Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist family on an Idaho mountain. She watched the school bus roll past, but never joined the local kids at school. She never saw a doctor. She didn’t have a birth certificate to pinpoint her birthday.
Westover’s acclaimed new memoir “Educated” reveals this isolated world through a child’s eyes. She matter-of-factly describes as a little girl working in her dad’s junkyard, salvaging jagged, dangerous scrap. Each night she went to bed with a “head-for-the-hills” bag packed and ready for the end of the world.
Her curiosity and questions grew as she did. At 17, Westover taught herself enough math and grammar to gain admission to Brigham Young University. She went on to study at Cambridge and Harvard.
“Educated” chronicles Westover’s at-times harrowing journey and has captured fans across the Pacific Northwest and around the world to become a major best-seller. The University of Idaho just selected “Educated” as its “Common Read” book for all incoming freshmen next fall. “The premise of this book and its lessons about our individual will and strength to achieve against all odds are inspiring,” says Dean Panttaja, the university’s director of general education.
On Thursday, Westover comes to Spokane to speak with The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages Book Club. In an interview, she talks about family, how she wrote the book and what education means to her.
Q. What was the most challenging part of writing “Educated”?
A. I was surprised to discover that in many cases, the moments that had been the most difficult to live were some of the easiest to write. What was difficult to write were the lovely things – the way the mountain looked in spring, the sound of my mother laughing, the afternoons I spent with my sister canning peaches. These were the things about my childhood that I had loved the most, and these were the things that I had lost. It was hard to write about them because to write them I had to be close to them in my memory, while at the same time knowing I would never have them. It was like attending the wedding of someone with whom you are still in love. They were losses I had not yet come to terms with.
Q. I read that you listened to The New Yorker fiction podcast to prepare for writing your story. How did that help?
A. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast was a kind of writing curriculum for me. In each episode, a writer reads a short story by another writer, then discusses the story with Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor at the New Yorker. They introduced me to what are now some of my favorite stories, and they explained to me exactly how those stories worked: how they were built on a large scale, meaning the structure, the shape of the story, but how they were built on a small scale, meaning all the subtle mechanisms writers use, like tense shifts, point of view shifts, parallels in language and so on. I listened to my favorite episodes dozens of times. My favorite is Mavis Gallant’s “Voices Lost in Snow,” read by Margaret Atwood, which I’ve listened to 70 or 80 times. I could probably recite it.
Q. How long did you work on your book?
A. I wrote the first draft in a year. Then, after I found a publisher, I spent a year revising the manuscript.
Q. What family member had the most influence on your life and the person you are today?
A. My brother Tyler. He is the one who first introduced me to music, and it was a desire to study music that first made me want to leave our mountain. He is also the one who returned and told me I should go to school, and he is the one who taught me trigonometry so I could pass the admissions exam. He is the one who believed me about my brother Shawn’s violence, at a time in my life when I had very nearly ceased to believe myself. Looking back over the course my life has taken, it seems obvious that at every bend and twist, he was there, shoring up the banks to direct the stream.
Q. What do you hope readers take away from your experience?
A. I want to change people’s ideas about what an education is. I want to help them separate out in their minds the fact of education from its form – that is, I want them to see the difference between an education and a school.
As for the family story, I wrote it to be open-ended. I am estranged from my parents, but I don’t know if that estrangement is permanent, and I don’t always know if that estrangement is justified, or if I made the right decision. The uncertainty of the ending is, I think, crucial, because that is what is so hard about estrangement: the fact that you don’t know the future. You don’t know if, one day, you will regret it.
Because of this ambiguity, I expect that different people will extract different meanings from the story. People who need it may find hope, a hope for reconciliation in the unwritten future. Others may find acceptance of the solid and unchanging status quo, and the compassion to forgive themselves for the difficult choices they have had to make about their own families. I’ve come to feel that what meaning any one person finds in my story probably has less to do with me and more to do with them, and with what they need to hear to help them move forward in their own lives.
Tara Westover at a Glance
Background: Born and raised on Buck Peak in southeastern Idaho. Youngest of seven children in a fundamentalist Mormon family. Currently lives in England.
Education: Entered a classroom for the first time at 17. Graduated magna cum laude from Brigham Young University in 2008. Earned a postgraduate degree from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009. Visiting fellow at Harvard University in 2010. Returned to Cambridge and awarded a PhD in history in 2014.
Books: “Educated” is her first book; reached bestseller lists for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Sunday Times (UK), Globe and Mail (Canada), among others. Being translated into 23 languages, according the author’s website.
Quote: “I understood that it was this fact, more than any other, that made my family different: we didn’t go to school.”
More info: www.spokesman/bookclub
Tara Westover’s Top 10
What are you …
1. Reading: “To Be A Machine” by Mark O’Connell
2. Watching: “Blue Planet.” Seriously. I’m very behind.
3. Listening to: “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman
4. Following: I almost never check Twitter, so I really don’t know. But I enjoy Hadley Freeman’s feed quite a lot. She’s a reporter for the Guardian in the UK and whip smart!
5. Working on: Articles!
6. Enjoying as a guilty pleasure: Curry. I looooove curry.
7. Planning: No travel planned. I’m traveling quite a lot just now for the book, so when I get some time off I usually want to go home!
8. Inspired by: Joan Didion. Nobody can write like her. Nobody at all.
9. Imagining: One day owning a fireplace. It’s pretty much my life’s ambition.
10. Challenged by: All the things I wish I had time to read, and don’t.