Amanda Uhle spoke with Joanna Howard on the WCBN podcast Living Writers about Howard’s memoir Rerun Era (McSweeney’s, October 2019). We’re excited to share the transcript of their conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
AMANDA UHLE: Joanna Howard is a writer and translator from Miami, Oklahoma. She’s the author of the novel Foreign Correspondent, the story collections On the Winding Stair and In the Colorless Round and Field Glass, a collaborative novel written with Joanna Ruocco. She also co-translated Walls by Marcel Cohen and Cows by Frederic Boyer. She teaches in the literature PhD program at Denver University. We’re so excited to be publishing your memoir Rerun Era at McSweeney’s this fall. Would you introduce the book for our listeners?
JOANNA HOWARD: This was a surprise project for me as I’m usually a fiction writer and create things from the imagination completely. For this book, I instead investigated my childhood and went back to the year 1980 when I was five years old and growing up in rural Oklahoma in a family with some financial difficulties. There was a lot of poverty in the area where I grew up. My father was a truck driver and my mother was a secretary. In the year 1980, my father had a stroke, which he survived but the effects and ripples of that year really have carried out throughout my life.
In writing Rerun Era, I was thinking a lot about how some things that happen when you’re young really stretch into the rest of your life. I used that moment in my past as the starting point for the book, but really I think the meat of the book is more about what we did in our daily lives, like what we watched on television and what we listened to on the radio. A lot of the happy moments of my childhood come from those quieter times when people sat together around the television. It seems really silly, but it was really the place in which our family could kind of come together. They’re emblazoned in my mind, I think, because it was a particularly traumatic time.
AU: Do you think that the time together and the TV that you watched in those family moments were emblazoned in your mind because of the trauma and the difficulty that year that you were five?
JH: I don’t know which came first, the chicken or the egg, on this one to be honest. I have my whole life kind of organized time around my memories of what I watched that year or read that year or what songs I was listening to when I was on that particular vacation. So it’s always been kind of popular culture as an organizing principle, but I suspect that that might actually come from it being this thing in my childhood where I would find moments of respite. The television was always running in our home and the radio was always running. My dad slept with the radio on.
AU: Prior to this, had you been actively avoiding writing about yourself and your background?
JH: I think probably. Once you start going down that path, sometimes there’s this threat that you’ll just never get out of it. Even after I finished this book, I wasn’t sure I was done with it. My mother was ill at that time and I was imagining that another part of this book could be dealing with my mother and my mother’s death. It seemed like if you start to plumb the trauma of the past, it can kind of grab hold. I think I was nervous about that because our family always had little secrets. Not like the most terrible secrets, but as they start to come forward and you’re not really sure how to deal with them, I was nervous about that.
I think it’s really hard to appreciate the place that you come from if that place is perceived pretty negatively in the popular imagination. Growing up in rural Oklahoma, in rural America, I mean especially in 2019, it’s something where you have to dig deep to remember that there are aspects of that world that work against kind of the general tide of disapproval.
AU: Did you feel like you saw yourself and your family on TV in those years that you were a kid in Oklahoma?
JH: There’s this thing that I read about after I finished the book: in cultural criticism, they talk about this period called the rural purge to discuss the fact that, in the ’70s, there were all these programs on television that dealt with rural communities—things like Green Acres and the <>i>Beverly Hillbillies and Mayberry RFD and all of that stuff. Then there were all these working-class narratives, too, about truck drivers. There was the Smokey and the Bandit era, BJ and the Bear, all of this stuff where you saw real working-class people. Chico and the Man which is another one my dad really liked and Sanford and Son. They all got kind of pushed out in the ’80s in the Reagan era in favor of these programs that were really about fabulously rich dynasties, literally Dynasty or Falcon Crest or Dallas.
So when I was a little kid, I did see what I thought of as representations of working-class people. They had their stereotypes and their problems for sure, but it was really only a change in the desire to live the lifestyles of the rich and famous which came along a little later. Then I ceased to see those representations, I think.
AU: It makes you think about people who are living in rural parts of America now and what they’re seeing in our popular culture. It’s changed so much. We now have more choices than network TV, but I wonder if it’s more or less representative.
JH: I think in the current era where I look back at the place I came from, and I think, how can people vote against their interests so constantly, I do think that part of the fantasies that come about have to do with the representations that we see in our daily lives. If you’re being told that something happens one way or is one way and you’re seeing characters that are depicted in particular ways, I think you can get easily sucked into the fantasy of that. I think I actually feel kind of lucky that I saw a number of things growing up that had different narratives that could get stuck in my mind. For instance, you could be a hillbilly and you could end up in a mansion.
I think we need something right now to remind us that there are a lot of working-class people in these rural areas that also are concerned about the political moment and are concerned about their futures and are concerned about problems like racism and sexism and homophobia. Those people do exist in those places. It’s just about figuring out how to remind the world that they’re there so that they can gain a little more voice.
AU: How do we do that? How do we remind the world that those perspectives matter?
JH: It’s really hard. One of the reasons that I wanted to write this book is that I grew up with a father who was a member of the Teamsters. So he just had a really strong union sensibility and he was real street smart. He had not had a great education, had difficulty reading, but he was incredibly savvy. He’d given me a real understanding of the ways that the system worked against people even back in the day in the ’70s and ’80s. When I was working on the book, I wanted to remind myself of a lot of the people I grew up with that also shared my values and shared my political beliefs. I spent a lot of time around young boys, many of whom carried guns and went hunting, but who also were not super sexist and homophobic and racist. It was actually possible to find that community.
But they also were really struggling. I think that a lot of the people that I grew up with ended up in jobs that didn’t really go anywhere, didn’t have a lot of protections. The unions have sort of disappeared in that part of the world and people have been talked out of believing in them. I had a lot of friends who ended up in jail.
Writing about my dad helped me remember my dad and my brother who is still in Oklahoma and has the most lefty politics of anyone I know, but can’t really talk out loud. He can’t really speak his mind to a lot of people because the voice and the platform is just not there.
AU: Because you are known as a fiction writer and that is what you have mostly published before, I’d love to ask your perspective on a conversation that comes up with almost every memoir—the idea about fidelity to the facts and about how one’s memory may impact those facts and their accuracy. How did you approach that in writing the book?
JH: When I started the project, one of the saving graces of the way I write is that I don’t always have a sense of what I’m doing when I’m doing it or where it’s going to go. I didn’t even really know “Is this a memoir? Is this a thinly veiled novel?” I hadn’t decided. Fairly quickly, I realized I was putting in the names of my family members. I think the minute I saw their names appear, I knew that I was in a terrain that was going to be a little more delicate.
Both my parents have passed away, sadly, but my brother’s still well and good. He is 10 years older than me. So he had that little extra edge of understanding our childhood from a slightly older perspective. We really talked through a number of things. I realized that he wanted me to write about things that I was hesitant to write about and felt like I wanted to keep a little bit under wraps in the family. There were a couple of things there that I would have probably soft-shoed that my brother really wanted to come out. Namely, I would say about the fact that our grandfather committed suicide and our father found him when he was a little boy. So I didn’t really know how to approach that story. My brother talked me through the memory of what he’d been told about that story and suddenly I realized “Well it’s okay. I’m going to be guided by his shaping of things and be a little bolder and talk about some of the more hurtful things that linger in the family.” Even though I wrote it while my mother was alive, I was very nervous about what my mother would think about it. She passed away before the book came to light, but I think she would have disputed a number of the narratives that are in the book, for sure.
AU: Do you have those conversations with yourself—disputing some of those facts and some of those impressions—or do you feel very solid in them yourself?
JH: I’m always going to be one of these people who doubts memory. I think I have a pretty weird memory. Sometimes I remember meticulous details and people tell me I have a great memory. Then other times I do remember things wildly incorrectly and someone will prove it to me. So I get nervous about the way I remember things, but I also realized when I was writing the book that part of what happened in our childhood is that our parents didn’t know psychologically what they were doing. They had kind of pitted my brother and me against each other and they pitted us against the other parent. They didn’t get along that great. So we would have these competing narratives running of who was the good parent and who was the bad parent. I think that does a lot of harm in a family. So I wanted to be as honest as I could about what I remembered and kind of investigate how you get over those kinds of competitive narratives in the family.
AU: In the end, what you remember is the book and the real thing even if it would be disputed or denied by others that were there. Is the research for such a book speaking with your brother or visiting Oklahoma or is it also in other things?
JH: I mostly just kept it between me and my brother. I think that because a wedge had been driven between us when we were young, we didn’t have a great relationship for many, many years. It was really only when my parents were kind of on their way out that I got to know my brother in this way. So I wanted this to be this intimate project that was between us and between our memories. He went around and talked to a number of people. He has a really great memory too and a memory that’s very shaped by popular culture. I never talked about the premise of the book where I was using television to sort of organize things, but he just instinctively would say “Oh, yeah. Don’t you remember? That was that night we were watching Starsky and Hutch,” et cetera, et cetera. Obviously, our memories have been kind of similarly shaped.
AU: The narrator’s voice is quite childlike at times and it’s very fitting for the age you were in the era that you’re writing about. Were you purposefully capturing that time and hoping to not let the wise, knowing modern perspective in to the narrative?
JH: It became intentional. I didn’t really have any power over it. It was interesting. As a fiction writer, I’m kind of known for writing these embroidered, very baroque and descriptive texts, and when I sat down to write about Oklahoma and about my family, it didn’t come out that way at all. It came out sort of fragmented. The language is still weird in the book, I think, but it does seem like a completely different voice than I’ve ever worked in or that I’ve ever even really thought in, I would say. But obviously, it’s something that is connected to my childhood. So it became a question in my mind because there’s this way in which I think it’s really hard for people to believe that you can have both a child’s voice in a book and have a kind of more sophisticated vision of the world coming through that voice. It sorts of breaks the suspension of disbelief. Yet, I wanted both of those things to be present. So I just committed to the voice at a certain point and decided that she would either come across as the most precocious five-year-old or people would understand that the book can have these illogical simultaneous voices from the past and the future happening in it.
AU: You said something earlier about how the events from our childhood can stretch into the rest of our lives. Do you think that the events in the book are the primary ones that have stretched into your adulthood? Or do you think this is just one little part of many that have stretched into your life?
JH: I think that when trauma occurs and it’s not understood in the family, it’s those instances that I’ve really felt followed me my whole life. I think because there is a sort of moratorium in my family about talking about certain things. For instance, my grandfather committed suicide and my father had forgotten it. None of us were really allowed to talk about it in front of him. We had learned about it from his mother, and he had forgotten it. Then when his mother passed away, he found a box with the clipping that talked about his father’s suicide and he remembered it all. It really, it was really a shocking thing to witness somebody suddenly waking up to their memory.
For me, the memories from my childhood are not as traumatic as what my father experienced, for example dealing with my father’s stroke. However, there were a lot of details around them that I just didn’t understand and that the family just wasn’t willing to talk about, and so I’ve held onto them. The book was a way for me to revisit those and see if I could get to a place where they could exist a little bit more gently alongside some of the other parts of my childhood or in my memory currently.
AU: That’s a profound contrast to speak about your father who forgot something so important to one’s childhood and for you, his child, to have published a book about your memories. I mean that’s the opposite of forgetting—publishing a memoir.
JH: I think that the most important thing for me is to just maintain joy in your work, in your practice of your work. I mean, I write about some very depressing topics, but the process of building the work and then the result of the work, it has to give you some joy. I see a lot of young people get sort of lost in various criticisms that are sort of flying at them from everywhere. Every moment is a different moment politically and emotionally and depending on where you are in the world. Staying grounded and just staying in the love of the work is super important.
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