Interview with Selby Fleming McPhee
- by Annette Gendler
- January 7, 2014
Selby Fleming McPhee's Love Crazy provides a unique, engaging and entertaining experience of one couple's journey from the Roaring '20s to the sobering '40s and beyond.
Selby Fleming McPhee’s Love Crazy, a memoir of her parents’ love and life together, is a charming book. It might just be that her father’s charm, a man whom everybody liked, is still at work so many years later, when his daughter finds the hidden box of her parents’ letters and puts them together to reconstruct their story. But this book is more than a family memoir; it is a memoir of America as experienced by this couple, a history of the 1920s, the Depression and World War II. And what better way is there to experience history than through those who lived it?
Selby — first of all, I want to thank you for sharing your parents and their story. Your book is quite a riveting tale and that is due, for the most part, to the main characters’ personalities. Reading Love Crazy, I often felt as if I was inside this couple’s story, privy to their hopes, dreams and challenges. I certainly understand your motivation to work your way through their correspondence to understand them as people, rather than as your parents, but I am wondering what made you decide to share their story publicly?
I think I wanted to tell Jack and Peggy’s story for the same reason you say you were drawn to it. In their letters, they became almost like fictional characters in a novel of the 1920s, eloping impulsively and then bursting with their secret until everyone in the family was drawn into the drama. Reading the letters for the first time myself, I loved the window they provided into a legendary time — times, actually, the ‘20s, the Depression, World War II — and I thought they made a compelling narrative that would capture other readers. It was especially interesting to read the daily letters my parents exchanged during their first year of marriage, when they were apart but imagining together what their life would be like. It put into writing a blueprint of their life plans, which helped me to see what they hoped for in stark contrast to the life they had. I think seeing them as “characters” from an era when I didn’t know them perhaps gave me the distance I needed to tell their story.
I particularly appreciated getting an inside view of American history, of witnessing one couple’s everyday life in the 1920s, the Great Depression and then World War II. You are a deft narrator and interpreter of this historical context as you take the reader by the hand and frame your parents’ story within the larger societal environment. How much research did you have to do to arrive at this expertise to place your parents’ story within its historical context?
My parents’ letters mentioned writers, books and magazines, cultural and historical events and places that I wanted to know more about. I read a number of general books about the cultural history of the 1920s and the Depression, and a couple of Navy histories of the Seabees (construction battalions) in World War II, boarding school and college yearbooks from my parents’ graduation years, and even a kind of yearbook of Jack’s wartime construction battalion. When they mentioned a writer, I looked him or her up and, if I could, found the books they shared. I read local histories, supplied by public libraries in my parents’ hometowns, and I read a wonderful book about the great 1927 floods on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. I went to look at the church that was the scene of their secret marriage and, thanks to an indulgent current owner, the house in which my father grew up in Burlington, Iowa. The company my father worked for was able to provide wonderfully written newsletters describing the dam and bridge projects on which my father worked in his early career. The research was one of my favorite parts of the whole project.
Finding the right structure is often a great struggle in memoir. As the narrator, you know what the story is, but you have to fashion it into a compelling story. I found that your choice of switching between quoting a letter and then interpreting it for the reader, as well as sometimes having the letters speak directly to each other, worked rather well. How did you arrive at that structure?
I had a lot of help from my writing group! My first plan was to tell the whole story in letters, chronologically, leaving my voice more or less out of it. But my fellow writers kept asking me for my questions, my perspective on the letters, and it became clear that I needed to provide the narrative glue, and my own reactions as a daughter, to make it work. Also, the letters without comment got boring. People kept waiting for my voice. The biggest challenge was to tell the story using the letters sparingly, almost as dialogue, giving my parents their own voices. It took me a few rounds to edit the letters so they only included what was essential to their story, leaving out extraneous material that was probably more interesting or charming to me than the reader. If there is art in the book, it is in the weaving of letters and narrative. As you say, the story structure was there.
There are many spots in your book where you have to bridge holes in the narrative, where you simply don’t know what happened, and more importantly don’t know what your parents thought or felt. You chose to deal with those holes by simply admitting your lack of information. You could have gone a different route, filled in the gaps and written your parents’ story as a novel. What made you stick with writing it as a memoir?
I don’t know why but I never really considered writing the book as fiction, though you are right that it would have allowed me to fill in some blanks. For me it just seemed to have more integrity, and more interest, as a true account of a couple that lived in an interesting time (or as true as memoir ever is!). Because most of the gaps involved my mother’s silences, I suppose this route was most unfair to her. Because I didn’t know what she was thinking, I guessed, knowing her as my mother.
I am curious about the book’s title. While it captures your parents’ frame of mind at the beginning of their relationship, I feel that once Jack embarks on a career that takes him away from Peggy, their love slowly dies off, at least hers for him, which seems to be especially true when he realizes his lifelong dream of becoming a soldier and ships off to serve in World War II. As I read on, I felt the book should have been called something like “Great Expectations.” So why did you call it Love Crazy?
Great title! (I think it’s taken, though …) My brother and I believed that my mother suffered from some form of mental illness, or at least an emotional imbalance. Reading their letters, I realized that my father’s unwavering need for her, and her approval, was a little unbalanced as well. She could be really cruel to him, and other men might have walked away from her, but he wouldn’t have dreamed of it, nor would she of leaving him. It seemed so clear that she was so angry with him for much of their life together, and I remember once asking her why she didn’t just leave. She looked at me as if I had lost my mind. The whole relationship seems a little bit crazy or unbalanced or obsessive, but in the end a kind of “love,” so that’s why I called it Love Crazy.
Class is a topic in your memoir and to me a curious one. Peggy in particular never felt comfortable with the high society life to which she aspired, yet also never let go of wanting to belong. Do you think that perhaps Peggy and Jack’s lives would have been easier, or rather, that they might have freed themselves more easily from that class stigma that even you as a child encountered, had they settled in an area that is less class conscious than Philadelphia and its environs?
Their first fantasy was that they would live in Burlington, Iowa, in a little English cottage on the Fleming property, where Jack would go to work for a contractor in a community that knew him well and loved him. Their friends would be Jack’s “crowd” from childhood and on weekends they would go to Big Ten football games or maybe to Chicago for some real fun. It’s hard for me to imagine that Peggy would have thrived on such a small stage, with a possessive mother-in-law nearby, but it would have been a safer environment for them, and I wonder if that would have helped. Philadelphia then could be an unforgiving place, and yes, I think they might have done better in a less competitive environment.
You state, in your Coda, that you wish you “had known that bad girl and romantic boy who had so many hopes, who fought so hard for the American dream, a dream that eluded them.” On the face of it, they did live the American Dream: Jack was college educated, had a steady career all his life, was employed throughout the Great Depression and ran his own business (successfully it seems), while Peggy, despite her perceived lack of education, actually took the initiative and went to work in education. And she seemed to enjoy being a kindergarten teacher. They always had a roof over their heads; they did build their own house; they spent summers at the shore and had the support of both their families. To me, the tragedy of their story lies in the fact that they did not meet their own expectations, or at least Peggy never did and never let Jack be satisfied with what he did achieve. Is that what was wrong?
I agree with everything you say. They were poor at least in part because my father could not hold on to the money he earned, and their ambitions were bigger than their earnings, and I think that made them feel they had been deprived of a “good life.” Most of their friends were more affluent and comfortable. My mother threw around the word “failure” a lot, and I think my father felt like a failure – even my brother felt “poor” and driven to be more successful than his father. I think that is one of the reasons Jack’s wartime experience was so good for him. In the Navy, he was a successful leader, and he knew it, and it provided a real lift to his spirits. I agree with you that the real tragedy is that they didn’t recognize what a good life they had.
Do you think they ever wondered whether their precipitous marriage was partly to blame for what they perceived as their lackluster success?
I don’t think they viewed it that way. They certainly were immature and naïve when they married and I think they were regarded that way by their families, which probably didn’t help. They certainly didn’t start out with the whole-hearted support or confidence of the people who loved them. But I think the Depression did for them what it did for a lot of people — it took away some dreams and momentum. Had they both been emotionally stronger, they might have survived that more philosophically. Money fears are very debilitating, though, and I think a whole generation was handicapped by them.
I have to say I wished for photos in Love Crazy. Was it a conscious decision on your part not to include photos, or do you simply not have photos from your parents’ younger years? Were they lost when their house burned down?
I looked at other print-on-demand books and felt that photographs did not reproduce well in them. There is a small photo album on my website, though — www.selbyflemingmcphee.com.
I couldn’t help but feel that you, as in-the-background narrator, have more sympathy for your father as a character than for your mother. His wartime letters to her are particularly poignant. If I could reach back in time, I would have written him an encouraging letter, and yet even I, as a removed reader in 2013, know that no one but Peggy could have given him the encouragement and the recognition that he needed. Yet it seems he never got that. Was part of your motivation in writing this book to finally understand your mother as well as your father’s unwavering love for her? Do you think you gained that understanding? Or is it unachievable, even as we are privy, thanks to your book, to the thoughts expressed in their letters?
You are right, I started out with much more sympathy for my father, and I agree, she was the only person whose approval he sought. Everyone loved my father, but hers was the love he wanted. Certainly, I was motivated to understand their relationship better, and I feel that I did gain much more perspective and more empathy for my mother in writing the book. I came to realize that she had a complicated, difficult childhood, and that through their life she had a lot more courage than I might have given her credit for. She did pick herself up, fearful as she was, and find work that she was good at, and run a household on her own during the war, and raise two children who turned out to be pretty healthy adults. So in the end, I got what I needed from the exercise of writing the book. I hope my readers will feel some sense of satisfaction, too.
Interviewer Annette Gendler is a nonfiction writer and teaches memoir writing at StoryStudio Chicago.