Like Love: A Conversation with Michele Morano

by Philip Graham

Michele Morano’s first collection of essays, Grammar Lessons: Translating a Life in Spain, is a classic of travel literature that I have taught several times, to the great pleasure of over a decade’s worth of students. Now she has bested the power of that excellent book with a new collection of essays, Like Love. This book too, in a way, is a travel book, but one that stays close to home as Morano discovers and examines in her life the surprisingly varied terrains of affection, infatuation, love and devotion. And in this travel, Morano embraces the side paths that require uncommon honesty and self-examination that often go unspoken or unwritten. Readers following Michele Morano on this journey will be rewarded with their own moments of revelation, which may breathe life into memories perhaps long neglected.

Philip Graham: I have long been an admirer of your writing, but your new book of nonfiction, Like Love, has taken my appreciation to new heights. Right from the start, the title tells a reader something special is afoot. Such a seemingly simple pairing of two single-syllable words, and yet, placed together, they resonate with many possible readings that only deepen as one proceeds through the book. What is the history of this title, was it an early, middle or late inspiration as you were writing the collection?

Michele Morano: Thank you, Philip, I appreciate your asking about the new book’s title, which came somewhat early in the process. I’d published a third of the essays as stand-alone pieces before recognizing the theme of odd romances, relationships that don’t follow the usual storylines, in my work—and in my life. I decided to make a book, and because I’ve always loved the title of Lorrie Moore’s short story collection, Like Life, I took inspiration from it for the title essay and the book as a whole. Like Love refers to all the unconsummated, shimmering infatuations, entanglements, relationships, and taboo attractions that happen throughout our lives.

PG: Yes, that’s one of the great powers of Like Love, your granular examination of “relationships that don’t follow the usual storylines.” The book seems to reside in the conceptually vast space between those two words, the varied emotional worlds between “like” and “love.” Though those worlds, as you show in essay after essay, overlap as well.

MM: They do overlap. And sometimes morph into one another. And sometimes remain stubbornly far apart, as much as you’d like them not to. It’s easy to feel guilty or abashed about however the emotions go, as if it’s your fault or a reflection of how good a person you are. In writing these essays, I tried to resist that guilt and judgment and look in an unflinching way at the messiness of attraction.

PG: Messiness indeed! You mention, in the essay “Ars Romantica (or a Dozen ways of Looking at Love),” that in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and The Art of Love–both works filled with tales of love–“desire has a single end, and once it’s achieved the story moves on.” Not so in Like Love! I’m thinking of the essay “Breaking and Entering,” where so many overlapping desires are wrapped around the single scene of you and your brother helping your mom break into the family home you’d all left precipitously two months earlier. I’m in awe of how you balanced the emotional push and pull of it all in an event that, in real time, couldn’t have taken more than an hour.

MM: That’s the beauty of a tight structure: it lets you play with time. I learned about suspension of time from William Faulkner, particularly those long, seemingly wild sentences of Absalom, Absalom, in which the past, present, and future loop around one another until they all seem to be happening at once. If you have a relatively short episode with a little bit of drama to it, you can step away again and again, usually at moments of tension—not huge tension, just enough for the reader to stay with you for a digression—and roam around offering context, revisiting the past, even offering glimpses of what will come next.

Structure is the most important element of writing for me. I don’t feel like I have a handle on an essay until I figure out its structure. For that reason, “Ars Romantica (Or a Dozen Ways of Looking at Love)” gave me fits. It contains a story, but there’s also a huge idea at the center, requiring research and lots of retrospection, so it took a while to figure out the mechanics of it. There were thirteen sections for a while, then ten, then finally twelve, and I ended up using subtitles as guideposts—for myself as well as for readers.

PG: I love that—guideposts first for you, and then you kindly kept them for the reader. And what subtitles they are: Geometrically, Mythologically, Self-servingly, etc. The titles themselves drive a reader’s curiosity: what do you mean, Linguistically? Gotta find out! As you say, “The verb to love means so very many things.” Within this wide spectrum one can love pink shutters, a valley, a partner. Your brief mantra of “observe, experience, interrogate” may be the secret to the brilliance of your book, the clear-sightedness you bring to affection, love, passion.

I find this perhaps most admirable in the long essay, “All the Power this Charm Doth Owe.” When I first realized you’d be devoting nearly 40 pages to the early days of your relationship with Kevin, the man who would become your life partner, I initially worried how you could possibly avoid being cloying, sentimental or self-involved. Silly me.

MM: Oh, that essay also gave me fits. The first draft was too long, and every time I sat down to revise, I’d cut and cut, then fill in gaps and discover I’d added more pages. It wasn’t possible to tell the story more efficiently. It’s so interesting that you characterize this essay as about the early days of my relationship with Kevin, which it certainly is. But the essay grew from the scene at the end, where I take my mother to the airport and kind of fall apart, so I think of it as primarily about my mother. Maybe the reason the Kevin story doesn’t feel sentimental is that I conceived of it as the surface-level story that allows me to get to the real subject: the first, most difficult, most painful of all the romances in my life.

PG: Yes, the deepening of your relationship with Kevin takes place during the two weeks your mother is visiting you in Iowa City—a kind of reckoning for both daughter and mother, as that relationship has long been fraught with resentment and disappointment. Kevin’s gentle presence during those weeks, his acceptance of your mom, helps you achieve a kind of peace. In some ways this essay is about transition: letting go of the worst rituals of your childhood relationship with your mother, while at the same time taking the first steps into what will become the stable relationship of your adult life. It’s like the passing of a baton. I actually clapped in applause at the end of this essay.

MM: That’s so great to hear. It’s tough to write honestly about family, and especially to admit to thoughts and feelings we aren’t proud of. Every essay in this book contains at least one moment that made my shoulders rise up toward my ears, and each time that happened I tried not to back away or soft-pedal but instead to move toward the discomfort. It’s important to bring that stuff into the open, not for any kind of therapeutic value but because the hard truths of being human like to hide in the shadows and that’s what interests me. What can I interrogate and excavate in my own experience in order to get beyond that experience to something larger?

PG: And in doing so, you show the path forward to your readers. Most people argue with themselves in their thoughts—it’s one of the most common varieties of daydreaming, I think. My favorite moment in Wrinkles, a novel by Charles Simmons, is when the main character, a lover of movies, in his later years watches them less and less because, he realizes, the directors don’t know as much about life as he does. The best writers offer readers insight we need–they offer, as Ezra Pound once observed, “news that stays news.” Like Love delivers that news in every essay, and though you primarily explore cis territory, your gaze is so granular that I think it transcends the local, in the same way, for example, that anyone, regardless of sexual identity, can learn much from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.

Now I’d like to ask an actual question. The essays in Like Love are all clearly stand-alone works, and yet there seems to be a rough chronological structure to the collection. How much of that was planned, and how much serendipity?

MM: A little serendipity, a lot of planning. Over the years I’d written about the breakup of my family and the relationship with my mother, so I had a few essays drafted that were like a mini-memoir. But I didn’t have enough to say on that topic to expand it into a full-length work. At the same time, I’d drafted a couple of pieces about weird romances that weren’t quite romances, and I started thinking about the common denominators.

Many years ago, I read an interview with Jamaica Kincaid in which she described her mother as the great love of her life and the first heartbreak. That was true for me as well, so I wanted to play around with the notion of romance as being larger than how we normally think of it and applying in many different situations. It didn’t take long to map out a full collection though of course it took time to write all the pieces. In the first draft I ordered everything chronologically, but that didn’t work well because of big gaps in time and because I’m not trying to tell the story of my life. I’m telling various stories of the way romances, big and small, accumulate and shift and challenge our perspective.

In the end, I decided to organize the adult stories a-chronologically, with the stories about my mother woven between them in chronological order, a kind of refrain. The idea was to capture the way formative stories stay with us and influence how we understand later experiences. And then as you mention, the book ends with my becoming a mother, with all the reflections on motherhood that come with that identity.

PG: Which brings us to “The Married Kiss,” the last essay in Like Love. I remember this distinction, from my childhood and fatherhood, the necessary limitations of how healthy affection is expressed between parent and child. I have never, ever seen anyone write about this moment, in fiction or nonfiction. But you go there. And yet I notice this essay is written in the third person, as if your honesty needs to be leavened with grammatical distance.

MM: Exactly. The uncomfortable part of this essay was admitting that for the first year of my son’s life, I didn’t love him. That’s not what we expect from mothers, and our culture is so judgmental about motherhood—and parenthood in general—that I wanted to guard against the impulse to explain away or seem to apologize for my experience. Curiously, I didn’t feel that same need for distance when describing the romance of parenting, but third person allowed me to think in a more expansive way. It was freeing to escape the repetition of “I.” The book ends by enacting the separation inherent to the memoir writing process, when you have to split into two selves, the writer and the person who lived the events, and cast a dispassionate eye on experience that has become “material.”

When I first talked with my editor Kristen Elias Rowley about the book, she had read most of it but not the final essay. She expressed a very slight concern…or that’s even too strong a word, it was like the scent of potential concern… about how readers might react to “Crushed,” which is about having a crush on a young student, and I jokingly said, “Wait until you get to the essay about the romance of mothering, which by the way is written in third person.” There was a pause and she said something to the effect of, “I usually don’t love third-person essays.” I usually don’t love third-person essays either, but in “The Married Kiss,” that point of view felt like it was opening up and getting to something first-person couldn’t. In the end, Kristen saw that, too, and didn’t ask me to change it. It’s an unusual way to end the book, and I haven’t completely figured out why it feels right to me.

PG: On the last page of Like Love, your son, who’s five or six at the time, holds you tight and delivers what he calls “the married kiss,” a romantic smooch whose techniques he’s observed from watching movies. Your internal response to this “provocative and powerful, silly and sublime” moment is deeply honest, a final summing up of all the honesty you’ve offered from the first page onward.

I suppose here’s the place in our conversation where I need to get personal too, to explain one reason why so much of your book has deeply affected me. When I was around the same age as your son was, I too surprised my mother with a romantic clinch—it was innocent and passionate both. Her response was harsh and dismissive, and for many years after hampered my willingness to express physical affection to others. Then, when I was a father, my daughter, who was also around that age of five, surprised me with a similar kiss. I remember that moment in great emotional detail, as I tried to figure out how to disengage without humiliating my child and how to, with my words, set a clear boundary in a gentle way and not make my mother’s mistake. I think Like Love will give many readers, by the example of your clearheaded vision, in this essay and elsewhere in the collection, a means to remember, reexamine and perhaps reassess the small but important memories of their own emotional lives. What a gift.

MM: Wow, thank you for sharing these episodes. I never imagined while writing the essay that it might reach a grown-up version of my son. I think your mother’s unfortunate reaction speaks to the importance of being honest about and unafraid of the romantic situations and storylines that show up throughout our lives. There are so many of them. Telling the various stories in Like Love meant thinking long and hard about what romance means and how its overdetermined value in our culture often works against us. Crushes, infatuations, situations that shimmer dangerously: sometimes they’re truly destabilizing, but a lot of times they just have to be withstood, just gotten through (ideally with a sense of humor) until they fade. But they can be beautiful, too, and enlightening, provoking deep reflection on who we are and how we live.