The tattoos dotting T Kira Madden’s arms may not symbolize everything you need to know about her, but they unlock a number of doors. They include likenesses of the Hawaiian islands, her ancestral homeland; the key to her father’s apartment in New York City; a top hat, tipped in reference to her passion for stage magic; and a hot air balloon, which she and her parents crash-landed onto somebody’s house when she was a child.
There’s a tattoo of Hemingway, whose unsparing and economical prose echoes through Madden’s own; and there’s the phrase Le Mot Juste, which translates to “the right word,” in homage to Flaubert, another literary influence. “The idea of always chasing the right word resonated with the teenage me,” she says.
Perhaps it still does; she’s found many of them in her splendid, aching debut, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, published this month by Bloomsbury. Madden has written acclaimed essays and as-yet-unpublished novels, and she founded No Tokens, a literary journal dedicated to the work of women and nonbinary individuals. But, as a memoir of her childhood and coming of age, Long Live the Tribe will be many readers’ introduction to her voice — unsentimental, disarming, self-critical and fearless.
The book is not without its absurdist humor, and readers tuned into Madden’s wavelength will find places to laugh with her. But it’s the stark tragedies that will have many readers gasping with every turn of the page. Madden includes essays about the sexual assault she suffered at age 12 in a mall parking lot, at the hands of a predatory senior at her school; about the substance abuse that nearly killed her mother; of the alcoholism, neglect and physical abuse her father brought on the family; and of her own challenges with drugs and eating disorders.
Much of these formative traumas took place in her childhood home in Boca Raton, and references to Florida landmarks — the Town Center mall, Rapids Water Park, the “billboards with goopy fetuses on them” that make any drive up north so delightful — will resonate with South Florida readers.
Madden, 30, left Florida some 13 years ago, and she now lives in New York City, where she teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Back in her stomping ground last week to kick off her book tour at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Madden took an hour out of her increasingly hectic schedule to discuss her book, the underbelly of Boca, the art of the memoir, magic and more.
You had four readings in New York, and now you’re on the road for the first time. How’s it been? Exciting? Exhausting?
It’s a little exhausting. It’s really exciting. I feel really proud of the book. Because it’s so personal in nature, I’m fortunate enough that people are relating to some of the experiences in the book. I do feel like the questions are very personal, and sometimes a little invasive. I’m actually a really shy person. I think there’s an assumption that because I wrote a memoir, that I’m not a private or shy person, but that’s not true. So it’s a little tough sometimes when I’m bombarded with, “Is your mom mad at you? What was it like being assaulted?” Having that every single day is a little heavy.
You could have gone deeper in the book than you did.
Of course. But I am a private person. There’s a lot of false assumptions with memoir, that it’s like a journal, it’s everything you’ve got and you’re spilling it onto the page, but it is a very carefully crafted piece of work. In reality, I’ve been studying literature and writing since I was 19, and taking classes. I got my master’s in writing. I’ve been teaching fiction everywhere from prisons and homeless shelters to graduate school at Sarah Lawrence College, where I still teach. I wrote several novels before I fully got a grasp of structure, and comic and tragic form, and really got a grasp on my craft in order to make something like this. So it wasn’t this journal entry that then came into existence. It was many years of hard work.
I wonder if there will be more interest in these novels now, if this book turns out to be a success.
Well, I hope now I can write a better novel. I’ve spent so much time shaping this book, and editing it, and revising, that now when I go back to my fiction I can pull a lot of the tools and skills I’ve learning making this one, and apply them to my fiction.
This book has an interesting three-act structure, with some circularity to it, but also these huge surprises — there are surprises up until the last page of this book. How did you arrive on this particular structure?
I played with many different structures. I tried a linear structure that was far more straightforward and traditional. I tried extremely fractured structure where nothing was linear, and it was all over the place. And then I tried thematic sections — a family section, a sexuality section, friendships. And in the end, I always feel drawn to the three-act structure — in film, in books — and so I wanted to look at that. I wanted to look at childhood, and young adult/teenage life, and then adulthood and the present day.
At first it was just the first two acts, but then events were happening in real time that occurred in the last section of the book, so I ended up filling that out into an entire section. I thought that might just be the end, but it felt like a false ending. It felt a little too tidy, and I realized I had to go back into the past, and build it out as a section of its own.
I read most of the first part sitting in a waiting room while my car was being serviced, and laughing out loud page after page. Was this always part of the structure, to ease people in with some of the more absurdist material before getting into the darker stuff?
I’m so glad you felt that way, because I do think it’s a funny book. It’s missed by a lot of readers. I think it’s confusing when things are really dark and sad, and we’re always pushed into these binaries — these clichés of thought that something is funny or it’s sad, it’s good or it’s bad. And I think because sad things happen in the book, people feel like it must be serious, and they should not be laughing. But that’s not how I experienced my life. I think the wire between the two is very tight, and that’s the line I want to walk always.
The hot air balloon story is a great example of that, where it could have gone another way, and it ends up being this Felliniesque moment of absurdism.
Yes, I think it’s really funny, that piece. It’s interesting, because I read that piece a lot, and depending on the crowd, once somebody is laughing, other people feel they have permission, and sometimes people are cracking up in that story. And then I read it for one of the launch events last week, and it was so somber. I feel like I almost want to reach into the audience and say, it’s OK! I wrote this because I can laugh about it now.
Even the “Collected Dates with My Father” piece, those are memories my father and I then laughed about later in life when he was sober — leaving me at the baseball game. They’re horrible, but they’re hilarious too. It’s about time, and having the distance from it, like when we say, someday this will all be funny.
I appreciated all the Boca references; I could always place you throughout the Florida scenes. Do you feel like the city you grew up in was uniquely important to your story, or could it have happened to you anywhere?
I think it almost relates to what we were talking about, of tragedy and comedy. I think there’s a lot of dark humor to Boca Raton. I always wanted The Rat’s Mouth for the title of this book, because I think the punch line of this beautiful, glossy, vain city, having that translation is funny to me. And it feels appropriate to me, that there’s this sharp, darker underside to this city.
Though I didn’t recognize all of that darkness into later, I knew I wanted to get out of Boca, and I knew I didn’t feel at home. It wasn’t until later, when I would share some experiences with friends, that I realized they didn’t all share those experiences. They would say, “Oh, you didn’t get bullied into plastic surgery when you were 12?”
You could have a chosen a number of titles for this book; why is the concept of fatherlessness so central to your story?
The Rat’s Mouth was the first title I really loved. As much as I liked the punch line, my editor had a great point that, you don’t necessarily want a book title to be a punch line. You want something to open instead of close. And every title I was drawn to skewed more negative. She said, “there’s a lot of triumph in this book.” And Long Live, there’s something triumphant, spirited, celebratory about that.
And the more I thought about that, the more I realized I wanted to try that. We found a cover that felt celebratory, almost like confetti, with the colors and the glitter. And it’s become so much more about that to me, because it’s not a story of defeat. It’s a story about finding triumph and love through many obstacles.
I think the assumption is that it is about fatherlessness, or the lack of a man in one’s life, and I don’t think it’s necessarily about that at all. But I also don’t think a title has to encapsulate a whole book. It’s one thread of the book.
Was it difficult for you to revisit sexual abuse, about the physical abuse, about the drug abuse; and did you get some therapeutic value from it?
No. [Pause.] That is the question …
We like to think that you did.
People don’t even ask it. They like to just say it, as if “This was healing for you. This was cathartic to you. You must have closed all the boxes now.” And I think that’s readers with their own experiences, projecting how they might feel reading it, or how they might feel writing a story like that. But it’s not how I feel at all.
I don’t believe writing nonfiction, for me, is cathartic, although it could be for others. I feel like I couldn’t have written most of the events in the book had I not already gone through the work, the therapy, the conversations, and closing of those boxes before writing it.
And to then craft it, and make a piece of art from that experience, is another job entirely. It’s no longer journaling. It’s no longer therapy. It’s craft.
“The Feels of Love,” about your experience being sexually assaulted, was the first published piece from this collection, back in 2016. The tense changes from first-person. It becomes “you,” like you’re observing yourself from somewhere else.
“The Feels of Love” was the one essay in the book that was written from the second-person point of view, using “you” as a subject. I slipped into it accidentally, to be honest. I’m practiced enough as a writer that the subconscious does work for me when I’m not consciously making those decisions. Because the first paragraph reads “Because a senior thinks you’re cute,” the “you” kept repeating. And then I was noticing what was happening after the first paragraph and the first page. The more I wrote into it, the more I realized it was an important part of that universality.
The greater conversation outside myself was this shared experience — not only with what we learn is a shared experience in the essay, with many girls at my school — but shared universally with people through this MeToo movement, through the conversations we’ve been having. It felt important, even when placed in a book of first person, that I keep that, and stand by that choice. That of all essays, this is one that is meant to reach outside of myself.
Do you feel the need to forgive your father for some of the things he did, or the way he was, or is it not necessary; does he not need it?
I think writing the book has made me feel absolutely more deeply empathetic and understanding of my parents and their stories as complicated human beings. It would be easy for me to think of “drunk dad bad, sober dad good,” and the same for my mother, but that wasn’t always the case. He was an asshole when he was sober sometimes, he was warm and jolly when he was drunk. Their whole existence was complicated.
I think by opening one box, I had to open another; by opening my father, I had to open my mother; by opening my mother, I got to her past, and I learned more about her addiction because of what she’d lost. All these boxes lead to more boxes, like a Russian doll show. I keep thinking of that image. That path, and that journey, has only led me to see them as more than my parents, as fully dimensional human beings, with mistakes and triumphs.
You touch on magic in this piece. What role does magic satisfy in your life?
I think I’m always after, in my writing and in magic, those moments of awe and surprise. I’m always chasing the childhood moment where my dad pulled that tiger out from behind his back. When you watch people’s faces when they watch a magic trick, it’s like they’re kids again. Their eyes widen, and they’re so excited, and that’s still how I feel when I’m writing and when I’m reading something beautiful and great.
Those skill sets are closely intertwined in that they could be viewed as something simple, or mechanical in a way. But there’s so much craft behind it, and so much narrative behind it. You can’t have a successful magic trick without a story. The best magic tricks are narrative, and I’m always after that moment of divinity and elevation.
In the book, you mention in a couple of instances the influence Drew Barrymore’s memoir had on you. Do you hope this book can have a similar sort of affect on girls that might feel they need it?
That is not the reason I wrote it, but certainly is the reason I went forward with publishing it, with that hope to write the literature I needed and the literature I wanted as a child, in hopes that it will find the right person, and I can meet that person through time and space and maybe even after I’m gone, that it will end up in the right hands.
What have you heard about the book so far, in terms of the reception, any correspondence?
A lot of letters already. I was feeling really depressed the first week. Because it’s my first book, and there’s a lot of confusion of where your numbers should be, and your rankings on Amazon, and your reviews, and I was feeling swept up in that in a way I usually don’t feel about my work at all. But there’s so much potential energy built up over the years. I signed the book over two years ago, and every day there’s emails, things to do, things to prepare, all the hype.
And then when it came it, it kind of hits a wall. And where do you put all that energy once it comes out? I was putting it into checking in on all these numbers and things. It was really putting me in a dark place.
On Monday, I got a letter from a psychiatrist who said that a teenage girl in her waiting room was reading the book, and brought the book in saying it was the book she needed. And I cried. It snapped me out of that way of thinking. This is the reason I wrote the book. It reached that one person, and that’s all I needed. There’s where I need to snap my focus.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, by T Kira Madden; 336 pp.; Bloomsbury, $27