The mail brought a friend’s new book about the journey from her childhood home in Minnesota to life today in a village in France. Her adventures include years in New York, working as Caroline Kennedy’s editorial assistant, and living in a gypsy caravan outside Paris. I dug in with anticipation.
A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France (2023) by Janet Hulstrand is a delightful memoir that takes us from her grandmother’s hometown in Bonair, Iowa, to the author’s home in the French countryside. We learn much about Janet’s journey, including the complicated relationship with the two women who fueled her love for learning and exploration. A testament to family and the writing life, A Long Way from Iowa will interest those who seek to understand the people and places that shape the path they choose.
I caught up with Janet who enthusiastically agreed to chat about her newest work.
DJB: “A Long Way from Iowa” is a memoir. What’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?
JH: They’re both the author telling his or her own personal story. But a memoir is focused on a particular aspect of a life: it doesn’t attempt to tell the whole story, like an autobiography does. There are two main threads in my memoir: one is my coming to terms with my mostly positive, but often conflictual relationship with my mother, and to a lesser degree with my grandmother as well. And the other thread is about my becoming a writer. These two threads are very strongly interwoven, since I believe that both my mother and grandmother would have liked to be able to be writers themselves. But they didn’t have that chance; I am the lucky one who got to live out their unspoken dreams. I wanted to pay tribute to them for the legacy they left me; so I’ve tried to tell a bit of their stories, as well as mine.
You begin by writing about your grandmother. You say you didn’t really like her, yet she was a big reason you wrote this book. Why was she such an influence on you?
As a child, I thought that she didn’t like me, and as a child I felt that the only thing I could do about that was to not like her back. But then as an adult I realized, through a series of little epiphanies that I describe in the book, that she was almost certainly a frustrated writer. That gave me more sympathy for her. It also set me on a 30-year search for her lost diaries. I didn’t find them, but I did learn quite a bit more about her — about who she really was, what was important to her, and some of the frustration and loneliness I think she felt in her life — in the process of looking for them. I also realized that a large part of the reason I became a writer started with her: with her love of reading and writing, and with the way she instilled that love in her children, and indirectly in her grandchildren as well.
Your story is grounded in place. How important are places in understanding who you are?
I think they are very important. There are three places where I feel most at home: Minnesota, Brooklyn, and France. These places are very different from each other, and yet all of them are very important to me. I want to explore the power of place even more in my next book, which is in the very hazy planning stage right now.
As a professional writer and editor, how difficult is it to write about yourself?
The writing is not difficult at all. It’s publishing that is! As an editor and writing coach, I spend a lot of time telling my clients that everyone’s story is worth telling. And I believe this with all my heart and soul. Having said that, now that I’ve published my own memoir I find myself waiting anxiously to see how people will receive it. It’s a bit intimidating to wait for people to judge not only your writing but perhaps also the life you’ve lived and what you have to say about it.
You are very open about life’s challenges, from times of social isolation to a broken marriage. What advice would you give other writers who want to tackle sensitive subjects in their past?
I think it’s important to share the parts you feel you want to share with others, the parts that might help others in living their own lives; and then you have to have the courage to just tell the truth. But you also have to think about the repercussions for other people. What things do you have a right to tell, and what things might impinge on the privacy, or the happiness, of others? In my case, in order to tell my story I had to write about the fact that my marriage failed, but I chose to say very little about the details of it for a variety of reasons. I took great care in writing my book — and most especially in editing it — to think about how any of the personal details I revealed in telling my story might affect others. I hope I’ve been sufficiently respectful in that regard, and I hope I haven’t hurt anyone’s feelings. It can at times be tricky.
What books do you like to read?
I love reading good fiction, but I tend to spend more time reading nonfiction. It gives me the chance to fill gaps in my knowledge of history that I’d like to fill. But memoir is really my favorite genre. There are a couple of memoirs set in France — French Spirits by Jeffrey Greene, and I’ll Never Be French by Mark Greenside — that I read over and over again because I teach them. And I will be teaching an online class in April for Politics and Prose bookstore. We’ll be reading four memoirs set in the Midwest, including A Long Way from Iowa. I’m really looking forward to that.
Many thanks, Janet.
The pleasure was mine!
More to come…
Author photo: Kevin Sisson
Reblogged this on Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road and commented:
My friend David Brown is one of the most intelligent, avid, broadly and widely read, and voracious readers I know. And he doesn’t just read; he shares what he has learned from the many books he reads with the readers of his wonderful blog. I am therefore very honored (as well as grateful) that he has chosen to feature my new book (“A Long Way from Iowa”) in his latest post. (PS He writes about things other than books too; for example, music, politics, life. Always with kindness, thoughtfulness, and grace. You might want to follow his blog. There’s always More to Come! 🙂
Thanks, Janet, for reposting this on your wonderful blog! (Mutual appreciation society.) One or two of your followers have already taken the plunge to follow along with MTC. Very grateful for the recognition and recommendation! DJB
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