Robin Hemley, director of non-fiction at Iowa and general awesome writer ranging from memoir-writer and investigative journalist was sitting next to me. Yes, less than half a metre away. As part of RMIT’s lunch-time conversation Robin had been invited by RMIT to speak to students, he is currently in Melbourne for the writer’s festival and will return later in the year for NonfictionNow.
Robin reminded me of my Dad, and I mean that in a good way. His sunscreen was not rubbed properly into his olive skin, he had a Roman nose and dark fuzzy hair on the back of his knuckles. A pair of Ray Bans sat in front of him – so he’s a cool Dad then huh?
Robin’s parents were both writers, his own father a screenwriter and editor and his mother a writer of short-fiction. Robin was a poet who moved onto fiction writing. It was until his sister Nola, a sufferer of schizophernia, died from a prescription overdose that non-fiction writing became an option. Robin struggled to capture who Nola was on the page, he discussed this problem with Tobias Woolfe when he visited his college. Tobias replied, ‘why don’t you consider writing in memoir?’
So he did. Robin’s mother was really a non-fiction writer but merely changed the names of the characters to make it fiction. Yet Robin thinks that this is not fiction, there is a degree of ‘plausible deniability’ in doing this. The story of his sister is his first non-fiction book called Nola: A Memoir of Faith, Art and Madness. It is comprised of court documents, Nola’s journal and his mother’s short stories to give it a sense of ambiguity. Robin said it was important to note that this is not a ‘misery memoir’, it was not his story and he did not find it therapeutic, if anything writing it made him more neurotic.
After writing Nola he confessed that he was so fed up of writing memoir that he told an editor ‘I’d rather jump of a building then write about my life at all.’ The next project he took on was far from personal, but rather an investigative journalism into the primitive Indonesian tribe the Tasaday. The Tasaday people was made up of 26 people who lived in caves, wore leaves, had no weapons, no metal tools and were basically vegetarian. In 1971 the Western world was fascinated by this group of peaceful people and thousands of journalists and celebrities flew in to meet them. It was later found out to be a hoax. In his book, Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed history of the Tasaday Robin debates to what extent was it a hoax and how much of it was a reflection of society’s needs at the time? During the Vietnam War people needed to believe there were peaceful tribes out there, post-Watergate society was suspicious of everything.
Robin’s third non-fiction book is again completely different to his first two. He has a talent by mixing things up and challenging himself to experience different things through his writing. Do-over is a book made up of 10 different childhood experiences Robin did again as a 48-year-old. He went back to the summer camp he attended as a child, asked the girl he liked in high-school to go to the prom with him (after permission from her husband she said yes) and went back to kindergarten and experienced nap-time all over again. It was a humourous and at times humiliating experience but the results were surprising and the connection and acceptance kid’s had of him was amazing.
In terms of non-fiction writing Robin’s advice is to think of yourself as a character, ‘abstract from yourself and write as yourself as a character. See yourself from the outside.’ He also thinks it’s important to think what your story is really about. And then ask yourself again, ‘But what’s it REALLY about?’ I have used this advice for my own writing, it keeps you going back to the drawing board and making sure there is a thread running through. In terms of the emotional truth VS the real truth what is more important?
According to Robin, ‘the emotional truth.’
If you can get to the NonFictionNow conference in November make sure you pop in and see Robin Hemley.