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Koren Zailckas Finds High Drama in High Falls



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Will and Violet are polar opposites, in part because their mother has cast them that way. Will has long since succumbed to Josephine's manipulations. But prior to the psych ward, Violet, a kind of punky anti-heroine, has fitfully fought back, albeit self-destructively: She's been starving herself, taking drugs, and raging, all responses to her goading mother's nonstop judgment, and her feckless, alcoholic father's inaction. "It's Violet's job to create these low-level distractions," Zailckas says.

"With Josephine," Zailckas says, "there always has to be some drama, some crisis, something going on. She uses Will to keep herself from thinking about her other, deeper issues, and Violet is the scapegoat. Josephine can't help herself; narcissistic personality disorder is an addiction, a dissociative state. She has no idea what her inner emotional landscape looks like, she's like a toddler trying to figure out emotions through other people, provoking other people to see what their reaction would be. She's never going to get that empathic, A-ha! moment."

Zailckas's characters' mental illnesses fascinated her, but her editor advised keeping things simple, letting the plot carry the day. "That was a relief," she says. "I didn't need to go into all that exposition." Refraining from psychoanalysis also leaves room for Zailckas to dive into atmosphere, allowing Rosendale and High Falls to rise from the pages of Mother, Mother; the Hursts' environment is a palpable world of rail trails, roadside farm stands, tributaries to the Rondout Creek, community centers, and two lane blacktops humming with Subarus and Volvos. By contrast, the psych ward, where Violet meets several entertaining Girl, Interrupted-type fellow strugglers, casts an unforgiving, fluorescent glow, which, considering Violet is safe from her mother there, is welcome.

Mother, Mother is fiction, yes, but Zailckas clearly draws from a wealth of dysfunctional family experience, about which she is candid. "My family issues are ongoing," she admits. "I forgive my childhood, and my parents. They've been through some rough stuff. But you can't not protect yourself just because you forgive people. You can't be a doormat. With the memoirs, you bring [dysfunction] into your consciousness, but it's not necessarily cathartic. It's not for me. So writing began as a way for me to deal with it, acknowledge and work through some of the issues that were there. They're still there, but I'm more aware of them."

How does this new mom envision approaching her kids with the harrowing story of their family tree? "I wrote Smashed when I was 23," she says with a rueful smile. "Kids were the furthest thing from my mind. But I'm going to have to be honest about everything; I know that stuff's going to affect my children."

Zailckas draws strength from her mentor and former teacher (at Syracuse), Mary Karr, author of the seismic memoirs The Liar's Club and Cherry. "I was her babysitter," Zailckas says. "Her son's friends would say things about the sexual abuse in her books, and she had to let him know it was out there. It was intense and scary, but they got through it okay. Best case scenario: I left a deeply flawed record of every mistake I made over the course of growing up, getting married, and having kids. I'm hoping my kids will just see it as a journey."

As for the future, Zailckas is intent on producing more fiction. At this point in her life, she prefers that process. "The frustrating thing about memoir is you want to be in the scene, and write everything like you remember it, but you're not really writing the story as it happened; you've got to write the story from the present, bring your perspective from the present to the past. So you're constantly balancing back and forth. I want to stay in there." She likens learning to "stay in there" to "growing gills."

I ask her a question few authors like to entertain: what happens to your characters in the future, after the timeline of the book? While Violet is not Zailckas's doppelganger, the answer is poignant. "Violet will work it out," Zailckas says confidently, but with a tinge of sadness. "She's got friends, she's got a lot of love in her life. The family she's going to forge for herself might not be the people she shares some genetic code with. If she becomes a mom, some of the wounds will open up again; if you have kids, you can't help reliving your own childhood stuff. Violet will get her happy ending, but it'll be hard won. This stuff never leaves you."

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