Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
José García, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed George Hodgman about his book Bettyville (Penguin Books), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
José García: Did you always intend to publish Bettyville, or did the project begin as a sort of journal for your own peace of mind?
George Hodgman: Somewhere between the two, really. I wrote the scene about my mother driving me to kindergarten, speeding down the road listening to the songs on the radio, just because. I was mourning her loss of her driver’s license, her independence, a part of herself that I loved. For some reason, I put it on Facebook. It got a lot of Likes and Shares and then, because I am a ham and an Approval Junkie, I had to write another. Soon I had a little pile of them, enough to make me start thinking of what they could grow up to be.
JG: Did Betty ever got to read Bettyville, or bits of it? If so what was her reaction? Was she ever curious about it?
GH: She heard a lot of it, the parts I thought would please her most. I read them aloud at a couple of local readings she attended. Lots of people from our past were there. It was a great way for her to start getting to know the book, but then she got sick.
JG: How was Betty when you were sick as a kid? Do you think you mimicked some of her behavior from when she was taking care of you, during the time you were in charge?
GH: My mother was incredibly careful when I was sick as a child. I think it was just another instance of her being hyperconscious of her maternal responsibilities. I think there was also the fear in her that she was going to do something wrong, not be good enough, and I would not get well or something. Now that you mention it, I think there was a lot that was very similar in our way of caring for each other, both based in a kind of terror that we would do something disastrous.
JG: Betty once said that she worried that, after she died, you would go untended. What have you thought about your own old age?
GH: That it would be a lot easier if I were rich. I have read at a lot of Assisted Living facilities. Some of them are incredible. I feel so bad for people who live in places that seem depressing or who are alone. I hope I am not alone. I hope I will somehow be part of a community and I hope I will have something to do that I love. My mother had bridge and playing the piano, two things that sustained and challenged her to the end, but also gave her pleasure. I know I will have reading. I hope I have writing.
JG: You mention Betty’s spirituality many times in the book, but not yours. When you took Betty to church were you comfortable there? Did you found some relief, support, or some answers on religion?
GH: Despite the stereotypes of bible-belt religious fanatics, the little churches where I grew up were lovely and always looking to take care of their people. My early experiences of religion were pretty positive. I always associated it with the phrase, “Jesus loved the little children.”
It wasn’t until later, as religion became increasingly politicized, that I grew uncomfortable with some aspects of it, and with those who feel the need to chastise others with their own beliefs. Through the years, I have evolved in my own sort of spirituality. The experience of getting sober had a lot to do with it. So did caring for my mother and writing this book. I feel like there was a positive force taking care of us, a good energy that also empowered me to write something that I hope was above all a very human story.
JG: You openly address your homosexuality throughout the book, however, in interviews and in articles it is rarely mentioned, or not at all. Do you hope that Bettyville can also bring some sort of relief, guidance, or comfort to people who are struggling with their sexuality?
GH: A woman in Missouri told me in the IGA store that her friends told her that she was a bad mother because her daughter had turned out to be a lesbian. I don’t think, despite the very good intentions that I have felt since publication, that gay kids in small towns have it that easy, and I feel that this is compounded by politicians who see power through division. I hope I helped some mothers and fathers of gay kids who have felt alone find a friend.
JC: Did you write anything about Betty’s cancer treatment or her last days? Can we expect an extended version of Bettyville in the future?
GH: I didn’t want Betty to die in the book. I really think that I believed, subconsciously, that if I stopped before she died, she would live forever—and she will. On the page.
There is some additional material on Facebook. There is a Salon article that I wrote during her last days. It was about the strange interlude before someone dies, the world where you don’t know if you want them to live or not suffer, where you think there might be a miracle but also expect a departure any minute, where you are drawn through crazy hope, loss, memories while outside there are kids yelling at each other and the sound of lawn mowers and suddenly you realize that you have not slept in days.
People made some really disparaging comments on that piece. I was really hurt, but I think I will somehow, somewhere deal with the experience of the last week or so of her life, which was surreal.
JG: What can you tell us about the offer you got for the Bettyvile TV adaptation?
GH: Well, I can tell you that it is really rugged to see how your work has been translated. I am waiting to see if the actress, who I won’t name, will come here, take in my mother’s world, see her room, her clothes, and her jewelry, or whether she will make it about herself. I’m pretty wary of the whole thing. I thought there was a chance to do something that would capture rural life now as it actually is; I hoped they would film here and do something for the town. We’ll see. I’m not sure that the final product is going to have much in common with the vision we had, I thought, agreed on before the deal.
George Hodgman has worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster, Vanity Fair, and Talk magazine. His writing has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Interview, W, and Harper’s Bazaar. He lives in New York City and Pairs, Missouri.
José García is a first-year Fiction student in the Creative Writing MFA program at The New School. Born and raised in Guatemala. He has worked as a cultural journalist for the past seven years in his home country. He writes about social issues, racism and migration. He’s left-handed.