Vail Daily Books: Mining the past for memoir gold
ASPEN – On the one hand there’s Augusten Burroughs – the product of an obscenely flawed family who delights in taking every bizarre, shameful detail of his past and splattering it across the page in the name of humor, revelation and book sales. As practiced by Burroughs, the author of such tell-all-and-then-some books as “Running with Scissors” and “A Wolf at the Table,” the memoir is an intimate reflection, revealing the personality and perspective of the writer.And then there is Brooke Newman. An Aspen writer who had her own deeply flawed parents and off-kilter upbringing to contend with, Newman has also entered the realm of the childhood-based memoir. But “Jenniemae & James: A Portrait in Black & White,” published in March by the Random House-owned Harmony Books, is the result of a different process than the sort one imagines Burroughs goes through.Newman calls herself an extreme recluse: “I’m one of the most self-deprecating, insecure people there is,” she said. And while, in person, one-on-one, she comes off as well-spoken and comfortable, there are hints in the book itself that Newman’s self-assessment is correct. In “Jenniemae & James,” Newman herself is nearly an invisible presence, as the story focuses on the unlikely relationship between her father, a brilliant, stormy mathematician, writer and atheist, and the family’s illiterate, obese, God-fearing nanny. If Newman had her way, she would have been left out of the story completely; it was a strong-willed editor who forced her to put a face to the memories.
Even though both Jenniemae and James have been dead for decades, Newman was reluctant to put their relationship – a warm friendship, not a scandalous one – on display. “For me, I was always a bit fearful of telling a story that’s nonfiction. It’s invasive,” said Newman, who took eight years to get over those concerns and finish the book. “I seriously would like to take a vacation on another planet, get my check, pay off my home equity loan and come back in a few years. That would be my absolute dream – not having to go through this part of it.”The part Newman dreads is the aspect of being a writer that Augusten Burroughs, for one, seems to thrive on. It is the writer as public figure – someone to answer questions, read a sample of their work, sign books and shake hands, and, oh yes, read the reviews. Newman, at 65, is about to have her moment of reckoning. It started just before Christmas with a lead, starred review in Publisher’s Weekly (“thoroughly engaging”), and continues with a book tour that is set to hit Boston, New York City, Denver and Cape Cod, where she has a house in the town of Truro, known for its community of writers.Newman will appear Tuesday at Avon Public Library. Despite her tendency to avoid the spotlight, the promotional machine is gaining steam, with reviews in The New York Times, USA Today and more.”There’s all sorts of rumblings,” Newman said. “You can hear the train coming. I knew when [the publisher] paid a lot of money for it, they were not going to let it sleep.”Newman doesn’t even have the consolation of coming to a peaceful reconciliation with her difficult past. The writing process was not a catharsis; instead, she says it was “the antithesis.””It was brutal. Nightmares,” she said. “John Glusman” – her editor – “said, ‘Well, you never should have written a memoir.'”
No one has ever had to push Newman to write. “Some people grow up and their parents are shoemakers,” said Newman, whose father wrote the mammoth, and enormously popular “The World of Mathematics,” published in 1950, and whose mother, Ruth, was a clinical psychologist of some renown. “This is the industry I grew up in and it was a natural for me.”Newman’s writing history includes a one-act play, “My Mother’s Lovers,” from the late ’90s, and “Issues in Trends and Health,” written with a former husband, Rick Carlson. She was a researcher on “Jerusalem,” by Leon and Jill Uris. (Outside of writing, Newman has been a taxi driver, school bus driver, janitor, mother of four, and board member at the Aspen Community School.) Her biggest seller by far was “The Little Tern,” a 2002 story about a bird that believes it can’t fly. Because the book was illustrated, and focused on animals as characters, people assumed Newman was a writer of children’s books.”It’s a fable for adults, way too esoteric and complex for children,” Newman said. She also suggests that the book’s existential philosophy may have pushed it outside the mainstream in America, which is why it had its greatest success in Germany, and in Japan, where it sold a million copies, was turned into a TV show, and spawned a sequel, “The Lost Tern.” Newman loves the fact that her popularity was worlds away, that she never had to deal with publicity.Writing a memoir, though, seemed like an unnatural act for Newman, who writes of herself, in a rare instance of self-revelation, that she was a quiet, solitary girl: “I frequently attempted to be the invisible child.”
It was the characters she grew up with who motivated Newman to write a memoir. “Jenniemae & James” tells of the relationship that developed between her father and their housekeeper, and with Newman’s gift for bringing these people to life, it is a friendship that is improbable, devoted, and probably an absolute necessity in keeping the Newman family from imploding under the stress of mental illness, extra-marital affairs and the societal pressures of the ’50s and ’60s.James Newman’s most lasting contribution to history is popularizing the word “googol,” which came from the 1940 book “Mathematics and the Imagination,” co-written with Edward Krasner. (Googol is the concept of an extremely large, but finite number. When two Stanford Ph.D. students created an algorithm for searching the Internet, they borrowed the term – and misspelled it as “google.”)Brooke Newman treats this fact as the small tidbit that it is, and keeps her attention on the uncommon dynamic between her father and Jenniemae Harrington. The foundation of the friendship was numbers: James was a mathematician; Jenniemae played an underground daily lottery with uncanny success, insisting that the numbers she played were a message from God. James begs Jenniemae to share her numbers. She refuses, but it is the start of a relationship that trades in humor, support and pushing boundaries.”It stretched both of them. And it made life a little easier and lighter during some troubled times for us and for the country,” Newman said.Though the process was torturous, Newman got something out of mining her own life for a book.”One of the things that became clear to me was how much I adored Jenniemae,” she said. “I’ve been much more humbled by her wisdom as the book progressed. The sayings she had – there’s absolute warmth and compassion in it. And it was so natural to her. And I adored both my parents.”Sometimes you’re struck by something only after you’ve written it. You realize the depths of the people. I love my tormented family.”