Given my last few posts, readers of this blog will doubtless think I am a finicky, picky reader. I’m really not. I swear. I’m actually quite forgiving of writers and will slog through most anything. Most of the time.
Lucky for me, I didn’t have to slog through The Girl in the Orange Dress, Margot Starbuck’s debut memoir. Easily one of the best books I’ve read so far this summer, I ate it up in just a few days–and I wasn’t even on vacation.
Funny, self-mocking, self-aware, poignant, and painful, The Girl in the Orange Dress chronicles Margot’s sense of being abandoned and rejected by the men in her life—her biological father who gave her up for adoption, her adoptive father who divorced her adoptive mother and moved away, her new stepfather, and then her biological father again when he refused to meet with her—and by God the Father, whom she suspected was more like her earthly fathers than she would like. For all the pain of Margot’s story, though, it is ultimately a story of hope and healing, as she searches for—and finds—a father who will not fail.
Margot is a Facebook friend of mine and fellow Likewise author (the imprint under which our books are published), which is how I got lucky enough to interview her. That, and she’s super nice.
KCI: The story you tell is often heartbreaking, but somehow you manage to keep it from overwhelming the reader. Partly this is because of your sense of humor—you’re often laughing at yourself, even in the darkest moments. How did you manage to find humor in so much trauma?
MS: Good question. During some the events I describe in the book—such as unrequited love, and alternative fashion choices—I was able to stand outside of myself, at the time, and realize that what was happening was a little funny. It was only in looking back a decade or so later that I was able to recognize the thread of struggle or loss or redemption inherent in the event which was truly meaningful. Other moments and seasons, such as living under the weight of depression, were anything but humorous. I think I narrated these with some humor in the book because they would be so heavy to slog through as a reader.
I had no idea that I used humor in communicating until just two years ago, when a man in an audience to which I was speaking mentioned it to me afterwards. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I guess he’s right.” Weirdly, my birthmother has a good sense of humor, too. I’m unclear whether these things are transmitted genetically, but I suspect that if I keep up with my subscription to Reader’s Digest I’ll run across a cover story on just this thing one day.
KCI: When did you start thinking about writing this memoir? How long till you actually started working on it? What (if anything) was the catalyst?
MS: I think I’ve always had it in my heart. Although it was my agent and his wife, Greg and Becky Johnson at Wordserve Literary, who suggested that I write a spiritual memoir two years ago, some part of me knew that it was coming.
Some folks have wondered how memoirists can even remember conversations they had which transpired decades ago. Though I can’t speak for the lot of us, I’ve always been a chronicler. The first chapter of The Girl in the Orange Dress includes my first memoir, at age seven. Who even keeps that stuff? Chroniclers do. At ages nine and ten I was keeping elaborate written records for the Spicy Business club with my girlfriends. In high school I was writing down the weekend mall and parking lot adventures of my group of friends. Later, prayer journals and other diaries quickened my memory of some of the harder periods I’d rather forget.
So when Greg and Becky suggested a memoir, there was no question that it was the right project. On top of the crates of journals and assorted club handbooks, I also had some essays and reflections I’d written for myself in the midst of some of the struggles I describe in the book. As a result, the gathering and ironing happened in just four or five months.
KCI: What was the hardest part of your story to write? Why?
MS: Hmmmm, another good one. I think the most difficult parts were the ones in which I felt I was exposing my parents, both the ones with whom I remain close and also the ones with whom I’m no longer, or never have been, in relationship. This goes for a few other folks in the book as well. I had no interest in hurting anyone, but of course I was very interested in telling a story which was true. So, to tell the truth, in love, was the hardest part.
I was delighted when the reactions of a few of the people closest to me were, “Phew! It could have been worse.” That let me know that although I’d told the truth, I’d also preserved their dignity and reserved the most intimate parts of their stories.
KCI: What was the most fun part?
MS: The most fun part was giving voice to some of the stories I’ve loved telling over the years. I’m thinking particularly of the stories of goofy crushes. Although I changed a lot of people’s names in the book to pseudonyms, wanting to preserve their privacy, one of the names I chose to keep was the guy in college whom I fell in love with at first sight: B-O-B. After behaving like such a dork, I was able to track him down after twenty years and tell him the story from my weird little perspective and ask for his permission to use his name. Being able to act adultish in that exchange felt particularly gratifying.
KCI: Writing is often a process of discovery. Were there any memories or interpretations of past events that took you by surprise when you were writing your story?
MS: Because I’d decided, in my deepest places, that I wasn’t worth loving, a lot of love through the years which had fallen on the rocky soil of my heart had not taken root. The process of returning to those places, sweeping up that scattered love, and receiving it once again felt like a particular privilege.
It was just amazing to recognize how impenetrable my defenses had been as a girl and young woman. We defend ourselves against being hurt, and some of those strategies are just brilliant. I don’t think, in the book, that I mentioned I was a collector of shiny rubber superballs that kids get from vending machines and birthday party goodie bags. At one point my collection exceeded one thousand little spheres. What a perfectly appropriate representation of the shiny rubber façade I’d chosen to protect myself from life’s sharp edges. Other folks choose other defenses, but mine was acting shiny, happy, and resilient. It worked for me. And, of course, eventually it didn’t.
KCI: Your book focuses on your life as the search for a father, for reasons that you make pretty obvious. Did you ever think of writing your life through a different lens? What would that have been?
MS: Actually, the book we’d proposed to InterVarsity Press had been subtitled, “Searching for a Face Which Does Not Fail,” rather than father. When IVP suggested tailoring the story to deal with fatherhood, it was clearly not a stretch. It made a lot of sense, both theologically and personally, so I agreed.
I think each one of us has been born to experience a face which satisfies. We search for it from our earliest moments. The fact is, though, that human faces fail. They just do. We just do. We’re not able to be fully present to others in the ways that human hearts yearn to be seen, and heard, and known. As a mother, now, I wish it were otherwise. The best I can do is to point my own children toward the Face which is able to satisfy their deepest longings.
KCI: And most important, of course: in the movie version of your life, who plays you? Why?
MS: Ooh, this one’s fun! My kiddos are fans of the Disney Channel, so I could easily imagine smiley Miley Cyrus playing the teenage me. They don’t allow too much pain on the Disney Channel, and that’s a lot like the world I’d created for myself in childhood.
Maybe they’d find an unknown actress for adult me. I don’t think I would have concocted the spiritual memoir idea without the partnership of my agent, because in my mind I would have reserved memoir for folks who were already public figures. Apparently, that’s called “autobiography.” The thing that is causing TGITOD to resonate with readers isn’t that my story is particularly unique. Rather, I think readers are hearing chords of their own stories articulated in a way that makes sense to them. So I’d be fine with an as-yet unknown actress because I think the story itself works without the famous figure.
KCI: Any last words?
MS: I’d love to hear from anyone who’s reading the book!
KCI: If you’d like to get in touch with Margot, just click on the contact page of her website: margotstarbuck.com.
And as a final perk…
I’ve got a free copy of The Girl in the Orange Dress to give away to a lucky reader. All you have to do is respond to this blog by Thursday.
(“Pick me, pick me!” would be appropriate if you can’t think of anything else to say. “Kimberlee rocks” would work, too.)
On Thursday night, I’ll take the number of responses and use a random number generator (that would be either my husband or my son) to choose the lucky winner, whose name I’ll announce in Friday’s blog, along with instructions for how to collect your free book.