An interview with Sarah Einstein, author of Mot: A Memoir

Is Mot: A Memoir a story of friendship or a personal investigation of a broken system? In an interview with author Sarah Einstein, we learn, it’s both.
Sarah Einstein, author of Mot: A Memoir

Sarah Einstein was 40 when she told her then-husband and other family and friends she was headed for Amarillo, Texas to join and camp with a 65-year-old homeless veteran. Mot, whom Einstein met while working in a West Virginia center for adults with mental illnesses, suffers from debilitating delusions, we learn.

After an assault at the center, however, and with recurring questions about the stability of her struggling marriage, Einstein goes on leave from her job, and on retreat from her life, under the guise of researching and possibly writing a book about Mot. Her true intent, though, is to commit herself to this uncommon and unusual friendship, one of mutuality, in which each accepts the other for who they truly are. A gripping and moving portrait of a man, a woman, and a friendship, Mot: A Memoir provokes questions about our beliefs about the mentally ill and sheds light on unspoken biases, fears, and preconceptions.

In addition to Mot: A Memoir, Einstein is the author of Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in journals such as The Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK, and Fried Chicken and Coffee. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net award, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and the Special Projects Editor for Brevity.

You are intentional from the first page of the book about describing your relationship with Mot as a friendship; as opposed to, let’s say, Mot as a subject and you as a researcher or writer, or Mot as a person in need and you the person trying to help him. And yet throughout the book you question this friendship, both its nature and its ability to survive. Is this book more about friendship or commentary on a broken system?

I hope it’s first and foremost a book about friendship, but that it also calls on us to look at the ways a broken system failed my friend and, of course, the millions of other people it fails on a daily basis.

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of writing this book and the timeline of conceptualizing it?

I never actually thought I would write this book, but I had to take notes for it and do some work on it while I was making my visits to Mot out west, because I told everyone — my husband, my family, my friends — that the reason I was making those visits was to research a book.

If you tell people that you’re driving from West Virginia to Texas to spend a week houseguesting with your homeless friend in his homelessness, they will do their best to talk you out of it. If you add “because I’m going to write a book about it,” they will suddenly act like it’s a very good idea, and offer to lend you camping gear and give you twenty bucks for gas money. So, really, the book started out as a way to make the friendship seem plausible to the people in my life who were otherwise suspicious of it, but then when Mot left, I found I had notebooks full of carefully recorded conversations and events. I decided only then to see if I could actually make a book of it all.

The descriptions of Mot, his vernacular, and the details of your travels with Mot are very rich and accessible. As a writer, how do you access memories in such detail? What’s your process in getting those details onto the page? Were you cognizant, too, of not revealing too much too soon?

As I kept very careful notes during my travels with Mot (because I was pretending to write a book), when I actually decided to write one, I had a lot to work with. But I also have this trick — and it’s a weird trick, but it’s useful, so I’d like to share it in case it would also be useful to someone else. To get my memory going, when I’m working on a longer piece, I make a “smell box” for it. Smell is the sense that most actively triggers memory. So, when I was writing this book, I had a shoebox of about 40 baggies filled with things that smelled like parts of our journey: a strip of cloth soaked with the cheap Dollar Store laundry detergent Mot washed his clothes in, lapsang souchong tea for the smell of a campfire, alfalfa tea, a cotton ball sprayed with WD-40. And this was actually incredibly helpful to me when I was stuck on recalling a certain event, or just interrogating my memory for things I might have forgotten.

In the book you seem to imply that this relationship with Mot may be a method of avoiding your indecision and unhappiness with your husband at the the time; however, you don’t delve to deeply into making this a book about your marriage. Was this intentional?

Yes. There was nothing particularly original or enlightening about my lousy marriage. I married a nice enough man because we shared one passion, and then discovered that we disagreed about almost everything else when it came time to decide how we were going to live our life together. It strikes me that probably everyone who has had, and left, at least one relationship has a similar story. My marriage served as a backdrop for my friendship with Mot. If I’d been very happily married, and deeply engaged at home and at work, I wouldn’t have had the time for this particular sort of friendship — and so it’s more context than anything.

“Mot wasn’t violent, and I don’t think there is any hint in the book that he was or had been violent, so I’m always a little confused when readers tell me that they were afraid for me. I’d ask readers to take a close look at where that fear comes from, and to consider whether or not they believe mental illness always makes a person dangerous, and if so, if it is a reasonable thing to believe.”

As a woman, I was very afraid for you when I read this book. I was afraid for you during your work at Friendship Room, and I was afraid for you to be alone with Mot. Do you consider your work at Friendship Room and your friendship and travels with Mot brave acts?

Here is the thing: I was almost never afraid for myself around Mot. (There is one moment in the book, after Mot reveals a pretty devastating truth, where I was briefly afraid. Suffice it to say it was the only time I was afraid, and that fear didn’t last very long.) I was terrified of going to Friendship Room, so it isn’t that I don’t have a healthy sense of self-preservation. There were people who meant me harm at Friendship Room; Mot didn’t mean me harm. He was, really and truly, my friend. But he was also a gentle man by nature. Mot wasn’t violent, and I don’t think there is any hint in the book that he was or had been violent, so I’m always a little confused when readers tell me that they were afraid for me. I’d ask readers to take a close look at where that fear comes from, and to consider whether or not they believe mental illness always makes a person dangerous, and if so, if it is a reasonable thing to believe.

“Don’t overcome your fear of writing your truth in spite of potential fallout. Keep that fear, because you need it. It will guide you to make better decisions about what you do and don’t want to become public knowledge about your private life and the private lives of those around you.”

From the first time I saw it (on Twitter) I loved the cover of the book. Whose idea was it and who designed it?

Mot: A Memoir

Here, I have to make another confession, but I’m glad for a chance to make it! Dinty W. Moore, who has been involved with the writing of this book since the very beginning, found the photo that is the cover for the book and emailed it to me. I sent it on to the University of Georgia Press early in the process. So early, in fact, I forgot that Dinty was the one who found it, and I’ve said in other interviews that I don’t know the provenance of it. This probably makes me the most awful, ungrateful person in the world. It’s the perfect cover for this book, and how awful is it that I forgot where it came from? Pretty awful.

How do you deal with writing about people in your life, past or present? Are hurt feelings or emotions an issue you are concerned about? What is your advice to writers of memoir on how to overcome fear of writing their truth in spite of potential fall out?

My advice would be to not overcome your fear of writing your truth in spite of potential fallout. Be aware, at all times, of any damage you could do and make good, ethical decisions about whether or not that damage outweighs any good that could come of a piece being published. (Here, I assume we’re talking about writing for publication. If we’re talking about writing in a private journal, have at it.)

I’ve heard others urge young writers to write their own truths no matter what — and I think it’s awful advice. It’s the advice that keeps XOJane full of truly horrible self-revelations that do lasting damage to the writer and/or the writer’s friends and family without adding anything of merit to either our understanding of the world or to the world of letters. It’s advice that leads to people losing their jobs, their relationships, and their peace of minds for very little benefit.

So, no. Don’t overcome your fear of writing your truth in spite of potential fallout. Keep that fear, because you need it. It will guide you to make better decisions about what you do and don’t want to become public knowledge about your private life and the private lives of those around you.