When Victoria Loustalot, ’03, was 10 years old, her father died with AIDS. Now, 18 years later, Loustalot has published a memoir entitled “This Is How You Say Goodbye.”
The memoir, which she began during her time at Country Day and released on Sept. 10, revolves around her relationship with her father.
“It’s a coming-of-age story in many ways,” Loustalot said. “It’s also sort of a classic hero’s journey. I set out to solve the riddle of my father and of myself.”
Loustalot, who originally attended a Catholic elementary school, transferred to Country Day in the seventh grade. By that time, her father had come out as being gay and the views of her Catholic classmates were difficult to live with. The comments about her father were part of the reason she changed schools.
“There were people who thought that my father’s being gay made him (worth) less than them,” Loustalot said. “As a 7-year-old, it was hard to go to school and learn that homosexuality was against God, against Jesus.”
In many ways, Loustalot’s memoir is a way for her to understand her father and their relationship.
“He was a totally different person after (he got HIV),” Loustalot said. “I wanted nothing more than to know what he was like for my mom and previous boyfriends he had had.”
When her father committed suicide four days before her 11th birthday, Loustalot was faced with a multitude of emotions.
“It was obviously difficult,” Loustalot said. “He had been suffering for so long; in some ways it was a relief.
“We knew that he was dying. When someone has a prolonged illness like that, you’re just sort of waiting for them to die. The whole family revolved around his illness.”
Country Day Beginnings
Even after her father’s death, Loustalot still wondered about her father and wrote about him.
During her sophomore year, Loustalot wrote a remembered-place essay on the Orchard Café, a restaurant halfway between her mother in Sacramento and her father in Santa Cruz, where she was passed between her divorced parents after spending the weekend with her dad.
“She let the story tell itself through subtle details, something that her classmates were still learning to do,” English teacher Patricia Fels wrote in a college recommendation letter for Loustalot.
English teacher Ron Bell had a similar impression of Loustalot. According to Fels, Bell had discussed Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Miss Brill” with Loustalot’s class while substituting for Fels.
“Afterwards he said to me, ‘(Loustalot) had the most sophisticated answers; she could easily be a senior,’” Fels said. “She stood out already in just that short time.”
Bell said he feels the same now as he did then.
“Victoria already wrote with an adult style when she was in high school,” Bell said. “More significantly, she took her work seriously. That’s what made the difference ultimately. She stuck with it.”
Loustalot was on The Octagon staff for all four years of high school, serving as editor-in-chief her senior year. She also wrote fiction stories for The Glass Knife throughout her high-school career.
And some of the stories in her memoir were first written for her senior project.
“At that point it was just getting down on paper what I remembered about my father,” Loustalot said. “It was really just a collection of memories.”
Bell, who was Loustalot’s senior project adviser, was impressed with her early draft.
“It was good—moving, and representing a unique point of view,” Bell said. “Her description of her emotional and intellectual coming to terms with the loss (of her father) created a unique story. I always thought it would be published some day.”
Success at last!
However, it wasn’t until she was in her twenties that Loustalot gave serious thought to writing a memoir.
“There’s this weird period in your life where you’re kind of an adult, and yet there’s so much you don’t know about yourself and about the world,” Loustalot said. “It became increasingly clear to me that I needed to get some resolution and find some answers so that I could move forward.”
In the memoir, Loustalot goes on a trip to the places she was supposed to visit with her father before his illness made that trip an impossibility: Paris, Stockholm and the temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. On her journey, Loustalot comes to terms with her father’s death and is finally able to say goodbye.
“(‘This Is How You Say Goodbye’) is courageous and insightful,” said Brenda Copeland, Loustalot’s editor at St. Martin’s Press. “I feel proud to have worked with her on it.
“A good memoir is a journey—one that takes its author from here to there. A great memoir is a journey for the reader, too. ‘This is How You Say Goodbye’ is a great memoir.”
Despite Loustalot’s success in publishing her book, there were complications along the way. At one point, Loustalot had to decide whether to publish her book as a novel or keep it as an unpublished memoir.
While a freshman at Columbia University in New York City, Loustalot met with an editor at Random House. The editor suggested that Loustalot turn her memoir into a novel as well as put it in a “Dear Diary” form.
But Loustalot refused to change her memoir in that way.
“The impression the editor gave me was it was going to be a chick-lit thing,” Loustalot said in a 2006 Octagon article. “It really didn’t appeal to me.
In the end, Loustalot and the Random House editor were unable to come to an agreement, and Random House withdrew its offer.
“Others had this idea that she shouldn’t care if she had to make changes to it,” Fels said. “She persisted with the idea that this was a story worth telling.”
“I find myself especially glad that I stuck to my guns and turned down the offer I received,” Loustalot said in the Octagon article. “When I am published, I want it to be on my terms.”
In the 10 years since then, Loustalot graduated from Columbia, earned a master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction there as well, and worked as a freelance writer for companies such as Publishers Weekly, The Huffington Post, The New Yorker (website) and The Onion.
Loustalot’s persistence paid off, and, now that she has published her memoir with St. Martin’s Press, she is faced with the next step in her writing career, which, according to Loustalot, may very well include a couple of nonfiction stories.
“(As a writer), you’re in it for the long haul,” Loustalot said. “You kind of immediately have to start thinking about your next project. You really don’t have that much rest time.”
But with “This Is How You Say Goodbye” now out, Loustalot admits that everything “still feels pretty much like it’s always felt.
“I still have to put my pants on one leg at a time. I didn’t suddenly become a superhero. But, you know, it is very exciting.”
Loustalot’s book launch party in New York featured 120 guests and specialty cocktails. Read more about it online at scdsoctagon.com under the Features tab.