Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
California journalist Laura Smith, who serves as Managing Editor for the San Francisco-based history magazine Timeline.com, has written one of the most intriguing books to hit the shelves in 2018. Her debut memoir, The Art of Vanishing, expertly dissects the story of Barbara Newhall Follett’s disappearance from society and then weaves it into an exploration of herself and her own marriage. To say Smith stepped out of her own skin to write this book is a true understatement: For a person to write something this honest, they must first become a mirror and observe the self in a state of total nakedness. And that’s just what Laura Smith does in The Art of Vanishing, commanding not only the reader’s attention, but their respect as well.
The Electric Review was fortunate to catch up with Smith – whose work has also has appeared over the years in the New York Times, Slate and Mother Jones – on May 31, 2018. Our interview follows.
I grew up in a residential neighborhood in Washington D.C. I went to UVA for undergraduate studies after doing a summer writing program there during high school, not realizing that the school and the writing program didn’t have the same culture. I was quite taken aback by how conservative and southern the school was. But I don’t regret going and actually met my husband P.J. there. Later, I went to NYU for my journalism masters and made some real soul mate friends in that program.
Much of my writing was shaped by the grand dames of nonfiction. I loved Janet Malcolm’s icy investigative tone, Dorothy Parker’s wit, Susan Sontag’s searing intellect. In college, I started reading a lot of biographies, usually of women, mostly because I was looking for role models. I love Katie Roiphe’s biography work, and I remember being particularly struck by Caroline Morehead’s biography of Martha Gellhorn. But looking at this list now, it strikes me that a lot of these writers have a really chilly tone. I don’t think my writing has that. But what I gained from those women was a sort of uncompromising eye, and a hunger for precision in language and ideas. Later, I really began to admire writers who played with genres like Maggie Nelson did with the Argonauts. That book is part memoir, part cultural criticism, part literary criticism, part history. I love this loosening of genres because to me, this is how the mind works. When we think, we don’t only think about history or gender studies. We form associations and our thinking in one area informs another. I love writing in this essay-istic style and I think the Art of Vanishing takes cues from the free-form nature of those works – it’s part memoir, part biography, part history part literary and cultural criticism. I hope my next book is too.
I’ve always kept a journal. I recently came across my journal from when I was seven years-old. At the time, I was convinced that my sister was copying me by getting a similarly colored retainer at the dentist. I started writing very melodramatic fictional stories quite young too—maybe at 12 or 13. I wrote about things I knew nothing about. There was one story about a young boy with a drug addict mother. I continued writing fiction until college and considered that my preferred genre, but at some point, I realized that writing what you know is much more compelling. And narrative nonfiction became my new great love. The truth, as they say, is often stranger than fiction.
It’s funny, I’m not sure that thought [writing as career] ever occurred to me. Writing was always the only option. I don’t mean to romanticize writing by saying “I couldn’t possibly do anything else.” It might just be more of a failure of imagination. I just can’t really imagine doing something else. Sometimes, I think my life might be much easier if I found some other way to make money. It’s hard when something you’re passionate about becomes your vehicle for bringing home the bacon. You inevitably lose touch with some of the reasons why you love it, or your passion becomes tarnished by everyday use. The writing I do for money also often isn’t what I would do just for myself. I sometimes counsel younger writers that if they think there’s something else they could do that would be fulfilling, they should consider that instead. This is an incredibly precarious field, there are few work opportunities, and when you find them, they’re fragile.
I used to exclusively write fiction. I believed that fiction was the only way to deeper emotional truths—that you could hide behind the fiction label and say what you really meant without the fear of people confronting you about it, because you could dismiss them saying “it’s a work of fiction!” Now I find myself drawn to saying those things anyway and seeing how far I can push the boundary of the acceptable (though it has cost me!). I wrote short fiction stories all through my adolescence and then when I was in college, I tried to rewrite a novel my maternal grandmother had written that was inspired by her closest friendship. Then I wrote another novel. Both were quite bad. But writing hundreds of pages moved me in the direction of better writing.
I started the project intending to write only about Barbara. Her impulses—her restlessness, her hunger for a more adventurous life, her fears that she was insatiable and that her restlessness was potentially destructive, her ambivalence about many social norms, and at the same time, her occasional comfort in those norms—really spoke to me. But I quickly realized that by investigating her story, I was also trying to resolve the ambivalence within myself. As I was researching, I was keeping a journal where I would jot down “Barbara related thoughts,” just little insights from my own life that I felt related to her story. At some point, (I’m not sure when) our two stories merged and my sections started making their way into the manuscript.
At first they thrilled me. It is exciting to recognize aspects of yourself in someone else. It means you’re not alone! But very quickly, I realized that Barbara’s story was a very sad story, and so her narrative became a kind of warning to me. As time wore on, and I spent hundreds of hours with her letters and writing (and letters from others about her), I came to see also that we shared certain negative traits. She could be selfish at times and this made me worry about my own selfishness. She could be impulsive and I certainly suffer from impulsivity. Spending so much time in her mental landscape made me interrogate my own, and that wasn’t always a comfortable experience.
Things have changed a lot for me. For the first time in a long time, I’m living in one place with no plans to leave. There’s nothing like a bout with danger to make you run toward a more stable life. The things I experienced in the course of writing the book created a lot of turbulence in my life. I find myself wanting some calm. I’m also pregnant now, which has nestled me in a different reality. It was amazing to me how quickly preparing for my baby’s birth became my focus and sort of evened out some of my restlessness. [But] I’m sure it will rear it’s ugly head again soon though.
The verdict is still out on that one. There was undeniable pain and destruction that resulted from that experience. There are ways it brought us closer and ways that it caused what feels at times like a lasting rift. It’s still too early to know how permanent that rift is.
I don’t regret it. To wish to undo it feels like wishing myself back to a place of innocence, like opting for a lobotomy. For better or worse, I know some things now about myself, things about my husband, things about marriage more generally. But definitely after that experience, I can see why some people opt for more conventional routes.
I think marriage generally is just hard. Even when two people get along spectacularly and seem to have to same goals. The real issue is time, and [specifically] the fact that people change over time. I’m officiating one of my best friend’s weddings this weekend (anyone who has read my book will know what an odd choice of officiant I am), and I am struck by what a hopeful gesture marriage is. You are betting (usually at a young age), that what you want now will be what you want ten, fifteen, even fifty years later. You’re daring to imagine the rest of your life. And you have such limited information! People change. Sometimes they change together, but sometimes they change in ways that make them incompatible over time. So in a way, anyone who marries is marrying blindly.
I’m still hot on the trail! I’ve been corresponding with a novelist in New Hampshire who has uncovered some new information that seems a plausible lead. This story won’t go away!
It nags at me—the not knowing. The fact that the information, in theory, is out there and that if I just look hard enough, I could know what happened makes me want to follow every possible lead. Perhaps I’m uncomfortable with uncertainty. I suppose that’s human nature…