This interview was first posted on Moving Target on Jan. 21, 2021. It mysteriously vanished … so here it is again!
Moving Target: I’m pleased to have author Sharon A. Crawford on Moving Target today. Sharon spent 18 years writing and rewriting The Enemies Within Us, her memoir about growing up in Toronto in the 1950s and ’60s.
Sharon, writing a memoir isn’t for the faint of heart. It can take real courage to delve into your own past. What motivated you to write a memoir, and keep working on it all those years?
Sharon: I wanted to tell my story. I just kept changing how I was telling it. Stubbornness, which runs in my family, kept me going. Sometimes I’m like the dog with the bone, and I don’t meat that as an insult to dogs. I love dogs.
Moving Target: Who were you writing for? Family and friends, or the general reading public?
Sharon: Both. Family and friends because they share(d) part of my life, but also the general reading public. Hey, I want lots of people to buy my memoir. We writers have to market our books. But I believe my story is something all readers can relate to.
Moving Target: Where in your life did you begin Sharon’s story and why?
Sharon: The story begins in the Introduction with a quote from the “friend” who spilled the beans about Daddy: “Your dad has cancer.” This took place when I was 10 years old. But the Prelude and the beginning of Chapter 1 set the stage with events that happened when I was around seven years old, events that should have been warnings that not all would be smooth sailing ahead. First, there was the scary walk home with Mom in the Prelude, told from a little girl’s point of view. It is a November evening, with bare tree branches blowing in the wind and shadows in the driveways as background to Sharon’s story.
The mood escalates in Chapter 1 with a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Mom, Daddy and Sharon troop to the door and find a police officer outside with a drunken, bloody, shirtless man. The officer is trying to find where the man lives. The next part of Chapter 1 is a scene in the basement of Sharon’s home where she is helping Daddy make his death weapon—cigarettes (the nicotine kind, not the marijuana kind)—not realizing how lethal they were. I’m making a statement by starting off the story this way: Don’t ever take it for granted that you will be safe from harm, not even in your childhood.
Moving Target: You couldn’t write about everything that went on in Sharon’s life in those years. What were your guidelines for what went in, and what didn’t?
Sharon: A couple of guidelines were purely practical: what wouldn’t fit into the book’s word count and most of what my publisher wanted deleted. Apart from that, the guidelines were anything I knew my family wouldn’t want in or that I figured was inappropriate, not relevant or repetitious. For example, I left out many school incidents and tried to keep to the ones that affected me most deeply.
Moving Target: What were the most challenging, even traumatic, topics that you included?
Sharon: The most challenging was how I dealt with my dad’s illness and how it affected our relationship, especially as my parents had lied about why he had a lung operation just before my 10th birthday. I was left to find out about it a few months later from the Bully. Also dealing with being bullied—more so by a nun at my school than by the Bully who was around my own age. I viewed the nun as the big bad wolf who was out to get me, but the Bully and I were also friends and we did have our good moments as I showed in a few scenes.
It was also challenging to get the story right without upsetting my family. I was glad that I had done a lot of family interviews when I was first started the memoir. A couple of uncles and I took notes, and my journalism background proved to be a big help. One of my cousins, who visited our extended family a lot when she was a kid, had many memories that she shared with me. Another cousin had just done the family tree. And except for the parts about my father’s illness, which I kept serious, I used a lot humour to tell the story.
Moving Target: How did you feel when you were writing about these topics?
Sharon: In some instances I was scared that I was going where I shouldn’t be going, and would have my vulnerabilities revealed. With the nun, I felt I was getting some justice in getting that story into print, and also a feeling of relief.
Moving Target: Writing about family, friends, teachers and neighbours—and their relatives if they are no longer with us—can mean entering dangerous territory. Were you concerned about upsetting people who might not want their stories told or misrepresented?
Sharon: Yes, mainly because the earliest version of my memoir focused on the previous generation, and many of those people now dead. I made the mistake of sending out a chapter focusing on an eccentric aunt (nothing really insulting, and I tried to handle it with humour). I guess it got emailed around because it started a cousin off on a rant after a family funeral. The “rant” had nothing to do with this aunt but with one of the aunt’s siblings who had, shall we say, a “sensitive background.” “If it gets published, are you going to sue me?” I asked the cousin. “No,” she said, “but I will be very angry.” That resonated with me, and I later deleted this chapter.
Around this time, I had done a feedback trade with another writer: I evaluated his short stories and he returned the favour with the earliest version of my memoir. He told me I was writing three stories: historical/social history, family history, and my own story, and I had to narrow my focus to one. I chose my personal story and did my first massive rewrite deleting about half the existing content, and subsequently adding chapters about my personal life.
The Disclaimer at the front of the memoir sums up some other strategies to protect people I know or have known: “To protect the innocent, the guilty, and everybody else, most names have been changed and often only fictitious first names are used. However, I have used real names for my parents, my beloved grandfather’s first name, and for me. Although I refer to the house I grew up in as ‘139,’ without its exact address, all other street names, places and dates are real. Interactions between my parents and me, and with other family members, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc., are as true as my memory recollects. I have taken a bit of liberty with dialogue as that is something you don’t always remember word for word.”
Of course, my cousins recognized many people when they read the published memoir. What one cousin said in an email really heartened me. She said she found the memoir so interesting—because she recognized a lot of people—that she stayed up to 1 a.m. to finish reading it.
And I had no fears that the bullying nun would retaliate because a friend had told me that she had left the convent (which didn’t surprise me), got married, had kids and died. So, unless her ghost is hovering around…
Moving Target: What do you hope readers will take away from The Enemies Within Us?
Sharon: The nostalgia of decades gone by, which can be a welcome distraction in today’s pandemic times. And the humour in situations that a child and a teenager probably wouldn’t find funny at the time. I also want readers to take away hope that they can and will get through ordeals such as cancer because there is joy and humour in just being alive.
I think Shane Joseph, my publisher at Blue Denim Press, summed it up well in a Nov. 24, 2020 post on my Facebook page: “Had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Crawford on her personal memoir of growing up an only child in Toronto in the’50s/’60s and losing both her parents. Her humour and grace in the face of staggering losses is an example to us who struggle under pandemic conditions today. Truly, a book for these times.”
Moving Target: Was writing a memoir a rewarding journey?
Sharon: Yes, in the sense that I was completely engrossed when writing it. And reconnecting with family members and meeting some new ones, particularly in 2003 when I started the research, was particularly rewarding. That 2003 “meeting” turned into a family reunion at one of my cousin’s farms. It almost didn’t happen because that was the summer we had the big power outage in southern Ontario and the northern U.S. But, thankfully, power was restored in time.
The other rewarding thing was the research itself. As a former journalist, I’ve had to do a lot of research, which I enjoyed. So learning more about my family’s background, as well as the social/economic/history of the 1950s and ’60s was extremely rewarding.
Moving Target: Thank you, Sharon! Sharon A. Crawford, a former journalist, also writes the Beyond mystery series and hosts Crime Beat Confidential On thatchannel.com. She teaches fiction and memoir writing; is a member of Crime Writers of Canada, Sisters in Crime and Toronto Heliconian Club; and runs Toronto’s East End Writers’ Group. Her interests include gardening, reading, research, and photography.
Follow Sharon on her memoir website.