Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Author Interview: Jackie Shannon Hollis, This Particular Happiness

Jackie Shannon Hollis is a writer, storyteller, and speaker who grew up with the assumption she would get married and have kids. When she fell in love with a man who didn't want children, she had to examine her assumptions and chose a different path. Her new memoir, This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story (Forest Avenue Press), looks back on her happy life without children of her own.

Jackie talked with Rose City Reader about her memoir, self-discovery, and some recent favorite books:

How did you come to write your memoir This Particular Happiness?

The book started off as an essay to explore the experience of being childless when I was beyond the time of longing and the possibility had passed. I wanted to shine the light on the complex decisions around becoming a parent or not. From the outside childless people are often seen as either selfish (because they didn’t want children), or sad (because they wanted and couldn’t have children). The true experience is much more textured, and it changes over time. Many people who are childless are quiet about their experience, and people around them don’t typically ask about it. I wanted to open up the conversation.

As I worked on the essay, I realized I needed to address bigger questions. How did the way I was raised influence my choices in relationships and also in the question of whether to become a parent? How much of my longing came from external pressure and how much was my own desire? What was it about my husband’s history that made him uninterested in becoming a parent? Why was he the person I wanted to spend my life with? This led me to the bigger topic I wanted to explore, to unravel the what’s and why’s that lead us to finding our true self. And so, while I see This Particular Happiness as a book for readers interested in the decisions we make about parenthood, it is also a book for readers who want to go on a journey of self-discovery.

What is the meaning of the title?

The definition of happiness given to us by society is often a narrow band: grow up, graduate high school, go to college, career, marriage, children. But happiness is beautifully complex, and we each have our own “particular” way of being happy. The title reflects my sense of surprise at finding my happiness in a shape I didn’t expect. Looking for it to come in one form risks missing it in the form it arrives in.

The subtitle: A Childless Love Story. reflects all the kinds of loving that are woven into my story –in addition to romantic love and the love of a long-term partner, this love story explores mother and daughter, father and daughter, sisters, friendship, and the love that comes from being an aunt.
My own particular happiness is hard won, and I never take it for granted. And by “happiness” I mean being present for all the joys and pains of being alive.

You describe your book as exploring "the complicated relationship with the self through the lens of childlessness." How defining was your decision to not have children?

When I shifted from an automatic “plan” to have children, to questioning why I wanted them, and ultimately deciding I would not have them, I knew (given my generation and upbringing), that this would be a different path from the traditional and expected. The role of “mother” tends to be elevated and romanticized in our pronatalist society. People are often uncomfortable with the woman who says, with no apology, or explanation. “No, I don’t have children.” Not choosing motherhood pushed me to ask, what else? There is no lovely word to define a non-mother. All the words are about absence. So that isn’t validated externally, I had to find a way to value it in myself.

At the same time, I also never wrapped the identity of childless or childfree around myself. I am and have always been a woman who loves children and for a number of years, despite my plan not to have children, I felt the dual pull of longing to have one alongside the specific freedoms of being childfree. I think my defining identity became a woman who loves wholeheartedly. This has led to a life full of friends, family, work and travel, and more children and young people than I could ever have imagined. And a relationship with my husband Bill that has been the truest joy of my life.

Writers often follow the rule, “Write what you know.” But did you learn something about yourself from writing your memoir that you didn’t know before?

Oh yes. It would be impossible (and not very interesting) to write about a personal experience without discovering something new. In fact, I think the discovery is why most memoirists (and writers in general) write.

Perhaps one of the biggest discoveries was how I had shielded myself from the judgements of others by hiding the part of me that longed for a child. I got in touch with the sadness that I had carried in a mostly hidden pocket of myself. Similarly, as a person who survived having been raped, I understood on a deeper level than ever before how that life-threatening assault had given me a certain kind of urgency to live the fullest life.

Did you consider turning your experiences into fiction and writing your story as a novel?

I did consider this, briefly. But I think part of what is compelling about my memoir is that it is a very honest story. It seems to me that, had I shaped this as fiction, the power of the story would have been diminished. And then there would be the question always, of which parts are true and which aren’t…which I understand happens to writers who write novels inspired by their own lives. The fiction gets layered onto them anyway.

One of the great delights of book events with my memoir has been doing these with people who are part of this story. My niece, my husband, my dear friend, my cousin, each came and joined me at different events and they talked about their own stories that I had written about. For instance my cousin Patti talked about the death of her daughter at 19, which I write about from the perspective of a non-mother who loved her. My niece Annilee talked about her decision not to have biological children, but to adopt and also about the aunt/niece relationship. My friend Amy and I did an event together where we talked about the impact her becoming a mother had on our friendship and how we healed from what was a 17-year breakup. Bill and I, have done several event together talking about how we navigated as a couple through the experience of wanting very different things.

Are there other memoirs about women finding their authentic selves that you recommend?

Oh my gosh. So many books. I hate choosing because it means I will later think of another and another.

Of course, Wild by Cheryl Strayed is a wonderful example of this (a deeply honest and inspiring personal journey, both internal and external). A memoir from some time ago that I have never forgotten is A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel (oh how I loved and laughed through this book). The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod is a complex exploration of childhood incest and the impact over time. Most recently I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, which blew me away in the originality of the story structure as well as the power of the story itself.

I give this range of books as an example of how many ways there are to tell a personal story with the same arc, tension, devastation, and hope that can be found in fiction. And I could give so many more examples. Because women are writing with power and authenticity.

Who are your favorite authors and is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?

I cannot choose a favorite author. I read a lot and a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, in short and long form. I’ve been reading a collection of short stories Shine of the Ever by Claire Rudy Foster and I admire their writing very much. And I’ve just finished The Dutch House. Ann Patchett is a master. I plan to read this again as I go back to writing fiction because the way she unfolds story and character and helps me like EACH character in all their complexity. Well, I’d love to have one ounce of her talent. Ramiza Koya’s book, The Royal Abduls (recently released by my publisher, Forest Avenue Press), is on my mind a lot because the two narrators of the story are a childless aunt and her nephew. What a delight to see this relationship unfold as part of the story.

People who write are my favorites authors and there are many gems to be discovered. Even in work that is less than perfect, I learn something as a writer and a reader. I do find as a writer that it is a harder to get completely lost in a book because I am often paying attention to the how it is written in terms of structure, voice, and so on. A really great book makes me forget all that, and then I go back and reread to try to figure out how the author helped me get lost in the story.

You have a terrific website and are active on Facebook, twitter, and Instagram. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?

The important thing about all these mediums is to be yourself and make it fun to do. What I post on social media comes from my truth, and I try to have a good time doing it. If it’s not natural to me I won’t do it. That’s why I am less active on Twitter. It just goes so dang fast and people are so witty.

I’m glad to hear you like my website! For new authors especially, a good website with helpful information, and a social media presence will really help them and their book be more visible. It helps both readers and media make contact with the author or their representatives. My website has links to reviews, interviews, other stories, blog posts, and a photo gallery for folks who read the book to see pictures that mirror parts of the memoir.

It’s challenging to draw the attention of readers. Social media is important especially for authors published by indie presses. We hope news of our book gets out to the world and that people buy it. A good review from an influential publication helps. But for an indie author, that is often hard to do. So the author and the publisher spread the word in all the other ways. I am lucky to have Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press championing my book.

Social media offers great resources for writing and throughout the publishing process. Writers supporting each other, indie bookstores, reading series, bloggers (like you!) and podcasts are all wonderful opportunities to connect with readers. And by the way, one of the delights of this publishing process has been the connection with readers (personal messages to me, Instagram shares, GoodReads and Amazon reviews). So readers, if you LOVE a book, let the world and the author know. It means so much to us.

What other projects are you working on?

I’m slowly finding my way back to a novel that I began some years ago. At the Wheat Line is set in rural Oregon in the 1970’s. Back then, wheat harvests were mostly done by teenagers -- boys running combine, girls driving truck. Carly Lang, the narrator, is on one of the harvest crews. She is grieving the recent death of her mother which happened under shameful circumstances and the whole town is still talking about it. A new boy joins the crew. A city boy with big ideas. Teenagers, tinder dry wheat, those big machines are all fuel for an explosive summer. The 1970’s were also a time when national agricultural policies began to favor larger corporate farms and small farmers began to feel the pressure of these changes. That time has roots in some of the current urban/rural divide and this is a backdrop of the novel.

Thank you for this interview, Gilion, and for Rose City Reader, and your support of books and authors. You are wonderful.



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