BookLife Talks with Vanya Erickson
A sponsored Q&A with the author of 'Boot Language'
In this lushly written debut, memoirist Erickson uncovers her father’s Pearl Harbor trauma and finds her own path to healing in the Sierra Nevadas.
You grew up with a Christian Scientist mother and a WWII veteran father who suffered from alcoholism and PTSD. How did these aspects of your parents’ lives inform your memoir?Boot Language is essentially the story of a child torn between two worlds, of how she makes her way and finds her voice. My mother’s religion played a key role in my story, particularly her decision to pray rather than rush to the hospital when I was a bleeding newborn. But I prefer to look to her love of poetry and music, her gentle hands, and her inventive use of language.
My father’s PTSD and alcoholism were the result of years of war in the Pacific. He never once mentioned that he was at Pearl Harbor. He self-medicated with alcohol, but his flashbacks of the war provided a deeper truth. I began to list his many gifts: that riding in the high Sierras is nothing short of heaven; that books can transform your life; that Beethoven was a brilliant badass.
Tell us what you mean by the expression “boot language”?
When I was young, I coined the term boot language to describe my father’s approaching footsteps. I could predict his moods based on these sounds. This is how I managed to survive. Fast forward to adulthood, where I had completely blocked this out, though I was living its negative effects with self-harm.
Tell us about the role of place in Boot Language.
The book is set in two places: the city and the mountains. The city represents my love of the arts, but the Sierra Nevada mountains hold my heart. We have a long history together, the Sierras and I, as gnarled and magnificent as a bristlecone pine. I am unable to look in any one direction without the visceral memory of some event pinning me to that place. This is where my life was ripped open and made whole again.
You’ve written elsewhere about the writing process. What did you find most challenging about writing a memoir?
The most difficult part of memoir is sitting down to write the hard stuff. At first, I wrote pretty words masking my past. I thought nobody would ever want to know the details. To get to the real story, I needed to immerse myself in the scenes I had tried so hard to forget. This broke me wide open and reshaped the truth: I wasn’t the only one who was damaged.
Who is your ideal reader and why?
My ideal reader is a woman who has experienced trauma or a person who loves or helps her: teachers, librarians, counselors, therapists, friends, and family. These are the people who are willing to discover how one frightened girl rose above it all and became a strong, caring woman inspiring others to find their light.
What is the one thing you most want others to know about you or your book?
Once I realized that there is no complete healing from trauma, I could stop blaming myself for not “getting over” my past. All of my experiences—the good and the bad—shaped me and gave me purpose. They propelled me to write and to teach and protect children, especially those on the edges of society, those others aren’t noticing. Kids like me. There is goodness embedded in the horrific. Life and Boot Language hold both.