An exclusive Authorlink interview with Maura Conlon-McIvor
Author of She's All Eyes (Warner Books, 2005, previously published as FBI Girl)
by Ellen Birkett Morris
Writing a fresh, engaging memoir in an age of memoir is no easy task, but Maura Conlon-McIvor makes it look easy.
Shes All Eyes: Memoirs of an Irish-American Daughter (Warner Books, 2005, previously published as FBI Girl) tells the story of young Mauras attempt to understand her silent father, FBI Special Agent Joe Conlon, and crack the code he used to communicate with the family. "The fact that my father
was a secretive FBI agent
lent such an air of mystery
to my childhood home."
Conlon-McIvor The fact that my father was a secretive FBI agent lent such an air of mystery to my childhood home. Yet, it was as if he left crumbs for me to follow, said Conlon-McIvor.
The coming of age story paints a vivid picture of a young girl growing up in suburban Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s. Though outwardly quiet, Maura is full of curiosity that she channels into reading Nancy Drew mysteries, devising special agent wardrobes, and keeping a log for spying on neighborhood vehicles. The story is made richer by turning points that include the birth of her brother, Joey, whose Down syndrome allows her father to find his affectionate side, Mauras theater debut, which helps her find her own voice, and the murder of a family member. "As writers we do an archeological dig of sorts to find the true story behind the silence."
Conlon-McIvor As writers we do an archeological dig of sorts to find the true story behind the silence. I learned that silence is often a mask for trauma, the lack of ability to express deep emotion. Silence was our family's code all families have their code, said Conlon-McIvor.
She began writing the book around five years ago, after her fathers death. She struggled with the first 100 pages. She was writing the story in omniscient voice until the voice of "child as narrator" emerged. Bang. Bang. Bang. Strike three. Youre dead. Shed found her opening lines, her narrator, and tapped into a font of material that fueled her writing from that point forward. "Writers need to realize
that there is so much available
to us at those deeper levels
of the mind."
Writers need to realize that there is so much available to us at those deeper levels of the mind. I realized that the young girl was going to be our guide in that journey (through childhood). She was going to take our hand and lead us down the rabbit hole. The words came like a geyser after that, said Conlon-McIvor.
She discovered the lure of writing at an early age. Ive been writing since I was eight. I had an uncle, a stereographer at the New York Post, who typeset a poem of mine. I realized then the magic of words printed on the page, said Conlon-McIvor.
Her personal turning point was when a drama teacher encouraged her to act and she found her own voice. As she grew, Conlon-McIvor pursued studies that would give her the tools needed to understand her family dynamic and to write about it in an interesting way.
She received her B.A. in Communication Studies from The University of Iowa, and her M.A. in Literature from Wake Forest University, where she wrote on the Irish poets. She holds a Ph.D. in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California.
As a freelance journalist, she interviewed authors including Alice Walker, Ernest Gaines and Leo Buscaglia, in addition to writing features on issues such as drug and alcohol abuse in professional sports and of her experience teaching poetry to the chronically ill. "My silence as a child
was synonymous with a
Though known for being shy as a child, she had found her own voice and went from writing about others to writing about her own experience.
My silence as a child was synonymous with a burgeoning curiosity. I was a sponge listening to the words, listening between the sentences. Ive found the quietest people often have the most to say, said Conlon-McIvor. Her observational skills are evident in scenes from She's All Eyes, such as one at the dinner table where the effects of her fathers hard edged silence are palpable.
Her book was spurred by a gift her father gave her before his death, his correspondence from bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover. Dad was a special agent for 27 years in the Los Angeles area. And that's about all we knew growing up. When I sat down and read his stash of letters, I found scribbled all over them his wry observations about being in the FBI, or his reflections about life in general. This gift was typical of what he and I had shared all our lives communication wrapped in code. It was always my job to read between the lines and uncover the real meaning. Perhaps my father was like many of our fathers in that respect, said Conlon-McIvor.
A proponent of the work of psychologist Carl Jung, Conlon-McIvor believes that the child archetype is a compelling one for many people. I believe the first fourteen years are critical. That is when you experience so much of life for the first time. I hope the child narrator in my She's All Eyes reaches out to the child in all of us and connects us to our own story, she noted.
Finding the right narrative voice made the writing a delight. Conlon-McIvor writes around twenty to twenty-five hours a week and works without a written outline. It was a process she described as following the images that led her to the larger story.
She found having a critique group was helpful for getting out of a place of isolation, getting constructive feedback from the group, and setting a deadline for myself. "My best advice is to have your work be a work of art before you worry about finding
an agent . . ."
Conlon-McIvor It is important to know when to join a group and when to leave the group and trust your own inner eye, she noted. She also suggests that all writers find a third party to give their manuscripts a close read before sending them on to an agent or editor.
My best advice is to have your work be a work of art before you worry about finding an agent, said Conlon-McIvor.
She found her agent, Stephanie Kip Rostan of the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, through an editor friend who served on a panel with Rostan at a literary conference. Once the book sold to Warner Books, she worked with Editor Beth DeGuzman, who suggested the book feature photographs of the Conlon family. "Readers develop such intimate relationships with the characters," Conlon quipped. "So including photos made sense."
The silence now broken, Conlon-McIvor recalls the words of Alice Walker, who she once interviewed. She said the mission of a writer is to go back and give voice to those who are deemed irrelevant or nonproductive. There is a sense of mission to all art.
Maura Conlon-McIvor is the author of the L.A. Times bestseller Shes All Eyes: Memoirs of an Irish-American Daughter (previously published as FBI Girl). She is currently working on a follow-up memoir. For more information, visit: mauraconlon.com. About Regular Contributor
Ellen Burkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.