Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Moonlight on Linoleum includes a conversation with author Terry Helwig. We hope this Q&A will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A CONVERSATION WITH TERRY HELWIG
Moonlight on Linoleum reads almost like a novel in many sections. How did you reconstruct these long-ago scenes in such vivid detail? What steps did you take in recreating the dialogue? Did you find that once you started writing you remembered more than you expected to?
A memoir is, ultimately, the true story of a protagonist. Scene and dialogue are important aspects of any story—fact or fiction. My memory of numerous vivid scenes from childhood caused me to approach my memoir slightly differently. Instead of creating scenes that told a story, I tried to uncover the story running beneath my scenes.
I wondered why, out of the millions of minutes of my childhood, I remembered some scenes and details vividly and others not at all. What made those moments memorable? As an exercise, I wrote my memories on sticky notes and arranged them in chronological order on the inside door of a closet. The beginnings of my narrative flowed from those yellow pieces of paper.
I noted that many of my memories accompanied an emotional charge—love, abandonment, awe, disgust, fear, excitement, bewilderment. For example, when the German shepherd bit me in the schoolyard, the trauma of that event, heightened by a rush of adrenalin, unfolds in my memory in slow motion. Years later, the pop of gunfire emanating from the barn, and the resulting fear that registered in my little sister Brenda’s eyes, burned that particular scene into my mind. The night beneath the stars on the Pecos River still evokes feelings of awe in me.
I sometimes combined experiences or compressed time to spare the reader. Details—like repeatedly kissing my absent mother’s Polaroid picture good night; hearing my mother tell me that she was too young “for a shawl and a rocking chair”; or removing flies from the ceiling in the evenings with a jar of soap suds—could be set in most any scene because they happened regularly. On the other hand, instead of relaying to the reader all four times our family drove through New Mexico when we moved between Colorado and Texas, I compressed the time of four memories—taking pictures by a road sign, stopping at a pueblo, seeing Durango, Colorado, for the first time, and a conversation about driving on the "million-dollar highway"—into a single section about moving from Texas to Colorado. Memoir writing demands that endless hours of experience be edited into a succinct, cohesive whole without altering the truth of those experiences. This distilling process also meant that some of my sticky notes did not make the cut.
I focused my narrative on what I called my desire line; in other words, when were the desires of my heart thwarted or realized? What did I most want as a child? Revisiting my childhood longings primed the pump of my memory, as did perusing old photographs, researching the places where we lived, interviewing family and friends, and rereading old letters.
My creation of dialogue was less precise. Sometimes I wrote snippets of remembered dialogue on my sticky notes, like my mother telling me she was going to Timbuktu every time she went to a bar; or I might recall one of her many adages: “You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip.” Sometimes I remembered a defining trait, like Daddy repeatedly saying “lookie” or “I’ll tell you what” when he spoke.
Unfortunately, life is not accompanied by a set of transcripts; conversations from the distant pass must be relayed from memory. The bits of conversations I remembered were generally brief, but they were vital to my story. Dialogue breathes life into people and gives the reader a chance to experience the moment as it happened. The night I walked into my parents’ bedroom as a young child and announced, “Mama, I wet the bed.” I write that two shadowy lumps moved, but only one got up. As Mama layered towels on my mattress, I asked, “Is Daddy home?” “No,” she replied. “Now go to sleep.”
This remembered bit of dialogue reveals Mama’s indiscretion with more immediacy and accuracy than any exposition I could have written. If Mama actually said: “No. Hush now,” or “No he’s not,” the truth—that someone other than Daddy was in her bed—isn’t altered. It’s imperative in memoir to make sure the dialogue is true, even if it isn’t verbatim.
You mention that you had help from your sisters and other family members in piecing together your history. This book really is the story of you and your five sisters. Can you talk a little more about this collaboration and how you pulled all of their memories together?
I cannot thank my sisters enough for embarking on this journey with me. They helped me flesh out many events and scenes. We spent countless hours on the phone, writing e-mails, looking through old photographs, and debating differences of opinion—like: did the middle bedroom of our trailer have a wall separating it from the hallway?
As a result of our conversations, I created a timeline that took me the better part of a year to complete. With the help of city directories, libraries, state records, and family interviews, the gaps on my time line began to fill in. We rarely lived in one place more than a year, two years max.
It became clear to me, as I pieced our puzzle together, that every sister would have written a different memoir. Our perspective, our birth order, our emotional charge around an event—all impacted us uniquely. Sometimes my sisters and I remembered an event the same way; sometimes we remembered the same event differently; and sometimes we didn’t even remember the event.
When I drew a layout of our trailer and e-mailed it to my sisters, a debate ensued about the existence of a wall in the middle bedroom. We eventually remembered that the wall had been torn down, which meant both opposing memories were true. I realized, then, that memory was more than a set of facts; it was also the interpretation of those facts.
That my sisters and I remembered the bedroom wall differently didn’t concern me. Actually, just the opposite; it reassured me. Whenever our discussions turned to minutiae, it usually meant my sisters and I were in agreement on the larger issues—not one of us ever questioned that we had lived in a trailer with a middle bedroom.
After completing my timeline and the layout of our childhood trailer, I invited my sisters to travel with me to research some of the Texas oil towns where we had grown up. We drove a rented van 1,200 miles and wore t-shirts printed with: “The Girls Comeback Tour.” We bumped along unpaved roads and located our childhood campsite on the Pecos River; despite the presence of horned cattle in the pasture, we climbed our favorite oak tree on our grandparents’ former homestead; and, then, to mark the end of our journey, we slurped chocolate malts—after I tested them for “poison.” Two years later, we gathered again so I could read aloud the finished manuscript of Moonlight on Linoleum. We sat in a circle for the better part of two days laughing, crying, and reminiscing. It was an experience I will never forget.
There has been quite a bit of focus in the media lately on the issue of accuracy in memoirs. Was this on your mind at all as you wrote your book? Were there any occasions where you felt you should leave something out because you couldn’t completely verify its accuracy? Or were you particularly cautious about how you portrayed any people or places included in the book?
I once heard a Buddhist monk begin a lecture by saying, “Everything I’m about to say is a lie.” In addition to grabbing my attention, he made me realize the limitation of language and the written word.
I thought a lot about accuracy as I wrote. What events should I include? How could I accurately portray the complexity of the adults in my early life? What if I misunderstood personal motivations or the causality of events surrounding our family? How could my life and the lives of my sisters be accurately distilled into 250 pages? What if someone took exception to what I remembered?
These were the dragons I faced.
Memoir is different from autobiography in that it is a reflection upon one’s memory. Of course the events portrayed must be true, but the emotional truth of those events differs among individuals. When possible, I researched records and interviewed people still living; but, ultimately, I had to recognize the authority of my own emotional truth. Only I knew how it felt to grow up inside my skin, trying to interpret the world in which I lived. I tried not to impose my emotional truth onto the lives of my sisters or my parents, but memoir necessitates looking through the lens of the author.
On some occasions, I opted to leave out information. We lived in more states than I included in the memoir. I omitted them because I had scant or no memory of them. I also left out some of the men involved with my mother. I changed the names and identifying details of a number of people to protect their privacy. When I did use real names, I sent copies of the pages where those names appeared to the interested parties and requested a signed permission slip.
Was it difficult for you to relive any of the tougher memories while writing this book? Were there a lot of emotional ups and downs?
I remember telling several friends how hard it was, at times, to relive some of the more painful moments of my childhood. I likened it to being in the basket of a hot-air balloon as it descended into an abyss. My friends offered to hold the tether lines as I descended. I liked picturing myself enclosed in a basket because it provided a sound boundary between the past and the present. I kept reminding myself that I could surface whenever I needed a break or a change of scenery, although I felt in close proximity to my mom and the early years of my life the entire time I was writing.
Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) is a great champion of your work and encouraged you to put your story on paper. How did you two become friends? Did she offer you any valuable writing advice?
I met Sue twenty-seven years ago, through a mutual friend, when Sue was visiting Louisville, Kentucky, where I lived at the time. On another visit, three and a half hours after ordering breakfast, Sue and I asked to see a lunch menu at the same restaurant. We knew, then, that we saw something special in the other. Over the years, we have formed a deep and abiding friendship that mirrors sisterhood.
The most valuable writing advice Sue has shared with me is that she allows herself to write badly. This stunned me because Sue’s writing is so spectacular. Sue assured me that not all of her sentences flow out of her perfectly polished the first time.
I now give myself permission to write badly. It takes the pressure off. The key, of course, is to burnish, polish, edit, and rewrite until you have said precisely what you want to say in the best way possible; I call this process wordsmithing.
In Kidd’s foreword she writes that you had thought about writing this story for a long time but that you weren’t sure whether the world needed another memoir. Was there a particular event that cemented your decision to finally write the book? While visiting your mother’s grave with your manuscript you tell her, “I wrote this book for both of us.” Did her unfulfilled desire to write her own book influence you?
I believe I inherited my love of writing from my mother. I remember reading a spiral notebook of her poetry when I was ten years old and feeling as if I had glimpsed through a window into her inner world. Fingering her notebook, I decided I wanted to write, too.
In my memoir, I mention the “novel” I wrote in fifth grade called The Lost City of Enchantment. Fifty years later, I still have those yellowed pages, along with one of my mother’s spiral notebooks. When I began writing poetry in high school, Mom encouraged me. So, yes, standing over my mother’s grave, I felt as if I had written Moonlight on Linoleum for both of us.
As far as the defining moment of my decision to write the book, I have to think about that. It may have happened during a family reunion with my sisters as we stood in the kitchen cooking together. Vicki teasingly asked if I wanted to taste the spaghetti sauce to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. We all laughed because we knew the childhood story behind her question. Even our children had heard the story of how I used to taste-test all of my sister’s malts to make sure they weren’t poisoned just so I could have a few extra sips.
As I observed us in the kitchen that evening, working side by side, I was extremely proud of the women we had become—either in spite of our childhood or because of it. I thought about Mama, about how she had given me life and these sisters. Maybe it was time for me to tell exactly what Mama’s gifts had meant to me.
Do you think your degree in counseling psychology helped you assess your own past? Do you think it helped prepare you to write Moonlight on Linoleum?
Certainly, the central theme of my book—even if others abandon you, you must never abandon yourself—has psychological implications.
Even as a child, I was aware of two worlds—the outside world of things and the inside world of thoughts. Psychology interested me because it explores the thoughts and motivations that underlie behavior in the outside world. Exploring some of my held beliefs from childhood helped me make more conscious choices about how I wanted to live my life as an adult.
It was also important to me as I wrote that no one come away from reading my memoir believing my mother was either good or bad. That would have been a two-dimensional, stick-figure portrayal of her. My mother was many things—loving, tormented, depressed, hopeful, and funny. People are incredibly complex, psychology attests to this. Psychological exploration helped deepen my understanding of not only my mother and the other people in my early life, but of me as well. As I said earlier, I focused my narrative on my desire line as a child. What did my heart most want? What motivated my actions? These are universal questions that resonate in most every life.
Near the end of the book you write of your sisters, “They were so resilient and hopeful—despite all they had been through.” Clearly this passage applies to you too. In her forward Sue Monk Kidd writes that there is a “mysterious transaction in the human spirit that I marveled at where Terry was concerned . . . Well, there are no explanations for that, there are only stories.” What do you think? Is there any explanation for the “mysterious transaction” of how you and your sisters were (and are) so resilient?
I believe young children are incredibly resilient. Think about the number of times a baby falls down before he or she finally learns to walk. It never occurs to them to give up. Unfortunately, as we mature, our resiliency may be compromised for one reason or another. It’s hard to know why the same set of circumstances affects people differently. We are all so complex. Even though my sisters and I grew up in the same family, we have different reactions, different memories, and different beliefs. I can only speak for myself as to why I never gave up hope.
First, I always felt connected to something larger than myself. I didn’t feel alone. Maybe I was a child mystic—whatever that means. I found solace in my world by petting a purring kitten, sitting quietly outside under the big sky, climbing the limbs of an ancient oak, or watching moonlight stream through my window.
Second, I always had my sisters. Taking care of them gave me a great sense of purpose. I knew they needed me, and I felt confident I could meet their needs. We were called “the girls” growing up. Our circle of sisters was a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Do these things account for resiliency? I don’t know. But they come to mind when I’m asked about it. Maybe it goes back to the major theme of the memoir. No matter what happens to us, we should never abandon ourselves. That’s a choice we can always make, to stand up for ourselves, no matter what.
Despite your anger at your mother while growing up you always were able to forgive her and to appreciate her positive qualities over the negative ones. However, the memoir ends when you are very young. Were there times when you felt angrier or less forgiving toward her, before or after her death? Did any of your sisters have a harder or easier time forgiving her?
Again, it’s hard for me to speak for my sisters. I think some have more anger than others. I’m not sure why I haven’t carried more anger toward my mother. Certainly, I’m asked that question a lot. At first, I worried that I had repressed my anger, but I’ve been poking around inside for a long time now. I just don’t think it’s there. It’s almost as if I saw my mother’s wounds and scars. It’s harder to be mad and unforgiving of a person if you see that they’re bleeding to death. My mother’s love had sharp edges and she was sometimes oblivious as to how her behavior impacted her family, but I never thought my mother was evil or mean-spirited. I mostly saw her as a wounded and psychologically unconscious person.
Daddy was an incredibly forgiving and generous—probably one of the more forgiving characters I’ve encountered in literature. You write, “It wasn’t until I began writing that I came to realize how much Daddy was the glue that kept all of us girls together under one roof for so many years. His devotion never wavered. I was Daddy’s daughter every bit as much as I was Mama’s. He helped shape me, too.” Why do you think it took beginning your story to recognize the influence that Daddy had on your family? What are some of the most important aspects of his parenting that helped to shape you and your sisters?
Mama’s presence eclipsed almost everyone around her. I always loved Daddy, but he was not in our day-to-day lives the way Mama was. He spent so much time away that I assumed his impact had to be less. It wasn’t until I began writing that I realized he had truly anchored all of us, Mama included. An anchor isn’t always easy to see.
I recognized that, despite Daddy’s absences, he stabilized our family by supporting us, putting up with Mama’s indiscretions, and always coming home to us with open arms and a wide grin. Despite moving from oil town to oil town, Daddy saw to it that we had a roof over our heads, a paycheck for groceries, and, when he was home, picnics, camping, card games, and homemade pancakes on Saturday mornings.
I have memory after memory of Daddy pointing out the wonders surrounding us—tarantulas, constellations, sunsets, canyons, coyotes, arrowheads—and saying, “Lookie, there.” He singlehandedly taught me the art of amazement. He also taught me the value of acceptance. I never once felt like a stepchild. Daddy’s love didn’t have sharp edges, and he treated me and my sisters with great tenderness, love, and respect. As he told me once, every child deserves to be loved. Even now, if I have difficulty with a particular person, I try to picture that person coming into the world as a baby, deserving of love. It helps me be more compassionate.
A major turning point in the book is when you overhear JoAnn telling your mother that she is perhaps being too hard on you. You write, “JoAnn’s words tore open the smothering sac I had been struggling against . . . I could finally lay down the burden of trying to make Mama happy; it was no longer mine to carry.” It takes some people a lifetime to realize what you learned as only a teenager. Did you really know with finality at this point that you could lay down this burden? Or was it something that took more time to fully register with you?
I was thirteen when I overheard JoAnn tell my mom that she was perhaps being too hard on me. At that age, I recognized the dysfunction in our household, but not the cause. Like most children, I internalized the situation, assuming Mama’s discontent had something to do with me. That’s why I tried to do better at school and at home—almost to a breaking point.
JoAnn’s comment suggested that my mother’s behavior had overstepped a boundary. Her comment affirmed my feeling that something was wrong, but it challenged my belief that I was somehow to blame. The relief I felt was similar to unshouldering one of those heavy cotton sacks I dragged behind me in the cotton fields one summer. I no longer felt enmeshed.
This realization did strike me with finality, not because I was wise and all-knowing, but because I was at a breaking point. The fact was: I could not carry the burden of making my mother happy any longer. My hope for her happiness didn’t change, only my belief that it was my responsibility to make it happen.
Despite being extremely troubled, your mother was obviously highly intelligent, charismatic, and oftentimes quite loving. When you think about her now, what stands out the most?
What stands out in my mind is my mother’s soulfulness. That’s the part I loved the most about her. She felt deeply about things. She loved animals, nature, poetry, and music.
When I once asked her why we had to endure winter, she didn’t offer me a treatise on the seasons or the slant of the earth; rather she knew my question stemmed from my love of summers. Her answer was philosophical: Maybe so we can appreciate summer more.
When I asked her where people went after they died, she pointed to the steam rising from boiling potatoes to illustrate how spirit can separate from body.
When she was in the state hospital, she sent me her diary and wrote: "Read it if you want but put it in a good place. Don’t be shocked and don’t discuss it with everyone. Remember this is a mental hospital. A world entirely its own. Someday, I’ll write a book."
These moments stand out. Daddy was my guide in the outer world, and Mama gave me a glimpse into an inner world.
After acting as an almost second mother to your sisters, how was raising your own daughter different? Was it easy in comparison? Or did it bring up issues that surprised you in light of your own history with your mother?
I was thirty-two years old when my daughter, Mandy, was born. All those years of mothering my sisters helped me feel more comfortable mothering Mandy. However, she was an extremely easy child to rear. She and I have always been very close.
One thing surprised me about parenting. When Mandy turned certain ages, I found myself revisiting those same ages in my childhood. For instance, when Mandy turned six, I wondered how my mother was able to send me away for two years when I was six years old. The idea seemed unthinkable because I could never send Mandy away. When Mandy turned twelve, I realized just how young I had been to be left in charge of all my sisters and the household. When Mandy turned eighteen and we drove to numerous prospective colleges, I thought about me at that age, driving my mom to a state hospital.
Each of these milestones seemed to be an opportunity to gain insight. In an odd way, mothering Mandy enabled me to re-mother myself. I sometimes felt as if I were breaking the chains my mother inherited.
Are there other writers you feel have influenced your own writing—either memoirists or fiction writers? Who are some of the other authors you most enjoy reading?
I love the genre of memoir. Ones that stand out are Mary Karr’s Liars' Club and Lit; Jeannette Walls’s Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses; Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; and Rick Bragg’s Prince of Frogtown. Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer is a great sourcebook for memoir writing. My favorite fiction writers are Sue Monk Kidd and Barbara Kingsolver.
What did you find most rewarding about writing this book? What was most difficult? Do you want to write additional memoirs? Other genres? Would you consider writing a memoir that leaves off where this book begins?
The most rewarding part of writing Moonlight on Linoleum was consolidating and recording my family’s history. I felt as if I were assembling a jigsaw puzzle and seeing a bigger picture emerge.
The most difficult part was looking for the missing pieces of that very puzzle. I spent a tremendous amount of time hunting down records and writing to town librarians, asking them to check old phone books, city directories, and, in some cases, school annuals. Even with all of these efforts, some puzzle pieces are still missing—like where certain memories occur on my timeline.
I love the genre of memoir and would love to write another one. This book took a long time to root and bloom. Maybe there’s another seed inside of me taking root. I hope so. I have thought of writing about the year I turned forty. That’s when I started to poke around inside. I will have to wait and see. As for other genres, I am open. I’ve always fancied playwriting.
You have obviously always possessed a great zest and curiosity for life. What are some of the ways you spend your free time? If you had an extra hour every day what would you do with it?
I’m somewhat adventurous. I have gone parasailing and scuba diving. Once, I jumped out of an airplane. I like to travel and hope to go to Machu Pichu in 2012. I take long walks on the beach, ponder life over vanilla lattes, and like to exercise my mind with word games and puzzles. If I had an extra hour a day, I would likely spend it watching clouds—trying to figure out what animal they look like.
Tell us more about The Thread Project: http://www.threadproject.com.
The Thread Project, which encourages tolerance and compassionate community, was my response to 9/11. The image of the Twin Towers smoldering in ruins was surreal. I felt as if our world were hanging by a fragile thread. I wondered then if a tattered thread of hope, tied to someone else’s tattered thread of hope, could possibly help mend the tear in our psyche.
I devoted the next seven years of my life to that end.
Via the web, I asked people from around the world to send me one thread. I received tens of thousands of threads—hand-woven threads, several threads from 9/11 families, guitar strings, strips of clothing, fishing line, electrical wire, lace—the variety seemed endless. People wrote poignant letters telling me stories about their particular threads: a tattered shred was picked up in the Killing Fields in Cambodia, a green strip came from a marker flag in Antarctica, a shoelace from the tennis shoe of a murdered son. People of all ages, nationalities, and religious backgrounds wrote about their disappointments, their hopes, and their dreams. I was both humbled and inspired.
I located forty-nine weavers in fourteen countries who volunteered to set up looms in their communities. We tied the collected threads together and used them as the weft thread to weave some of the most diverse cloth ever woven. We ended up with seven large world cloths. Seven is a number of wholeness—seven days in a week, seven colors in the color spectrum, and seven continents in our world.
Some of the weavings were exhibited at the United Nations. They were also exhibited at St. Paul’s Chapel, across from Ground Zero in New York City, for the fifth anniversary of 9/11. When they were hanging from the balcony of St. Paul’s Chapel, it was obvious that one thread had become many, symbolizing the goodwill of tens of thousands of people.
Now, ten years later, I am looking to gift the cloths to an organization that promotes peace, tolerance, and compassionate community. The cloths are currently on display in Independence, Missouri, at the International Headquarters of the Community of Christ Temple, dedicated to the pursuit of peace.