By Kelsey Block
“It’s a shared experience,” Memoirist Jane Congdon mentioned during her visit to the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities last week. “I’ve been a visiting writer before, but I’ve never been an artist in conversation.”
The RCAH welcomed Congdon back in November 2011 to discuss her first memoir entitled, It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me.
This time around, Congdon joined the RCAH as an Artist in Conversation. She attended Professor Anita Skeen’s senior seminar, “Geographies, Journeys, and Maps,” and told the class about her plans to hike the Appalachian Trail. The West Virginia native says she’s spent months reading books, going on practice hikes, and gathering materials for her journey.
“I think it’ll be hard. It’s not a vacation,” she said. “I never thought it was something I would do in the beginning, and I found myself in stores buying gear and I thought, ‘What are you buying this gear for, Jane?’”
Cold temperatures and wild animals top the list of Congdon’s fears on the trail. “The things you can’t control – weather, lighting storms … There’s some things Mother Nature is going to do what Mother Nature is going to do. It’s not a case of you conquering anything. You’re the one that has to adapt. The trail is not going to adapt for you, it’s indifferent,” she said. “I hope I don’t slink off in shame.”
When it’s all over, the retired English teacher and editor said she hopes to end up with another book.
Thursday afternoon, the RCAH Center for Poetry sponsored a conversation with Congdon about the writing of memoir and her newest book, Mr. Joe: Tales from a Haunted Life. Congdon co-wrote the book with her brother, Joseph Barnett.
“When we began the project, we had been strangers for most of the last 40 years,” Congdon said of writing Mr. Joe. The siblings had gone their separate ways and “really just weren’t very interested in one another,” until the day Jane received a phone call.
“He called me one evening and he left a message. I hardly ever heard from him, and it said, ‘This is Joe, call me,’ and I thought, ‘What in the world?’ I didn’t call him back for a couple days. I just didn’t get that there was anything urgent,” Congdon said. “We were reunited by a brain tumor.”
Jane said she took her brother into the hospital the day of his surgery. The tumor was not malignant, but Joe recovered well, and after that, the siblings had a chance to become friends.
“We would just go to the movies or meet for lunch and we started discovering things about each other,” Congdon said. “We learned we were a lot alike and that we had assumptions about each other that were not true. Did we really know each other at all?”
According to Congdon, Barnett was the one who originally came up with the idea for a book. She said they would be out at a movie or dinner when Joe would start telling a story.
“He was a night custodian in a school and he started telling me stories about his work. He really loved his work … In the process, we’re getting to know each other better, and I said, ‘I know the name of that book already; it’s Mr. Joe.’ That’s what the kids called him,” Congdon said.
Somewhere along the line, Joe mentioned ghosts. That shifted the whole focus of the book, Congdon said.
“That was a surprise,” Congdon said. “His whole life was a surprise because I hadn’t been there … Writing a memoir can be quite emotional, and not always in good ways. In the process of writing it, Joe had to relive some very dark times talking about them for the book, so it was difficult for him.”
On the other side of things, Congdon was struggling with something a bit different.
“When I wrote my first book, I could just pretty well do whatever I wanted to. I made my own decisions, set my own schedule,” she said. “All of a sudden, in this other situation, the idea of it was great but it was a lot of work. We had to work out a writing process. All of a sudden, there were two opinions to consider, two voices, somebody whose story was being told but they didn’t want to write it themselves.”
At times, Congdon said, both of them doubted whether or not the book would happen. When they reached a point where they felt they needed another opinion, Jane printed off copies of the text to hand out to friends. That was a turning point for Joe, she said, and not in a good way.
“He didn’t think we’d really write a book,” Congdon said. “So when we printed this draft, guess what? There it was! What he said was some of the things he told me, he didn’t realize would end up in the book, but I paid attention. When he saw it, not only did he realize, ‘Yes, there could be a book,’ but he felt betrayed because he thought he had told me some of that off the record, but I didn’t know that.”
Congdon said Barnett was concerned about a variety of things in the book, but mostly he was worried about what others would think about the ghosts.
“The thing he held onto for 50 years was the ghosts, but the first time he ever told anybody was when he told me for that book,” Congdon said. “He was haunted by his personal life, because he had such hardships, he was a single dad. And some of his memories were he thought he had failed – and he really hadn’t at all – so he was haunted by his own life and also haunted by ghosts and it just sort of emerged.”
“He said, ‘I don’t care if we throw it in the fireplace when we’re done. The important thing for me was that we were really working together,’” Congdon said. She confessed her brother’s concerns made her apprehensive.
“That turned me into thinking he was going to chicken out,” Congdon said.
After that, the two worked out a system in which Joe would sign off on the pages.
Despite the challenges of co-writing a memoir, Congdon said, “It was a blast.”
“It helped us to bond,” she said. “We met in person and it was very important to us to have a safe work environment, and that contributed to the fact that it was, overall, a really good experience.”