Fort Smith native Paddock publishes “The Weight of Memory”

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 432 views 

FAYETTEVILLE — Jennifer Paddock’s life has changed markedly in the last decade or so. But some things have stayed the same — namely, her memory.

Memory is as complex as the brain that houses it. Memory is how we gauge where we’ve been and measure our level of success. It’s how we store and recall details — events, people, places, and the emotions surrounding and attached to them.

As an author, Paddock writes what she knows because it’s familiar territory; it’s easier to more clearly and powerfully describe and explain than some purely fictional scenario. She also writes what she knows because she’s not done thinking about it yet, or remembering.

The 42-year-old is a native of Fort Smith, a Southside High School graduate and a graduate of the University of Arkansas with bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and English. She got her master’s degree in creative writing at New York University and now lives in Point Clear, Ala.

Her novels include A Secret Word, Point Clear and, her latest, The Weight of Memory, which is being released Thursday (May 4) by MacAdam/Cage Publishing. The characters of A Secret Word (2004) were three friends who grew up in Fort Smith together. The novel was told in first person, with each chapter told from the perspective of one of the friends: Chandler, Sarah and Leigh.

In Point Clear (2006), Paddock tried a more traditional writing approach, a third-person tale with a main character named Caroline (a tennis pro working at the Grand Hotel). Paddock worked in the character of Leigh from her first book, and introduced a mysterious character, Walker, a champion swimmer.

Paddock’s own life has covered the pages of these two prior books. She’s not one character, but rather they all bear various traits of hers. Paddock comes from a blended family, the only child shared by parents who entered the marriage with their own children. She was a tennis star in her youth, becoming the state’s top player in the 10-and-younger circuit at age 10, and remaining near the top in state rankings through high school. She worked at a dry cleaners and went to off-campus lunches with friends in high school.

After her father committed suicide and she and her husband split and evetually divorced (a complete surprise), she continues to deal with her life, and to understand its events, by writing. Writing helps her think. Writing gets everything out. Writing gives things an order and often shows connections and conjures meanings.

Writing lets her cope and heal.

Paddock’s father, Ben, died while she was in graduate school in New York, and she flew back to Fort Smith. On the plane ride, she wrote on the pages of her paperback copy of Leaving Las Vegas, filling them with her thoughts and emotions.

In her new book, The Weight of Memory, Paddock focuses a lot on relationships with fathers, romantic relationships, and of course, friendships. Her characters have changed a lot, too. When she left off with Chandler, Sarah and Leigh at the end of A Secret Word, these three friends were about age 30, and it was 2001 in their world.

The new book picks up with them in their mid-30s, in 2005, with Leigh intentionally running into Sarah in Destin, Fla. Sarah’s family has a beach house there, and Sarah’s spending time there while she and her husband (back in New York) deal with their troubled marriage. Leigh moves in with Sarah, and they invite Chandler, who lives in nearby Point Clear, Ala., to join them. The friends ride out Hurricane Katrina together.

Paddock said that Leigh is the easiest character for whom to feel sympathy. She grew up poor, with a single mom, and she’s searching for her father, whose name she’s never known (though she discovers that in this book).

Sarah, who is beautiful, rich and talented, tried being an actress in New York.

“She’s very hard to make likeable, and she always has been,” Paddock said. In becoming a mother in this book, Sarah changes. She also has a complex relationship with her father, whose been married six times. She’s more aligned with him than her emotionally distant mother, though that fact bothers her at times.

And Chandler, who is the most like Paddock, doesn’t let people into her inner thoughts. She appears standoffish but is very kind-hearted. Her father, like Paddock’s, committed suicide, while she was in school in New York.

In this book, Chandler discovers that her husband is cheating on her and then goes through a divorce. Even though Paddock’s divorce blindsided her and left her feeling betrayed, bitter and heartbroken, “I’m going to get over it.” It was nothing like the death of her beloved father.

“Like me, she kind of got back the identity she had in her youth, as a tennis player,” Paddock said. The writer recently played the Women’s National 40s Championship in Huntsville, Ala., and came in fifth. She’s also teaching tennis at a club that’s part of the Grand Hotel (which was the setting for her second book). It reminds her of her Sundays spent in the pro shop at Hardscrabble Country Club in Fort Smith.

A job that’s purely physical also allows her to better focus her mind on writing in the evenings and on her days off. Some days while writing this book, she spent 10 or 12 hours at the computer in her pajamas. She often called her mom, reading her passages. (Her mom, Anita Paddock, is a former high school teacher and recently retired from the public library; she has also written short stories and some unpublished novels.)

During her divorce, Paddock journaled almost daily. It made her feel better at the time, and she looked back on it for details when writing this novel.

The fact that Paddock’s ex-husband shows up in the pages of this book is natural. Chandler had a husband in the first book, so Paddock had to stay true to the character. And Chandler and her husband go through a similar, though fictionalized, experience.

“It would have been impossible to write them in a marriage that was wonderful and happy when mine wasn’t,” Paddock said.

Paddock stayed within the parameters of the book and what would have happened to the characters. But she’s glad she wrote about the divorce.

“When you write about it, you can sort of face what happened and just sort of learn the truth of it,” she said.

False starts, new starts
Paddock had several false starts when writing this third book. It had been a challenge developing the three characters, getting those three voices, for her first novel. When she wrote the second book, she really liked the character of Walker, the swimmer, and wanted to give more space to him.

Her first attempt at a third book, about two friends in New York, failed. So, she decided to return to first person, and check in on these three friends a few years later.

When Paddock’s A Secret Word was chosen for the 2004 If All Arkansas Read the Same Book program, she did a statewide book tour. The director of that program, Jane Thompson, liked the character of Leigh the best, and wondered what happened to her in the future. Paddock did too.

Though returning to characters that she knew so well, Paddock still had some research to do. Because Sarah becomes a mom, Paddock talked with a good friend and mother of two about what it’s like to be pregnant and rear children.

Leigh’s search for her dad leads her to Tahlequah, Okla., home to the Cherokee Nation. A friend of Paddock’s told her of her own discovery at the Cherokee National Museum and looking through the Dawes Rolls for family connections.

Her other research revolved around memory, a topic that’s always fascinated Paddock. She can recall details that friends can’t, and she remembers certain people so well. (And, like her character, Chandler, who dates Walker, Paddock has recently been dating a guy who has had amnesia.)

“I guess I must just hang on to the past. I just remember so much. I can’t let it go,” Paddock said.

For that research, Paddock read Physics of the Future by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Memory Wall: Stories by Anthony Doerr and The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond. She learned that there are myriad reasons people have amnesia and other memory troubles, and that the brain actually protects itself by not remembering things.

Paddock has, again, written a character-driven novel. Those are the kinds of books and movies she enjoys best, though a lot of people prefer plot-heavy entertainment. When she considers buying a book, she reads the beginning and the end there on the spot, to make sure she likes the writing, regardless of the plot.

“I just have to accept that I’m maybe in the minority here of what I like, and I write what I like,” she said.

And, in her writing, she remembers and returns frequently to that which she knows. These characters, which started as three parts of her, now feel like three real people to her. And she likes to fill their lives — background and present — with places and other details that are real.

Real places — like Fort Smith, Alabama, Oklahoma and Florida — are easier for her to picture in her mind, and to get right. The same goes for people, and her readers have responded to that approach.

“If you write an experience really specifically, in detail, it’s more relatable than a vague idea,” she said. “Even though it’s fiction, I always want to be true.”

Paddock will return to Fort Smith this week to celebrate the release of her book. A party will be held from 6:30-10 p.m. Thursday (May 3) at Second Street Live, 101 N. Second St.  This fundraiser for The Fort Smith Library Endowment Trust will also feature music from the Don Bailey Ensemble, The Frog Bayou Boys, Gary Hutchison and the Oreo Blue Trio, a reading by local poet Carla Ramer, as well as food and drinks. Tickets, at $20 per person or $35 per couple, can be purchased at all Fort Smith library branches.

A reading and book signing will also be held from 1-3 p.m. Friday (May 4) at the Miller Branch of the Fort Smith Public Library, 8701 S. 28th St.

Specifics on both events can be found here.