March 10, 2013

Author Q & A: Fine, By Me

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

As do many authors, Katherine Lippa has carried her book around in her head for many years.

It began five or six years ago when her mother informed Lippa that she had found her childhood journal.

"The first thing I said was, 'Did you read it?'

"And she said, 'Of course I did. You've got to write a book."'

And so she did. Her book, "Hiding in Water: A Memoir Based Mostly in Reality," is at times a funny and at other times a harrowing account of her childhood in South Portland.

As she explains in the book, in the years before she was born, Lippa's father co-founded a group in which participants believed they could levitate and move buildings with their minds. His parenting style was based on the idea that people have psychic nature and that with training, a child can harness and build on those abilities.

It was, needless to say, a bizarre childhood -- and not always great. Lippa debated calling her book "Memories of an Invisible Girl," because that's how she felt as a child. Turns out, she realized that she wasn't invisible as much as she was hiding.

Lippa, who turns 40 this spring, has taken most of her adult life coming to terms with her upbringing and family dynamics. For many years, she lived as far away from Maine as she could -- all the way to California to pursue her dream of acting. Once she finally returned home and made peace with her past, the book presented itself.

We spoke at the Portland Public Library early last week. 

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: I felt like mine was a unique slant on a universal story. In some ways, I was just a kid growing up in the '80s, enjoying reruns of "The Brady Bunch" and worrying too much about the possible effects of the Cold War. But I had this father who claimed to be a prophet from another planet and who told me that I had superhuman powers. It became an extreme symbol of what we all experience.

So many of us learn as children what we think the world is like, and then we spend the rest of our lives looking for supporting evidence. It's those moments when we realize that things aren't what they seem that throw us for a loop. That's what I wanted to write about: Reconciling belief with reality and learning to accept, with compassion and humor, that life isn't black and white. 

Q: You included some very personal moments in here. Why? And what was it like to write some of those chapters?

A: I've always had a "go big or go home" attitude about the things I create, whether it's something I'm writing or a staged piece I'm performing, or even a painting -- though I don't consider myself a painter, and if you saw my work, you'd likely agree. I did struggle, however, with including some of the more personal scenes. It's my life, and now it's out there for people to read and evaluate. More than that, even though the story is about me, it does speak of others who didn't necessarily bargain for a memoir in their futures. Ultimately, I decided that a large part of the book and my reasons for writing it wouldn't make sense unless I included those portions.

Writing those scenes wasn't as tough as I thought it would be, but editing was a challenge. It was important to me to read and re-read those scenes so that I could imagine myself as a person who might pick up this book. There's no need to bombard a reader with graphic images, but there is a need to be clear. When it came down to it, I felt proud of myself for being able to craft those scenes in artful ways that aren't too explicit but remain honest. 

Q: I'm interested in your childhood. The book is very funny in that regard. What was it like coming of age in a household in which the father claims to be a prophet? Not every kid can make that claim, you know.

A: At the time, I felt very special. After all, my father was a prophet from another planet. That meant that I was the daughter of a prophet from another planet. I didn't quite get why the other kids didn't think I was absolutely fabulous, but I regarded myself quite highly. I do look back and consider that part of the reason I spent so much time alone is because it was much more pleasant to live in the belief that I had special powers handed down by my father than to live in a world in which I had limited, if any, control. 

Q: As a follow-up, tell us more about your dad and his beliefs. Details, please.

A: A lot of my father's beliefs were born out of the '60s thought-revolution. Much of what he says goes back to the teachings of Sufi Sam, a wealthy Jewish kid who let go of his earthly possessions and started doing dances for peace in San Francisco. My father took things a bit further, offering teachings, as he says, "to assist all people in their growth and development of living."

He never was able to form the kind of movement I think he wanted to, but he still teaches classes, and he has a website with audio downloads, meditations and what he calls "learning opportunities." I have some mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, some of what he says does resonate with me, and, in general, I have a "whatever gets you through" attitude when it comes to people's beliefs. On the other hand, I have sometimes wished that we could have even one conversation that doesn't include talking about levitation or how "we all came from the stars."

Q: There is humor throughout this book, as the subtitle implies: "A Memoir Based Mostly in Reality." But there also seems to be a serious agenda. What is your goal with this book? Who are you hoping to reach, and what is your underlying message?

A: Some years ago, I started considering the question: What do I stand for? What I realized is that I stand for healing through humor. I believe that the best we can do is to approach others and ourselves with honesty and compassion, and having a sense of humor helps with that. It's so easy to get mired down in life. Life is hard. Life is a struggle. But sometimes we make things much worse than they need to be. At least I know I do, and I suspect I'm not alone. If we've got food in the refrigerator and a roof over our heads, we're doing better than about 75 percent of the world, so we may as well see the positive in things.

I don't at all mean to diminish anyone's life experience, and I certainly don't do that with the book. But my goal in writing it is to perhaps provide a little humor and healing to others who have faced similar or equivalent extremes. 

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in South Portland. I went to Helena H. Dyer Elementary School, Memorial Middle School and South Portland High School. I was a Red Riot, though I think I perhaps attended two sporting events in my entire high school tenure. 

Q: Without giving away the story, what can you tell us about the unforgivable tragedy that caused you to doubt your powers?

A: Ah, that's a tricky one because, as you know, that makes up an important part of the book. What I can say is this: Many children believe they have powers beyond human abilities. I think it's a natural way in which children cope with not being able to control even the simplest of things: What we eat, where we live, whether or not Mom and Dad get a divorce. Mine was just a really, really, really extreme example. Not only did I believe I had the power to cause things to happen, but I believed I had the power to grant life or death. 

Q: You seem to have a fascination with Samantha Smith and Anne Frank. Explain.

A: I just admire them both so much. As a child, I certainly wanted to have an impact on the world as they did, but as an adult, I view them as symbols of strength and integrity. Every moment in my life, from birth until adulthood, has led to my having this conversation with you. Every moment of the lives of your readers has led them to read these words.

In that way, everything we do affects everything else, and everyone is connected. As I said, I do have some present-day influence from my father. Samantha Smith and Anne Frank had such positive influences on the world, in ways that sometimes we don't even consider. Anne helped put a human face on individuals who went through the Holocaust. She was part of why we say, "Never forget." Samantha Smith helped put a human face on our Russian neighbors during a time when the world was literally being threatened by nuclear annihilation. Sometimes the smallest things and the youngest people can have a ripple effect that influences generations. They did that. 

Q: Talk a little about memoir writing. This is new for you. What was it like? What did you enjoy about the process? What were the challenges?

A: As far as the initial writing, I enjoyed every part of the process except the fact that I would often sit for hours in the same position and get some intense neck aches. Apparently, I am too frugal to go ergonomic. Every morning, I woke up excited to write. Writing a book is something I had wanted to do since I was 8 years old, and I realized that by doing so, I was creating the Big Life I had always dreamt of for myself. It has been incredibly fulfilling. The biggest challenges have actually come of late. I wrote. I edited. I'm getting excellent feedback.

Still, I'm finding that there is a lot of neurosis involved in putting myself out there for anyone to see. People have told me that they "really like" or even "love" what I've written. On the other hand, a few days ago, someone said to me, "I liked your book," and for two hours, I thought to myself: "She didn't say she really liked it. Maybe it's not very good." I mean, that's a level of inner critic for which I am glad I can maintain a sense of humor. That's what I call "First World" problems.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes

 

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