Q&A With 'Someone Not Really Her Mother's' Harriet Scott Chessman

ByABC News via logo
January 6, 2005, 9:15 AM

Jan. 6, 2005 -- -- The book, "Someone Not Really Her Mother" was featured in "Good Morning America's" "Read This!" book club series.

The story is about Hannah, a woman who made an escape back in 1940, from war-torn France to England. As she gets older, her memories of life in America and herrelationships with her daughter and granddaughters are virtually erased. As Hannah's daughter, Miranda, tries to bring her mother back into the present, she finds herself being pulled into Hannah's turbulent past.

Harriet Scott Chessman, author of "Someone Not Really Her Mother," joined ABCNEWS.com to answer a few questions about her book in the following online Q and A.

Q: What was the significance of her granddaughter Ida who is so connected to her grandmother's story? --Randi

A: Dear Randi -- I think of Ida as the one who constantly voices questions about Hannah's life, who, in a sense, wishes to inhabit her grandmother, in order to understand her. Ida is a bit like an author, searching the depths of this character she loves, and attempting to bring into words what has remained unspoken.

As a young woman and a poet herself, Ida is drawn to Hannah's poetry, which often evokes the intense love and grief Hannah experienced, especially during and just after the War. Through questions and through her cycle of poems about Hannah, Ida discovers insights into her grandmother that shed light on her own life.

Q: I am imagining that there are typically echoes of one's own personal history or memory within the pages of one's book. So, to what extent do you reveal to past and present loved ones what you really feel about yourself and them? Anne Lamott wrote to this issue in one of her books, but treated it humorously, something along the lines of [rough translation] "tell the past lover that he had a small penis." Do you find the imagined presence of readers who know you to be restrictive, liberating, or somewhere in between?

On a related note, when singing a song, to convey the most meaning, the singer is supposed to imagine the setting and the listener. For instance, "I am giving my son my best advice about relationships with women." Do you imagine to whom you are writing, and does this change from chapter to chapter? And do you actually feel that you are changing as a person as you progress through the telling of the story?

And, if the author, or at least the author's imagined voice, is a different person at the beginning compared to the end of the story, how do you edit the darn thing -- so as to keep this progression intact? I would think that, in looking back and editing the draft, one would tend to homogenize the whole thing, so that it looked more like one voice. --Alec

A: Dear Alec-- The wonderful thing about fiction is that it frees you to focus on the story you're telling. I try to imagine a reader who simply wishes to hear this story, and who isn't thinking about Harriet Chessman particularly. In other words, I imagine a reader whose presence is encouraging and liberating, so that I can spend my energy on helping the story to unfold as it must.

So, in this sense, I don't imagine my audience changing from chapter to chapter. I do, however, feel that, through the writing, I discover a huge amount, about my characters and myself, and also about this world I've created, which stands in a parallel region to the world we call the world.

That said, I confess that, as soon as I become aware of some connection in my writing to someone I actually know, I do hold onto this awareness, and I proceed as carefully as I can. I began to realize, for instance, halfway through writing this novel, that my character Hannah resembled in certain ways someone I love very much. This kind of situation is natural. All I could do was to increase my efforts to listen to my story and my characters, to be true to them first and foremost, and to hope that whatever resemblances remained would be on the level of inspiration and not portraiture!

Q: I lost my father to a massive stroke last October. Reading thisexcerpt brought back so many memories, both painful and happy. My dad oftenlooked so confused when we were talking to him at the nursing home, andlater, in the hospital. It was always such a thrill when he would recognizeme! I'm sure my father felt a lot like your Hannah. How did you come towrite this book? Were you close to someone in a nursing home? You seem tohave so much insight! --Linda

A: Dear Linda -- Thank you for writing about this experience of your father's days in a nursing home and hospital. I'm especially happy to hear of your thrill in those happy moments when he could recognize you.

I hope my novel does show insight. You're right that someone I knew originally inspired the character of Hannah. My grandmother Dorothy, who lived in Peoria, Illinois, was a generous and intelligent woman who taught high school English for years, and who loved poetry. Late in her life, she began to "wander," as the staff of her retirement home called it, and she had to be moved to assisted living.

She missed her apartment, with all her books and pictures. The last time I saw her, she didn't recognize me, and I'm not even sure she recognized her stepson, my father. This sensation, of being with someone you love, who can't recognize you, definitely found its way into this book. Hannah is not my grandmother, yet I tried to articulate the confusion and anxiety I perceived on my grandmother's face when we took her out to a restaurant in Peoria one hot August day.

Q: Dear Harriet -- I thoroughly enjoyed your new book! As always, the characters are so tenderly portrayed, leaving me wanting to know them even more. I am curious about your research to write Hannah.

I was fascinated by her voice; especially when searching for words, names and ways to describe her thoughts. Is there a personal connection to Alzheimer's that offered you the insight to write her in this way? --MaryLou

A: Hello, MaryLou! Thank you for your question.I have in recent years become fascinated by, and worried about Alzheimer's. My own memory often seems all too uncertain, and I have to say it's because of this that I found it awfully easy to imagine Hannah's searches for words. At the same time, it took a lot out of me to write these passages, where she's unsure of so much. I love language, and I know that my identity and everyone's identity is immensely tied to language and to memory. How do we know who we are? We know through our names, our stories, the stories of those near to us. To lose this, well, it's to lose a whole world.

So, in this sense, my research about Alzheimer's has been ongoing in an informal way for much of my life. Like so many of us, I've listened to story after story about people whose spouses or parents have had Alzheimer's. My own grandmother most likely had it, she certainly had senile dementia, and now my mother-in-law is in the early stages. I've had dozens of conversations with people whose memory fades in and out in ways that are disconcerting and sometimes saddening.

In addition, I've read some excellent books and articles about Alzheimer's or related dementias. Michael Ignatiev's memoir "Scar Tissue," for instance, offers a son's perception of his mother's fading into Alzheimer's. Jonathan Franzen has written movingly about his father's dementia in an essay published in "The New Yorker," and he's offered an intricate and beautiful portrait of a fictional father with Parkinson's, in his novel "The Corrections."

I also read as much as I could about the medical side of Alzheimer's. Yet, in a larger way, I hope to suggest in this novel that Alzheimer's can be understood as a metaphor about a cultural form of memory loss. My story includes a wider contemplation of our tendency as a culture to wish to forget, to ignore history, to live in the present and future tense, with little reference to the past.

I think I decided to make my character Hannah Jewish and European partly because the question of remembering comes into vivid relief when what's at issue is something as monumental and terrifying as the Shoah.

The twentieth century, so modern and enlightened in certain ways, has been terrifyingly immoral too, as I'm afraid the twenty-first century promises to be as well, with brutal wars and continuing nationalistic schemes of "ethnic cleansing."

To think of a nation being "cleansed" a frightening word in its own right, of whole huge groups of people, this is part of the insanity of living in the world now. Hannah's urge to forget is our own. We need the courage and passion of figures like Ida, who won't allow the forgetting to continue, who stand up in outrage and protest, and who can envision the kind of genuine cleansing that comes with accurate memory.