We are all Shipwrecks: An interview with Kelly Grey Carlisle

Book Cover image provided by Kelly Grey Carlisle

Book Cover image provided by Kelly Grey Carlisle

When I was given the opportunity to interview Kelly Carlisle, associate professor of English at Trinity, I had no idea how widely known she was. Even when I interviewed her she never mentioned the fact her essays of nonfiction have been listed in many prominent literary magazines like the “New England Review,” “The Sun,” “Cherry Tree” and “The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction.” On top of that, she was also listed three times in “Best American Essays,” accolades I am well aware I won’t be achieving. But I wasn’t there to ask her about her already solid career. I was there to interview her about her new book “We Are All Shipwrecks.”

From watching the brief little movie about her book before talking to her, I guessed the book was about a journey of self discovery, loneliness and love. But when I began to ask her about her book, I was soon fascinated by the interesting and often tough life Carlisle has had to face. When she spoke about it, it was with an air of certain acceptance that she told me her stories, without anger or pain, but with a reassured confidence I hope to one day achieve. Here is the short symposium I was so lucky to have with Carlisle.

AD: So, what went into the creation of the title?

KGC: Well the title, “We Are All Shipwrecks,” could refer to the fact that most of my childhood I grew up on a boat in the harbors of Los Angeles. It was very run down, and after I left the boat and went to college the boat actually shipwrecked. But, beyond that, the title and the book are really referring to the fact that we all lead imperfect lives and that to an extent, we all end up as shipwrecks. We have these tragedies that have formed us and we screw up our lives and that’s what makes us shipwrecks. As it relates to me in the book, my mom was murdered when I was very young. I found out all of this much later in my life, since it’s not an easy subject to bring up to a kid. I found it out when I reinvestigated the case. From the case I discovered she was working as a prostitute and was making money for her and I to survive. One night she went out to turn a trick and was strangled. As I kept investigating my mother and the case, I found that she had a very rough childhood. My grandfather barely knew her and she mainly lived with her grandfather. They both really didn’t take care of her well and I think due to their imperfections she was led to the situation she was in. But I also think my grandfather redeemed himself by doing a good job raising me, so I think in a way the title refers to us all and the imperfections we have and how those affect us.

AD: Could you also say that because of your incredibly interesting life and the many people in that the book was written as maybe an ode to them and to your mom?

KGC: For reals. Many people helped raise me. My grandfather and his wife, who wasn’t really related to me “” but was really like a second mom to me “” and when we lived on the boat there were all these down-on-their-luck people who also taught me many things and really shaped my childhood really positively. They taught me how to garden and sow and really were amazing people. Also all the teachers I had really did have a big impact on me and it’s as they say the “˜village of people’ that raise you really helped me become the person I am today.

AD: That’s a really good point. So besides those people, would you say there is a specific demographic for this book? Maybe a certain audience you are trying to tap into, like people who have had difficult lives or hardships they are having a difficult time with?

KGC: I don’t know? Maybe that. My publisher hopes that everyone will read it. Hopefully people who don’t have a difficult life but want to read about love and resilience and family. The book also speaks about what family even means and I hope everyone would be interested in that. I didn’t really have a specific demographic in mind when I wrote the book but I hope people who do have difficult lives or had a strange childhood know that you can grow and become an amazing person regardless of those things. You aren’t stuck in that disfunction. And regardless of the strangeness of my childhood, my friends and family loved me dearly and I will always be thankful for that. The book also talks about what a “˜normal’ family is and what that means. Maybe a little bit of strangeness in a family can be a good thing.

AD: So what drove you to write this book? I mean besides the fact you are an English professor.

KGC: Well that is true. Well I wrote a lot of essays during grad school, and being in grad school, you tend to go to bars a lot, and there I would tell stories about my life. Afterwards people would always say that I should do a book about my life and initially I just did stories, but then I decided why not make a big collection of stories into one big one. And while my life was weird, I never thought it was weird enough to write about, but I guess it is.

AD: Sounds like an interesting life to me! So what was the creative process like?

KGC: Well, the book took about 10 years for me to think it was good enough to publish so yeah it was a tad difficult. I was working full time as well, getting a PHD and having a kid and raising the other one, so I was doing a lot.

AD: A tad busy, one could say.

KGC: Yeah, but I’m happy with where the book is now.

AD: Well that’s good. Lastly would you say there is an overall message you want people to take away from this book?

KGC: You know, there is this really amazing quote from Flannery O’Connor that I couldn’t quote to you verbatim but its really cool and it’s something like “˜When an author writes a story, people are always asking if there is a message or a point to the work and if there is one thing they can be happy to take away from it, but for the writer the message is the story itself.’ So I do hope that people enjoy the book, but I don’t have a specific message because for me the story is my life and that is the message I think is in the book.

I can’t express how enjoyable it was talking to Carlisle. She was kind, interesting and honest, and while I haven’t yet read her book (which might be due to that it hasn’t officially come out yet), I know it will be a superb work of nonfiction. She will be doing a book launch Sept. 5 at 7 p.m. in the William Knox Holt Center. It is well worth the time, and you’ll get to experience what I did “”  meeting someone who has overcome and grown out of a life I believed would only to be possible in movies and TV shows and become a truly lovely person.