Author Timothy Curtin was a volunteer advocate for the poor before finding his life’s work in unionizing factory workers. A long-time writer, Tim has written about politics and the status quo, and his short stories can be found in three volumes of Keystrokes, an ongoing publication of Oak Park Writers Group. A series of essays about his experiences growing up became the basis for the memoir My Five & Ten Cent Life (2018).
How would you describe My Five & Ten Cent Life?
The book is a memoir of my teenage years growing up in a small town in Southern Wisconsin in the early 1960s. It’s a story of survival of me and my family who were thrust into a hostile environment we were not prepared for.
When readers turn the last page in the book, what do you hope they take away from it?
I want the readers to understand how difficult it was to have lived in such an environment. Also, it was a cold, sterile place in which I was forced to invent my own limited world of enjoyment through an occasional escape or by tricking those around me.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Writing a memoir takes more thought than anything else. No two people remember events exactly the same way because everyone experiences things slightly differently based on their previous experiences and memories. It took me ten years to understand what had happened and why. As the only son, my experiences and memories are very different from my three sisters. They are all angry at what I wrote about the actions and motives of my parents.
What prompted the push to begin your memoir?
I had the opportunity to visit this small town again approximately twelve years ago. At the time I was thinking only of a short story about getting revenge from this town for what they had done to my family all those years ago. Over time, I plowed further and further back and ultimately the idea of the memoir took root.
Tell us how the book came together.
It took ten years to write. The process of rewriting was handled by submitting each story to the Oak Park Writers Group in Illinois. They would discuss it, critique it and then I would rewrite it again. I hired an expert for final editing and layout in the winter of 2017, and the book was self-published in early 2018.
Was there anything surprising you discovered while doing research for the book?
I discovered things about myself that I didn’t know. I realized I took an incredible amount of chances with my life in those days largely because I didn’t see any better choices. I also learned about the incredible sacrifices my parents made to help their family and the indignities they suffered at the hands of local people.
What was the most rewarding aspect of writing My Five & Ten Cent Life?
Finishing the book and seeing my hard work in print has been rewarding. I don’t know if this is true for all writers, but I write because I have to tell my story my way. Otherwise, the story is incomplete or not entirely true. It is a labor of love. Writing is mental exercise and is a form of working out.
In a memoir, does a writer’s responsibility lie with the truth of the facts or with the perception/feelings about what occurred?
You cannot separate this answer as either/or. The writer’s responsibility must lie with his memories of the facts because you cannot honestly have a memoir without truth. What happened over time, however, was those memories and what they meant then and what they mean to me now changed because I’m much older and my perception about what happened evolved over time.
What first inspired you to become a writer?
My mother inspired me to become a writer. I have always written, but the bulk of my writing had to do with politics of the day and my anger and frustrations with the status quo. That took me into independent politics as a candidate.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m currently writing essays on the need for alternative energy, such as solar power for New Mexico. I’m also deep into writing my second book which is more of an autobiography.
Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
I strongly believe that everyone, if they dig deep enough, has a story to tell. Tell it and it will set your mind and spirit free.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.