Literary agent, former drug addict and bestselling memoirist Bill Clegg enters the world of fiction with his debut novel Did You Ever Have a Family, a heartbreaking and searingly honest story of how people deal with tragedy. It has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. Bill Clegg's previous work includes two memoirs: Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Ninety Days. Read more about the author here.
Three words emerged in the course of Bill Clegg's writing process: "She will go."
"I had no idea who 'she' was," says the author, speaking to a crowd of gathered fans at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. But eventually, those three words would form the plotline for his very first novel.
The story itself begins with a bang — literally. With one explosion, two women lose the only family they have left in the world. The characters who tragically die a few pages in, before readers get to know them, were, says Clegg, "dead on arrival." They are skillfully developed after death, through the coping mechanisms of those left behind.
For one of the main characters, June Reid, coping means leaving her sleepy New England town and driving cross-country, finally stopping in the Pacific Northwest.
"The thing about cities is that there's so much possibility for collisions. [In] small towns, all the possibilities are exhausted."
"Eleven years ago, I was in rehab in Portland ... We drove to this whole area, to Astoria and Aberdeen, and I had never been to this part of the world," says Clegg. "There was something so moody and so melancholy about those beaches. When I pictured June driving as far as she could, that felt like the place."
June's desire to escape her small town grew from Clegg's own life. "I actively didn't remember where I was from," he says. "The thing about cities is that there's so much possibility for collisions. [In] small towns, all the possibilities are exhausted."
But a look back at the place where he grew up — the small town of Sharon, CT — developed into the story that is now Did You Ever Have a Family, albeit slowly. He didn't even think of it as a novel-in-progress, but rather an exercise.
"I didn't name it as fiction early. It bubbled up from this fascination with my town," Clegg says. "If you had asked me if I was writing a novel, for the first three and a half years I would have said no. To say that I was writing a novel would have surely stopped the process."
Besides, Clegg is an established literary agent at his own practice and his memoirs of his drug addict days are bestselling. He makes a living representing fiction, but does not consider himself a novelist. If he had to choose his job over writing, he would choose his job.
"With fiction, I didn't quite get how vulnerable it feels," he admits. "The highs are higher and the lows are lower."
"The highs are higher and the lows are lower."
Regardless, Clegg's first foray into writing fiction can be categorized as a resounding success. Told from ten different perspectives over the course of the story, the narrators have ten different ways of processing heartbreak. We see glimpses into what it means to be a mother with no children, an outcast, and utterly alone in a world that seems to have given up on you. If it sounds depressing, it is, but the melancholia is the tone that carries the story and its characters along at an understated pace. At times confusing, often frustrating, Did You Ever Have a Family layers personal tragedy with intriguing plot, culminating in a bittersweet experience.