Michael Downs’s essay, “Answer When You Can,” appears in the Winter 2023 issue of The Southern Review. Here, he discusses narrative distance, the influence of journalism on memoir, tenderness, and more.
Zach Shultz, editorial assistant: Rereading “Answer When You Can,” I found myself just as moved as the first time I encountered it. The essay springs from a mysterious letter you received decades ago. What made you decide to revisit the letter and write about it now?
Michael Downs: I was cleaning out boxes and came across the letter and remembered when I first received it about thirty years ago. When I rediscovered it in a box, we were coming out of the pandemic, vaccines were just happening, and we could finally go back out into the world. Writing the essay felt like a good way to try to connect with other people through this history, this artifact I didn’t fully understand.
ZS: From the very first line, you set the tone by writing, “When the mysterious envelope arrived in my mailbox, I had just turned twenty-six, for me an age of painful doubt and questioning.” The voice here is compelling because it’s retrospective but not necessarily nostalgic. How did you come to find healing through the voice of retrospection?
MD: I didn’t know what I was going to write when I went out and started trying to find Grandma Russell. But my twenties was a time that was really difficult for me, and I’d never written about it before. I don’t think I had enough narrative distance to write about it. Looking into the origins of the letter led me to think more and more about that time in my life and come to some narrative sense that I was ready to touch that material.
Part of it is that tone that you’re talking about. If you’re too close to the material, the writing can come out like a screaming fit, or you end up sharing too much. I felt like I finally had enough distance from the material to know how much of it to use in order to serve the writing. It was less confessional, less explanation, and more an ability to use it as a tool.
ZS: Since you bring up Grandma Russell, I should mention she’s the author of the mysterious letter, yet you were never the intended recipient. You say that what resonated most about her letter was how she “wrote with tenderness, and that’s what I needed then—even a collateral tenderness.” What is the importance of tenderness in your life, and what is this essay saying about tenderness more broadly?
MD: I have always thought we could be nicer to each other, that we could be kinder to each other, gentler. And I’ve always appreciated gestures of tenderness, gentleness, and kindness. When I was going through that very difficult time in my twenties, it felt good just to know that there was someone out there caring for another person, and I think that’s always something I’m glad to learn. For every day that I read The New York Times, I’m glad to also learn that there’s small tendernesses in the world.
ZS: The letter’s tenderness becomes even more poignant when you realize it’s written to her grandson who has died. I’m curious about what it felt like to track down Grandma Russell’s living relatives. What was it like to go and knock on their door?
There was certainly a thrill to it, but thrills are often scary. So there was a little scariness as well because I didn’t know at that point where it was going to lead. When I’m just looking for the records of someone who has died, or I’m searching a cemetery as I describe earlier in the essay, then I’m dealing with known facts or digging toward the unknown. But when I’ve got a real human being in front of me, anything can happen. It’s actually kind of wonderful.
ZS: You reference your work history as a sports journalist and newsroom reporter. In what ways does journalism and reporting influence your approach to memoir and personal essay?
MD: It does a lot, and always. I remember when I was working on my first book, which I called [a blend of] literary journalism and memoir. At first, I was writing it almost exclusively as literary journalism, and readers, friends, editors all kept saying, “You have to put more of yourself in it.” So I hope now, all these years later, that I’m finding that balance.
I am interested in the world. I do want to know about other people. I do want to care about them and tell their stories. But I have to figure it out, as a person writing memoir, how to do both at the same time. I think all of my nonfiction work is always informed by seeking a balance of memoir and literary journalism.
ZS: For me, this essay strikes that balance. It demonstrates your skill as an investigative journalist by inviting the reader on a journey of discovery, but also the personal aspects are emotionally engaging. The search for the letter’s origin turns into a larger search for meaning and connection. Did you have that idea in mind when you began researching and writing, or did the meaning of your search come as a surprise to you?
MD: No, I had no idea what was coming.
ZS: And that’s the joy of writing, right?
MD: Yes. In fact, when I finally finished it and thought OK, now I have to send it to John’s brother, to Grandma Russell’s other grandson, and I wonder if they are they going to want to read the parts that are about me? But they did, and they were very kind in their responses. I was glad for that.
It’s always hard. You don’t want to enter into someone else’s story as a tool to tell your own; you have to respect both. The test is often left to the other people who are involved in the story or those who know people and love people involved in the story. Do they recognize those other people? Are they on the pages as living, breathing folks? If they are, then I haven’t just used them as a tool to tell my own story, and I feel like maybe I’ve succeeded.
ZS: I agree. This essay succeeds on a number of levels. Another element I love is how expansive it is, spanning thirty years and moving from Connecticut to Arizona to Ohio, and back. What helps guide your writing when covering so much ground in time and place?
One thing that an editor told me once is: Don’t be afraid to be plain when you change time and place. You should really give the reader direction. Open the paragraph with “Six months later,” or “Meanwhile, in Arizona.” I think that simple advice has been really helpful to keep track of things in this essay and to make it easier on the reader to follow when I’m jumping around so much.
ZS: Toward the end, there’s a section where you write letters to some of your deceased friends. The letters seem to offer a way of making amends with your former self. This reminded me of a quote from Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook” that says, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Is this essay an attempt to reckon with and reconcile all the people you used to be?
MD: That’s a great insight. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. I’m aware as a nonfiction writer that the narrator of the piece is not necessarily the character in the piece. The character might be a different version of yourself. When you said, “Making amends with this former version of yourself,” I’ve not thought of it in that way, but you nailed it.
Maybe that goes back to the tenderness. Sometimes we’re not as tender with our former selves as we ought to be. And certainly gaining narrative distance has allowed me to be a bit tender with my younger self.
ZS: Who are you reading these days for inspiration, and what writers do you find yourself constantly returning to?
MD: That’s a tougher question than you might think. Right now, I’m finally reading [Emily St. John Mandel’s] Station Eleven. I’m always late to the books everyone is reading. It’s a good policy because sometimes the books everyone is reading aren’t as good as everyone thought they were in the moment. But Station Eleven is great!
Early in my writing life, I vacuumed up William Kennedy. (I think I read Ironweed five times.) He taught me that a small, northeast, industrial city could be a fascinating world, and that mattered given my relationship with Hartford.
I went through an Edward P. Jones phase, which didn’t take so long because he’s only got the three books—but what books! His stories are impeccable. Their structures are so expansive.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Polish writers. Olga Tokarczuk, Szymborska, Miłosz. A book I’d love to read again is Tales of Galicia by Andrzej Stasiuk. These are linked stories, set in a small town toward the end of the Communist era, about bad tractors and murder and ghosts. Remarkable! Its English translation is out of print, and to read it I had to borrow a copy, then return it. It’s really hard to find.
Lately, too, I’ve been reading flash nonfiction collections to help me better collect my own work. Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling, Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, and Marion Winik’s The Baltimore Book of the Dead are ones I go back to.
ZS: You have written three books: two nonfiction and one story collection. What can readers expect from you next?
MD: I’ve got several projects I’m working on, including a song biography and a book of short stories. I was recently a Fulbright in Krakow, Poland, and I’ve got some short stories that I want to create out of that experience. I also want to finish a book of stand-alone but connected essays. Those are some of my upcoming projects.