The making of a first novel that occupies the ‘slim edge’ between memoir and fiction

“I knew I wanted to tell my story 25 years ago, after I moved permanently to Maine,” says Rackliff Island resident Alice Bingham Gorman. That story is the basis of Valeria Vose, the autobiographical novel Gorman published at the end of 2018, which is the winner of the 2019 Independent Publishers Book Awards Gold Medal in Southern Regional Fiction.

“I began writing it as a memoir and then I went to graduate school to get a MFA in writing and that changed everything. I took a semester of fiction writing and I fell in love with fiction. I’ve always loved to read fiction, and I’ve always loved memoir, too. To me, the best fiction feels as though it’s a memoir and the best memoirs feel as if they are fiction. So I took this semester class and then began writing fiction.”

After earning her MFA in writing from Spalding University in 2005, Gorman began in earnest transforming the memoir she had begun into a novel. “When I finished the manuscript I sent it to my fiction teacher at Spalding and asked, ‘Do you think this is worthwhile, could it be published and, if so, would you work with me?’ And he wrote back, ‘Yes, yes and yes.’ So for the next six months he worked as an editor with me—I’m a complete believer that all writing needs an editor, you need somebody else who looks at it from the point of view of the reader—and then I went about deciding how to publish it.”

Gorman will be talking about her novel in conversation with Maine author Bill Roorbach on July 16 at the Ocean View Grange in Martinsville as part of this year’s Summer Literary Series sponsored by the Jackson Memorial Library. Gorman founded the popular series a dozen years ago and continues to select each year’s roster of presenting writers. “My volunteer committee urged me to be one of the speakers this year. I thought if I did it as a conversation with Bill, who everyone loves, he will bring another dimension to the presentation and balance the fact that I am a first-time novelist. The two other writers this year, Roxana Robinson (Dawson’s Fall) and Hampton Sides (On Desperate Ground: The Marines at the Reservoir, The Korean War’s Greatest Battle) have published a lot of books and I haven’t.”

Her novel, Gorman says, begins with a crisis in a marriage. “The protagonist, Valeria Vose, who is called Mallie—her last name was Malcom before she married so that’s how ‘Mallie’ came about—is living out the expectations she was taught through her Southern mother, her grandmother, her aunts. Her whole life was based on being the good wife and the good mother. And she is suddenly faced with a divorce and that becomes critical. Who is she if she’s not a married woman in this world of expectations that she lives in? So this book is about her creative, her spiritual, her personal search for who she is and how she’s going to live the rest of her life.”

As autobiographical fiction, Valeria Vose occupies what Gorman calls the “slim edge” between memoir and fiction. “The difference,” Gorman explains, “is that you make a contract with the reader when you are writing a memoir or autobiography and that contract is, ‘I will not lie to you. Everything I say is fact.’ Therefore you have to be really careful about conversations, you may remember the tenor of a conversation, but nobody ever remembers the exact words. You can’t make up a character, you can’t use a composite character, you can’t make up a scene, you are limited to the facts. In Valeria Vose on the other hand, the story line follows the story line of my life and the protagonist very much goes through what I went through, but there are scenes that are fabrication. Still, I know the landscape of what I’m writing about. For instance, there’s a scene that involves duck hunting. Well, I went duck hunting with my father from the time I was 12—I was really meant to be a son—so I know the territory. But that scene did not happen. But it created an emotional experience for the protagonist that deepened her feelings at that moment in the book. So it was important to put it in there. There are several scenes that were not actual fact but they were based upon experience and what I know.”

Gorman calls herself a “binge writer.” “For me, writing is a compulsion. I am not disciplined—I don’t get up in the morning and start writing. I write when I have to, whenever the idea is pressing on me. With this novel, I had the format of the memoir already, so I had something to work with, but it was still intense. And I pretty much wrote day after day, for hour after hour. But it was not discipline. It was literally a calling for me. It’s what I had to do.”

Pausing to consider further for a moment, she adds, “The wonderful thing about the creative act is that you don’t even know time is passing. It’s the ultimate ‘having fun.’ Of course it’s hard, but the fun is that you are out of yourself. And I can be in a zone out of myself for hours. It’s a miraculous feeling.”

Editing the work, Gorman notes, “is a different brain function altogether. But I love editing. If someone you respect and trust gives you a really good critique you can think about it and see how you want to change it. The initial writing is intuitive and spontaneous. Editing is analytical. Then you are trying to look at it from the point of view of the reader—is it clear?”

Gorman chose to send the Valeria Vose manuscript to She Writes Press for publication. They assigned her a copy editor to work with before sending it to press. A hybrid publisher, She Writes Press combines the role of traditional publisher with that of a self-publishing company. “It is not an inexpensive thing to do,” says Gorman, “but being over 80 I didn’t want to spend the time to go through what you have to go through to get published by an exclusively traditional press. For that, you have to have an agent and it takes an agent months to find a publisher.” Gorman notes that She Writes Press has become more and more well known in the last few years because many of their writers, like Gorman, are winning awards. “It’s expensive but it works and it doesn’t take forever,” Gorman adds.

The trilogy Gorman is now working on, like Valeria Vose, is also set in the South. Gorman acknowledges that, despite her love of Maine—she began spending summers here in 1960 and made this her permanent home in 1992—and aside from a small collection of poems written years ago, she doesn’t write much about Maine. “I think maybe underlying the need to write is some pain as opposed to joy. Maine is a spiritual home to me. I love Maine. But the stories I write come out of memory, mostly out of personal pain. I think the South, for all of its graciousness, underneath there is pain. I think the Civil War got into the DNA. I think it left a scar that still needs to be healed.”—JW

(The Jackson Memorial Library’s Summer Literary Series will be held July 9, July 16 and July 23 at the Ocean View Grange in Martinsville. Presentations begin at 5:30pm.)

Exerpt from Valeria Vose

In the predawn, still dark outside, the three duck hunting guides, Shorty, Bobby-Ray, and Popeye, poured themselves mugs of hot coffee from the side-board and pulled extra chairs up to the long rectangular table in the living room. A fire crackled and spat out sparks behind the wrought-iron screen on the wide stone hearth. Mallie and Cindy Morgan were the only women present; the other two wives preferred to sleep in. Larry, Ben Morgan, and the other men, in various stages of hunting attire—Gus still in his long red flannel pajama top—were helping themselves to loaded plates of scrambled eggs, hot, greasy bacon, buttermilk biscuits and grits.

“Hey, big man!” Ben Morgan said, standing up to greet Bobby-Ray, his long-time favorite guide. He gave a friendly push to his shoulder. “What’s goin’ on out there?”

“We got ‘em today,” Bobby-Ray said. He was the oldest of the guides, a face as weathered as an old hunting boot. “ ‘Bout forty degrees, overcast, plenty a water in the ponds. Lotta hungry birds flyin’ south.”

“How about Mojo?” Ben asked. “He still up to it?”

“That ol’ dog’ll fall out dead someday pickin’ up birds,” Bobby-Ray said. His chocolate lab was getting past his prime, but he was still the best swimmer, the best finder of crippled ducks in Arkansas County.

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