PAGEONELIT.COM is the #1 Google Search for Literary Newsletters out of over 5.5 Million sites and the #8 Google Search for Author Interviews out of over 16 Million sites. Robert Gillis was recently interviewed by them through TheBookStoreConnection.com about his book, “Nana, my grandmother, Anne Gillis.”
TheBookStoreConnection.com: Where did you grow up and was reading and writing a part of your life? Who were your earliest influences and why?
Robert Gillis: I grew up in Dorchester Massachusetts. I was a shy kid and was always being creative – the writing came later; when I was a kid I was always making things out of construction paper, busses and trains out of shoe boxes, things like that. I remember that I always had a great imagination, but I never read or wrote “for fun” until maybe the 8th grade, or high school.
That’s when you have to start reading all the classics by Homer and the poets. In retrospect, I wish I’d read MORE in high school. There were so many books like, “A Separate peace” and “Call of the Wild” that I appreciate so much more now, but back then reading was a chore. Bu that changed quickly — by late high school, I was reading everything – assigned books and many for pleasure – Books about astronomy, Star Trek novels, John Irving, Michael Crichton, and especially Arthur C. Clarke. I love Clarke’s works because although his stories are science fiction, he bases them on science fact. I also love the works of Douglas Adams. He’s hilarious.
Writing became a real part of my life in high school. My friends and I started writing adventures featuring us saving the world from spies and the like. As we went our separate ways to college, these stories were a way to keep in touch. When my friend David moved to New Jersey to get married, we wrote chapters of a Star Trek story (featuring us, of course) that blossomed into a 150 page novel!
I developed an incredible love of writing over the years. There came a point where I HAD to write. I would see something, and I just HAD to write about it. That has never changed.
When my wife and I visited Ground Zero eleven days after the attacks, I stayed up until 4am, writing on the little hotel notes – I HAD to get it down. When I got home, I wrote what I consider to be the best piece I’ve ever written. My editor placed it on the front page of the paper (The Foxboro Reporter). That’s what happens to me – I HAVE to write. I HAVE to share it. And I am so happy I have a forum (my regular newspaper Op/Ed piece in two newspapers) where I can do that.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: Who is Nana? Why did you write “Nana My Grandmother, Anne Gillis”?
Robert Gillis: “Nana” was Anne Gillis, my paternal grandmother. When I was five or six, Nana offered to pay me some small change if I would bring newspapers to her home during the weekdays. I agreed and the ten minute visits were the beginning of a long and wonderful relationship that developed between the two of us. When I was older, I worked alongside my father who had been doing most of the work in maintaining the house on 10 Trull Street. After my father died, I took over the upkeep of Nana’s house, and I was still visiting her every day. I visited her nearly every day for over almost twenty-five years.
Nana loved to talk, and we spent nearly an hour every day chatting. There were many stories that were repeated again and again, but I know Nana liked to tell them, and I never really minded. As I got older, I became more interested in the family history, and I’d ask Nana questions.
As I grew up, I was able to do more. I made her dinner every night and took her shopping. When I started driving, I tried to take her out every now and then; it always did her good.
After Nana died, I started jotting memories about her–things I wanted to remember, stories she told, family facts and trivia, and little anecdotes. I discovered that after such a difficult personal loss, writing was the best therapy. I hadn’t intended to write a book, but the memories just flooded into me and I kept writing. Over time, I found that there could be no better way to mourn Nana, and accept her passing, than by celebrating her life.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: In your new book, “Nana My Grandmother, Anne Gillis” you talk about how special her house was for you growing up — Please explain.
Robert Gillis: Most of the story takes place at number 10 Trull Street, Nana’s home in Dorchester for over 50 years. The house was a beautiful 12 room mansion. From 1940-1965, the house was also Nana’s business, the Uphams Corner Rest Home. From 1965-1992, Nana lived there and opened the upper rooms to tenants.
While I never lived at 10 Trull Street, it was always my home. After all, I visited the house nearly every day for twenty-two years. Probably half of my childhood memories are associated with Nana’s house. I even slept over the house several times.
Occasionally, Theresa and I played with Beverly and Tara, two of the neighborhood children, but usually we were on our own. Theresa and I were never bored and played games like kickball, hide and seek, and kick the can. Years later we had friends meet us at Nana’s on Sundays and we would spent the afternoon playing outside.
Theresa and I can recall many, many evenings at Nana’s, happily exhausted and filthy after playing and running in the yard all day.
Nana’s amazing house was a playground for us. We had a fort under the porch. The sprinkler pipes in the front room became the ‘bat poles’ for Batman, the coffee pot in the kitchen became an intercom to Colonel Klink’s office and the piano held our maps and secret plans when we played “Hogan’s Heroes.”
We loved that piano. Nana never mentioned where she’d picked it up or why it was in the house–she never talked about its history, although the piano seat was filled with her old pictures. But Theresa and I were constantly playing the thing (badly) and doubtless driving Nana’s tenants crazy with the noise.
Rainy Sunday afternoons, we made annoying prank phone calls and played card and board games on the front room carpet. We discovered Sesame Street and Mister Rogers Neighborhood on Nana’s TV.
We were fascinated by many of the old-fashioned items at Nana’s house and used to play with them. Quaint old-time items like the big rolling pin, hand mixer, huge cooking bowls, meat grinder, washboard, and old-fashioned “rolling” iron could only be found at a house as old as Nana’s.
God, I loved Nana’s house. I remember many Octobers at Nana’s when her yard exploded with spectacular foliage, as the leaves turned yellow, orange, and bright red. The large tree in Nana’s front yard was always so pretty. I loved that tree. (The new owner took the tree down and the place just doesn’t seem the same without it.)
With the crisp blue sky and a pretty blanket of gold and red covering the grass, Nana’s yard was truly a showplace. Theresa and I raked huge piles of leaves to jump into, collected the prettiest leaves, and even built a scarecrow in the front yard.
Winter snowstorms at Nana’s house were gorgeous. Although I was the designated snow shoveler, Nana usually gave me $2 for the job. Nana’s yard and trees, buried in a blanket of snow, were truly a beautiful sight.
As spring would finally arrive, so would Nana’s birthday in May. I loved it
because the weather was warm and the lilacs bushes in Nana’s yard would bloom. There were only two small bushes, but I tried to bring Nana lilacs as often as possible during their brief blooming time, and I always brought in a huge bouquet of them for her birthday.
And I miss those summers, playing in the yard, talking on the porch at night, listening to the crickets chirping.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: Talk about a couple of the special things you and your grandmother shared? What was the best advice she gave you?
Robert Gillis: One of Nana’s favorite expressions was, “Your dollar is you best friend,” and that came from how hard she worked all her life. Nothing was ever handed to Nana; her entire life was filled with hard work and she certainly taught me the value of work, the value of saving your money, the value of working toward or for something.
While Nana and I were generations apart, I think there was a bond we shared that was more of a mother-son relationship. She and my dad (her son) were not close during his childhood, and in some ways I think Nana saw me as a second chance.
What I shared with Nana was an amazing sense of unconditional love and acceptance. No matter what I was going through – no matter what kind of a day I had – there was always one place I could go where someone was so elated to see me, and I could make a real difference. That was Nana’s house. That meant the world to me. It still does.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: In “Nana My Grandmother, Anne Gillis”, you discuss your grandmothers problems with alcohol — Was this a difficult subject to write about publicly? Did you ever talk with your grandmother about her drinking? Did her drinking have any effects on you? The family as a whole?
Robert Gillis: Oh yeah, it was hard to write about. When I started writing the book (soon after Nana died) it felt like a betrayal of a family secret in a way. But you have to understand that drinking – alcoholism – was a big problem on both sides of my family. My dad, God rest his soul, was an alcoholic. So were many of our family friends. In Dorchester, where I grew up, most everyone drank (I didn’t). The bars were the place the dads went to on Saturdays. And so growing up, I often had to deal with Nana or Dad drinking.
I included Nana’s alcoholism in the book because NOT writing about it would be a lie. That she had this sickness, this disease, and that it affected so much of her life and mine – well, omitting it would be a disservice both to her memory and to me. I was too affected by Nana’s drinking to ignore it – in some ways it made me grow up a little faster. And it was one of the reasons I visited every day–to keep an eye on her.
When Nana drank, she got moody and wanted more drink. And of course, as she grew older, the danger of a fall was a big concern. She was drunk when she fell and broke her hip in 1982. Her drinking caused my father great concern, and her drinking caused problems and fights with her family. Many of Nana’s siblings drank.
Did I talk to her about her drinking? Not really. I had an argument with her once in 1983 – the only time we ever argued. One of Nana’s tenants had picked up a few bottles of beer for Nana and I asked him not to, and told Nana I’d smashed the bottles in the trash, that “she was going to kill herself” if she kept drinking. This was only two months after she’d broken her hip after a drunken fall. Nana was furious and told me I had no right to do that.
Looking back, I don’t know what got into me that day. Although my intentions were noble, my actions were very wrong. Wanting to protect Nana from her drinking was one thing, but I really treated her poorly.
I’d seen Dad deal with Nana in a certain manner when she was drinking and supposed it fell to me to simply deal with her in the same way–and that was wrong.
I felt very bad about my actions and apologized when I returned to Nana’s early the next day. Nana accepted my apology, although I knew she was hurt and embarrassed. We never spoke of this incident again.
As time went by, I realized that there was no way I could ever stop Nana from drinking, and despite Dad’s feeling on the subject, I really shouldn’t have tried. Nana had so very few pleasures in life, and a glass of cold beer was one of them. It was never my intention to deny Nana this simple pleasure, just to keep her from abusing it, causing trouble, and hurting herself.
Soon, I mellowed on Nana’s beer drinking. As her ability to walk gradually declined, she wasn’t going to the store for whiskey, so I’d bring her in a couple of cans of beer a few times a week. Since I was bringing the beer, she wasn’t abusing it.
Someone as old as Nana was certainly entitled to a vice or two, as long as it didn’t get out of control. I’d never buy whiskey or anything stronger than beer, and I still would try to monitor and control her drinking, but I had no right to take it away. I would never lecture Nana about her drinking again.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: In May 1988 you write that your “Nana” went through a ‘rebirth’ – Please explain.
Robert Gillis: Nana went through something of a rebirth in May 1988, the same month I graduated from U/Mass Boston. In the space of a few weeks, her health declined rapidly. She stopped eating much of anything, and talked about wanting to die. She added that she was sick of her life and wanted to be with her family.
Nana stopped taking care of herself, and some days she didn’t even bother to get dressed, spending the entire day in her nightgown. Also, she was forgetting things. On one occasion, Nana tried to cook a pork shoulder, forgot about it, and the entire kitchen was filled with smoke when I arrived at the house.
I feared that Nana was going to die, but in early June, something wonderful happened. Sister Andrea, Nana’s oldest and dearest friend from her hometown of Glendale Cape Breton, arrived for a visit, and I got a new Nana the following day! Sister Andrea’s visit was just what Nana needed–a meeting with a cherished friend from long ago.
I didn’t see Sister Andrea the day she visited, but the change in Nana was profound. Her entire outlook changed. She was happy, friendly, and in a wonderful mood for the rest of the summer. Whatever the two friends talked about that day, it made a profound difference in Nana.
Sister Andrea snapped Nana out of her blue funk, and to call Nana upbeat and cheerful after the visit would be an understatement. In addition, Nana, who was never a “touchy” person or a hugger, someone who was always a little distant, grew extremely affectionate.
Nana became very appreciative of all the things Mom and I did for her. She was constantly praising and thanking us, and started hugging me every day when I arrived. I always knew she loved me, but she’d rarely verbalized the words, “I love you, Bobby.” On many occasions after the visit, Nana hugged me and told me she loved me. She continued to grow more affectionate for the rest of her life.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: If your ‘Nana’ read “Nana My Grandmother, Anne Gillis” — What do you think she would say?
Robert Gillis: That’s a question I’ve asked myself many times. If Nana were still alive I probably would not have written that part about how my father was born. Nana was an unwed mother – something positively scandalous in the 1930s – and Nana never, ever talked about it. Even as a child I knew the subject was forbidden. I actually wrestled whether or not to include it, but realized the story made no sense if my father just came upon the scene in 1937. I can’t imagine Nana ever
giving me her blessing to write about the secret she held so close. But it was part of who Nana was, and I hope that Nana understands how important it was for me to tell her story – her entire story. Ultimately, I think she would have liked most of it. I think I do her life justice. She was a remarkable woman. Her life mattered, and I think her story will resonate with others. I think she would be happy I remembered so many of her stories and pleasantly surprised how special she really was.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: What did you learn from writing “Nana My Grandmother, Anne Gillis”?
Robert Gillis: I learned how important Nana was to me – how grateful I was to have the ability to put her life into a story that could be accessible to everyone. I found out that while I was taking care of Nana, she was really taking care of me.
The short answer is that on a personal note the book allowed me to grieve for Nana and then allowed me move on. That took over a decade.
But I also found out the difference the book made for others. I have been in contact with people who cried when they read the book, people who told me how much the story reminded them or an aunt or elderly relative. One friend read the book as her mother lay dying and she told me that reading it helped her somewhat. That meant the world to me.
I also found out that the people in Cape Breton are so friendly! Thanks to the Internet, have made contact with so many people in Cape Breton who have provided pieces of information or just shared stories with me about that beautiful place and the people who live there. After the book was published, I learned more – I met a second cousin who lives five miles from me who grew up in Nana’s home town. I met another cousin whose only pictures of his grandfather (Neil, Nana’s brother) were on the book’s website.
In short, I learned that once the book was out there, it took on a bit of a life of its own – and helped connect me with other members of the extended family.
I think Nana would be very pleased.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: What’s next?
Robert Gillis: Another book, you mean? Someday. For now, I write my op/ed piece for the Foxboro Reporter, maintain websites for the Foxboro Jaycees and the Foxboro Doolittle Home retirement community, and my wife Sue and I are VERY involved in the Foxboro community. That and a full time job as a computer guy means my plate is pretty full! It’s a fantastic feeling that the book is completed, that the story is out there for people to enjoy.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: What was the last book you read?
Robert Gillis: “Be More Chill,” by Ned Vizzini, is a terrific book I’ve read several times. It’s about a teenager named Jeremy who ingests a supercomputer to become cool. It’s actually a great read and anyone who’s ever been a “not so cool” teen-ager or dealt with teen angst can certainly identify! I know I could.
Also just finished “The Last Juror” by John Grisham. I’ve become a big fan of Tom Clancy and John Grisham.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: Do you have any hobbies? What are they? How do they enhance your writing?
Robert Gillis: I’ve started getting into photography again and launched GillisPhotos.com. It’s a good match (web design) and computers. I love being creative and I just got my first SLR camera – it’s a Canon Digital Rebel. I’m amazed by the images I’m getting.
Besides the photography and writing I do so much work with the community service projects in the Foxboro Jaycees, and have served on their board for years. It’s fun to be part of that. We do an annual haunted house fund raiser that brings in thousands of people each year and supports the donations, scholarship and other good works we do. And it so much fun to construct a haunted house, get dressed up and scare people and put on a great show!
And my wife and I love the water – we love to get away to the water whenever we can. Even if it’s just the 40 mile drive to Hull (here in Massachusetts) or Port Judith in Rhode Island – we love to go to the water, enjoy the sights and sounds, and have a seafood dinner.
TheBookStoreConnection.com: Thank you!
Robert Gillis: My pleasure!
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