the hilarious, yet heartfelt book, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: A Memoir of Finding Faith, Hope, and Happily Ever After, thirtysomething lawyer-turned-writer Trish Ryan chronicles her adventures in dating and religion. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “winsome memoir and writing debut.” The paperback edition is due out next month, so Trish chatted with WOW about writing a memoir, staying motivated, and deciding how much to disclose from her personal life.
WOW: Your book has such a strong, distinctive voice. Have you always been interested in writing or was it something you discovered later in life?
Trish: I’ve always liked writing, but when I was younger it was more because it was something I could do easily—unlike, say, math. Even as a kid, I had the sense that it was better to spend time developing my skill at things I was good at rather than struggling endlessly with things that weren’t strengths. (And so far, my teenage assessment that I’d never need algebra as a grown-up has proven true!)
It wasn’t until later in life—sometime after law school, I think—that I considered the creative, expressive side of writing. I read books by David Sedaris and Anne Lamott and thought, “Wow, it would be really cool to do this!” I dabbled—took a few classes in crafting essays and articles—but nothing much beyond that. It was a fun hobby, and a great way to express the ups and downs of the angst and hope that were competing for my attention during my 20s.
But I remember one day after my first marriage fell apart that might have been a turning point: I was living in hiding in my best friend’s summer house, trying to make sense of everything that had happened. I sat down at the computer and wrote, “People always ask if he hit me. The answer is, he didn’t have to…” That line made it into my first book, six years later. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what will become of the things we write, but it’s helpful to have them captured in case we need them.
WOW: When did you decide to turn your experiences into a memoir? Was it a gradual process or an “a-ha!” light-bulb moment?
Trish: I’d always sensed that I wasn’t the only girl out there bumping into roadblocks in the search for spirituality and romance. I love reading about other people’s experiences—they help me sort out my own life. So, as my story finally took a turn toward happily ever after, I hoped it might encouraged others that such a thing was possible—that this searching and hoping doesn’t have to be in vain. I guess it was a gradual process of thinking, “this might be a story worth telling,” and sitting down at the computer to see if I could wrestle that story onto the page.
I’ve met lots of people who feel this same sense that they should write a memoir, and I’m all for it. I agree with Carlos Eire who says every piece of writing about what everyday life is like in our times is a gift to the historians of the future. But it takes determination and effort to get from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.” Carlos thinks our government should hinge all senior citizen benefits to having written out your life story…I think he’s onto something!
“My editor gave me great advice, suggesting that I not disclose anything I hadn’t already processed and made my peace with.”
WOW: A lot of memoirists and essayists (including yours truly) struggle with how much to disclose and how to tell their friends and family they may see themselves in print. How did you handle this conversation, especially with your husband?
Trish: Last year at a writing conference, I heard two well-known memoirists share their thoughts on this. One said, “It’s my story, I don’t hold anything back.” The other said, “It’s not just my story—it’s all of our story. But I’m the only one creating a permanent public record. So I choose to err on the side of not making them look bad whenever I can.”
I take the latter approach. There were a couple of funny, unflattering scenes in my first book involving old friends I’d long lost touch with. I pulled them at the last minute because I realized they weren’t necessary to the story, but just going for a laugh at someone else’s expense. That’s not who I want to be as a writer. With my new book, it was a little harder because I’m writing about a much shorter time frame, so there’s a lot less distance. But I’m still trying to protect the people in my life. For me, it’s the right thing to do.
That said, it’s a huge help that most of my drama is self-generated! This can be a painful reality to face, but when the main person you’re dishing on is you, it makes the question of how much to disclose easier to sort out. My editor gave me great advice, suggesting that I not disclose anything I hadn’t already processed and made my peace with. This was a helpful barometer when I was on the fence about something.
My husband was remarkably supportive. He probably had the most at risk in having his wife share so candidly about her past. I’m lucky he believes strongly the promise in the New Testament that we can put the past behind us once and for all if we want to. We might still remember it, but it doesn’t haunt us. That’s really been true for us. And I think he’s excited I’m not the girl in that book anymore!
WOW: I seem to remember that some of the names were changed. Is that correct? How did you keep track of your fictionalized boyfriends versus the real ones?
Trish: I changed the names of all the guys I dated, which was easy at first because I just chose a name with a similar sound. For example, if I’d dated a guy named Fred he might become Ed or Ted. But when I met with my publisher’s lawyer—standard procedure for vetting a memoir—he suggested that I change a few of them again to make things less obvious. So Fred became Vladimir, and I sort of lost track of things. When I went out on my book tour, I had a cheat sheet in the front of my reading copy so that when someone asked, “What were you thinking when Vladimir broke your heart?” I’d have some idea who they were talking about!
“…you don’t know quite how big the mountain is, so you just start climbing.”
WOW: How did you stay motivated enough to sit down and write an entire memoir? That seems like it could be challenging for new authors!
Trish: Having a contract and a deadline helped! Fortunately, memoirs sell on proposal, which means that my agent and I put together a summary of the book, with outlines of the various chapters and a marketing plan, for her to shop to different editors. Having the proposal to work from after that gave me a sense of where I was going, so I’d wake up in the morning and think, “Today I need to write the chapter about hiring a life coach…” That was more manageable for me than having a per-day word or page count.
Also, I think doing something hard for the first time (writing a book, running a marathon, cooking Thanksgiving dinner for your whole family) is easier: you don’t know quite how big the mountain is, so you just start climbing. I just turned in the first draft of my second book, and this time was much harder, partially because at every point I knew just how much climbing I still had to go.
WOW: Could you tell us how you connected with your agent and landed a book deal?
Trish: I first saw my agent’s bio on the website for The Muse and the Marketplace, a great writing conference in Boston. I’d read one of the books on her list, and something inside me thought, “email her.” So I did. We went back and forth a few times—she asked for various writing samples and suggested possible tweaks to my draft proposal—and then she offered to represent me.
The cool thing is that she’d just met with an editor named Chris Park who said something to the effect of, “I’m looking for a quirky story about faith and love, sort of Eat, Pray, Love meets Sex and the City…if you find something like that, keep me in mind.” As it turned out, she was the perfect editor for my book.
“I had to check my pride at the door every time we went through the manuscript. But it was worth it.”
WOW: You’ve said that new authors need to be teachable in order to get their manuscripts published. How did your book change along the road to publication?
Trish: When I say that my editor was perfect for my book, it’s not that she just loved everything I wrote and told me how wonderful it was. Far from it. She loved the way I wrote, and told me how wonderful it could be…if I was willing to work. I thought I understood how memoirs were structured, but what I turned in was really a chronological series of random thoughts, almost like a collection of blog posts. Chris taught me about narrative arc, precision edits, cutting out things that don’t move the story along (even when it’s interesting or funny stuff you’re ditching). It was tough—I had to check my pride at the door every time we went through the manuscript. But it was worth it. I’m so grateful that she took that time to teach me, and that somehow I managed to get over myself enough to learn.
WOW: He Love Me, He Loves Me Not is a blend of romance and spirituality. How did readers respond to those themes and the book in general?
Trish: I was so encouraged by the response! Women from all over the world—from my small hometown in Maine to three different countries in Africa—emailed to tell me how similar our stories were and how my book gave them hope that they too might have a happy ending. I’ve heard from people checking out the Bible for the first time now that they realize it doesn’t require them to think or vote a certain way, and others who broke up with abusive men in the confidence that they didn’t have to settle.
And just recently, I heard from a 71-year-old gentleman who says he’s an agnostic exploring spirituality. We had a fun conversation online about Jesus’ spiritual claims, and I was excited to see how this search for the truth about God is something that can engage us for a lifetime, if we’re open and curious.
I’ve always been the one at the party who likes to talk about the taboo subjects: romance, religion, God, sex…it’s been fun to have an excuse to have these conversations, especially with people I might not have met any other way.
WOW: After your first book comes out in paperback, what’s next for you?
Trish: I just handed in my second book to my editor. It’s called, A Maze of Grace: Further Thoughts On Happily Ever After. It’s slated to hit bookstores in April 2010, so I expect April 2009 will have me in a flurry of revisions once again!
Last year, I did a fun online blog called Forty Days of Faith for folks who wanted to talk to God about things they’d like to see happen in their lives, and I plan to repeat it again this year. The website for that is www.fortydaysoffaith.blogspot.com.
And I’ll be doing more speaking on topics of faith and romance, meeting people and having those taboo conversations. Thanks for your great questions!
WOW: Thanks, Trish! You can read more about Trish Ryan on her website http://trishryanonline.com/ and her blog http://trishryanonline.blogspot.com/.
Susan Johnston is a Boston-based freelance writer who covers career, lifestyles, and other topics, primarily for women. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, and SELF magazine, among other publications.
Learn more on her website http://www.susan-johnston.com/ and blog http://www.urbanmusewriter.com/.