by Annie L. Scholl
For author and teacher Lisa Romeo, her father’s death in 2006 wasn’t too late to improve her relationship with him. Her father Tony, an opinionated man who liked to smoke, amassed a fortune through his polyester fabric company. He bought expensive horses for Lisa to ride on the horse show circuit and paid for expensive vacations for their family, which included Romeo’s mother and two older siblings. Father and daughter often butted heads, trying to prove who was right: the father who graduated from the school of hard knocks or the college-educated daughter. Because of their difficult relationship and her busy life as a writer, wife, and mother to two sons, Romeo didn’t frequently leave her hometown of Cedar Grove, New Jersey to be with her father when he developed Alzheimer’s while living in Las Vegas. In her first book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press, May 2018), she rediscovers her father through conversations with him. Here, Romeo, 58, the thesis director in the creative nonfiction MFA program at Bay Path University, shares more about her memoir and her writing life.
Q: At the heart of your memoir is what happens between father and daughter after a father dies. Tell us a bit about how that question rose up for you—and why you explored it.
A: Beginning immediately after he died, I realized with a terrible clarity that I hadn’t known my father as well in life as I could have, and this troubled me a great deal. At the same time, this rekindling of the relationship was something that was happening to me, which I didn’t quite understand—and when that happens, in any area of life, I go to my notebook and typically write an essay. I wrote a lot of essays about this grief experience, trying to figure out our father-daughter relationship after he was gone. And eventually, a body of work rose up that became the building blocks for Starting with Goodbye.
Q: How surprised are you that this is your first full-length book – in terms of the subject matter?
A: Fairly surprised, actually! At various times, I thought my first book might be about postpartum depression, or the men in my life, or how horses have shaped me. But then again, I’ve found that what most creative nonfiction writers write and publish is more often dictated by what won’t leave us alone, and that perfectly describes this material. It was all so insistent. I often felt I had no choice.
A: Well I preach revision, revision, revision, and that certainly described a substantial part of my process. I’ve always believed that’s where the real work occurs, that’s when the substance of the story emerges. I also often counsel students and clients to dig deeper, ask themselves more questions about what they think they already know a lot about. This too represents what I required of myself—to keep taking another look and then another, even about events I thought I understood already. By talking to people and thinking more deeply about others’ actions, I came to a deeper understanding of experiences and people from my past. The first pass at anything is usually surface; for memoir to mean anything other than reportage, you have to get underneath that obvious layer.
Q: What were your greatest challenges?
A: From a writing perspective, the biggest challenge was moving from an essayist mindset to that of writing a book-length memoir. For me that included transforming the many essays I’d already completed on various aspects of this experience into a somewhat more traditional linear narrative memoir manuscript, and then writing all the connective material. Once I knew where in chronological time I would begin and when the book would end, then I was able to grasp the narrative arc. Although the book does move around quite a bit in time and place, even dropping back to childhood in sections, it actually became more freeing to write once I had decided on those bookend time periods.
Q: When were you delighted in the writing of it?
A: I don’t think that’s the word for it. I was often surprised, intrigued, gripped, and very, very curious as I wrote. At other times, frustrated, chagrined, sad, and upset with myself—mostly when I was writing about past events that I realized I could have handled so much better, when I felt as if there had been lost opportunities between Dad and me.
Q: What was your writing process/practice with this book?
A: Though I do teach and run workshops at other locations, so much of my teaching, editing, and other work is done at home. This affords me the freedom to control some of my schedule. For example, I can take a full day or two to write once in a while, but then I have to hustle and get all the other stuff done at night to catch up. Most of the time, I must take care of student and client needs first, so the writing gets squeezed in when and where I can.
I’m lucky to have a very nice, private home office, and now that my kids are 20 and 24, even when they are at home, they don’t need me much, so I can hibernate in there! I’ve often wished to be one of those writers who can rise at 5:00 a.m. every day and write for a few hours before beginning the work day. While I can do that on occasion to meet deadlines, on a regular basis I’m just not a morning person. I’d rather write late at night or on weekends.
I carry a small notebook in my purse (and have them scattered around my house, car, etc.), so I can get thoughts down on paper whenever/wherever they occur to me. I don’t have many hobbies and my husband doesn’t get upset when I hole up to write, so those things are helpful too.
Q: What has it been like to hold your book in your hands and to see it alive out in the world?
A: Oh, so many emotions. Disbelief. Relief. A surreal feeling. Months ago, when the box of advanced reading copies (ARCs) arrived, I had the strangest reaction. My son was standing beside me when I blurted, “Look! My name is on the cover!” and he hugged me and said, “Of course it is!” It took me a minute to take it all in and realize it wasn’t a printing error.
A: Oh dear. Who knows? I think he’d be a little shocked to see a book about him, about us, and his picture on the cover too. But true to his nature, I doubt he’d say much to me except, “You did good, kid.” To others, I imagine I’d overhear him bragging about it.
Q: What advice do you have for writers, particularly memoir writers, who long to do what you have done: Write and publish a book.
A: The bottom line for me and every writer is, if you are going to get the book written, there are other things in life you must willingly choose not to do. That’s just Time Management 101. For memoir writers in particular—and especially if it’s a story fraught with emotion and includes family members and/or close friends—I say in the first drafts, get it all on the page, use real names, include all the crap you’ve been worrying about saying in print. Later on, you can concern yourself with privacy, blurring identities, fairness, and other essential issues. But begin with the raw story. Then, dig deeper and deeper. Challenge your assumptions. Consider what the experience may have been like for the secondary characters. Get more curious about the things you think you already know. Chances are, there’s plenty more to learn. Be sure to let the drafts rest, get some time away from the material between revisions. Seek out high quality feedback from accomplished beta readers and/or an editor, and then give their advice serious thought.
I’d also add: a book takes as long as it takes. Try not to sabotage yourself, or feel guilty, if it’s taking longer than you thought it would. The end product will be better for it.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.