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ONE FATHER’S APPREHENSION: Interview with memoirist Maximilian Werner

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Maximilian Werner will read from and sign copies of his memoir Gravity Hill at the King’s English Bookshop
1511 S. 1500 E.
Salt Lake City
Friday May 10, 2013, 7 pm.
Maximilian Werner’s memoir Gravity Hill contains stories nested inside other stories. In its framing tale, we meet Max about five years ago, a young professional and husband to Kim. Together they have two children: a three-year old boy named Wilder and Greer, an eleven-month old baby girl. Since the requisites for having children are merely biological, most parents find their preparation woefully inadequate, and our author is not exceptional in this. He struggles to find skills and worries about his responsibilities. Set within this universal story are his memories, flashbacks to the years of his emergence from his own childhood, learning to explore the world around him and master the life skills it requires. While the stories within Gravity Hill—about Max’s miss-matched parents, influential siblings, and companions of both sexes who draw him into the world in different ways—fill most of the book, many in his audience want to learn more about what came next. It’s been five years since Maximilian Werner wrote the moving scene that opens Gravity Hill, and in anticipation of its publication we sat down with him in hopes of answering some of their questions.

 

15B: Gravity Hill eloquently dramatizes a young father’s anxiety for his children’s safety now, and their eventual welfare after he is gone from their lives. Readers have asked how that apprehensive parent, whose concerns feel so universal and inescapable, manages to come by the confidence to send them forth into a daunting world to find lives of their own. Other than the one suggested by the way your book ends, do you have any answers you can share, or might there be a sequel to Gravity Hill where your story will continue?

MW: How do I find the confidence to send them forth?  The short answer is that I have no choice: life lives, after all.  Over the last few years, I’ve learned to get out of the way: my way, my kids’ way, the universe’s way.  Just let it unfold, you know, and quit worrying so much about the what ifs.  I know it’s a luxury, this ability to be in one’s own life and at the same time watch it go by, but it’s what I’ve got for now.  At some point, tomorrow is going to be different.

I’d be missing a crucial part of the answer if I did not also mention my wife, Kim.  She gives my kids confidence, and by doing so she gives me confidence.  She’s done an amazing job.  She’s given my children everything, but giving comes at cost, and that is especially true in cases where we give all.  My book is about this cost as much as anything.

15B: Your mother, whom we meet in Gravity Hill, is still a major figure in your life. In fact, she edited several of your books. She’s very proud of you, even if some of the material in your memoir pushes her boundaries. We’re curious about your father, who is a remote-but-intriguing figure in your story. In fact, even when young Max is staying with him, it is his community, rather than the old man himself, who makes a vivid impression. Can you talk about him now? Have you come to know him better? Do you even want to?

MW: Mothers and fathers are tricky things.  I’m no different and my parents are no different: They did the best they could with what they had.  Do I think things could have been better, or that my parents could have made better decisions? Probably.  But better relative to what?  Their own parents?  Not likely.  And I also question the wisdom of lamenting what might have been, which is the same thing as lamenting what one thinks should have been, which, in the end, has nothing to do with it.  Or if it does, it is only to the extent that one would prefer the ideal.  But the ideal is unattainable, so I like to think about what is and about what has been on their own terms. If I do that, if I am unclouded and I see things clearly, I’m confident I’ll have a good chance of being a better parent, not than my parents were, but than I might have otherwise been.

I know my parents fairly well.  Lately the question for me has been what do I do with that knowledge?  What does it mean?  Depends on where we’re coming from, doesn’t?  When we were kids, my father always told us that blood was stronger than anything.  But I don’t tell that to my own kids because I don’t think it’s true.  We go through phases in life, and sometimes those phases are people, including our own family members.  Although I will say that in general fathers tend to be more distant than mothers.  When it comes to carrying a pregnancy to term, and to giving birth, men are clearly ignorant.  Would anyone argue that?  If not, then why should it be so surprising if in general men are more remote from their offspring?  Fathers and mothers are both parents, but their experiences of parenthood are night and day much of the time.  Both can be constructive forces in a child’s life, depending on how broadly one defines “constructive.”  The concept of family is fascinating, but only because it doesn’t really resemble societal depictions of it, or at least it doesn’t for me.

15B: Gravity Hill opens on a tense scene in which we quickly meet you, your wife, and your children. Have any of them expressed concern for their privacy, as so many artists’ families have done? How do you answer such questions, theirs or your own? And do you think you may write more about this part of your life in the future?

MW: When I was writing the book, I didn’t think about how the book would affect the other people who are mentioned in it.  I wasn’t in that space.  I wasn’t thinking about other people.  I was thinking about me and about the trouble I was in with my life.  I was thinking about how to get out of that trouble, and I guess part of how I did that was by telling other people’s stories, which were also my stories in a sense.  It’s also true that I hadn’t heard from most of the people in the book for many years (even my wife felt remote), and when that much time passes, people aren’t people so much as they are memories of people, or ideas of them, and memories and ideas are not flesh and blood, and they do not have feelings.  Memories and ideas are fallible and malleable and mine, so I did with them as I pleased.  It was very selfish of me, and maybe I shouldn’t have done it, but then I’ve already shared my feelings about talk of what should be.

15B: Some readers are fascinated by the glimpse you give of a place other than Utah. At perhaps the most socially alert, sensitive time in anyone’s life—his teenage years—Max is dropped, without a lot of guidance or supervision, onto New York’s Fire Island, where his dad enjoys a bohemian lifestyle. Are there reasons—technical, personal, whatever—why you limit this part of your story, or can you (will you) say more about it?

MW: The reason is practical: I wrote what I remembered, and although what I remember is fragmented, it is precisely that fragmentation that makes the scene so memorable, at least to me.  The whole book is a collection of such fragments, which are like shards of a broken mirror: they are partly reflective (you can’t see your whole body in them), they are sharp, and they can cut.

My father wrote an as-of-yet unpublished book of fiction about his time on the island, so at some point some of that material may find its way into one of my books (my father gave me his permission), but other than that I have no plans to write any more about the island.

Read the full review of Gravity Hill by Geoff Wichert here.

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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