It would be a shame if Cyra McFadden were known only for "The Serial," her satirical look at life in Marin County in the late 1970s. Fortunately, many people are aware that she also wrote a family memoir, "Rain or Shine," published in 1986. This excellent book deserves to be even more widely read.
McFadden, 57, who lives in San Francisco, came to UC Davis last week as part of the ongoing summer "Literature of Northern California" series featuring women writers. She was supposed to talk about "The Western Sensibility" but I for one am very glad she changed her topic to discuss autobiographical writing.
"The subject preoccupied me for years," she told the audience. "Rain or Shine" was intended to be a straight biography of her father, Cy Taillon, a handsome, egocentric rodeo announcer famous in the Western United States, but the book, she said, insisted upon changing direction and became the story of her parents' troubled marriage and her own childhood on the road.
McFadden recalled with pleasure a review of "Rain and Shine" that began: "All families are strange, but Cyra McFadden's was stranger than most."
"I loved the hell-raising gypsy who had disappeared, as the years went by, behind reputation and money, the stability of his second marriage and his increasingly John Wayne-like views of how the world should work," she wrote about her father.
In writing her book, McFadden tried to do several things. She wrote about her father's exotic career and his devotion to the sport of rodeo, the American West that he knew and loved, and she also tried to resolve their stormy relationship.
"He wanted to shape me (he invented her name, for instance) but I inherited his stubbornness and fought him tooth and nail," she said.
McFadden, a well-known freelance journalist who wrote a column for the San Francisco Examiner for seven years, says publishers frequently ask her to review memoirs and family histories. So many of these books have come across her desk in recent months and years that she has concluded a publishing trend is taking place.
"Women insist that their own voices are important and need to be heard," she said. Women who have written memoirs recently include Mary Tyler Moor, Mary Karr, Mary Gordon, Mary Kay Blakely, Kim Barnes, Gloria Steinem and Carolyn See.
"An impulse toward self-examination seems to visit a great many writers in mid-life," she said, "because we cannot fire or be fired by our parents...and our compassionate acceptance of them is necessary for us to change."
Other powerful memoirs like Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" or Anne Frank's diary offer a window to a large world stage, which we can enter on an emotional level by reading a family history.
McFadden praised the power of the first person voice to tell a compelling story. That story may be, from time to time, factually in error but it is emotionally vivid. Part of the memoir process is the retrieval of memory, memories that seem accurate but may not be literal. That's OK, she says.
"I write in order to find out what I know," she says, quoting Patricia Hampl. She urges writers and non-writers to preserve family histories by writing them down. Electronic mail and video cameras aren't the same.
"The mail was delivered twice a day when I was growing up," she said. "Everyone wrote letters."
The basic problem she faced in writing "Rain or Shine" was not the material or lack of it but the fear that she had no right to write about herself, that it was conceited and unseemly.
"I wanted to write 'Rain or Shine' as a novel. My editor said absolutely not. No one would believe it."
McFadden then wrote her story as truthfully as memory would allow, using first-person language effectively and well. In the course of writing the book, both her mother and father died. And when the book was finally published her two half-brothers, Cy's sons, had fits.
"One never spoke to me again, the other came around in time even though it nearly killed him," she said. That's a price to be paid: coming to grips with one set of relatives and alienating another set.
The next in the women writers series will be Alice Adams on July 10 at 7:30 p.m. in the Alumni and Visitors' Center on the UC Davis campus.