Bill Clegg on Loss and Forgiveness
BILL CLEGG IN NEW YORK CITY, AUGUST 2015. PHOTO BY FRANK SUN.
Did You Ever Have a Family, the debut novel from literary agent and writer Bill Clegg, is about grief—an aching loss that is at once urgent and detached—and reprieve. The night before her daughter’s wedding, June’s ex-husband, daughter, future son-in-law, and boyfriend are all killed in a fire at her home in a small Connecticut town. Left with no one and nothing, June flees in her Subaru and heads West. She has no destination in mind; her only purpose is to try and outrun her guilt. But June is not the only one affected by the fire. There is Lydia, the estranged mother of June’s boyfriend Luke; George, who does not yet know what he has lost; Dale, the father of the fiancé Will; Rebecca, the owner of the inn in which Lydia seeks refuge; and Silas, a local teenager awakened by the sound of sirens. Constructed with great empathy, each character has its own distinct voice and distinct pain.
Raised in Connecticut and based in New York City, Clegg has released two memoirs about his young adulthood as a drug addict: 2010’s Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and 2012’s Ninety Days. Here, he talks to novelist and literary critic Stacey D’Erasmo.
STACEY D’ERASMO: I know you as my agent and I know you as my friend, but in reading this book, I often felt as if it was coming from someone who I didn’t know quite as well. Someone just to the left of you, or just a little bit behind you. Was there anything like that in your experience of writing the book?
BILL CLEGG: Yes. To the extent that the part of me that is engaged with either writing an essay or a memoir or, in this case, a piece of fiction is a kind of sequestered self: somebody who lives upstate mostly and doesn’t see the city very often, although occasionally in the mornings he might appear. I think of the part of me that writes as the most private self. It’s the part that’s engaged the least with the rest of the world’s needs. That friendship and agent-client relationship is an exchange. This is more of a monologue, or a dialogue with myself. It’s not social.
D’ERASMO: How do you guard that? How do you protect that sense of privacy, given what you do and how public—but also how personal—it is?
CLEGG: From a distance, I think it would look like a struggle. From the experience of it, it’s not. I think being an agent has trained me. I read and am engaged in a constellation of narratives and projects at various stages of development, whether that be in infancy and early genesis and evolution of an idea—in some cases, with writers I work with, there’s that kind of intimacy, and I’m included in that conversation—or late-stage, looking at the copy that is attached to the book jacket to describe it. The fact that all of those things can exist simultaneously with me and one doesn’t overshadow or stifle another…this is just one other room in a many-roomed house.
D’ERASMO: The book was seven years in the making, right? Did it shift over those seven years? Did you have a very crystalline starting moment?
CLEGG: I had a starting point feeling, and it was at the time that I was writing my memoir. I think it was born from re-occupying my childhood growing up in Sharon, this small town in Litchfield County [Connecticut]. Going back to the experiences that I transcribed in memoirs gave me access to that time and I found myself interested in this place that I hadn’t lived in for 25 years. I felt like I had a lot to say about it, or I had a lot of questions about it—it’s unresolved. But none of that had any place in the memoirs.
D’ERASMO: You mean it’s still unresolved?
CLEGG: Well, yes. It is probably always going to be unresolved. I think it’ll be an ongoing resolution. I live only 40 minutes from that town on the weekends and in the summer, so it’s near and looms large. I just went there. It’s a town that has very strict zoning, and it doesn’t change at all—it hasn’t changed since the 1700s. So when you go through it, it’s exactly as it was: the same houses, the same colored mailboxes, the same businesses. There’s still no stoplight in town. The curtains in the church reception hall are exactly the same as when I was going there for Sunday school. It’s like walking through a museum of your childhood.
D’ERASMO: Is your childhood house still there?
CLEGG: Yes. It’s actually for sale right now. My sister sent me a video that the real estate agency had created to market the thing. It’s unrecognizable to the house that I lived in. It’s been owned a couple times and renovated and gunked up.
CLEGG: Yes. It wasn’t evolving from a perfect place, though. I don’t idealize the aesthetic of it. So, was it resolved? No. But I felt this impulse to make sense of it a little bit. I had three words which were always in my mind—the first three words of the book —and that’s what I wrote down seven years ago.
D’ERASMO: The first three words that begin it now?
CLEGG: No. The first three words that begin the second chapter: “She will go.” My first impulse for the book was somebody leaving that town, and leaving that town was something I thought about a lot at the time I lived there. I always imagined leaving, and so that moment of flight just somehow is important to the beginning of the book.
D’ERASMO: So over the seven years of working on it, how did it start to get built?
CLEGG: It got built in fragments. It’s structured in fragments. The section that begins with “she will go,” at one point it was three times the length of what it is now. At the time, I thought it would be a book that would be about this woman leaving, and it would be maintained in this close third-person, and that would be the method of the book. But as it started evolving, the town started coming into view—the fictional town. It has a lot of components of the town that I grew up in, and also the town that I go to on the weekend. These characters just came into view, and then their voices.
D’ERASMO: I was going to ask about that: if the voices of the characters changed over the seven years that you were working on it, or if they appeared to you intact right away?
CLEGG: Not at all. One of the main characters, Lydia, I wrote most of her sections in the first-person, in her voice. For a while, she was, strangely, the one I was most emotionally attached to, and I felt that needed to be expressed in the first-person. I was completely wrong: it didn’t work.
D’ERASMO: How did you know that it didn’t work?
CLEGG: When I write, I tend to read it out loud to myself after. I’m a very uncomfortable reader, so it creates a distance between the text and me—it is a new way to see it. And as I was reading it, it just was off. As those other voices rose around the June character, who’s the initial character fleeing the town, I began to see the book as centered around Lydia and June, and I didn’t want to hear June, and I started not wanting to hear Lydia. I think if I had been skilled enough to create a voice that was authentic to her, maybe I would’ve. But it didn’t feel like her; it felt like me. And this other character started to emerge: Silas. He spends a good deal of the book observing her, so I started to see her through his eyes, and then I wanted all of her sections to be more observed than said. Because it’s a close third-person, it gave me an intimacy to describe what she was going through. It felt like that third-person was far more precise, and the half beats more carefully described and more authentic than some of the initial sections with June.
D’ERASMO: The magic of close third. A lot of first novels are coming of age stories. A lot are autobiographical. But this one is amazingly plural. It’s all of these different voices. I didn’t count the number of characters, but it’s like eight?
CLEGG: I should know. [laughs]
D’ERASMO: You seem to be so deeply invested in all of the characters—the men, the women, the young ones, the old ones. Why you think imagination is sparked that way?
CLEGG: In terms of this book, the first impulse had to do with the town that I came from. I think growing up in such a small town—before cell phones, before the internet, before Facebook, before we had access to people’s interiors—there was a great deal of space between people’s lives. I spent a lot of time imagining into the lives of the people I grew up with. And the town accommodates an influx of summer residents from New York and on the weekends, who are in some cases famous, and in many cases wealthy. When you’re a townie, a kid growing up and going to the public school, and this glamorous wind blows in and then leaves on Monday morning or Sunday night, it captured my imagination. A lot of these characters—I had never thought of it like this before—are amalgams of a lot of the people whose lives I imagined back then. Like one of the characters, Silas, in the book, I was a gardener, and I weeded a lot of brick walks and patios, clipped hedges, hauled brush, and all that stuff for people who didn’t live there during the week. So we would be working on the grounds of these beautiful houses, and we had keys to many of them—these were lives we were very close to, but we knew nothing about, and didn’t resemble our own in any way. I don’t know what my friends were thinking or doing, but I certainly was paying attention.
D’ERASMO: Did you ever go into the houses?
D’ERASMO: It was a long time ago.
CLEGG: Past the statute of limitations.
D’ERASMO: What’s the statute of limitations on light “breaking and entering”? Any house that you remember in particular?
CLEGG: Oh, yeah. There was this one family who I worked for. The husband was a particularly nice guy, and was a chef in a former life. He used to always make sandwiches for us, and bring them out. He was very good looking, but this is long before I knew I was gay. I would go into their house during the week, and sometimes I would put on his clothes. [laughs]
D’ERASMO: Was he your size?
CLEGG: No, he was bigger. But he had these beautiful linen shirts. I remember this pale yellow… it was a polo shirt, but it wasn’t Ralph Lauren. It was something else—some unknowable brand. [laughs]
D’ERASMO: [laughs] Charvet?
CLEGG: Something outside the realm of my experience. But I would walk around. It’s sort of creepy, but I guess it was a way to occupy their experience in some way—to somehow get close to something that was very, very far away from the experience I had in the same place. This house was just down the road from the house that I grew up.
D’ERASMO: That kind of man is the one character who isn’t in this book—the wealthy dad.
CLEGG: The only one is June’s ex-husband.
D’ERASMO: He doesn’t make much of an appearance.
CLEGG: No. He’s referred to, but no, there isn’t a wealthy dad in the story.
D’ERASMO: [laughs] Next book! Your two memoirs, which I loved, were telling really different and really brutally honest stories about you and about your addictions. They’re both memoirs of addiction. What connection do you see, if any, between your nonfiction and your fiction, so far?
CLEGG: After I started writing the novel, my brother was in heating and plumbing school in Maine. He would tell these stories of gas leaks—mostly in vacation homes—where people would come in after the house had stood still for however many months and turn on the light, and the place would blow. I guess I’d heard those stories before, but I’d never paid attention to them. Somehow the way he described them, and the frequency of them in New England, really captured my imagination. I can imagine being that guy who made the mistake of leaving the gas on—the knob on the stove—and the fallout being the most unspeakable. Then alongside him telling those stories, there were instances of that happening in and around the area. It’s like you see one water tower, and then you see every water tower in the skyline. I just started hearing stories about that. So I have somebody who disappointed, hurt, and harmed a lot of people.
I think, as a sober adult who is clear-eyed—as clear-eyed as I can be—about the impact of my words and actions on other people. I’ve been interested in the idea of forgiveness and the necessity of it. I think of it as the most critical piece of any relationship, whether that be business, or romantic, or familial. We fail each other. We make mistakes. If we contract to go on after those mistakes, forgiveness is involved. Forgiveness is required. So I was interested, in the book, with people who carry a great deal of regret, and also resentment, and are seeking forgiveness and somehow find their way to grant it. By not granting it, or not getting it, there is a way in which one can stay stuck. In my own life, which is, in part, described in those two memoirs, I’ve experienced the power of being forgiven and forgiving. I did not have a good relationship with my father for most of our time on this planet together, and through some kind of miracle of collapse and circumstance, we found a way to forgive each other for not being what we wanted each other to be, which is really irrelevant. He wasn’t what I asked for, and I wasn’t what he asked for, and we had a chip on our shoulders for the better part of 33 years. Then we both blew up like the space shuttle, and after we picked up enough pieces to stand up, we could forgive each other. For the last 11 years of his life, we were good friends. That wouldn’t have happened if I couldn’t forgive him for what I thought he did to me, or he couldn’t forgive me for failing him. In this last decade, especially, that has been a huge piece of my life. It’s not surprising for it to seep into the characters in the books.
D’ERASMO: You actually answered a question that I had about forgiveness. It’s clear that the novel believes in it, and that you believe in it as well.
CLEGG: I do. I don’t think that it is the end of everything. I don’t think it is the solution, but it is necessary. We’ve all been on both sides of that—I’m not special. I’m amazed at how much I’ve wanted it in the past and how reluctant I’ve been to give it. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about anger, for other reasons. Anger is the opposite of forgiveness in the sense that forgiveness is a vulnerable thing. I don’t get angry very often; I’m very slow to anger. But I’ve experienced it a few times lately and it feels safer. For a little while everything seems ordered. Recently there was a morning after an angry night—I woke up angry and through the morning I could actually feel it ebb, and I had these panics as it did. I think it was the first time I really understood why people hang on to anger really tenaciously. But if you do hang on to that kind of anger, forgiveness is very difficult, if not impossible. There has to be a leap of faith in forgiveness: there has to be some kind of risk.
D’ERASMO: It’s interesting, because there isn’t really a scene in the book where a character turns to another and says “I forgive you.” It is a book about forgiveness, but it’s expressed in different ways than that. It’s as if the book itself is a forgiving vessel, rather than the characters explicitly stating it.
CLEGG: There is forgiveness in actions. I’m tempted to go into specifics, but…
D’ERASMO: No spoilers.
CLEGG: There is no spoken forgiveness.
D’ERASMO: You want to write more novels?
CLEGG: Yes. I talked earlier about a house with many rooms, and that’s just one of the rooms for me. My work is primary to me. I have my family, I have my husband, I have my friends, and I have my recovery. But there is a part of me that feels more in harmony in the world when there’s something working out in private. There are usually, in the combination of some curiosities, some serious of attractions that can be only answered there, whether that be in a memoir or whether that be in fiction, or other mediums. I think about writing a musical all the time.
CLEGG: I couldn’t carry a tune with a wheelbarrow. But I do think about it a lot!
D’ERASMO: Is there a shape to the musical?
D’ERASMO: What is it?
CLEGG: I wouldn’t dare. But sometimes, in the golden hour of the day, I think about my musical.
CLEGG: I do!
D’ERASMO: Okay, okay. I look forward to that.
CLEGG: It’s fun. For a long time I didn’t want to live. I spent my whole adolescence and early adulthood either praying to die or taking actions toward that end, and then when I finally had the courage to try and kill myself when I was 33, at the end of my addiction and alcoholism, on the other side of that there was a real surprise of not wanting to die, and having suddenly, for the first time ever, a sense that there just wasn’t enough time. All the years before—every conscious minute before that—felt like there was just too much time left. Then going to the exact opposite, where you’re grateful for every second, I feel like I might not have the chance to do something tomorrow. If I have the impulse to do it, I’ll do it today.
D’ERASMO: You want to ride all the rides?
CLEGG: I want to ride all the rides.
D’ERASMO: One last last question. If you could name three books that have been the most influential to you as a writer— Huckleberry Finn, it doesn’t matter—what comes to mind right away that woke you up as a writer?
CLEGG: This could change. If you ask this question tomorrow, I might have a different answer. Jude the Obscure always comes up for me, right out of the gate. I still think about it. I still quote from it. I’m still surprised by it, when I go back to it. Jude came from a small town, went to a bigger town, had a lot of ideas about that town, and suffered through a series of disappointments, which always makes his story sound so sad—and certainly the end of that story couldn’t be sadder—but he always had this ability to imagine into the next place. He could cast these holograms and chase after them: there’s something about that that I always think is very particular to that story and that book. The glow of “Christminster.”
D’ERASMO: It’s sort of like you’re Nick and Gatsby at the same time.
CLEGG: [laughs] Well, you suggested at the beginning of this interview that I was two people…
D’ERASMO: You’re the kid on the lawn and the man with the beautiful shirts in the house.
CLEGG: I’ve never felt like the man with the beautiful shirts in the house. I’m still the kid on the lawn.
D’ERASMO: That’s exactly how Gatsby felt. [laughs]
DID YOU EVER HAVE A FAMILY? COMES OUT TODAY, SEPTEMBER 8, VIA SCOUT PRESS. STACEY D’ERASMO IS A WRITER AND CRITIC WHOSE PAST NOVELS INCLUDE A SEAHORSE YEAR (2004), THE SKY BELOW (2009), AND WONDERLAND (2014).