Memoir tracks the travails of author’s bipolar family
Ryan Summerlin September 4, 2008
It’s not easy writing and selling a memoir about a drug-addled past in the post-James Frey era. After being publicly dressed-down by Oprah herself for fabricating portions of his book “A Million Little Pieces,” Frey left a taint on the art of memoir that has readers and publishers alike second-guessing the veracity of any such book that comes down the pike.
For David Lovelace, whose memoir “Scattershot” is out this week from Dutton, the real problem was more likely to be too much truth. After all, detailing highly personal accounts of your family’s battle with bipolar disorder can be problematic for some family members. For Lovelace, whose father, mother and younger brother suffer from the disease in addition to himself, it meant revealing family secrets and shames ” and he doesn’t spare himself, either.
A former Breckenridge ski instructor and Colorado College graduate, Lovelace has lived most of his life in Massachusetts. Until recently, he owned and operated The Montague Bookmill in the western part of the state. It was in the old mill’s cupola that Lovelace wrote “Scattershot,” which he said originally started as a poem. It was a few years ago that his father had a particularly bad break with reality and nearly caused the death of his mother. The experience led him to write some verse about it and try it in front of an audience at the book store.
“When you write poetry, you come at things pretty obliquely,” Lovelace said in a phone interview recently. “I read it and when I was finished I looked up and realized it didn’t translate.”
So he went home and took a crack at it in prose and tried the Bookmill audience again a few weeks later.
“I got this pretty visceral response, much more intense, and that pushed me,” he said. “As I wrote it I realized that if I’m going to bring in all this stuff, it had better be good; there had better be a reason for it.”
Part of what Lovelace said drove him to complete “Scattershot” was his hope that the story would help others with bipolar disorder. Since so many victims of the disease ultimately commit suicide, he said it ranks as the deadliest of mental illnesses. At the same time, though, he said it has its gifts.
“When you’re manic, before you go nuts, your mind is working; it’s totally fluid,” he said. “This quicksilver moment is when you can produce and make sense and be the life of the party ” and you love that. But then you go off the handle.”
It’s that high of creativity that makes it hard for bipolar sufferers to take their medicine, Lovelace said. And that was certainly the case with his father. A brilliant theologian with a promising early career, the elder Lovelace’s manic episodes both splintered the family and, it seems, pulled them together later on. Lovelace ends his book with an exhortation to his father and, perhaps, anyone who needs medication for mental illness: “Take your damn pill.”
In Lovelace’s family, episodes of mania were known as “the whim-whams,” or “dark nights of the soul.” A good part of the memoir is dedicated to how much the author and his family initially dodged the heavy issues that faced them. Lovelace’s response on several occasions was simply to run. He documents time he spent in Guatemala, Colorado, California and even in a “squat” in New York City. It took growing older, a loving and understanding wife and a good deal of introspection before Lovelace could arrive at a place where he was dealing with his own problems and those of his family.
“Scattershot” is disturbing in places; funny in others. But compared to other memoirs, it’s very evenly portrayed, without any finger-pointing. As Lovelace says, he’s not one of those troubled men who hated his parents as a kid.
“I had a strange and difficult childhood, but it wasn’t anyone’s fault,” he said. “I was loved, and I loved my folks.”
The jacket of “Scattershot” was an inspired choice. It’s simply a photo of the Lovelace family taken in the 1970s, and it serves as a constant reference point for the reader as the tale of the family in the photo unfolds in the book.
“Everyone has these geeky family photos, and they become poignant, with a certain amount of sadness and melancholy in them,” Lovelace said. “As you read the book, that information fills in and that stuff pools behind it.”
As a bookseller, Lovelace said he understood the appeal of the cover design, even though it took some getting used to.
So what does the rest of the family think of the book? His father refuses to talk about it and, Lovelace said, his mother is not strong enough. But his sister and brother both supported the project, as did his wife and children.
“I’m actually proud of having this disease and having gone through it,” Lovelace said. “It’s enlarged my life, and I’m defiant about that. In my family, we didn’t talk about it. I really wanted to blow it wide open so I could talk about it with my own kids.”
This book is available at The Bookworm of Edwards.
To get published, they say, write a great book, for starters. Then it really helps to know someone. For David Lovelace, author of “Scattershot,” that someone came in the form of Bill Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Departed.”
Lovelace’s wife, Roberta, knew Monahan from high school in Gloucester, Mass., and before he made it big, he spent some time at the Lovelace’s home while they were away, working on his novel “Lighthouse.”
After Lovelace wrote a few chapters of “Scattershot” and thought they looked pretty good, he sent them to Monahan.
“He said, ‘This is great; it’d make a great movie,’ and he sent it to an agent he knew,” Lovelace said. “That opened the door.”
From there came the book deal with Dutton and talk of a film. Monahan and Leonardo DiCaprio are both attached to the project, which in Hollywood parlance means they’re interested and little more. As Lovelace said, he’s not holding his breath.
“Bill is still looking for a studio,” he said. “It’s a huge rabbit hole that I don’t want to jump down right now.”
But buzz for “Scattershot” is already strong. Lovelace was on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” Thursday, and the Oprah people are interested in having him on her show. For an author looking to publicize a book, it doesn’t get much better than that.