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August 22, 2011

Emily Chenoweth: HELLO, GOODBYE

Posted by Stephen

Author Emily Chenoweth discusses the personal events that led her to pen her novel, Hello Goodbye.

hellogoodbye.JPGCan you talk about the real-life event that inspired Hello Goodbye?
My mother was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor during my first year of college. The following summer, my father arranged a family trip to the Mount Washington Hotel, a big, oldfashioned resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, so that my parents and their East Coast friends could spend some time together before my mother died. I have a handful of pictures from that week, which I looked at a lot as I began to write the book. I kept a journal back then, too, but I lost it a long time ago. Which could be a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. Right now, if someone asked me to write down what I actually remember about that week at the hotel, I could do it in ten pages or less. I’m not sure if it’s because I have a terrible memory, or if it’s because not remembering is part of some psychic defense mechanism.
Your circumstances back then sound very much like Abby’s --- but this isn’t a memoir?
No, not by a long shot. I had originally thought I’d write a memoir (I’d sold it on proposal as such), but then I ran into the problem above: How do you try to tell the truth about an experience you barely can recall? You can interview everyone who shared that experience with you, but then your book ends up feeling like a piece of reportage. Or you can go out on a limb and make a bunch of things up. And then maybe, like James Frey, you get into trouble for it. Deciding to make the book a novel freed me in many ways. I could explore the feelings and experi
ences that I did remember, but I could also craft a story that had a different arc than my own (and a more satisfying arc, I hope, since real life rarely has neat beginnings, middles, and ends).
What are some elements that you changed for the story?
I gave Abby --- the character closest, obviously, to myself --- a sort of  romantic plotline to explore, for example, as a way to contrast her coming-of-age with her mother’s decline. I also made Abby an only child, though I have a younger brother whom I adore, who wasn’t at the hotel with us that week. I spent many months trying to build a story line for him, one in which he remained at home, befriended a juvenile delinquent named Vic Libby, and built a shed in the backyard that became a kind of memorial to Helen.
The brother plotline didn’t work, though, so --- guiltily at first, because I didn’t want to deny my brother’s experience --- I made Abby an only child. But I kept the character of Vic, and I moved him to the hotel, where he could be a bridge between Abby and her mother. I also changed the friends who come to the hotel, and I made up Alex, the semi-charming, semi-silly waiter. . . . The list of what I changed is much longer than the list of what I didn’t.
Does fictionalizing a real experience change your recollection of it?
Yes, mine --- and maybe even everyone else’s. Here’s a small and sort of silly example: The Mount Washington Hotel doesn’t have a peacock, but the Presidential Hotel in my book does. So about a year ago, my father said something about how he remembered feeding the peacock. And I said, “Dad, there was no peacock at the MouWashington.” He bet me fifty dollars that he made me doubt myself --- had I just thought I made up the peacock? So I wrote to one of my parents’ friends, the one who my father said would have the most reliable memory, and she sided with me. There was no peacock. Dad still owes me that fifty dollars.
Which is not to say that my memory is so infallible. For instance, I remembered the hotel as a very grand and fancy place. “Are you kidding?” my dad said when I mentioned it. “It was a dump.” I was highly skeptical about this until, in doing research for the novel, I learned that the Mount Washington had been in foreclosure when we were staying there. So while it probably wasn’t a dump, it probably wasn’t as nice as I remember it. (It’s been gussied up a lot since.) But it would have hardly served the novel for the Hansen family to be staying at a hotel on the brink of financial collapse --- it wouldn’t provide the necessary sense of escape.
Why did you choose to write a semiautobiographical novel?
In a way, this is a story I’d been trying to tell for years. I wrote a number of short stories that danced around the subjects of grief and loss, as well as the strange connections a person can forge in times of distress. So I guess in the end  it seemed that it was time to tell it closer to how it happened. It’s still an act of the imagination, of course. Even an attempt at faithful transcription of past events and conversations --- which, as we’ve already established, Hello Goodbyeis not --- involves imagination, creativity, shaping, and editing. And I think that one’s imagination isn’t necessarily put to greater use when it’s focused on the fanciful or the outlandish or the unfamiliar. Looking deep into what you know, or think you know, about yourself can be a strange and surprising experience.