It’s been a long time since a memoir’s come out that’s really blown us away, but this week Tracy Ross’ The Source of All Things hits bookstores. It has everything a memoir should: honest storytelling, compelling writing, guts and personality.
Tracy Ross’ story of sexual abuse is turning heads. It’s a must read. This former staff editor at Skiing and Backpacker magazines hopes readers not only get a realistic look inside the abuse issue, but that they also experience a glimpse into her life – everything from living in Alaska and the Tetons to her time with Search & Rescue.
WAM book reviewer Tara Kusumoto talked to Tracy about the struggles of ‘researching’ her past, how the book came to be, and how the author finds time for getting outdoors.
You first wrote your story as a feature article for Backpacker – how did it come to be a full memoir?
The day the Backpacker magazine article came out I sent it to the diplomatic correspondent at The Wall Street Journal, a guy who I’d just become friends with. He forwarded it directly to Lane Zachary with a literary boutique agency in NY. They read the article and called me right away, so I flew to New York and met them. I never had any intention of turning it into a book. Never in my wildest dreams.
They told me that [the article] was the start of a book if I wanted to do it. I just started writing anything I wanted, anything from my life and sent it to them. Over the course of the year, we worked together very closely to make it into a 100 page proposal, which was the skeleton of book. After I won the National Magazine Award, we sent it out to all the big [publishing] houses in NY. I did the dream tour – Simon & Schuster, Random House – I met all the editors. It turned into a best bid war.
From June 2009-July 2010, all I did was write. It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done, in terms of having the confidence to do it and figuring out what had to go into the book that wasn’t already there, and believing that I could write a 300 page book.
Your connection with what you were feeling at different points of your childhood is so authentic – you’re so tuned into that. How were you able to capture that? What kind of research was required?
I looked at myself as a character instead of as “me.” I tried to keep some distance and just wrote the story.
I read an interview with Wells Tower [author of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned], where he talks about auto hypnosis. When he writes, he goes into this auto hypnotic state. I would find myself being able to do that. If I would slow everything down enough in my brain, wipe out all of the clutter and all of the voices that said ‘you won’t be able to do this,’ then I could really begin to hear. I could call up and go up to those moments if I listened really closely… I knew how I felt and I knew how I reacted. It took a lot of listening really closely to hear it and feel it.
I also have journals, a ton of letters that people have saved, letters that I sent my parents when I was in Oregon. Throughout the book, I picked scenes that I felt really strongly about. Those are the things in our life that stand out: the moments that create the connect-the-dots of the important arc of our life… the moments that stand out emotionally.
I talked to a lot of people, did a lot of reporting, asked my dad and mom a billion questions to have them reconstruct what happened. I went back to my parent’s house and Twin Falls, tried to get court documents. It was really emotional and crazy. A lot of this story is me thinking “did this really happen?” That’s one of the problems that abuse victims suffer from – you spend so much time building these safety barriers around your brain and your own memory. You say “I don’t want that to influence me,” “I don’t want to remember that”… it’s the whole process of blocking it out.
What was the most challenging part of writing the memoir?
The writing. Believing that I’m not some hack and could actually tackle this from a nuts and bolts writing perspective. Also, throughout the whole process, having to pull the curtain back more and more and more. I had become very comfortable with saying “I was abused 12 times” and thinking ‘well, that’s not so bad, it wasn’t rape, so it’s OK, others had it worse.’ But I still felt so shitty.
Also, going back and asking my dad these questions was hard… he couldn’t answer a lot of them, like “What did you do when you would come into my room?” Nobody wants to know that. Even though I didn’t want to know it, I realized it was causing upheaval for my kids. I was all over the place last year and my kids had just entered the age of awareness that something’s wrong with mom, she’s not happy. And I couldn’t tell them why. That was hard. Finally, I could acknowledge and accept the fact that I had been so screwed over.
What do you hope readers get out of your story?
As a writer, I hope they get a great reading experience aside from the subject matter: a glimpse into Alaska, a glimpse into the Tetons, a glimpse into Search & Rescue.
I want them to come away with a message of hope. Hopefully abuse survivors will come away with the message that if she can confront her dad in the middle of nowhere and she’s gaining all this benefit from doing that – all this clarity and self empowerment – then maybe I can go and relieve myself of this burden by either telling someone or confronting the person who did it. Asking for recognition and apology if that’s the road they want to take.
For readers, I hope they get a look inside the abuse issue without it being too graphic or sensationalized or scary. And also, I just hope the book makes people think after they’re done reading it. I hope it creates dialogue and sticks with people.
The dedication reads: “To Scout and Thatcher and children everywhere, who should be seen, heard and believed no matter what.”
It’s not something that ends when abuse ends. No matter how good you make your life, it’s something that sticks with you and is difficult to overcome. The more we can look at it as a society and stop letting it be a closed drapes/closed door issue, that’s going to help. It’s happening everywhere. It degrades us as a society – there are so many people suffering and turning to drugs and alcohol and turning to self abuse. There’s the thinking that if you’ve been abused, you’ll abuse and perpetuate the cycle. If you can turn around and face it, hopefully that can help stop it, prevent it.
A common theme throughout your life is the outdoors – what does being outdoors mean to you now? Is it still a major part of your life?
The irony is the more you write, the less time you spend outside. I mountain biked a ton last summer and we did some great raft trips. One of the side effects of doing this and being a writer is that I don’t have a lot of leisure time to go out and be outside on a daily basis like I used to. For me, it’s being outside all the time – skiing every day or several times a week, going on long trips, working for the Forest Service – that’s where the transformation really happens.
There’s an abrupt separation between when the outdoors is my life and when it’s recreation. Anyone who has done things like SCA [Student Conservation Association] or been a ski bum can relate to that. It’s still a super huge part of my life. My kids are on ski team, we just bought a raft and look forward to exploring more rivers. It’s never going to go away, but after this [work on the memoir] tones down, I do hope to spend more time out there again.
The Source of All Things is available March 8, 2011 (Free Press, $26.00) Read our full book review here.