulated it to myself at the time was, “I need to understand both how my opinion can be so wrong—which I guess is more of a philosophical question—but more than that, what happened to them? And how could I have no real sense of the amount of love that they had for each other, and have no sense of the fact that they were these fully-formed humans with very rich lives, both before I was born, and during?” They weren’t just my parents.
I think those were the questions, but then what I realized as I wrote the book, and especially as I continued reworking the same material through the drafting process, it was this kind of very basic, and possibly even primal desire to be like, “For better or for worse, these are the foundational people in my life, and I want to understand who they are.”
TM: Did you have any other memoirs in mind, or was it more just you charting your own path?
AY: You know, I certainly felt that I was charting my own path, and that feels uncomfortable to say that. I’m much more well-read in fiction than nonfiction, so it’s very possible that something similar exists. I call my book an investigative family memoir—I say it’s a family memoir, because it really isn’t my memoir, that doesn’t feel accurate. I have no idea if that is an actual category of literature.
TM: It should be. I like it.
AY: I was certainly looking for models and hoping to find one, but I didn’t particularly find something I could work with. I would read Knausgård, or Mary Karr, or even Nabokov, and then I would invariably throw the actual book, or my Kindle, across the room, because their writing was so lyrical and they really managed to transform these content-heavy passages in a way that I felt that I couldn’t, and it killed me. It got to the point where I actually had to stop reading memoirs completely. Everything I was reading was so good that I found it actually kind of paralyzed me.
TM: I love that, though. I think throwing out the memoirs was fine.
AY: It had to be done.
TM: The epigraph from MDP comes from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason “…the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.” Did contemplating the unknowable in this case bring you more pleasure or pain?
AY: I feel like without realizing what I had done, I had distilled my own emotional experience in the emotional arc of the book—and that was kind of comforting, though I certainly found plenty of things that weren’t comforting, that made me feel worse. Like understanding how much pain my parents experienced and how little I was aware of and therefore failed to have compassion for. Not as a child; that’s an unfair expectation for a child. But as an adult, that’s something that made me feel ashamed, or made me feel guilty. I was so ready to be done with my parents. When my mom died, I could be like, “Great. Now they’re both gone.” She was such a source of anxiety and concern for me. I don’t have to worry about that. I don’t have to wonder about how sad she is, or if she’s going to hurt herself. And it was very, very comfortable for me to even say 20 years after my dad died, to still be like, “That dude was a dick. It’s great that he was gone from my life. Done.” That was the extent of my reflection.
And that’s gone. I can’t do that anymore. And this is, of course, a super-loaded moment, but I received the final copy of my book the other day, and burst into tears. Totally normal response, I think. Not because I was excited, but because I was kind of terrified that this thing actually existed, and was about to be released into the world. But there was also a moment of looking at the picture of my parents on the cover, and thinking, “God, what happened to you both is really sad.” I realize just how outrageously limited my previous perspective was. And I didn’t know it, but that protected me, and was its own kind of comfort, and that doesn’t exist anymore. If I hadn’t written the book, I would have been spared that pain. But it also feels really important to me, and I feel so lucky that I was given the opportunity to pursue this information.
TM: You’re a fiction writer as well, with short stories appearing in NOON, Two Serious Ladies, Guernica, etc., and your MFA at Columbia was in Fiction. Were you eager to make the shift to memoir or was that a scary prospect?
AY: My fiction is pretty minimalist—I feel allergic to adjectives. I would read memoirs, and they’re beautiful, and there’s all this lyrical prose, and they’re so detail-filled. And my fiction very specifically shuns details. I never describe what someone looks like. You just can’t do that in memoir, and I really felt that I had to push myself to get to the level of detail that I felt a reader wanted without sounding really hokey. You know, “The yellow of my mother’s dress matched the daffodils.” That kind of shit. But I also would…after a certain point, I was writing as I normally write for fiction, feeling like, “This is really ugly.” If you read Mary Karr or someone, which is kind of unfair, because she’s poet, so much of her writing is…it’s all factual, but it’s so lyrical. And I really didn’t know how to make these work-a-day content sentences that needed to be there interesting.
TM: What are you currently working on?
AY: I honestly still feel I’m recovering. My brain has not fully come back online. When I feel up to it, I have been revisiting short stories and kind of starting the precept of getting back to that. I always saw myself as more of a short story writer than a novelist, for no other reason than I’ve never had any idea for a novel that really has legs.
But also, I have been quite gentle with myself. For me, the book was so, so draining. I mean, it just really took everything I had. In Mary Karr’s book about memoir, she talks about how she knows these writers who have all kind of lost their minds during the process. One of them finished her draft, realized she had pneumonia, and was checked into the hospital. I mean, I got shingles when I was on the second draft.
To say that it took everything I had, and often more than I had, is an understatement. There’s some terrible metaphor, like I’m refilling the goblet or something, but yeah, super-excited to work on a short story collection, or work on these other writing projects when I’m able to.
TM: It makes perfect sense to me that it would be so draining to be immersed in fact, to be, like, making yourself sick every day and sleeping the sleep of the dead every night. You revised your own history. How hard is that?
AY: I love that phrase, “revising my own history.” That rings very, very true, and I mean, yeah, the sleep of the dead for sure. Of course, with any writing project—I’ve only written a memoir, but as I’ve heard from friends who are novelists—it doesn’t matter how much you love the idea, or how exciting the characters are to you. At some point, you wake up one day and you’re like, “Oh, my god, this again?” And then that’s what happens for years. Because that’s how long it takes.
But one other thing I took from Mary Karr’s book about memoir—and also from my friends who’ve written books—was just how bad it can get. I got shingles, I lost the ability to feed myself. But it’s expected. It happens to every writer at some point in the process. It’s actually kind of heartening to be like, “This will kill you, or come close.”
Of Lists, Generally
Most Emailed Articles. Most Beautiful People. 100 Best Singles. 50 Greatest Novelists Between the Ages of 31 and 33. Verily, as William H. Gass observes in his wonderful essay collection Tests of Time – which made the New York Times Notable Books List even as it missed Bestsellers by a mile – we are nowadays “obsessed by hierarchies in the form of lists.”
The etiology of this obsession is elaborate enough that a list of the Top 10 causes would not begin to exhaust it. Still, near the head of such a list, as Gass suggests, would have to be “our egalitarian and plural society,” which renders questions of value both vital and vexed. And somewhere nearby (just above, or below, or beside?) would be our access to a venue where the itch to list can be almost continuously scratched: the Internet. Online tools for the gathering and measuring and dissemination of data have made list-making so ridiculously easy as to be ubiquitous. Kissing listservs and bookmarks and blogrolls goodbye would be something like turning your back on the Internet altogether.
Still, for a certain kind of mind, the lists Gass is referring to – lists that not only collect objects but rank them – would seem to give rise to at least three problems (which appear here in no particular order):
They are always incomplete – either arbitrarily circumscribed or made on the basis of incomplete information. Who has time to listen to every Single of the Decade? To gawk at every Beautiful Person?
They present a false picture of the world, wherein “best” appears to be a fixed and ascertainable property, like the color of money, rather than, like its value, a contingency. What does “Third Best Living Drummer” mean, exactly?
They involve judgment, and therefore judges. Who has the authority to say what makes the cut and what doesn’t? Who has the audacity? Who has the right?
Thus, every list carries with it, as a built-in feature, the seeds of its own refutation. Indeed, it’s probably its hospitality to debate that makes the “Best Of” list so popular in the first place. In a familiar online dynamic, passions get stirred – one can agree (yes! great list!) or dissent (Where is x? Why no y?) or inveigh against list-making itself – but nothing is finally settled. In any case, the list, like the broader medium, holds up a mirror to one’s own preoccupations. As with any mirror, it is fearsomely hard to look away.
Of One List, More Particularly
We at The Millions have experienced first-hand what one might call “the fascination of the list.” (Fascination, n. From the Latin for bewitchment; same root as fascism.) For the better part of a decade, we’ve watched other venues trot out their literary lists, and, in addition to grumbling about the arbitrariness and banality of the results, have wondered why they didn’t resemble more closely the lists we ourselves would have made. A more principled (not to say puritanical) editorial posture might have led us to eschew the whole list-making enterprise. Yet when we noticed that the first decade of the Aughts was drawing to a close, we decided, rather than leaving the “Best of the Decade” cataloguing to institutions we didn’t quite trust, to do it ourselves. Almost immediately we discovered, or remembered, what may be the number one reason for the proliferation of lists. Making lists, – as Gass knows – is fun.
We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. “Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like,” an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than “Best of the Millennium,” so we braced ourselves and went for it.
Our next challenge was figuring out how to assemble the list. Being the little-d democrats we are, we decided that any list of “The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)” should be arrived at by voting. This meant – logically, unfairly – that books a lot of people had read were more likely to appear on our list than the unjustly neglected classics-in-the-making some other list might discover. But it didn’t mean, as the omissions of Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon attested, that popularity alone was sufficient to get them there.
Notwithstanding this constraint, we hoped to honor works in translation. However, because our readership is overwhelmingly English-speaking, we chose to restrict our list to books available in English. This raised a whole set of issues about the speed and frequency of translation – natürlich. On the other hand, readers who elected to call us on it would also be calling attention to the parlous state of translation in the U.S. And perhaps someone better equipped than ourselves would undertake a list of the untranslated books that should have appeared.
Now for a starting point. Jan. 1, 2000 seemed a nice, round number, but proved to have odd properties. It eliminated from contention The Savage Detectives and The Elementary Particles, which found their way into English after that date, but not Suite Française, which seemed somehow less millennial.
To assemble a panel of voters, we contacted novelists, critics, novelist-critics, and editors who knew The Millions well enough to return our emails. (We forbid them from voting for themselves.) The resulting panel was destined to be demographically skewed in all sorts of important ways. It skewed coastal, it skewed white, it skewed thirtysomething and fortysomething, and it skewed toward writers and reviewers working in the genre of literary fiction. It skewed, that is, much as our site and our readership skews. This seemed to us both a minus and a plus.
We also decided, doubtless due to some unexamined numerological prejudice, to limit the number of votes each panelist got to five.
Can Anything Be Learned from a List?
For all that, the results of our survey pleased us in three ways. First, the ballots were more heterogenous than anything we’d have come up with on our own. Roughly 160 titles got mentioned in the balloting, a number of which none of us had heard of. The most frequently mentioned book by a substantial margin, The Corrections, only received a plurality of votes. Appearing alongside it among the Top 20 vote-getters were three works in translation (from three different languages), four paperback originals, five short-story collections, and five books originated by independent presses. From the point-of-view of the possible, rather than the ideal, our Top 20 and Readers Survey and Honorable Mention and Best of the Rest lists seemed evidence of more diversity and life in the novel than has been widely rumored to exist.
Where it was homogeneous (70% of the writers have been published in The New Yorker), the Top 20 list seemed to document a number of tendencies that have been noted elsewhere, and to mark them as worth discussion. Perhaps most interesting was the preponderance of titles that cross-bred the realist patrimony of literary fiction with elements of other genres – science fiction, detective novels, and fantasy. Less widely noticed was how many of our top 20 titles made free – for better or for worse – with techniques that would as recently as the Clinton Administration have been considered avant-garde.
Moreover, the Best of the Millennium lists sparked conversations, both in our comment-threads and elsewhere. Conversations about translation. Conversations about corporate publishing. Conversations about who the hell did we think we were. Where these conversations were in progress already, the proximity of a list – a piece of potential evidence to mull over – seemed to increase the volume and the heat.
Among these conversations were, as we had hoped, many about books that didn’t make the Top 20. Some readers took up the gauntlet we’d thrown down and compiled their own lists. Others supplied overlooked titles: Gould’s Book of Fish; Tree of Smoke; The Last Samurai. (I would have liked to vote for these last two myself. And The Line of Beauty. And Against the Day. And The Wire. And True History of the Kelly Gang.) I can’t speak for our readers, but I don’t think there’s a single Millions contributor whose personal “To Be Read” list wasn’t shaken up as a result of this series.
Even some readers who rejected outright the listing impulse couldn’t resist commenting at length, as a lengthy debate between Andrew Seal and Edmond Caldwell (later continued at Dan Green’s The Reading Experience) illustrated. This back-and-forth, which had proceeded from the suggestion that our Top 20 reflected a certain parochialism, grew more and more parochial itself. It seemed by turns to confirm the theory that lists offer a mirror of the beholder’s preoccupations, to demarcate the narrowness and/or breadth of online literary discourse, and to do all of the above at the same time. Yet it was impassioned, and alive.
Of Lists, Personally
As the “Best of the Millennium” discussion went on, however, I began to think that the most interesting datum to arise from the whole project spoke volumes about our current understanding of aesthetic experience. It was this: while I could grant dissenters their passions, some of them were unable to grant mine. “The panelists can’t possibly have felt the way they claimed to have felt The Corrections” was the tenor of these comments. It was not the first time I’d heard this line of reasoning, if that’s the right word.
As Carl Wilson notes in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there’s a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction – to assume (brace yourself: I’m about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections – people who were, yes, moved by it – may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve – and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her – than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced.
To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian posture – I’ve come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism – may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern – hype, backlash, counterbacklash – it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value.
I prefer Kant’s definition of aesthetic experience, which, being unequal to The Critique of Pure Reason, I’ve nicked from another Gass essay: the experience of
purposiveness without purpose – either in the look of a utility that has been retired or in an accidental object that seems rationally shaped to perform an undefined task.
That last bit – an object “rationally shaped to perform an undefined task” seems to me a fair descriptor of the five books I’ve loved the most this decade: The Corrections, Twilight of the Superheroes, The Known World, Mortals, 2666. And, to the extent that our “Best of the Millennium” experiment has proceeded by accident and happenstance, it seems a decent sketch of the series itself. Perhaps we gravitate toward lists because they are themselves a kind of aesthetic experience, whether pleasurable or infuriating. At any rate, we hope you’ve found ours useful, though for what we wouldn’t presume to say.