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Take This Man

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Take This Man includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Brando Skyhorse. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    Introduction

    In this riveting, heartfelt memoir, Brando Skyhorse shares the story of his turbulent childhood in Echo Park, Los Angeles, with a rotating cast of surrogate fathers and a Mexican mother who refashioned herself and her son as Native Americans. With poignant honesty, he recalls his struggle to reconcile his dual cultural identities, reconnecting with his biological father after more than three decades, and how he finally untangled the truth of his past.  

    Topics & Questions for Discussion 

    1. Share your thoughts about Maria as a person and as a mother. Were you sympathetic toward her at all? Why or why not? What were her maternal strengths and weaknesses?
     
    2. What motivated Maria to fabricate a Native American identity for herself and Brando? How did the phrase she repeated (“At least it’s never boring”) shed light on her extreme, often outrageous behavior? Why was Maria able to get away with the lies and stories she told?
     
    3. Discuss the cultural identity issues that Maria’s charade caused Brando. Why did he defy his mother and “come out” as a Mexican when he was in his teens? Was Sofie right or wrong to accuse Brando of lying to her?
     
    4. Grandma June was supportive of Brando—encouraging his love of reading, for example—and at other times was cruel to him. How would you describe their relationship? Was she more of a positive or a negative influence in her grandson’s life?
     
    5. Discuss the atmosphere inside the Echo Park house. How did June and Maria’s relationship impact Brando? What conclusions are there to be drawn from the fact that being on the road, away from the house, “stripped away [Maria’s] characteristic fear and disappointment” (page 58)?
     
    6. How did Brando’s view of his mother, and his relationship with her, change as he got older? How about after he went away to Stanford? Why does he wish he could go back and warn his younger self after arriving on campus? What advice would he give him?
     
    7. Discuss Brando’s relationships with each of his stepfathers—Robert, Paul, Pat, and Rudy—and the impact they had on him. What did he most want from a father figure? How did this shift over time?
     
    8. Discuss the role Frank has played in Brando’s life. What has kept the two of them connected for decades? Why was it Frank, never married to Maria, who became most like a father to Brando?
     
    9. Brando admits that by the time he contacted Candido he’d “had so many fathers that even the idea of a father—the very word father—seemed absurd” (page 3). Why then did he finally decide to reach out to him? Did he get what he had hoped to from Candido?
     
    10. Candido cited the circumstances of his tempestuous parting with Maria and her threats to have him deported as the reasons why he never contacted Brando. Did he give up too easily on trying to be involved in his son’s life? Were his actions justifiable in any way? Why or why not?
     
    11. In what ways are Candido’s daughters “so unlike” the women Brando grew up with, and why is this glaringly apparent to him (page 230)? Why is he able to connect more with his sisters than with Candido?
     
    12. Why didn’t Brando return home for Maria’s funeral? Is his decision understandable? When he was finally able to cry after his mother’s death, what was he really mourning?
     
    13. The book’s title, Take This Man, draws attention to the men in Brando’s life. Why do you suppose this title was selected? Do you think it’s an accurate reflection of the book? Overall, how are men presented in the memoir?
     
    14. What lasting effects has Brando’s upbringing had on him as an adult? In what ways has it impacted his romantic relationships, his emotional well-being, and other aspects of his life?
     
    15. What is your overall opinion of Take This Man, including your thoughts on Brando as a narrator? Which aspects of the book particularly resonated with you? How does it compare to other memoirs your group has read?

    Enhance Your Book Club

    1. On a visit to Istanbul, Turkey, Brando participated in the tradition of writing messages to loved ones, living or departed, on scraps of paper. Have members do the same and pen notes to someone special, whether or not you release the missives into the wind.
     
    2. Brando and his grandmother were movie buffs and saw eight to ten a month. Share who you would cast as Brando, June, Maria, Frank, and others featured in the book if Take This Man were made into a film.
     
    3. Pair your reading of Take This Man with Brando’s novel The Madonnas of Echo Park, which is set in the Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up.
     
    4. Take a virtual tour of the Central Library, where June and Brando were regulars. Today the building is considered an architectural highlight of downtown Los Angeles. Visit http://www.lapl.org/branches/central-library and click on “Art & Architecture in Central Library.”   
     

    A Conversation with Brando Skyhorse 

    Q: “Every storyteller needs more than good stories. He needs to understand why he’s telling the stories he tells,” you state in Take This Man. Why did you decide to write this memoir?  

    A: It started in 1996. My writing professor Geoffrey Wolff knew a partial sketch of my life story—being raised by five different stepfathers—and thought it could make a good book. In the eighteen years since his first suggestion, my mother and grandmother died, I went through years of therapy, and reconnected with my biological father and his new family, which includes his three daughters. So as these various life events accumulated, my reasons for writing this book evolved from a simple accounting of crazy experiences—and then I had another dad!—into something deeper and more complex. It went from trying to understand my circumstances to trying to understand me.

    Q: You describe your mother as “a siren whose songs were her stories.” Did writing Take This Man help you better understand, or perhaps even come to terms with, your mother and her “mythmaking”? How so?  

    A: There’s a part near the end of the memoir where I write, “narrative is breath . . . stories sustain us.” My mother’s stories sustained her version of the life she wanted to live, something she thought was impossible to do otherwise. She was so desperate to “be” an American Indian that she wanted to convince enough people and make her lie a reality. I know now that my mother wasn’t trying to be malicious or cruel. She thought she was paying homage to a people and a culture she loved. My use of the word “siren” was intentional, though. Sirens can draw people to places filled with pain, and my mother’s songs often came attached with difficult consequences. What’s more, a siren lives only until the moment someone who hears their songs passes them by. My mother died a month after I left Los Angeles for good. There’s still a small part of me that feels I was responsible because I wasn’t there to listen to her stories anymore.

    Q: You come across as incredibly honest in Take This Man. Were you ever tempted to gloss over certain details that were painful to revisit, or leave them out altogether?  

    A: I spent years unknowingly—then knowingly—lying about who I was because the truth felt more complicated and dangerous. I thought people would reject me if they knew about both my mother’s lies and my own. Being able to write this memoir was an extraordinary gift, and a privilege, because at last I could put the whole story down somewhere. My mother led a sad and unhappy life in part because she tried to omit all the things in her past that had hurt her. For me to tell anything less than the whole story as I understood it would have been pointless and wrong. I would have been guilty of selling out my own creation and cheating every reader who picks up this book.

    Q: Tell us about the experience of writing Take This Man. How was the memoir-writing process different from crafting your novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park?  

    A: Everything about this book was difficult. How long it took to write it, sell it, title it, even start it, though I’m grateful now for that particular challenge. This story seemed so massive and challenging that I had no idea where to begin. Kitt, who’s mentioned in the book, suggested that I try to find my birth father Candido. She thought that detailing my attempts to find him would be a good place to begin. I never thought the search would be successful nor did I think it would take just ten minutes on whitepages.com.  

    I summarized the writing process on my Facebook page in 2013. I’ll save you the trouble of looking for it:  

    1996—Took a memoir class with Geoffrey Wolff. Told him I wanted to write “something” about my five stepfathers. “Think about a book,” he said, and “start taking notes.”  

    1999—Submit sample pages and a short proposal to the Maui Writers Conference. Get 19 queries from agents wanting to see more. Every agent sees more, then passes.  

    2002—Write a new proposal. Find an agent who sends out the proposal to 23 editors. I get 23 passes. One editor says, “Love the story, hate the writing.”  

    2009—Resubmit with a new agent a much shorter version of the 2002 proposal with a just finished novel (this was Madonnas). We send out on a Friday afternoon. We get our first offer Monday morning for both books.  

    April 1, 2009—Start writing the memoir.  

    2011—Submit finished draft to my editor in December.  

    2012—Get first round of edits. Massive revision follows. Turn in new draft. Another massive round of edits follows. Brainstorm many book titles, all of which are terrible.  

    2013—Turn in third revision. Another massive revision follows. More title brainstorming.  

    Halloween 2013—Submit “finished” memoir draft, ready for copy editing and proofreading. Book publishes in 2014, eighteen years after I thought I wanted to “write something” about my family.

    Q: Why did you decide on Take This Man as the title? Were any others ever considered?  

    A: There were many—MANY—other titles considered. Things My Fathers Taught Me was a front-runner for a long time, but my publisher found it confusing. Take This Man feels perfect to me. It’s half of a traditional wedding vow (Do you take this man to be . . . etc) and god knows I heard those words enough growing up, attending all the weddings my mother had. As I thought it over, I started to see I was the man seeking acceptance from almost everyone in my life. I wanted to be taken in. I still want it, I think, if I’m being honest.

    Q: You previously worked in book publishing before becoming a full-time writer. What is it like now being on the other side of the editorial desk?  

    A: Writing books has been my dream gig since college. I’ve been doing it full-time for the past five years and love it, but I was also an editor for ten years. I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss it, which is why I still edit the occasional manuscript freelance. I was privileged enough—and it was a privilege—to work on Bob Shacochis’s extraordinary novel The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. I miss listening to writers and learning what they know. Editing a manuscript from an enthusiastic author is like auditing a college course with an incredible professor. I’m not sure my editor feels that way about me!

    Q: Your mother taught you to read at a young age, and your grandmother nurtured your love of reading by taking you to the library and to bookstores. How much of their influence do you credit to your making a living in the book trade?  

    A: I hadn’t made that connection but it’s an interesting one and probably right. My grandmother taught me to value books as physical objects while my mother showed me how important it is to appreciate the stories (and by extension the storytellers) themselves. Those loves drove me to work in books at the height of the late 1990s dot-com boom, making a fraction of what others my age were, but somehow it didn’t matter. Books were a special occasion purchase growing up and reading them was the one guaranteed time I could spend with my mother and grandmother that wouldn’t end up in an argument. Makes sense that I’d want to surround myself with them as a livelihood. Books were my safe place.

    Q: Did you inherit your grandmother’s love of mystery fiction? Who are some of your favorite writers?  

    A: As I mentioned in the memoir, the first book purchase I remember is A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney. I knew Rooney could make my grandmother laugh when she watched 60 Minutes on Sundays, so I was really looking for something that I thought would make my grandmother happy. She wanted me to make my own choices, though, and never made any reading recommendations. She trusted me to find my own space in the books I grabbed off the shelves. Over the years, books from my favorite writers opened up a room for me to write in. It’d be impossible for me to do what I do every day without them having created that space for me. Just limiting the list to living writers, they include Edward P. Jones (our greatest American writer working today), Amy Hempel, Annie Proulx, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Luis Alberto Urrea, and countless others.

    Q: Your mother and your grandmother were both outspoken women. What do you think their reactions would be to you writing a book about your childhood?  

    A: I’m not sure there would be a book if they both hadn’t passed away. I don’t know if I would have been courageous enough. If they were still alive, though, my grandmother would be shoving a copy in every neighbor’s and shopkeeper’s hands in Echo Park. As for my mother? She’d write a glowing five-star Amazon review declaring this book worthy of the Pulitzer Prize. Twenty minutes later, she’d post a scathing one-star review with a subject line, “Email me if you want the whole story.” That’d give me a two-and-a-half-star average, right?

    Q: In Take This Man, you include an excerpt from your mother’s unpublished memoirs, in which she wrote: “If anyone takes anything away from this book, it’s this: don’t waste your life hiding away like I did.” What would you like readers to take away from your memoir?  

    A: There’s a reason this book ends with a quote from Christopher Hitchens asking you not to waste a single moment in reaching out to anyone “who might benefit from a letter or a visit.” When I found my father on whitepages.com, I wrote him a letter. That letter both changed my understanding of the life I’d lived up to now and, with the introduction of my three new sisters—all of whom I’m crazy about—the life that lies ahead. I started this book as a way to understand why my mother made the choices she made. I finished this book to understand how those choices made me who I am. For years I wanted to find a true story on the shelves that would make me feel less broken. I never found it so I wrote it instead. If readers take away one thing, I hope they learn that a broken family can become a whole one with patience and empathy. I want them to then take that knowledge and spread that empathy to their own families, their friends, and save some of it for themselves. That would be a great start.

    Q: What are you working on now? Will you be returning to Echo Park in any future works?  

    A: I’ve got ideas for one, maybe two, novels. Echo Park has been my Yoknapatawpha County for two books. It’s been a good home to me but perhaps it’s time to explore some new undiscovered country.  

    Learn more about the author at www.brandoskyhorse.com

More Books From This Author

The Madonnas of Echo Park

About the Author

Brando Skyhorse
Photograph © Eric van den Brulle

Brando Skyhorse

Brando Skyhorse’s debut novel, The Madonnas of Echo Park, won the 2011 PEN/Hemingway Award and the Sue Kaufman Award for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Skyhorse is a graduate of Stanford University and the MFA Writers’ Workshop program at UC Irvine. He is the 2014 Jenny McKean Moore Writer-In-Washington at George Washington University.

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