Writing and Editing

252. Using Letters To Enrich Your Family History with Kevin O'Connor

March 01, 2024 Jennia D'Lima Episode 252
252. Using Letters To Enrich Your Family History with Kevin O'Connor
Writing and Editing
More Info
Writing and Editing
252. Using Letters To Enrich Your Family History with Kevin O'Connor
Mar 01, 2024 Episode 252
Jennia D'Lima

Send us a Text Message.

Author and speaker Kevin O'Connor discusses using family letters dated all the way back to the 1930s in his book Two Floors Above Grief and why you should consider keeping them too.

Visit Kevin's website:

Find Kevin on social media:

Show Notes Transcript

Send us a Text Message.

Author and speaker Kevin O'Connor discusses using family letters dated all the way back to the 1930s in his book Two Floors Above Grief and why you should consider keeping them too.

Visit Kevin's website:

Find Kevin on social media:

Jennia: Hello, I'm Jennia D' Lima. Welcome to Writing and Editing, the podcast for people who write, edit, read, or listen. Kevin O'Connor, author of Two Floors Above Grief, is joining us today. This is "Using Letters to Enrich Your Family History," episode two-five-two of the podcast. Welcome to the show, Kevin. I'd love to hear more


Kevin: Hey!


Jennia: about you, but I'd also love to hear a lot about your book, because it just sounds really interesting.


Kevin: Okay, where do you want to start?


Jennia: Well, what first gave you the idea to write it, and how did you come up with the title?


Kevin: Boy, okay! What first came up with the idea was just I had a lot of stories in my head. I was the son and nephew of funeral directors that had a funeral home in Elgin, Illinois, outside of Chicago. And when I was born in 1950, the business had already been established for 20 years, so I became one of the offspring of the business. My aunt and uncle had three daughters older than me, and they lived on the second floor of an old Victorian house. My mom and dad had an older son, my brother. And then I came along in 1950, and my younger brother came a year later. So in this Victorian house, there was a funeral home on the first floor, and there was apartments on the second floor. This Victorian house had been built in the 1800s and my dad and my uncle converted it so they could have their business on the first floor and the apartments on the second floor. So the title, Two Floors Above Grief, comes from theI wrote the memoir andto talk about our families. Not so much about the clients that came to the funeral home, but how our families lived in this environment and what it was like for me, from birth on, to be part of this environment. The subtitle is "A Memoir of Two Families in a Unique Place We Called Home." There are families who in the funeral industrythat they now call the death care industrythere are families that certainly do live in the facility or near the facility


Jennia: Mhm.


Kevin: and it's becoming a little less prevalent now with the communications and phones and ways that a business owner can access their business. But at those times, when funeral homes were becoming more popular in the 30s, and 40s, and 50s, the owners or the managers really needed to live on the premises to be available at all times. So the Two Floors Above Grief is about our families and how we lived and how we interacted. And the other thing about this particular setting was that the two apartments, even though they were on two separate floors, they were, I call them conjoined.


Jennia: Mhm.


Kevin: Because in order for me to get to the third floor apartment where our family lived, I had to go up, walk through my aunt and uncle's, living areas to get to the stairway. So it was a built- in, ready- made second family that was right there. In some circumstances, when you live in that close proximity, it might not work out. In this situation, it worked out very well. We were two families that got along very well, for the most part. I mean


Jennia: Well, yeah.


Kevin: I get into the book a little bit. My dad and my uncle, as business owners and brothers, they had their tensions a little bit, but nothing that precluded them from providing a wonderful service to families that came. My aunt and, uh, and my mom helped their husbands with the business. And my aunt became a second mom to me and my brothers, just as my mom and dad became second parents to their three daughters. So ten of us lived in this environment. Sometimes eleven of us when, for a period of time, my aunt's mother lived with us too. So we had intergenerational family. We had ways to live together and do things, and also operate this family business on the first floor. So that's a little bit about the background.


Jennia: Yeah. And that's really pretty amazing that so many people were able to cohabitate together fairly peacefully, because you always hear about the extra complications that come along when anyone who you're related to is also engaged in business with you. But it sounds like it was successfully done for years and years.


Kevin: Yeah, it was! And actually a colleague of mine from high school, he does a lot of work with banks and small businesses, his name's Jack Hubbard. He's been encouraging meand I've been pursuing itto pursue readers who are involved in small business or family businesses. And there's lessons in my stories that can be used nowadays, even in our Internet age, by entrepreneurs that are starting a business, and how do they market their business, and what do they do? How do they work together as family? And so I'm working on that angle as well. And it's not only a family memoir. My initial audience was just for my family, but it's grown a whole lot.


Jennia: Oh good!


Kevin: Yeah, grownthe audience has been growing, and ideas of the small families, I've been doing some work with the funeral industry, I've been doing some work with different colleges and talking to people about not only grief and how people operate with grief, but how do families get along? What are some of the things I learned as a child in this environment, and now as a septuagenarian, as I look back, what are some things that I take with me, and what are some of the things I've learned that people currently can employ or use in their own businesses and family situations?


Jennia: Interesting. Well, when you started writing this, did you always have the idea to use letters in one form or another, or was that something that came up as you were writing?


Kevin: Wow, great question. I think it evolved. I always hadyou know, when they brought me home from the hospital in 1950, I came to the funeral home, and the floor that our apartment was on used to be a ballroom in the original house.


Jennia: Nice.


Kevin: And so there were two stages in the ballroom, performance stages that orchestras used to play at. And when my parents first reconceived that space as an apartment, they left the stages there. One in a bedroom area, shared by my brothers and I, and one in our family room. So for the first ten years of my life, my bed or my cribtwin bed and cribwas next to a performance stage. And that was a play area for me. So these stories about growing up there have their own little specialties, I guess, and that being one of them. So what youyou talked about the inspiration. So part of the inspiration was this living this day to day. And as I went through elementary school, high school, college, and had friends come over to the house or told my stories, people would say, "Hey, you grew up in a really different atmosphere. Not only were you surrounded by death and grief, but you had all this other thing going on with your family." So that inspired me as I got involved in my own career in education and being a teacher, and a principal, and college professor, these stories, they never left my head, they were always there. But then over the years, especially during my college years and beyond, my parents and I, and my aunt and uncle, corresponded quite a bit via letters. And some were typewritten, some were handwritten. My junior year of college, I spent a year in Rome, Italy, and the letters came back and forth very frequently. And those letters were saved, and I saved some of the onesmany of the ones they sent to me. In turn, they saved things I wrote to them. And these letters accumulated, and I got to be the keeper of these letters. People would say, "You keep these letters!" So as I moved from place to place and state to state


Jennia: Mhm.


Kevin: these letters traveled with me in banker's boxes and storage boxes and file folders and envelopes. And I reached a point in time about eight, nine years ago when I thought, what am I going to do with these letters? I'm not going to throw them away. And so, I started to organize them, and I'm going to show you the result of that organization. Hold on.


Jennia: Oh, my goodness... For anyone listening, you can tell immediately that this is well organized.


Kevin: Okay, well, thanks! And this is one of five, guess you call these four inch notebooks


Jennia: Mhm, "binder."


Kevin: "Binder," thank you! Binder. So, what I did is I took the letters, and some had envelopes with them. Some had handwritten letters. And what I did is I laid them all outI was, at that time, living in a space where I could spread out everything over a period of time and not have to put it away. So I spread the letters out, and I arranged them by date. [In reference to a letter from the binder in his hand] This date happens to be 1964. That is the first notebook. So I started, and then I put each letter in a plastic sleeve that you buy at an office store.


Jennia: That seems like a good idea, because then you can look at them over and over again without worrying about destroying the paper, or even something spilling on it, or yeah!


Kevin: Right, right! And they don't frazzle, yeah. And then what I also did then was each plastic sleeve, then I put a Post-It tab on the side which listed the date of the letter. I might also put who it's from or a word or two about the letter. Mostly I just put the dates or who they were from. So I did that. I just, then I started putting them in order in these notebooks. And this took us to about, I think the letter writing continued till about 1975. So that's the bulk of them are from those. Some are on stationery. Some are postcards. Some are typed. Some are aerogrammes, greeting cards, and all these letters. Then I got organized. And even though I'd read them in excerpts, and every time I picked up a box over the years, I would read them. And I said, "There's some potential here!" But when I got them all into the notebooks, then I started to read them. And then in my research, I thought, boy, the stories I have in my head about growing up in a funeral home resonate even further when I've got the actual words of the people that were part of the business. So what I decided to do, and I took someI took a writing class about memoir writing or nonfiction writing


Jennia: Good idea!


Kevin: and an online course was very helpful in terms of helping me organize and getting that kind of framework, or not only where do I start, but how do I shift myself through?


Jennia: Right!


Kevin: And so I just started writing and incorporating these letters into the drafts. And so when I would find contents of a letter that fit into the story I was telling, then I would just take and, with my fingers, type those words right from the letter into the draft I was writing online. And then the more and more that I did it, I really, really felt those voices in my fingertips, because these were the actual voices. This wasn't dialogue I was making up.


Jennia: Right! Or guessing at, yeah.


Kevin: Yeah, I mean, there are some parts of the book where I invent dialogue if I'm trying to portray a conversation that I remember having with somebody, but a lot of it is really their authentic words and what they were doing or thinking at the time. Sometimes, and I reference this in the book, different people in the house would be writing letters at the same time and not know it.


Jennia: Oh!


Kevin: And then they would mail the letter to me, each individually. So I would open up letters from maybe one or two or three different people in the house. They'd be telling the same story, but from their perspective.


Jennia: Oh


Kevin: So that became an interesting sidebar- thing of the whole thing and how they interpreted events that I had heard about or read about before. But then to see them side by side thinking, oh, this is what she thought, this is what he thought, this is what they thought. That became another way to purpose that and be able to fold that into the book. So that became fun for me. And the other part, that since the book has been published, the other thingyou know how Amazon and those places will help you understand more about who your audience is. Well, some of the time, I've gotten listed on Top Sellers and an audience that includes young adults and teens, which really wasn't my target demographic.


Jennia: No, but I can see the interest being there, especially because of the upbringing and the topics you're covering. I can see it having a wide appeal for that reason.


Kevin: Yeah, and as I've been discussing this with other people, they say, well, part of it, from a teen perspective, a young adult perspective, is the idea of death and grief and that mystery that we all have, but also the idea that, hey, what's this letter thing that Kevin's talking about? Because nowadays, as you know, communication is just all emails. And how many people really handwrite or type a letter? And on top of that, how many people save those? So part of the appeal, I think, for teens and young adults and other readers as well, all ages, is just how these letters not only were written but how they were saved. And nowadays, when we talk about our ways of communicating, how many emails do you save? I mean, they're saved someplace, and somebody will always find them. Not always for the purposes I might intend, but it's a very public record. But I don'tmaybe some people doprint the email correspondence they might have with somebody.


Jennia: And even the variation in the topics you're covering and the depth you're covering them in versus now where it is so easy. So we might not put the same amount of thought into what we're communicating with someone else, even across distance.


Kevin: Oh, yeah! No, and I have a frienduh, professional colleague, who, when email first started being published in the, I guess, late 80s and 90s, she said, "We got to be careful. This email stuff, you know, email is like a postcard." She was pretty intuitive at that time, in the early 90s, to know that what you put in an email, once you let it go, you don't know where it's going to go after that. And people may not use that email in the same way you might have intended. So it's certainly something that rings through my own head with going back to the letters and the inspiration for the book


Jennia: Mhm.


Kevin: I wanted these stories, these letters, to be a framework to be a way for my family to understand what their ancestors had gone through. And now this family that started with two married couples, my mom and dad, aunt and uncle, there are now, I think we're up to about, approaching 200 offspring.


Jennia: Oh, wow! (both laugh)


Kevin: With different relationships and kids and grandkids and great grandkids. So my intent in writing the book and my purpose, my missionI know that you cover this when you talk to people about writing their memoirs: Who's your audience? Now the initial audience was the family, and then beyond that, their friends and their families. And it's just grown and grown and grown. So that's been exciting


Jennia: That's great for you!


Kevin: Yes, it's been very exciting.


Jennia: Well, when we were chatting a little bit beforehand, you talked about characterization. And I think that's something that's really important for memoir and even for people who are thinking of possibly writing one, is, that, yes, the people you knew in your real life, they are going to now become characters. And you had talked a little bit about how this helped shape the different characters that are portrayed in your book. So if you'd like to share a little bit more about that and maybe areas where maybe it even unexpectedly helped with that?


Kevin: Yeah, thanks. Thanks! One of the things thatone thing that comes to mind is a review or two I've gotten from people on Amazon and other places that says this book just wasn't aboutsometimes a memoir is just about the person who's writing the book, and they always bring in other people to their memoir, of course. But they said, some of, and I consider a compliment that a couple of reviewers have said, "This book isn't about Kevin. It's about everybody. It's about more than Kevin. It's about the other people in this life." I consider that a compliment.


Jennia: Oh definitely!


Kevin: And even as I'm replaying the book and thinking about, I didn't put that in there, or why didn't I talk more about that? Well, because I think part of it's as I wrote, I said, "Hey, this book isn't about me. It's about more than me." So when I would catch myself either as I wrote or when my first draft became way too wordy, what do I get rid of? And I said, "Okay, let's just focus on my relationships with the people and not so much about me or what I was doing." I talk about my friends, but I don't get into stuff about my dating life or things like that, which I could have, it's a coming of age book, and I consider that a compliment. So, in terms of looking at memoir, knowingly or unknowingly, when I wrote it, I wrote it from a perspective of being more inclusive of a lot of people, and also in wantingin knowing that I was writing it for my family. And I wanted the readers not only to know about me, but I wanted to give some more perspective about my mom and my dad and my aunt and uncle. Because they are all parents, the grandparents, the great grandparents, of some of the readers. I wanted people to know about them.


Jennia: It does give a fuller picture.


Kevin: Yeah, very full picture! And the reaction to the book, I think that's part of what's been coming back. Hey, there's lessons in here for business owners. There's lessons in here for parenting. There's lessons in here for dealing with tensions between a parent and a teenagerme being the teenager in the bookbut there's lessons there too. So when you write a memoir and publish it, there are no do overs (both laugh), and I don't spend a lot of time on that. I think, okay, this is material for another book. But I'm happy with the way the book turned out, and the kind of response we're getting, and the fun I'm having, and marketing it too.


Jennia: Yeah. I think one thing that's important for people to realize too, is that we can't really get that internal dialogue or those internal thoughts from other people in our lives unless we do have something like letters to refer to. Otherwise, it's always going to be filtered through the author's viewpoint. So just automatically, you have to omit most of that. And so that's what then leads to not having these fuller- bodied characters that are surrounding you in the memoir. That's another reason to use letters.


Kevin: Yeah! And I'm thinking not only the letters I use, but I'm thinking of the letters I didn't use. And, you know, my writing process, and I'm sure it's true of any writer, it's not so much what you write, it's what you don't write too. And what you include and what you don't include and


Jennia: Wow, that's a good point!


Kevin: how you make those decisions along the way, either on my own or through working with an editor. How do you make those decisions?


Jennia: Yeah, how did you make some of those decisions? Was there any material where you worried that it might hurt someone's feelings to include it? Or it might portray them in a way they wouldn't want to be publicly portrayed? And how did you go about that?


Kevin: Hurt feelings? There weren't a lot in the letters, in what I included or did not include that would hurt anybody else's feelings. And I wanted the book to be authentic from the get- go. I didn't want to juxtapose things so much that that wasn't telling a true story. So, yeah, the letters conveyed that. And some of the times, I would, I have to say, maybe this is moreportrays the relationships that our family had and the letters they wrote. There wasn't very much that I needed to hide (both laugh) or things that I felt, gee, this grandchild doesn't want to hear this about their grandpa. So my goal with the letters and my own commentary was to be truthful, authentic, not having any reader to have to say, "Oh, that couldn't have happened."


Jennia: Right.


Kevin: I wanted them to say, "These things really did happen. This story really is true." And so the letters helped support me in that venture. But then when I was making my own comments or reflections on those letters, I wanted to also believe what the situations were. Case in point being, letters that went back and forth between my mom and I in 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War conflict and the era of student protests and student strikes. I was a sophomore in college at the time. But just themy involvement in those movements contrasted with her perceptions came back and forth in the letters we wrote, and pretty strong words were exchanged back and forth. One of the editors said when they read that part, "Hey, there's a lot of passion in here! We're going to leave it in!" So, yeah, I wanted that to beand I think what a reader gets from that is, is there a perfect family? No. Does a family have some conflicts? Yes. Picking out this aspect of our conflict, how to deal with the political and the social pressures of the time


Jennia: Mhm.


Kevin: is a way that current readers can make applications to their own lives. "Hey, I'm having a situation with my teen or my college kid." It's not the Vietnam War, but certainly there's ways to resolve it and work through it. And part of what happened was the letters that went back and forth between my mom did resolve it. I make reference in the book about where she would write something handwritten in the margin of a typed letter, "I really didn't mean to say that!" (both laugh). Or things like that. So even before she stuck it in an envelope, she'd write a little note, or she'd write up in the next letter, "I want you to make sure you don't think that!" Or something like [that]. So there was those kind of dialogue and interchange that went back and forth in the communication we had at the time, which was letter writing.


Jennia: That's interesting.


Kevin: Yes, I think this memoir, I wanted it to be authentic. I didn't want anybody to think that, he made that up, or he made that up in his head, and that's what he's putting on the page. Admittedly, I do say, "This is how I recall this." So certainly it's open to interpretation. But on the other hand, I never wanted to come from a place where a reader would second guess what I was writing about.


Jennia: Exactly. Especially because authenticity is really at the crux of having a, quote unquote, "good memoir," because as soon as the reader starts to doubt you, you're in trouble. But, yeah, if I'm a reader, if you have letters from relatives and friends backing up everything you're saying, whoa, it makes it a lot harder to assume that it couldn't possibly have happened, or he's exaggerating, or maybe he's blowing this out of proportion so he has a more dramatic moment here


Kevin: Well, I have a whole chapter in the book about pets, and my dad writing a long letter about losing the dog of my brother and his family, and then the dog escaped. And dad had a wonderful writing style, and I was able to just put that whole letter right in the book. And some people might, oh, God, why did I do it? Actually, I haven't got thisI'm making up this reaction (both laugh), but as I put it in there, I thought, now I'm going to put the whole thing in there. And just how he was feeling at the time and looking for this missing dog and how he was in the middle of the night driving through town. And I know in reading it myself, I could relate to it, having lost a pet here or there, or lost my child at a zoo or something. You have those feelings, and that came out in my dad's letter. I wanted to include the whole text, and so I made an effort not to trim. If I was going to include a letter, I didn't edit the letter. I put the whole thing in there, asterisks, parentheses and everything. And so that a reader could really sense where that writer was coming from at the time.


Jennia: Yeah, I can see that adding to the emotion immensely, just the rawness when something has immediately occurred and you haven't had a chance to sit down and process it or distance yourself with time, like we usually see with a memoir. You know, we still remember these events, we can still remember the emotions we felt at the time, but they don't hit us the same way as they would where we see it with that letter, when it has just happened.


Kevin: Yeah. One treasured letter that I include in the book was one I came across in the last five or ten years, was a letter that my mom wrote to her parents on the night after her wedding in 1939. They got married in Elgin, Illinois, drove to Milwaukee for their honeymoon. And she writes that night about sitting in this hotel, listening to the water of Lake Michigan, and she's talking about how grateful she was to her mom and dad for doing it and what a beautiful wedding it was. And she's talking about the hat she had when she left to go on the honeymoon and how she can't get the thing tied and she's going to have to fix that tomorrow. And then my dad writes "P.S." at the bottom, you know, "Thanks for me too! I'm the new guy in the family!" So to see that in her own hand, and writing it, and knowing that that letterthey mailed it from Milwaukee, but it's likely she got home before the letter arrived. Who knows? Because it wasn't a long honeymoon. And to see my mom from that perspective, very vulnerable but appreciative of her family on the same day that she got married, it was an interesting letter for me to uncover and include in the book.


Jennia: That sounds like it's a lovely addition.


Kevin: Yeah, it was. It really was nice. Thanks, it was fun. And I said earlier that I could feel them, the characters, in my fingertips as I transpose and retyped all these words. One of the things I thought of when I was writing the book was, maybe I'll just make copies of the actual letters and include those letters in the book like I've seen in other books. But I made the decision just to put that in the same font in the book. I wanted the letters to be included, but I know what happens when I read a book sometimes, I'll confess, when I get to something like that, I skip over it.


Jennia: Yes.


Kevin: If it's an insert or if it's maybe difficult to read because of the way the actual document copied into the book, sometimes I won't read it or I'll skim over it in a way... Yeah, that was a decision I had to make in the process. And then fortunately, I had a great inside editor who was able to just take all the things I put into the Word Doc and put it into the inside of the book and design the insides of the book. Just with different indentations or using italics or those kind of things, helped to make those transitions without being, to me, abrupt. That was just the ideaa decision I had to make in putting this particular book or memoir together. Do I use the actual picture of the letter or do I use the transposition? And that's what I did.


Jennia: I can see the benefit in doing that. Just like you said, it feels more like it's integrated into the memoir, that it's part of the narrative that you're telling. It's not a separate piece that you could pass over and maybe read the caption.


Kevin: Yeah, no. And just thinking about this out loud with you is something I haven't really talked about or thought about... is that process that I went through when I was working on this a few years ago. What do I do? How do I put these letters into the book? How do I do this? And I just started doing it and figured, "Okay, let's just try this and let's do it this way." And that's how I did it. And that's how I just kept on and kept on.


Jennia: Well, before we end, do you have any upcoming projects people should know about or places where they might want to maybe find you for later?


Kevin: Yeah, thanks for asking! Well, I can always be found at my website. It's kevinoconnorauthor.com, all one word. kevinoconnorauthor.com I put out a weekly newsletter about the book and things that are happening with the book. And people can sign up for that at my website. I send that out to a couple thousand people a week. So this week it talked aboutrecently, I was at the Sunshine State Book Festival in Gainesville, and that was a great event to be with other writers and authors and to talk to readers. And I work to be involved in events here, not only locally, but nationally. So this weekend I've got the Fort Lauderdale Book Festival that's going on this week. That's where I'm from. And also there's a monthly event called the Jazz Brunch where people set up tables on our riverfront. There's music, and people come along to the table, and I tell them about the book. I find that what's most rewarding for me is being in front of people and talking about the book. I was making arrangements for one of the Barnes and Noble bookstores in the area to be at their bookstores. I do that with Fort Lauderdale Barnes and Noble, but now I'm looking at other bookstores and any Barnes and Nobles in the area to spend a time, periodically, where I get to greet people and get mistaken for an employee, but also talk about my book and have people get engaged in it.


Kevin: I've got a presence on Facebook, a presence on Instagram, LinkedIn, all those places so people can connect with me there. I guess some up to date or current things that I'm doing, and I'm looking forward to doing, a presentation next week for people in the funeral industry. That's an online presentation. It's been fun just learning all the different ways to tell people about a book and, while at the same time realizing that I was one of, in 2022, 4 million books that was published. So I just do everything I can to keep this one in 4 million book


Jennia: That's how you do it!


Kevin: up in front of people, knowing thiswhat kind of competition there is, and knowing that not everybody likes to read memoirs. I've got the book out in audio now too, so people can listen to it if they'd like.


Jennia: Well, it was great having you! I was so glad you came. I feel like this is going to be an informative episode for people who have maybe toyed with the idea but weren't sure how to do it or maybe weren't even sure how to incorporate letters, just knew that it was an idea they had.


Kevin: Yeah, I'd be happy to, you know, if people want further information beyond what you and I are talking about, they can contact me through my website. And I also have been meeting peopleyou know, they'll come across them when they're going through their family's archives, "I was just going to throw these things away." Don't do that!!! Don't do that! There's treasures there. There's things you can learn. It just takes time, of course. Don't throw it away. It's one thing to look at a person's name on ancestry.com, but when you know that there's a whole archive of literature that they wrote and they did, and that's always amazing to me.


Jennia: So true!


Jennia: And that's all for today. Thank you for listening, and please check out the show notes for more information. Please join me next week as Deborah Kevin demystifies the publishing process. Thank you again!

Podcasts we love