After years of working closely on the project, I’m happy to report that A Real Emotional Girl, the debut memoir by Tanya Chernov, is finally out and enjoying considerable success. Glowing reviews have been pouring in, including write-ups in Bookalicious, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus, where it earned a starred review and a spot on their list of 15 Excellent New Memoirs. I was going to interview Tanya and post the results, but the response to the book has been so heartwarming that I’ll just let the fans handle that.
What drove you to tell the story? It couldn’t have been easy. – Anonymous
No, it sure wasn’t easy. I set out to write the book I needed but didn’t have when I was in the midst of all that darkness, and by that measure, I hope I’ve succeeded. I felt a real hunger for information—true, real, honest information—that I couldn’t find in the many books I read both leading up to and then after my father’s death. And once I’d begun walking down this path, the connection I felt to my father again, during the writing and the research and all the ensuing soul-searching, was enough to keep me going. Through the stories and memories of my family and friends, I was able to understand and know my father in ways I never knew him while he was alive. That was the precious gift that came along with all the heartache and many, many, many tearful days at the computer. Let me tell you—I earned the title of this book. But beyond all that, I wanted to preserve his memory and his legacy, and hopefully offer a little comfort to those who have lost as I have, those who are part of this unlucky club we call grief.
How do you stay focused when writing on such a personal and life changing subject? – Melee L.
This project took me ten years to finish, so there were of course a good many months and even years when I had to take my focus away from the book for a while. I got my masters in poetry during one of those spells, but even while I was writing my thesis collection, what I was really doing—on some subconscious level—was working on this memoir. So I suppose it has been with me from the day I took to the keyboard to this very day, in a way I couldn’t ever get away from even when I tried.
When it came to the writing and editing, I did have to keep myself quite focused, and even numb to the emotions sometimes. Other times, I had to find a way to get down into the darkness again, to crawl back inside some of those deeply painful memories in order to look around in there, enough to be able to describe everything I experienced. That was pretty awful, but it’s the only way I know how to write. It’s funny, because I figured that no book would ever be as difficult or draining to write as this memoir because no other story will tell my own history, but working on my next project—a post-apocalyptic novel—I very often find myself sharing my characters’ emotions so intensely that my writing sessions are still full of tears! Maybe other writers can fake it, but I’ve got to imagine myself experiencing the emotions I write about as one would approach acting with the Stanislavki method, and it isn’t always pretty. But it pays off, I think; my readers seem to be picking up what I’m throwing down, and that’s all I could ever ask for.
What advice would you give to a person whose friend has experienced something like you did? What do you wish your friends had done for you that they didn’t? – Beth G.
The one thing I would say to do is just be loving. Grief takes a lot of turns, and it stings for a long, long time. One thing I would advise against is saying that you understand, because you won’t, and you don’t have to. There is no one universal way to handle loss, and no one way to support someone who’s grieving. Be present, be patient, and be loving.
I’ve been lucky to have some incredible friends who stuck by me even when I wasn’t very fun to be around. But there were a lot of others who sort of fell by the wayside, too, mostly because they either couldn’t or didn’t want to acknowledge what I was going through. And at the end of the day, that was all I wanted—to be recognized for what I was feeling. Another thing I noticed was that a lot of people were afraid to bring up the topic because they thought it would make me sadder. But I love talking about my dad, and it warms me to tell old stories with both the people who knew him and those who never had the chance. That’s one of the best ways to keep his memory alive, by talking about him and remembering him with the people I love.
Have you begun to get feedback from either readers who knew your family during the period of time you’ve written about, or who’ve been through similar experiences? What’s it like to hear their impressions? – Kelly D.
Oh yeah—the response has been huge! And honestly, it’s been pretty overwhelming. Wonderful, but overwhelming. Because my dad had such an extensive network of friends and family, and because the camp community is so huge, I’ve been getting hundreds of emails and cards over the last few weeks.
A lot of people do express their gratitude for sharing my story because it resonated with their own experiences, and that part is pretty incredible. I set out to write a book that would help people. I hope I’ve done that. But what’s really been great is knowing that telling this story has brightened people’s memories of my dad. That part feels fantastic. Getting such good reviews and positive receptions has been everything I ever wanted, and it’s also been really hard. Hearing all these stories does bring a lot back to the surface for me, and that can be exhausting. But worth it, of course.
How in the world did you remember all those details and feelings and thoughts over all those years? – Denise B.
Ha! Good question. I wrote the first draft of this book just about six months after my father died, so much of it was still quite fresh in my memory. The writing itself in that draft was absolute crap, but I’m grateful that I got it all down in some form before it all got too fuzzy. Even though none of us remember things happening the same way, I also relied on my mother and brothers quite a bit to fill in the gaps. My mom kept excellent records of all my dad’s treatments and procedures, and that helped as well.
Were you able to write honestly? Or did you feel if you wrote this, or that it would hurt someone’s feelings or be too painful for them to read? – Anonymous
I was indeed able to write honestly, but it took a lot of courage! Sharing what are basically my deepest and darkest secrets with the entire world was pretty scary. But I made a decision a very long time ago that if I was going to do this, then I was going to really give it everything. Warts and all. No point in doing a half-assed version, in my opinion. I chose to involve my family in the process because I wanted them to be comfortable with the book, because of course a lot of this is their story, too, and that process was pretty challenging at times. But in the end, I feel that I was able to tell the story I wanted to tell, while also accommodating any sensitivities my family members had. I’m glad I ended up with the book as it is, but I have actually heard from a few people who weren’t able to finish the book. That hurts, but I knew not everyone would want to face this stuff, and that’s okay.
Did you put something in your book that you were iffy about but ultimately happy you added? – Maria S.
Most definitely. There is one part in particular that felt incredibly scary to reveal, but it represents the very pit of darkness grief brought me to, and it has a place of real value in the story. The kind of writing I do is no-holds-barred, but putting my own story on the line was frightening. I like the idea of writing my next project with that same level of intensity, but without my own personal reputation at stake!
How do you handle success and all that implies? – Laurel R.
I’ll tell you when I get there! The book has been well-received so far, yes. But that doesn’t mean I feel like I’ve hit “success.” I feel anxious to get crackalackin’ on the next book and really kick some ass with it. Birthing a book and then setting to work promoting it is a whole hell of a lot of work, and I’m handling it by buckling down as much as I can and just getting it done, no matter how little sleep I get. This is such a personal project, so I’m giving it all I got. Marketing isn’t something I feel any natural inclination for but I sure am trying!
If you could go back to when you first started writing the memoir and tell yourself one thing, what would it be? What was the most helpful piece of advice you received during the process? – Bethany W.
To be patient! This whole process took such an awfully long time, and every single minute lent something valuable to the final product. Some books are like this; they take time to marinate. As far as helpful advice goes, I actually have to credit Chuck Palahniuk on this one. I met him when he spoke at Northwest Book Fest one year while I was still in college. As he signed my copy of Lullaby, I asked him if he ever felt like he had to censor himself, or if other people along the way tried to force censorship on him. He told me that there was no point doing what he did if he was only going to be dulled down in the end, and that’s what I’ve tried to do ever since. I only know one way to write, just like Chuck (who was actually drunk that day, but that’s another story), and that way is balls-out.
If you had to be something besides an amazing, riveting writer, that is, you’d work in a field having nothing to do with writing, editing, or teaching English, what would you like to be? And you can’t pick anything to do with camp or camp counselor either! – Ashia L.
I always say that if I wanted to live a more shallow life, I would have made a great personal shopper! I love shopping, and have a special knack for finding the perfect item and the perfect wardrobe for anyone. It’s a gift—seriously, ask anyone who knows me. There were two years in my life when I wrote basically nothing at all, and those two years were spent working in the Salon Shoes department at the flagship Nordstrom store in downtownSeattle, and that time was great fun for me. Carefree, thoughtless. I needed that time to just be selfish. My life isn’t like that now, but I do still love a good shopping challenge! Beyond that, I think I could have been really happy with an academic career. Theoretic linguistics is a secret obsession of mine, and I’d love to go back for a degree in that field if my schedule ever allowed it.
Scent is such a powerful tool of remembering, what’s your ‘go-to’ scent for your father? (Mine for my grandmother is a half empty bottle of white diamonds perfume) and do you ever use tools like that in writing? –Beth B.
What a great question. I wish his clothes still smelled like him, but they don’t anymore. This an honest answer, and it’s kind of gross, but the smell of my brother’s and my sweat is just like our father’s, and it reminds me of him in a very visceral way. Not that I go around trying to smell our stinky armpits or anything…that’s gross.
I don’t usually use smell as a tool in my writing, but I am very particular about the kind of music I listen to while writing. I typically make a playlist specific to each project, and only listen to that set of songs every time I sit down to write. It helps me pick up where I left off in my previous writing session.
Do you ever have a stream of ongoing conversation in your mind with your Dad? – Anonymous
An ongoing stream, no. Not really. But that doesn’t mean I don’t ever talk to him, because I do. I even feel like he is communicating with me, in a sense, from time to time. Sometimes I pull up in front of a car with a bumper sticker he once had, or a certain song will come on the radio that he loved, and I’ll just feel his presence in that moment. And there’s usually some message there for me, and I try to pay attention in those moments
Was it difficult handing over something so personal to an editor or publisher for someone to edit and critique? – Anonymous
That part actually wasn’t too bad. I’ve forced myself to grow a thick skin because in this industry, you’ll go crazy without it. I’m very lucky, though—I’ve got the most talented editors and agents on my team; I trusted them enough that I was able to just carry out whatever revisions we agreed on.
If you could only share one line – one moment out of A REAL EMOTIONAL GIRL, what would it be and why? – Naomi C.
Wowsers, that’s a great question, and a tough one! If I could only leave my readers with one message, it would be this: “It wasn’t about becoming enlightened or special; the true gift of loss is learning to enjoy life for what it is—to love fully and not waste time being unnecessarily angry or sad.” I choose this line because it represents the greatest lesson I’ve learned from my father, and that is to be loving and to enjoy life. There’s a whole lot of pain and darkness in this story, but in the end, I came out of that darkness. I want people who can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel to take my word for it that the light does exist.
Wonderful. Thank you, Tanya, for taking the time to answer your fans. If I had to choose, my favorite moment would be “He told me not to worry about being him or being me. That if I learned how to begin everything I do or say with love, to fill my heart with it, everything would look different. That in the end, being right isn’t what matters.” I’m sure you’ll have yours, too.
Now you see why getting this book published has meant so much to me. If you’ve read it, please take the time to leave a review on Amazon. If you haven’t, you can order it here from your local indie bookstore or direct from the author at www.arealemotionalgirl.com. I hope you will. And I hope to be working with Tanya’s books for a good long time.
The release party for A Real Emotional Girl will be at 7:30 tonight, September 13th, at SoDo Park by Herban Feast in downtown Seattle. You are all cordially invited.