Words of Wisdom
Best-selling author Kelly Corrigan’s mother-daughter memoir chronicles tough love.
When Kelly Corrigan started working on her new book, she thought she was going to write about the stark differences between her mother’s staunch Catholicism and her own views, and how those disagreements affected Corrigan’s decisions as a parent. It was a provocative topic, ripe for spirited debates on talk shows and book tours.
“Then, my mom asked me, ‘Can’t you write it after I die?’ ” Corrigan says. That made the Piedmont resident realize that publishing such a book would be too cruel to her mother.
“Besides, my answer to the question, ‘What do you believe?’ is, ‘I’m not sure yet,’” says Corrigan, laughing. “Which might not be a very good book.”
But then, a funny thing happened. Corrigan found herself realizing how much she has learned from the woman she spent most of her young life fighting. Her resulting memoir, Glitter and Glue, is a powerful reflection on the life-changing experiences Corrigan had in her mid-twenties while working abroad as a nanny for an Australian family affected by loss. In over her head, Corrigan navigated through her challenges by listening to an unexpected inner voice—that of her staunch, stoic mother.
Corrigan, 46, has built an impressive literary career with a trilogy of memoirs about big issues—cancer, family, and love—that capture poignant intimate details. While making a name as a best-selling author, Corrigan has also become an influential East Bay philanthropist. In 2010, she cofounded the annual Notes and Words benefit, pairing authors and musicians for an evening of entertainment to benefit Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland.
Corrigan talked with Diablo about her new book, and how writing Glitter and Glue helped her see her mother in a whole new light.
Corrigan’s Cause: Notes and Words
A few years ago, Corrigan was invited by George and Barbara Bush to be on an authors’ panel benefiting literacy programs.
“They had six authors speak, for ten minutes each, to a room of 1,500 guests,” Corrigan says. “In one hour, they raised $1.5 million.”
Corrigan said she came home from the event inspired to create something larger than the “little fundraisers I would put together, which would raise $30,000.”
“I wanted to put together an event with writers and bands, one after the other,” says Corrigan, who helped launch Notes and Words at Oakland’s Fox Theater in 2010. The annual event has featured an all-star lineup of authors (Michael Lewis, Michael Chabon, Anne Lamott) and musicians (Cake, G. Love and Special Sauce), and sold out the Fox each year. To date, Notes and Words has raised $3.5 million for Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland.
On May 3, Corrigan will host the fifth annual Notes and Words benefit. This year, the event moves to the larger Paramount Theatre.
For information, visit notesandwords.org.
Q: Did you ever imagine, when you were a nanny in Australia, that you would wind up writing about the experience?
A: Actually, this was the first book I ever tried to write. I was 25 when I came home from Australia. I knew when I was living with this family in North Sydney that this was a very unusual thing to experience as a kid my age.
It was so contrary to my intentions on that trip: to go out and have my odyssey and then to end up in the suburbs. I felt that what I was experiencing was actually more exotic than what I might have if I had been allowed to keep “traipsing all over creation,” as my mother called it.
I started writing, and after about six months, I had about 38 pages—before I started to feel like it had become an exercise in futility.
Q: So you started writing when you got back from the trip, then put it on the shelf for 20 years. How much of what you wrote back then wound up in this book?
A: There was nothing that I lifted whole cloth; there are little phrases that I liked, that I used. But the biggest thing is that the pages were written when I was 25, so they have that kind of breathless, ridiculous, egocentric voice of a 25-year-old.
A big decision in writing Glitter and Glue was whether to write it retrospectively or in the present tense. I chose present tense, and I tried to capture that idiotic, know-it-all tone of a 25-year-old. And maybe I did, because for a long time, my agent would say, “I’m not feeling that thread of wisdom that you sometimes give me.” I said, “Well, I wasn’t wise when I was 25. I was a fool.”
Q: What was your impression of your mother when you were a 25-year-old fool?
A: The image that I had retained about my mother was the hard-ass, the disciplinarian who said, “No, no, no.” She was the thing between me and everything I wanted. We fought all the time. I was formidable, and she was formidable. And there was damage done. We destroyed each other during my teen years. My impression of her when I was leaving home was that she was relentless, and her impression of me was exactly the same.
Q: What did you learn about your mom while writing Glitter and Glue?
A: I realized that I was always attracted to the life-of-the-party kind of person—the big personality, the storyteller. And that always put my mom outside of the field of focus.
She’s an introvert; she’s a party-for-one kind of gal. She likes nothing better than to be alone with her library book. So I just did not find her interesting or admirable.
Until I was living in this house in Australia, with this father who was a very quiet guy, whom I never would have known in normal social situations. And with his stepson, who was also very quiet: He played chess and did the crossword every day. If I met these guys at a party, no way am I going to stop to talk. And if I met my mom at a party, no way am I going to stop to talk.
But I found them all so impressive over time. I was amazed by what they had to do to survive. It gave me a new regard for the enterprise that is family life. And that took me to my mom, who is a deeply impressive person, just in the most ordinary ways.
Q: It’s interesting that you switched gears from writing about a topic that you thought would hurt your mother’s feelings, and you wound up writing about how much you have learned from her. Has she read Glitter and Glue?
A: Oh, yes. My mom loves the book.
Q: What is your relationship like now?
A: I find that my mom is much more of a go-to than I would have ever expected her to be. She is more of a go-to than my dad, because she knows things that he doesn’t know.
She was the full-time parent, and he was the part-timer. You see things when you are on the 24-hour watch. You’ve raised three kids, and you have come up against a lot of micro situations that don’t even bear repeating, but I know something from that moment. A parent is learning all the time.
She’s a good person to compare notes with. The bonus is that she has such a long perspective on the thing, and she cares about me so much. No one on earth loves me like she does. No one is carrying me in their heart, constantly, the way she does.
Q: Can you feel your mom’s influence in the way you parent your daughters?
A: Absolutely. I’m way more my mom as a parent than I am my dad. My dad is so upbeat and casual and utterly optimistic. I don’t think it would be advisable for me, as the full-time parent, to take that world view. Ideally, you get something from both perspectives. My mother always said, “Kelly, your father is the glitter, and I’m the glue.”
Q: You make such an impressive connection with the reader by writing in the first person. I’m curious about what books made you want to be a writer and how you found your voice.
A: I remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird in the seventh grade. I love first person, where I feel like someone is telling me a story. Scout’s voice in To Kill a Mockingbird was a revelation to me. After that, I always wanted to be a writer.
What I did not understand for a long time is that there are all different kinds of writers. You don’t have to be Harper Lee to be a writer. The older you get, you start to realize that you might not have the kind of talent that you admire most, but that does not mean that you can’t get in the game and give it a shot.
When I read memoirs by Anne Lamott, and Russell Baker’s Growing Up, and a book called Cowboys Are My Weakness [by Pam Houston], I thought, “This is legit; this is good. I’d be proud of this.” The whole idea of memoir opened something up for me.
Now please, let it be on the record that I don’t think I’m as good as any of those people, but it did make me think: Here’s a door you can go in, to have a story to tell.
Q: How does it feel to share the stage with writers such as Anne Lamott and others whom you have admired at this event that you have created to benefit Children’s Hospital and Research Center?
A: I don’t even know how to express it. There is an event coming up: I am going to be at City Arts and Lectures with Anna Quindlen on February 20. I cannot believe it. It means more to me to be asked to that than being on the Today show or the best-seller list.
When I was a United Way employee and then a San Francisco State grad student, I had this very limited amount of disposable income. And I spent 100 percent of it going to City Arts and Lectures, and going to listen to all these writers: Michael Lewis, Anne Lamott, Michael Chabon, Ayelet Waldman, Billy Collins, right down the list. I would go and listen to them talk about their work. And I would fantasize about what I would say. I would answer every question in my mind.
The idea that I went from the audience to the stage … I mean, I’m a dreamer, and this is bigger than I could have imagined.
1. The Middle Place
Corrigan’s 2008 breakout hit chronicled her own triumph over breast cancer and her father’s battles with bladder cancer. The book reached the New York Times best-seller list, with the paperback version peaking at number two on the nonfiction list.
Lift, her 2010 follow-up, was a series of life lessons written as a letter to her daughters, Georgia and Claire.
3. Glitter and Glue
Corrigan’s third memoir, which examines her relationship with her mother, hits bookstores February 4.
Q: Your annual event, Notes and Words, has turned into the all-star show of musical and literary talent every spring in Oakland.
A: I love putting writers onstage in front of a big audience. I like the idea that we are returning to this old-world style of storytelling, where a guy at a microphone can entertain a room of 2,000 people: That validates my whole world view.
Billy Collins—a 70-year-old poet—received a standing ovation. I mean, Billy Collins is standing there and reading poetry to 2,000 people, and bringing the house down? That’s phenomenal. It means that the words do matter.
Catching Corrigan: Upcoming Appearances
February 4: Corrigan will speak at Oakland’s A Great Good Place for Books at 7 p.m.
February 6: Corrigan will talk about Glitter and Glue on NBC’s Today show.
February 20: Corrigan will discuss art and politics with author Anna Quindlen at San Francisco’s City Arts and Lectures series. cityarts.net.
For more information about appearances, visit kellycorrigan.com.
Notes & Words & Luminaries
Corrigan has attracted a constellation of literary stars to support an important East Bay cause. Here are a few of her friends.
Photos Courtesy of Children’s Hospital and Research Center Oakland