Helen Peppe’s memoir, Pigs Can’t Swim, is a pinnacle of family dysfunction: funny, heart wrenching, stupefying and sometimes infuriating. Her parents’ insistence on nonsensical rules, old wive’s tales and skewed morals befuddle the youngest child of nine raised in the backwoods of Maine. Here is a girl who is told by her parents that their house is haunted, is convinced she’s to blame when a married man guilts her into performing sexual favors at age 12, and has never purchased anything from a store nor eaten at a restaurant, not even a Burger King, by the time she’s a teen. Her questions about the world were met with “Don’t pester me.” With her mother’s Harlequin romances and Stephen King as her staple reading material, how would she know what normal is? Pigs Can’t Swim is a testament to the human spirit to find the truth, and survive it.
As a fiction writer, I’m often astounded by the stark honesty in certain memoirs, and Pigs Can’t Swim was certainly one of them. I couldn’t wait to talk to Helen about this book and her process.
Honesty in Memoir
Q. Did the fact that family members would read your memoir make it hard to write openly? How did you get past that?
A: I wrote Pigs Can’t Swim for myself, so I didn’t consider what my family would think until the possibility of publishing it was discussed seriously. Once I knew it was going to be public, I then rewrote (at least 5 drafts) it with their potential reaction in mind, specifically my parents’. In addition, I took out many scenes that would hurt my siblings if their kids read the book. I also altered identifying characteristics to protect them. I tried to write the first draft using fake names and that didn’t work because it created too much distance. So then I put in place holders (characteristic or behavioral descriptions). I planned on changing those later, but my editor liked them. We decided it gave the story an everyman-like quality. There were also two legal reads, to protect the publisher against potential lawsuits, which prompted me to change a few things further.
So the short answer is no, not at first, because PIGS was my graduate thesis. However, that changed once I knew that PIGS would be public. I listened to an Alexandra Fuller interview before PIGS was published and she advises writers to write for themselves so that they write freely and honestly. I think that’s good advice.
Once PIGS was published, two siblings tried to incite my parents against me and they wrote negative reviews on Amazon. Two other sisters and a brother supported me from the beginning, and they gave me as much help as they could with memories and facts.
Q. In what ways did writing about your parents change the way you viewed them?
A: Writing about them gave me more compassion for them. When you’re a child, it is all about how unfair everything is and how uncomfortable. As an adult, and after working through my childhood on paper, I was able to see their own struggle.
Q. Part of memoir writing is knowing what to leave out. Are there any stories you chose to omit? Why?
A: YES! I left out A LOT! I made the decision based on how much the scenes would hurt my family and also on whether the scenes would drive the main story. The original PIGS was twice as long.
Vulnerability in Memoir Writing
Q. Did you have to deal with feelings of vulnerability when you knew the book was actually going to be published?
A: Yes! Many times! Usually late at night, I’d wake up and tell Eric (my husband ;)) that I wanted to back out of the contract. I didn’t want to hurt my parents and I didn’t want people to know so much about me. By morning, however, I’d feel a little better. PIGS is written from a child’s perspective and children often think harsh thoughts about their parents. I also didn’t think my parents would understand the literary concept of writing a memoir, the bigger picture. I feared they would only see themselves. The last chapter is meant to show the contrast between a child’s perspective and an adult’s.
Q. You wrote so honestly about what went through your mind as an adolescent being molested by an older man. Did the adult voice (the one that knows it was statutory criminal sexual conduct) get in the way of that honesty?
A: I wrote “The Predators” chapter over and over to get the adult me’s anger (and presence) out of the story. It was the most challenging chapter to write because I wanted to try and find some humor in it, but I didn’t want to be offensive. It was a tough balance because honesty is often offensive. When I was 12, I was so terrified to go out into the barn at night by myself that I would have done anything. My Helpful-Friend [the molester] picked up on that quickly and took advantage. A part of me thought it would all be okay because he wanted to marry me. A 12 year old doesn’t know that the marriage promise is a classic line to lure children and adult women in. I tried hard to capture that innocence. However, the adult me still hopes that my helpful friend suffers for what he did to me. There are days I can convince myself that I should be empathetic and forgive him, but there are far more days, especially when I look at my almost 12 year-old daughter, where I hope he is paying in some way some how.
Q. What do you want people to take away from your memoir?
A: I want them to think about how it might be possible to find humor in the unfairness and craziness of their childhoods and to find compassion for all animals.
Q. As I writer, I wonder if you read the reviews and take things more personally, since the book is not fiction, it’s your life. How do you deal with that?
A: Writers are very sensitive people. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t be able to write about the world and the human condition the way that we do. There are some authors who won’t read reviews so that they don’t get hurt. Many people warned me NOT to read them. Eric warned me and continues to warn me, but I want to know what people are saying.
In the beginning I took every review personally, the positive and the negative, even those on Amazon and Goodreads where it was plain the reader didn’t understand PIGS and didn’t understand the child voice. I am getting used to them now and it is easier to distance myself.
Helen Peppe is a professional writer and photographer (primarily equine). The former editor of Eastern Equerry and Wordplay Magazine, her short stories, articles, and photographs have appeared in a myriad of anthologies, books, and magazines, including Practical Horseman, Equus, American Trakehner, Arabian Horse Times, Dog Fancy, Dog World, Dressage Today, Equine Journal, The Horse, Lynx Eye, Mused Literary Review, Cats Magazine, and The Good Men Project. Several of her short stories and photographs appear in text books and educational media. She is the author of the limited edition Live on Stage: A History of the State Theater and creator of the Maine Stable Guide, published annually 1995-2005. Helen has an M.F.A. in creative writing from the Stonecoast Low-Residency MFA program. Her website is here, and her photography can be found on her Facebook page.
Linda K. Sienkiewicz is the author of the award-winning novel In the Context of Love, a story about one woman’s need to tell the truth without shame.
2016 Sarton Women’s Fiction Finalist
2016 Eric Hoffer Book Award Finalist
2016 Readers’ Favorite Finalist
2016 USA Book News Best Book Finalist
2015 Great Midwest Book Fest Honorable Mention.
“…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” ~ Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of National Book Award Finalist, American Salvage, and critically acclaimed Once Upon a River,and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters