Aspen Summer Words: Memoirist George Hodgman
When George Hodgman left Manhattan for a very small town in Missouri to help care for his aging mother, writing a book about it wasn’t the first thing on his mind.
He was fearful of reckoning with the hometown he’d fled, unsure whether he could handle cooking for and living with his mom after decades as a master of the literary universe in the New York publishing world, concerned about seeing her mind and body break down. Yet those insecurities ended up providing the backbone for his tender and witty memoir, “Bettyville.”
Hodgman, who is teaching an editing workshop this week at Aspen Summer Words, worried about violating his mother’s privacy if he wrote about her dementia, and — as an editor — figured it wasn’t all that fresh an idea. But then, a family friend visited him and Betty and made an observation that changed his mind.
“She said, ‘You all are so funny together,’” Hodgman recalled last year in Aspen. “And I realized it could be funny and quirky and not sentimental. I thought I could also find a line between something that was too invasive of my mother and also that was real.”
Hodgman describes the book, in cinematic terms, as a “Sundance movie” rather than a blockbuster. Yet it became a bestselling hit when it was released in 2015. Hodgman tapped into the common experience of loving and dealing with an aging parent and wrestling with whether to put his mother in an assisted-living facility.
“I think it touched a chord because so many people are going through this, but also because I said out loud how afraid I was, that I couldn’t do it,” he said.
The book offers an indelible portrait of Betty in old age — a stubborn, feisty, funny, loveable character. But going home to her also serves in “Bettyville” as a jumping-off point for Hodgman to explore his childhood, his family, his identity as a gay man, his missteps into substance abuse, his struggle to connect honestly with his mom and dad.
“It’s really a book about communication,” he said.
Betty died last summer at 92. But George has since stayed in Paris, Missouri (population 1,246), in the family home.
With his decades of experience as one of New York’s top book and magazine editors, he held the book to a high standard before he shared it with readers — first with his agent, then with writer friends. But he also knew that writing a memoir about so-called “flyover country” might be a tough sell in New York publishing houses.
“My biggest fear was that I knew everyone would say, ‘Oh, it’s too small. It’s a book about an old lady and a fat man and he’s gay and she’s crazy,’” he said. “I mean, it didn’t seem like it’d be anyone in New York’s idea of a commercial thing.”
Having edited many memoirs and novels, he felt he could transcend that big-city prejudice by tapping into something universal about mothers and sons. The advice he gave himself sounds a lot like the advice he’ll be giving students in Aspen this week.
“You have to trust the reader, you have to make a gesture of intimacy toward the reader of revelation and honesty if you’re going to make it a relationship,” he said. “A memoir is about the relationship between reader and writer — a bond.”
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