The bestselling author and daughter of legendary filmmaker John Huston discusses the differences between writing her memoir and her first novel
Brought up by the American film director John Huston, Allegra Huston was 12 years old when she was introduced to her biological father, the English historian John Julius Norwich. In her memoir, Love Child, she looks back on her experience being born into Hollywood and growing up in a shifting family dynamic, first losing her mother at age four, and later meeting Norwich.
Following her mother’s death, Huston lived at the family’s stately home in Ireland before moving in with her sister Anjelica and Jack Nicholson in the Hollywood Hills. Although few of us can claim to have been taught chess by Marlon Brando, Huston is clear she had little in interest writing about celebrity.
“I didn’t want to write a Hollywood book, and it’s not a Hollywood book, and some people were disappointed that it wasn’t,” she says. “But that’s not the book that I wanted to write. What was interesting to me was to write a family book.” For Huston, writing Love Child was ultimately about finding her place.
“I think that my memoir is about becoming the leading character in your own life, because I grew up as the younger sister of one of the most beautiful women in the world, and the child of the man around whom the universe turned, and so I always felt like a sort of supporting character in my own life,” she explains. “I realised that much of the motivation was giving myself the feeling of being at the centre of my own life, and at the centre of my kind of far-flung and peculiarly shaped family.”
Having just published her first novel in July, Say My Name, Huston found a surprising number of similarities between writing fiction and autobiography. Drawing on her experience, she will be hosting a memoir-writing workshop at Belmond La Residenca in Deia, Mallorca this October.
“The more that you can surprise yourself when you’re writing anything – whether it’s a memoir or a novel – the more energy it has,” she says. The element of surprising yourself is, she has found, key to the success of both forms of writing. “I would say the difficulty of memoir writing is that you know the material too well. You’ve told the stories too many times.”
Looking at familiar situations from different angles is one of way of bringing freshness to the page. Accepting and embracing what you can’t remember can be just as important. “Not trying to fill in the gaps with some explanation and judgement. Just saying, ‘I don’t remember,’ was a very powerful thing and something I think people really responded to in my book.”
In all cases, Huston thinks it’s a mistake for writers to wait for inspiration to strike. “There’s this wonderful quote from Chuck Close: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.’”