Patti’s latest memoir, True Friends, explores the joys and pitfalls of friendship through the lens of her own experience. Join us as we chat about friends, writing and the sometimes-fraught relationship between the two.
Can you please share the blurb for True Friends?
A revealing and powerful memoir about the making and unmaking of friendships.
‘It’s hard to know exactly when the friendship with Gina ended. It could have been when the sudden text message from her arrived, or it could have been a slow slide out of favour that I willed myself not to see. What matters is that it did end, and I don’t know why.’
Friendships are among the most important relationships in our lives, often outlasting love affairs, marriages, even, at times, family connections. The loss of a friend can be one of life’s most disturbing events, yet these ‘friend break-ups’ are little acknowledged in our culture.
In True Friends, acclaimed author Patti Miller recounts the joyful making and then painful ending of a long, close friendship. It is a deep and influential relationship in her life, but when it inexplicably unravels, Patti is left searching for answers. As she tries to make sense of this ending, Patti considers other important friendships throughout her life, questioning who we are drawn to, what we really know of each other and why some friendships endure while others end.
Evocative and intimate, this engaging book brings together the personal and the universal and reminds us of the centrality of friendships in our lives.
In True Friends, you discuss the impact of the fallibility of memory on how we view friendships. Why was it important for you to include this discussion?
It’s the heart of the matter, an essential part of how we perceive our relationships. Friends sent me emails about the book, and I soon realized that their version of events was quite different to my version. I’d remembered a whole sequence of events wrongly. What happens in anyone’s brain isn’t a perfect picture of what actually happened. All we have is a putting together of memories, which is a faulty recording in the first place, according to our own interest and personality.
I was interested in how we construct our friends inside our heads, in exploring how we remember our lives and the people in it. That’s my obsession: How do we know other people? Our consciousness of others is made of a bundle of observations about who that person is. It isn’t a perfect record or account.
I needed to look at memory and how salience works. For example, one person might notice someone’s eyes darting around and think they’re looking for someone else to talk to. I might see the same thing and think how bright their eyes are. Our perspective colours how we see them.
We also remember things differently every time we think about it. Although we have no sense of it happening, we rewire our memories. We think it’s all truth, but it’s faulty, it’s selective.
How is this related to the epic of Gilgamesh?
I first saw a connection to the epic of Gilgamesh because it’s about friendship, but I realized later, after I’d finished the first draft, that it’s also a metaphor for memory. It was written on clay tablets and sometimes not impressed very well. Maybe the scribe was sleepy or hungover. A number of different versions have been found. Over time, the clay tablets were broken or worn down. All these thousands of years later, we are sorting through random bits of impressed clay and making something of it. And are we interpreting it differently with the passage of time? Similarly, over time, memories can be reinterpreted.
The friendships you describe in the book have varying levels of intensity. Do you think a friendship can burn out?
I wouldn’t have thought so previously, but I do now. I’ve talked about it with other people, and we’ve come up with a theory that intense friendships are like a love affair, and they’re never going to last long term. Nobody can keep up that level of intensity and as you find more ordinary things about each other, you’ll find things that are boring or irritating. Maybe those are also the ones that have difficult endings.
The kind of intensity in the main friendship in the book was about creativity, which is central to me and very fiery. If the friendship is about one thing, it’s probably going to burn out.
Having suffered a friendship breakup, are you more particular about forming new friendships?
I’m quite open and find it difficult not to be that way, but I’m probably more cautious than I was. Still, I went to a dinner last night with women writers and artists, most of whom I didn’t know very well, and even now, while I’m feeling more fragile, I felt open to everybody. Writers are interested in other people, so it’s hard for us not to be, although we’re part-observer as well, which is there in the background.
Friendships can be at different levels. When somebody who’s been a friend for a long time starts act in ways that are damaging because of something they’re going through, you don’t know whether to wait it out or to move on. It’s complicated.
Geography can also force the end of a friendship. People who know they are going to be moving often – say expats – may chose not to make close friendships.
There’s endless stuff written about marriages and romances ending, but friends are underwritten. Particularly about breakups.
In our last interview when you spoke about writing a book about friendship, you said, ‘it’s a topic that might hurt or offend some people’. Since publication, how have your friends reacted?
Most of the friends I’ve written about have been positive about it, except ‘Gina’, the person at the centre of the story of the breakup, who was upset.
Others have corrected some error of fact – e.g. I was born in the tenth not eleventh arrondissement – which makes me laugh. My book wasn’t about facts, it was about memory.
In any friendship there’s a level of vulnerability, do you think being a writer amplifies that for some people?
I’ve been thinking about that. When I’m experiencing a friendship, I’m not thinking about it being in a book, I’m just relating to that person in the moment. But I realize now that my friends may be aware of it, wondering if I’m taking notes for the future. But of course, I’m not – that book has already been written!
When I first started getting published, my mother once stopped, mid-conversation and said, ‘You’re not going to put that in a book are you?’
What about your friendships with other authors – do you worry about whether they might use you as fodder?
My writer friends are all writing such different things, mainly fiction, so no, I don’t think of myself as material. Writers live very quiet lives because it takes time to write, and we don’t so much do things as observe things. There’s nothing interesting about me: I haven’t had ten husbands or climbed Mt Everest. Nothing extreme, so not much of a story.
If they did, I think I’d be a bit put out, but then, it’s a work of art. I’ve used a quote at start of the book which, in real life, was my partner, Anthony. ‘That’s not me. That’s only your construction of me.’ And that’s how I’d hope to view it. I’d still be me; it wouldn’t change who I am. We do it all the time, everyone has different construction of me. Writers just have the guts to put that on the page.
Do you have a personal ban on any topics for inclusion in your books in general?
Interesting question. I’ve chosen to write mainly memoir and creative nonfiction, so it’s more about following the things that interest me rather than deciding I won’t go there. What interests me is how people experience living in the world. I didn’t write about friendship as a ‘topic’, it was my experience of being in a relationship.
I don’t think I’d ever write centrally about my partner or sons – especially my sons because the instinct is for parents to protect. Writing is about exposing so it’s the opposite.
Once many years ago, I tried writing about my relationship, but it felt like challenging the fates, so I tore it all out and burnt it. Even though I’m a rational person, I was superstitious that if the Fates see you have something really wonderful, they may take it away from you.
What did you choose to leave out of this book?
I didn’t include identifying facts about some friends.
I left out my friendship with my partner and the many friendships that involve family, as they are too complicated for this purpose. I wrote more about my family, especially my brother, in my last book, The Joy of High Places (see our last interview here), and I wrote about my mother in The Mind of a Thief.
In an earlier draft of this book, I had a chapter on my friendships with men. Every reader and publisher said it didn’t fit, but I held onto it until the final draft. In many ways these friendships were the same, but they were more inclined to be about ideas rather than gossip. There was no talk about shoes or frocks, it was more of the intellectual, philosophical, political and artistic, but not at the personal level. Conversations change when there are just women. They get wilder and looser when there’s no male eye. When a man comes along, they behave better, probably the same as when women join an all-male conversation – but of course, I can’t experience that.
I also steered away from Gina’s love life. There was a whole lot of material I could have used but didn’t. It felt like a safety imbalance, when I’m in a loving supportive relationship and she was in a more vulnerable position. I suppose it’s a type of power imbalance that needs to be respected
What did you learn about yourself in writing this book?
As discussed before, I re-learned how fictional memory is. As David Shields says in the book Reality Hunger, ‘Anything processed by memory is fiction.’
In discussing how I felt I had been pruned in a friendship, I realized I’d done it myself to one of my friends as a teenager. It was enacted by geography, but I was aware at the time that I wanted to move on. She remained friends with my mother, so there was ample time for me to continue the friendship, but I didn’t. That showed me I was also culpable.
One of the things that has come out with just about everyone who spoke to me about the book was that they have been cut and have cut others. Usually, it was because they felt the relationship was toxic. In one case, someone latched onto my sister. The newcomer was nice enough, but my sister didn’t want her to become one of her weekly coffee friends. She didn’t want to hurt anybody, but she had to make that decision. I’m not innocent either.
I have a contract to write a new edition of Writing True Stories, which originally came out in 2017. Since then, Routledge Publishing bought Allen & Unwin’s textbooks, and they want an update. I haven’t started yet, but it will be a different year, using a different part of my brain. I find writing How-Tos quite easy. It won’t be terrifying because it comes from the intellect interpreting creativity rather than emotion. Although True Friends was easy to write in a way, which is interesting. I wrote it quite quickly – eight months to the first draft. It was combination of Covid giving me more time and a sense of urgency that made it keep pouring out.
Next time: An interview with Sara Adrien on Falling in Love With Your Characters