With The Daddy Chronicles (Whisk(e)y Tit Books, 2022), Jayne Martin returns to bruised memories. The book is driven to explore how recollection takes form, fragments made vivid, torn from deep wells and thrust into an attempt at order, a chronology, a way to make sense of an absent father. This absence dominates, and is bitterly ever-present. Martin strives to confront the irony in this, and with this collection of memory vignettes, reframes her past.
When did you first have the impulse to tackle this subject? Was the form of the book apparent from the start?
The book just erupted from within and took me completely by surprise. It was subject matter I had tackled once before in an essay form, but never followed through on it. This time it wouldn’t let go. Why now? I don’t know. I think as we get older we have the desire to make peace with the things that have haunted us. I was in a flash fiction workshop led by Meg Pokrass in November of 2020. It was based on her novella-in-flash, The Loss Detector, about a fatherless family, single mom, its main narrator the young daughter. Each day we’d write a flash piece based on one of the stories. In doing so, I discovered that the character in “The Other Woman” waiting for her married lover who never shows, and the infant in “First Love” whose father ignores her cries, were actually the same person—and that person was me. That’s when it morphed from fiction to memoir.
There is a fragmentary feel to the book, both structurally and narratively. How purposeful was this?
Memory is fragmentary. We, or at least I, write to make sense of things. While there are many threads that make up a tapestry of a life and often writers interweave them in order to tell a larger story, my focus was singular and specific. I had questions. How did the rejection of the very first love of my life, my father, lead me to seek out others like him—men who were charismatic and emotionally unavailable? It was like putting together a puzzle without the benefit of the picture on the box. As I wrote, pieces emerged that I hadn’t expected. There was no way to plan the book in any kind of cohesive manner. Without Meg’s workshop, I doubt I would have found the structure at all.
Did writing about real people, often in an unflattering way, lead to any conflicted feelings? Are there aspects you left out of the book, or wish you’d included?
Had I included every bad romance, this would have been a mini-series. After a while, readers would have justifiably said, “Oh, for God’s sake woman. Get it together.” The last thing I wanted this to be is a pity party. The fact is, things turned out very well for me. Granted, I forged my way alone, but whatever my father didn’t give me in life, he did pass on a gene pool that made me strong, resilient, accomplished, healthy and so much more. As did my mother. I regret that she may come off in an unflattering way when the truth is she gave up everything for me. My father was the love of her life. She entered into a second marriage that was unhappy for her in order to make a stable home for me, and then, divorced again, struggled to raise me as a single mom. She died at just 54. I was 23. After years of being a selfish, disrespectful, horrible teenager, I didn’t have the opportunity to convey to her how grateful I was. My mother’s story is a whole other book, but whenever I try to write about her I’m awash in guilt and tears.
For your previous book Tender Cuts you use flash fiction. Were you conscious of the influence of flash fiction on your non-fiction in this case?
Long before I wrote flash fiction, I wrote movies-for-television for 25 years. Different from their big-screen brethren, TV movies are written in seven acts to account for commercial breaks. The “two-hour movie” is a misnomer. You have approximately 93 minutes of actual screen time to tell the story and at the end of each act you need a “keep them guessing” story beat to lure your audience back after the commercials. Raymond Carver could have been talking about the TV movie when he said “Get in, get out. Don’t Linger. Move on.” As it was, he was talking about flash fiction. So I came to the form well-prepared and it felt very natural to continue with it in The Daddy Chronicles where each chapter is akin to a movie scene.
Some of the most vivid moments are the observations of small, seemingly inconsequential incidences that ultimately have great emotional weight. This juxtaposition has a startling effect. Is this a technique you planned to use, or did it evolve naturally from the material?
Details place the reader in the story and create emotional resonance. I will never forget a scene from Mary Gordon’s brilliant novel Final Payments, where she’s dealing with the grief of her father’s death and the unresolved emotional issues between them. She’s cleaning out his refrigerator and picks up a head of lettuce that dissolves into a mushy, moldy mess in her hands. I read that book 40 years ago and that moment still sends me to my knees. The use of visceral details is something that pervades all my work. It’s how I see the world.
How long did the book take to write? What is your recollection of the time spent writing it?
This book was one of those rare writing experiences where the story just poured out of me, like it had been hovering for years just waiting for a point of entry. In Meg’s workshop, we wrote a story a day for 30 days. At the end of that month I had a first draft. Of course, there was still a great deal of work to be done, but just a couple of months later, I was ready to send it out. It was crazy. It was like the book knew what it wanted to be. Everything about its creation was a surprise. Most surprising was the anger that came up for me. I thought I had dealt with my feelings toward my father. Intellectually, I had reasoned that one cannot give what one does not have. I had forgiven him. But there was still a very hurt child inside of me screaming, “Hey! Not so fast.”
The book perceptively deals with trauma, both its immediate impact and ongoing after-effects. There is a self-awareness that accompanies the events, a distance that enables a matter-of-fact retelling. While this creates an unsentimental tone, it also demonstrates one of the main consequences of trauma. Could you elaborate on your intentions for the book with regard to the representation of trauma?
You kind of nailed it here. Distance from one’s emotions as a consequence of trauma. There’s a scene in the book where a writing teacher suggests I see a therapist to get more in touch with my feelings and my response is “I don’t tell him I’ve been doing my best to stay out of touch with those things for most of my life.” As far as my intentions for the book, I guess it’s a book I wish I had read decades ago. Maybe I wouldn’t have spent so many years thinking I was the only one broken. During the writing, I read Denna Babul’s The Fatherless Daughter Project, where I learned that one in three women identify as fatherless. I saw myself on every page. Maybe others like me will see themselves in The Daddy Chronicles and not feel quite so alone.
Could you talk about the locations in the book? Are there places you’ve returned to since the scenarios featured took place? Are there places you’d be curious to go back to, or those you’d not want to revisit?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, my early life imprinted with the sights and sounds of San Francisco, the bay windows of the grand old Victorian “ladies” like eyes watching over me. Although I haven’t lived there in many years, it is still the place in my heart that I call home. At the age of about six, Mom and I moved to an older four-plex building in San Mateo where I started first grade. It was my first stable home and I often wonder if it is still there, but have never gone back to look. When my mother married my stepfather, we moved to the house on Cherry Street in San Carlos. While all the houses around it are exactly as I remember, ours is gone. Demolished. As if it never existed. Those years of my life wiped away. In its place, a new modern structure. Seeing it gone felt like a death.
What is your experience with catharsis?
Writing the book wasn’t so much a catharsis as a way to step out of my “strong woman” persona for a while to say, “This is who I am and this is why.” I’ve allowed few people to really know me in such a way and I’m honestly not sure if I’m ready for the response.
You mention a spiritual component to your life, and cite a particular incident as having significance in the process of moving on from feelings that had a grip on you. Could you expand on this aspect?
I was raised Catholic and, although I left the church while still very young, the concept of a higher power, an energy that some call “God,” never left me. There’s a reason such beliefs are called “faith” and not “fact.” My mother was a big believer in guardian angels. When I look back at, particularly, my adult life, I have to believe in a Divine energy. No one could have been so “lucky.” There has never been a time when, confused or depressed, I have asked for guidance that some type of opportunity did not appear for my highest good. Every single day, sometimes several times a day, I align myself with the creative force of the Universe by taking a quiet moment to simply say “I AM” and express gratitude. Again, faith not fact.
A central theme, especially in the earlier part of the book, is of a young person burdened too soon with adult issues. For many, this leads to a perpetual state of being ill-equipped to deal with vulnerability. What challenges or observations did you encounter when compiling examples of this for the book?
“Burdened too soon with adult issues.” Yes. That’s exactly it. From very early on I was acutely aware that the adults were not in charge. That I’d better take care of myself because they were likely going to drop the ball. As a result I became a total control freak. “I’ll do it myself,” my mantra. Vulnerability? I avoid that like Covid. The use of humor to sidestep my emotions is still my go-to coping tool. There’s a chapter in the book called “On My Own.” It was during a time in my life when I was no longer a child, but not yet an adult. I was engaging in very destructive behaviors involving sex and alcohol and I had this dream where I was in a room from my early childhood with my younger self and she says, “You were supposed to take care of me.” As an aside, it is very common for fatherless daughters to become promiscuous, to confuse sex with love, use one to try to get the other.
How would you describe the book to a potential reader? And does this differ from how you describe the book to yourself?
The story of a fatherless daughter, my journey from hurt to healing. There comes a time when we all start to take stock of our lives. The focus begins to shift from mourning all the things we didn’t get to gratitude for the things that gave our lives meaning and joy. Honestly, if I could change the past and have the father I wish I’d had I don’t think I would do it. I’ve known people who had wonderful fathers and their lives still turned out a mess. My life turned out pretty great.
What was your original intention for The Daddy Chronicles? Has this evolved or changed? Do you consider your intentions to be fulfilled?
My intention was to write the book and put it out into the world. I’ve accomplished that. Now it’s out of my hands. The search for and need for love is universal. When we learn to love ourselves first, we attract the love of others. My hope is that the book finds its way to those who need to hear that message the most.
The Daddy Chronicles is published by Whisk(e)y Tit Books and is available at https://whiskeytit.com/product/the-daddy-chronicles/