By Taylor Sue Leonhardt
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 2018.
Taylor Sue Leonhardt, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Richard Beard about his book The Day That Went Missing: A Family Story (Little, Brown and Company), which is among the final six selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
In his memoir, The Day That Went Missing: A Family Story, Richard Beard recounts the tragic day in his family’s history when visiting Cornwall during the summer of 1978. Richard, then 11, and his young brother Nicky, age 9, decided to go for a swim. Before they knew it, they had been tugged out to sea. Richard managed to escape, while Nicky was too far out and drowned. From that day onward, Richard and his family never spoke Nicky's name again, choosing to bury their grief. They carried on as if nothing had happened, and even returned to the beach shortly after the funeral.
Forty years later, Beard visited the spot where it happened in an attempt to unlock the emotions that he had repressed since Nicky’s death. His book tries to rediscover the day that went missing from his family's collective history. Though he can never bring Nicky back, Beard’s memoir reestablishes Nicky’s legacy and brings the reader along on an emotional and worthwhile journey, giving us an insight into the reasons we grieve the way that we do.
Taylor Sue Leonhardt (TSL): Before writing The Day That Went Missing, you've written several novels including the book, Lazarus Is Dead, as well as three nonfiction books. How has your writing changed over the course of your career, particularly since writing this memoir?
Richard Beard (RB): The biggest change is that when I started writing, I started writing novels. The two skills seemed to come together in the memoir. There was the fictional skill of making the characters come alive on the page -you can’t just write them down, they need to be lifted up as well. And the nonfiction skills of trying to be true to the facts and what actually happened and being observant also merged with the fiction skills, including the skill of actually finding the story.
TSL: You open with the quote “For forty years I haven’t said his name but in writing I immediately slip into the present tense as if he’s [Nicky] here, he’s back,” and throughout the book, you naturally switch from past to present tense in a way I found interesting. Can you talk more about this choice?
RB: This is something I discovered in a previous nonfiction book. The narrative can be in the present tense, then you can hang off that present tense adventure your research, your ideas that you actually want to talk about and the history of a subject. These tend to go into the past tense in the memoir. Without having a real-time narrative, it's quite hard to make nonfiction feel urgent. Because the act of remembering is mostly in the present, there is a good reason to use the present tense.
TSL: Throughout the book, you reference multiple letters, school notes, newspaper clippings, etc., and I believe at one point you mention counting 171 letters, so I wanted to know how did you go about deciding what to put into the book and to take those letters and structure them into a story?
RB: Unfortunately there are very few relics of Nicky’s life, and there was very little material compared to a life that has been documented publicly. 171 is not that many condolence letters and most are about half a page long. I had to make the most of the school books, the mentions of him in school magazines. I had to really squeeze what I could out of them, to get a sense of him. In a way, I had the opposite job to a biographer of a public figure because they start with a huge amount of material and need to condense it down. I didn't really have that much material at all and there was a lot of speculation involved.
I then structured that into the story of remembering, because this day had gone missing. We had no record of it in our family rituals, of our family life, never remembered it, never had anniversaries, we didn't celebrate his birthday. Nicky himself had become lost. The center point of the book was always going to be going back to the place where he died, and to see if that evoked the memories that had gone missing, the memories of the day that had gone missing, and of course, when I went I didn't know if that would be the case. The worse thing that could have happened would be to go back to the place where he died, and have no emotional reaction and no memories. That was the fear. Luckily that isn't what happened, which creates the book. The structure comes from the investigation into Nicky’s past and who he was.
TSL: Now a big theme in the book is the ways in which we deal with grief, and in your case, even burying it so deep the day goes missing. You talk a lot about this culture of carrying on and the pressures of that culture to just pretend everything is okay. Can you talk more about this culture of grieving? Is this a local problem specific to your family, or is it global?
RB: There is a strange layer of British culture in which the famous stiff upper lip is the way to deal with any emotional extreme. It’s the same for grief and pain as it would be for love and joy. All emotions are muted and tamped down as a means of both self-defense, a type of survival, and also a sort of cultural inhibition that can become ingrained. I do think that’s changed, and it was greater than in 1978 than it is now, and since then there has been an opening up and the language of counseling is much more available and everyone knows there are places where you can go to talk about these things, and moving on isn't necessarily the best thing to do straight away. Having said that, a lot of the letters I had about the book would suggest that there are still people who deal with grief in this way and regret it.
TSL: I want to talk about your father because I was struck by the line, "Dad you are dying from cancer, jump…Instead, he looked before leaping. And looked again.” Were you able to make peace with this memory and, if so, how did you make peace with it?
RB: I don't think I have made peace with it, I don't really understand that reaction. There's a father whose son is in the water either dead or dying, probably already dead, but still, he doesn't jump in to retrieve the body or make more of an intervention-and I do find that difficult. But at the same time, the memoirist can never be omniscient. I don't know what it feels like to have cancer; I don't know how that affects you physically and emotionally. I wasn't there on that piece of rock looking at the situation, so I don't know what other factors might have been applicable, and I think that's its difficult to write a memoir without being judgmental and at the same time trying to understand everybody, and trying to understand does involve judgment and that is partly the challenge of the form.
TSL: How then do you balance the truth while staying sensitive? Assuming that your mother and two remaining brothers read the book, how do you deal with that tension?
RB: In a family memoir, those tensions are very real, and different people deal with them in different ways. I obviously talked with them and interviewed them for the book, and when it was nearly finished I gave my mother and two brothers a draft. I wasn't asking for their approval. I asked if there was anything in this which they feel was factually incorrect, so I wasn't asking if they agreed with my conclusions, just whether there was anything in it that they thought I got wrong, factually wrong. I have to stand by my own conclusions and my own thought processes, and in a way, it makes it easier for them as well. It’s not a collective job, it’s my view. We aren’t all implicated together. Luckily it came back and there weren’t any great disputes about the truth of what I've written.
TSL: You write “Writing can bring him back to life” referring of course to Nicky. Do you believe that writing can bring people back to life? And did this book succeed in doing that?
RB: No. That’s the short answer. It can’t. I’m really sorry, it’s not a magic spell, unfortunately, writing can bring him back and that is the one unchanging fact of grief. However you deal with it, it doesn’t change the fact of death.
Richard Beard’s six novels include Lazarus is Dead, Dry Bones and Damascus, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In the UK he has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award and longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. His latest novel Acts of the Assassins was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2015. He is also the author of four books of narrative non-fiction, including his 2017 memoir The Day That Went Missing. Formerly Director of The National Academy of Writing in London, he is a Visiting Professor (2016/17) at the University of Tokyo, and has a Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. In 2017 he is a juror for Canada's Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Taylor Sue Leonhardt is a current student of the MFA in Creative Writing Program at The New School, and co-editor of the upcoming online literary journal "Whatever Keeps the Lights On". Her work has appeared in Muses Literary Magazine and The Creative Anthology of Muhlenberg College, for which her short story was award third place fiction for their creative writing contest. She lives in Manhattan, New York. Follow her on Twitter @TS_Leonhardt.