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When We Were Ghouls. An Interview with author Amy E. Wallen
“The story around the grave became a puzzle for me….I knew I had to keep digging.” – Amy E. Wallen
An interview by Linda Salem
“I’m a ghoul and I’m proud of it,” says Amy Wallen, author of When We Were Ghouls A Memoir of Ghost Stories that Booklist calls “haunting and lyrical.” The book is about Wallen’s girlhood with her grave-robbing parents in Nigeria, Peru, Bolivia and Oklahoma and centers on one young person’s search for confidence, human connection, and friendship.
“It’s fine to be you,” says Wallen. She encourages young writers and readers to discover their own courage and laughter through reading and writing. One of her favorite quotes is about friendship -- Remember well and bear in mind a good true friend is hard to find. But when you find one good and true, change not the old one for the new.
Born in Abbeville, Louisiana in 1964, Wallen has lived in Bartlesville and Norman, Oklahoma, and in San Diego, California. In this interview, Wallen talks about her memoir and she encourages young readers and writers.
LS: As a youth literature librarian, I'm delighted to read a book told by a girl between the ages of seven and eleven, informed by her adult self. It captures a truth about what happens to girls emotionally between the ages of seven and eleven. When did you start writing? Did you write when you were growing up?
AW: I did write when I was growing up. I even briefly mention in my memoir a book I was working on in Nigeria when I was seven. I handmade a book of all the places where we had lived because even before going overseas we lived in several places in the USA. On each page I drew a map of the state, colored it in, and then wrote a description and what it was like living in each town. I always loved writing short stories and when I was about 12 I filled a Snoopy notebook with stories and that’s what I gave my older brother for Christmas.
LS: Why did you want to write about these years of your life?
AW: I don’t know if I can say that any part of writing for me is a choice. I didn’t WANT to write about those years, but that’s how the writing came out. I resisted writing this memoir, mainly because I didn’t like writing about myself. I preferred writing fiction. I loved writing my first novel, MOONPIES AND MOVIE STARS, and I wanted to write a second novel. But the story around the grave became a puzzle for me. I was going to write an essay about it. The more I explored what happened, the more the story opened up for me and while my discoveries were scary I knew I had to keep digging.
LS: Why did you include the adult Amy throughout the memoir?
AW: That’s the voice of experience. Young Amy is the voice of innocence. The story is about discovering whether my family was guilty or not, whether they were pillagers of humanity. I needed (and most memoirs do) a voice that would have insight and balance, a voice that would point out where I was complicit and where I still am. There always needs to be the view of a character or narrator who give all perspectives of a story, and especially this one since I was questioning my memories throughout. A child narrator is unreliable, and can make a story more fun, and perhaps more digestible, whereas an adult narrator gives the reader the Truth, the realizations, the divulgence of what was REALLY going on.
LS: Readers get to know young Amy as a keen observer and reporter of the daily life and death, customs, and the urban, rural, natural environment in the places she lives. What was your favorite part about writing these details about the places you lived and the people you met in Ghouls?
AW: It was great fun to conjure the details from my memory. The closer I came in focus to what happened, the more I remembered the tiniest of details. Alice, my nanny in Nigeria, she might have been the most fun to remember. I don’t write much about her in the book, but the memories were so wonderful to relive. And I also love writing about Pretty Bird. I’m an animal lover and the most immaculate details came back—like the softness of his feathers and the exact colors of his wings. I remember the blue edges having a dustiness to the blue that’s hard to describe but is a hue that will always make me think of Pretty Bird.
LS: Young Amy's emotional response to abandonment, negative treatment, rejection, and neglect by parents, teachers or other kids, can really shut down her view of life to the point of dissociation and disappearance, just as it would for anyone. How do you think young people can cope if they are going through ongoing negative experiences in their daily lives?
AW: Kids are incredibly smart, smarter than adults give them credit for. I advise that they find someone safe to be in touch with. This person may not be the person who is supposed to be safe, but someone who can be an adult friend. My brother is who I found, and I also had some of my mom’s friends who looked after me. I definitely think what helped me was reading a TON of books. I could escape into a story that wasn’t necessarily a better world, but one that had insight and another way of looking at things than I was seeing. I also think writing is a great outlet for anyone of any age who needs a coping mechanism.
LS: How can writing help?
AW: Writing is a way to sort out the many, many thoughts in our heads. Writing is also a way to disappear into a world we imagine where we feel safe and happy. Writing can also just be a place to put our feelings for safekeeping.
LS: How did your process of writing help you explore emotions and childhood friendships?
AW: I wrote what I saw in my mind’s eye—what my memory reported. The more I wrote the details down on the page, the more they came to me. The more they came to me, the more it became like a movie and came to life for me. It felt like I was reliving it in many ways, in a distant way. Maybe a safer way. One where I could examine the episodes and see what part I played and where I could have done better, and where I wasn’t as wrong as I may have once thought. I had a new perspective.
LS: What do you think can provide today’s kids with courage?
AW: Read books that have characters you connect with, characters who overcome the same sorts of tribulations for inspiration and knowing you aren’t alone. Read books that are funny, because it’s important to have a sense of humor no matter how bad the world may seem.
LS: You do a great job of showing how writing can capture and preserve memories, and explore life’s great mysteries. What is the relationship between writing down memories and the fear of losing those we love? Is there something a writer should remember to do when writing about memories?
AW: I take this question to mean two things—how do I deal with the fear of losing memories that I love, and how do I deal with the consequences of sharing memories that may harm others. And there’s a possible third take—the writing down of memories in order to keep the ones we love close. The relationship between memories and the fear of losing them is fragile. I struggled with writing down the memories because I didn’t want them to change. But as I mention in the opening scene memories change every time we remember them. They become more about us and less about what really happened. I continued to experience this as I wrote them down. The writing process then became an exploration of me, of my Self rather than the story. The story was just a catalyst. But I also worried that others may not see things as I remembered them and they would be hurt. A very important part of the creative nonfiction genre is to remember to include your own complicity—what role did you play in the situation? I hope I included that. I feel everyone I love in this book was doing everything to the best of their abilities. Everyone was learning along the way. No one really is a victim, or maybe we were all victims. If one was a victim, we all were. But I believe that main thing I learned growing up was to not act as a victim, but as a human.
LS: What do you hope young people glean about the mysteries of love, death, memory and coping with their own emotions from your book?
AW: I hope people young and old will see that we are all individuals, that we all come from a different place, and by place I don’t always mean a physical place. We each have a way of surviving, of coping, and we all feel alone at some point. I hope that everyone will remember that about everyone else and maybe take the time to say or do some small gesture of kindness, something that lets others know they are thinking of them. We don’t always feel up to this, but that’s okay too—it’s fine to be alone. It’s fine to be you. I’m a ghoul and I’m proud of it.
LS: Animals seem symbolic in the book, the embodiment of life lessons, freedom, death, courage, danger. What do want young readers to understand about Amy's experiences with the different animals, e.g. the jaguar, the parrot, the rabbits and the two larger parrots?
AW: I’m an animal lover. I have thought of so many parts of the book as being symbolic, but this is the fun part of being a writer, I didn’t realize how many animals I have in the book until you pointed this out. I suppose I would consider them the antithesis of my loneliness. Pretty Bird was my closest companion, but he also was a creature I forced to stay with me, that I was so afraid of losing that I caged him. But like my mother I also caged him in a bad situation. I felt very responsible. He was in my care and I let him down. The jaguar wasn’t such a cuddly creature that kept me from my loneliness, but even he or she was a creature that taught me a lesson about my mother and her tenuousness. The Karamazov Brothers, the two parrots my dad brought home from the jungle, they were the also a lesson for me—a lesson that not everyone will want to be my friends. They taught me to be loyal to those who are good to me. A friend of my mom’s once told me the quote above, and I think that applies to Pretty Bird and the Karamazov Brothers. All of my animals have taught me many things and still do. I have dogs now and they teach me every day to be patient and to appreciate every little thing they do. And, as my brother says, “The best things come with wet noses.”
Wallen is the author of When We Were Ghouls. A Memoir of Ghost Stories and the novel Moon Pies and Movie Stars. She is the Associate Director of the New York State Writers Institute. She also teaches writing for the University of California at San Diego Extension, and works as a freelance editor and author. See www.amywallen.com for more information.