An Interview with Eileen Cronin, by Celia Johnson
May 20, 2014
Eileen Cronin’s Mermaid is a memoir you’ll pick up and then realize, all of a sudden, you’re two hundred pages in. She keeps the reader right there with her, from childhood, at her first fitting for prosthetic legs, through mischief and dating in her teens, to struggles with marriage and addiction later in life. I spoke with Cronin about the art of memoir, her large Catholic family, and her favorite places to write.
Your memoir covers such a broad span of time. Did you find it difficult to dig back and evoke childhood and teen memories? Or were they, in some ways, easier to capture than more recent years?
I started with the disco story because it is indelibly etched into my memory. Since that story had been so often repeated by my friends, while laughing at cocktail parties, my main task was to find a genuine voice. I wrote in present tense, and that was when the story moved from that hilarious night in college to a darker more terrifying piece. Once I’d taken that on, I realized that my whole life was a wellspring of stories layered with emotions, many of which contradicted each other: rage and love; terror and hysterical laughter. Everyone’s life is like this but not everyone wants to dive headfirst into a well.
As for the issue of memory in general, I stuck to major milestones. This way the stories were easy to recollect though difficult to explore in a deeper, more meaningful way. The next piece I wrote was the chapter that was a story in Slice. When I started it I had only this vague memory of waking up in a crib and realizing with unspeakable terror that I had been abandoned. As I wrote on about my aunt, I remembered my last conversation with her, which was about trying to wear my cousin’s shoes. That was when I realized that my terror was not only about being left behind, but about realizing that my legs would never grow in. Then in my child’s mind I connected the two, and until I sat down and wrote the whole piece out, the memories were only disconnected pieces of a terrifying and lonely experience that had colored my worldview.
You have quite a big family. How have the siblings and other family members who appear in the book responded to it? I’m particularly interested in those who wanted you to stop asking questions that might bother your mother, when you were struggling to solve the mystery of why you were born without legs.
The easiest, most uncomplicated relationships I have with my siblings remain easy and uncomplicated. In fact they’ve been fortified by my sharing these stories. So my brother, who is Ted in the book, loves the book and has helped me promote it through his job as a professor at Antioch. Then Antioch invited me to be on the summer workshop faculty. I’m thrilled to be working in collaboration with “Ted.” We are still the drippy-nosed “orphans” pulling our wagon through the suburbs begging for canned goods for our “carnival.”
My mother was the surprise. She’s actually read some of the book, at least half, or maybe all of it. She’s asked me about bits and pieces, not anything one might expect, such as “Who pushed you down those stairs?” Instead she wants to know is Phoebe really so and so? I don’t believe anymore that my mother doesn’t care what happened on the staircase, but I do recognize that she has been taking everything in for decades: chaos, dirty socks, everything. Where she puts it all is what I will never know.
As for the complicated relationships with my siblings. Those have never advanced from where they left off in the book. The shenanigans between us still exists, tripwires in every nook and cranny, but at some point even an explosion loses its luster, so why explore it any further. They haven’t said anything to me about the book, so they either haven’t read it or they are practicing what our grandmother successfully imparted on them: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
Some of the essays in your book were published in magazines, like Slice. And so I wondered about your creative process. Did you set out to write a memoir, and did you write the book chronologically (as it now appears)?
At first I wrote stand-alone pieces, which happened to be from childhood, except for the college disco story. Then I arranged them chronologically and developed an outline. It wasn’t until I was well into the book that I found the arc. It could have ended in adolescence, and that would have been so much easier on me emotionally. But I felt that for its historical contributions, my adulthood needed to be included. I’m glad I did include it because I’ve come to know others since publication whose parents never knew or never wanted to know why their children were born with missing limbs, etc., this is obviously an important piece of a worldwide tragedy, but it is also a common element in every family. When bad things happen, people shut down, and often the shutdown costs more than the bad event.
What are some of your writing quirks?
I talk to myself constantly when I’m getting a serious Jones for getting something out on paper (or computer screen, in my case). My daughter will ask me while I’m driving, “Okay, who are you talking to now?”
Where do you write?
I write all over the house. I’m so glad that we live in Southern California now because the “house” now includes my back yard. In Virginia I used to drive to neighborhoods with old farmhouses and sit in the car, winter or summer, and write for hours. That was great because I was writing about that kind of place in a novel that I’m yet to finish.
At first I wrote in coffee houses because I needed the noise around me. Now I can’t stand other voices because my own voice has become much stronger. This voice is no longer willing to share the space. But when I’m really going I will write my way through dinner and even Jon Stewart and Colbert, with my husband and daughter laughing out loud in the next room.
The only traditional environment I recall is the office I held for one month as a fellow at the Vermont Studio Center.
Were there any elements of the publishing process, after all the editing was complete, that surprised you?
No. But that was only because I wrote a personal essay in my 20s that was published as a cover story in the Sunday Washington Post “Outlook” section. Once that piece made its way through the media and I was asked on a live cable talk show to describe my sex life, then I knew what a circus this publishing business could be. Now that I see “born without legs” plastered across the headline of a review, I’ve come to like it in a way. All these years I felt like an outsider and now I sort of have my place in a broader tapestry. I’m the writer without legs. More importantly, no one will ever accuse me of being a writer without teeth.
What advice would you give to emerging writers, just starting out and trying to get their work published?
Publishing is no different than meeting your perfect mate, building a great career, etc. Just keep writing and keep sending out your work. Every rejection that you get puts you that much closer to finding your acceptance.
There was one day that I received 5 rejection letters in the mail. A friend told me that I should hang it up, and I heard what she said but I wasn’t listening. I was too busy talking to another character in my head.
Photo credit: Ania Lakritz
Eileen Cronin’s debut memoir, Mermaid, is currently an Oprah selection for Memoirs Too Powerful to Put Down. Eileen grew up in the Midwest during the 60s and 70s. Her first publication was a cover story for the Washington Post Outlook section. She was awarded the Washington Writing Prize in fiction and had a notable essay in Best American Essays. Her novels have been finalists several times in the Faulkner Society’s competitions. Eileen practices clinical psychology in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and daughter.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She is also the author of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway (both from Penguin/Perigee). Her articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Writers’ Digest and Poets & Writers.