Christopher Moore and Beth Kaplan have both served on the CNFC board and the conference committee. With the release of Beth’s new book Midlife Solo, a memoir-in-essays, they felt the membership might be interested in their conversation about the nuts and bolts of putting together an essay compilation.
Christopher Moore: Beth Kaplan has taught nonfiction writing at two Toronto universities for decades and is the author of three previous memoirs as well as a number of other works. All My Loving is about her adolescence and passionate love affair with Paul McCartney, although Paul unfortunately never knew about it. And more recently Loose Woman, about her career as an actress in her twenties and as a worker at a L’Arche community in France. In the fall of 2023, she published Midlife Solo: writing through chaos to find my place in the world.
This book is about your forties. Why don’t you start by telling us what you were doing in your forties in the 1990s, and how that’s reflected in this book?
Beth Kaplan: I spent my twenties as an actress, and at thirty left the theatre, got married, had babies. I was a stay-at-home mother through my thirties as we moved across the country, from Vancouver to Ottawa to Toronto. And then in 1991 I was suddenly a single mother of two small children living in downtown Toronto.
I’d slowly been taking an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and had finished it long distance. I wanted to be a writer but had no idea, absolutely no idea, how to begin. Nowadays, there’s all these courses and websites for writers; you can connect endlessly online. In the early 1990s there was none of that. I was isolated and overwhelmed with family responsibilities. What saved me was the Facts and Arguments column on the back page of the Globe and Mail.
I thought, well, a short essay I can do. I wrote about my children’s public school, sent it in, and two and a half weeks later, it appeared in the newspaper. 1200 words, most of the page, with a big illustration. Thrilling. And a fat cheque — for a whole $100!
I wrote a stream of essays that were mostly published, and moved on to pieces for magazines and for various CBC programs, which I read myself.
Essays were pouring out through the 90s. I couldn’t focus on something longer, but 1200 words was like laying an egg. I could concentrate, I could lay that egg and get on with the day.
CM: These essays are a portrait of your life at that time. Tell us about the life you were chronicling as a single mother trying to make a career as a writer.
BK: The book explores being a single mother, yes, but also many other things — like traveling to France, for example, France looms large in all my memoirs, as it has in my life. I write about Peter Gzowski, who, as people our age will know, was a well-known CBC radio host; when he retired, it felt like we were losing something valuable in this country.
There’s stuff about my neighborhood in downtown Toronto, because it’s like a small town in the center of the metropolis. The butcher and the handyman are dear friends.
Also I was going to a psychiatrist to figure out my childhood. I really was piecing myself together. Midlife Solois the chronicle of a woman who’s putting herself back together as a different person. And that’s the journey of the book.
CM: You let me read this book in advance of publication and I admired it a great deal, not only as a portrait of Beth Kaplan, but as a sketch of the world you were living in, the kind of experiences that other women — and men, too — could enjoy and share and identify with.
BK: That’s exactly what we memoirists hope for. If a memoir is written with depth and honesty and craft, others will see themselves in it. That’s why we do this. We hope to touch something at a universal level, something we all share. We all have family; we’ve all had losses and troubles and joys. A good memoir touches those universal elements.
CM: Midlife Solo worked for me on that level, and I’m a man, as you can see. My dear wife Louise also found a great deal in it to enjoy and identify with and think about.
But — this will be of interest in CNFC members — how did you take your old back pages and make them into something new and coherent, a full-fledged memoir? You didn’t just bind the essays in a cover. They’re extensively reworked and shaped into a book with a literary art to it.
BK: By 2000, there were over fifty essays, and I realized if I didn’t collect them somehow, they’d be lost. A friend designed a book, and it was published by that great Canadian publisher, Kinko’s Copy Shop. I printed copies to give or sell to friends and students. And that was it — thirty-two essays, completely random, cerlox bound.
Over twenty years later, a student of mine read the book and said, “These are wonderful, you should do something with them.” I reread them and realized, with surprise, that though a few were dated, most were still relevant. And I decided to make a book, even if it was just for my writing students.
Ha, this will be so easy! I thought. The book in 2000 was easy; I just smacked them together more or less chronologically. But it was not that way at all with Midlife Solo; that was the big shock. Because we needed a coherent journey. We needed an arc. And I was stuck because back then I didn’t write about lots of things — for example, details of the divorce. Yet for this book, readers would need to understand what happened to this woman’s marriage. Why is she single?
I dug out my file filled with scraps of in-class writing. At one of the CNFC conferences, I took a workshop with Dinty Moore, the American guru of nonfiction, and on the spot wrote a visceral piece about the divorce; I used that almost word for word. So there were issues like that — holes in the narrative that needed to be filled. But also, what was the journey? How to show how my life had evolved just with pieces that were already written, plus some new, longer ones mostly about my childhood?
It was difficult. As well, with memoir, when you read it over and try to edit, you’re not just editing your words, you’re critiquing your life. How do you edit your life? I needed help, so I hired a wonderful editor, Ellie Barton, who was able to stand back in a way I could not and say, this piece is weak; this one needs to be moved. She helped me rearrange the pieces, find a structure, see what was missing, what wasn’t necessary.
With her help, a shape emerged: eight sections with about six pieces each. We follow the journey of a divorced woman who’s having a hard time but gradually emerges into calm and understanding; her kids are growing up, and she’s figuring out how to live as a single woman.
Then I wrote a postscript chapter at the end, which is me now, at seventy-two.
CM: It works. As you said earlier, memoir isn’t just dumping out all the facts of your life, it’s selecting pieces and making them into a coherent story. The ones in the book are separate pieces but by the editing and shaping you did, they cohere. It’s not just a compilation, it’s a memoir, a life story.
BK: Well, also, memoir — any kind of writing — is about voice. My students talk a lot about voice — how do I find my voice? I think as a result of writing so many essays and also from writing a blog, I found my voice. I started a blog in 2007 when my first book came out, and so I grew used to quickly translating daily life into narrative. Now I guess my writing voice sounds like me, which is what we’re after. I thank my blog for that; it has really helped me translate my honest self to the page.
Someone said to me, after reading a number of my essays, “You have a sprinter’s breath.” He said, “I’m not sure you could do a marathon but you’re good at sprints.” I thought, that’s a good way to put it. I mean, you have to compress a lot of material into very few words and bring people through to the other side, to some kind of resolution in sometimes 900, 1000 words. I seem to be good at sprinting. Books are another story; they’re marathons. I love my books; they’re okay. But I think essays are something I’m good at, for some strange reason.
CM: You’re not Barbra Streisand or Britney Spears, yet you’re entitled to write memoir. It’s not a question of how famous you are, but what you make out of your life. As you said, it’s the voice that’s making it work. Your memoir-fleuve — three volumes so far and counting — is becoming a very long run. So I’m not sure you’re exclusively a sprinter, Beth. But I see the point he’s making.
BK: Well, I’m still sending essays to literary magazines and online zines, because it’s a way to get stuff out in the world relatively quickly. But my next book is another marathon. As people know who’ve read the essays and memoirs, my parents were fabulously interesting but difficult people. I want to introduce them, because they were spectacular human beings, yet, in some ways, dreadful parents. I think the story is about these two exceptional people and their marriage, but also about how their daughter survived. them. That’s the story I’m hoping to tell next.
CM: You have said the reaction to Midlife Solo has been particularly satisfying and moving.
BK: I can’t tell you how gratifying it’s been. People seem to really be moved by this book. There’s a class at the Y I go to regularly, and my classmates are buying the book. They come up to me to ask questions. Did this really happen? What did that do to you? Someone came up yesterday with tears in her eyes and said, I just loved it, Beth. I saw so much of myself in it.
We spend many, many hours writing and editing, trying to get the thing published and pushing it out in the world, with no sense ever that it will be meaningful to anyone but ourselves. So the fact that this book has struck a chord with readers is very gratifying and brings me great, great joy. Because obviously, we hope our work means something to people.
CM: I think their response is richly deserved. It’s a book that does have an effect on readers. I think our fellow members of the CNFC, many of whom are engaged with memoir writing, will be inspired and pick up some ideas from it.
BK: Thank you, Chris, for your wonderful questions and for initiating this talk. Tell me if you want me to interview youabout one of your books sometime! Your perspective as a historian and your successful career as someone who’s actually made a living as a writer will be interesting to people too.
CM: In fact, I wrote about 150 columns about history and historians for Canada’s History magazine, formerly the Beaver, and I’m beginning to shape them into a collection. So I’ve been pondering your influence: how much I want to just leave them as separate essays and how much I want to flow them together.
BK: Great! So the conversation continues.