June 6, 2023

American poet and author Maggie Smith exudes a blissful warmth, so it seemed appropriate—a happy combination of author and location—that her recent book tour included an evening at a Brooklyn church. The pews were packed with admirers, many feverishly reading her new memoirs as they waited for her to speak.

The book ‘You Could Make This Place Beautiful’ is about the breakdown of Mrs Smith’s marriage – from her discovery of her husband’s affair to his decision to elope – and how writing helped her survive it. Attentive readers will recognize the title as a line from her 2016 viral poem “Good Bones,” which became a social media hit and subsequently a wider cultural phenomenon, a “mantra of hope in troubled times,” as Slate put it.

“You Could Make This Place Beautiful,” which just debuted on The New York Times Best Seller List at No. 3 for hardback nonfiction, is actually the second book Ms. Smith has written about her divorce. (The first was “Keep Moving,” released in 2020.) Somewhere between the release of “Good Bones” and now, Ms. Smith became the most surprising of all, a famous poet.

But if she has been a beneficiary of her success, she has also been a victim of it. As she says in the book, “My marriage was never the same after that poem.”

In the church, where Mrs. Smith – dressed in a black and white dress and a pair of pink heels – was talking to the writer Leslie Jamison, the audience was permeated Q. and A. with fangirl dizziness. (“Love your dress,” one question began.) There were several questions about Mrs. Smith’s writing process, and one about her former husband, an unnamed lawyer who rambles obnoxiously through her book, both villain and cipher.

“Did you have the impulse to ask someone’s permission,” one woman asked, “and worried about how your ex-husband would feel?”

Mrs. Smith smiled serenely. “I respect and appreciate that question so much, and um, no, I didn’t feel the need to ask anyone for permission,” she said. She added, “I can’t make decisions in my life based on fear.”

In the book, she describes how, shortly after her husband left the home he shared with her and their two children, she emailed him a draft of an essay she had written about their breakup for the “Modern Love” column. of the Times. He responded, she says, with a bossy litany of proposed changes — minor corrections to details — designed to show him in a better light. Told by her editor that the changes would “weaken” the piece, she rejected most of them.

This time, she said, she had no interest in soliciting feedback, suggestions, or permission of any kind from her former husband. She hadn’t even told him about the book beforehand.

“If you want someone not to ask you for input on their writing,” she said in an interview, speaking of her ex, “it’s a good way to do those kinds of edits.”

Mrs. Smith was chatting in the empty lobby of her Brooklyn hotel the day before the church event. She is as forthright, friendly and accommodating in conversation as she is at work. But despite her apparent candor, there’s a feat of steel in her, a sense that after thoroughly examining her experience from every angle in the book, she doesn’t want to be second-guessing.

‘Keep Moving’, Mrs Smith’s latest book, interspersed short essays with inspirational advice and confirmation in Twitter-sized bits. (Indeed, many of them first appeared on Twitter.) Sample snack: “Write to breathe on your to-do list. To write blink. To write to sit And to eat. Then cross off everything. How satisfying! Give yourself credit for living. KEEP MOVING.”

The book was received as a cry of hope for a depressed world full of people who, like Mrs. Smith, were dealing with personal crises in the midst of global catastrophe. It had special resonance for women who juggle work, home, children and partners from their locked bedrooms. Glennon Doyle, another writer who has gained a huge following by covering the vicissitudes of her personal life in multiple bestselling memoirs, enthusiastically faded the book. (She said it’s a reminder that “you that you can feel deep loss and survive, sink into life’s deep beauty and continually make yourself new.”)

Mrs. Smith, of course, understands the irony of her situation: that the debacle at home provided material for the book, which in turn gave her new financial security to support herself. The material also gave her the impetus – and the public – to write a second book. As one friend noted on Instagram when Ms. Smith announced plans to publish “Keep Moving,” “You took those lemons and made lemonade, then you added MF vodka to it.”

Yes, says Mrs. Smith in “You Could Make This Place Beautiful” – but.

“I’m trying to tell you the truth, so let me be clear: I didn’t want this lemonade,” she writes. “My kids didn’t want this lemonade. The lemonade was not worth the lemons. And yet the lemons were mine. I had to make something of it, so I did. I wrote.”

At church, audiences spoke of the rawness and honesty of Mrs. Smith’s work, how it feels like she is speaking directly to them.

“There’s something so comforting and familiar about sitting down with her writing,” says Brianna Avenia-Tapper, 41, an editor and writer working on her own memoir, which she describes as being about “birth, control, and birth control.” She added added, “It’s kind of a thing to write about divorce right now, and I like the sense of welcome and warmth she brings to it.”

“Keep Moving” was Mrs Smith’s fourth book, following three collections of poetry. She had previously won numerous writing awards and her poems had been widely published in magazines and magazines, including The New Yorker and The Paris Review. But with ‘Keep Moving’ she invited the world to look into her home and her psyche.

“Is it sometimes nerve-racking to write something very personal?” she said in the interview. ‘Yes, because when you write something, you send it out like a note in a bottle. The more people I send it to, the more likely it is to be misinterpreted or judged.

Ms Smith called it an “honour” to be read more. But it has garnered additional attention in real time.

“I was able to write my first three books without having any idea of ​​the reader’s expectations,” she said. “But how can I keep doing this and pretend no one is watching?”

Credit…Atria, via Associated Press

Ms. Smith addresses this in the memoir, which isn’t so much a linear story as a series of musings – some short essays, some chapters as short as a line – and a meta-dissection of writing about something so raw and moving. It is also an excavation, a murder investigation, an attempt to answer questions that are themselves difficult to articulate. What happened? Why did it happen? Was there one cause? Is there a way to make peace with the unknown? How are you supposed to tell a story that is so complicated? She returns to these questions over and over again.

As outlined in the book, the rifts in her marriage were well known, especially the gender dynamic: she usually took care of the house and children, wrote at home in her free (“free”) time, while her husband usually earned the money she deserved. paid the bills and benefited from a status quo where she took care of the details that were the scaffolding for their family life.

But when “Good Bones” became unexpectedly famous – when the second half of it was read by a character on the TV show “Madam Secretary,” when Meryl Streep recited it at a poetry gala at Lincoln Center, when it made Twitter and Instagram feeds swept over and was crowned “the official poem of 2016” – the demands on the author multiplied. Suddenly Mrs. Smith wasn’t just a mother and wife who wrote poems when she had a spare moment. She was invited to lectures, conferences and seminars; her husband had to pick up the slack.

Her husband, she says, was not happy.

“When I called home from a trip, I remember feeling like I was in trouble,” she writes. “I had made his life more difficult, and maybe I could pay for it with the silent treatment or a cold reception when I got home.”

Ms Smith feels comfortable making herself her own subject and said she rejected the idea of ​​fictionalizing her divorce in the manner of, say, Nora Ephron stabbing her ex-husband, Carl Bernstein, in her novel ‘Heartburn’.

“That would not have addressed part of my goal, which is to understand my experience,” Ms Smith said. She says she was partly inspired by the writing of the likes of Deborah Levy and Rachel Cusk, but with elements of experimentation in her form. “There’s a whole genre of the divorce memorandum and at the same time I didn’t want this to be just that,” she said.

Ms Smith said she was dating again and happy, although she declined to go into details. She added that she would never fully understand what happened in her marriage, largely because she says her husband (who declined a request to be interviewed for this article) never fully explained why he cheated and why he left . That’s the fundamental mystery that underpins ‘You Could Make This Place Beautiful’.

However, one thing is clear to her. “My writing wasn’t the problem,” she said. “It was the solution.”