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Koren Zailckas Finds High Drama in High Falls

click to enlarge Author Koren Zailckas - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Author Koren Zailckas

The woman cradling the chai latte is a far cry from the mad-eyed waif in the publicity photos accompanying her bestselling memoir Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood (Viking Press, 2005), and its searing sequel Fury: True Tales of a Good Girl Gone Ballistic (Viking Press, 2010). Koren Zailckas still stands out, but with a different kind of energy. Amid the weekend hurly-burly of the Last Bite café in High Falls, her heart-shaped face and hazel eyes convey a disarming, unexpected serenity; she's at home in this wide-planked hole in the wall. While both Zailckas's memoirs and her new thriller Mother, Mother suggest a flinty, avenging angel, her presence here is more country mom. She's funny, quick to laugh, and eager to chat about her first novel, set right here in High Falls, where she and her musician husband, Eamon, moved with their infant daughter in 2010, leaving Brooklyn in the rear view of their Subaru. 

Clearly, she's gone native. With two more kids in as many years, a buzzworthy book (Library Journal compares her to Dostoyevsky and Mann) and a local coffee shop that makes a killer chai latte, she's in high cotton. "When we came here it was like coming home," she says. "There's so much outdoor space, and things to do that we can afford, and Eamon has his own room where he can sing as loud as he wants. I can walk on the rail trail when I get stuck writing. It's a huge relief. We couldn't believe we hadn't thought to do it sooner, really."

Zailckas needed nature and, just as important, friends. "In Brooklyn, I was missing a community of writers," she says. "I never got my MFA, or went to grad school, never cultivated those kinds of friendships with creative people. But coming up here, meeting Martha Frankel, and being a part of the Woodstock Writers Festival workshops and panels, plus this great community of readers— it's been wonderful."

When I tell her I've just finished the riveting Mother, Mother, and I'm about 120 pages into Smashed, she loosens a rich ripple of laughter. "Oh dear," she says. "Double oh dear. I don't think I could read 120 pages of Smashed in the life I have now." When she discusses the bedeviled narrator of Smashed, who struggles with alcohol from age 13 to 23—i.e., her erstwhile self—she sometimes slips into the third person. "It's a book of someone with no boundaries," she says with a maternal sigh. "Someone who's going to lay it all out there, cringe-worthy or not, in a way that's not entirely healthy: 'Look at me, I'm the bad example, the face of this rise in binge drinking.' In my family, that was my job [to be 'bad']. I hadn't yet realized that when I was writing Smashed. It's mortifying in retrospect."

Nevertheless, Smashed was a smash, and Zailckas enjoyed raves in the New York Times Book Review, People, Entertainment Weekly, and scores of other media. She worked it for a couple years, rising to the glare, giving many interviews and a few lectures. Yet, disagreements with her younger sister about their upbringing in 1980s and '90s Massachusetts, particularly with regard to their mother, got Zailckas thinking. (Mom does not come off well in Smashed, although it is, interestingly, dedicated to her.) "You write memoir," she says, "and it always opens up those questions. People say, 'But I remember it like this.' After Smashed, my sister and I started comparing notes. It's weird. We have completely different experiences."

Rather than see that as a problem, Zailckas used it as inspiration for her novel. "With Mother, Mother," she says, "I wanted to explore how siblings can be raised by the same people, yet still have different moms and dads." To show these differences, Zailckas splits the narrative. Chapters alternate between troubled teen Violet Hurst, and Violet's smart-but-gullible younger brother, Will. Lording over the Hurst kids is the monstrous megalomaniac Josephine, a mentally ill matron to rival Joan Crawford and Norma Bates. (Zailckas says she would cast Julianne Moore in a movie version.) Beautiful Josephine is a study in narcissistic personality disorder, about which Zailckas has educated herself—by accident of birth and by design. Josephine is a charmer with "beauty pageant posture" who bakes scones for Child Protective Services—and lies with relish, abandon, and Oscar-worthy commitment.


When the curtain rises on Mother, Mother, Josephine has sent for the men in the white coats, accusing drug-sick Violet of slashing Will's hand while in a hallucinogenic rage. We meet Violet in the psych ward, coming down, on suicide watch. Josephine has banished her there, ostensibly "to protect the family." She's withdrawn Will from school, independently diagnosing him as autistic and epileptic, ailments she constantly fetishizes, even when—especially when—outsiders suggest he suffers from PTSD. Hanging over all is the specter of the eldest Hurst child, "good girl" Rose, gone for a year, vanished after an uncharacteristic meltdown; this mystery slowly unravels, plunging the already-shaky family into chaos. No one possesses the gumption, or, in Josephine's case, the desire, to fix anything. On the contrary.

Will and Violet are polar opposites, in part because their mother has cast them that way. Will has long since succumbed to Josephine's manipulations. But prior to the psych ward, Violet, a kind of punky anti-heroine, has fitfully fought back, albeit self-destructively: She's been starving herself, taking drugs, and raging, all responses to her goading mother's nonstop judgment, and her feckless, alcoholic father's inaction. "It's Violet's job to create these low-level distractions," Zailckas says.


"With Josephine," Zailckas says, "there always has to be some drama, some crisis, something going on. She uses Will to keep herself from thinking about her other, deeper issues, and Violet is the scapegoat. Josephine can't help herself; narcissistic personality disorder is an addiction, a dissociative state. She has no idea what her inner emotional landscape looks like, she's like a toddler trying to figure out emotions through other people, provoking other people to see what their reaction would be. She's never going to get that empathic, A-ha! moment."


Zailckas's characters' mental illnesses fascinated her, but her editor advised keeping things simple, letting the plot carry the day. "That was a relief," she says. "I didn't need to go into all that exposition." Refraining from psychoanalysis also leaves room for Zailckas to dive into atmosphere, allowing Rosendale and High Falls to rise from the pages of Mother, Mother; the Hursts' environment is a palpable world of rail trails, roadside farm stands, tributaries to the Rondout Creek, community centers, and two lane blacktops humming with Subarus and Volvos. By contrast, the psych ward, where Violet meets several entertaining Girl, Interrupted-type fellow strugglers, casts an unforgiving, fluorescent glow, which, considering Violet is safe from her mother there, is welcome.

Mother, Mother is fiction, yes, but Zailckas clearly draws from a wealth of dysfunctional family experience, about which she is candid. "My family issues are ongoing," she admits. "I forgive my childhood, and my parents. They've been through some rough stuff. But you can't not protect yourself just because you forgive people. You can't be a doormat. With the memoirs, you bring [dysfunction] into your consciousness, but it's not necessarily cathartic. It's not for me. So writing began as a way for me to deal with it, acknowledge and work through some of the issues that were there. They're still there, but I'm more aware of them."

How does this new mom envision approaching her kids with the harrowing story of their family tree? "I wrote Smashed when I was 23," she says with a rueful smile. "Kids were the furthest thing from my mind. But I'm going to have to be honest about everything; I know that stuff's going to affect my children."


Zailckas draws strength from her mentor and former teacher (at Syracuse), Mary Karr, author of the seismic memoirs The Liar's Club and Cherry. "I was her babysitter," Zailckas says. "Her son's friends would say things about the sexual abuse in her books, and she had to let him know it was out there. It was intense and scary, but they got through it okay. Best case scenario: I left a deeply flawed record of every mistake I made over the course of growing up, getting married, and having kids. I'm hoping my kids will just see it as a journey."


As for the future, Zailckas is intent on producing more fiction. At this point in her life, she prefers that process. "The frustrating thing about memoir is you want to be in the scene, and write everything like you remember it, but you're not really writing the story as it happened; you've got to write the story from the present, bring your perspective from the present to the past. So you're constantly balancing back and forth. I want to stay in there." She likens learning to "stay in there" to "growing gills."


I ask her a question few authors like to entertain: what happens to your characters in the future, after the timeline of the book? While Violet is not Zailckas's doppelganger, the answer is poignant. "Violet will work it out," Zailckas says confidently, but with a tinge of sadness. "She's got friends, she's got a lot of love in her life. The family she's going to forge for herself might not be the people she shares some genetic code with. If she becomes a mom, some of the wounds will open up again; if you have kids, you can't help reliving your own childhood stuff. Violet will get her happy ending, but it'll be hard won. This stuff never leaves you."

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