Books·How I Wrote It

Adam Gopnik on why memoir writing is an audacious act

The author of At The Strangers' Gate talks about his writing process.
Memoir At The Strangers' Gate looks at Adam Gopnik's early life as a writer in New York City. (Penguin Random House/Brigitte Lacombe)

Adam Gopnik is an author, essayist and famed New Yorker magazine contributor.​ Born in Philadelphia and raised in Montreal, Gopnik is best defined as a cultural observer. His book, At The Strangers' Gate, is an elegant reflection on life — and prequel of sorts to his bestselling 2000 memoir Paris to the Moon — that tracks his early career as an ambitious young writer in 1980s New York.

It is a vivid, humourous and passionate recounting of Gopnik and his soon-to-be-wife Martha as the aspiring creatives make their way up the career ladder, one step, and misstep, at a time.

In his own words, Gopnik outlines the creative process in writing  At The Strangers' Gate.

Finding tone, on stage

"The idea for this book came from a couple dear friends of mine who mentioned about 17 years ago that I should really write a book from all the funny stories I have about arriving in New York in the 1980s, the art world, the shopping world, the ice cream world. All about the strange jobs I had over the years and the bizarre apartment that I lived in.  And I thought, oh that could be a nice idea! And then I'd never find a tone with which to write the book. A book begins with more than just an idea, it begins with a voice. I could never find the right voice. In order to narrate those stories, it had to be a very different voice than the voice of my earlier books like 2000'sParis to the Moon or 2006's Through the Children's Gate which are essentially paternal and ruminative in tone. I began telling these stories on stage at The Moth, a New York storytelling group. And then these stories started to come together. I realized the voice I was using onstage, which tended to be more fable making than analytical, sounded like the voice for this book. So I ended up telling these stories on stage, not every chapter in the book, and took those stories and turned them into writing. I began digging back into my memory and writing these mini anthropologies of a young couple's arrival into a broader world." 

The "weird alchemy" of memoir 

"The whole trick about writing a memoir is that it's this weird alchemy that happens when you're lucky and it doesn't happen when you're not. I decided to just speak from my memory. It wasn't going to be a book from letters or from contemporary journals or from anything that I had kept. This is a study in memory — more memories than memoir. I hesitate to characterize the tone because it's my own invention. Memoir is an extraordinarily popular literary genre, something people want to read. Some people think it's because we're so hungry for intimate experiences while others think it's because we live in a crazy, overly confessional culture. But you can either shade a memoir towards short story fiction — like Mary Karr's The Liars' Club — a memoir that feels like a novel. Or you can shade it towards the essay, which is what I do, as does a writer like Clive James. You are telling stories but you pause to think about it. That's the kind of memoir that I write, and I hope it has some narrative propulsion as that's the trap of the memoir essay where you might lose sight of the story arc. Literature is nothing but voice and tone, it's style and sentences. The trick is in being able to capture your own experience within the sentences. Failure is more interesting than success. Every story that I could have about failing — which, like everybody, I did my share of — about struggling and learning and striving, was interesting."

Daily practice

"I write every day. The key is take the mental task of writing and turn it into a physical task. Your mind is always smarter than you are and things happen unconsciously or automatically, and you're not aware of it at the time. So I start at nine o'clock in the morning and write for four and a half hours. I divide my writing time between the pieces I'm doing for the New Yorker, the book I'm writing at the time, and then I'm stealing little sentences along the way for other stuff. That, to me, is the key to the writer's life. The hard part about writing is writing; the easier part is looking at what you've written. So every day feels uneventful, but then you look up every six months and you see you've actually written a lot." 

On censoring yourself as a writer

"I tried to censor myself less in this book than at any other book I've written. When you're writing about your children, in particular, you want to craft stories that are truthful about the complicated business of family life and parenting.  You can't betray anything that would be embarrassing or painful to them. But this book required more audacity, I needed to write about things like the erotic life with more gumption, shall we say, than I had done before. That for me was difficult and I held off doing it for a while, but I ultimately thought that this was something that I had never read about — someone writing about the erotic life in a long marriage. So I hope this book benefits from being honest about eroticism, ambition, unhappiness and frustration. A good book requires some audacity to live and I hope it's there." 

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