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April 28, 2010

Claire and Mia Fontaine: Writing Their Memoir Brought Them Closer Together

Posted by Anonymous

Realizing that without each other their story was half a memoir, this mother and daughter wrote their book together. Through pulling together their words and later talking about them they learned from each other and grew closer --- and through their words they have offered this same experience to others.  

Mia and Claire Fontaine.JPGWhat made you decide to write together?

Claire: What we went through together as mother and daughter, and as individuals, was extreme and harrowing, yet universal in its emotional themes --- a mother’s love, a young girl struggling with sexual and substance abuse, the desire we all have to stop getting in the way of our own happiness. We knew we had a powerful story, and we were committed to using it to inspire others, so of course we wanted to tell it in the most powerful way.

A memoir brings a reader inside your skin. Reliving events to render them on the page gives an emotionally raw, visceral punch to your writing that is unique to the genre. If only I had written the book, it would have been only half memoir. Mia’s parts would have been reportage, emotionally second hand. The reverse would have been true if she had written the book. The most compelling, and emotionally honest, way to write the book was for each of us to write our own story and then to structure our two stories into a unified narrative.

Mia: By chronicling our journey in tandem as we did, the reader discovers not only our individual truths, but also the truth that often lies between the two. This has allowed them to participate and identify with us in multiple ways. It’s been great hearing from teens and young women who tell us that reading my mother’s parts gave them a much better idea of what their mothers went through while raising them, and moms often comment on the insight they gained into the minds of their kids (and the teenage mind is sometimes unfathomable and exasperating!)  

Can you each share a story about one of the books you wrote together?

comeback.JPGClaire: We’re currently finishing up a second memoir based on a trip we took around the world two years ago. We spent three weeks in Budapest visiting my sister Alice. Alice has lived most of her 65 years without venturing much beyond her neighborhood on the Pest side of the Danube. I now know why. She’s terrified of her own kind.

Mia wanted to revisit Morava, the lock-down rehab school in the Czech Republic I placed her in 10 years ago. This involved a four-hour train ride. Transportation is usually a traveler’s greatest source of aggravation and humiliation, so I was delighted when securing ticket information by phone proved easy. All that remained was a short walk to a nearby agency to pick it up.

It was a lovely day and the three of us, sated by the strudel we’d just polished off, strolled up to the ticket window of an Austro-Hungarian empire of a man --- 19th century handlebar moustache, spectacles, 6-foot-4-inches --- quite impressive, historically speaking.

Who charged Mia exactly twice what we were quoted on the phone. Without a seat guarantee. That would be extra, he said in a deep, clipped, I-dare-you voice. Mia lost all power of speech pretty early in the game here.

“Good day, sir,” I said sweetly, showing him my phone notes, “Perhaps I can clarify, I was the one who spoke to the gentleman from your company."

This is the price!”

Alice grew up here post-WWII and has lived through communism, she’s always telling me about the schemers, scammers and crooks that have flourished, usually of necessity. She quickly stepped in, all 5-feet, 95 pounds of her, launching into Hungarian to let him know it wasn’t just a couple of clueless Americans here but a fellow citizen.

What is this little trifle, is it a human, a bird, what nonsense is this? flashes on his face before he says, his voice rising from its Magyar depths to somewhere approaching Jennifer Tilly.

“This is the price! You don’t question me! This is the price!”

“Sir,” I say politely, blocking Alice with my body, “I am quite certain of the price, I took this same train last year. Perhaps there’s a difference in which class carriage or service?”

Well, he rises up, throws out his arm and points us to the door as he screams, screams, like a castrati, “I am the best ticketer in Budapest! I know all the prices! Get out! Get out of here!”

Which of course means two things. A, we caught him trying to scalp us, and B, my sister is about to die. Of a heart attack. Right now. Her big blue eyes are as wide as a flounder’s, her chest is puffing and she is frozen in place.

“Mom, I need the ticket, I don’t care, pay for it,” Mia whispers desperately, handing me her credit card and sidling over to Alice. “Please, hurry, before he kills us.”

“He’s not going to do anything of the kind,” I say, looking him right in the eye, pushing the credit card at him, “I’ll take your ticket, sir. With a seat guarantee, please.”

Don’t worry, I tell Alice quickly in German, our only common language. She just blinks. Mia works on edging Alice out the door before she plotzes.

Herr Hapsburg readies the ticket, fuming and slamming his stamper on page after page. Without looking up. Because he knows I know exactly what he’s doing.

But I don’t know why he’s doing it. And that’s the thing. Having lived through the events COME BACK chronicles, I learned a thing or two. I know women who lunch in Chanel and go to bed praying their adult daughter gets arrested because it means she’ll be out of the gutter, safe from rape, overdose or murder.

I have no idea what this man goes to bed praying for, nor what he wakes up to, before he waxes his moustache, puts on his bow tie and squeezes into a cubicle meant for a much smaller man.

Mia: When I decided to write COME BACK I was a senior in college, largely ignorant of the publishing industry and completely ignorant of the fact that an important component of my soon-to-be profession was something called public speaking.

The first speech I delivered by myself I fainted dead away and had to be carried from the podium by the lovely gentleman kind enough to land me the speaking engagement in the first place. The second engagement I didn’t faint, though had it not been for my mom I wouldn’t have made it to the podium to begin with.

We were the keynote speakers of a black-tie charity gala in front of a crowd of almost 900. Things had gone wonderfully all day, we had a nice lunch with the women chairing the event, the practice run through went smoothly and I wasn’t nervous in the least --- until I saw the stairs leading up to the podium. I just knew the moment I set foot on those steps I would faint, wet my pants (or in this case my black satin dress) or some other embarrassment would befall me and without further thought I barged through a set of doors on my right --- into the hotel kitchen, which was teeming with staff running this way and that.

My mom ran in after me and managed to grab me before I went too far. She steered me back towards the stage, I turned right back around and we went through this routine a few times more before she finally managed to calm me down.

Thankfully, the third time was the charm, though I didn’t immediately see it as such. While we were speaking at a ladies luncheon in Phoenix, an elderly lady left the room halfway through our speech, followed by a woman around her same age. Oh, great, I thought, I’ve either bored or offended them. Two days later we learned this: the two women who left were sisters. The one who left first was molested by her father and she'd never breathed a word about it to anyone. Her sister had always suspected something but neither of them ever spoke of it. That day, while I was sharing how I overcame my issues with sexual abuse, these two women cried and broke seventy years of silence. A version of this has happened a thousand times over.

I was never afraid to speak again and it’s since become one of my favorite aspects of being an author. The minute I open my mouth about my experience, it gives women, and men, permission to speak. I realized that having a clear purpose you feel strongly about and knowing the potential impact of speaking always trumps whatever fears you might have. Reading about my experience allows readers into my heart. Speaking allows me into theirs. In the words of Visa, airfare to the event? $250? Making a difference? Priceles.

How do you share your writing responsibilities?

Mia: With COME BACK, my mother structured most the book because I was still in college and, as a screenwriter by trade, this was her area of expertise. Once I graduated, we hammered out the detailed contents of our stories together. Going by chapter, we would separate to each write our own parts, then we’d marry them. We’d print two copies and each do our own edit of the whole chapter. Then we’d compare notes and type up a final version.

For the book we’re working on now, we’ve shared everything and I almost consider this book an apprenticeship in that I’ve truly learned how to structure a book, which can be an incredibly daunting task! We split up research and interviewing duties by interest and time.

Do you outline, or do you write as the story unfolds?

Claire: We outline, often in great detail. Because we have a single narrative made up of two authors’ alternating sections (her voice is in italics, mine is in print), it’s essential that every single section transitions smoothly into the next one. All these sections linked together as a whole then have to land the reader in the right place, both at the end of every chapter and at the end of the book. It would be too disorienting and disjointed otherwise --- both to the reader and to us in trying to write it.

Once we have a tight overall structure, of course new themes and elements will emerge as you’re writing, some easier than others to integrate. It’s a real juggling act, often frustrating, but when it works, it can create a richer, more interesting, multi-layered work.

Who has final say? Does “Mom always rule,” or how do you handle writing conflicts?

Mia: Oh, we never have writing conflicts! Kidding aside, there are fewer conflicts than people might imagine --- and they seem to imagine a lot, at least in the U.S. When people my age hear I’m working with my mom (and often living with her when I do) the first thing they usually say is “Wow, that’s cool! But how do you not kill each other?” We took a trip around the world two years ago and looked at the mother and adult daughter relationship in other countries. It was really apparent how much less adversarial the relationship is outside the States.

Differences, of course, do arise and when we butt heads it’s more often about work habits rather than the work itself. I like to sleep in, whereas my mom naturally wakes up around 5 a.m. When we’re writing individually, this isn’t a problem but on the days we have to work together it means I’m groggy or she’s impatient, wanting to have begun earlier. When there are creative differences, we’ll go with whoever makes the stronger case, or let the story itself decide. Most the time if you put in an element you’re not sure of, when you go back to edit, it’s very obvious if it’s working.

What does each of you bring to the table?

Mia: My mother brings motivation, patience and experience to the table. She has 20 years of experience, most as a screenwriter, so she’s been invaluable in terms of teaching me how to structure a compelling narrative.

Her experience also results in her being pretty unflappable. Sometimes a scene just flows out of you, other times you hate what you’ve written or simply can’t think of anything to say. When the latter happens, I tend to get irritable, frustrated and want to throw in the towel. My mom laughs when I’m like this and very nicely reminds me that it’s not writer’s block, it’s a message from a part of you that knows this scene needs to go deeper or senses there is something missing so just trust that I know what that is and that it will come. She calls writer’s block mediocrity protection and sees it as a gift, which I love.

Claire: Mia brings pragmatism to the table and is great when it comes to keeping us focused and on schedule. Once I’m into a piece, I’m extremely productive. I live and breathe the work, and work pretty much non-stop. Getting into can be the challenge for me; the very air distracts me. Also, having worked as a publicist, Mia’s very creative and talented when it comes to marketing and promoting the book --- it was she who booked us on the “O’Reilly Factor.” She also brings humor, that girl can keep me up half the night laughing.

What’s your favorite snack food/drink when you are writing?

Claire: I don’t really snack, I rarely eat between meals. My favorite writing food is homemade guacamole made with ripe avocados, lots of fresh lime juice and garlic, salt and pepper. On writing days when I’m out before sunrise running, all I want is a huge hamburger with the works or a steak, medium rare. I’m hoping that not having eaten red meat in my youth is giving me delayed heart attack prevention.

Mia: I’m a definite snacker and have more of a sweet tooth. My mom makes an amazing concoction of Greek yogurt, honey, fresh fruit, spices, grated ginger, lime juice and nuts. Some days it has a tropical flair, she’ll add fresh mango and strawberries and pepita seeds, other days she’ll blend in fresh mint, blackberries and walnuts. Healthy, sweet and very refreshing!

I should add that neither of us shuns chocolate. We don’t keep candy around but on occasion, when we’re not too pressured, my mom will bake and we’ve actually gotten pretty good at not eating an entire chocolate lemon tart or almond fudge cake all on one day.

Do you have advice for anyone who would like to write a book with their mother or daughter?

Mia: The best advice I can offer is to encourage you to do it!  Working with your mother in any capacity is a chance to get to know her as a woman, as a friend, and as a colleague. Maybe I’m biased, but there is something special about writing, or doing anything artistic, together. The creative process takes you to a part of yourself that isn't necessarily accessed on a regular basis and to see someone deep at work in that place is incredible. Watching my mom write, seeing her get into "the zone" is seeing a part of her that I'd never otherwise see.

I've also learned that alone time is essential. When you work so closely with someone (in our case we live together for part of the writing process) you almost begin thinking in unison and taking time to yourself ensures you will continually bring uniquely "you" things to the table, ultimately enriching the collaboration.

Claire: Issues will come up, embrace them. It’s an opportunities to clean up some history and establish new dynamics between you. Listening neutrally is crucial. As moms, we’re often unaware of how often we listen to speak, and how often we speak to persuade or influence, albeit from a loving place. Asking for what you want is also a skill moms get rusty at over the years. It does not serve a professional relationship to be a caregiver. If you can’t be emotionally honest in life, it will show up in the work.

It’s also essential to be willing to look (and sometimes laugh) at yourself. I can be a victim at times and Mia can be a brat, this doesn't make us good or bad people, it’s just where we sometimes go under stress. If you can’t let go of judgment, of each other or yourself, you’re in for rough seas. The ability to lovingly point out when the other is stuck in that mode, give them five minutes to whine or complain and then move on is invaluable.

The Fontaine's memoir, COME BACK, is available wherever books are sold.