George Hodgson, author of Bettyville, came to town. I didn’t reserve a seat but came early enough to grab one of the few chairs left against the back wall of the library auditorium. Mr. Hodgson likes St. Louis and thinks he might move here (yay). Coming from a New Yorker, that’s impressive, but in truth he grew up around here and feels sentimental. Bettyville, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (voted on by librarians), is a memoir of this “cultured gay man leaving New York City to care for his aging mother” in a very small town in Missouri. At the library talk, he told us a lot about writing.
Mr. Hodgson, an editor and article writer with an impressive resume, said he always wanted to write a book. He kept a “little box of treasures,” which were his thoughts that popped up as he went about his life of what would be good in a book. (Note: Many writers keep a writer’s notebook to capture thoughts and ideas and interesting phrases that might be used later.) He began taking notes while caregiving—his mother was quite a character. He said other memoirs he had read were about “saintly mothers and saintly daughters, and we weren’t saintly. Maybe we could be a quirky comedy team.” (Note: If you want to write a memoir, you should read well-written memoirs to see how they are done and to figure out how yours could stand out from the pack.)
Reader reviews mostly praise Bettyville, and George read some beautiful passages of quirky comedy full of love, but many reviewers weren’t happy when Hodgson veered away from mom stories to focus on his own thoughts and experiences. Well, memoirs don’t have to be all about one person. When someone else is hugely involved in your life story, your story can become about relationship, about both of you and your pasts and presents that make you each who you are and that have formed your life together. I thought it so sweet that George said he didn’t end the book with his mother’s death because then he could feel she was still alive—at least in the pages. Of course, some readers weren’t happy with that kind of non ending, but if they only knew the reason. . .
Other interesting memoir-writing tidbits George told us, prompted by audience questions, included that he wrote one character who is a composite of three others in order to protect those others. He was in a small town, after all. He asked permission from someone to write about a tragedy in their life, and he carefully wrote negative things about someone and found they have no clue a character in the book is them (usually a good thing). “I tried not to violate important privacies and I did not want to embarrass my mother.” Several in the audience commented how much love is in this memoir. George read some sections that brought tears of understanding laughter to my eyes, as a former caregiver, but his love and respect for his mother was always evident. George is rather quirky himself, and his dry humor zinged himself as well as others. (Note: You are not perfect, so don’t fake it or readers will find you uninteresting and unrelatable.)
Finally, George said, “Be intimate, or it’s nothing . . . You have to make friends with your readers—tell secrets.” He is a private person, and while he was writing the drafts he thought he could later cut out the parts he didn’t want to tell, but somehow “I seem to have sent the book off. . .” (Note: If you are ghostwriting for a family member or friend, you cannot force them to remember or tell you their inner thoughts and feelings. But ask, see what you can get out of them. Tell them it’s important. People want to know and understand.)
I will read Bettyville with a tissue in hand, to wipe away tears of laughter and pain.