On “Poor Your Soul”: An Interview with Mira Ptacin

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At twenty-eight, Mira Ptacin discovered she was pregnant. While this wasn’t exactly welcome news, she ultimately embraced the idea of becoming a mother, and got engaged to the father she’d just recently begun dating. Before she and Andrew were even a year into their relationship, however, an ultrasound revealed that their child, whom they’d named Lily, would be born with a constellation of chromosomal birth defects, and zero chance of survival outside the womb. A dumbfounded Ptacin was given three options: terminate the pregnancy, induce early delivery, or wait and inevitably miscarry.

In relaying the story of all the complex factors that led to her decision to terminate, Ptacin treats readers to the expansive and unexpectedly funny, big-hearted, introspective, and sometimes contradictory tales of her family, her coming-of-age, her writing career, love life, and more. And throughout her debut memoir, Ptacin deftly parallels her own story with that of her mother, a lovable if idiosyncratic Polish immigrant who also experienced the grievous loss of a child, when her only son—the author’s brother—was killed by a drunk driver at age fourteen. The result is an even broader and more nuanced portrait of grief, but also of strength—mother and daughter find solace, healing, and great humor in each other. Ptacin’s title, in fact, is a nod to an expression her mother often used to keep her children out of trouble—a Polish interpretation of “your poor soul.”

Part of the joy of Ptacin’s memoir lies in its unpredictability. Poor Your Soul offers a devastating and often raw portrait of grief. But it is also a book that meanders and detours, indulging poignant reflections on sexuality, free will, genealogy, Catholicism, endurance, notions of home and family and marriage, and even of building supers with call girl habits. Throughout all this, Ptacin’s story only gains momentum—as her characters grow richer and more complex, the narrative becomes that much more compelling.

Poor Your Soul is also, at its core, a story of perseverance—a concept Ptacin knows all too intimately. The process of putting her “abortion book” into the world took eight years, time during which her therapist insisted she bury the manuscript in the ground, and during which her agent dropped her. Fortunately, the author never lost faith in her book, and proceeded to send it out on her own, ultimately finding a welcome home with Soho Press.

I caught up via phone with the tenacious Ptacin, who lives with her family and dogs on Peaks Island, Maine, shortly after the birth of her second child, and just before she set off on a nationwide book tour with her newborn in tow. I was glad to find the author every bit as warm, honest, thoughtful, and funny as her delightful memoir persona. Ptacin, a natural teacher, was particularly generous in addressing matters of structure, as well as the tension that can divide issue-driven work from personal narrative.

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Tell me about the moment you knew you needed to write a book about this experience.

I wasn’t planning on writing about myself at all [laughs]. When this happened, I was working on a project about a murder in my hometown. That’s what I took to the 2008 Squaw Valley Community of Writers conference, which I attended the week before I had my abortion. I had this fantastic instructor there, Jason Roberts, who looked at that manuscript and told me, “If you write this and it does well, you’ll be labeled as a true-crime writer, and that’s all. The excitement will wear off. What else is going on in your life?” I hadn’t told anyone else at the conference what was going on, but I gestured at my pregnant belly and said, “I have two days to decide whether to terminate this child’s life.” And Jason said, “Okay, you need to write about that, but not just the loss; you have to write about everything that goes around it.” He wasn’t trying to soothe me; he just talked to me about ways to go about writing my story. By the time I got home, made the decision to terminate, and went through with that trauma, I was totally in shock and didn’t know what to do with myself. Writing was the only way I could process those emotions.

The threads in this book are all so charged—not just the abortion, but your mother’s immigration story, and that of your younger brother’s tragic death. Tell me how you cobbled a cohesive memoir out of all this material.

I had written some pieces about Julian’s death and funeral back when I was maybe twenty-five, and I’d written about a girl in my hometown—a patient of my father’s back when I was young—who had lost her baby for similar reasons that I ended up losing mine. But I put them on the back burner; I thought of them as unrelated true stories. My first attempt at Poor Your Soul  resulted in a memoir only about my abortion—a few publishers called it a “short and muscular” book. But they also said, “Look, an abortion book is a PR nightmare. Can you bring in some other threads? Can we learn more about your family?” [Laughs.] That first draft was all in present tense, but early readers were like, “This is too raw; it seems like she’s processing it on the page.” And I was like, “But that’s the point. Grief isn’t tidy—I wanted people to know what it felt like, because when it’s in present tense it’s really raw and filtered and you feel like you’re right there.

So what made you ultimately alter the tense?

It came down to the effort of trying to work in my past. One early reader pointed me to Cheryl Strayed’s flashbacks along the trail in Wild. But, I still didn’t know which flashbacks from my own life to include, and it’s not that fun for me to sit there dwelling about my past—especially about childish decisions I’ve made. But it did lead me understanding how violin lessons could have led to low self-esteem, or how switching schools might’ve led to rebellion. I listened to how my body reacted to such connections, to determine whether they felt like honest links. And I interviewed my parents, which felt sort of unnatural. Once I had all the material and knew what I was gonna write about, I sat with it, and tried all these different structures—threw up blueprint after blueprint until after about a year, it finally clicked.

Did you work with any structural models?

Structure is super fun and baffling for me—it’s such a matrix when you can finally see it, like one of those Magic Eye 3-D posters. I didn’t know it existed until I went to grad school [at Sarah Lawrence College] and studied with the phenomenal Vijay Seshadri and Suzanne Hoover. Now everything I read, I kind of study it for structure. Jo Ann Beard has been a huge influence for me, as has Wild. I think John McPhee is brilliant with structure, as are Nick Flynn and Abigail Thomas—I love when short little micro essays are compiled into a memoir.

I’ve read that you hope to avoid being labeled as an “abortion writer.”

As a writer, there’s always the whole self-induced pressure of whether you wanna market yourself, and build your brand and your buzz. But on social media, I never find myself drifting toward the yes-and-no debate of abortion, nor fighting for it. I’m pro-choice, but I think I make more of an impact when I’m writing about one individual at a time. Because I think abortion is a personal decision for everyone, and I don’t like to generalize it. As a writer I’m more concerned with individual stories, no matter what they’re about. You can’t lump people into one category.

Speaking of which, you teach memoir-writing in a women’s prison in Maine. How has your students’ work affected you as a writer?

I give a lot of G-rated prompts, like, “Write about your first memory of birthday cake,” or something horrible, and we end up learning so much about these women’s—many of them are lifers—lives, their youths, their teenage years. They write about all sorts of complex factors that led to whatever decision or decisions ultimately resulted in their incarceration. It’s why I can’t imagine writing to a topic, rather than trying to tell a personal story. Teaching reminds me that people are just so complex—so much more than one decision or viewpoint.

How has your family responded to the book?

My husband and family have been totally supportive and open, and they’ve always been like that. We’re kind of open-book people—no one has ever been too guarded with their emotions; we wear our hearts on our sleeves. My parents are smart people; they said they know this is my interpretation of the truth, and that they respect my perspective, that they know it’s not “revenge writing” or anything like that.

You’re about to set off on a big book tour that’ll kick off in your home town of Battle Creek, Michigan. What kind of reception are you anticipating, considering a lot of your story takes place there?

It’s the place on the tour I’m most nervous about, because that’s where I grew up, and lot of readers there will be people I used to know, like high school friends I’m no longer in touch with. Plus, all my parents’ friends there will be reading about my sex life—or just, you know, the fact that I have a vagina. Every time I’m around them I feel like a kid—like, “Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, it’s me, Mrs. Ptacin’s daughter”—so that’ll be a little strange. But I’m hoping Battle Creek people will be enlightened about the complexities of the situation of abortion, for everybody, in every situation. There’s so much that goes into that decision, a whole history of life that influences that one decision you make. That’s kind of my aim for the book—that people will develop a sense of empathy toward a decision people make, that they’ll realize it’s not just a basic, general decision, like a simple yes or no. And also that everyone, I think, is trying their best.

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Poor Your Soul is available through Soho Press and Amazon.

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