Anya Yurchyshyn has written for Esquire, Granta, Oprah Magazine, N+1, BuzzFeed, Lenny, Bustle, Refinery29, Two Serious Ladies, Mod Art, Guernica, and elimae, and she is a frequent contributor to NOON. Her story from NOON 2014, “The Director,” was included in Best Small Fictions of 2015. Her memoir, My Dead Parents, was published by Crown in March, 2018. She received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia and has been awarded fellowships by the university as well as The MacDowell Colony.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Lead Interview Editor Renee Rule. Of the process she said, “In her memoir My Dead Parents, Anya Yurchyshyn tells the profoundly personal story of her life with and without her parents and the discoveries she made about her parents’ lives after their deaths. The honesty with which she writes and the openness with which she shares her story have truly inspired me to pursue a deeper understanding of the lives of my own parents. I would recommend this book to anyone who is at all interested in the lives of their parents.” In this interview Anya Yurchyshyn talks about academic writing, the emotions she felt in compiling information for and writing the memoir, and the best thing she’s ever written.
Superstition Review: At the beginning of Part Two of My Dead Parents, you mention that you were teaching while finishing your thesis. What did you learn about writing and the writing process from teaching during your master’s program?
Anya Yurchyshyn: This is such an interesting question! I was teaching academic writing as a part of a two-year fellowship. Most people—teachers and students alike—think academic writing is a very boring class and field, and because I am a “creative” writer, they assume I feel the same. But I don’t. I love academic writing and I love teaching it. Learning how to organize your thoughts and make a sound, well-supported argument is so important, and even if you never do any actual academic writing after the class, it will help everything else that you write, even emails. Especially emails.
My main academic writing education happened during my junior year of college, which I spent abroad at Oxford. At NYU, I didn’t have to work too hard (though I worked very hard because I was a very anxious nerd) to get A’s on papers, but what got me A’s at home got me laughed at in England. Professors were not impressed by flowery language or lazy associations (that sounded brilliant to me when I wrote them at 3 a.m.), and I had to be able to defend every sentence I wrote because most of the time, I had to read my essay aloud to them before turning it in. I’d get two sentences in and hear, “That doesn’t mean anything, why would you write it?” It was tough—there were a lot of tears before and after my tutorials—but it was boot camp, and it worked.
Becoming a teacher of academic writing further drilled the importance of clarity, transitions, and rhythm into my brain, and my non-fiction writing, particularly My Dead Parents, improved because of this. These seem like small things, but paragraphs need solid connections to each other, and every sentence needs to logically grow out of the one that came before it. Don’t make statements you can’t back it up. Just because something sounds good or smart doesn’t mean that it is, so you have to interrogate the logic that runs under your ideas.
In terms of the writing process, I learned that you never get it right the first time and that you waste time trying to turn something weak into something strong instead of starting over. I’d tell my students this again and again and I’d assign them drafts of their papers so they’d have to write them more than once, but when it came to my own writing, I always wanted to be the exception. I never was. It’s so frustrating to throw away work, but that’s a part of the process, or it should be. I’d tell my students that they should always expect to do it and of course, they never felt they needed to until I pointed out certain issues. For example, I’d read their drafts and see that they only got to their main point in or around their final paragraph, something that’s very common because you need a bunch of pages to try out your ideas, make points, and explore unexpected connections. Writing is a process, a way of thinking, and it isn’t until you think on the page that you discover what you actually want to say. A lazy writer stops there, but a smart one knows that when this happens, you take that idea, throw the rest of the draft away, and start fresh with that idea at the top.
SR: Parts of the book were published online prior to the book being published as part of the book. Could you talk about how that affected your process?
AY: Nothing that’s in My Dead Parents had been previously published online—well, maybe a paragraph here and there—but My Dead Parents the Tumblr was a great foundation for writing My Dead Parents the book. The blog was anonymous, and I followed every idea and emotion I had and said anything that I wanted because I wasn’t worried about it being traced back to me. Blogging for around two years allowed me to really figure out what I thought and why, and what I was most interested in. In a lot of ways, this was a kind of “first draft” of my book, or a form of “pre-writing,” a term I know students hate. I was able to test drive my ideas and voice. There is so much that’s in the book that isn’t on the blog because I didn’t have the money to pursue all the information that I eventually did—the blog was contained to what was in my head or was in front of me, but what’s there is definitely present in the book in different ways.
SR: Could you discuss what you have heard from readers about how your book makes them feel?
AY: I’ve heard mostly wonderful things from my readers. At readings or in emails, I often hear that my book helped someone reconsider their parents or themselves, or even helped heal difficult relationships, and that’s extremely humbling and gratifying. What people say in reviews can’t really be taken the same way, but I’ll admit that I’ve read many of mine on Amazon and Goodreads, so I know that a lot of people did. Not. Like. My. Book. (I’m very happy that these people don’t come to my readings to tell me this in person.) They think it’s maudlin, petty, immature. They think anyone who’s happy that their parents died is deeply broken. They think I need to get over it, that I’m not special, and again, that something is very wrong with me. I knew my book wasn’t for everyone and that it would rub some the very wrong way. It did!
SR: You write, “My parents were isolated from each other, barely communicating about the tragedy that was possessing them.” What did you do with this discovery of such an important issue that was hidden from you for your childhood?
AY: I let it make me really sad. I let it depress me. What else could I do? Sitting with these realizations during the three years it took me to write this book, and revisiting this and other difficult information again and again as I tried to find the perfect way to phrase it, was exhausting and upsetting. I don’t know if it could have been different. I often tried to downplay the emotional aspect of my project and would complain to my writer friends about the general difficulty of writing a book. They would gently say, “Yeah, but your book…” And they were right. Sitting with such painful information for months and years takes a toll. I’m so happy that I learned what I did, but actually learning it, and writing about it, was very hard. Sometimes it felt like torture, one I’d signed up for and that was terribly relentless. But without this information, my book wouldn’t exist, or if it did, it wouldn’t be much of a book. I knew I wouldn’t only discover happy and exciting things, and though I wasn’t totally prepared for how overwhelming what I learned would be, I’m still happy to know what I do, and hate the idea that I came so close to not knowing so much.
SR: The title of this memoir is very to-the-point. How and why did you choose it?
AY: The title might be the best thing I’ve ever written; it’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the book.
The book’s title was first the title of the blog that I started in 2010 to explore my experience of my parents’ deaths and examine the artifacts they’d left behind. When I was considering what I should call it, “My Dead Parents” came to me in a flash, and it felt perfect. It captured not only the topic of my blog but also the emotional tone of the project. I liked that it was direct, and, depending on the reader, was either funny or unsettling. (Or both.)
While the blog, and certainly the book, gets plenty emotional as I work through my sadness and anger, it isn’t, I think, sentimental. The title establishes that. I felt it was important to differentiate what I was doing from traditional grief memoirs, where the writer is often mourning a loved one and working through pain that is more socially acceptable. While I was honest about my emotional experience and what felt like a lack of grief with my friends, telling the world that I wasn’t sad that my parents died, and that I wasn’t sure if I loved them, was scary. That’s not something you’re supposed to make public. I knew that some readers might be put off by my tone or honesty, but I also knew that what I had to say was important, because so many people had reached out over the years to say that they were grateful that I’d articulated my feelings because they’d felt something similar. When I sold the book, my editor expressed concern about the title, and while I understood her hesitation, I fought to keep it because it reflects where I started emotionally and tells the reader a lot about what they’ll encounter. They certainly know what the book is about, and they have a sense of who I am as a person and writer.
SR: How have other memoirists influenced your work?
AY: I love other so many memoirists and memoirs—Speak, Memory, The Kiss, and Liar’s Club are three of my favorites—but I’m not actually aware of how they’ve influenced me. Because my background is in fiction, I feel like an interloper in this space, like I don’t know how or deserve to be here. When I read memoirs, I usually felt overwhelmed and defeated because they’re so good and I told myself I should just give up because anything I do won’t come close. With fiction, I have idols who I know influence me because I’ve spent so much time admiring them—Deborah Eisenberg, Christine Schutt, Haruki Murakami, and Denis Johnson, to name a few of many—but memoir is trickier for me. Whenever I got stuck writing My Dead Parents I’d dip into memoirs, but they weren’t particularly helpful even when they were wonderful reads. These books are so personal, and you have to figure out what works for you and your story. I think that imitating form and style can be a worthy exercise for fiction, but I don’t think it works for non-fiction unless you’re talking about something short like a personal essay.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
AY: My writing space is my bedroom, or whatever bed is where I am. I have never been able to write at a desk. Something about chairs just doesn’t work for me, so I write in bed and have for as long as I can remember. I’m sure it’s bad for my back and neck, but it’s good for what matters. My bedroom is large and sunny, but it’s also very messy. I’ve always been messy and have accepted that’s who I am, but there are times where it feels like a reflection of my brain and so I’ll clean up my room and find that I feel calmer. My brain is messy too, but nothing I’ve tried has actually cleaned it up. And if it was clean, what would I write?