By Julie E. Bloemeke
London-based novelist, travel writer, and former fashion designer Bella Pollen’s debut memoir, “Meet Me In the In-Between” is set for official US release on June 7. Interspersed with graphic art by Kate Boxer, Pollen’s memoir has been hailed by Marie Claire as “Think Eat, Pray, Love – finding yourself, laughing, and taking what you need even when it’s not what you wanted – only cooler.” As part of her cross-country book tour, she will be visiting Atlanta on June 10 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Soda Salon and Gallery, 597 Atlanta St. in Roswell, for a reading, Q&A, and book signing hosted by A Cappella Books.
Ahead of her visit, we asked Pollen some questions about her new book, its creation, influences and much more.
What were some of the more challenging aspects of writing the memoir?
In order to write this book at all I had to take ownership of my own life. And by that I mean I had to take responsibility for every choice I’d made, and every road I’d taken. I wanted to write my story from my perspective and no-one else’s. I didn’t want to complain, I didn’t want to be anybody’s victim. Much as we all like to be the hero of our own narratives, we’re very often not. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve been stupid, selfish, small-minded, careless. I needed to be transparent and candid. If I couldn’t do that, I knew that nothing I wrote would resonate with the reader. So, of course, inadvertently, I’ve thoroughly therapized myself. Arguably a shrink might have been quicker.
I have been so compelled by your deft navigation in these essays. We move from moments of glorious irreverence to stark admission, to navigating relationships in family of origin and chosen family, of witnessing scoundrel characters—Pamela, Brer, Gilberto—and yet all of this is tempered by a sense of raw tenderness and self-reflection. Ultimately, it is hard not to wonder—how long did it take you to realize that this book needed to be in the world?
I had to write this book. I’d been circling around memoir in my work ever since I began writing, picking away, like a crow at carrion, at all the issues that pre-occupied me. It only got me so far. I think it’s fair to say that fiction is a dictatorship. Control is a form of denial. A writer can disperse his or her issues over any number of incidents. They can give their characters lives and fates that the real world is sometimes not kind enough to. With a deft bit of literary sidestepping, writers can avoid facing any of our demons head on. But there always comes a time when you are forced to turn the mirror on yourself. That time for me was when I woke up one morning, literally in the grip of a paralyzing existential crisis. For someone who has always moved forwards with her life, there could be no place more frightening to be.
Why did you feel, as you share in the opening essay, that you were resisting the urge to “work through your past in order to move onto your future?”
My family are wary of shrinks. I come from major frontierswoman stock. My grandmother ran away with a soldier when she was sixteen, went to Africa and there lived in a tent, then a hut before finally building a tobacco farm with bricks she and my grandpa fired in a kiln. This is the world my mother was born into. Survival depends on getting the job done and moving onto the next. This, coupled with the British art of repression – the cornerstone of our national psyche, as you know – is brace up and keep going. I was brought up to believe that talk about oneself was both self-indulgent and the height of boorishness. Thus, if we ever did succumb to panic attacks, body dysmorphia, depression or anything else, we were required to deal with them in private! Plus, and this is a big plus. I am vehemently against the idea of sifting through your past looking for reasons to send your parents to the tumbrils for any mistakes they might have made. I think my parents did a fabulous job under often difficult emotional circumstances and quite frankly – how odd I turned out is nobody’s fault but mine.
Can you speak to the transition then between graphic art to prose? How did this help inform the trajectory of the book?
The book is structured in a series of cautionary tales, which although loosely linear – they begin with childhood and end with the present day – have huge gaps in both time and geography. Graphic art was one way of filling those gaps – where there wasn’t a specific story to write, but a narrative leap to be made. I truly believe that with the explosion of electronic reading, there needs to be a compelling reason to buy a physical book. The illustrations are absolutely beautiful and add a whole new dimension to the reading.
The organizational aspect of this book is both gripping and innovative. Each essay stands alone and yet resonates with the preceding and proceeding essays as well. Your language within each essay is both crisp and insightful, and yet you are adroit at taking us from a moment of absolute hilarity to stark epiphany How is it that you are able to traverse from humor to self-revelation?
My family have always processed pain and emotion with humor, self deprecation and giant dollops of sarcasm. It’s our thing but also a British thing – the flip side of repression is that we are the masters of the comic understatement, particularly in times of trouble and stress. This is how we get through. I’m also quite baby-ish as a person. I like silly, I’m not particularly careful about what I say. I’m not politically correct. If you’re going to laugh at people and situations you have to first laugh at yourself. And let’s face it, in my case, there is a lot to laugh at. I’ve got myself into some ridiculous situations and it would be absurd to try to be serious about them. I am serious about the emotions underlying them, but not the situation itself. So in my writing I naturally tend to juxtapose the two. There is a lot of sad in this book. There are a lot of emotional moments. There is a lot of pain. I didn’t want it to feel as though I was complaining or wallowing – I’ve therefore used humor not so much to cauterize the pain but to qualify it. I’m happier when the reader laughs first, then checks himself or herself because he or she realizes how serious some of the issues are.
What writers are you reading? What writers did you turn to for guidance?
With this book, I didn’t really turn to anyone. I generally turn to writers for the purpose of research – if they’re good on a particular time or era that I’m writing about. This book was too esoteric somehow – I couldn’t really get a handle on any one place to research. Having said that, the brilliant Jim Harrison, poet, novelist, essayist, gourmand, remains one of my favorite writers. I love TC Boyle, Junot Díaz, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Strout and Anne Patchett.