Beverly Donofrio is the bestselling author of three memoirs, Astonished, Looking for Mary, and Riding in Cars with Boys; three children’s books; and many personal stories, in print, online, on NPR and PBS. She has appeared at the Moth, and teaches the art of memoir writing around the country.
She will be reading at the Cagibi Fall 2018 Hudson Valley Writing Retreat.
Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Beverly Donofrio: I’m not sure. I am a homebody, and for the past fifteen years—with the exception of staying at monasteries for a book I was writing—the only reason I travel is to teach somewhere. I’m not much of a wanderer either. I do walk and hike for miles, and the next trip I take will be a walking trip. I love to get lost and find my way back, not knowing where you are or exactly where you’re going can be a little scary, which heightens all your senses and intensifies the experience.
Perhaps I’ll walk the paths of England or Wales, walk all day and meet up with my luggage at the next bed and breakfast. I am hoping for my 70th birthday in two years to walk the Camino de Santiago Compostela from France to Spain. I’ll hire a transport service there, too, which will take away from serendipity and spontaneity and maybe limit the possibilities of mystical experiences. But I simply must accept that the limitations of an aging body force compromise.
Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.
Donofrio: Grocery stores. I am Italian, a compulsive cook, and food obsessed. I love to scout out foods I never knew existed, even if I never taste them.
Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. Or the workspace in which authors write. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.
Donofrio: I seem to always write on kitchen or dining tables, places where I eat, and commune with people. But it makes for a messy house when piles of drafts spread as fast as rumors on the table top. Recently at an outdoor flea market in the Catskills where I live, I found a white enamel table with leafs you pull out and a drawer with cubbies, probably meant for napkins and tableware, but where I could stow pens and pencils, paper clips, my stapler. The table was in perfect condition, with beautiful and spare black detailing, from the 40’s or 50’s. The minute I saw it, I had the brilliant idea to use it as a desk in my office and trick myself into writing there instead of only printing and filing and practicing my yoga. Then I dug out of storage white curtains edged with pompoms my mother had made and hung in our kitchen when I was a kid. And it worked; I actually write on that table, in my office that imitates a kitchen! But I still work at my dining table, too. Neatness is important to me. Much of the writing process, especially in early drafts, feels out of control, which is a good thing, but uncomfortable for a control freak like me. So, keeping my environment clutter-less and organized helps create the illusion of order and control, helps me believe that I actually may know what I’m doing.
Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your readers—what can your readers expect next from you? What are you working on now?
Donofrio: I’ve been working on short pieces that are written as though I am living in the moment I am writing about, even though most take place in the past, some of them deep in my childhood. I am trying to limit my essay/telling voice, in favor of dramatizing. I tell my students that memoir is the novelization of one’s life, or a period of one’s life, and this time, more than I have since my first memoir, almost thirty years ago, I’m using almost exclusively fictional techniques. I’ve been enjoying very much crafting my experiences into linked short stories. I vary points of view and tenses: there’s present, past, future, you, she, and I. At this early-old-age, old-lady stage of my life, I have the privilege of being able to take a long view of people, relationships, beliefs, which have shifted and changed through time. Someone wise once said, “I wish someone had told me it wasn’t happiness I could rely on but change.” The pieces are short, and each short piece comprises one of three or four that form a longer story that leaps through time. There’s sadness in this book, and loss, but there’s joy and humor and redemption, too—at least that’s the goal.
Cagibi: How does traveling to a new place influence your writing? In what ways do you incorporate travel experiences into your writing?
Donofrio: I have written three memoirs, and in each case, I had the good fortune to be given a contract before I wrote the book. Each time, with the contract in hand and the advance in my pocket, I left my home, my friends, my daily life, and wrote it where I had no friends or even acquaintances, where everything was new and strange. I enforced a solitude that helped me to focus on the writing; removing the routines and comforts of my daily life enforced a certain austerity. My life became the world of the book. My senses were stimulated by the newness of the place, by walking under different skies, smelling different smells, communing with different plants, eating different foods, and in one case, hearing a different language; all of this threw the world I was writing about into sharp relief. Elizabeth Bishop’s line comes to mind, “Sitting in Rio, thinking of Boston, sitting in Boston, thinking of Rio”; the quote is maybe the other way around, but you get the picture. When you’re writing about your life, leaving your life sharpens your memory and can produce longing and intensify feelings. If you can’t be where you are not, the writing can bring you there.
Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?
Donofrio: I do use writing as an excuse to park my butt somewhere strange and stay awhile. But the writing has to be at a certain stage of realization, otherwise, I’ll become a tourist, find a million distractions, keep a fun journal, with lots of colorful and complex drawings.
Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to.
Donofrio: My family comes from a village near Naples and strangely I never wanted to visit it until recently. It was Elena Ferrante’s trilogy that sweetened the desire.
Cagibi: Did you ever have to hide in an uncomfortable space in order to write? Where, and how long did you stay in there?
Donofrio: Nope. I’m grateful to say, I have never had to hide in discomfort to write, unless you count some uncomfortable living conditions in which I wrote, such as an old Dutch row house far west on Canal Street, in NYC, basically an abandoned construction site, where the refrigerator was the window sill, the sink a drain in the floor, and icicles formed inside the upstairs windows. I sipped all day from a pint of Polish liquor bought on the nearest corner, to keep warm. It was not a happy time, which lasted nearly a year. But I got a few (probably not good) poems out of it.
About Beverly Donofrio’s Astonished
Beverly Donofrio’s latest book, Astonished, a memoir, was published by Penguin Books. From the publisher:
Beverly Donofrio had already lived two lives, first as a scrappy young mother on the streets of the East Village and later as the bestselling author of Riding in Cars with Boys. By the time she reached her fifties, she thought she had seen it all.
Now, even though she was living in a vibrant, picturesque Mexican town, where she practiced yoga, drank margaritas in her backyard, and took salsa lessons, she felt lost and was searching for monasteries to visit. The religious practice that had nourished her for several years had faded. She missed God. Then one night she woke to find a rapist holding a knife to her throat. So begins the memoir that charts Donofrio’s journey—a long and twisting road through denial, mourning, anger, vulnerability, and retreat at five very different monasteries.
Told through Donofrio’s brutally honest, often ribald, emotionally unsparing voice, Astonished is a tender and hopeful narrative of healing and learning to love life again.