This week on KBIA’s arts/culture segment Off the Clock, KBIA reporter Jason Hoffman sat down with local author, George Hodgman. His memoir Bettyville discusses some of the issues faced caring for an elderly parent as well as those of being gay in small town America.
Here’s the full-length interview:
George Hodgman is a magazine and book editor who has worked at various publishing houses and publications including Vanity Fair. He recently wrote his first book, Bettyville. It’s a memoir about moving from New York City back home to Paris, Missouri, a small town 55 miles north of Columbia to care for his aging mother, Betty. It discusses the trials and tribulations of caring for an aging parent as well as those of small town America. George Hodgman joins me now, George, thanks for coming on.
Thank you for having me.
When you first moved back home, you assumed it would be for a brief period of time, a short visit, and it obviously has wound up being much longer than that. What for you has been the biggest struggle for you moving back to smalltown Missouri from New York City?
I think that I miss New York less than I thought I would. The city itself and things like restaurants and foreign films and that sort of thing. I guess I would like to have a few more peers, a few more people my own age to socialize with. I don't have as much social life as I would kind of like to have. For one thing my mother is hard to leave and another thing is most people I know are married or live on farms, or whatever. Most of the small towns around here are old people who moved in off the farm or something like that. It would be nice to have a little bit more of a group of people who are social friends.
And you, as a gay man, New York City had a lot more gay people and a gay culture than the middle of Missouri. What's that adjustment been like?
I think that it would be a lot harder if I were younger, if I really wanted to be on the scene and wanted to go out and go to clubs and stuff like that, I'm beyond that. I was worried, in the past, I think that I have not always felt as comfortable to be myself. I think it was just subconscious in a lot of ways because I put up certain guards and certain inhibitions and I think that there were things that I was operating on that had been instilled in my childhood about being gay and exactly how I could be in this environment but I've been pretty pleasantly surprised. I think that people are a lot more tolerant than one might expect if you read about right wing this and right wing that on the internet. People have been really good to me. They have been incredibly supportive to me about this book which has a lot of gay content, probably for some people a little past their comfort zone. I miss my friends whether they are gay or straight and that's the biggest thing. Not that I don't have friends here, I did miss the ones that I had there and I miss being part of the business of publishing and sort of gossiping with people about what's going on, that kind of thing.
Going off something you said in that last answer in terms of tolerance and people being accepting. You mention throughout the book you didn’t talk about it whether it be with your parents of anyone else and then your first real experience with gay culture came when you came to the University of Missouri. What was it like growing up in small town Missouri as gay?
The first thing you heard connected with the notion of homosexuality was sin against god. I think your identity was very much affected by the notion that this was considered a sin and it was also considered a major thing to be secretive about and it was un-discussed. It was taboo. When I grew up there were no gay people on television. I remember the first gay novel that I sent away to New York City for. When I was a little kid I sent away for copies of the Advocate. There was just no sense of where you could go or what you that could do would connect you with a gay community and no sense for kids for how to do it, how to be gay. Gay life is its own culture. It's not completely different from straight culture but it definitely has some idiosyncratic features and I think all of us, and if you're straight you have high school and junior high that help you learn to kind of relate to the opposite sex and you go to dances and you do this. You learn how to lead social, emotional life and if you're gay you just don't have that training. You're 22 and out of college and suddenly you just have less social experience and I had none as a kid here.
Travel is one of the big themes in the book, and one of the most interesting mentiones of it was I thought towards the end of the book you mention your mother and how she might not have traveled geographically but because she had spanned 9 decades in a changing world and that is her travel. And I mean you've seen Paris, Missouri when you were growing up and you see it now, small towns across mid-Missouri and America are certainly changing in that travel through time. What's biggest change you've seen in small town America from when you were growing up to where it is now?
The loss of the merchant class certainly. All over America you go to small towns and downtown is the place where there is a convenience store and a video store maybe and places where once vital little shops are now maybe and antique store or vacant or are just kind of filling space. When you lose the merchant class you lose those people who were supporting civic organizations and churches and in the small towns I grew up in, I grew up with parents and their peers, people who have been through World War II and that American era when people came back home and they built their little house and they really cared for their communities and they were thriving here. Moberly, Missouri, Mexico, Missouri, these were beautiful places. Moberly had a DuPont plant. People moved here from Pennsylvania. In the last 10 years they tore down the country club, which my mother loves, where she played bridge. There were really nice stores and I remember this silver shop in Moberly where you could go and buy fine silver and there's just a lot that has been lost and I think that it makes people around here uncomfortable when they read about that in the book but they don't deny it.
Another thing, and I don't know if it's lost or just wasn't there to begin with, but a lot of your mother's appointments are an hour or more than an hour away. What's it like caring for your mother or caring for any elderly person in a town that might not have the means or facilities to help them?
Well there is a doctor here, there's a good doctor in Paris but the way medicine has changed we all really exist with specialists, particularly if you're an older person. I think that Columbia has grown to the size that it has partially because it has medical services that attract people from all over the region. We're glad that those great doctors but for an old person and for a lot of people it's a long trip, particularly if you have to go every day and get radiation or chemo. It definitely adds to an older persons challenge in terms of getting medical care. My mother goes to the foot doctor in Columbia and it's a long day for her, it’s 100 miles.
Have you though about what's next in terms of your life, staying. It seems towards the end of the book you really have grown more attached to Paris than I think you thought you would when you first moved back. Do you know whether you're going to stay or move back to New York, What’s next?
I am lucky that I am young enough. A lot of people who I notice who are caring for older people are spouses and I really worry about one old person caring for another old person because when you lose the person you are caring for it's such a hole in your existence and you feel like you just are running off a cliff into an empty space. I'm lucky that I am young enough that I can re-create and I'm grateful for that. I might wind up in Columbia; I might wind up in St. Louis. I'd certainly like to keep this house as kind of a country house. It's a really good place to write in Paris, Missouri. I never would have written if I stayed in New York. I was doing freelance by the time I left, I didn't have a full time job and it's really hard to work and live in a studio apartment. Now everybody is leaving New York because it's so expensive. So, I think I will probably stay around here and I hope use it as a home base to travel a whole lot. I haven’t traveled as much as I'd liked to. I want to see the world and I want to write.