A Q&A with Sarah M Broom on The Yellow House
One of the most singular non-fiction books of the year so far, Sarah M Broom's National Book Award-winning The Yellow House is an audacious blend of memoir and social history steeped in the rich cultural heritage of New Orleans. In this interview, Sarah offers a fascinating glimpse into her writing process.
Firstly, congratulations Sarah. The Yellow House is such a beautiful and moving testament to your family, to your city of New Orleans, and to your craft as a writer. My first question has to do with your family – as you describe in the book, you are the ‘baby’ of a family of twelve. How did it feel to realise that you were going to be the one to tell your family’s story? How did you navigate that? It seems like it would be daunting and intimidating in any number of ways…
I received quite a bit of early training for this mission, being, from very early on, a nosey child wanting to know and hear everything. I grew up in a magical world, story-telling wise. My work as a child (as I saw it) was to record conversations in detail using only my ears and memory and then go and repeat the conversation verbatim, often spilling secrets in the process. This earned me the nickname, ‘tape- recorder’. When I came around in my adult years to interview my family with an actual recorder, they had already grown accustomed to my listening, which does not mean they were comfortable. Even for me, reporting and writing this book felt like a transgression. We are all still recovering from it, in ways.
Can you describe the process of both excavation and creation that you went through in telling the story of the yellow house and all the stories that it contained? Did it alter your relationship to the idea of identity and truth?
The job of this particular work was that I look at the underbellies of our most vigorous mythologies – family, New Orleans, American… That alone proved difficult, reminding me of how often we look away or give side-eye to the granular detail and truth of worlds that compose our self-identities. The process of reporting – living in the archives, conducting interviews, the physical work of gathering – was, for me, also the creation of a place wherein I was able to examine and explore foundational ideas in a new way. I layered history upon history to see what appeared in the gaps so to speak.
Can you talk about the architecture of your book? The Yellow House is structurally brilliant and unusual – complex and yet sturdy, with plenty of room for you to explore. How much of this did you plan, and how much did you discover as you were writing?
I knew that the architecture of the book would somehow attempt to mirror the architecture of the yellow house. I knew, too, that I needed to find a structure that embodied some of what it means to be from New Orleans. I found it by creating a book in ‘Movements’, which together tell a narrative story of a progression through time and from place to place, and also mirrors how you might experience a large musical piece. But thinking of the book as a house, I thought very much about how the reader might move through the work. When you appear at someone’s house you don’t burst into their bedroom, you pass through the house slowly, seeing some things clearly at first, others as you gain more intimacy, etc. In this way I tried to build thresholds into the work, places where you might slow down, stop and pause, be fed. Ponder. Laugh.
There is a real musicality and syncopation running through the book – it literally feels like a composition. Can you talk about the importance and influence of music to you as a writer? Do you play an instrument?
I do not play an instrument; I wish I did. When I was young, in middle school, I tried to play the clarinet. A teacher discouraged me, and I believed him against my own feeling. Music has a central role in my life. My father and eldest brother were both musicians. I think in music, quite literally. When I am writing, I think a lot about beat and cadence. In The Yellow House, I wanted the sentences to have a musicality as one way of embodying the complicated ways in which New Orleans (as the birthplace of jazz) has composed me.
What do you think draws us to memoir, as readers and as writers? Are there books that perhaps don’t present as memoir but which you think of as such? And what books were particularly valuable to you when writing The Yellow House?
My reading list for writing The Yellow House is more than twenty pages long. I read about place: Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of American Cities, D.J Waldie’s Holy Land are two examples. I love WG Sebald and lived with his books to think about writing about history and place and loss. Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother also taught me about this. I read about homesickness and displacement and duende and every book ever written about New Orleans and its architecture. Of course there were the books (fiction and non) about family by David Grossman, Toni Morrison, Andre Aciman, Nicole Krauss, Joan Didion and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Finally, having written this book, having spent so much time thinking about family and place – how would you answer the age-old question ‘what makes a house a home’?
That’s too individual a question for me to ever answer. I might spend my entire writing life trying to get my arms around that one.
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