by Lisa Peet
Forget all the received wisdom of happy versus unhappy families; no family is alike, and no family is simple. But—all right—some are more complicated than others, and Maud Newton, in her debut book, has taken on the most complex of legacies as her subject. What began as a sideline of research into the histories of her immediate forebears—religious fanatics, white supremacists, and a grandfather who was said to have married 13 times—evolved into Ancestor Trouble: A Reckoning and a Reconciliation (Random House), a layered investigation of lineage, ancestry, and culpability through the ages. To borrow the metaphor of a braided memoir or work of research, Ancestor Trouble is a kind of French braid, an intricately structured set of queries about genealogy; epigenetics—the study of how (or whether) environment can alter genes and inherited traits; spirituality; how we relate to our ancestors and what, if anything, we owe them; and the way all those strands come together to form each and every one of us.
The book is personal, informative, and moving, and I was pleased to have the chance to talk to Newton about the deep work—and consideration—that went into it.
Lisa Peet: When did you realize that your investigations into your heritage were going to become a book?
Maud Newton: As you might remember from my blog years ago, I was always writing a somewhat semiautobiographical novel that never seemed to be winding up. I was researching my family, and I saw that as a distraction from the novel—I would go onto ancestry.com, or go digging into old newspaper archives. And then I just kept going deeper and deeper down the genealogy rabbit hole. My father-in-law died in 2010, and it was around that time that I got my 23andMe results back. That was one of the few things that I was able to concentrate on, my genealogical research, as sort of a distraction.
I continued writing about it a bit here and there, and then Chris Beha asked me if I wanted to write an essay for Harper’s that was a look at my family history and at the obsession with ancestors and genealogy in our culture more broadly. I said yes, and I worked on that for a while, probably something like seven months from start to finish. In the process, I realized that at some point maybe I wanted to write a book about my ancestors, but I still wasn’t really committed to the idea of doing it soon. Then my agent asked me to think about what a book like that might look like, and I realized that I wanted it to be this back-and-forth between my family and all of these larger subjects connected to my own research that I was deeply curious about. Once I realized that I wanted to write that book, it felt like something worth putting my novel aside for. The excitement lasted from start to finish with the project.
LP: How long did it take to write?
MN: I started in 2014, and the draft that my editor and I were really excited about, and that the publisher accepted, was completed at the end of 2020.
LP: You bring together a lot of different lines of thought seamlessly—the joins don’t show. Do you outline? Or do you follow the trails that interest you and then rearrange the threads to connect?
MN: I traditionally have not really been someone who outlines very effectively. Whenever I’ve tried to outline a novel, any kind of longer fictional work, the outline quickly became obsolete. But my editor suggested that I write an outline at the outset. I knew what I wanted to do—I knew I wanted it to be this back-and-forth, starting with my family and then moving out into research and these deeper fields of inquiry that encompassed my family but that felt connected to larger questions. The outline was my guiding light through this. The first section is about genealogy, then genetic genealogy, and then I went into temperament, mental health, personality. I had plans to go from there into creativity and spirituality, and then I realized in 2019 that a lot of the material I wanted to include that felt like it wasn’t fitting into those sections had to do with generational wealth and the lack thereof—inheritance, wills, land, money, objects. So I carved out a separate section for that. Getting the tone right between the personal stuff and the broader inquiries was definitely a bit of a challenge. It took me some time to be satisfied with that.
LP: Did that tone change as you worked on the book?
MN: It definitely did. Often I know exactly what I want to do when I’m setting out. But there’s definitely a period, especially when I’m writing stuff that’s not personal, where the writing just feels inert, so I have to figure out how to eliminate everything that’s bogging it down. It’s really a matter of making myself satisfied with the way that it’s flowing. It took me a while to figure out how to carry that more personal voice consistently into the other material, but at a certain point I just got into the rhythm.
LP: How about the subject matter? Looking at it with my Bloom hat on, it doesn’t feel like the kind of book a younger writer would have or could have written, no matter how mature and insightful you were. Did you feel yourself growing into different ways of looking at it over the years?
MN: Oh, absolutely. In a lot of ways, this is what I was trying to write my entire life. The novel that I was trying to write for much of my 30s touched on all of these questions—it didn’t really touch on the spirituality piece in the way that I ended up getting to, but it circulated around everything else, particularly ideas around intergenerational trauma, although that wasn’t really a term that was around at the time. But legacies of mental illness and families, patterns repeating in seemingly uncanny ways, I’ve always been fascinated by those subjects. When I was younger, there’s no way that I could have written a book that was this wide-ranging. I feel like this is a book that only a middle-aged person could write. It’s explicitly about looking back in that way, not only at my family, but looking back at my own life from somewhere around the halfway point.
LP: I was impressed with the way you pulled out the spiritual threads. Did your feelings about religion or faith change as you were asking those questions and writing about them?
MN: I definitely have different feelings about spiritual life now than I did when I started the book. The explorations that I described have come to seem very real to me. But I also, as someone who comes from this fanatical religious background, am not the kind of person who would prescribe anything in particular for everyone. What I would say is that I’ve come to see imagination and spirituality as really linked for myself. And I’ve come to believe that it would be possibly helpful for many people who are looking for deeper meaning, but have some reticence around spirituality, to consider not defining what spirituality is quite so firmly and allowing themselves to imagine.
Particularly with the ancestor work—because of the dysfunction in my family going back in so many lines over generations, and because of the harms that my ancestors inflicted—it was helpful to me to allow myself to imagine that I might come from people, before those ancestors, who would also find enslaving people unthinkable. And who would also look at the behavior of my ancestors who pushed out Indigenous people on these lands and find that really troubling, and something that needed to be contemplated and reckoned with, not exclusively in a judging way, but in a more tenderhearted way of how do I approach this, and acknowledge this, and move forward in a way that allows me to show up better in the world for myself and others?
LP: I love that idea of imagination playing a part in spirituality. One thing I liked as I read was watching you reimagine your own sense of how you related to faith and to religion, to reimagine it not in the ways that your immediate ancestors or your parents, did, but in a way that’s meaningful to you. You talk about things that could be considered alternative without using the kind of language that would put off people who dislike New Age subjects. Did those wording and conceptual choices come naturally, or did you need to work to make sure that everything stayed exactly where you wanted it?
MN: I was anxious about the spiritual part from the beginning. I knew, and I write about this in the book, that I wanted to explore the spiritual importance of ancestors across the world and across time. And I knew that it would have felt problematic for me to go into other people’s practices and observe them, and write about it in a detached way. I did have an undeniable spiritual hunger around all of this, but it was very ill-defined. And I had a lot of anxiety about that because I come from all of this religious fanaticism. I am a fairly agnostic person, but I didn’t want to go into whatever exploration I was going to do from a place of doubt. So it was a tricky balance for me to go into this in a receptive spirit, and to find what might work for me in this way of looking at the relationship between the living family and the dead family.
I think the way that it came out is a reflection of the way that I am, and the way that I approach this. I tried to write as an openheartedly about it as I could, and not from a place of my inner critic. I think it’s in my nature, also, because of my legal background, to be as precise as I can.
LP: I was fascinated by the whole concept of the wellness of ancestors—I had never heard of that before, and lately I’m seeing it come up in a lot of contexts. I know you talk about it in Ancestor Trouble, but for folks who are going to be reading this before they pick up the book, could you explain a bit about it?
MN: To some degree I regret leaning so heavily on the word well, because I do think that’s a little bit of a freighted term, but the idea is that if an ancestor isn’t well, or elevated, then there’s a problem for the living family. This is an idea that cuts across a lot of cultures and goes back across time, as well. I was interested to find, for example, clear histories of this idea in ancient Greece and Rome. There is a lot of debate, as I discuss in the book, around the exact role that ancestors played and what ancestor spirituality looked like. There’s a pretty clear history in the Bible as well—you can see remnants of what a lot of scholars call ancestor cult, or household and family religion with ancestors playing a role.
It was interesting to me to trace this back to earlier times and see that there was this idea that not venerating or continuing to have some kind of rituals around the dead was considered to create problems for people who were alive. In these different practices that I’ve been interested in, there are explicit attempts to connect with, or imagine, the dead in different lines and identify these kinds of issues—for me, the objective reality of: Are there ancestor spirits? Am I connecting with them? What’s really going on here? There were a lot of times when I just thought, Well, maybe this is purely psychological. Maybe this is happening in my head. But does that really matter?
There’s this idea that when there are these unresolved things, or the ancestors aren’t recognized, that causes problems for the living family. And then there’s an idea that across a culture, the failure to recognize and reckon with harms in ancestral histories can create a huge problem on a community scale, or on a citywide or countrywide scale. So to me, even leaving aside the question of the objective reality of these practices, it’s interesting on a metaphorical level.
LP: To step out of your book for a minute and into your literary genealogy—you were one of the first wave of literary bloggers, a community I was part of too, a bit later. Back then we were all writing for each other, and for whomever was reading our work online, without any real model of where all that energy might go. I’m wondering if having done that kind of leap-of-faith writing influenced the way you write now.
MN: That’s a really interesting question. When I started blogging, I did it mostly because no one whom I was friends with in person wanted to talk about the same books that I wanted to talk about in the same way that I wanted to talk about them, and nobody really wanted to hear me endlessly pontificate about the unfairness of our tax system. It seemed like a good way to put it out there. I didn’t anticipate that it would last very long. But I do think that the blog form was a great fit for the kind of writer I am, in the sense that I’m someone who enjoys breaking down thoughts that feel urgent to me and sharing them. That was the first place that I could really do that and see how readers were responding.
I’m sure we all felt like, Well, what exactly are we doing here? At least I did. But it was fun at times, there was this sort of, Hey, that person read this, and they have this cool thing to say, and now I’m going to say this in response. So whenever I can tap into that excited energy, it’s really helpful to have had that experience. Even now sometimes, when I’m writing an essay, a lot of times I start in blogging software because I find it a sort of friendly, non-pressuring format. I think of the role that it played all those years ago, enabling me to feel like I can just figure out what I want to say and then say it, and that’s fine.
Lisa Peet is the Senior News Editor at Library Journal and a card-carrying bloomer herself.
Photo of Maud Newton by Maximus Clarke.
Click here to read Lisa Peet’s previous features