Interview with Jonathan Corcoran

We talked with Jonathan Corcoran about his new memoir, No Son of Mine (University Press of Kentucky, 2024), called a “lyrical and uncompromisingly honest memoir,” by Kirkus Review and lauded by readers and reviewers as a beautiful and relatable story. Carter Sickles calls No Son of Mine “a gorgeous, extraordinary memoir about the heartbreaking relationship between a queer son and the mother who disowned him, and about two young men falling in love and figuring out how to build their lives together.”

Jon Corcoran grew up in Elkins, West Virginia, and is the author of a story collection, The Rope Swing (WVU Press, 2016), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards and long-listed for The Story Prize. His essays and stories have been published and anthologized widely, including in Belt Magazine, Salvation South, Still: The Journal, Best Gay Stories, and the Oxford University Press textbook, How Writing Works. He received a BA in Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Rutgers University-Newark. Jon teaches writing at New York University and in the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. He lives in Brooklyn.

Jon gave some eloquent responses to our questions about the visceral experiences of writing a true story, the role of the memoirist, memory as an associative act, and how trauma and grief are sometimes eased by writing. 

Still: The Journal:   Congratulations, Jon, on the publication of your memoir and on all the accolades you’ve received from readers and bookstores and reviewers. One of the features of No Son of Mine that we really admired was how your story is partially grounded in the actual writing of the memoir—almost like a meta-memoir. You speak many times about being the writer, the teller, of this tale and what the process was like to write this book. Why were those scenes that address the act of writing important to include in your story?

Jonathan Corcoran:   Thank you so much! I can’t believe how positively No Son of Mine has been received. It’s every writer’s dream that people will understand what you were trying to do with a book. And I think that notion—what I was trying to do by writing this book—is related to that meta quality of how my writing process appears on the page. I began writing this book a little more than year after my mother passed away. I was grappling with two issues: How to deal with the complex grief I felt after she died—a grief for the person who had perhaps loved me and hurt me more than any other—and how to tell both of our stories fairly. Revealing my writing process in the actual pages of the book was almost instinctual. I wanted to be transparent, honest, and open. Memoirs are nonfiction, and nonfiction involves real lives and real people. My mother and I deserved nothing less than the truth, and I wanted readers to trust that I was offering something as close to truth as possible. I didn’t immediately realize it as I was writing, but the structure of this book and the writing itself mirrored my grieving process. I think readers can sense that when they see my author-self intruding on the page. 

Still: The Journal:   A related question of sorts: Your story is very visceral, very physical, especially in the beginning as you and your husband sicken with COVID right after lockdown while your mother is simultaneously facing her own painful demise. But you also refer to the physicality of writing: “Writing these words is like cutting open the skin on my stomach,” or “Writing this now, my body still tenses up.” Do you always feel these physical effects when writing or do you think it was just unique to telling this particular true story?

Corcoran:   If my stomach is churning while I’m writing, if my skin grows hot, then I know that I’ve hit upon something important. I don’t always feel this way when I’m drafting work, but my best writing always seems to come out of narratives that push my bodily self to the brink in some way. I remember this from writing my first story collection, The Rope Swing. The stories in that book that were most successful involved a lot of tears on my part. I should also say that there are moments when I feel a sort of ecstasy when I’m writing—a desire to scream and laugh and thrust. I suppose I’m a writer who strives to tell stories from and of the body. If I’m not feeling my own writing in some deep, visceral way, how can I expect readers to respond to my work? 

Still: The Journal:   One of the questions you grapple with throughout this memoir is “What does it mean to be disowned?” And you tie that to the notion of “fatalism,” which, of course, is one of those long-standing shortcuts used to describe Appalachians. Could you talk some more about how you see connections between being disowned and being resigned to helplessness within yourself and within your family (and maybe the larger culture if you want)?

Corcoran:   Ah, our old friend “fatalism.” I know that it’s a charged statement to say that Appalachians are fatalistic or have given themselves over to resigned helplessness. A confession: I feel as an Appalachian expat a certain reluctance to weigh in on this conversation—I’ve seen what sloppy and overly simplistic portrayals of Appalachians can do (I won’t mention a certain person’s name—ha!). I have to admit: The West Virginia I grew up in is no longer the same West Virginia on the ground today. I sometimes think that I ran away from West Virginia because I was scared that I couldn’t make a home for myself there, that I would never be welcome. But the truth is much more complex: When my mother cut me off, I was told I couldn’t come back. How do I make sense of or claim a place when I’m told by my kin that I’m no longer welcome there? For so long—because of the trauma I experienced—my view of Appalachia remained frozen in time, to the year 2004 to be exact, the year when I was told I couldn’t come home again.

I want to present two things that can both exist side by side that might answer this question in a roundabout way: First, my mother had so much potential in life, but she was rarely encouraged, rarely supported by her family members, and she eventually gave up. She never had money or connections or a helping hand. At a certain point, she no longer saw a way forward or even a way out. She put her self-worth into her children and gave herself over to God and waited for heaven. There were all these beautiful clothes in her closet, and yet, when I see her in my memory, she wears only bleach-stained sweatpants and oversized t-shirts. 

And second: When I wrote this book and I was forced to go back through my memories, I realized that the first people to come to my aid during my time of crisis were my community members back in West Virginia, who told me I’d never truly be alone or without family. And then I remembered all the teachers and the community theatre members and the parents of my friends who told me to aim high, my sisters who protected me, and so on. I don’t know if I said this directly in the book, but I could have sunk into a pit—and I did for a time—but somewhere along the road, all these people kept encouraging me, pushing me, instilling me with this resilience. And in their strong hands, I think I realized that Appalachians at their best are far from fatalistic. I was pulled up when I most needed it. Somewhere along the way, I was taught not just how to survive but also how to thrive.

Still: The Journal:   Despite hurting you continually, your mother is portrayed with an enduring, undulating empathy. A 15-year stretch of on-again-off-again scenarios is obviously so damaging, but you’ve been clear in drawing a compassionate yet honest, whole portrait of your mother. Could you speak about how you “characterized” your mother for a memoir? Did your fiction-writing skills play into how you “peopled” your memoir?

Corcoran:   Part of writing this memoir and part of my maturing into an adult self is learning to understand that people are multi-dimensional. More importantly, I’ve taught myself to understand that people function outside of our own perceptions of them. We sometimes imagine as children that our parents exist solely for our benefit, that they only exist when our eyes are open. It’s as if they disappear when we go to sleep. As adults, we begin to understand that a lot of a parent’s life happens offstage, outside of our purview. Don’t forget to throw time and change into that mix. To make peace with my mother and what had happened between us, I had to allow myself to see her from as many angles as possible. She was a wonderful, flawed, and complex person who showered me with a lot of love and a lot of misguided anger and hate. Like all the best characters in novels and stories, she was deeply human. She has her own backstory, and I had to admit that I was only privy to so many of those details. 

I sometimes wonder if I became a writer because I spent so much of my life trying to understand her motivations. Writing fiction—short fiction in particular—taught me how to focus on relevant portions of a person’s story, how to drop in just enough background and details to allow a reader to imagine and inhabit the worlds I’ve created. I always want readers to know that the characters I’ve written—both real and imagined—have lives that extend far beyond the borders of the slices of narrative that make it to print. I am more than my relationship with my mother, as I’ve always had a full, buoyant life outside of our tumultuous relationship. I know that she too lived, loved, and dreamed in ways that I can only imagine. She was 38 years old when she gave birth to me. I’m turning 40 this fall, which is to say that my mother more or less lived the equivalent of my whole, current life experience before she was even pregnant with me. Writing this book and putting both of our lives in perspective was painful, but also freeing. When I imagine the next twenty years of my life, I see a lightness. What mysteries await?

I allowed myself to surrender to memory, to give into the fuzzy edges 
of what I could see in my mind’s eye. Writing about those fuzzy edges often led to deeper and maybe even suppressed moments. When I was actually living through some of the darker and more painful moments, 
I learned to compartmentalize in order to preserve my physical and mental health. I’m at a place now where I can access and process the more painful moments in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do when I was younger. 

Still: The Journal:   We admired how you grapple with memory throughout No Son of Mine. You say “Memory is a lived thing. Memory is a felt thing.” Could you talk some more about the role of memory in your book and some of the ways you dealt with accessing and writing about very painful memories?

Corcoran:   I view memory—like writing—as an associative act. Many of the scenes in this book began with an image or a remembered phrase that I couldn’t stop thinking about. I allowed my metaphorical pen (I mostly compose on my laptop) to go where it wanted. In some ways, I allowed myself to surrender to memory, to give into the fuzzy edges of what I could see in my mind’s eye. Writing about those fuzzy edges often led to deeper and maybe even suppressed moments. When I was actually living through some of the darker and more painful moments, I learned to compartmentalize in order to preserve my physical and mental health. I’m at a place now where I can access and process the more painful moments in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do when I was younger. 

But I also had to grapple with the hard truth that how I remembered events didn’t always comport with how others remembered the same moments or, God forbid, the actual reality of what happened. When I fact checked some of my memories there were incongruities and inconsistencies. This made me question if my memory contained flaws. What I could do was to try to remain humble by putting my questions about the limitations of memory onto the pages of the book itself. What I know for sure was how a memory felt—and that feeling was what I needed to convey to a reader. In order for a reader to trust me, I had to put all of this messiness onto the page. I wanted a reader to understand that I wasn’t hiding anything, that the story I was telling was as close to the raw truth as possible. Writing nonfiction made me aware that I have an ethical contract with my readers—the contract is that I have to tell the truth and that when my memory contains holes or raw edges, I will admit to this. 

Still: The Journal:   A strong theme that emerges in your memoir is one of loss and grief which you write about so vividly, but it’s not a “normal” loss and grief that occurs after a parent dies. Instead you had to negotiate a 15-year start-and-stop relationship with your mother. You write: “the best and happiest moments of my life [were] punctuated by my mother’s cruel words, her curses both literal and figurative, her absence or, worse yet, her presence (even now, after her death, she hovers). My life would become a constant tug between hurting and marching forward.” Did the writing of this book help you at all to process, finally, the loss of your mother? Could you talk about what writing a hard story does for you, personally, and as a writer?

Corcoran:   I realized during the writing of this book that family estrangement is like death. When my mother cut me out of her life, I grieved for the loss of her life even though she was still living. I didn’t know that grief was what I was experiencing when I was twenty years old, but I know that now. I recently lost a friend to cancer. She’d been diagnosed so long ago—years ago—with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer and told that she had a very short time to live. She beat this diagnosis for a long, long time, and lived a happy and full life for years after her diagnosis. When she passed away, I had to grapple with the fact that I had begun grieving for my friend the moment I heard about her diagnosis. Grief, I’ve come to realize, is not linear and often begins long before a body leaves this world. We live with grief. 

Writing this book was healing for me, full stop. The moment I allowed myself to expel this story from my system—and writing this book felt like that, as if I were committing a kind of surgery on my own body—I became whole in a way I hadn’t in years. I’ve been telling all my friends that getting this book into the world has freed up so much of my headspace, both personally and professionally. I suspect we all have those stories that we have to write, the ones that demand all of our attention. The beauty of finally getting this kind of story into the world is that I now feel a creative freedom, a permission to play with my words. What comes after grief can be the act of rediscovering joy. What a gift! 

Still: The Journal:   You’ve talked about this in other interviews, certainly, but did you think about how your own particular struggles as a gay person might speak to the larger cultural issues we’re facing now as LGBTQ+ people are increasingly harmed by the politics of their communities and their families? What do you hope your book might do for readers?

Corcoran:   I keep thinking about the word visibility. I want people to know that my story is real, that what happened to me isn’t confined to the history books, that people like me are grappling with similar issues today. So much of our modern society revolves around sleight of hand—choosing to hide what we find discomforting. We owe it to each other as humans to look each other in the eye and say, “I see you.” I hope others feel empowered to tell their stories, to know that the act of telling stories can create ripple effects. I love reading books that are wildly outside of my own personal experiences; doing so teaches me how to be a better person, to remember how big and wondrous this world really is, and to understand that my own life is both unique and shares common bonds with others.

Still: The Journal:   Will you tell us what you’re currently reading? Do you have some good reading recs for our readers?

Corcoran:   I’ve just picked up Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’ve read and loved a ton of her other books, and I’ve been waiting for the right moment to start this one. I guess with all the talk about climate change and the upcoming elections and the creeping nationalism, that time felt like now. Butler is a visionary in the way that she sees and portrays America and our human condition. I just finished Shae by West Virginia’s own Mesha Maren, and wow, that one hit me viscerally. Gorgeous and raw. I’ve been returning to Gay Poems for Red States by Willie Carver. He’s a friend and an author I admire who has shared some similar life experiences. His work reminds me how to create joy and beauty out of pain. My former professor and mentor Jayne Anne Phillips just won the Pulitzer for her new novel, Night Watch. Phillips is at the height of her powers, and everyone should read this book (and cheer for TWO Appalachian Pulitzer winners in a row). I’ve also been recommending an older book that I stumbled onto during the writing of my memoir: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick. Gornick is a Jewish woman with roots in the Bronx, but I swear I saw overlap between her world and mine. There’s so much in that book about her relationship with her mother and their neighbors in a cramped Bronx apartment building where everyone is so complicated and full of life. I was surprised how much her childhood in the Bronx reminded me of growing up on my little street back in West Virginia where everybody knew everybody’s business and where front doors were always open.

Still: The Journal:   Thanks for speaking with us, Jon. Our readers always want to know what’s next. What sort of writing projects are you focused on presently?

Corcoran:   I’ve been working on a novel that might be considered (gasp) speculative fiction. See? Writing this memoir really did open me up creatively. Thank YOU for this lovely interview and for providing space in Still for such wonderful and original work. Each issue of Still is a must-read for me. 


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