Author recalls steps to building a memoir
By Kay Braddock
When Karen Stevenson agreed to write the memoir of Elsie Fox neither woman knew definitively the project’s destination – or, for that matter, the twists and turns the two would ride through in the subsequent three years.
Through taped conversations and detailed journals recording each encounter with Elsie, along with studying the then 97-year-old woman’s memorabilia, Stevenson became immersed in Elsie’s life. As she dug into Elsie’s story, more questions arose and with each new question a memory was triggered – stories once long forgotten that would ultimately serve to fill the 200-page memoir of Elsie Fox.
Studying books and watching movies based on the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, Stevenson delved into a time period that helped shape Elsie.
“I lived and breathed it,” Stevenson said, recalling the memoir project that took over much of the three years.
Six months into the project, Stevenson decided to refrain from documenting the hours she devoted on the memoir.
“This is depressing,” she recalled thinking at the time.
At times the Miles City author, who had previously published written works in various magazines and area newspapers, became overwhelmed. With so much information to pour through, the work of compiling another person’s life into a creative, honest and organized fashion seemed too much to overcome.
Her curiosity and the love of learning of a teacher, Stevenson would later recall, propelled her to continue on – and, of course, Elsie.
“But Elsie, once she wants something, that woman does not give up,” Stevenson said, recalling the prodding of the elderly woman. “Without her, I don’t think I would have finished it.”
For a year Stevenson met three times a week at Elsie’s home, fostering a relationship of trust between author and subject. Particular poignant moments shared between the two would later be used to preface each of the book’s part two chapters.
The moments between author and subject “fleshed out Elsie as a very elderly woman,” Stevenson explained.
Elsie lived what many might consider a controversial life – one catapulted by the impacts of the Great Depression. Influenced by strong politically leanings, Elsie would spend much of her life as an activist, dedicated to west coast labor unions and Communist beliefs.
Recognizing the challenge of writing about another person’s life, Stevenson recalled a moment when she read a portion of the memoir’s rough draft to Elsie. The elderly woman listened, nodded and simply replied, “Yep that’s right.”
“She didn’t say a word and I thought, ‘Oh Lord, I just blew it. She hates it,’” Stevenson recalled thinking as she left Elsie’s home.
Shortly after returning to her own home, Stevenson received a phone call from Elsie.
“ ‘You have not only captured my soul dear,’ ” Stevenson repeated the elderly woman’s words to her. “ ‘You have captured my very spirit.’ ”
The memoir project provided learning lessons for both author and subject. While Stevenson was undergoing an extensive history lesson, Elsie was given opportunities to self-reflect.
“Elsie, when she started reflecting on her life, learned some things, I can guarantee you - just in the process of telling her story,” Stevenson said.
Although the memoir took a turn that neither one anticipated, Stevenson said Elsie was well aware of the honest approach.
“I knew when I put in certain things in her story, it was going to be controversial,” Stevenson said. “It was very risky, because I was risking this woman’s reputation and that all came down on my shoulders, but she knew every step of the way what I was doing.”
Feedback on the self-published memoir, which garnered an Editor’s Choice award, has been varied. Most enjoy the reading experience of the book, but some have been critical of the content. One particular critic questioned Stevenson on how she could stand to spend so much time with a radical like Elsie. Stevenson recalled thinking, “You just didn’t get it, did you?”
“I came to love her very much,” Stevenson shared of Elsie. “I’m very defensive towards her now.”
Published April 7, 2010