Post #97 – Memoir Writing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
Interview with Judith Newton, Memoir Author
Women’s Memoirs has had the pleasure of knowing Judith Newton for several years. We’ve gotten to know her through her award-winning entries that she submitted to our contests. When we had the opportunity to interview her about her new memoir, we jumped at the chance. We value her openness in sharing her experiences.
We invite you to check out her book: Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.
Women’s Memoirs: Judy, welcome to Women’s Memoirs. It’s a special pleasure to be talking with you about your new memoir. When did you decide to write it? And once you began, how long did it take you to complete the manuscript?
Judith Newton: I began to think about a memoir in 2009, six months after I retired as professor of women and gender studies at U.C. Davis. In March of 2009, I took a class in the Craft of Writing (offered by U.C. Extension) with the express purpose of learning how not to write like an academic. The short autobiographical pieces I turned out in that class eventually became blogs at iPinionsyndicate.com and then chapters in my memoir, Tasting Home. After the Craft of Writing, I took three classes in writing poetry, and the poems I wrote revived memories and feelings that became part of the memoir as well. Over the next two years I took four other courses in memoir and food writing. They were educational, they forced me to write, and I loved the community and critique they provided. (I was also delighted to be a student rather than a professor!) I began writing bits of the memoir in March of 2009 and finished a final draft in June of 2013, so the process took a little over four years. During this time I also wrote a detective novel and completed a series of poems.
Women’s Memoirs: It sounds like you were quite focused. And as a past-academic, I appreciate that you saw the need to move away from the type of writing that had served you so well previously. What were the biggest challenges in writing your memoir?
Judith Newton: In order to make sense of my life, I had to write about some painful episodes. In the third section of the memoir, which covers the 1970s, I had to write about an emotional breakdown and the dissolution of my marriage to my gay husband. I couldn’t write about that material until I finished the fourth and fifth parts of the book, which are about the 80s, 90s, and 2000s which are more upbeat. The section devoted to the 1970s was the last I wrote and, in the end, it became my favorite. Maybe I was more practiced at writing memoir by then, but there was also something deeper going on. Writing about happier periods in my life restored me, allowed me to get closer to what I had felt in the 1970s and to write about some powerful feelings with hope and spirit.
To my surprise, I also found it very difficult to write about a painful moment with my mother in her kitchen, when I was four years old. I couldn’t leave this moment out—it was fundamental to my life, but in early drafts I buried it at the end of the fifth chapter. I still felt some of the shame I had experienced in my childhood. At the same time, I felt embarrassed at feeling shame and embarrassed to be writing about the incident at all. After my writing group read that first section of the memoir, I moved that moment in the kitchen to the first chapter where it belonged. Sharing the episode with my group freed me from its lingering power. It’s true that writing memoir can be therapeutic.
There were also several periods in those four years that I grew tired of writing the memoir and even a little depressed. It helped me to work on something entirely different, a feminist mystery. In 2010 and 2011 I read five books on writing mysteries, studied several mysteries I admired, and began to outline a plot. Then in 2011 I participated in National Novel Writing Month which challenges you to write 50,000 words in one month. I told myself that I would publish this book under a pseudonym, which was very liberating, and since the mystery is wry and lighthearted, working on it felt like being on vacation. After working on the mystery nonstop during the month of November, I went back to the memoir. Whenever I found myself bogged down in the memoir, I returned to the novel.
Women’s Memoirs: Judy, you’ve gone through an intense period of writing — your new memoir, your work on your novel, and your poetry writing. Knowing what you know now, would you have done anything differently in the writing?
Judith Newton: Tasting Home is a memoir about the healing and connecting powers of cooking for, and eating with, others. I included recipes because I wanted readers to feel they had entered a communal space in which they received a gift from me, not just the story, but something they could use in a material way. What I didn’t understand was how difficult it would be to secure permissions for reprinting recipes controlled by large publishing houses. Chefs, food bloggers, and small publishers were easy to work with, but I went through months and months of frustration with one large publisher in particular. My initial title, moreover, alluded to a famous cookbook, and after three years of writing, I found out that I would not be allowed to publish the book with that name. My mystery has recipes in it too, but this time I’ll make it easy on myself by using recipes from chefs, bloggers, and small publishers.
What really worked for me, to turn this question on its head, was to take classes for the writing strategies I learned and for the community and critique they provided. It was very important to have an excellent writing group, and it was beneficial to have several writing projects—the poems, the mystery, and the memoir so I could refresh myself by leaving one and taking up the other for a period of time. It helped to work with beta readers and editors. Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press, was my last editor, and she was great. It was vital to protect my mornings so I could write while my brain was still fresh. It was helpful to blog what became chapters in Tasting Home because it made me see my material in new ways and prompted many revisions. Finally, I thought it important to see critique as something to be desired, to be open to new experiences, and to walk through doors that sometimes opened out of nowhere. I saw the memoir as an adventure, an opportunity for potential personal growth and so far that is what it has turned out to be.
Women’s Memoirs: And finally, Judy, would you share with our readers your experiences in publishing through SheWrites? For example, what assistance have they given you with editing or marketing or other areas that have been most helpful to you?
Judith Newton: Prior to writing Tasting Home, I had published five books with traditional academic presses. My experience with these presses in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s was fine. They did some publicity, but didn’t expect me to. Publishing for a general audience ten years later, however. is very different. Authors have a far greater burden upon them to establish a platform and promote their work. Despite these new conditions, working with SheWrites Press has been the most communal and supportive publishing experience that I’ve had.
The editing, proofreading, and design have been superb, and I’ve been intimately involved with these processes. It’s been a partnership. She Writes authors are given a handbook that summarizes what we need to know about everything from punctuation to marketing. Brooke Warner’s What’s Your Book? has been very helpful, and we are always being apprized of webinars like How to Cash in on Kindle, a four week class that I’m participating in. Because Brooke and founder of SheWrites, Kamy Wicoff, are strong supporters of women and their writing, the operations of the press feel communal, and I think the press has drawn authors to it who like to participate in that spirit. The first wave authors of She Writes Press, for example, are busy figuring out ways to work together and give each other support. We’re also planning joint events. It’s hard to imagine having that kind of communality at a traditional house.
Check out Judith Newton’s Huff Post article based on her book and find out why it attracted 600 comments and 2,000 Facebook shares. To purchase Tasting Home, visit She Writes Press. Also available on Amazon — Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen.