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Writing Other People’s Stories
 
An Interview with L. Elisabeth Beattie,
Kentucky Author and Oral Historian
 
By Kathy Riley Williams

 

 
 

 

L. Elisabeth Beattie is by turns elegant and earthy, intellectual and self-deprecating. The auburn-haired author and historian, known as Linda to her friends, is quick to laugh and loves to chat. No doubt, these traits add to her skills as an oral historian and a writer.

 

Three of your books, Conversations with Kentucky Writers I and II and Savory Memories, have to do with interviewing writers and recording their memories, their life stories. How did your interest in life writing develop?

My mother tells me that I started to write before I could read. Once I learned to read, writing became a natural corollary-- a wonderful way of escaping into fantasy worlds and others' lives.  In 1990 I started interviewing Kentucky writers when I became director of the Kentucky Writers' Oral History Project for the University of Kentucky Oral History Program. I have interviewed almost 100 writers, and as a result of my conducting these interviews I was asked to edit my first and third books, Conversations with Kentucky Writers and Conversations with Kentucky Writers II.
 

Your work in oral history is impressive. How did that come about?  

In college I triple-majored in English literature, English composition, and oral history.  The last major, an independent-study major, resulted in my earning the first bachelor's degree in oral history in the nation.  In the process of obtaining that degree I fell in love with the process of oral history-- of preserving people's speech patterns, words, and voices for the historical record.   

Do you consider yourself more an oral historian or more a writer? 

I would say that I am a writer who is also an oral historian.  Some of my books are edited oral histories; to date, others are creative nonfiction.  I am currently working on a biography, and in the future I may try my hand at fiction.  As I used to tell my college students, all writing is dictated by purpose and audience, so the type of writing I do comes from the projects I take on.  

Autobiographies and biographies have been very popular among the reading public since the Victorian era, yet the genre seems to be taking on a life of its own in the publishing world. This is especially true of autobiography. How do you feel about the confessional autobiography? In your opinion, is there anything that an autobiographer should keep to him- or herself?  

Certainly writers-- even of autobiography-- should keep things to themselves, but just what things should be private will vary from person to person.  Since there's no way that even a 1,000-page book could describe the actions and the thoughts of a lifetime, a distilling must take place-- by intention or default. People write what they wish to confess or what they think people want them to confess or what they want people to know, and with any luck at all SOME truth lies in all of that.  But given the nature of the psyche and of the memory and of the ego and of time, I am not sure that even the most scrupulous self-documenter could capture THE truth.  An annoying and merciful fact of life is that absolutes tend to elude us. 

You say you've interviewed over a hundred Kentucky writers. Does any particular interviewing experience stands out in your memory?  

Most of my interviews have been memorable, but all for different reasons.  I've become friends with many of the people I've interviewed.  I would say that 98 percent of the writers whom I've interviewed have been wonderful, warm interviewees.  Of course I recall a handful of writers who were less than cooperative and who behaved like prima donnas.  It's best that I don't provide you with specifics, but it can be sad to see how flawed someone whose work one finds to be filled with the human spirit can be.

The personal histories you record in your fourth book, Sisters in Pain, are so different from the stories you've recorded in Conversations I and II. I'm wondering why you decided to record these women's stories, when it must have been very painful work. 

My interest in writing SISTERS IN PAIN:  BATTERED WOMEN FIGHT BACK, co-authored with M.A. Shaughnessy, was a response to my acute interest in social justice. In late 1995, I first read paragraph-length biographies of these Kentucky women who were incarcerated after having been convicted of killing or of conspiring to kill their batterers in the Louisville COURIER-JOURNAL. I wanted to know what had occurred in each of their lives to land them in their current predicament. So I contacted these women that local media had begun to refer to as
the Sisters in Pain and interviewed those who permitted me to do so.  

 What sort of an impact did hearing these women’s stories have on you?

Certainly it was painful to listen to these women's life stories. Their lives had been filled with horrific abuse that in many cases was simply unimaginable. It was also painful for me to learn from these women and from their attorneys how these women's decades of almost unrelenting physical, sexual, and emotional torture was inadmissible evidence in their trials for-- in most cases-- finally responding to such battering. It was difficult to watch and listen to these women having to relive their pain through telling their stories in order to save other women from enduring the same fate.   

Listening to these women’s stories must have made it mentally difficult for you to remain focused on the project. 

It would have been considerably more difficult for me to have maintained a vague awareness of such abuse and to have turned away from trauma. I can't begin to tell you the number of people-- my close friends included-- who have told me that they simply couldn't bring themselves to read SISTERS IN PAIN because they feared the book would upset them.  It's very hard for me to respect such an attitude. One of my strongest beliefs is that we're on this planet to make it a better place and to help one another.  If I can help make people aware of injustices so that enough people will grow impatient enough or indignant enough to want to help right them, then any emotional discomfort I may experience in learning about painful problems is neglible.  

Did writing Sisters In Pain change you as a writer – the ways in which you observe the world and how those observations are reflected in your writing?

I hope that every new project improves my writing, but no, I don't think that book
altered my vision or my style.  Although I conducted oral history interviews for the book and incorporated excerpts from those interviews in particular chapters, most of the book consists of narrative that details the social, psychological, historical, and legal ramifications of abuse. I suppose that what changed me in regard to having written that book is the knowledge I acquired about our judicial system and about the psychological impact of abuse.   

For example . . . ? 

I'm now more appalled than ever at the inequities in our judicial system. I am more impatient than ever when people condemn battered women for remaining in abusive relationships without wanting to know why it is psychologically, physically, and financially impossible for most such women to leave.  I look forward to the day when people will become indignant that batterers batter and that family, friends, and neighbors of abused individuals look away; when people start blaming the sources of the problem instead of its victims, I think our society will have come a long way.  

Perhaps it's because I'm such a foodie and a fan of cooking and feasting myself, but my favorite among the books you've written is Savory Memories.  

Savory Memories is a collection of essays concerning food-related memories that I solicited from Kentucky writers.  Each essay, which contains one or more actual recipes, is really a tribute to a relative or to someone to whom the author is close, as food preparation and meal sharing play such a central role in establishing intimacy in our society.

In that book, you describe Sunday dinner at your Grandmother Watts's house. I'm wandering: besides those Sunday dinners, what has been your most memorable feast or meal? Could you describe it?  

Given that I am now on a fasting diet, ANY meal is memorable. I've had some pretty spectacular meals all over the world; a Christmas dinner in London comes to mind and-- due to the horrors of having to face a piglet's head at each place setting-- so does a spectacularly horrifying meal in the Georgian region of Russia.  I'm afraid that I'm more of a gourmand than a gourmet, though, as my idea of the ideal meal runs to pizza and excellent ice cream.

Of course, we interviewers always have to ask a writer what her favorite books are. You, I know, are a tremendous reader. I'm curious: what book do you feel has had the most impact on you? Why?

So many books have had such a significant impact on me that this is a very difficult question to answer.  When I was a child the first book that I checked out of the bookmobile that came to my elementary school had a huge effect on me because my being able to select it and check it out by myself was a huge rite of passage.  I can still see that book's cover.
It was turquoise and red and featured a black and white parrot dressed as a pirate. As a young adult I would say that Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, To the Lighthouse, and Sons and Lovers affected me profoundly.  I read them all the same summer in the same college class.  The professor was wonderful, the books were wonderful, and I remember writing a paper at about 3 a.m. and "getting" exactly what the British moderns were doing with time
and space and realizing that that summer of epiphanies had changed me.  As an older adult I often find myself loving a book I am teaching or a book I am reviewing and thinking that nothing can top it.  But fortunately some other life-changing book always gets into my hands and I'm still transformed in some way.

Writers work with their imaginations, so my last question is based in fantasy: Let's say you are able to interview any writer, living or dead. Whom would you interview and why? 

Again, I have to disappoint by being unable to choose just one.  Since Virginia Woolf is one of my very favorites, I'd love to interview her.  And how could anyone not want to meet Shakespeare or Austen or the Brontes?  Some writers I'd like to meet because of their work, but others-- such as George Sand and Byron-- I'd like to meet because of their personas. Actually, there are very few writers whom I would not like to interview.


The University of Kentucky Press

 

 

Conversations with Kentucky Writers
edited by L. Elisabeth Beattie
University of Kentucky Press, 2003
Trade paper, $25.00
ISBN: 0-8131-9043-6

 

 

 

 

 

Sisters in Pain: Battered Women Fight Back
by L. Elisabeth Beattie and Mary Angela Shaughnessy
University of Kentucky Press, 2000
Hardcover, $29.95
ISBN: 0-8131-2151-5

 

 

 

© 2003, Kathy Riley Williams, All Rights Reserved