By Caitlin Kelly
Sometimes you read a book and think…how did the author survive this?
The best-selling Canadian memoir “North of Normal” was that book for me in late 2015. I immediately started following its author, Cea Person, on Twitter.
I told her how much I admired her memoir and her ability to survive a childhood spent living in tipis in the Canadian wilderness with a family with very few boundaries.
An only child, she also had few friends and very little contact with others beyond the chaotic and isolated world her family created.
Cea, whose book was optioned as a possible film, and whose next book, “Nearly Normal” will be published by Harper Collins in early 2017, very kindly agreed to do a Q and A with me for Broadside, which we conducted via email.
When did you first decide you would write this book?
I first decided in my teens that I would write it — one day. I knew I had a crazy story to tell, and I just trusted that the right time to write it would reveal itself. I was finally prompted to start writing it at age 37, when my mother was ill with cancer and my marriage was falling apart. I knew I had to look into my past to find answers to my present.
(Her book is somewhat similar in tone and experience to the American best-seller The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.)
Did Glass Castle strike you as a better/worse/wholly different sort of childhood than yours?
I think our childhoods were equally hard in that we had to struggle to have dignity and get our basic needs met every day, and to try to make our parents realize how misguided they were.
Jeanette had siblings, which in a way was probably both a comfort and added burden to her troubles, whereas I was on my own — so I think we were probably equally challenged. I would love to chat with her one day, but haven’t had the opportunity yet.
Was it hard to remember and to recreate your early life?
Yes, I had a hard time with some memories, my mother and family members helped me fill in a lot of details and straighten out the chronology before they died. I also used photos, but I didn’t keep journals. Also, I used storytelling devices to recreate some scene details and dialogue, as remembering every detail is of course impossible.
Did you ever study writing?
I did not take any writing classes — I just wrote and rewrote my book (about 25 times!) until I got it right! I would not recommend this method to others who want to write their memoir, however ;)
What other books like that one were helpful in conceiving of and structuring your own narrative?
My structure and narrative came from many drafts of trial and error, trying many different voices and structures until I found the right one. I was a lot like a person feeling my way through the dark with no idea where I was going! But I must say that all that experimentation really benefitted me in the end, because I really know what does and doesn’t work for me now — and I was able to complete my second book in a fraction of the time it took me to write my first.
I remember being greatly inspired by Angela’s Ashes, White Oleander and She’s Come Undone. As I read them, I dreamed that I could one day write a book that would move people as much as I’d been touched by them.
Can you describe the writing process — how did you decide what to include and what to exclude? It’s a tough job with memoir to know what’s (most) important to the reader as it may have felt most important to us, the writer.
For me, this was by far the most challenging part of writing. In the beginning, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t know where I was going to end up.
This is key: you should know where you will end up before you begin. Once I decided that my story would go right up to present day, things became a lot easier. Deciding that three-quarters of the story would be devoted to my childhood was also an important decision, because it determined the pacing.
I also knew that I had to begin with my grandparents’ history before I was born, because that information was critical to the reader understanding their motivation for moving to the wilderness. After that, I literally just made a long list, chronologically and in point form, of all the scenes that I wanted to include in my book.
Then I asked myself how and why each scene was critical to the themes of my story. If I couldn’t find a connection, I either scratched it or found a way to make a connection to my story in the way I wrote that scene. As I wrote each into my book, I would simply cross it off my list. This list waxed and waned as I wrote, but it kept my vision of what I wanted to convey to the reader clear. The scenes at first were pretty bare-bones, and I went back and filled them in and connected them to each other in later drafts.
For me it’s about keeping the momentum going and not allowing negative self-talk to sabotage my process . . . so if my excitement about a scene starts to wane, I’ll move on to another one that I’m excited about and go back to the dud scene later, with a better attitude.
How did you find an agent?
I actually queried for agents four times over the six years it took me to write the book. On my second round of query letters I actually got one, but he wasn’t able to sell the book. I went back and rewrote it many times after that, and when I finally did get it right I had offers from five agents. After so much rejection, it was exhilarating! I got my dream agent, Jackie Kaiser, who has been the best thing to happen to my writing career.
Was this a difficult book to sell?
As I mentioned, I had some false starts and difficult times when I wondered if I should just give up. The whole writing/querying/selling process was extremely hard to go through. But I always had this feeling that if I just stuck with it, I would find success.
When I finally got my agent, she sold it in Canada within 24 hours and then in the US in a bidding war between three publishers. So, I have experienced the full range of writer’s dismay and joy!
How long did you take to write it — and what were some of the toughest challenges in doing so?
Six years of writing, and besides the challenges mentioned above, there was the tough part of wondering how my family would react to it, reliving difficult memories, and mostly just finding the time to write at all.
When I started writing it I had a toddler, no childcare, and a business I ran from home, and when I finished writing it I had three small children and no childcare. I wrote the book in ten-minute increments and during stolen moments on the weekends when my husband would take the kids to the park for a few hours. I still think it’s amazing that I got it written at all!
What sort of reader reaction did you get and do you still? Do you get personal emails from people with similar untold stories?
The reader reactions have been by far the most amazing and rewarding part of this whole experience. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who related to my story in one way or another—the mental illness, counterculture family, young single mother, little girl who never fit in—all of these are elements that people have related to.
I’ve also been shocked by the number of people out there who’ve told their own stories to me that are similar to mine. And I’ve been humbled by the friends and acquaintances I assumed had led “normal” lives who revealed their own troubled pasts to me after reading my book. It’s funny, because when my book first came out I was expecting some negativity, but it’s been completely positive. My readers were my inspiration for writing my second book.
Were you at all concerned (many memoirists’ fear) how your own family would react? How did they?
Of course it was a concern to me. But I also knew that I had to tell my truth, and that if you tell the truth fully and show your characters as human, both good and bad, there isn’t much people can get upset about. I think that if we are upset about being written about, we should probably take a look at ourselves and the choices we’ve made and why.
In my case, because it took so long for my book to be written and published, most of my family had passed away by the time it came out. My father was the only family member who was in the book that was still alive and/or that I was in touch with, and he embraced it wholeheartedly after he got past his guilt. There have been a lot of people who knew me and my family when I was young, who stayed with us in the tipis or knew my grandfather in more recent years. I was afraid they would find my writing about my past too unvarnished, but they have come forward to tell me how well I captured the Persons in all their strengths and weaknesses. It’s been amazing.
What were your happiest memories of that childhood?
Riding my stick horses through the meadows, close moments with my mother and grandparents when the rest of the world wasn’t yet a concern to me.
The constant instability I felt, never knowing what was coming next, fear of losing my mother to the cops or to her boyfriends, the open sex and drugs, feeling I didn’t fit in, feeling like a freak from the wilderness, knowing my mother and I were reliant on her boyfriends for our survival, wondering how I would ever escape and find the life I wanted.
What strengths do you think it gave you long-term?
Definitely resiliency and courage.
I’m very proactive — if something isn’t working for me, I change it. I’m always striving for something better for myself and my family. And I have a deep appreciation and gratitude for the life I’ve created now — the stability, my wonderful husband and children and friends.
Wisdom can be slippery for me, because the little realizations I have don’t always stick with me long enough for me to change my habits, and I think a lot of my current happiness comes from the reality I’ve created for myself rather than the lessons I’ve learned from my past.
I don’t know that there’s any one thing that I know for sure, except that I value courage, strength and the ability to laugh at life and oneself perhaps more than anything else in people. I have learned that I can do anything if I want it badly enough — I wanted to have a normal life, to have a modeling career, a happy marriage and to write my book, and I achieved all that by being tenacious.
I have my grandfather to thank for that — he succeeded at the lifestyle he wanted against all odds, and though I wanted the exact opposite of him, it was his courage that inspired me. Also that we so often repeat the patterns of our family members despite our best efforts, and recognizing those patterns are key to changing them — but they are sneaky!
Thank you, Cea!
Your book is extraordinary and I’m so grateful you made time to talk with me for Broadside.