Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century is truly a wonderful illustration for all family historians grappling with writing their family history. In my review, I give it high praise for taking us on an incredible family journey, demonstrating magnificently, that everyone has a story to tell, both as individuals and as part of a larger community.
I wanted to learn more about how author John Paul Godges dealt with the writing and publishing process of his book, huge stumbling blocks for many family historians. John was kind enough to grant me an interview. In part 1, of this 2 part interview, he answers some questions on his writing process of Oh, Beautiful. In Part 2, John addresses my questions about his choice to self-publish his book.
Lynn: There are several things you accomplished quite successfully in Oh, Beautiful, the first, is the theme. Most family historians lay out their family history in front of them and then try to isolate the theme. Was this the case for you? Did the theme evolve through your interviewing and writing process or did you always know what the theme would be when you started?
John: I had a strong hunch about the theme before I started. This hunch motivated and guided me every step of the way. It was a hypothesis about what it meant to be American, as experienced by my family.
The inspiration for the book was my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1999. In preparation for that event, my siblings assigned me the task of compiling our anniversary tributes to Mom and Dad. Working with all those drafts from my five brothers and sisters turned out to be very revealing, because I saw how each of us was independently grappling with the same mystery of how this man and woman, who were so different in many ways, had nonetheless managed to stay together all those years.
The more I thought about it, the more it dawned on me that the tributes said just as much about us kids as they said about our parents. We kids were just as mystifying in that no matter how different we were from one another—from my Oliver North brother to my Hillary Clinton sister to everyone in between and off the spectrum—we were still so tight-knit. It was a paradox. So I kept wondering about it.
Then I recalled the stories of my grandparents on both sides of the family and how, in each case, they had fought ferociously over the decision to immigrate to America in the first place. Their fights usually had to do with one person wanting desperately to break free from the old country and the other person wanting just as desperately to keep the family intact.
When I looked across the three generations, it struck me that each of us as individuals represented something more than ourselves. Each of us represented something about America. There is this ongoing tension in American life, from one generation to the next, between the quest for individual freedom and yet the clinging to some kind of community integrity. We all struggle to strike a healthy balance between the two. I wanted to explore that idea, and I figured that my own family was a pretty good place to start. So I set out to portray how the all-American battle between the individual and the community plays out right at home.
In retrospect, I can credit my siblings with sending me down this path!
Lynn: Oh, Beautiful is both a family history and a social history, and you managed to balance them both, blending them together so seamlessly not letting one over take the other. Do you have any pointers for the budding family history writer, who may be struggling with incorporating social history into their family history?
John: I’m delighted to hear you say that, because striking the right balance between family history and social history was an ongoing challenge, from creating a structure for the book to developing the interview questions to revising the drafts umpteen times.
The best thing I did for myself, very early on, was to build an outline of chapter titles that reflect personal and national stories at the same time. That’s why the book has chapter titles such as “The Great War,” “Baby Boom,” “Riots,” “Heartland,” “Gay Liberation,” “The Women’s Movement,” and so on. The chapter titles helped focus the research and the writing, reminding me to include the personal details that overlapped with social history and to exclude those that didn’t—and to discuss the relevance of social history that pertained to family history.
The chapter titles reinforced the theme, too, of pairing the individual with the communal. So my advice would be to have a theme and a complementary outline in mind before you start to write. I played with the theme and outline ideas for nearly a year before committing pen to paper. You can always refine the theme and outline as you go along. I certainly did.
Lynn: I have read many books that jumped around and left the reader lost in time, yet Oh, Beautiful transitions effortlessly. Family historians struggle with organizing their own books, moving fluidly from one family to the next, or back and forth in time. Were you conscientious of not losing your reader, what was your tactic for keeping the reader on track?
John: I was very worried about losing the reader, and I’m relieved to hear that the transitions are smooth! The theme and outline served another valuable purpose: They often encouraged me to focus on one major character at a time. Focusing on one person’s story at a time, or at least on one person’s interpretation of things, allowed for consecutive chapters to describe overlapping time periods from different points of view. So even though some of the chapters do overlap in time, each one follows its own internal chronological logic built around the life and perspective of a distinct character. This way, the readers can get to know each character within the context of the others.
One difficulty of using this method is conveying the salience of major family events that affect everyone. Early drafts of the book suffered from too much rehashing of old material by a succession of characters. It took many rewrites to excise needlessly repetitive passages while retaining enough explicit reminders to help readers make the connections.
Another tactic for me was simply to forewarn the readers about overlapping time frames and to explain why they would appear in a particular order. If readers can understand the logical progression up front, it’s much easier for them to stay on track, to sit back, and to appreciate how the story unfolds and how the author delivers on the stated promise.
Lynn: Finally, I believe one of the most difficult tasks family historians face in writing their stories is handling dialog. How to use dialog in a narrative family history, so that it doesn’t cross the line into fiction. How did you approach this in Oh, Beautiful?
John: The spots where dialogue presented the greatest challenges for me were in depicting the people whom I couldn’t interview, particularly my grandparents in their conversations with each other, speaking to each other in Italian or Polish a century ago. There was no way that I could verify the verbatim accuracy of their words or the translations of those words. But some of their children were still alive as I was writing the book, and I could interview them, and I could pass down their own memories of the stories that their parents had shared with them on numerous occasions.
I benefited from the fact that my family has not been in this country very long. We don’t go back to the Mayflower. We don’t even go back to the Civil War. So the stories of immigrants coming to America are still fresh within the living memories of some of the children of those who came.
In some cases, I did have to rely on oral histories that had been passed down multiple generations. At these times, I spoke to as many people who had heard the stories as possible. I asked for corroboration or clarification of various accounts and then compared the oral histories with historical records to correct for naturally foggy reminiscences. Sometimes, the oral histories were incompatible. When there was a credible family consensus about key details, I included them; when there wasn’t, I didn’t.
For good measure, I said a few prayers and lit a few votive candles so that I could be guided, inspired, and enlightened by those who are no longer available to communicate with me in any other way. You could say that I called upon heaven and earth to help me portray the deepest family truths.
Lynn: Your story spans approximately 100 years from your paternal grandfather and maternal great-grandfather to present day. Family historians struggle with stopping their research and writing their stories, they feel the research is never complete and have trouble leaving anything behind. Was this a struggle for you, did you or do you have a desire to go back further in your family history?
John: This was not a struggle, because the story in Oh, Beautiful had distinct parameters from the outset. It had a theme and an outline. If I could just validate the hypothesis behind the theme and do so within the given structure, then the story would hold together. I didn’t feel obligated to learn everything about my family’s past. The book did become much more ambitious than anticipated in terms of fleshing out the skeletal structure, but the theme and outline held steady. They steered me through some rough seas. Fortunately, I was able to uncover the details demanded by the theme and outline.
Lynn: Your parents and siblings are central to this story and clearly, they approve of the book, was this always the case, or did you have to do some convincing? You’ve said in other interviews that your family is talkative, and that made it easier to write this book. However, being talkative and knowing that your story is being shared with world is another matter, how did you handle this?
John: My parents and siblings all read an early draft or two, and I can assure you that they all weighed in with edits! Some passages caused discomfort, especially when they touched on sensitive family matters or raised issues that had not yet been resolved among one another. Rather than deleting those passages, I followed up with certain individuals to ask further questions, and sometimes they followed up with each other. At times, I did need to convince people that readers would empathize with them more if they were a bit more forthcoming or revealing. But more often, my family members came to me to urge that certain details be added to offer a deeper understanding of why things happened the way they did.
I never realized how courageous the people in my family were until I wrote this book. They really opened up and shared their secrets, some that they had never shared before with anyone else, and then they opened up some more when they saw everything in print for the first time. The whole process was like group therapy for all of us. Because everyone was brave enough to take the risk of baring their souls, we came to know one another a lot better through this sort of organized process of collective introspection, and I think we love each other more than ever because of it.
There is an awful lot of pain in this book, and that is intentional. I learned two big lessons while writing this book. The first lesson is that the most important stories of our lives are often never shared simply because the questions are never asked. Young people don’t want to “bother” old people with difficult questions about painful subjects; as a consequence, old people end up thinking that nobody cares about them or the most important parts of their lives. It’s a colossal waste of opportunity, and it’s very sad. The other big lesson is that the most important parts of our lives also happen to be the most painful parts of our lives. When we keep those stories of pain to ourselves, either intentionally or unintentionally, we deny ourselves a great deal of wisdom that we can also pass down to our children.
I decided to share the greatest family pain so that we could impart the greatest family wisdom, mostly for the benefit of the generations to come. My parents and siblings approached the book in this same spirit. It couldn’t have happened otherwise.
Lynn: You are a journalist, and therefore you came to the book publishing world with skills, however many family historians who want to bring their stories to the world, don’t have your writing background or knowledge of the industry, what would be your suggestion to them moving forward?
John: Hire an editor. I hired two, even though I’m a professional editor. My skills were in journalism, but I’d never taken a class in creative writing. Both editors I hired had a fair amount of experience as creative writing instructors at colleges or universities. This was crucial for helping me hone my writing skills. But even if I’d had creative writing experience, writing about one’s own family truly stretches one’s capacity for objectivity. You’re just too close to the subject matter to see it how others see it. So hire an editor.
The first editor I hired was mostly for developmental editing. He looked at the first draft and pointed out the imbalances: Some things needed to be expanded, some things needed to be shortened or deleted, and some characters needed to be developed a lot more to match the development of other characters. He didn’t edit a word. He just gave me a blistering ten-page, single-spaced critique and then sent me back to the drawing board. He was correct about nearly everything.
I hired my second editor at the moment that I thought I was almost ready to publish the book. I felt that the manuscript was in pretty darn good shape and that it needed nothing more than a good proofread. Boy, was I wrong. I also asked this editor to let me know anything that I could do to make the story more engaging for the largest possible readership. She came back telling me that, lo and behold, the manuscript was technically flawless; it didn’t even need a proofread. However, it was artistically lacking. She kept hammering away at the message that solid journalism wasn’t good enough—that getting the facts and figures straight and presenting them accurately in the clearest and most concise way was not sufficient. People want to become emotionally involved with a good story, she stressed. And then it finally hit me, “Wow, nobody wants to read a 500-page magazine article!”
This editor taught me how to write in a whole new way. How to emphasize feelings, not just the facts. How to write for all five senses. How to use metaphors and similes to underscore the theme and to elevate the story to a level of universal significance. Good, objective journalism can do some of that some of the time, but not to the extent required by a good book. I rewrote every page of the book. This editor didn’t edit, either. She taught me how to do it myself—and how to become a better writer.
So my advice would be to hire an editor, preferably someone who has worked as a creative writing instructor at a local university or college. A good editor, like a good professor, knows how to take the student to the next step, whatever that might be.
(Watch for Part 2 of my interview, John answers my questions regarding publishing. In the meantime, you can purchase John's book, Oh, Beautiful: An American Family in the 20th Century or visit his website www.johnpaulgodges.com for more details on the author and his book.)