Bill Clegg on Did You Ever Have A Family, Forgiveness, and Fiction

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We are, all of us, standing at fateful, unsought crossroads where swift changes of fortune derail a lifetime of expectation. Such is the setup for bestselling author Bill Clegg's first novel, Did You Ever Have A Family, released last fall to rave reviews. Clegg will appear at Changing Hands Bookstore's Phoenix locale, 300 West Camelback Road, on Monday, May 16, at 7 p.m. to talk about the book and sign copies. 

In Did You Ever Have A Family, June Reid loses her daughter, future son-in-law, ex-husband, and new boyfriend in a freak gas explosion at her home on the eve of her daughter's wedding. (And no, that wasn't a spoiler.) With the funerals finished, she flees the scene and works her way across the country, sifting through the ashes of grief and forgiveness along her route.

"I don't think we get to have people in our lives at all — whether they're colleagues or lovers — if some form of forgiveness doesn't occur," Clegg says in an interview with New Times. "Especially with regard to family and romantic love, that's where I feel like you either forgive completely or not at all."

Forgiveness is a theme Clegg truly knows something about. His first work as an author was 2011's Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man, a searing memoir about his descent into the twisting labyrinth of addiction. A well-regarded New York literary agent at the time, he lost everything — his business, his reputation, his boyfriend, and almost his life. Portrait of an Addict, along with its 2012 follow-up recovery memoir, Ninety Days, were both bestsellers and put him on the map as a writer. He now has his own literary agency, and with his debut novel long listed for the 2015 National Book Award, you could say that life is decidedly looking up.

Yet in talking to the author, it's clear that whatever current successes he enjoys have been bought and paid for by crawling through the trenches of a complex life. 

"Devastations come by our hand, and many come through no fault of our own," he says. "Oftentimes, the ones that come at our own hand, we're powerless over."

Gayle Shanks, the owner of Changing Hands, believes that Clegg's experience with addiction and loss are what helped him to write the characters in his novel so astutely.

"When you come from a place where you're at the apex of your career, and then your brain misfires or mental illness kicks in or your past addiction rears its head once again, you really have a different approach to how you see the world," Shanks says.

She met the author one year ago at a dinner Clegg's publisher held in his honor, and she found herself sitting next to him.

"I ignored the rest of my table and didn't give him much chance with the other people," she laughs, before adding more seriously, "Every now and then, of those hundreds and hundreds of books I read every year, something just grabs me, and that book did. Dysfunctional families and families going through one crisis or another are the topic of many a novel, and sometimes authors get it right in my mind, and other times they don't. I think that what Bill did in that book was pitch perfect."  

Set, initially, in a small Connecticut town, much like the one Clegg grew up in — where life is more Ethan Frome than Our Town — the locale was his creative entry point for the book. 

"When I was writing Portrait, I was remembering my own town and looking at my growing up with clear eyes for the first time as an adult," he says. "I started taking notes on it, thinking that I was going to need to have details of where I grew up. This file just started growing."

At some point, he scribbled down the sentence, "She will go." It was the first bit of fiction he'd ever written and his introduction to a character that became his protagonist. 

"It was never a conscious choice to go with women," he says of the main characters in the novel, although looking back on his upbringing, he reflects that the decision makes sense to him now, especially as an out gay man. "I didn't even know I was gay. There was no evidence of homosexuality in the culture available to me or the town. I had to move to New York and notice other people were gay, but I still had a lot of the commonalities of a young gay kid. I think I over-identified with my mother. All that identification and that empathy towards her growing up bloomed into the instinct to create a female character." 

While Clegg was close to his mother, his alcoholic father was cast as, in his words, "the villain of my life." The two didn't speak for a decade, but eventually they made contact and spoke almost daily for the 11 remaining years his father was alive.

"I had to walk in his shoes to understand," he says of his and his father's shared addictions. "I was 34 when I was able to have a relationships with him. I had to walk over hot coals to get to him."

Clegg wrote Did You Ever Have A Family, whose title references a poem by Alan Shapiro, over the course of seven years, and during much of that time, his father was dying. The novel was the last book his father read, and just after burying him, Clegg found out he'd been long listed for England's Man Booker Prize.

So while the book's main characters are women, perhaps it's the relationship between father and son — and the forgiveness unearthed in the midst of ruin — that is foundational both to the story and its creator.

"It was spectacularly easy to forgive him for being a human being and being a flawed man. I see all the relationships in my life being complicated to the point of disaster if I hadn't been able to forgive my father. If forgiveness is possible there, it becomes more possible elsewhere. It has a trickle-down effect."

Bill Clegg will be at Changing Hands' Phoenix, 300 West Camelback Road. 7 p.m. $16, plus tax, buys a copy of the book and seats for two. Visit www.changinghands.com for more information and tickets. 

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