Shane McCrae is the author of several books of poetry, including In the Language of My Captor, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Carlos Williams Award; Sometimes I Never Suffered, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize; and his most recent collection, Cain Named the Animal. McCrae is the recipient of a Whiting Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City. His book Pulling the Chariot of the Sun: A Memoir of a Kidnapping will be published August 1, 2023, by Scribner.
You have previously published eight volumes of poetry, in which autobiographical themes also arise. What were the major differences you found, in terms of composition and approach, when switching to prose for writing a memoir?
Writing prose makes me feel more anxious than writing poetry does. For one thing, by committing to writing prose, one is usually committing--unless one is, say, Homer--to writing more words than one would be likely to write were one to write poetry, and so one is taking responsibility for more words, and giving oneself more opportunities to use the wrong words. That said, because I write traditionally metrical poetry, when I am writing prose I am not writing according to my usual restrictions, and besides taking responsibility for more words, I also find myself terrifyingly free.
Is "Stockholm syndrome" a term that you would find useful to describe your relationship with your grandparents? If not, what other names or metaphors would you be more likely to employ?
No, I would not find the term "Stockholm syndrome" useful to describe my relationship with my grandparents because, although they brainwashed me in other ways, they didn't have to brainwash me into wanting to live with them, since they were my grandparents and I was a toddler. But I'm not sure what words, other than the various forms of the word "kidnap," I would be likely to employ. As for metaphors, well, this isn't really a metaphor, but: in a way, my childhood with my grandparents was similar, I suspect, to most childhoods in which a child lives with their parents. Because they were all I knew, I loved them--or desperately, even suffocatingly, wanted to love them--the way most children love their parents. But I never felt like I was completely theirs.
In the childhood and teenage years that the memoir covers, you had a fairly peripatetic existence. To what extent did the search for a home run in parallel with the search for a stable family?
I don't think I was searching for a stable family--I was just, eventually, looking for my father. Neither was I searching for a home--because I was a minor in their care, I went where my grandparents (at first, and afterwards my grandmother) took me. Even though I knew my grandparents weren't my parents, I didn't think I had the option to live with anybody else, even though I did temporarily--just for a few months--live with my mother when I was a teenager, so I didn't think to search for a different, stable family.
Certain images recur in the book--not always momentous ones, but seemingly everyday ones, like walking out of a fabric store with your grandmother into the rain. How do you account for such particular moments staying at the forefront of your imagination?
I think those images recur largely because I like the music of the recurring; probably, by repeating myself, I'm trying to compensate for the loss of the formal structures I utilize when writing poetry. When I was writing the memoir, I found the most pleasure in trying to compose sentences that were musical, and repetition helped me do so as best I could.
You draw on facts and photographs to support, but more often to contradict, your memory of what happened. Thinking of that online shorthand "IIRC" [if i recall correctly], do you feel it's common to be uncertain when recounting the past? How much does trauma contribute to that ambiguity?
I assume it's common for folks to feel uncertain when they recount the past, though perhaps it's somewhat less common for folks to admit to their uncertainty (which is not at all to suggest that I'm heroic or special for doing so). I suspect trauma contributes significantly to that uncertainty--if one attempts to remember one's life clearly, one risks remembering traumatic events clearly. As every poet knows, a lack of clarity works as a good buffer.
What do you hope that the Greek myth referenced in the title will evoke or call into question for readers?
Well, as stupid as this probably sounds, I chose the phrase "Pulling the Chariot of the Sun" as the title mostly because I thought it sounded nice, but also because it made me think of the Black Sun symbol which is sometimes used by neo-Nazis. So I wasn't actually trying to evoke the Greek myth, though I knew the phrase would evoke the myth for some readers, and that isn't a problem for me. Being a kidnapped child is much more like being the horse that pulls the god's chariot than it is like being the god--one is both responsible for, and hidden from, the light. --Rebecca Foster