Debut memoirist and acclaimed photographer Christa Parravani discusses her new book, Her—about the life and death of her twin sister—and shares what she most misses about her sibling.
Zola: With your sister being a writer, did that make you self-conscious of your own writing?
Christa Parravani: At first when I wrote, it was as if I were channeling Cara. I couldn’t help but sound like her, an understandable tic. She was the writer in my life, and I knew her words by heart. Sometimes I’d even catch myself repeating them quietly in the shower or grocery checkout line.
It was a comfort that Cara left behind so much writing when she died. It was a way to be able to hear her again, and that was divine. On the other hand, we are singular, and I had to write for myself. While writing Her it was very important for me to establish two separate voices. Cara could afford to be reckless in her prose, poetically charming and unreliable. I simply couldn’t if I was going to establish a steady voice to guide the reader through difficult territory. So sometimes even though I would have loved to stay a little longer in lush imagery, I just knew I couldn’t. I had to write against my sister at times in the book to make it work. And that seemed so much like the larger, personal themes in our lives.
Zola: How about your husband, Jarhead author Anthony Swofford? Were you at all anxious about what he’d think of your writing? Did you show him any of it as you went along or did you wait until you finished?
CP: I never was anxious. There is a mutual respect in the Swofford-Parravani house. We have a very relaxed way with each other, and we both know that we can present what we’re working on without judgment. By the time I’d met Tony, I’d written more than half of Her. I think he would agree, though, that this book has very much been a part of us. We’ve probably brought it into nearly every dinner discussion of our marriage. One thing I love about Tony is that he understands how much it meant to me to do this story justice, and he pushed me to ask the right questions and to keep going.
Zola: With so much of your sister’s writing incorporated in the book, the two voices at times meld into one. Was this intentional?
CP: I struggled with a visceral way to be able to explain the bond of twins without over explaining, that supernatural sameness. In order to bond with us, the reader has to have that moment, the understanding that they were dealing with souls who were so close. So I set out to do that through voice. Childhood seemed a good place to try. I had a process: I wrote the story of our childhood, my version. Then I cut the episodes into pieces and scattered them on the living room floor. I did the same with Cara’s writings about those same times. I mixed them up until I didn’t really know which piece belonged to whom, and until the voices seemed one voice.
After Cara died, it was too painful for me to take pictures. The place in my pictures was our place, and her absence was too much. I’ve worked out enough in my life artistically and personally where that should no longer be the case, but then I’ll be dealing with desire. And right now my focus is writing. I’d always wanted to be a writer. And because Cara had wanted that too, I’d stopped writing in college and started taking pictures. Twins are a bit crazy that way, competitive. There wasn’t enough room in the world for two Parravani writers; it felt like angels dancing on the head of a pin. So I gave Cara that very small, imagined space. I won’t say I didn’t fall in love with photography. I did. But I’ve found a peace and satisfaction in writing that I never had with photography. And I think I’ll stay with that.
Zola: What were some of your sister’s favorite books?
Zola: What’s the one thing you miss most about her?
CP: Her laugh. Though sometimes, if I’m lucky, I hear it in my own. We sounded so much the same.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.