Q&A: Dorothy Foltz-Gray, author of 'With and Without Her: A Memoir of Being and Losing a Twin'

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A longtime Knoxville resident who moved to Asheville in 2011, Dorothy Foltz-Gray published a memoir, With and Without Her: A Memoir of Being and Losing a Twin in October and will read from it at Union Ave Books Sunday, Oct. 28 at 2 p.m.

What is this book?

It is a book of poems to my sister, who was murdered. It is really the story of what it means to move in a world that can not distinguish you from another human being—what it is to lose that person who is so close to you, you are almost merged. How do you survive that? It goes back and forth between the scenes around my sister’s murder and the chapters beginning in childhood. It has two lines of progression—my agent said that made it really difficult to sell!

I remember your breakthrough essay about your sister when we both worked on Special Reports in the 1990s. Have you written more about her since?

When I decided to write the book, Health magazine, where I was a contributing editor at the time, agreed to print the first chapter, a wonderfully generous gesture. Since then, it has come up now and then in the intro to various stories but it has not been the central subject.

Why does it take so long?

One reason is that I was working full-time and raising two sons. So, I only worked on it for an hour a day. Also, I’d never written a book before, and there is definitely a learning curve: I had to write it over and over. But the real reason is that it took me years to screw up the courage to do the reporting of the crime. I would call Lowell, Mass. Police Department, and the officer who answered would say, “Oh, we don’t keep records that long.” And I would say, “Fine” and hang up—something that as a journalist I would never do: You never take no for an answer. Finally, about the third time I called (and this was about once a year), I did what any journalist does and asked to speak to whomever handles the media. In several days, a stack of materials with photos arrived the size of two phone books—scariest box I ever got. I went through it one page at a time, terrified at what I might learn and see.

Does your sister ever become just a figure of lore or a book subject to you in the many years since she has died? Do you have to work to keep her alive as a person?

I wouldn’t say she’s a figure of lore or a book subject—but I am very practiced at keeping her distant because otherwise it’s too hard. I can make her vivid whenever I want to but I don’t often because, again, it’s too hard. She was very vivid to me the summer I went through the crime materials, and as I wrote that section of the book, I kept having to wipe my tears away so I could see the computer. What I do hate is that I can’t remember her voice.

Who has known about this very bizarre event over the years? Does it change everything when you tell?

Initially, I told very few people. When Deane died, very few people in Tennessee even knew I had a twin. And for years, I was very careful about whom I told because if a person reacted insensitively or voyeuristically or indifferently, I would be angry—and yes, it does very much change my relationship with people I tell. One woman I told early in our friendship, and she looked at me and said, “And she meant everything to you.” I’ve loved her ever since because she gets it. Also, I felt the story was mine to tell—and when I told others, some people would then tell my story when they were introducing me to someone else, and I didn’t like that.

Is it boggling to share this all with the many students you’ve taught over the years and the wide expanse of writers you’ve kept in touch with and influenced?

Yes, absolutely. The whole thing is boggling, exciting, and scary. The book is so personal. I’ve just had to try not to think about who would see it—which is what I have to do about all my writing.

Is anything left out?

The one thing that is not in the book, and I wish I could have been better at doing this: I wish I’d learned better how to write funny. I’m even going to a workshop on that soon. I don’t think people get a sense of how wacky I am from the book, my Lucille Ball side. I would have like to include Lucy more, and that might have been nicer, but la de da.

Deane will still feature in your life, even with the closure of this book?

Yes, I still think about her every day. I dream about her a lot. It’s funny that now when I dream about her, she’s usually very cold to me, we don’t interact, but for years that was not true. My therapist, says, “That’s because she’s dead.” And that’s true. She’s not really being mean to me; she’s dead.

What are you doing now that you’ve moved to Asheville?

I’m still freelancing, and I am writing a new book. But I don’t do as much. I take Friday afternoons off, work 9-4 and then close up and go to the pool. I’m easing back a little; it’s nice.

I remember a long time ago you saying that when you moved here from Massachusetts someone literally told you to bring your preferred brand of shampoo, that it wouldn’t be available here...

Actually, no, that came from my very own set of prejudices. We arrived here the day Elvis died, and I came packed like I was going on foreign travel. I called my sister and said, “Send capers.” But I soon found out that Appalachia, too, is part of the civilized world. And this is where I started the book. The kernel began at that Special Report: Family magazine meeting where I was sort of doing a guest stint. We were brainstorming ideas for a siblings theme issue. I didn’t tell people—it made me very quiet, but at the end there was an obvious omission. I must have said, ”What about the death of a sibling?” The next day a very shy woman, the blonde, poked her head around my carrel like Boo Radley and said, “Would you write a story about that?” It is definitely the hardest thing I have ever done. That’s part of why it took me so long. I had a lot of ambivalence, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, either.

But you did finish...

Yes, and I’m very proud of it. I am.

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