Bloomsbury, 192 pp., June 27, 2006, $19.95
With its authentic voice and simple honesty about the trials and tribulations of a teenager in a small Southern town, the book was the subject of feverish bidding between five publishing houses. Narrowing the offers over a period of two days, Sartor made her final pick. "I just felt that Bloomsbury was really paying attention to me," she said. "They even showed me an idea for a young adult edition."
Early reviews have commented on the welcome lack of adult interpretation of events. It's just her dated entries from age 13 to the end of high school.
Sartor, a teacher at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, was taking a break from the darkroom and juggling preparations for three photography shows when we met to talk over a sandwich at Elmo's. A show at Crook's Corner features Sartor along with her husband, Alex Harris, and Bill Bamberger. Duke's Perkins Library will hold a larger show including Sartorin July. Her photographs are part of the Special Collections library, which is also home to her diaries. The North Carolina Museum of Art will share some of her work in their recent acquisitions show opening in the fall.
"I photograph what I love and I write about what I love. Editing my diary was so like my photography," she says. "Like photo editing, editing Miss American Pie was episodic. I saw the ebbs and flows of the narrative."
Dotted with candid family photographs from the '70s, Miss American Pie also features a pair of entertaining, insightful essays. While the diary is the work of a quiet, rather shy young girl reflecting on boys, God, music, loneliness and desire, the introduction and epilogue are equally witty, immediate and passionate, the work of a confident, caring, still very reflective woman who knows the outcome of the story.
INDEPENDENT: Miss American Pie happened quickly. Will you share the early excitement as the book became a reality?
Margaret Sartor: The particular idea of looking back at my old diaries came to me a few years ago, around the time my son became an adolescent. When I read them, which was excruciating as much as it was fascinating, I knew I had to try to find the essential story contained there.
It looks like it happened quickly because I didn't try to find an agent or publisher until I had an almost finished manuscript, or it was as finished as I could get it on my own. Then it did happen quickly. I found a wonderful agent, a wonderful publisher, worked with an extraordinary editor, and now, less than a year later, the books are about to arrive on the shelf. It was all a very positive experience.
Adolescence, for anyone, has a natural dramatic arc--the struggle for identity, the attempt to make sense of oneself. We don't realize that at the time we're going through it, but we certainly come to see it later, when we're grown. And so my grown-up self was able to find what the girl herself couldn't have possibly seen, which is the bigger picture. With hindsight, I could read my diaries and recognize the touchstones. I could find the essential threads in the story of my journey from girlhood to the beginning of womanhood. In a very real sense, this book is co-authored by my teenaged self and my middle-aged self.
I learned from the diaries to see adolescent experiences differently, that is, with the eyes of an adolescent and not an adult--which is akin to viewing the universe pre- and post-Galileo. For instance, to a 14-year-old girl who has never been in love before and so has no safeguards on her emotions, being heartbroken can be a life-changing experience, the kind of wound that defines you. That is something concrete that I learned from my diaries--that my first heartbreak was like a step through the looking glass.
Diary-styled writing is everywhere these days, especially among young adults, with blogs, MySpace and live journals. How does the therapeutic value of your diaries compare to those entries of the "virtual" writers today?
Interesting question. Recently, at the Festival of the Book at Duke, Allan Gurganus said something to the effect that if people gave themselves time to listen to their own minds, gave themselves credit for having thoughts worth writing down, then they just might be able to give up that therapist after all. The point is that writing your thoughts down requires that you take yourself seriously, even if the writing itself is very lighthearted or amusing.
The idea that writing a diary is a form of conversation is key to my own experience. There really are competing voices in my head that need to negotiate control or that need to hear one another. Maybe everyone feels this way ... or maybe they don't.
At times, particularly the most difficult times, my diary entries become more like prayers--conversations with or appeals to God, or to the best part of myself.
I do still keep a diary. It may just be an ingrained habit, but I think it is also true that there are certain kinds of thoughts and understandings that only come to me through the act of choosing words.
Your relationships with your animals are described with such affection.
I think it's valuable for anyone to have animals around the home. Animals make life happier. That's a fact. I had a very intimate relationship with the outdoors when I was growing up. I lived the most interesting parts of my life outside with my dogs or cats or horses or watching birds. Being with animals is very grounding. It makes you feel a part of the living world. A pet gives you affection, devotion and a listening ear that doesn't judge or offer advice.
Animals are a salve for loneliness, and being a teenager is often a lonely and isolating experience.
Any parenting epiphanies you had while writing the book that you care to share?
Epiphanies? I had too many! The doors kept opening even when I was ready for them to stay shut. In the end, I think it has helped me to be a more forgiving parent--forgiving of my children and myself.
I'm more aware of the very intense emotional and social pressures and temptations that go along with being an adolescent. And reading my diaries made me remember how extremely important it is for teenagers to know that their parents are proud of them. A child's adolescence is as tricky a tightrope for the parents as it is for the adolescent.
You are well known for your photography. How did your creative work as a photographer contribute to your writing?
The method of editing the diaries was very like editing contact sheets, or editing a hundred photos out of a thousand for a photo book publication. In many ways, diary entries are like photographs or snapshots--one moment among many possible moments that the author chooses to record or describe. And in photography, it's all in the editing--the choosing of what to keep and what to leave out. With Miss American Pie, it was a similar process of knowing what to keep and what to leave out.
I write and photograph for the same reason really, which is, I suppose, to give structure to the chaos and mess that is my life. So it's not so much that I wrote Miss American Pie because I wanted to tell the story of my adolescence, but because I wanted to find out for myself what the story really was.
Miss American Pie is an engaging, sometimes intimate story of a family and a group of friends. The "What Happened Next" appendix added to the closeness. Were there debates among your friends and family about making private moments public?
I have had plenty of concern about protecting the privacy of my family and friends, and I have to give them credit for being so amazing and supportive.
For good or ill, my immediate family is accustomed to my scrutinizing their lives because I've been photographing them for two decades. And though my pictures are not always happy, they are always beautiful. Not the kind of attractiveness that a hired studio photographer looks for, but a loveliness that resides in a sense of vulnerability and quiet. Those are the kinds of moments I'm drawn to record with a camera. And to write about in my diary.
Photographs are about choosing the right moment, the moment that reveals something about the subject, something that the photographer recognizes and that might not otherwise be noticed. And the same goes for what one chooses to write about in a diary. A diary is not a history. It is highly subjective, a partial view of a more complete world, a particular and selective perspective on real events.
What's the timeline for the book launch?
The book will be in stores by the end of June, and my first readings are in my hometown in Louisiana. The book launching in my hometown was unexpected. At my mother's suggestion, I even changed the name of the town from Monroe to Montgomery. That cloak proved to be pointless. But people there are truly excited about the book. My first reading will happen in the auditorium of my old high school--which mercifully has been renovated and now has air conditioning!
Contributing writer John Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 29, 1977
(last diary entry, 6:15 a.m.) Daddy is loading the car. Mama left me a note that says, Your absence will certainly leave this house a lot duller and your parents and brother and sister, a little sad.So, I just want to put down here, in this diary, that Im going to miss my family but not much elseexcept maybe the levee and the river. But the river will always be here, in this place, in the holy land of life so far. Im going to leave this diary behind so I can start a new one, when I get to where Im going.