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Bill Clegg’s ‘Did You Ever Have A Family’ Is Rooted In Community, Forgiveness

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Bill Clegg’s new critically acclaimed novel Did You Ever Have A Family tells the story of June, the only survivor of a house fire, and the people and secrets that surround her and those she loves. After two memoirs about drug addiction and recovery, Clegg turned to familiar territory again, but this time that territory was the experience of growing up in a small Connecticut town. But the seeds for the novel were actually planted some time ago—all the way back when Clegg was writing his first book, Portrait of An Addict As A Young Man.

“I had spent all of my college years and all of my twenties and some of my early thirties actively not remembering where I was from and closing the door on that as best as I could,” he says. “And then here I was in my early thirties writing a memoir and choosing to go back into those memories and to the place of my growing up and it was really the first time that I’d allowed myself to look at it with any seriousness. I just became interested in the town. I saw it with new eyes and all its various layers. At the time, I just opened up a separate file and just started experimenting with voices from the town. I didn’t think it was fiction. I actually thought of it as something that was in service of writing the memoir.”

And then Clegg rounded a corner with that experiment and everything changed.

“I wrote these three words: She will go,” he says. “All I knew was that it was a woman leaving a town like the one that I grew up in and the reasons for that leaving I didn’t understand. But I knew at that point that it was fiction. Something was happening. And then I just kept on going back to it and exploring it and at a certain point it established a center of gravity enough that I could name it as a novel. It wasn’t for a while, at least for a couple of years, before I could name it. It was sort of too big a declaration to make to myself."

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Credit Christian Hansen
Author Bill Clegg

Clegg ultimately spent seven years writing Did You Ever Have A Family, though there were long periods of time when he didn’t work on the book at all.

“Certainly for the first three years it was in fits and starts. And then I would say that it became an obsession,” he says. “I would think about it and wait for the chance to write. I have a day job, so I write on weekends, and in the month of August, which I take a lot of off, or at Christmas. I would think about it a lot and then when I would get to those periods when I could actually write I would just sit at the kitchen table from early in the morning to late at night for many days on end.”

And how long did it take Clegg to tell anyone else that he was writing a novel? Just over three years ago.

“And even then only tentatively. And even then only to close friends and family. And it wasn’t until at least a year and a half after that that I even told my agent,” he says. “Or anybody who would end up becoming connected to it professionally.”

Place figures heavily in the book, particularly the secrets and misunderstandings that are unique to a small town, and Clegg says that as a young reader he was inspired by place as well, although his interests more often ran to the exotic. Places that would take him out of small town Connecticut.

“I was pretty indiscriminate in my reading when I was growing up, mainly because we didn’t have television. I grew up in the woods. It was before the Internet. There were no cell phones. It was a small town in Litchfield County, Connecticut. We didn’t leave it very much. So, anything I could get my hands on [to read, I would],” he says. “I remember reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Susan Cooper and all of these wildly imagined, sprawling allegorical young adult series. So those places, I felt like could see them and they were so fantastical. But I also remember reading Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins when I was in eighth grade and seeing Los Angeles and Beverly Hills and that landscape in a way that I never did before. I didn’t have any access to the stuff of that as a kid. My parents didn’t have magazines like Vanity Fair or The New Yorker or any stuff like that. So I felt like place was important because I was also trying to figure out what the world was like outside of where I was, which seemed so boring and so limited.”

With two memoirs that dealt with addiction and recovery behind him, Clegg says that he doesn’t feel that he has to shy away from issues related to recovery and addiction in his fiction.

“There are definitely components of the story that correspond to experiences that I’ve had—not in terms of the plot—but in terms of things related to guilt," he says. "So I didn’t hold back on what I feel is important to say about those things. Hopefully within the context of what’s logical for these characters and how they would respond to grief and their need for and struggle with forgiveness.”

Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have A Family is out now.

He appears at Watermark Books Thursday, September 24 at 6 p.m.

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Jedd Beaudoin is the host of Strange Currency. Follow him on Twitter @JeddBeaudoin.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.