In preparation for Philadelphia Stories’ Push to Publish workshop, keynote speaker and freelance journalist Lise Funderburg spoke with me about her new book, Pig Candy, the ups and downs of writing, and why she wouldn’t be good at writing fiction. Her memoir, Pig Candy, tells the story of Funderburg’s quest to get to know her father through a series of trips down to his hometown in rural Georgia. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, and Time. Pig Candy was released in paperback this past May by Free Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.
What inspired you to write Pig Candy?
As a journalist I make my living getting people to pay me to answer questions I am curious about. And I was curious as to who my father was as a man and as a part of history, American history, apart from being my father -- which was how I looked at him for most of my life. I think this is a natural curiosity that arises when you get to a certain age. Usually it is mortality that forces you to wake up and get more perspective. I was getting older and my father got sick from something that he later recovered from, but I realized my father was not going to live forever. And so I felt a kind of urgency to fill in the gaps. I realized there was so much I didn’t know about my dad because of the kind of man he was. So I thought under the guise of being a journalist I could get him to open up and talk about himself. Since I am a freelance journalist-- and especially because to him, and probably to a lot of other people, the word freelance means unemployed I think he thought whatever he could do to help me out he would do, so he agreed to let me interview him.
You speak of a ‘decoding ring’ that you felt you needed when you were in your father’s hometown. Did you use any research or interviews to aid you in learning the subtleties of your father’s southern small town?
Research was a big part of it, I was fortunate that there were still a lot of people to talk with who knew him, the town he was from and the era. I did a lot in-depth reporting; I would talk to stone fruit peach experts at the agricultural extensions of various universities, I traveled to Michigan to look in the library archives there to find out more about the job he had waiting tables on cruise ships that went across the Great Lakes, now an extinct industry. I read books, found experts in different fields that spoke to his past and really, just being in the place he was from was a kind of in-depth reporting, to eat the food, which was a big part of the book, and to be in that rural landscape, was really a big part of my research.
How long did it take you to write Pig Candy?
Seven years. It took me a while to figure out the way I wanted to do this book. It wasn’t intended to be a relationship story about me and my dad; it was trying to put a person into context, which is a big task to take on. I had to find the right narrative stance, to be both honestly his daughter and the reporter I wanted to be. In the beginning I was writing a history of his jobs. I came back from the trip to Michigan and I wrote a chapter about his work on night boats. A colleague of mine read it and he said, “You know, this reads like you’re showing us you’ve done your homework.” I winced at that but I thought he was right. In a way, what set me in the right direction, sadly, was that my father became ill again and this time it was a terminal diagnosis of prostate cancer. That made it easier to write the book the way I wanted to write it. It took away the sense of obligation and I just wrote what I cared about, and it ended up being the book that I wanted in the first place.
Pig Candy is very relatable in the sense that every person has to ‘relearn’ who their parents are. How was your relationship with your father affected by your writing this memoir?
You do relearn who your parents are, when you get to that point of maturity and capacity and are able to look at them in their full dimension and not just as the child who needs them. That never goes away, and I don’t think it should ever go away, that you need your parents. But for me, my sense of my father was greatly enriched by doing this research. And to learn about the times and place he was from explained him in a way that was very satisfying, enlightening and comforting.
What was your favorite scene in Pig Candy?
My favorite parts of the book are the parts that are always more than one thing. They might be, for example, the scene where I take my father to his doctor appointment and I let him drive, even though he had a stroke and was probably about to lose his license. The scene is funny and sad and informative. It was a bittersweet experience, the last couple of years of his life. There would be hilarity, grief, pride and grace all bundled together and they often came at points of great challenge. The scene in the car was one of them, and when we busted him out of hospice care to drive him down to Georgia one last time is one as well. One part that’s most moving to me is when I have to tell him his prognosis: a lot depends on him acknowledging something that he didn’t really want to acknowledge and I have to make choices about whether it’s my right to tell him this. That scene means a lot to me.
As the keynote speaker for Push to Publish, you will be sharing your advice and experience with aspiring writers. What was the best piece of advice you received when you first started writing?
One of my professors really impressed upon me the need to step away from your work as you craft it, whether that means putting in a drawer overnight, or walking away for twenty minutes. Stepping away can give you perspective on your work and aid you in the revision process. That piece of advice has sustained me for a long time and I’m constantly amazed at how going away and coming back will make clear what was so unclear before.
Another piece of advice is when you’re ready to go out into the world and publish, you have to follow the ‘lotto motto’: you have to be in it to win it. Instead of ‘all it takes is a dollar and a dream’, you could say ‘all it takes is a stamp and a dream.’ For many people, it’s like there is this giant wall between being published and not, and it’s frightening to submit things but you just have to make yourself do it. You have to fake confidence until you have confidence, you just have to. So I think you have to be in it to win it- you have to put yourself out there. There’s so much rejection built into this profession and you have to find a way to protect your ego and sometimes that means having more than ball in the air, sending it out to more than one place. I think there are instances when it isn’t appropriate to send out multiple submissions, but for most of us, we should have the high class problem of having the New Yorker and The Atlantic both wanting to run our piece and being in the embarrassing position of having to tell them they selected the same work. It’s good to be pursuing several avenues at once, so when one rejection letter comes in it’s not that bad.
Have you ever considered delving into fiction writing?
I’m afraid I wouldn’t be very good at it, in fact I took a workshop a couple years ago for fun and wrote a short story and I have to say it is the most plotless, flat piece of writing. Though it’s well written, it just doesn’t have momentum. For me, nonfiction offers up a lot of the satisfactions that fiction does: narrative nonfiction challenges you to shape a plot, develop characters, and to dig into the writers toolbox that is the same toolbox that fiction writers use. Setting scenes, tensions, pacing-- all those things are essential in my work, and they are the defining aspects of fiction as well. I like the challenge of something that is real and shaping it into something that has grace and elegance. I’m fascinated by the real world and the many things happening around me . Writing helps me to make sense of them and answer those questions and curiosities that I have.