When Casey Parks began work on “Diary of a Misfit” in 2009, she thought she was making a documentary film. But the story about Roy Hudgins, a woman who lived as a man in small-town Louisiana, kept stalling on her: She had trouble finding people who knew Roy, or those who did wanted to say only nice things, or the memories played out as the same vignettes: Roy playing the guitar on his front porch; Roy mowing his neighbors’ lawns.
Parks was using all of her vacation time to fly from Portland, where she was a reporter at The Oregonian (and where I was one of her editors for several years), to Louisiana, and not making much headway. She sought funding through a Kickstarter, and applied for grants without success. One of the people who turned her down summarized the problem: “In film, your main character has to have a narrative arc where they change, and your main character doesn’t change. He’d dead, and you don’t have enough to document change.”
Parks needed a different main character, so she suggested her grandmother, who had initially told her about Roy in a show of support when the teenaged Parks told her family she was gay. The funder’s response: “What about you?”
“No, thank you,” Parks told her. “I’m a newspaper journalist. I don’t want to do that.” And she gave up.
The journey from flailing film project to debut book, subtitled “A Memoir and a Mystery,” wound through a graduate program at Columbia University; the deaths of her mother, whose opioid addiction is pivotal to the narrative arc, and her grandmother; and a lot of weepy days in the Portland Community College library. When it was released this summer by Alfred A. Knopf, the New York Times Book Review called it “at once dewy-eyed and diligent, capricious and capacious, empathetic and exacting. It’s as richly textured as a pot of gumbo.”
Parks, who is a Portland-based reporter for The Washington Post, will appear at 10:45 a.m. Saturday at the Portland Book Festival with Jon Mooallem, author of the essay collection Serious Face, and moderator Melissa Febos in a session called “Life Story.” Parks said she is excited not only to be appearing in Portland, but also because it’s her first book festival appearance not to put her in a gay “silo” – her previous festival panels were composed of transgender poets or trans academics. “Not that many people want to go to a trans academic panel,” Parks said. “So I’m excited just to have a different kind of conversation.”
Parks and I talked about her book, writing, identity, mothers and daughters, the South, and what constitutes home. We covered a lot of territory – her comments have been edited for length and clarity.
How and when did you figure out this was not going to be a film documentary, but a book?
Parks: When I got to Columbia, one of my favorite journalists, Andrea Elliott, told me I should take this book-writing class. I told her I don’t have a book idea. She said, “Well what about your documentary? … This is a really great class, people fight to get in, so just do it.”
I thought if I took the class, I could at least come up with an outline for the movie. Once I wrote a couple of chapters, I realized I’m way better at writing than making videos. Once I was bringing in things I knew how to do as a reporter, I realized this medium makes a lot more sense for me.
Your book is about a lot of things — coming out and gender identity, mothers and daughters, faith, the South. I was intrigued by your idea of “home,” for example, when you write about the smell of the South. Is the South always going to be home to you on some level?
I feel that same way about Oregon now, in a less fraught manner. When I fly into PDX and see all the volcanoes and trees, something in me feels automatically calmer, like I’m back where I belong. But it’s a different feeling in Louisiana — a salmon-returning-to-their-stream kind of feeling, but complicated. I feel at home, but also scared a little bit still. I don’t feel calm; I feel almost turbocharged, excited – I’m going to go eat all the shrimp that I want, and I have friends I’m really excited to see. But after I’ve been there a couple of days, I want to get back to my Oregon routine.
But Portland doesn’t feel like my essence the same way Louisiana does. I feel Southern all the time: the way that I talk, the way that I tell stories, the way I dance. It feels like my essential nature. But some of my routine is very Portland now. Louisiana will always shape who I am, and I’ll always feel like I need to go back there to recharge something in me. But at this moment in my life, it makes more sense for me emotionally to live in Portland.
The experts say, when you’re writing a memoir, the place you need to go is the place that makes you uncomfortable. Reading about your relationship with your mom, that had to be hard. Do you think the place that makes you uncomfortable is really where you need to go in order to make the book true?
When I was in that book-writing class, my mom died. My professor wanted me to put my mom in the book, and initially I pushed back. I said, “She doesn’t have anything to do with it. I don’t want to write about her, you just want me to write about her because she died.” He said, “Just try one chapter.”
My mom died right before I was going to graduate. He gave me the summer after I graduated to write the one chapter. I came back to Portland, and I remembered she had gone on that first (reporting) trip with me, but I hadn’t really thought about it in a long time. I wrote in the PCC Cascade library. It took me all summer, and I cried every single day in that library. I feel both grateful and apologetic to those librarians, because they must have wondered what was up. I would show up every morning at eight and just cry half the day.
I had to start thinking back to things I had blocked out, like she didn’t go with me (on subsequent trips) because she was on pain pills, and I had rarely talked about my mother’s pain pill addiction before. I was really embarrassed of it, and I felt I had a wall built up inside myself, and my life was only possible if I kept that wall up. My brother and I had never talked about it. My dad and I barely talked about it; I would just pretend it didn’t exist, and I thought my life was manageable that way. But it came out in other ways, without me really realizing it.
It was extremely painful to write this book. I had never gone to therapy, which I should have done, but I thought of myself as tough and like nothing can harm me, but then it would be affecting me all the time.
Was the book like your therapy in a way?
Yeah, but I don’t know if people recommend that.
It’s very different from writing a newspaper article. I would never write a newspaper article without knowing where I’m going, what I’m going to include, what I’m trying to say. With the book, there’s so many things I didn’t know about myself until I started to write them. So I do think it was like therapy, and like therapy, it made everything feel much worse initially.
One of my friends told me, “I think you’re going to have the life you deserve after this book comes out, and I don’t just mean financially or professionally. Once you deal with a lot of these things, you’re going to be able to be more embodied and happy.” I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but I feel hopeful just kind of hanging onto that.
What would your mom have thought about the book?
Well, I wouldn’t have written it if she were alive — I wouldn’t have written it this way. But I think she would think it’s all true. I didn’t rely on my memories alone; I really tried to report as much as I could. I think she would be proud of me. I think she would feel seen — I showed her in both good and bad ways. It was helpful for me to contextualize her addiction, to go back and understand what led her to here.
As a kid, I did think of it as her personal failure. I thought their poverty was their fault, but going back and seeing the entire Louisiana economy crashed right after I was born — of course, they were poor. Maybe she would feel understood or vindicated. I understand her so much better and have forgiven her for so much from writing the book.
What about grandma? Would she be proud?
Oh, I think she’d feel more betrayed. She was more secretive. She wouldn’t like me putting my mother’s business out there. I don’t think my grandma would be down with that, but I don’t think she would have read it.
Critical reception has been good. What has been the reception in your other communities?
I’ve gotten 20 to 30 emails from gay people in their 70s and 80s. I got one from an 89-year-old woman in Idaho who was with her partner for 65 years and they never came out. Her partner died last year and she decided to come out at 88. She wrote to me about how she never had books that reflected her when she was growing up, and how much it meant to her to read this, and how she could’ve had a life like Roy’s, but she didn’t, because she had this partner. Most of the messages from them have been bittersweet like that. They felt really seen by it and didn’t have that kind of book when they were growing up.
I was just in Nashville and some teenagers told me their parents don’t accept them and they were so excited to meet me. They all wanted pictures with me; a couple of them couldn’t afford books and brought napkins for me to sign — $30 is a lot when you’re a teenager.
I was really nervous that trans people might be upset, because I’m not trans and there could be an appropriation thing or something like that. But I’ve gotten a lot of messages from trans people who were just happy to have the historical context out there. A lot of right-wing groups are framing being transgender like a middle-school fad, when trans people have been around for a very long time. There was a trans doctor in Oregon, Alan Hart, who had a hysterectomy in 1917. People are happy to have some historical context and to see how people lived before them.
How are you finding doing a book tour?
Especially in the South, there is something very gratifying. In Mississippi, the festival forgot to buy my books, but I brought one copy to read from, and I wound up giving it to these teenagers and they were so excited. Even though I wasn’t selling books, they set me up at a signing table and 30 to 40 people came by just to meet and talk to me, even though they couldn’t get a book signed. That’s the moment for me when everything makes sense, because in my day-to-day life, I feel like, “Why did I do this? Why did I just tell everybody my business? Why did I put myself through all of this pain and extra work?”
But then when I go out there and meet people, especially the teenagers or the older people, and they say they see themselves in there or they feel understood or less alone, then it feels like all of this was worth it, because that’s what Roy was for me. One of the girls was crying and telling me her mom didn’t accept her, and she said, “But your mom walked you down the aisle to your wedding. How did you get from that place to here, because I’m really holding out hope that my mom is going to want to walk me down the aisle someday.”
What do you want readers to take from your book? Is it that idea of being seen? Is it the historical context, understanding the South or addiction? All of those?
I think it’s just an empathy for all the communities or types of people involved. When I started working on it in 2009, my goal was to show that Southerners weren’t as stereotypically bigoted as they are sometimes painted, because I found that everyone I met was more complicated than that. I want people to see opioid addicts that same way, or gay people, or trans people; essentially, no one is a monolith and no one is a pure two-dimensional stereotype. I think I was just hoping to write the truth as I experienced it, and hope there were other people who had experienced some versions of those truths.
Some of the people we interviewed were confusing, like a guy who stood up against the preacher, but then was talking badly about his gay neighbor. I wanted to show the world is not all black and white or blue and red.
The same thing applies to regions. When I was first leaving the South for Oregon, I really thought: Louisiana, bad; Oregon, good. That was a big disservice to all the people who’ve been hurt by Oregon over the years. A lot of the reporting I did at The Oregonian showed racism is not just a Louisiana problem. I covered Sweet Cakes — homophobia is not just a Louisiana problem. And Louisiana has a lot to offer, and a lot of people who are really accepting and people who have evolved and people who would help you, even if they’re politically opposed to you. I want people to take away a new understanding of those places.