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Eileen Cronin’s memoir, Mermaid, selected for The Oprah Magazine

second eileen croninby Mary Yuhas

Interview with a woman born without legs about forging your own way

In January, 2014, WW Norton released Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience, and in February of 2014, it was in The Oprah Magazine’s “10 Titles to Pick Up Now.”  It was also included on Page One in Poets & Writers.

Mermaid is about growing up in the Midwest as a middle child among eleven, with a mother who fought mental illness, while Eileen battled serious birth defects. Reviewers loved this damaged but hilarious family, and it’s a classic Irish Catholic story from the 60s.

Before Mermaid, she won the Washington Writing Prize in short fiction, and had a notable essay in Best American Essays. She published in the Washington Post and other venues. She practice clinical psychology in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and daughter.

LitVote:  Did you submit your book, Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience, to The Oprah Magazine to be considered for, “10 Titles to Pick Up Now,” or did the magazine find you?

Eileen:  My publicist at Norton submitted the book. The publicists submit galleys to numerous venues in anticipation of publication.

LitVote:  You faced considerable obstacles growing up. You were born without legs – one ended at the knee and one above it. Your fingers on your left hand were webbed until a plastic surgeon reshaped them. And your mother had serious mental problems. Yet, you never gave up. What influenced you to go forward?

Eileen:  I didn’t see myself as different and that may have been because my family accepted me or because they were too pre-occupied to indulge me, given that there were eleven children. I think it was a combination of both acceptance and distraction. Life has many layers of truth to it, and I find that it never pays to focus on one layer. Since I saw myself as equal or the same as anyone else, most people saw me that way too. So I grew up playing sports and taking ballet lessons in artificial legs. Then in high school I was dating and going to parties. My biggest problem was that I neglected my own intellectual development. Fortunately, I loved storytelling and writing from a very young age so I gravitated back toward academics. As an adult I’m humbled by my differences but mostly I suffer from seeing way beyond my potential. Since I wasn’t going to be competitive in sports, I learned to compete with myself. This has always driven me to set new goals. I’m forever intrigued by the next project.

LitVote:  How did you learn that your book was selected by O Magazine?

Eileen: My publicist forwarded an email from an O Magazine staffer requesting publicity materials. It sounded like this was still only up for consideration. Then at some point I learned that the book would be mentioned in Poets & Writers’ Page One. I was so excited that I wasn’t even thinking about O until a few days before publication. I didn’t believe it would make it until I saw my book on the page.

Lit Vote:  What impact has the O Magazine recommendation had on your book and writing career?

Eileen:  I’m sure it has helped the sales. Unfortunately, there are but a handful of literary writers who have physical differences and who write about that topic. Too often the topic is covered in superficial stories. I’m hoping that times are changing and that we will see more books like mine in both memoir and fiction. I’m not sure If or when I will write about people with physical differences again. I have several books and short stories I want to finish and they are concerned with a variety of subjects.

LitVote:  How did your parents and siblings feel about you writing this book?

Eileen:  My mother is my only living parent and she has said several times that she is glad I wrote the book. She has read it, although I told her that I would understand if she chose no to read it. Some members of my family are thrilled by it and are working to promote the book right along with me. Some haven’t read it, but I didn’t write the book for my family. I wrote the book to give the world a broader and deeper understanding of families: of large families, of children with physical differences within a family, and of childhood with a parent who is hospitalized for mental illness. I had to make choices about what to include based on a specific storyline, and that was about my search for truth in a family that would prefer to focus on humor or to deny those things that are traumatic. It’s impossible to cover that in a memoir without someone feeling slighted. Humor helped me in my writing as long as it wasn’t the means to pull away from what needed to be revealed. Humor is what unifies us as a family.

LitVoteHow long did it take you to write your book?

Seven years. In the beginning, I was working on essays so I was reticent about Mermaid, but the essays were accepted to quickly, I got back to my memoir.

LitVote:  Any suggestions for other authors who are writing memoir?

Eileen:  You have to write what you are obsessed with and put everything in it before you find the heart of the story. Then it’s a matter of editing.

LitVote:  What is the biggest pitfall in memoir?

Eileen:  No matter what you write someone is going to be unhappy with it. Some will be upset because you don’t include them in the story. I’ve heard it said that you have to write a memoir as if everyone you know is dead.

LitVote:  What are some of the ways you market your book?

Because I’m a psychologist, I have started getting on programs at various conferences, and I network through that. I also have two Facebook pages, a Twitter account and I’m building my presence on Goodreads. I’m reading at various bookstores and at writers’ workshops that I’ve attended. I’m also teaching at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop this year.

LitVote:  Whats next?

Eileen:  Fiction. I’m working on a novel. I occasionally write an essay because I feel the urge to say something in a more direct fashion. I still see about practice clinical psychology on a very part time basis.

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Author Mary Yuhas, has over 80,000 reads on Scribd of the first three chapters of her memoir, Quit and Be Quiet, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother.

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