Law and Conversation

March 19, 2010

Eleven great memoirs

For literary pundits, the memoir genre is one of the subjects du jour.  I’ve been listening to serious debates on a number of podcasts on whether it’s OK for writers to include fictional events in books that they then dub as “memoirs.”  One memoirist referred to her own as “true,” but not necessarily “factual,” a distinction that I frankly don’t buy (much as I did enjoy her books).

Here are eleven memoirs I’ve enjoyed and which, as far as I can tell, are both truthful and factual:

 “How I Became Hettie Jones,” by writer Hettie Jones, who married LeRoi Jones, n/k/a Amiri Baraka.

“Minor Characters,” by the writer Joyce Johnson, who was a minor character in Jack Kerouac’s life, though he was a major character in hers.

“Shakespeare and Company,” by that Parisian bookshop’s owner, Sylvia Beach, who published James Joyce’s “Ulysses” when nobody else would (and who largely supported Joyce and his family while they were in Paris).

“Baltimore’s Mansion,” by Canadian writer Wayne Johnston, about growing up in Newfoundland.

“Wishful Drinking,” by Carrie Fisher, a delightful transcription of her current standup routine.

“Love By The Glass,” by Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, a married couple who write for twelve years, until December 2009, wrote the wine column for The Wall Street Journal.

“The Road From Coorain,” by Jill Ker Conway, president of Smith College from 1975-1985, now a visiting professor at MIT, originally from Australia.

“The Glass Castle,” by former gossip columnist and writer Jeannette Walls.

“Never Have Your Dog Stuffed,” by actor and director Alan Alda.

“Kitchen Confidential,” by bad-boy chef, travel host, and writer Anthony Bourdain.

“Dreams From My Father,” by, of course, our President, Barack Obama.

A bonus:  I don’t know any of the authors, but I’m pretty sure none of these books were ghostwritten!


  1. I am a retired lawyer and want to write a book about a rather big case I worked on a number of years ago. Is it legal to use disclosure materials as a source? The case is long over, the clients cannot be found (which gives me concerns about privilege). I would prefer to write it as non-fiction, but if the legalities of doing so are against me, I’m prepared to write it as either fiction or a memoir. The same question applies especially with respect to the memoir genre. I have approximately 40 boxes and 75 CD Roms of evidence…a wealth of info to draw on and what I believe is an important story that needs to be told. I would appreciate any help you can give me on this dilemma. Thank you in advance.

    Comment by Wendi Maroon — May 3, 2011 @ 5:15 pm | Reply

    • Wendi, since you’re a lawyer I’m sure you’ll understand why I’m repeating a statement in my sidebar: I do not currently practice law and nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice, nor does posting a comment or sending a message act to create an attorney-client relationship. I think your concerns about privilege are very well taken and would suggest that you consult counsel well versed not only in legal ethics and professional responsibility but also in intellectual property and publishing law about your proposed project. Before doing so, perhaps sitting down and giving a lot of thought to exactly what you’d want to write and how you’d want to write it–nonfiction, fiction, angle, etc.-including outlining your project, would be a good idea. Would love to hear back from you about what advice you get and what decision you make.

      Comment by Helen Gunnarsson — May 4, 2011 @ 7:08 am | Reply

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