Exactly a year ago, I had the opportunity to swap books with author Grant Handgis. Though never a reader of memoirs, I was instantly mesmerized by the humor and honesty with which he shared his personal story. Perhaps it happens all the time, but at the end of that literary peek into his life, I felt as though I’d met a friend. As it turns out, I had.
I recently finished reading Handgis’s latest work, Sleeping Under the Bandstand, a compilation of stories his mother wrote about her life while growing up in Kansas. It’s a captivating account of a complex human journey, of a woman’s intrepid spirit, rich in determination, honesty, and insight.
I’m delighted to share the author and his books with you.
DWP: I’m fascinated by an author’s decision to write a memoir. What was the impetus behind your choice?
GMH: Up until the time I had made the decision to make the plunge into writing a book as personal as a memoir, the books I had written were rather eclectic, including two books of poetry, a children’s fairytale and a book about Mexico. All had been previously written some years beforehand; before digital publishing became available. I had just completed getting those books in print and was contemplating the next book project. I hadn’t yet waded into fiction, so was working out how I wanted to begin. I was also reading new authors at the time, garnering ideas and observing their writing styles.
My daughter handed me a book by David Sedaris one afternoon and I began reading “Naked”. I enjoyed his style and his approach to the memoir, which led me to pick up Augustine Burroughs’ book “Running With Scissors”. I was about halfway through that book when all of a sudden it became quite clear to me that I could do that. Up until that time I had always thought that no one in their right mind would want to read a book about my life. That mental battle only lasted a few days, until I sat down to see what might happen if I should make that attempt. The reason I decided to divide the memoir into two parts, two books, was simply that my life story was basically divided into two parts. It seemed like a good idea at the time anyway.
DWP: I imagine that writing about real people can push against a few boundaries. Some memoirists go straight for the truth of their experiences, regardless of the impact on others. What factors did you consider when writing about others, including family members?
GMH: The reason it took several days before I began actually putting anything on paper, well, computer, had to do with this question. How much do I tell, and what would be acceptable to readers. Considerations to topic and language were fairly quickly tempered after considering what I had read of Sedaris and Burroughs. They laid it out in brutal detail, even sexual escapes and adult situations. Most of my life story was devoid of much of that excellent sexual history so that became a minor issue. The more important element was using names of real people, and characters involved to keep things real. I queried the family members who would be named in the book for their feelings for my using their names, and no one complained.
Being that it would have been impossible to contact the other historical characters in the book, I only named those which were integral to the story, and then only wrote about them in a humorously positive fashion. I never denigrate or demean, or put a character in a bad light. I was writing satire. I even apologetically explained my having sued someone I worked with for breach of verbal contract, and regretted it afterwards. The final consideration was how much of me I was willing to expose, being there was so much potential for satire directed at myself, my past cluelessness. And that became the basis of the story’s theme; learning to think. I wrote into the story the process I used for that process.
DWP: I recently finished your latest book, Sleeping Under the Bandstand, a compilation of stories your mother wrote about her life. You state in the prolog that you made an artistic choice to limit your editing. Tell me what you hoped to accomplish.
GMH: That project was over two years in the making. After reading the stories as they were handed to me, in folded dot matrix printouts, it became clear that my mother had her own voice, relaying the stories in the oral tradition. My mother grew up in the mid-west, in Topeka, Kansas, and she framed a good deal of her speech from the regional dialect and period use of slang words. I didn’t want to alter that in any way. It was her voice and for me, made the stories all the more personal and real.
The only additions I made to the work were adding commas, to make it more readable from the page, instead of listening to the stories verbally. I will confess to one small addition to the story itself. I added five words at the end of the next to the last chapter. My mother had passed before I was able to complete the book, so there were to be no additions or revisions by her. Being there were dozens and dozens of stories in the original collection, I had yet to fully organize them all, and therefore had no way of seeing how they would all fit together. The ending story of that chapter, just ended, describing a rebuke from her then husband on her being a lady. To finish the ending of that chapter, and account for the ensuing years of her life with my step-father, I added five words; “for the next twenty years”. I believe she will forgive me for that.
DWP: You also wrote a children’s book that your talented wife, Christine Mach-Handgis, illustrated. Do you have any more children’s books in your future?
GMH: I am still out on that one. With my wife supporting my writing in general, and children’s books in particular, I know she would illustrate whatever children’s book I wrote. Being a serial confessor of sorts, the children’s book I wrote didn’t start out as a book idea, but a poem written for my daughter, when she was about eight. Being in the right frame of mind at the time the words continued to flow after that, and the poem became the open page to the larger story behind it. I had written the first five pages of the story in one sitting at that time, yet simply could not work out the point of the story, let alone any moral to the story. That didn’t happen for thirty years. At this time I have over a dozen books outlined and awaiting my attention, so another children’s book will likely be somewhere near the bottom of the list, although inspiration may step in and change that without notice.
DWP: Now that your planned memoirs are complete (at least for the time being), you’ve started writing in the realm of fiction. Tell us about your current project.
GMH: Without original design, I have ended up connecting my books by using a technique that came to me upon finishing the first memoir. The final line of the book became the title to the subsequent book. From that, the next book in line was to be “Marinating In Dream Sauce”, my first fictional novel. I have the opening and the ending, and know the characters and the thrust of the story. Being it will be my first work of fiction, I’m feeling some headwinds on that front.
There were a few things I did leave out of the memoir, with but a mention. One of those things was my experience in Vietnam in 1967. I have never talked about that. So many books have been written on that subject and that time. Mostly blood and guts material. I tend to write satire, and I just never felt there was anything particularly funny to write about those experiences, or that war. Some months ago surviving marines I served with found me through social media and contacted me. One of them asked me that very question, and I gave him the same answer.
Over the months I have put way too many hours into pondering that decision and have come to believe that writing about it may be as cleansing as writing a memoir, which was indeed a cleansing experience. I have begun working on that project, although my intention is to focus on the psychological aspects of warfare, through irony. Something akin to the storyline of Catch-22. Unless things change, the title will be “The Irony of War”, and it will be non-fiction.
DWP: What have you noticed about the transition from non-fiction to fiction? What do you enjoy most about fiction? What do you find the most challenging? Any surprises?
GMH: The first thing I notice is something akin to fear. It is an entirely new area of writing I have yet to experience. Non-fiction is fairly easy. It entails getting all the details correct and in place. Fiction, on the other hand, is made up entirely, and one needs believable characters in believable situations, even though it is all fabricated. It has to seem realistic. My writing instincts indicate I will make that happen as I do enjoy description and embellishment. I just don’t know how credible I will be when I begin. I can only imagine that talent comes with time, and lots and lots of practice.
The part of fiction I would likely enjoy is fabricating situations that tell a larger story through the characters personality, and their foibles. I like to weave philosophical meaning into the story, sort of an application of vicarious learning. That attracts me more than anything else. The most challenging aspect of writing fiction for me is simply the unknowns. I will likely overdo things until I find the right voice and flow of the story, and settle into letting things unfold naturally.
DWP: Can you give us a brief rundown on your books with links?
GMH: So the reader knows, I offer a 20% discount on any book purchased from my website, Brother Coyote Publications where all my books are listed. The discount code is on the site. Click on any book to get to the check out page where the code is (copy/pasted) in the code window during check out.
Shop at Amazon: Grant Handgis Books
Shop at Barnes & Noble: Grant Handgis Books
My list of books; in order of publication:
- “In The Age of Youth” (poetry)
- “Living On Dreams” (poetry)
- “The Story of Teeny Tiny Tammy” (children’s)
- “A Gringo’s Tour of Mexico” (travel)
- “I Have Mine…Show Me Yours (memoir)
- “Waking Up Naked” (memoir)
- “Sleeping Under The Bandstand” (memoir)
I want to thank you for inviting me to do this interview. I am honored. I have read your books and am enthralled with your writing ability, and your stories. They are beautifully crafted and so enjoyable to read. You have set the mark for me.