Saturday, October 1, 2011

Sean Wilsey on His Memoir "Oh the Glory of It All"

(This interview originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger in June 2005)

In his debut nonfiction book “Oh the Glory of It All”(Penguin Press, $25), Sean Wilsey recounts an idyllic childhood growing up in extreme wealth that is shattered by a vicious divorce. It is a beautifully written, horrific coming-of-age story scripted as black comedy, with over-the-top parents, an evil stepmother and and reform schools that crowd the road to adulthood.

Wilsey’s father Al is a San Francisco real estate entrepreneur and serial philanderer who pilots his own helicopter. His mother is a society columnist. The father divorces the mother and marries her socialite best friend Dede, who sets out on a path to destroy Wilsey’s preteen self-esteem and any intimacy he has with his father. Wilsey’s mother, the eccentric Pat Montandon, remakes herself into a world peace advocate, dragging Wilsey’s and a troop of children around the world to meet world leaders in the USSR , China and elsewhere. She also urges him to commit suicide with her while his stepmother terrorizes him. He is sent to St. Mark’s School, an Eastern boarding school famed for hazing, where he learns the tools of cruelty. Wilsey winds up in a series of expensive reform schools. One named Cascade in California almost destroys him. The last one, a school in Italy called Amity, saves him. Wilsey handles each absurd and brutal situation with wit and deft writing, bringing to mind Robert Graves’ brilliant memoir “Goodbye to All That.”

Wilsey, 35, was raised in San Francisco and educated at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He worked at The New Yorker and was one of the founding editors of the literary magazine McSweeney’s. Wilsey lives in Manhattan with his wife, the writer Daphne Beal, and his son Owen, where he spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley.

Q. How did you start the memoir?

A. It was 1997 and I was having coffee with Daphne and two of her friends that I didn’t know that well. I had never really talked about my life that much. Something sparked a story about my school in Italy. I launched into this story. An hour later, everybody was like, “No way!” After that meeting, Daphne very kindly said, “Those stories kind of spring up and take over the conversation. You should write them down.” I ended up writing the chapter that became the Amity chapter in the book, that was probably the most difficult chapter to write. After I wrote the chapter on Cascade, I realized it would make a good late chapter in a book. It makes no sense without the history that led up to it. I started writing more about my family.

Q. Your parents provided you with psychiatrists’ records, photos and videotapes, much of which did not portray themselves in a very good light. How did you use this material?

A. I could never have written the book without my father. He gave me invaluable material. In writing a memoir, my first inclination was to write just from my memory. Then I realized that I had a responsibility too find these videotapes from my mother’s peace trips, because they existed. In every situation, where I could watch a videotape, I did. There were thousands of hours of videos. It was exhausting.

Q. Your father was this much larger-than-life figure, and egg-and-butter tycoon and real estate developer. How would you describe your relationship?

A. I still have a lot of affection for my father. He represents something that I was never able to hold on to. I wanted a relationship with him so much, all the way up until he died. In some way, it was a great relief when he died, for my vain efforts could then end. I’ve just never been able to understand the man. I’ve had to put together a picture of him based on what I’ve seen him do and how he behaved around me. He was really an enigmatic figure. He made a big impression on a lot of people. He would have made a fantastic politician, if there hadn’t been so many skeletons in the closet.

Q. Why did your initially close relationship with Dede Wilsey fall apart?

A. As soon as she married Dad, she just changed. I was no longer of any use to her. It was in her best interest to have me loving her before they got married. I did love her. She became really controlling.

Q. You start out the book as a puppy dog preteen, eager to please his parents, and you evolve into an aspiring juvenile delinquent. How did this happen?

A. I think it was the environment at St. Mark’s that really made me change. I had been a “trying-hard-to-please” teenager up until I got to St. Mark’s. At St. Mark’s, it was so evident that no one had your best interests at heart. It was dog-eat-dog there. If you didn’t know how to operate in that world, you were going to get hazed and destroyed. My first year was very hard, but then I started turning on people myself. Did they send me to St. Mark’s to make me one of them? That’s why I went. I thought, if this is what they need, I will give it a shot. It became evident that I was never going to become one of them without totally losing myself.

Q. You went to two expensive reform-like schools, Cascade and Amity, where they break down students to bring them up. How were they different?

A. At Cascade, they were running a big program there, with a 100-plus students. They ran it like a factory. The thing with Amity was that it was really small. I was the seventh student there. You ended up making a personal connection with the people there. A lot of people didn’t want to be part of Amity’s strange family, but I was up for it. I knew they were sincere. When Amity got a lot bigger, it spun out of control.

I don’t really believe that it is possible to pay people to fix your children. That said, I do think it is possible to use money and to use caring people paid with that money to do good things to help children. I don’t think you can write a check, send a child off and it is going to work. It is a crapshoot.

Q. In your wild teen years, you’d routinely steal your mother’s car. How did you do this?

A. She kept a wig in the car for any kind of glamour emergencies. It was the perfect way of taking the car out of the garage because the doorman would see a blonde head driving out of the garage. Who else would it be?

Q. The writer Amy Bloom recently said that the danger with memoirs is that the writers often give themselves the best lines. Do you think that is true?

A. Oh sure. My policy was to make sure that I made myself look as craven and as silly as possible. There have been some reviews that have said things like “This guy is totally malevolent.” It kind of hurt my feelings, but it was only fair to possibly let people come to those conclusions. I was definitely a jerk and did some cruel things. I did steal naked pictures of my mother and show them to my friends, but let’s move on from this.

Q. Dede became this great evil character in the book. Do you think there was a revenge element to writing the memoir?

A. She was a great character. As far as revenge? No. I really tried to be evenhanded about her. This book was an effort to put my life in perspective The only way to do this was to write it out as it happened. (The writer) Armistead Maupin called my book “a kindly act of retribution,” which shocked me, because I don’t think of it as retribution, but that is a beautiful phrase.

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