Conversation: Francine du Plessix Gray and Sean Wilsey

Top, Wilsey with his parents in San Francisco, 1973; above, Gray with her mother and stepdad (and their housekeeper, Sally), at home on 70th Street in the forties.Photo: Francine du Plessix Gray/The Penguin Press; Sean Wilsey/The Penguin Press

What common ground does Francine du Plessix Gray, cultivated septuagenarian biographer, share with Sean Wilsey, reform-school survivor and co-founder of McSweeney’s? Each has a new memoir that dishes on the author’s notable parents. Gray’s is the more admiring of the pair, exploring the life of her adventurous Russian mother, hat designer Tatiana Yakovleva, and Tatiana’s would-be second husband, fellow émigré and Condé Nast mastermind Alexander Liberman. Wilsey’s parental portrait is less flattering, taking on his wealthy father, Al Wilsey; his mother, gossip columnist Pat Montandon; and wicked stepmother Dede Wilsey—the triad at the center of one of San Francisco’s most expensive divorces. The authors, respectively, of Them: A Memoir of Parents and Oh the Glory of It All shared their wisdom with Boris Kachka.

So, what do you make of each other’s books?
Wilsey: My parents were kind of a low-rent version of her parents.
Gray: Well, mine started out more from scratch than yours. It’s one essential difference, because I’m constantly aware of what they suffered in the war. I forgave them more readily than Sean did.
W.: My parents created their own war.
G.: And your mother is still alive. How did she take the book?
W.: It’s been hard. She’s proud of me, but her reaction swings wildly from day to day. I don’t really take her point of view. I’m hard on her. And that’s hard to read.
G.: All our parents have levels of deviousness. We’re driven to write about this discrepancy between the bright shining selves they invented and the monsters lurking underneath.

You both seem to have grown up with a sense of your parents’ hypocrisy.
W.: Oh, totally. As soon as a camera turned off or a phone was hung up, I was faced with a different person.
G.: I think it’s one of the reasons I wrote my book later in life. My parents didn’t have these extreme alternations of conduct. They were very sweet to me. It was only when my mother died that Alex turned into Jekyll and Hyde. And I had to bide my time until he died so I would not have to hide anything.

So you really were waiting for their death?
G.: I was waiting not in the way of, God, when are you going to die? At the same time I knew that when he died I’d have time to do this. So Sean, I think when your own mother’s time is over you may have to write another book, because she’s the one who gave you the most affection.

Francine, did you look at this project as a biographer or as a memoirist?
G.: I didn’t find this memoir of these two eccentric people so different from doing my memoirs of De Sade or Simone Weil. My parents in their own way are as odd as Sade.

Well, not quite …
G.: But they’re more devious. De Sade never had anything to hide. Whereas their lives were in great part about dread of not impressing.

Joseph Lelyveld has a parents’ memoir, and Jane Fonda, too. Is something going on?
G.: I think we’re much more eager to know about our parents than we were in the seventies.
W.: I think that’s true. There weren’t a lot of people kind of manning the barricades in the sixties and looking up their genealogy.
G.: As to why people like Joseph Lelyveld are writing memoirs, I think they’re just catching on the coattails of the trend. I was just reviewed by Robert Gottlieb, who was my editor at The New Yorker, and he sort of wondered at the fact that I still need to exorcise my parents at my age. I think he makes a basic mistake in thinking that exorcism can ever be total. The exorcism of your parents will still be occurring on your own deathbed.

So what are these books, acts of therapy—or acts of revenge?
G.: I prefer to think of it first as an act of justice. And you also want to spin a good yarn. But No. 3 is that all writers are hunters, and parents are the most available prey.

Author, Them: a Memoir of Parents
(Penguin Press; $29.95).
Author, Oh the Glory of It All
(Penguin Press; $25.95).

Conversation: Francine du Plessix Gray and Sean Wilsey