Lara Lillibridge sat down with Timothy J. Hillegonds at AWP in San Antonio and chatted about his newly released memoir, The Distance Between: A Memoir, part of University of Nebraska Press’s American Lives series.
About the book: At eighteen years old, with no high school diploma, a growing rap sheet, and a failed relationship with his estranged father, Timothy J. Hillegonds took a one-way flight from Chicago to Colorado in hopes of leaving his mounting rage and frustration behind. His plan was simple: snowboard, hang out, live an uncomplicated life.
The Distance Between chronicles how Hillegonds’s plan went awry after he immediately jumped head first into a turbulent relationship with April, a Denny’s coworker and single mother. At once passionate and volatile, their relationship was fueled by vodka, crystal methamphetamine, and poverty—and it sometimes became violent. Mere months after moving to the mountains, when the stakes felt like they couldn’t be higher, Hillegonds learned April was pregnant with his child.
More than just a harrowing story of addiction and abuse or a simple mea culpa, The Distance Between is a finely wrought exploration of, and reckoning with, absent fathers, fatherhood, violence, adolescent rage, white male privilege, and Hillegonds’s own toxic masculinity. With nuance and urgency, The Distance Between takes readers through the grit of life on the margins while grappling with the problematic nature of one man’s existence.
LL: In your memoir, you wrote about privilege and the reckoning of that. There’s a quote,
…our rebellion was itself a sort of privilege, one that stemmed from being white and male.
I think right now we are hungry for more men writing about privilege and toxic masculinity, but I also think the landscape of publishing as a man on the topic of abuse and masculinity might be hard to crack right now.
TH: You’re definitely right, but I do think it’s a little easier to have conversations now as opposed to two or three years ago. In fact, before I signed a publishing contract with UNP, I actually sold the book to a different press. After three months of working on the manuscript with the literary nonfiction series editor, the press suddenly backed out of the deal. It was right when Harvey Weinstein happened, and it seemed like they couldn’t see a way to differentiate between my story, which is partly about the ways in which I exhibited toxically masculine traits toward my girlfriend— like verbal abuse and in two cases physical abuse—and Harvey Weinstein, a man whose story has absolutely no parallels to mine whatsoever. But as so often happens in America, everything got lumped into one big toxic bucket.
But part of doing this work means that I had to understand that, too. I had to understand that there were women and other people who were affected by my story and actions as a young man, and, in the case of the press, if they were uncomfortable working on a book that showed abuse from a perpetrator’s point of view, even though it was attempting to show a nuanced, reflective, and ultimately apologetic view, that’s OK. I have to understand that’s part of the process and people feel how they feel.
Of course, as a debut writer trying to publish a book, it was a tough pill to swallow. I queried something like 200 agents and I heard over and over, “you’re a good writer, this is a good story, but you’re also a straight white man and we’re never going to be able to sell it.” So I had the wrong type of story and I was the wrong type of man. That’s always tough to hear because there’s nothing I can do to change it.
LL: But the conversation is shifting in terms of society. Now we’re ready to hear those stories.
TH: It seems like maybe that’s the case. I think we all know that for meaningful conversations to happen, and for meaningful change to happen within men, we have to explore all sides of the toxic masculinity crisis. So I think my story is relevant in the sense that I’m trying to add a thoughtful, reflective look at how I can be one particular type of man with one particular kind of oppressive and aggressive masculine performance, and then spend twenty years trying to deconstruct that man and become someone different.
LL: This is an easier question that I probably should have started with. You have a few quotes:
I found inline skating to be a sort of street therapy, a way to work out the echoes constantly knocking around inside.
But skating never felt temporary or trendy or contrived to me. It felt natural—almost biological—like the expected athletic progression from Neanderthal to Homo sapiens, or from boyhood to adolescence.
I was a skater—I couldn’t do any tricks—but I skate with my kids to school. It brings me back to childhood joy in a way nothing else does. Do you still skate, or is it completely gone now?
TH: I do a little. I try to snowboard here or there, but not in the same ways, or with the same ambition I once did. Plus, at 42, it hurts more now when I fall. I do miss it, though. I think what I loved about it was the movement in it, and how I could find this point of purity where everything was working in unison, and I felt like I was part of the landscape, and part of my body in a way that I wasn’t in a lot of other activities. You’re in this place of unthinking where you’re just reacting in a flow state. I miss that. I find it in other places, sometimes in writing, sometimes in running, which is a lot less dangerous.
LL: You wrote about drug use on page 215,
But that doesn’t quite capture it, though, doesn’t quite get to the heart of it, because it always felt to me more like a sustained emotion, a deep and abiding tenderness that finally gave me permission to love myself.
Writing memoir demands that we put ourselves back inside our previous skins and relive, not just recite our story. How did you save your soul as a sober writer when you had to put yourself back in the story, particularly the moments when you were talking about the draw of drugs?
TH: It is challenging when you’re reliving traumas or the worst parts of yourself. For me, I leaned on support networks and took long periods of time off. I tried to understand what my reactions were. If I spent a lot of time in the work interrogating a particular moment, and then the next day I was really irritable, I realized it wasn’t a coincidence, and maybe I should check my temperature and see what was going on. So I’d talk to my wife about it. I went to a fair amount of AA meetings. I work a lot of things out when I’m running these days. Trying to be grounded is always the memoirist’s challenge. You’re trying to exist in two places as once. You’re trying to be this reflective person looking back on who you once were with thoughtfulness and care. And you’re also trying to embody that person to get to the authentic nature of it. What’s that Virginia Woolf quote? “Never to be yourself and yet always—that is the problem.”
LL: Another line that struck me as with its simple honesty was,
No, man—I’m not crazy. I just don’t give a fuck anymore.
This was the first time you drank on Antabuse. I know there’s recovery lingo that says “drugs are suicide on the installment plan,” which is true, but it’s cute, and sort of trite. I thought that you captured that feeling of absolute emotional destitution so eloquently.
TH: I think that line sums up so much of what I felt in that time, which I know now means precisely the opposite. I actually cared a great deal, but I felt so powerless to control what was going on. I felt so lost in the bad decisions I was making, which led to feelings of wanting to punish myself. Stuck in that shame cycle, where I was doing shitty things, therefore I’d feel shitty, so I’d do more shitty things…over and over again.
But I do wonder now, coming from this sensibility about masculinity, how much of that “I don’t give a fuck” response to another male in my life was positioning a little bit in that weird masculinity structure that exists. We’re constantly trying to prove our masculinity to other men because it is something that can be revoked so quickly. So I do wonder, and this is the complexity that I find so interesting now—about the mix of all that, and our socialization, too.
LL: Towards the end, you wrote:
I don’t want to be defined by my worst mistakes, and writing a book that explores many of them, in a way, sets me up for that, but as a writer, as a man trying to inhabit a healthier, less harmful definition of masculinity, I know no other path to confronting the past than to write about my experience of becoming the man I never intended to become. This book is an attempt, however flawed, to understand my mistakes, to keep on nodding terms with the person I used to be, so as to never again be the man I was.
I want to talk about where you decided to end your story. You give us moments of hope, we know the narrator gets sober and gets himself together, but you don’t give us the recovery story, or the after story. By the quality of writing, I assume you wound up finishing some sort of education—the book leaves us with the narrator as a high school dropout. But while you wrote that you don’t want to be judged by the worst parts, that’s the majority of the book. Do you have another book planned?
TH: There were these bookends to the story that just sort of existed from the start, so that helped me think about the beginning and the end. The Colorado section starts on a plane and ends on a bus, which just seemed like an easy structure—heading over the Great Divide and then heading over it again to go home. Of course, there’s always the question of what to leave in and what to take out, and how long something can be. Originally it was like 120,000 words, and then I revised that back to 92,000. I wrote various versions of that final section, but the longer it got the more questions it brought up, and I couldn’t deal with them all. I didn’t want the book to be the classic three-act structure to the recovery narrative: what it was like, what happened, what it’s like now. I was more interested in exploring who I was back then and putting a critical lens on that. And then knowing that I would write more eventually and explore that other material. But I also think the book told me when it was time to end.
LL: I know what you are saying. Sometimes the writing does tell you where the ending is if you’re lucky.
TH: It felt like a natural place to end. There was a six-year span of time between when I got back to Chicago to when I made it to rehab. But every door that I opened introduced more and more questions. Even in the end in that after section, I could only introduce so much, because it would bring up all these elements that deserved to be explored, and it felt like an endless exercise that needed to actually end.
Right now, I’m working on an essay collection called Recoveries, which deals with this idea that I don’t think recovery is every singular. There’s this umbrella idea of recovery, and all these small recoveries beneath it. I’m exploring that in these newer essays.
LL: I think that you trust the reader a lot. You let us connect a lot of the dots on our own. The recovery part is small, but we have that hope. And we can see from your nuanced descriptions of the past that there was monumental change. I think many new writers struggle with trusting the reader and over-explaining.
TH: That’s what revision is for—that’s where all the magic happens. Writing a book-length manuscript was really interesting. I had this huge thing—120,000 words—but it was the first time I could see the story as a story, and look at it from the perspective of the reader. I printed the whole thing out and then wrote out the narrative arc of each chapter so I could build the narrative in an upward direction. I asked myself what was the main theme or narrative event of each chapter, and then I got to get into the details of it—looking at the last line of each section and where does it leave the reader, for example. That was the fun part of revising. What a wild thing to do, writing a book.
LL: And you worked with Barrie Jean Borrich. I’m such a huge fan.
TH: Oh man, she’s the best. She told me this one thing years ago when I studied with her that I never forgot. She said you learn how to write a book by writing a book. I remember nodding at her and not knowing what the hell she was talking about. But then I learned that you can read all the stuff and go to all the things, but you have to figure it out for yourself, writing the book I mean, and that looks different for everyone.
LL: At one point, writing 120,000 words seems like an insurmountable feat, but then to rewrite it and rewrite it again, that changed me as a person. That’s where you get into the technicalities and art of being a writer.
TH: I think the craft of writing memoir is an act of deconstructing self, so the end goal is change. We’re reconstructing this past self and at the same time, we’re deconstructing that past self. And we can’t emerge from that process unchanged.
LL: I found that my story lives in a book, and I don’t have to carry it anymore.
TH: I know exactly what you mean. I couldn’t wait to have the actual artifact in my hands. I’ve been trying to tell this story for twenty years, and there’s a lot of shame associated with it. It defined me in so many ways. It was so traumatic and complicated with effects that reverberated for many people, but I felt as if I gained some control over the story once it was in a book and I could literally put it on the shelf.
LL: How old is your daughter, Haley, now?
LL: I pictured her a lot younger. It’s funny how long it takes to write these things. I’m going to ask the awkward question—has she read the book? As a mother, I get these questions all the time, so I feel awkward asking, but it is something that parent memoirists want to know—that they will live and their kids will live through the experience.
TH: It was a challenge for everyone. My mom and my step-dad preordered the book, which I was so surprised by, but then when they got it, my mom put it off and put it off. One day she told me that she read it, but she said that she just couldn’t talk about it with me until she’d had time to process it. She said all the right mom things, like I’m a great writer, but she said it was so hard to relieve that experience with me, which I can only imagine as a parent, fraught as they are with anxiety over the choices their kids are making. I understand that the moments this book brought her into had to be really tough.
For Haley, we talked about it a lot before it came out, and how I wasn’t writing “the story” but a story from my perspective. I told her that her mom may have a completely different perspective on this, and might flat out reject some of the things I said, and that she wouldn’t be wrong in that. That would be her story, and we all come to things with different memories. And that seemed to be a good conversation.
When it came out she was excited for me, but then she read part of it, and then another part, and she got really upset. Not because I had written and published it, but because I wrote that one of my deepest regrets was how my behavior has affected her life. I was not a traditional father to her and I wasn’t with her every day because we lived in different places. And the difference in our geographies had a really big impact on her. And the impact of me being an addict and alcoholic has had a big impact on her life, too. And she read that and then told me that it really hurt her to think about that. She was like, “I’m not mad, and I understand. But it sucked.”
Ultimately, that was one thing I really struggled with. We all have the right to write our own stories, but it gets really complicated when our story intersects with other people’s stories. I really had to go into the book bringing everything into a metaphorical court in some ways. To think about the intention of why I included something and judge whether or not it needed to be in there.
LL: One thing I thought you did really well was when you talk about April and your mutual drug use, you also say that she was a really good mother. And so when I read about these unhealthy behaviors, I also had to hold in my mind the fact that she got up early to take her daughter to the zoo. It made her complicated and made me trust and like the narrator. You were not there to grind any axes. We can be more than one thing at any one time.
TH: And we are, all the time, right? I appreciate you saying that. I heard someone say once that every relationship memoir is he said she said. And I thought my job as a writer was to give as nuanced view as I could. In every relationship, there are things about the person that you adore, and that they are really good at. And then there are behaviors that you don’t approve of or don’t care for. And that complexity is what makes us human.
I couldn’t write a book where one person was all bad or all good, because we’re not like that at all. We were both nineteen. And she had a complicated history with a lot of trauma—a lot because of men in her life. Then here I come, another man bringing all my baggage, and we get into a relationship together. I don’t know any scenario where that was going to work out. And then we bring another baby into the mix. But I will say that there were moments when she was an amazing mother despite our circumstances.
LL: I really thought you made her character well rounded. I’m sure you’ve done a lot of these interviews. Is there anything you are dying to talk about that no one has asked you? You have the microphone now—is there anything you wish people knew?
TH: I have this good friend who said that as he read it and talked with some people who read it, they thought that one thing the book did that they hadn’t seen before was how the book showed the absolute insanity of addiction, and how this repetitive cycle of I’m going to change but then this happens and this happens…many addicts don’t get out of addiction and many don’t become writers and get to contribute in a real way to that conversation. I guess I’m just glad that I could show the insanity of addiction and the hope of what can come after.
LL: You definitely capture the chaos and futility in such a three-dimensional way. I mean no one wakes up thinking how am I going to fuck up my life so more? But when you don’t have money, it gets really complicated. To get out of jail, to pay court fees—it’s really hard. And I agree, in a way, you’re telling a story for other people that they can’t say for themselves. Your story comes from personal experience but rises to the universal.
So you have this new essay collection you’re working on. Where are you in that stage?
TH: Most of the essays are in pretty good shape, but of course I say that now. I’m sure there’s more work to do, because there always is. But it’s close.
LL: And you will be on the debut panel at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers.
TH: Yes! I was there a few years ago and had a great time.
LL: We look forward to seeing you again!
The Distance Between is out now with the University of Nebraska Press.
About the Author:
Timothy J. Hillegonds’ work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Assay, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, River Teeth, Baltimore Review, Brevity, Under the Gum Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. In 2019, Tim was named by the Guild Literary Complex as one of their thirty “Writers to Watch.” He earned a master of arts in writing and publishing from DePaul University in Chicago. Tim currently serves as a contributing editor for Slag Glass City, a digital journal of the urban essay arts.
Lara Lillibridge is the author of Mama, Mama, Only Mama (Skyhorse, 2019), Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home (Skyhorse, 2018) and co-editor of the anthology, Feminine Divine: Voices of Power and Invisibility (Cynren Press, 2019). In 2019 she judged creative nonfiction for AWP’s Intro Journal Project and currently serves as a mentor for their Writer to Writer program.
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