How can two people write a memoir? In this interview for the online magazine COMPULSIVE READER, married couple Eileen McKenna and Marty Neumeier, “Les Américains,” talk about how they balanced complementary talents to write their popular travel memoir, BEGINNING FRENCH.
Q: First off, why did you write the book?
Marty: Eileen hints at the answer on the very first page: After ten years of owning a house in France, we simply wanted to share our experiences with our friends.
Eileen: There was actually a little more to it than that. We wanted to introduce people to an underappreciated part of France. Everyone knows Paris, Provence, the Côte d’Azur, and the Loire Valley. These are on the tourist map. But the Dordogne isn’t. Because of that, it has a very special charm. And we did want to create a family document. Even if brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews can’t join us physically, they can participate emotionally through the book.
Marty: We also wrote it to learn about ourselves. A memoir is a mirror—you gaze more intently when you’re painting a self-portrait. We thought if we painted that portrait honestly we might reveal something universal.
Q: What do you think you revealed?
Eileen: That a relationship—whether with a partner or a house—takes mutual appreciation and understanding. The ups and downs of any adventure go better with laughter (and the occasional glass of rosé!).
Marty: I think we revealed the nature of dreams. There’s an old Joni Mitchell song that says dreams can lose their grandeur coming true. Well, they can also morph into something you didn’t anticipate, and that something can be more valuable than what you were dreaming of. The lesson I took was, Be careful what you wish for, but be ready to appreciate what you actually get.
Q: Let’s talk about process. How did you go about the writing?
Marty: At first we were stumped by the question of vantage point. Is it possible to tell a story as “we”? Is there such a thing as first person plural? How do you create intimacy with the reader if you have to average your thoughts? If you say, “We both thought X,” the story immediately gets dry and distant. If you veer into third person—“Eileen lit the candles while Marty poured the wine”—it suddenly becomes awkward.
Eileen: One idea was to take turns, each of us writing chapters in our own voice.
But that seemed unnecessarily complicated. The breakthrough came when we considered our individual strengths. Marty is good with words and sentences. He’s already written six books and edited a magazine. He’s a much faster writer than I am. I agonize over every word.
Marty: I love the challenge of crafting words into lines, then shaping those lines into paragraphs and chapters. I get a zen-like pleasure from it. It feels like building a beautiful wall, stone by stone. Eileen is the architect of the wall.
Eileen: I spent many hours in the library as a child. My memory is full of characters, and themes. I bring two strengths to the process: memory and plot—what happened and when. I think in stories.
Marty: Eileen always knows where the plot should go next. And she’s got a great ear for words. I’m sure it comes from so much reading. And she remembers everything, including what people say. At times this has been a problem for me, because I often talk before I think! On the other hand, the ability to remember is essential in writing a memoir. We really do have complementary skills. In the prologue of the story, she sums up our whole process in ten words:
“How can two people write a book?”
“Same way we do everything,” she says, her smile broadening into a miniature Milky Way. “You’ll drive and I’ll navigate.”
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