A Mother's Memoir Of A Child She Never Knew Fiction writer Elizabeth McCracken thought she would never write a memoir; too often, she says, memoirs center on "the worst thing that ever happened to" an author. But when her first child died in utero just days before he was due to be born, McCracken realized she needed to write about it.
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A Mother's Memoir Of A Child She Never Knew

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A Mother's Memoir Of A Child She Never Knew

A Mother's Memoir Of A Child She Never Knew

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As longtime listeners know, this program works to help you find books that slip under the radar. Librarian Nancy Pearl gave us a pile of them yesterday, and this morning, we have one more. It's a book from this past year by Elizabeth McCracken, called "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination." NPR's Lynn Neary describes it as a beautifully written book about McCracken's first child, who was stillborn. Lynn visited McCracken and her family and has the story.

LYNN NEARY: A fiction writer, Elizabeth McCracken thought she would never write a memoir.

Ms. ELIZABETH MCCRACKEN (Author, "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination"): And I probably, especially had some scorn for memoirs that were about the worst thing that ever happened to you. Then something really, really bad happened to me, and I realized that I needed to write about it.

(Soundbite of sneezing)

NEARY: As McCracken talks, her 2-week-old daughter, Matilda, sleeps in her arms and - as newborns are wont to do - wakes up every now and then.

(Soundbite of baby cooing)

Ms. MCCRACKEN: Oh, yes.

(Soundbite of coughing)

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. MCCRACKEN: Oh, Matilda. Hard to be a baby; it's very difficult work sometimes.

NEARY: Matilda is McCracken's third child with her husband, Edward Carey. Their first died inside McCracken's womb in April 2006. McCracken and Carey are very clear on the number of children they've had. If a stranger asks on the street or in a store, they might say, we have two, but to them, it is unquestionably three. In large part, it was the need to hold onto the reality of their firstborn that led McCracken to write the book. It poured out of her in several weeks after the birth of their son, Gus, a time of conflicting and complex emotions.

Ms. MCCRACKEN: I was worried about my grief for the first child somehow interfering with my love for Gus, but I was also very worried about the other, that somehow it was disloyal to my first child to pretend that now, everything was all right, that this new and fantastic baby somehow meant that that first death was not as deep a sorrow as it was.

NEARY: McCracken and Carey, who is also a writer, were living in France during her first pregnancy. They had settled in an old farmhouse near Bordeaux, working on their writing and getting ready for the next stage of their life to begin. But just before the baby was due, it became clear that something had gone wrong. When a sonogram confirmed that the baby was dead, McCracken learned that she would still have to deliver her child, a delivery that was delayed for 36 hours so that doctors could do tests to find out what had caused the death.

Ms. MCCRACKEN: The day delay was kind of amazing to me. But the worst thing had already happened; the fact that my child had died was the worst thing. And so, I sort of thought, well, you know, if he has to be delivered, he has to be delivered, and you know, it did seem sort of like the last thing that I could do for him.

NEARY: At one point, McCracken and Carey left the hospital and went to a cafe, McCracken still looking heavily pregnant. Here, McCracken reads from that section of the book.

Ms. MCCRACKEN: (Reading) There was no oxygen in that little plaza in Bordeaux; Edward and I both felt it. I could not look anyone in the eye, lest they smile and ask me about my baby. This was a mistake, said Edward; we don't belong here - meaning out in the world. We'd escaped, but where could we go with me in my condition? Time had bent again. Time had developed a serious kink. Our old life, the one where we planned our existence around the son we were expecting, had ended, but our new life, the one where we tried to figure out how to live without him, couldn't start yet.

NEARY: The baby who died had a name. During the pregnancy, McCracken and Carey had been calling him Pudding. And in the end, Carey says, they made that official.

Mr. EDWARD CAREY (Writer): You know, we had a couple of names that we were possibly going to call him, but he'd only ever really been Pudding. And he would have stopped being Pudding, and he would have become something else, had he lived. But he didn't, and so, it seemed absolutely sensible that that was his name.

NEARY: Pudding is what you put on the death certificate?

Mr. CAREY: It was on the death certificate. It's what was on his little coffin, and that's who he'll always be.

NEARY: After a summer spent in England staying as busy as possible, McCracken and Carey returned to the U.S., but first, they scattered Pudding's ashes on one of Carey's favorite beaches on the Norfolk coast.

Mr. CAREY: And that part of the world is sort of stamped now in our heads as a sort of sacred, sacred place. And we took Gus there this summer, and seeing him running around the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAREY: On the beach was just fantastic.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Mr. CAREY: Oh, oh, Mister Gus.

NEARY: And there he is, on cue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And as Gus bursts into the room with the furious energy of a toddler, his father scoops him up into his arms and comforts him.

(Soundbite of father and son laughing, talking)

NEARY: Once settled down, the two sit on the floor, reading books.

GUS: Doh(ph).

Mr. CAREY: That's a dog. And what's that one?

GUS: Cat.

Mr. CAREY: That's right. It's a cat.

NEARY: And looking at this beautiful boy so full of life, one wonders, is he the exact replica of the figment of her imagination? Is he their happy ending? No, says McCracken; Gus is not an ending.

Ms. MCCRACKEN: He's the start of his own story. He is unconnected from this thing that happened before him. That's part of my story, but not part of his story. So, it's not that I think that Gus is the exact replica, but maybe the book itself is - that I wrote the book, trying, as I say, to get every single detail about this person whose face I never looked at while he was alive, and that I couldn't manage to give him a life, but I could write his biography.

Ms. MCCRACKEN: But McCracken knows the biography will always be incomplete. The details of her firstborn's personality will always be, as she puts it, entirely imaginary.

(Soundbite of baby cooing)

Ms. MCCRACKEN: I'm holding a 2-and-a-half-week-old in my lap who's snuffling and snorting, and I already have a much clearer idea of who she is from knowing her for two and a half weeks. I think she looks like when she wakes up, she looks like an old lady who's woken up for no reason at a discotheque.

(Soundbite of baby cooing)

Ms. MCCRACKEN: What? What's going on? Why are the lights so bright?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MCCRACKEN: What's that infernal racket?

(Soundbite of baby cooing)

NEARY: Next summer, McCracken and Carey will go back to the beach in Norfolk with Gus and his new sister. It seems, says Carey, like the place where all three of their children are together. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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