Q&A with Robert Fromberg, author of ‘How to Walk with Steve’
Fromberg will discuss his debut memoir, which chronicles his guardianship at only 19 of his brother, at a launch event on Sept. 26.
Robert Fromberg, a corporate communications professional with a lengthy creative writing pedigree, moved to Madison three years ago. He did it for love — the most recent of many geographical choices his heart has made throughout his lifetime. One journey in particular — the deaths of both of his parents by the time he was just 19, triggering his unexpected role as guardian of his brother, who has autism — is what Fromberg chronicles in tender, flashbulb, sensory-driven prose in “How to Walk with Steve,” his debut memoir out this month from Latah Books. The book — which marks his return to creative writing after a 20-year break — is primarily focused on Fromberg’s unpredictable childhood and young adulthood, rife with addiction and the family dynamics of navigating autism in the 1960s and 70s. An online reading and launch event is planned for Sept. 26 at 1 p.m.
How did your writing journey lead you to Madison?
I moved to Madison for love. I came here three years ago to marry Sheryl Lilke, a Madison psychotherapist I first met in 1995 when we worked together at a publishing company in Chicago. And speaking of love, I love Madison. It is a combination of the best parts of all my favorite cities. Place is very important in my life and writing. The original title of my memoir was Peoria because of the way that city, conservative home of Caterpillar Tractor, butt of many jokes, loomed over my artist parents and me as I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s. I was a fan of Andy Warhol and everything New York, so at age 16 I left, alone, for the Lower East Side of New York, where I ended up spending more time at CBGB than I did writing.
When my parents died, I returned to Peoria to care for my autistic younger brother, Steve. I started writing in earnest and ended up at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College; Steve and I and moved to North Carolina, where excellent programs existed for him. A few years later, again yearning for the big city, I moved to Chicago, where I taught writing for almost 20 years at Northwestern University. I stopped teaching because I stopped writing. I found I could no longer access what poet William Stafford called the “weak, wandering, diffident impulses” of the writer. Now, being in a place I love and with a person I love has freed me. My memoir came tumbling out, along with dozens of stories and essays — far more fun and idiosyncratic than anything I have ever written — that I’ve been fortunate enough to publish in various journals.
How did this book come to be?
One reason I stopped writing was that I was ignoring the painful, untidy truths lying around in my brain and body. You can’t write when you’re hiding like that, and in some ways I suppose you can’t really live. So it seemed my task was to do some mental and emotional spring cleaning — not with the goal of writing a book, just of looking hard at those piles, re-experiencing those events, trying to see them clearly, maybe sorting them out a bit. I simply wrote the episodes that I seemed to have been hiding from. At some point the episodes seemed to hang together and I realized I was probably writing a book.
This memoir is presented in sort of “flash bulb” moments, the sort I often associate with my earliest memories, which gave it a very authentic feel. How did you settle on this structure? How did you connect with those early memories?
My entire focus in writing was to testify to the moments that felt defining to me. If I did that well, I assumed that themes and other kinds of coherence would emerge. But I didn’t want to examine the material from that kind of distance or with that kind of intellectual perspective. I did limit myself to my younger life — through about age 25 — because those moments seemed the most prominent in my memory. The last chapter and a kind of coda show events around the time I was writing the book and particularly my more recent life with Steve. That was an entirely instinctive move, but did provide a loose ribbon around the book. Fortunately, the publisher, Latah Books in Spokane, Washington, was open to a book with a somewhat unusual structure. But still entertaining and often funny, I’ve been told!
How were you able to successfully pull off writing from your own childhood perspective?
I was fiercely intent on staying inside the child’s — and later, the young adult’s — point of view. Almost as though I was being asked to testify to the events in court and omit any interpretation. That required a fair amount of effort to avoid easy shortcuts, assumptions, justifications. However, I had stopped writing because I was avoiding some form of truth, so it seemed important to not flinch from the actual experiences and sensations in those childhood moments. I suppose you could say this approach was inherently limiting, but in another sense it was freeing. I was finally able to tell the Censor and the Evaluator to shut up so I could see what was before my eyes.
Did you find yourself surprised by anything in the process of writing so intimately about your brother’s autism that perhaps you didn’t see coming?
These close memories of my life with Steve reinforced his role, for me, as a kind of mentor. Like a writer, Steve lives at the intersection of the demands of a hard-to-understand external world and an idiosyncratic but compelling internal world. What I learned from Steve, over the almost 60 years he and I have been together, is the beauty and magic and logic-less value of the things that Steve loves, whether it’s highway signs or school buses or doorknobs. And that frees me to love the things I love, whether they make sense to anyone else or abide by the dicta of the external world. (By the way, I recently wrote several essays on this topic for The Dillydoun Review.)
I’m struck by how hard young Robert is on himself; the eggshells, the perfectionism, the weight of feeling responsible for an entire family’s feelings. Was there any sort of therapeutic discovery for you in writing this memoir, whether in how you see yourself or how you see your parents?
The therapeutic process of writing the book has been very successful. Recreating the stultifying illogic of a young person’s mind, facing down the painful experiences — all that has seemed to put those sensations in a container. They inform, but don’t haunt me now. I feel lighter. And my writing has gone in new directions that allow for humor, silly obsessions, and even — beware! — thoughtful analysis.
Was there something you set out to say with this book? Or was it more a case of not being able to keep something in any longer?
You nailed it: Not being able to keep things in any longer. I really like that phrase. As for having something to say — I have always been, and continue to be — highly suspicious of this as an entry point for expressive writing. Except, perhaps, for George Orwell. For me, I try to focus on the specific and assume the general will emerge.
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