By Elizabeth Lothian
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.
Elizabeth Lothian, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Tara Westover about her book Educated (Random House), which is among the final six selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
Tara Westover was born and raised in the mountains of Idaho, the youngest of her survivalist parents seven children. Her father’s increasingly paranoid distrust of the government and most aspects of contemporary society kept the family so isolated from mainstream American life that Westover did not have a birth certificate until she was nine years old. In her debut memoir, Educated, Westover tells this story of her unusual, often violent, upbringing while tracking how her desire for knowledge led her to enter her first classroom at seventeen, took her to earn a PhD from Cambridge University, and transformed her understanding of the world and her family along the way.
In addition to being a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Award in Autobiography, Educated is a #1 New York Times best seller, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize for Best First Book, a finalist for the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, one of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year, and was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, O: The Oprah Magazine, Time, and many more. In between her very full schedule of travel and speaking engagements, Westover was gracious enough to take the time to answer a few of my questions over email.
Elizabeth Lothian (EL): I'm currently at work on a memoir and have found it so interesting, as I write, to look back and realize things about my past self I didn't at the time. Did you find you discovered things about yourself while writing Educated or after finishing it?
Tara Westover (TW): In my experience, perhaps the most difficult thing about writing memoir is to remember people the way they were, instead of the way they are. We tend to live in a kind of eternal present with our memories: the mother of our childhood is our mother as she is now; in our memories, our child selves are just smaller versions of who we are now. But of course they weren't, we weren't. They were younger, less experienced. We were children. Everyone has changed, and mapping that change is what we call story. The trouble is, it's just so very hard to overcome the insistent, tyrannical present. So to answer your question, I suppose I did learn some things about myself, but it was difficult, each time. I had to remember that the me of the past did not behave like the me of the present, and that the motivations that seem intuitive to me now were not the motivations I had then.
EL: I was so struck by the dazzling, precise descriptions of your childhood home, Buck's Peak. I can imagine it must have been hard to write those descriptions while not being there. How did you tackle that?
TW: No place is more vivid for me than that place. Were you to ask me to describe New York, conjuring the language would require time and effort, even if I were sitting on a bench in Soho. I'd mentally squint, pawing through movies I've seen or books I've read for useful details. Buck's Peak requires none of that. I close my eyes and I am there. I can go there in winter, when the snow is frozen so solid it will cut your leg if you fall through it, or I can go in summer, when the dirt is dry and cracked and every step you take makes a spray of grasshoppers. I can supply the people, the animals, the plants, all very easily. While now, as I sit here in New York, I can name almost nothing of my own street.
Tara Westover is an American author. Born in Idaho to a father opposed to public education, she never attended school. She spent her days working in her father's junkyard or stewing herbs for her mother, a self-taught herbalist and midwife. She was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. After that first encounter with education, she pursued learning for a decade, graduating magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008 and subsequently winning a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned an MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014.
Elizabeth Lothian is a writer and editor based in her native Brooklyn. She studied English and Creative Writing at The George Washington University where she was a recipient of The Vivian Nellis Award. She is a digital editor at Guernica and a MFA candidate and Creative Writing Fellow at The New School, where she is at work on her debut memoir.