Memoir mania

From 'Angela's Ashes' rises a glut of life stories looking to be published

There is a page of literary history that starts in Molly Friedrich's bedroom. It was April 1995 and Friedrich's father had died three days earlier.

The New York City literary agent was wrought with grief and totally uninterested in reading anything, much less a single-spaced manuscript that had been pecked out on a typewriter onto onionskin paper. Still, she had promised a friend she would give it a look.

Friedrich read the first four pages. Then she put it down. This was it.

"The reason that I got into the business and the reason I stayed in the business had finally arrived,'' she said, recalling the night.

In her lap were the first 120 pages of Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes.''

McCourt's account of his impoverished boyhood in Ireland would win the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography and top best-seller lists for more than a year. Computer keyboards and typewriters from Albany to Ethiopia have been clacking ever since. There's an endless supply of life stories out there, and many of them land on Friedrich's desk.

"We get a lot of 'I'm the Frank McCourt of Ethiopia,' or 'I'm the Frank McCourt of China,' said Friedrich.

McCourt's "every man'' history -- he was a retired high school teacher before becoming a Pulitzer winner -- unleashed a torrent of lottery-like hopes. Whether you are Jeanne Finley, a free-lance editor in Albany, or Margaret Elvin, a part-time accountant in Slingerlands, you too can pen your story. And get it published.

"The whole time I was reading 'Angela's Ashes,' I was thinking that my mother's story was comparable,'' said Elvin. She's been writing her memoir ever since.


"Angela's Ashes'' may have unleashed the flood, but the momentum was already building.

Memoirs were once for presidents, retired generals, and Cher. But in recent years, baby boomers have decided that their stories are at least as interesting as those of politicians. The first-person genre is perfectly suited to a generation that has grown up talking about itself and expecting the world to listen.

"When you marry a type of ego strength with a type of rebellion like the '60s, you get a lot of talking,'' said Patricia Eisemann, vice president, director of publicity for Scribner, the company that published "Angela's Ashes.''

There is also a populist bent to the new memoir selection, one that says that the everyday problems of divorce, poverty and crummy childhoods deserve as much attention as the political battles in the Cold War.

Nonfiction shelves at Barnes & Noble are filled with the stories of average people. There are plenty of life-as-an-issue books -- my life as a drinker, my life as a guy who got divorced, my life as a person with depression. And now with the success of "Angela's Ashes,'' there are books filled with life stories, some sweet, some sorrowful, one about a guy who loved to build rockets. Homer Hickam's "The Rocket Boys'' was recently made into the critically aclaimed movie "October Sky.''

Publishers and agents call it a glut. But thousands of writers sitting at home with computers have hit on something else: Hey, we've got life stories, too.


Phyllis Hillinger's story starts in a small seaside town called Hull. Her memoir, which she has been writing on and off for 2 years, is a nostalgic look at her childhood town on the Massachusetts shore.

Hillinger is 51. Like many of her fellow boomers, she is ready to look back. And like the corner crowd at the local luncheonette that swaps memories of the old days, Hillinger wants to publish and add her stories to the conversation.

There's a sense of loss people have about the 1950s, Hillinger said, remembering carefree trips to a Happy Days-like ice-cream parlor and a feeling of safety that is so different from her kids' experiences in Delmar. Her memoir also reckons with the contrast between her serene life on the beach and nightmares about bombs destroying it all.

"I think somewhere, there is something in you that feeds your soul,'' she said. "And this silly little town fed my soul. It still feeds my soul.''

Hillinger has spoken to an agent and heard the lines about there being too many memoirs. Still, she hopes to publish her work as a series of short stories, or perhaps as a children's book. She is playing with Lotto odds.

McCourt's success attracted publishers' attention to memoirs, said Paul Gediman, editor of non-fiction forecasts for Publishers Weekly. But life stories are still a hard sell.

"There's no formula to duplicate,'' Gediman said. "Memoirs of people that nobody's heard of are not a formula publishers can rely on.''


Write well enough and you can make the head of a pin sound interesting. Otherwise it helps to be famous or have forbidden sex (both are even better). But even the frontiers of sex have been traversed and sometimes trampled in the rush to publish memoirs.

Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss'' detailed her sexual affair with her father and raised the shock bar for confessional memoirs.

"I don't know how more bizarre we can get,'' said Eisemann, who has spent 19 years promoting books for major publishing houses.

Maybe a son could have an affair with his mother (a topic that gave Sophocles enduring success) or perhaps something with the family dog.

But the themes are getting exhausted, Eisemann said.

"I think right now, the next memoir that will sell will be a person whose life was normal,'' Eisemann said.

Inspirational tales and stories with a sense of history are catching publishers' attention, said Daniel Mandel, a literary agent in New York City. Many of the interesting manuscripts that hit his desk combine memoir with history.

"People are being smarter and looking back in their family members' lives,'' he said. "Sometimes the best story that they might be able to tell is family history and how they fit into it.''

Jeanne Finley is tracing her family's history through its secrets.

Finley is a free-lance editor and writer in Albany. She'd been trying to write a novel for several years when it struck her that the best story line she had was her own. Last year, she finally set the novel aside and launched into a geneological adventure.

After Finley's mother died in 1988, Finley found a bag of photographs in the back of a dresser dawer. Inside were pictures of her father's early adult years and a life Finley knew nothing about. Her father, dead for many years, had never mentioned his past.

There were pictures of Finley's half-brother, whom she has never met, and her father's first and second wives. She knew their names and the barest bones of their life stories -- the only clues her mother had given her.

Finley taught herself to do historical research and traced the first 20 years of her father's adult life. She followed him through an early marriage, the birth of a son and his fate when his first wife left him with a small child.

She is weaving her father's story and her journey of discovery into a memoir.

As with all memoirs, Finley's success will rest in her writing.

While bizarre stories might be forgiven a few literary shortcomings, it takes extraordinary writing to bring an ordinary if intriguing story to life, said agents and editors.

Finley's manuscript will head into an industry that has already binged on memoirs. But her father's story probably has a better chance of being published now than in the early part of the century, when he lived.


For that, Finley can thank in part her generation's rejection of authority figures in the 1960s, said Albert Stone, a retired American Studies and English professor from the University of Iowa.

The boomers have been carving a place on modern book shelves for ordinary people's stories.

"It's a movement that has a lot to do with democracy,'' said Stone, who wrote a book on American autobiographies. "Since the 1960s, a lot of the best American autobiographies have been written by women, by blacks, by immigrants and by gays and lesbians.''

These new memoir writers are people who were historically shut out of society's power circles and whose life stories were not usually considered important enough to warrant a book, Stone said. Historically, memoirs were for people like Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Franklin, he added, citing two classics.

The 1960s changed that. So did Oprah.

TV talk shows made telling all a ticket to fame, however fleeting. Average people's stories were worth money. And tragedies came with book deals.

But "Angela's Ashes'' has given sharing your life story a deeper meaning for many newly aspiring memoir writers.

"With 5 billion people out there, what is so significant about one person's life?'' said Margaret Elvin, a part-time accountant from Slingerlands. McCourt's story gave her the answer: everything.

Elvin is writing about her relationship with her mother, who grew up in England.

"Maybe the reason for some people is that they want to feel that their life was important, that it mattered,'' Elvin said. "Maybe that is a part of it for me, too. It must be.''

First published on Saturday, March 6, 1999

Life & Leisure

Copyright 1999, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Frank McCourt