Author and artist Phoebe Stone talks to Elizabeth Sutton, NER’s office manager and reader of fiction manuscripts, about the fragility and strength of memory, creative leniency, and revisiting King’s College in Cambridge. Phoebe Stone’s “Scenes from Childhood“—which includes two brief memoirs of the author’s early years in Cambridge, UK, and in the American Midwest—appeared in NER 39.3.
ES: Your published writing up until now has been for children and young adults. What made you decide to turn your focus inward and write a memoir?
PS: When I was writing these memoir pieces, I really took to the structure of it. I liked working in the solid realm of real memory. It was a kind of relief from the constraints of invention! But then I think, that all creative writing in a way is memoir, contorted, altered and transformed . . . but the base is always memoir. How can it be otherwise?
I guess I have been lenient with myself creatively. I let myself do what I want when inspiration hits. So, I have zigzagged all my life, back and forth, moving from writing for children to writing short stories and novels for adults. I really can’t help myself from popping out of my seams all over the place. Forgive me!
When I talk about being lenient with myself creatively, I also mean, when I am doing a first draft I lock my critical side away and let myself write or paint whatever comes to me naturally . . . After the first draft, then I invite my critical side in and I let her prune, rearrange, shape, and cut all she wants. She loves to repair a ruin or a wreck, whether it be an old dilapidated house or a rangy, rough short story.
ES: How do you think your painting informs your writing, and vice versa? How are the processes related, and how are they different?
PS: When I paint, I always work in a series, that is, one piece leading to the next or opening a door to the painting that will follow. Memoir pieces seem to evolve in a similar manner—they go together in a loose sort of way and one piece can unlock another piece. So, I guess I can see a relationship in my process with these two art forms, which otherwise appear to occupy totally different realms for me.
As for one piece unlocking another, while I was working on some of these memoir stories, a very early memory surfaced, I mean one that had not been in my collection before. It was a surprising gift, vague and disjointed, but charged with feeling. And it appeared suddenly when I was sitting at my writing table. It was the memory of the day my mother and father got rid of our old wooden icebox which needed a block of ice to keep butter cold. I remembered the white refrigerator (with a touch of red trim?) being carried across the yard and up the stairs to our apartment. When it was brought into the kitchen, it was a delicious and luxurious moment for me. I called my older sister to ask if we had ever had an icebox in our childhood. “Yes,” she said, “You were two years old when we got a real refrigerator.” I later I pushed the edges of that memory and recalled the experience of having an icebox, how pleasant it was when there was a block of ice in there keeping things cold. But when the ice was gone, melted, and you opened the wooden door, it was a just damp, sooty cupboard filled with disappointment.
ES: In “Scenes from Childhood,” your description of the school you attended in England is very haunting. It’s cold, filled with empty classrooms, and visited by the forbidding “men from Westcott.” Who exactly were these men and why do you think the school and these men stuck in your memory?
PS: I wrote about the men from Westcott from my child self and, of course, I was really baffled at the time by who they were or why they were so important at the school. I did not at all understand the tension that was going on at the school. I felt its harshness, indeed, but the reason escaped me. I noted the little Catholic boy who had to stand in front of the assembly for the whole session for no reason and I was aware of Sheila who was so mistreated by the teacher. I also wondered about the chilled, empty rooms piled up with desks. In fact, all these things were connected. Thinking about it now, I know that the school had always been an official Church of England School until that year and I think possibly the staff had been recently asked to change their policy and cut back the amount of Protestant religious training. As a result, they may have lost a lot of students. That first year, children of other faiths were allowed to enroll in the school. However, the teachers were deeply rigid, loyal to their cause, cold and menacing to the children who were not Protestant. Without understanding, I was witnessing a small, cruel religious war.
ES: In “Corn Stubble and Blue Sky,” an act of childish mischief becomes something much, much more. What made you choose this incident to write about?
PS: I got very interested in all of my earliest memories, even the blurry ones, because there are so few of them, such a finite number. They are rather like small elusive jewels that remain on a shelf in an inner warehouse, untouched and unspoiled. It is inspiring but also a little bit dangerous to go back and write about them. For some reason, the process changes the memory a little. The new experience of writing about it can intrude and alter the original. It can disturb the patina, the delicate fragility of the memory. Then you have two memories to manage . . . the original and the new one. The more I revisit and write about a memory, the more it is altered in subtle ways and the more it loses power. Like trying to wear an old dress, it tears with use and fades in new ways.
But once I began, there was no turning back and I plunged ahead, writing about each early memory nugget that I had in my storehouse. It became a kind of challenge to see if I could extract each one and shape it on paper. The visit from the unknown boy was one of those nuggets. It wasn’t until I put it on paper that I understood why I had retained the memory, what the experience had encapsulated for me, and I can only hope that I was able to convey that understanding to readers.
ES: What was it like to revisit Cambridge this fall? Had you been back there since your childhood?
PS: While I was working on changes for “In my Cradling Arms” with the editors at NER by email, oddly and surprisingly, I found myself back in Cambridge, England, even sitting in King’s College Chapel while sending messages on my phone to the quarterly! The trip had been planned earlier, of course, but I had no idea it would coincide with the editing of the memoir piece about Cambridge. And the visit was the first time I had a been back to Cambridge since I was a ten-year-old girl with chill blains on my toes, trying to understand a wintery foreign world.
The childhood memory I have of Cambridge is closed-in and stony gray, even the river seemed intolerant and steely. It makes me aware of how hard it is to be a child. It is such a difficult, powerless and poignant time. I think it is this intensity that draws me to write so much from that part of myself.
Phoebe Stone is a painter, poet, and author of seven novels for young adults published by Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic and three picture books published by Little, Brown and Co. Phoebe grew up in a family of poets and novelists and has spent most of her life painting and writing. She is presently working on a series of memoir/short stories for a book. The two pieces in NER are the first from that series to appear in publication.