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For most, recalling traumatic events—being beaten as a child, winning poetry awards only to find no way to pay for college, marrying out of necessity, having an abortion, divorcing, and living under the dark cloud of a long depression—would be an ordeal. But Barbara Holland, who recounts such trials in her latest memoir, When All the World Was Young, insists that reliving these memories was “a piece of cake.”
“Hey, people keep saying, ‘Oh, you had an unhappy childhood,’” says the 71-year-old author. “I did not have an unhappy childhood. My stepfather beat us, but that was fathers’ jobs in those days. That was what fathers were supposed to do. It was called discipline.”
The oldest of five, Holland grew up with a distant bookworm of a mother and that coldhearted stepfather. She had friends in her neighborhood, Dupont Circle, but she says she always felt ostracized in school—feelings that began in kindergarten. It was then that Holland says she discovered her knack for remembering the words of poems and songs—a talent she thought would help her excel in music class. As it turns out, Holland’s teacher demanded (in front of the entire class) that the young pupil “sit in silence” as songs were sung because Holland “couldn’t carry a tune” and was “throwing the other [students] into confusion.”
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“The others stared at me, and some of them giggled,” she remembers. “The information worked its way through me in a series of shock waves….Words didn’t matter. Something else mattered, and I was the only person in the room, possibly in the world, who didn’t understand.”
But words, Holland later discovered, mattered a great deal. She sold her first article to McCall’s at 23, and subsequently used her gift to chronicle milestones in her life: raising three children (In Private Life), going through a devastating divorce (One’s Company), and leaving an advertising job in Philadelphia to build a new life in rural Virginia (Bingo Night at the Fire Hall).
Like her 11 other books, all nonfiction, her four memoirs were crafted in longhand, then keyed into a computer. “I’ve been at this for so long that I’ve got a direct line between the fountain pen and the brain,” she says. “Computers are so mechanical and chunky.”
The mother of three, described by pundit George Will as a “witty curmudgeon,” has lived in a primitive summer cabin—built in the late ’50s by her mother in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains—for the past 15 years. “If anybody wants to buy the filthy place, I’ll take $5 for it,” she cracks.
Right now she is crafting a book about “the history of drinking and booze,” a topic that she says she just “dreamt up.” “I just keep writing whatever falls to hand,” she explains.
This next work, which is not yet under contract, will require a bit more effort than her autobiographies, she admits. “If you’re just writing about yourself, you don’t have to do research,” Holland says. “It’s easy.”—Heather Morgan Shott