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Skin Game
Caroline Kettlewell
Griffin Trade Paperback
192 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Caroline Kettlewell

Caroline Kettlewell, the author of Skin Game, discusses the mystery of identity, the drawbacks of writing memoirs, and the allure of that obscure object of desire, Antarctica.

What motivated you to write Skin Game?

Kettlewell: I'm fascinated by the idea of identity—who you think you are, who others perceive you as, how we can or can't play with who we are, how each of us is always ultimately unknowable, how those with whom we are most intimate can be virtual strangers nonetheless. I'm always intrigued by stories of people who change identities, take up new lives. That's what really interested me in writing this book—it's a story about the uncertainty of identity, of living very tenuously in one's own skin.

The book began as a piece I wrote for a graduate writing seminar, about what it was like growing up on the boys' school campus where I lived as a child, where my parents were teachers. I was exploring the nuances of the unsettling mix of desire and terrible self-consciousness that was my experience of coming of age in that environment, and the self-injury served in the narrative as the literal expression of the raw, livid power of my feelings then—desire and anger and despair and passion. Adults tend quite wrongly to think of the emotional life of twelve or thirteen as rather sweet and inconsequential, but in my experience it was more like being ripped apart every day in a different way.

People with no experience of self-injury responded very well to the shorter piece, and from that I knew that this could be a book that was more than just a "disease-of-the-week" memoir, which honestly would not have interested me as a writer.

On a more pragmatic level, I had seen several books come out on the subject of self-injury, and all of them seemed to deal with the most extreme cases—people whose self-injury had grown out of lives of terrible abuse and suffering. I thought it was important to help complete the picture by pointing out that really quite ordinary people may also turn to self-injury—that sometimes the reasons why you take up self-injury aren't so apparent.

In the essay, and in the final book, with its ambiguously suggestive title, Skin Game, I worked very hard to give to the self-injury scenes the kind of intensity, almost eroticized, of the experience, to try to convey what it felt like from the inside.

I've had people tell me I was "brave" to write the book, but honestly, bravery never really came into the equation for me. I'm not that altruistic.

WAG: Did being so frank about your personal life give you any qualms? I would think, if nothing else, that it puts you at an awkward disadvantage when you meet a stranger who's read the book: they know more about you, at least in some ways, than they might know about their own family members.

Kettlewell: I think I must have been in denial on this point while I was working on the book. Every now and then, I'd wake up in the middle of the night with this horrified "Oh my God, what am I doing?" But for the most part I was so absorbed in the work of writing, of crafting language and structure, that the fact that the book was about my life seemed like an abstract point.

The hardest thing about writing a memoir is walking that fine line between honesty and the fact that you are not, after all, obligated to reveal every single detail of your private life. I believe that when you write from life you do owe it to your reader not to fabricate; the challenge of literary non-fiction is to create something powerful from lived experience itself. But how much detail do I owe my reader?

It is weird when I stop to think that my neighbors or my insurance agent know these very personal details about my life. What I've found out since the book came out, however, is that life just goes on anyway, and most people are basically too much absorbed in their own lives—as well they ought to be—to spend a great deal of time ruminating over mine.

WAG: Your writing voice in Skin Game is refreshingly ironic and amusing, but it's a little surprising for the genre. What sort of reaction have you gotten from it?

Kettlewell: People have told me they were surprised to start reading the book and find that parts of it are funny, that the voice is very wry. That is my voice, and I couldn't have written any other way. The book also needs those moments of levity as a break from the intensity of some scenes. Some reviewers have been taken aback by the tone—one deemed the book "at a remove that forbids empathy." But most readers seem to have responded very well. Really, it is rather an absurd story—all I did was allow that absurdity to play out.

I'm well aware of all the criticism of memoir as a genre, that it's the sorry evidence of our culture's utter self-absorption and narcissism and so forth, that it's all of a piece with Jerry Springer, that memoir writers are a craven lot who will shirk no nadir of seamy self-revelation to make a buck. Good writers know that—they can't approach a memoir without being aware of that, and some number of them have started playing with the ideas and expectations about the genre. I did a little of that. Dave Eggers new book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has gotten a great deal of attention for doing that even more overtly.

WAG: Did you read—or, alternatively, avoid—any particular memoirs before you began writing Skin Game?

Kettlewell: Before starting the book, I'd become quite taken with the "personal essay" in general, and then there were several memoirs of particular strength that inspired me. Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted is a wonderfully, mordantly wry and spare and witty book that offers some intriguing and challenging questions about the nature of what we call mental illness—and I'm afraid the book was done a serious disservice in character, if not in sales, by the lame movie "based" on it. Another book I kept going back to was the nature writer Gretel Ehrlich's A Match to the Heart, her memoir of being struck by lightning and the physical and emotional aftermath of that event. It's a very powerful book that balances reflection with an engrossing account of what happens to a body struck by lightning.

When I was actually writing, however, I couldn't look at other memoirs, as inevitably I'd find their style infecting my own, or I'd lose focus on what I was trying to accomplish with my own book.

WAG: Is there a risk of feeling pigeon-holed as a writer after publishing a memoir like Skin Game? Is it harder to pitch radically different ideas to your editor or agent?

Kettlewell: My editor and agent are game for a new idea, I'm happy to say. In pitching new ideas to magazine editors, I've found I haven't quite figured out how to present my book, however. I don't want editors to say, "Oh, she's that kind of writer," and relegate me to the disease-and-dysfunction-writers ghetto. There's some kind of irony in having a book on your resume and not quite knowing how to admit to it.

Wherever I go next, I do expect it to be a radical departure from Skin Game, but I suspect I will continue to revisit in other guises those ideas about identity that continue to interest me.

WAG: What, on the other end of the spectrum, is the best thing about having written Skin Game?

Kettlewell: It has been wonderful to have readers—most of whom have no history with self-injury—come up and tell me that the book meant something to them. They've told me that my emotional experiences resonated with their own—all those awful conflicted feelings that go with coming of age. I received some very positive reviews as well, and this kind of feedback is undeniably encouraging in the otherwise lonely and unglamorous work of sitting at one's desk and writing.

I learned a great deal about writing—and particularly about revising—from writing the book. Writing from your own life means you start with this huge, undifferentiated mass of possible material and you have to carve your story from it the way a sculptor turns a lump of stone into something meaningful. My first draft was nearly twice the length of the final manuscript; my editor's one comment was "cut it in half." You hear over and over again in writing classes that the true art of writing is in the revising, but nothing drives that point home like having to get rid of half your book. In fact in the end, over the course of two major revisions, I wrote what amounted almost to an entirely new book, and if I'd had time for one more revision, the book would have ended up even more rigorously spare. I've learned the power of letting a single word or phrase or detail carry a weight of meaning.

WAG: Would you consider writing another memoir, if the occasion arose? And what about writing fiction?

Kettlewell: I think I've said pretty much all I'd like to say about my mental life. However, I remain engrossed in literary non-fiction, which allows the writer to be present in the story without having to be the focus of the narrative. We delude ourselves if we think there is any such thing as "objective" truth—how we "read" an event or story is shaped by the details the writer chooses to present or exclude, and that is as true in journalism as it is in more "creative" writing. It seems to me, then, that in literary non-fiction, where the author's experiences or reactions or impressions can be admitted, there is actually the possibility of a greater depth of truth or honesty. What makes literary non-fiction powerful is that it is shaped from the raw materials of lived experience.

Right now, I see so many places I could go with literary non-fiction that I don't know whether I'll ever wander over into fiction. If I do, I imagine what will take me there will be a character taking shape and demanding a story to give it life.

WAG: What projects are you working on now?

Kettlewell: I developed a sudden addiction to true adventure books last year, and Antarctica tales in particular, after reading Shackleton's South and Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World. I don't think Antarctica is in my immediate future, but right now I'm trying to pin down what it is about these books that really grips me. There's some question there that I want to ask, and when I get a better sense of the question, I'll know where to begin.

—Interview conducted by Daphne Frostchild

Posted July 1, 2000


Photo Credit: J.L. Sites

Caroline Kettlewell is the author of Skin Game. She is a graduate of Williams College and holds a master's degree in writing and editing from George Mason University.



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