By Sean Tuohy
In her newest work, The Latter Days: A Memoir, author Judith Freeman takes readers on an insightful and frank journey that explores her upbringing and her relationships. The Latter Days is what every memoir should be: honest to its core and so well crafted that the reader can’t put it down.
Freeman was kind enough to take a few minutes to chat with me about writing her story and what shaped her literary voice.
Sean Tuohy: When did you know you wanted to be a storyteller?
Judith Freeman: In high school I starred in the school play, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I grew up in a household largely without books and memorizing lines for this play gave me my first deep feeling for the power of words. Not until the age of 19, when I discovered the work of great writers like Hardy, Woolf, James, and Lawrence, did I know I wanted to be a storyteller. It was an instantaneous conversion.
ST: Which authors did you worship growing up?
JF: I didn’t read much as a child. I never owned a library card or remember being taken to a library. Growing up in large Mormon household with eight kids, our lives were primarily focused on the church. The few books on our one small bookshelf in the living room were mostly of a religious nature, books like Answers to Gospel Questions. In school, I wasn’t a very good student. I preferred being outdoors. I have a difficult time remembering anything I read in high school, which is why discovering “The Diary of Anne Frank” was so important to me.
But I do remember a book I read when I was quite young called The Boxcar Children that I liked very much because these kids were orphaned and got to live in a boxcar in the woods and furnish it by scavenging and they didn’t have parents anymore to tell them what to do. Later, I discovered a book called Alone by Admiral Richard E. Byrd, an account of the months he endured in the Antarctic, living alone in a shack buried in the ice and taking meteorological readings. In many ways it was an odd book for a girl like me to have embraced, but I’ve never forgotten it. Thinking about these two books now, I realize they each have a theme of solitude and the natural world.
ST: For The Latter Days, did your writing process change at all from how you write novels?
JF: Not really that much. You go into a room. You sit down. You write. I did, however, go through much deeper emotional swings writing a memoir, but essentially the “process” isn’t so different. You still have to decide what to say when. How much to tell, what to hold back. Whether to take this path or that one, and especially how the story begins and ends. Beginnings and endings can be so hard, but with this book they came to me quite easily.
ST: The Latter Days is a very frank and honest snapshot of a period in your life. How did you feel writing about such personal things?
JF: I was often nervous. But once I’d made the decision to write about my life there really wasn’t any turning back. On a daily basis, my mood might shift from amusement at the thought of something from the past, to the deepest grief when I remembered something else. I could not see any other way than to be very frank and honest. That is the sort of writer I am; the voice I employ is rather direct. It was the only way I could write this book.
ST: Since you were writing about something that happened to you, what kind of research did you do?
JF: Less than with other books, like The Long Embrace, my biography of Raymond Chandler and his wife, or my novel Red Water, which was set in the 19th century, and required a lot of research. Basically I just had to sit in a room and remember and, remarkably, that’s really not that difficult for most of us to do. I did look at a lot of family photographs, which helped stir memories, and I re-read the self-published memoirs my parents wrote at the end of their lives. Many of my ancestors wrote down their life stories, which Mormons have always been encouraged to do because they believe we do live in the latter days and a record of these times is important. In a sense, consciously or not, I suppose my own memoir comes out of this tradition.
ST: What’s next for you?
JF: A novel, perhaps, or some short stories. I’d like to return to fiction.
ST: What advice do you give to first-time writers?
JF: Write what you don’t know. Books are about more than our own experience, and researching a subject can be so exciting. The truth is there’s only one piece of real advice: Write, often, and, as Raymond Chandler said, study and emulate. In other words, read a lot and try to figure out how the books you admire were written.
ST: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
JF: I have a deep love for horses. I’ve owned six in my life, the last a buckskin thoroughbred-quarter horse named Zelda, given to me by Carole King. She was older when she came to me but we had ten good years together. She died three years ago and what I’m wondering is, will I get another horse in this lifetime?