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Louisville author Erin Keane investigates her family history and pop culture in her new book

 Louisville author, poet and culture writer Erin Keane.
Alix Mattingly
Louisville author, poet and culture writer Erin Keane.

A new book from Louisville author Erin Keane has landed on NPR’s 2022 Books We Love list.

Runaway: Notes on the Myths that Made Me,” released by Belt Publishing in September, is part memoir, part reportage and part cultural criticism – a reflection on her family history and how pop culture can shape society’s perceptions spurred on by a confluence of factors.

Keane’s mother ran away from home at 13. She married a much older man several years later.

Her father died when Keane was young, and she had viewed her parents’ love story as a sort of fairy tale for a significant part of her life.

That shifted after Keane covered stories about gender and power within the entertainment industry as a culture reporter and critic.

In her book, Keane wrote about reckoning with a film she had loved and its creator.

Woody Allen’s 1979 “Manhattan” centers on a twice-divorced, dispirited TV writer named Isaac who starts to date 17-year-old Tracy.

In 2015, Mariel Hemingway, who played Tracy in the film, released a memoir, which detailed unwanted advances from Allen. It would be the first of many stories that Keane would cover on similar subject matter.

“Manhattan was my favorite movie, and so I had to sit with that for a moment and wonder why,” Keane told LPM News. “I had literally never thought about the fact or I guess, maybe not the fact but the idea, that it was because the teenage-adult age gap relationship in that movie, which is presented as a romantic comedy, also in many ways kind of mirrored my parents. And that sort of shook me to the core and made me start to question a lot of things that I thought that I knew about my family.”

Additionally, working on a Father’s Day essay triggered a desire within Keane to fill in the gaps of her fuzzy memories of her parents and their relationship, turning to her mother to get those answers.

“I was trying to reconstruct things that I didn't know about their relationship before I was born,” Keane said. “I wanted to know things like, tell me about your first date, because I had never heard that story. Tell me about the first time that you met… By the time I finished writing that essay, I just had more questions about her.”

In “Runaway,” Keane, who is Salon’s editor-in-chief, faculty at Spalding University’s School of Writing and a former arts reporter for LPM, scrutinizes similar storylines in film and TV. She also, using public records requests and journalistic inquiry, digs up some of the missing pieces of her father’s story and asks bigger questions about erasure and whose stories get told – including challenging laws and views on teen runaways in the 70s.

Below are excerpts from Keane’s conversation with LPM News, edited for clarity and brevity.

On her understanding of her parents’ relationship shifting:

“It had never been presented to me as a scandalous thing necessarily, that he was 36 when she was 15 when they married. The fact that she had been a teen runaway was a scandalous thing. But by the time I came along, she was an adult and a mother… So I grew up not really questioning that part of it. I think the way that we often do accept the stories of our families as this is just the way that it is, that this the water that you swim in so you don't even notice the water. And it really took these outside stories around us that I was looking at for work to make me think, ‘Oh, wait a second. Perhaps I'm a product of this culture as well, like literally a product of it.’”

On interviewing her mom for the book, who Keane stresses does not view herself as a victim:

“The first time I interviewed my mother for what became this project, I was writing a Father's Day essay … It started with an eye toward my father. And I think that that is a common thing that we do, which is, if we can just figure out why the man did the thing that he did, then that's the heart of the story. He died when I was 5 so I could not ask him, ‘What was it that made you think marrying a 15-year-old, once she did tell you how old she was, was appropriate or at all an OK thing to do. But I realized there was a lot about my mother that I didn't know, that I had really pushed for in the space between the stories she would tell. So I went back to her, and we did lots of interviews over the years… When I was getting ready to sign the contract for it, I said, ‘Are you still okay with me writing this book? And she said, ‘Yes.’”

On how writing the book affected her relationship with her mother:

“Now having finished this book, I feel like I understand her a little better knowing more about her experiences. It was important to me for the book to reflect also that there were some harrowing things she went through when she was out there hitchhiking across the country and living by her wits. But there were also some really fun times that she had. And I thought that that was important to put in there because it sort of explains, to me at least, why she stayed gone. Also that freedom that she had as a teenager was not the kind of freedom she would have had at home and she really did have some good times and some bad times as well. Understanding that kind of, I think, answered some large lingering questions that somewhere inside of me had always had about my mother's past. So I feel closer to her now. It's interesting with my father, his absence was such a huge part of my life growing up and even as an adult. That sense of loss that came at such an early age for me, it was very formative. I don't have a full memory of a time in my life from where I didn't know that the most important thing in your life could be taken from you. So I have missed him almost my whole life really, but working on this book and writing my way through what I can know has actually put me at peace with what I can't know. I feel like I met him a little more on the page.”

On the notion of ‘separating the art from the artist’ that Keane interrogated when squaring with her own favorite pieces of culture:

“Maybe the question now that I ask myself is, ‘How does knowing something about how that artist moves through the workplace, moves through the world as a person in a position of relative power, how does that affect the art they're making? And I think that should not be out of bounds [for a reporter to cover] and it shouldn't be seen as somehow a more narrow way to look at the art. I feel like we've always evaluated art through also what we know about the biography of the person who made it. So I guess separating the art and the artist, people only ask that, I think, when the artist has done something that people consider to be bad. Does anybody ever asked can I separate the art from the artist when the artist is just like, ‘Well, gosh, they're just like a really cool person’… That doesn't seem to be as broad of a question.”

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