How did you decide to write this book?
This book was more than a decade in the making. Liz first got the idea to write a book when, during her Junior year abroad, she read William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which is told in a chorus of familial voices, each telling his or her version of one woman’s burial process. At one point in the book, the family crosses a raging river in their wagon onto which Addie Bundren’s coffin is strapped. The coffin detaches in the torrent and begins bobbing downstream which prompts Vardaman, Addie’s youngest child, to say in his one-line chapter, “My mother is a fish.” When Liz read that line, she thought, “Diana is Vardaman.”
Years passed, and Liz was still struggling with a way to tell her story. After several attempts, including early interviews with her siblings, Liz gave up her initial idea to tell the story in four voices. “Just write your own version of the story,” more than one person told her. At that time a budding journalist, Liz decided to report the story. She spoke to everyone who knew Mom and Dad, found our parents’ lawyers and therefore all of their legal papers. She requested medical records, and recorded tapes and tapes of interviews. But still, the story wasn’t gelling.
On the advice of a literary agent, Liz decided to try writing the story to someone who knew all the characters, but couldn’t remember everything that happened. Immediately, she thought of Diana, who at that point was also just beginning to earn her living as a writer. So she sent her a chapter about the night Dad died, and asked for feedback. But she did not expect the response she got: “I remember that moment so differently,” was Diana’s first thought. She called Liz to say so, and then sat down to write her version that afternoon. A light bulb went off and soon, the sisters were corresponding about their early memories, and began to see the book as letters between two sisters. But then Diana realized that the only way she felt comfortable telling the story was if they also included both Amanda and Dan’s versions of what happened: After all, this didn’t happen to only Liz and Diana. It happened to all of us.
And so The Kids are All Right was born. A full circle, back to Liz’s original idea, achieved by collaboration by two writers who just happened to be sisters.
What was the writing process like for you guys, since there is more than one author?
It was surprisingly easy. We, Liz and Diana, began by writing our own memories and emailing them back and forth. We interviewed Dan and Amanda about those same memories or the period of time in which our memories took place, and transcribed those interviews so that we had our siblings actual words – and specific voices – from which to shape chapters. We made a timeline, and began to see the gaps that needed to be filled, and repeated the process until we had way too many pages and had to start cutting back.
One of the benefits of having more than one author is the built-in workshopping that goes on. Liz and Diana both had a hand in each others chapters, helping each other get to the truth in each scene, calling each other out on lazy language, working on transitions from one chapter to the next. We also supported each other emotionally through the most painful parts–and are still unsure as to how so many memoirists have done this on their own. There were tears, breakthroughs, and sometimes, straight-up break downs. Again and again, we kept saying to each other: “I couldn’t do this without you.” It is so true. We really couldn’t have written this book any other way.
Why were you all separated after your mother died?
This is a tough question to answer, because we can only guess. But we all feel like our mother just couldn’t face the fact that she was dying and leaving her four kids all alone in the world. So she just kept thinking that she’d make it, that she’d beat the cancer and live to see us all grow up. Thinking about where your kids are going to live after you die doesn’t fit into the paradigm of positive thinking potentially saving your life.
Our separation is a real sticking point with a lot of people. It’s important to realize that we were four kids and a dying (and one could argue delusional, considering her obsession with positive thinking, a strategy that failed in the end) woman, making big, crazy decisions while we were all in the thick of the trauma. It’s not like nobody offered to take everyone together – Dad’s sister, our Aunt Barbara, offered to take all four of us, even though she already had seven kids of her own. But her family lived in Massachusetts, which meant that we’d have to move there, change schools, make new friends. It didn’t seem right at the time, to uproot when we had the opportunity to all stay in the same town, same schools, etc.
Another thing that it is important to realize is that we didn’t know at the time that living in different houses would mean living in different worlds. As it so often happens, things just didn’t work out as people thought they would.
Are you still in touch with the families who took you in?
Liz is still very close with the woman we call Daisy Stewart in the book, and as a result, we all are. Same with Dan and Karen Kayser. Diana is no longer in touch with the Chamberlains, therefore none of us have seen or heard from them in years.
Was your father really in the CIA?
Liz and Diana have both separately investigated whether or not our father was in fact working for the CIA, and both of us have come up dry. The CIA says they have no record whatsoever of a Robert Daniel Peter Welch in their files.
Whatever the case may be, whether or not our father was a rogue spy or a desperate businessman, whether his death was planned or accidental, he was above all an incredibly funny, intelligent, and loving father. We are all just so, so grateful for the time we got to spend with him.