Content warning: death in the family, grief.
It's an unimaginable scene: returning home one night in 2007, Andrea Actis entered her Vancouver apartment to discover her father, lying dead. The aftermath and grief of this moment were filtered through Actis' subsequent study of poetics, where she grappled with prevailing theories to find her own path. Through this literary wrestling, Actis gradually re-emerged into the world and herself. As she did so, she gathered together the written leftovers of her father's life, including via his email account (email@example.com): junk mail from scammers, her father's notes about paranormal encounters, and more.
Bringing these texts together with her own dreams and thoughts, Actis created an utterly unique debut collection, Grey All Over (Brick Books).
Praised by Sachiko Murakami as "a book that is, like grief, in turns heartbreaking, wise, chaotic, drunk, wry, and always unflinchingly honest", you can call Grey All Over experimental poetry, a genre-bending memoir, or simply a creative, deeply felt tribute to a complex relationship and a grief that is palpably present on every page.
We're excited to welcome Andrea to Open Book to talk about Grey All Over through our My Story memoir interview. She tells us about the impact of the advice her grandfather gave her to "record everything", how the book became a chance to "remystify" the writing process that she works "hard as a scholar and editor and teacher to demystify", and about the perfect Pink Floyd epigraph that she had to give up.
How did your book project first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?
Around 9pm on December 14, 2007, I had the impulse to turn on my camcorder while my mom and I sat on my dad’s bed trying to process his sudden and unexpected death about eighteen hours earlier. This impulse had started when I was a lot younger, though, maybe nine or ten, and my grandfather, Stefan Horvath, a cinematographer who’d spent his career in communist Romania filming everything from Soviet space-robot features to the bodies of his colleagues beneath the rubble of the 1977 Vrancea earthquake, gave me his own camcorder and told me to likewise “record everything.”
When I began dreaming vividly about my dad in my first year of grad school, I’d wake up in the middle of the night to feverishly peck my dreams out into the Notes app on my phone, desperate to not lose the details of these visitations. These dreams I eventually transcribed, typos and autocorrections and sweet, shameful micro-indicators of my family’s immigrant-working-class whiteness intact, as a parting gift to my therapist when she went on parental leave in 2012. But it wasn’t until 2017, a few months after finishing my PhD and nearing the ten-year anniversary of my dad’s death, that I determined I’d lived long enough, grieved epically enough, and recorded enough of everything to try making a kind of book behind which no part of me could hide.
Is there a question that was central to this project? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?
A really long time ago, I wrote a particularly contortive undergraduate compare/contrast essay on Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. It was the kind of undergraduate essay in which one begins with full libido to sense and situate one’s intellectual soul and tries to pin down way more than one is equipped to. I return to this essay every so often to remind myself both tenderly and critically of my discursive continuities and limitations, which feels important as a ritual toward remaining the kind of honest fool I want to remain. Anyway, it was through this early spell of research into religious and secular conversion that I first learned that the Latin verb confiteri means not merely to confess but to witness, to acknowledge, to corroborate. With Grey All Over, there wasn’t a central question so much as an imperative mode of production: I was required to confess in the most expanded and serious sense of the word. I had to identify with my dad and with all the values and violences he represented if I was ever going to begin to disidentify from him. But I also needed to test out my intuition’s capacity as a material force so much better than, or at least differently useful from, my overeducation in the fields of contemporary poetry and theory. I needed to collect enough evidence to finally mount my personal-injury case against every bad tradition of disinterestedness I’ve inherited, since I find that shit not only boring but triggering.
Did your memoir change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
After gathering materials for about a year, I assembled the book itself over one angry and electric late-summer month shortly after I’d found myself living alone for the first time in a while. It came together quickly and exuberantly, totally remystifying all the processes of literary creation that I work so hard as a scholar and editor and teacher to demystify. I marvelled at it secretly, but I was nevertheless terrified to share it because I really didn’t know what it was or what kind of a poet or person it made me.
From manuscript to final publication, however, the book grew a lot. I had an extremely generous editor in the poet John Barton, who read my original 120-page submission then asked me to send him my dissertation and as much additional dad-ephemera as I could dig up. He considered it, my whole archive, with such empathy and recursive intelligence that, with him as an interlocutor, I was able to accommodate and do a lot more than I’d thought I could ever accommodate or do in one book. It became a bit more narrative—a bit more about the singularity of this alcoholic, alien-obsessed, Italian-Canadian labourer dad of mine named Jeff Actis—yet remained more than enough of an experiment in DBT-ing myself away from dads in general. I was surprised, I guess, that I didn’t have to disappoint myself in any way in the writing or editing of it. My only disappointment was in not being able to use my chosen epigraph, which in the manuscript had been the four-line chorus from Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” (which would have cost like $32398724 to get the rights to use). My partner tells me, only half-jokingly, that the removal of this epigraph completely ruined my book.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
I like pre-dawn, full fleece, and sobriety. I also like to be constantly dissolving a Fisherman’s Friend in my mouth and to feel like I’m running out of time but not in too scary a way.
Did you use any materials, documents, interviews, or other research that became part of the writing process?
My book is made almost entirely of found materials (photos, transcriptions of conversations, screenshots, emails, scans of junk mail and journal pages... there is one poem-poem in it, but even that was repurposed from my dissertation). And I’ve been referring to it as a work of autoconceptualism to get at how it both participates and intervenes in a complex history of certain poetic conceptualisms that, at their whitest, have relied for their “shock and blah” (as Sueyeun Juliette Lee has put it) on the appropriation of histories, bodies, and traumas not belonging to the person recontextualizing and/or remixing them as art. With Grey All Over, I kept to my own histories, bodies, and traumas and I gathered consent from others as necessary. I came out with this thing that’s neither creative writing nor uncreative writing—and that I’m praying doesn’t end up getting read as post-anything either.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?
Of course I’m anxious about it. But I’d have felt a far deadlier kind of anxiety in making public either of the two poetry manuscripts I wrote in my twenties than I do about running naked into the snow with this book.
Andrea Actis was born in Toronto but for most of her life has lived in Vancouver on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations. She teaches writing and literature at Capilano University and from 2015 to 2017 edited The Capilano Review. Grey All Over is her first book.