E18: Jan Beatty: American Bastard
Read the interview below:
The title of the book is quite eye-catching and provocative. What’s the story behind it?
It was strange because I had six books of poetry before this. I usually have different ways of finding titles but with this one, I always knew that was going to be the title, and I don’t have any way of explaining that.
When I knew I was writing the book, I just knew it was going to be American Bastard. It just came to me. I knew that was going to be the cover. That’s an old photograph that I had. And I just knew that it was going to be red and black. I just kind of knew it.
So there was always something about this book that felt inevitable in a way, and felt like this was the way it was going to be. But nothing that I really gave a lot of thought to. It just felt like this is the way it has to be. So it’s a strange way it came about.
I teach at a place called Carlow University. It’s a catholic University in Pittsburg. When they send out an announcement of my book, it shut down the college internet system because they thought it was profanity. And then the person sending it out said: “This is the Director of Creative Writing’s new book, so put this back up”. It was kind of funny. Some people overreact to language.
What’s poetry to you and what’s your guiding principle when writing?
Well poetry is really everything to me. As I said, I had six books of poetry before this, so I am primarily a poet.
Not to be overly dramatic but I feel like poetry has saved my life. It’s a place that I’ve always gone, growing up, writing bad poetry; I won a poetry contest in first grade. So it goes way back, writing in locked journals under my bed and bad relationship poems, and all that stuff. It’s something I’ve always done. I just needed a place to go and a place to live in words, and for me it was poetry.
American Bastard is a very different thing for me. There is a little bit of poetry in it but it’s definitely not fiction, so it was a whole different feeling for me.
There is a lot of lyricism in the book. In fact, some parts are so lyrical that felt like reading poetry.
Well, thank you. I mean, it is not poetry. I think that’s the way I write, just from years and years of writing poetry.
I am not a long talker or a long writer. The first couple of drafts of that book, when I was dealing with publishers, they said “It has to be longer”. So I had to go back. I am so used to compressing with poetry, and it’s harder for me to extend. I don’t know the short answer. I can’t do a whole lot of details, I just can’t. But I like images and imagistic language. I guess it’s just a way of being in the world.
Poetry’s abstract nature allows authors to cover certain topics indirectly but your memoir very openly describes difficult parts of your life. And you share stories, names, places and pictures. Was it difficult for you to transition from poetry to non-fiction?
It took me many many years; probably 20 years to write the book. I didn’t know how to do it, how to go about it. I didn’t know what tone to use, what language to use. I didn’t know how much to say.
Other people are involved too. I want to make sure that I’m doing that fairly. I am not interested at all in settling scores. There’s no revenge involved. This is just trying to make the best book I can make.
I had to mature as a writer because I wasn’t sure how to present it. There are a lot of sections in the book. There’re short ones. There’re leaping sections. There’re long ones, so it took a whole long time to find a way to put it down.
If you look at my poems from the past. I have a lot of concrete details in my poems. There’s a lot of story in my poems, so they are not very abstract. I have abstractions in my poems but generally they are pretty narrative poems. So in a way this is in the same zone as my poetry, but a very different thing. I thought this was pretty challenging to write.
The book is quite provocative in the sense that it delivers a sharp contrast to the traditional views on adoption and what you refer to as the myth of the chosen baby. Do you believe adoptions are romanticized?
Absolutely. Adoption is romanticized and misrepresented. And I think that’s no accident. I think that the people who are handling the adoptions; for example, whether if it is the catholic social services who handled my adoption or different social agencies, they are making profits. And people don’t talk about that; and people have to come up with some money, some big money to get a baby. To buy a baby. Nobody talks about it in those terms.
Everybody says, “I adopted a baby” and “oh, you are a wonderful person for saving this baby”. It’s like a savior thing. And although there may be some truth in that; that this is a good situation for the child, let’s talk about the big picture. Let’s talk about, there’s money involved. Let’s talk about, there may be a benefit for the adoptive parents. Let’s talk about why the adoption happened. Let’s just make a full picture, that’s all.
And let’s make it more open for the adoptee so it can be talked about more. And let’s not pretend that there’s only one story. The new story. Let’s talk about the original story.
As of today, only 9 states allow adoptees unrestricted access to their records, and 19 states keep the records sealed. And there’s some that offer limited access. How did that affect you in particular? And what is your take in terms of public policy around adoptee’s access to records?
I think adoptees should have unrestricted access. The birthparents may not feel that way but I feel like they brought you into the world. I feel like they owe you that access. I really believe that.
If there was a choice made to put you off for adoption; ok, maybe they had good reasons for that. But I feel like they owe you access to who you are.
They don’t have to have a relationship with you but you have to know where you came from. It’s something that is really hard to explain to someone. The feeling of walking around and not knowing who you are, who your parents are, what nationality are you, what medical records you have, and it’s like you don’t exist.
For example I’ve had surgeries, and every time I go to the doctor, I get angry and I just slashed the form writing “Adopted” on it because I’ve had to make medical decisions based on nothing. As I get older that becomes more important. So I can understand, maybe why birthparents wouldn’t want that but I don’t have much compassion for it. I mean, they brought you here, one way or another. Well, we know how, so I feel like they owe you that. I don’t think they owe you more than that. They don’t owe you money, they don’t owe you time but they owe you the information. That stopped me for many years from finding out who I was because I was born in the 50’s, so everything was closed. It is still pretty closed. And I think people would be surprised to know that.
It must be pretty tough making medical decisions without having the history.
Yeah, I have no problem saying, I was getting a hysterectomy and they wanted to know my history. I said “I had no idea”, so I just said, “take everything out”, because I don’t now what the hell is going on. I mean that’s a pretty big decision for someone’s body. I was younger at the time but I didn’t want to chance it because what if there was cancer, or I don’t know. I was irritated; really irritated by that. I felt like that was the decision I had to make, so you can imagine there’s different permutations of that depending on what you have.
I wanted to finalize asking about the way you chose to name and start every chapter. Every chapter is named after excerpts or a quote from different authors, musicians, and other artists. Why did you chose to start your chapters in this particular way?
I needed those quotes. I think of them as a family of strangers. I quoted musicians, writers. I just needed some help with grounding my voice when I was writing the book. Grounding is an issue for adoptees because we don’t know where we stand. We don’t know where we’re from. I would ground myself in the words of others, I'd ground myself in allies.
Betty Jean Lifton was one of the few people who I found who wrote books on adoption. She had this book called Journey of the Adopted Self, and it was so good, I just read it and read it and it was the only book that I could find that told the truth about adoption. And I was so grateful to her, so I quoted her a number of times on the book. But also I had this topographical dictionary called Home Ground, edited by Barry Lopez and Debra Gwartney. I knew Barry Lopez, he’s a great writer; and this was about finding home in topographical spaces; in dirt, in ground. So I used some of those quotes to locate myself in different places. There’s one quote that refers to an ancient stream. Things that seem to relate to adoption in some metaphorical way, so I used some of that to help me get started.