"Lying to make life bearable": Cheryl Strayed interviews memoirist Rob Roberge

When Roberge learned he might be losing his memory, he set out to document everything. Cheryl Strayed investigates

Published March 5, 2016 10:00PM (EST)

Rob Roberge, Cheryl Strayed   (The Crown Publishing Group/Joni Kabana)
Rob Roberge, Cheryl Strayed (The Crown Publishing Group/Joni Kabana)

I became fast friends with Rob Roberge in 2008, when we were both on the faculty at Antioch University’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing in Los Angeles. His kindness was matched only by the intensity of his intelligence. The students he mentored all raved about his exceptional talents at both nurturing and schooling them. Not long after meeting him I read the first of his books with a feeling that was equal parts curiosity and dread; one always hopes to love the books written by friends. I’m grateful to say I didn’t have to fake a thing. I’m a true blue Rob Roberge fan. With each book, my admiration has only grown. Sentence after sentence, page after page, Rob never fails to astonish me with his dark humor and clear eye, his palpable vulnerability and his beautifully perceptive mind. He’s the kind of writer about whom one senses there is a great amount at stake, and never has that been more apparent to me than when I read his latest book, his first memoir, "Liar." He was good enough to answer my questions about the book here.

How did "Liar" come to be? All of your other books are fiction. What compelled you to write a memoir?

Yes, all of the other ones were fiction, and I think I'll go back to it next time and stay on that side of the fence. Memoir's a tough gig for me (not to say fiction isn't). But, in a way, I'm still not quite sure how this book came to be. I had tried to write a memoir starting maybe in 2010, when I was in a deep depression while recovering from an opiate relapse (it takes a long time for the dopamine receptors to go back to normal), and I found I couldn't write fiction, which didn't help the depression I was already in. So, by default, I guess (hardly the best reason), I started a memoir. And I got about 35 pages in and thought it sucked. But it kind of taught me to write again, and after that I wrote my most recent novel. And it was my most autobiographical novel yet—and I tend to be pretty autobiographical as it is.

Then, without thinking about a new book, I started doing these factual little snippets/fragments in second person, and published a few on-line. And some people—most persistently the writer/editor Gina Frangello—told me I had a book there. And my initial reaction (well, and my reaction several times throughout the process and, at times, still) was "who the fuck wants to read about me for 250 pages?" So, in a weird way, I wasn't compelled to write a memoir so much as I was compelled to write my next book, which just happened to be a memoir. I know some projects are ones that writers always know they are going to write. While others kind of drop in your lap. You're like a radio, tuned to the right frequency. Once I got into it, I found it a really interesting, if scary, form to work in. It was new. Something I'd never done before—which is always attractive to me.  

Also—and this is the kind of thing only writers themselves tend to care about, not something readers care about—I had a sort of breakthrough moment where I realized that, to some degree, I'd been writing pretty much about myself and my experiences for my whole career in the first three novels, increasingly so. And I thought maybe it was time to cop to it and just say it was me. It seemed, and seems, like the end of a phase of my career. I'm done writing about me. It's time to move on and write about characters who don't share a ridiculous amount of their life story and history with mine. So, the memoir was a goodbye to a certain type of writing for me.

What was it like for you to delve into this form for the first time? Was your experience writing memoir vastly different than writing fiction?

It turned out to be a lot different, which I totally didn't expect. I figured it would be just like writing a novel, only that the material all had to be true. You know—they're both long form narratives, they both seemed liked they would have the same types of obstacles and issues, but I figured they'd be more or less the same. And I was very, very wrong. And most of the issues were personal and ethical. On the one hand, no matter how autobiographical a novel was, I could always hide behind the veil of fiction and say I made something up. With memoir, if there was a scene that made me embarrassed or made me cringe or tighten with regret (and those were sort of my litmus test scenes) I figured they were the ones that most needed to be in there. So there was a level of personal exposure that was—and still is—enormously uncomfortable for me. Plus, while I knew going in that I'd be writing my story, I didn't realize I'd be writing other people's stories as well. And that brought in a whole ethical side to it that I hadn't considered. That I had to be honest and honor the story, yet still be aware of other people and treating them with much more respect and care than I treated myself in the book. 

It's also just incredibly hard to share some of your worst, toughest moments of your life in print. On some level, I admire writers who do it. On another level, I wonder why any of us do it. It's a question that troubles me, actually. Why do we do this? The book was just released and I already feel some dread that people are actually going to read it, which is of course a ridiculous fear for a writer.

For what it’s worth, I think you wrote about difficult things with an enormous amount of sensitivity. So let’s talk about you calling yourself a liar. I love that "Liar" is the title of this book in part because I think it’s a direct response to the phenomenon of memoirists often being suspected of lying, but I also think it’s a particularly apt title because in the book you examine the ways lies have functioned in your life. In the course of telling us about the times you’ve lied, you tell us the truth. Writers, especially creative nonfiction writers, are constantly asking themselves about the relationship between truths and lies. What did you learn about that while writing this book? 

Tough, good question. On the one hand, I wanted it to be a literal examination of the lies I have told over the course of my life and try to examine why I told them. Maybe, to some degree, that is as simple as this great Chekhov quote (actually, it's footnoted as Chekhov misquoting Pushkin, which I always kind of loved): "The lie which elates us is dearer than a thousand sober truths." So, there was that. Lying to make life bearable. But, it was important to me that the book sort of set the record straight and that I wanted to force myself to cop to my own lies, which I try my best to do throughout the text. Everything that happens in the book is true to my memory, unless I tell the reader I lied about it. 

But then there's the gray area of memory and invention and how much we can trust our own versions of the narratives we've told to make our lives make some sense to us. There's the great Didion line: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." And that was a big part of what I was trying to show.

But/and, I also use the line in the book that was a guiding principle throughout—Nabokov's line that "memory is a revision." I wanted the book to be something of an indictment on memory itself. And to try and find if there was a way to find the "real" story behind the stories that have shaped my life. I'm not sure if that's even possible, but I tried.

In "Liar," you write about your entire life in a series of vignettes that range from your earliest childhood through recent times. When your book spans so many years it can be hard to know what to include and what to leave out. What parts of your life did you omit from the book and why? On the contrary, what did you include that surprised you? 

I omitted (myself—before my editor got his very talented hands on it) things that felt too easy. Where I felt I was playing to my strengths. Where there was a lot of witty dialog (one of my big weaknesses—I can have two people talking funny dialog for five pages that goes nowhere). Beyond that, I, at first, left out some very personal and painful stuff about my marriage—because I simply didn't want to share it. It was too close to the bone, and too personal, I thought, about someone who never asked to marry a writer. I kind of felt everything in there had to be the truth, but not that everything had to be in there. My editor asked and cajoled and pressured me to add more. And I reluctantly did. But that was hard. And there are still lies of omission—the book is a piece of art. A memoir, not diary. So, it's not all in there.

And I guess I omitted, for the most part (except for some of the humor that balanced the darkness of the book), anything that didn't make me squirm. I figured if I was pretty comfortable with it being there, I either hadn't written it correctly, or it shouldn't be there.

I don't know, ultimately, if anything surprised me. Once I decided I wasn't going to stop if I flinched, I figured I was opening myself up to some hard stuff. So, when it came, I kind of expected it. Maybe some of the beautiful moments of my life surprised me. Because I knew it was going to be a dark book. But I've been blessed with a lot of luck and love and beauty. And those came at me, too. Maybe that was a surprise that I should never let be a surprise. Something I should remember every day.

Being surprised by beauty is one of the things I love the most about writing about painful experiences. Almost always what you find when you dig down into that sorrow is that there is also beauty there. You’re right that "Liar" is a dark book. As your friend, there were so many times as I was reading that it pained me to know you were suffering. I wanted to go back in time and help you somehow, but the other thing I noticed--and I think this sense accumulated over time as I got deeper into the book--is how much love has always been in your life; not just romantic love, but friends and family too. It struck me that seeking and finding love is your greatest survival skill. Do you agree?

Yes. I don't know that I could have articulated it exactly that way. I probably would have said something more simply (if still true): that love has saved my life more times than I can count over the years. And, as you point out, not just romantic love, but the love of friends and family, as well...even, at times, of strangers—especially in recovery. There's a selflessness in recovery of helping someone who's at their bottom, and you don't know them, but your only agenda is to help them. Which is a form (a different one, to be sure, but one nevertheless) of love. But the way you put it—that seeking and finding love was/is my greatest survival skill? As I said, I wouldn't have thought to put it that way, but I think it may be true. It wasn't a conscious choice on my part, but maybe a lot of our survival skills/coping mechanisms aren't conscious choices. They are simply how we've learned to adapt and make it through our days and nights. But without having had a plan for it, seeking and finding love may, in fact, be my greatest survival skill. Surely the love of others has saved my life over the years. And I guess I managed some way to find that love.

The book’s structure is what I’d call a collage—we get stories from all parts of your life, told out of chronology, vivid portraits of a single moment, experience, or era. Why did you choose this structure?

Collage—I like that. I thought of it, as I was going along, like a resonant chamber that works the way memory works. Things matter in relation to other things. But, I chose the form for a couple of reasons. One was purely a craft reason—I tend to love nonlinear narrative. There's a story in "The Things They Carried" where the character Lemon dies. And then, because the book is told in a non-chronological way, three (or something—going from memory) stories later, Lemon is alive. And the reader knows he's going to die very soon. But the character has no idea. So, even a scene where he talks about what he's having for lunch or something like that is incredibly moving. If it had been told straight, it would have been dull dialog about lunch. But because the reader is privileged to know the future, it takes on the weight of tragedy. I've always loved that about nonlinear narrative. The way it lets the reader know more than the character at certain parts of the story. I like privileging the reader—never holding back from them.

The other (and this was probably the bigger of the two) reason was that I wanted the book to be something of a structural mimesis of the way my brain works. I have rapid-cycling bipolar with occasional psychotic episodes. I wanted the structure of the book to sort of mimic the way my brain fires when I'm in a manic state. Not a psychotic one, because that would have made it pure gibberish. But I wanted to give a sense of how my brain fires. The structure—for it to be an honest memoir—seemed as important as the content. Form mattered a great deal to me in the honesty of the text. I could have told the same events in a beginning/middle/end narrative and it would have been a lie for me, as far as how I experience the world. Form is content, often. 

The opening section of the book is incredibly compelling. In it, you write about a girl you knew when you were 10 who was murdered. Throughout the book you write about others who’ve died by homicide or suicide. Some of them are people you knew, others are strangers. Why did you decide to include their stories in "Liar"?

Well, the murders of the people I knew were ones that were extremely formative and life-changing ones for me. So, they seemed to need to be there. The ones of people I didn't know kind of ties in to the previous question (or answer): they were indicative of the way my mind works. Associating events with one another. And the first murder—the one you mention—when I was 10, shaped my life in an enormous way. I think the fact that my friend was murdered was enough by itself to make a mark on me. But that it went unsolved really altered the way I looked at the world. That something that big—that hideous—could not be solved, really changed me for life. In my youth, it made me not trust men—it felt like any man I saw could be the one who killed her. Later in life—and even as a writer—I don't tend to trust resolve or closure. My narratives don't tend to conclude in the most conventional ways. Some things just stay ugly mysteries with no wrap-up. They don't, as Gordon Lish once said, "reduce themselves to meaning." So, I guess all the murders and suicides of the people I didn't know were in there to show that my life's narrative has an obsession with those things.

The book is written in second person, which I found quite effective. When done well, as it is here, I think it feels strangely more intimate than first person would. Why did you decide to write it this way?

For one, I like second person (though I had never used it before this project). But, when I tried the memoir the first time, it was in first person. And it just wasn't working. And then I just thought, coming back to it three years later, that I would try it in second. And I like—as you mention—the intimacy it has with the reader. It's very intimate—and, interestingly, second person is almost always present tense, so I wanted to put the reader very much into the scenes.

But it had a second benefit for me as a writer. A lot of times where I was too uncomfortable to write that "I" did something, there was a distance for me in saying "you" did something. And that distance allowed me to tell the truth more. So, it was weird. It gave me a distance, but it gave the narrative an intimacy.

You write about so many difficult things in "Liar"—about your struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts, shame, anxiety, and feeling "like an interruption your whole life.” How does writing in general and writing this book in particular interact with those things? Is writing healing for you or does it exacerbate your suffering? 

I’ve been asked in interviews, and on the first leg of my tour, if the book was cathartic in any way. I like your word—"healing"—better. And I guess I kind of hoped it might. I don't think of writing as therapy. It's not why I do it. But I thought it might be a by-product of this one. But no. Dredging up some of the most difficult times of my life—and then putting them out there for friends and strangers to read—has really brought up a lot of difficult memories and emotions in me. So I guess I just made things worse. Go figure.

You’re also a musician. Does making music feel different to you than writing?

Making music feels a lot different. If I had to make a choice, I'd keep writing and reluctantly lose music.

But, back to music… you make it (when you're not playing solo—which is a nice thing, too) with friends. It's a communication. Even when it's sad, music is often joyous to play. And, for me, to listen to. You're, in general, able to feed off the energy of the audience. And sometimes they dance, which never happens at readings. But, even when you're alone in the room (or when I am, at any rate), music is always a comfort. But then, so is writing. But there are days you just can't write. If you're alone in a room with a guitar and your own stuff isn't doing it for you, you can always play a cover of something/someone you love. You can't play covers in writing.

Plus music has melody, which is a beautiful thing. Even the most musical prose has elements of rhythm and pace and flow, but it can't, by its nature, have melody. You can't hum a book. But both forms, at their best, make people feel less alone—which is what art's pretty much supposed to do, I think. You know, that great Malraux quote that art's job is "to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." Which I have always loved. But the older I get, the more I think we are all haunted. All disturbed. So, art is something that makes people feel less alone in the world. A comfort. A connection. I hope, anyway.

What sentence or passage in the book means the most to you and why?

Wow. Great question. Probably the line where one of my exes, who at the time was only a friend, says the line, "it's the bad parts that make you realize how good the great parts are." It was just one of those tossed-off lines when she said it, and it stayed with me for life. And, the book's not a very cheery or optimistic one, but I hope that line resonates through it. It always has for me.

By Cheryl Strayed

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