Interview by Leslie Lindsay
These were the questions that plagued me as I set out to unearth the silences buried in my family tree. Like Maud Newton, my Southern roots were showing. I had questions and quandaries, worries and reservations. Didn’t my ancestors want me to speak their silences?
Maud Newton and I seem to be cut from the same cloth. Like Maud, I we both drank alcohol very sparingly as younger people and rarely drink now. Alcoholism ran in my family, too. Of her father, Maud claims to have “loved and feared him.” She writes of lying awake in the dark night [contemplating] the significance of having half his genome embedded within her very being. I could have made this exact comment, but about my mother.
Mental illness runs rampant on my maternal side; it’s woven tightly into the folds of Newton’s as well. What’s more, other seemingly unusual family traits crept into the narrative. Mary Parsons, one of Newton’s ancestors from the 17th century, was accused of being a witch. Somewhere in the depths of my late mother’s psyche was this burning suspicion that she, too was a reincarnated witch. Like Newton’s mother, mine also attached herself to strange Evangelical beliefs a preoccupation with religion.
What Newton does so well with Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and Reconciliation (Random House, March 29 2022) is what memoirists have long done—taking intensely personal and idiosyncratic obsessions and shaping them into a story, one that can be generalized. Here she probes at deeper, more complex questions about blood and lineage, fate and genetics, nature versus nurture.
Ancestor Trouble is an extraordinary deep dive into the author’s family tree, yes, but it’s also immensely researched in terms of historical and scientific relevance. What might become a sticky web of anxiety and dead-ends, Newton tends to leave speculation—and emotion—in the dark. She combs through archives and visits graveyards. But she also takes a closer look at what she calls ‘emotional recurrences,’ examining possible connections with beauty and poignancy. In the end, it might be that Newton’s research lead her exactly where she needed to be: her chosen family.
Maud Newton took a break from her myriad publicity and writing obligations to chat with me, via email, about her journey and discoveries.
Leslie Lindsay: Maud, this is such a pleasure and privilege. Like you, I am intimately intrigued, yet terrified, of my ancestors. The word, ‘trouble(d)’ comes to mind, aptly placed in your title. At what point did you decide, ‘I’ve got to write this story?’ Did it begin a simple inquiry and blossom into Ancestor Trouble? Did you run into any push-back from relatives who thought you were ‘borrowing trouble?’
Maud Newton: Leslie, I’m so glad (but also, my condolences!) that the book resonated for you in the ways you describe as you research and write about your own family.
I worked on Ancestor Trouble as a book for seven years, from 2014 until the final draft in 2021, but I started blogging about my genealogical sleuthing all the way back in 2007 and I’ve written about my immediate family as long as I can remember. Ironically, while I was blogging about my family history research all those years ago, I viewed those posts as a distraction from the “important work” of the novel I was working on. On the one hand, I was constantly digging around in genealogy databases; on the other hand, I was always berating myself for doing that.
In 2014, Harper’s published an essay I wrote that was partly about my family and partly about Americans’ obsession with genealogy. Even then, I only got excited at the prospect of writing a book about my extended family when I decided to delve into aspects of ancestors more broadly: genealogy; genetics, epigenetics, and questions of nature and nurture; intergenerational trauma; the body; racism in my family and beyond; generational wealth; spirituality; and creativity.
As for my family’s reaction to Ancestor Trouble, that’s a good question. I’m sure some of my relatives wouldn’t have minded waving a magic wand and making my preoccupation with our family history go away. But no one explicitly lobbied me not to write it, and I’m grateful for that.
LL: The stories we tell ourselves about our ancestors often have the power to shape us, often subconsciously. This is where I find an investigation like yours exciting but also dangerous. It might dredge up secrets, scandals, skeletons in the closet. How does one reconcile those stories versus facts? How do they shape us? Which ones do you suppose (fact or fiction) have the most power?
MN: After many years of therapy, and some years of my early life trying the opposite, I’ve come to believe that it’s toxic to hide or try to escape from painful histories. We may think we’re protecting ourselves and our families by keeping these things secret, but often they have a way of reasserting themselves in new and spectacularly awful ways until we pay attention, until we acknowledge them, face them and sit with them.
I also believe we can show up in our own lives in a much healthier way if we aren’t repressing or running from the truth. This is true on a personal level and on a cultural level. Institutional racism endures in part because of a failure to acknowledge the injustices and harms of the past, for example. Recognizing how my ancestors participated in those histories—of enslavement, of genocide and displacement—helps me understand my own obligation to work against those histories now, to talk about my own family history, to advocate for reparations, and so on. And my ancestors weren’t acting alone. They were part of a system at the core of our nation’s founding.
And the good news is that discoveries aren’t always gloomy. Sometimes unearthing forgotten histories can surprise us in positive ways. My great-grandfather through my mom’s father was said to have killed a man with a hay hook. I pictured my great-grandfather as this unapologetic swashbuckling hothead, and imagined a brawl in a Texas bar after too many rounds of bourbon. What I found was nothing like that. After years of searching, I discovered that my great-grandfather was unloading hay at a feed store when the neighbor attacked him for testimony in an ‘assault to rape’ trial that had sent the man to prison for trying to rape his own stepdaughter.
LL: As I dive into the archives of my own family, I am reminded, as you were, that birth and death certificates, photos, marriage and census records don’t often provide a story, they don’t let us in on the thoughts and emotions of our ancestors. That’s the piece, I think, that is lost when we look to shape a whole narrative arc of an ancestor. Points on a timeline are one thing, but how do we tease the individual from those records? Is it inappropriate to speculate? To generate a story based on facts? What responsibility do we have as descendants?
MN: For a strict family history written by a professional genealogist, I suppose facts and only facts are relevant. For other kinds of family narratives, the balance really depends on the writer’s goal. The main thing, for me at least, is to be straightforward with the reader about what they’re reading.
“For other kinds of family narratives, the balance [of fact vs. speculation] really depends on the writer’s goal. The main thing, for me at least, is to be straightforward with the reader about what they’re reading.” — Maud Newton
In Ancestor Trouble, I rely on evidence wherever I can. Sometimes I cite other people’s recollections. And in some cases, I explicitly draw from my own speculations and imaginings. My grandfather Robert, my mom’s father, was said to have married thirteen times and been shot in the stomach by one of his wives. I’ve found ten marriages to nine women—so far. And I confirmed the shooting.
I was able to piece together many facts from city directories, census documents, marriage records, divorce records, a restraining order, some family letters, and some newspaper archives. I also have my mom’s memories to draw upon, and what I remember of what my grandmother told me. But I don’t have much information about Robert’s own emotional state. In writing the section of the book about him, I let the reader know what was supported by evidence and what was conjecture.
As an enthusiastic reader of memoirs, family histories, and books that combine personal stories with broader research, I’m usually interested in the writer’s thoughts and imaginings about a family member, as long as it’s clear that’s what I’m reading.
LL: Ancestor Trouble, if we’re talking genre, is a gorgeous, deep blend of research, personal history, folklore, and more. It melds science with history—in terms of social history, hard science, and soft. Portions of Ancestor Trouble are quite dense. Can you let us in on your research, particularly, how you organized and structured your work? Would you consider this a work of unclassifiable genre?
MN:To be honest, I tried not to think too much about genre while I was writing, and I try not to be too invested in how the book is classified now. I was only interested in writing the book if I could go deep into all of the different areas I ended up exploring, and luckily my editor was enthusiastic about this approach.
Readers who pick up the book expecting a straightforward memoir will get more than they bargained for! This was a problem I tried to put out of my mind as I wrote. I imagined the ideal reader for this book as someone who’d be as interested as I was in all the subjects I explored, and I kept this imaginary reader in mind as I worked.
LL: As a gal with a great many Southern ancestors, I completely relate to your chapter on “Unacknowledged Remains.” What I find exquisite about this is the historical concept that people are of the land. We are nourished by crops and trees and then, return to the earth in burial. But there’s a contemporary problem of sorts: space and preservation. Relatedly, families are selling family land to make way for subdivisions and shopping centers, to which I find a great worry. It’s as if we are cutting off a portion of our history, to make way for something we deem ‘lasting.’ Can you expand on that, please?
MN: Contemplating my ancestors in these different ways for so long has deepened my sense of all of our interconnectedness as humans, and also humans’ interconnectedness with the land and our broader kin. The “Unacknowledged Remains” chapter definitely flows in part from those preoccupation.
I’m so heartened by efforts to rewild land that’s been depleted or developed and abandoned. At the same time, as someone sitting in a comfortable house (on Lenape land in the borough of Queens in New York City), I don’t want to minimize our nation’s housing crisis or the predicament of our unhoused people. While I’m not a land use planner by any stretch of the imagination, I’d love to see us making better use of the land we already use for human habitation rather than razing trees and building on what the real estate industry so depressingly calls “unimproved land.” I’d love to see more lush habitats for our plant and animal friends, rather than houses going up where woodlands recently stood.
LL: I want to end on the idea of connection, which is probably a very simple and succinct way to summarize Ancestor Trouble. We humans long for connection, inclusion. By looking at our ancestors—their lives, troubles, patterns—do you think we can access their wisdom, their unspoken words? Can we begin to feel more connected to all of humanity in this sense? As you wrote yourself to the end, did your sense of connectivity deepen?
MN: I love that we’re ending on connection. As you know, the book moves in a direction that straddles the line between imagination and spirituality. In my research, I found that, historically, it’s far more usual for people to seek connection with their forebears than not to seek it. Even now, in many parts of the world, spiritual practices involving ancestors flourish. These traditions sound alien to many of European ancestry because we don’t know our own history.
As I say in Ancestor Trouble, to me the distinction between spirituality and imagination has come to seem less like a bright line than a continuum. And I’m excited by the increased acknowledgment of our very real connection to our ancestors, the way they lived, the choices they made, the challenges they faced or created, and the gifts and burdens they passed along to us. Surely it would only help the mess we humans have created if each of us open-heartedly pondered and imagined all the ways our ancestors might matter, how they and their histories might guide us to become better versions of ourselves and in better relationship with each other and our beyond-human kin.
Maud Newton has written for The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The New York Times Book Review, and Oxford American. She grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in English and law. Find her on Instagram, Twitter, or her website.