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Penning Songs, Penning Stories

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Rosanne Cash, eldest daughter of the late Johnny Cash, singer, song-writer, short-story writer, and now memoirist, spent some time with me back stage in NYC before the panel: “Dylan in America” (a tribute to Bob Dylan) hosted by the center of Ethical Studies in Central Park West. Since 1991 Cash has released five albums, written two books and edited a collection of short stories. Her fiction and essays have been published in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Oxford-American, New York Magazine, and various other periodicals and collections. She won a Grammy in 1985 for her song, “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me”, and has received nine other Grammy nominations. She has had 11 #1 country hit singles, 21 Top 40 country singles and two gold records, and her memoir, Composed was recently released by Viking Press. 

PopMatters: You’ve written a collection of stories, Bodies of Water, and now a memoir. Could you speak to the differing processes from a collection to a full-length book?

Rosanne Cash: Fiction from non-fiction? Mechanically it doesn’t differ; I’m looking for the same melody in prose as in music. Like E.L. Doctorow said…

PM: It’s like driving a car at night…

RC: Right. Sometimes you don’t know where you’re going, but you get there, eventually. But I did feel a responsibility to be as factual as I remember in the memoir.

PM: Which wasn’t the case in your stories?

RC: Right. There’s more play with scenes and characters that I can change in the short stories.

PM: Is it fair to assume your short stories are autobiographical? That’s to say, are they largely influenced by your life? Writers of this genre, after all, preach, “Write what you know”.

RC: Sure, but you can take poetic license with your characters in fiction. I made myself different characters in different stories. I was the same character in my memoir.

PM: But you won’t tell us. It’s the job of the reader (if they so wish) to figure out where you are in the stories, right?

RC: Yes.

PM: You’ve said before that you never intended to write a memoir, that it actually started as project because of a number of essays you were asked to write for numerous magazines. Aside from the essays, what prompted you to write this memoir?

RC: That’s easy. I lost my voice. I had vocal polyps. I had to stop singing; I had to shelve a record I was in the middle of making. So I started writing a lot of prose, and found I was commissioned to write more. New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, etc. And I wrote this piece for this defunct magazine called Jove. It was called “The Ties That Bind”: about family and music, and my editor (who’d edited my collection of stories) said, “That’s the beginning of a memoir.” I said, of course I’m too young to write a memoir. So at one point I thought I would never finish it; I just thought, I’ll keep compiling forever, and then I had brain surgery.

PM: Life changed then, in a big way?

RC: Yeah, life changes if you feel urgent about what you want to finish.

PM: I know that you’ve said you didn’t write the memoir to set any record straight; to solve any grievances, or to expose anyone, but that’s usually the type of memoir people are attracted to. Did this worry you?

RC: It’s appalling to me. That entire genre just appalls me. It embarrasses me. Those shows where people completely lose their dignity, and just vomit out their deepest selves for the entire world, I just find it appalling. I didn’t want to create that type of anxiety for myself, because it really makes me anxious to be that kind of naked, you know? I have a very strong sense of privacy, and, dignity I hope.

PM: Which is likely a product of your life as Johnny Cash’s daughter, right?

RC: Well it’s just who I am, wherever it comes from. So I wanted to not be anxious, but I also wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror and know that I didn’t hurt anyone with this book. To intentionally hurt someone is not in my nature.

PM: So you have no ego?

RC: No, no. I have a lot of ego, but I’d like to think that I’m also kind.

PM: I think we, as female artists, have to manage that level of ego with grace.

RC: Of course, but it’s only really insecure people who abuse people. It doesn’t mean that I’ve forgiven everybody, or I have some halo over my head, I mean there are people who I really haven’t forgiven yet, but I didn’t want to talk about that publicly. And the New York Times review has really troubled me, mainly, because he reviewed the book that I didn’t write. He wanted that tell-all, and that’s not what I wrote. And the fact that it was my overriding principle not to write that type of book, it just killed me that he didn’t see that. But the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post saw it, so…

PM: That’s the trouble - it’s all subjective, reviews, etc.

RC: Exactly.

Jaime Karnes earned her BA at the University of Kansas, her MFA from Rutgers-Newark, and she teaches fiction writing at Gotham Writers' Workshop. She also teaches English and Literature at Rutgers University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Storyglossia, Willard & Maple, TransLit, Etude Magazine, and HTMLGIANT. She lives and writes in Manhattan. She can be reached at cellardoorcopy (at)

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