CNF Conversations: An Interview with Patrick Madden

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Patrick MaddenSublime PhysickUniversity of Nebraska Press, 2016.

Patrick Madden is the author of Sublime Physick (2016) and Quotidiana (2010), winner of Foreword Reviews and Independent Publisher book of the year awards, and finalist for the PEN Center USA Literary Award. His personal essays, nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and noted in the Best American Essays six times, have been published widely in such journals as Fourth Genre, Hotel Amerika, the Iowa Review, McSweeney’s, the Normal School, River Teeth, and Southwest Review, and have been anthologized in the Best Creative Nonfiction and the Best American Spiritual Writing. With David Lazar, he co-edited After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays and now co-edits the 21st Century Essays series at Ohio State University Press. A two-time Fulbright fellow to Uruguay, he teaches at Brigham Young University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he curates an online anthology and essay resource at www.quotidiana.org.

About Sublime PhysickA follow-up to Patrick Madden’s award-winning debut, this introspective and exuberant collection of essays is wide-ranging and wild, following bifurcating paths of thought to surprising connections. In Sublime Physick, Madden seeks what is common and ennobling among seemingly disparate, even divisive, subjects, ruminating on midlife, time, family, forgiveness, loss, originality, a Canadian rock band, and much more, discerning the ways in which the natural world (fisica) transcends and joins the realm of ideas (sublime) through the application of a meditative mind.

In twelve essays that straddle the classical and the contemporary, Madden transmutes the ruder world into a finer one, articulating with subtle humor and playfulness how science and experience abut and intersect with spirituality and everyday life.

Watch the book trailer for Sublime Physick here…in which Montaigne and Sebald get drunk together.

For teachers who’d like to adopt this book for their classes, Madden has provided a number of helpful teaching resources, including a 40-minute lecture on his writing process and writing prompts for each of the book’s essays. You can find those here.

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Julija Šukys: First of all, Pat, thank you for this wonderful book. It’s a beautiful, melancholic text, penned, or at least published, at mid-life. We’re almost the same age, you and I, so I connected to the simultaneous gaze backward to childhood, forward to aging and death, and downward to the children at our feet. Tell me a bit about the organizing principle of this book. You write that the “essays all derive, in some way, from the physical world, and all reach, always insufficiently, toward the sublime.” Can you say a little bit more about this?

Patrick Madden: Thanks, Julija. I’m really glad you liked the book. I think that the middle of life (whether “midlife” or not) is a long period of relative stasis (I know I’m oversimplifying), so I hope that these essays can speak to lots of people, in the middle of life. As for the organizing principle of the book: I wanted to collect essays under a general characteristic that holds true not only for my own essays but for essays generally, and I discovered that phrase, sublime physick, while researching Amedeo Avogadro, the 19th-century Italian chemist who theorized that equal volumes of gas contained equal numbers of molecules, no matter the gases. We’ve since named Avogadro’s number (6.02 x 1023, the number of molecules in one mole) after him. Aaanyway, I learned that he held the chair of fisica sublime at the University of Turin. I thought it was a lovely oxymoronic term, because it suggests both the concrete and the abstract, the physical and the sublime. While I realize that this department was the equivalent of our modern-day “theoretical physics” (thinking about the science of the natural world), I played with all sorts of definitions and combinations that give insight into what essays tend to do. So this book collects many essays that have science themes and metaphors (I did my bachelor’s degree in physics), and they all make connections between the world of lived experiences (the concrete) and the world of ideas (the abstract), sometimes with a reach toward the spiritual (or sublime).

As you know, I had a group of students read your essay, “Spit,” and the endeavor was wildly successful – my students are still talking about you. In many ways, “Spit” is a classic essay: it combines scene, research and reflection flawlessly. It’s conversational and intimate yet deeply, deeply intellectual, and it vacillates in the most surprising ways between the big and the small. It appears to be about one thing (saliva!) and turns out to be about something else entirely (redemption, forgiveness, self-forgiveness). Tell me about the writing process of this essay.

I am smiling. They were a great bunch to talk with, and I’m glad the essay had a good effect on them. I hope one thing they can take from that essay is that they can write about anything, even frivolous or unappealing things, and they can write without knowing from the start where they’re going or what it all means. One night as I was putting my daughters to bed. I realized that one of them was learning to whistle, another was learning to snap her fingers, and the third was learning to ride a bike, and I had a flash of memory to when I learned how to spit. I thought this was an odd thing to remember, especially because I don’t usually have a good memory. So I began to write an essay about spit. It was all very superficial at first: I gathered all the memories and associations I could make with the literal act of expectorating. Of course, I knew that this would never work as an essay. I needed something significant, an idea to explore. I soon remembered what is probably the essay’s climactic moment, when I returned home for a weekend during my freshman year of college and I discovered that one of my friends was now hanging out with a different crowd, doing as they did. I got upset, we argued, and in the escalation of emotions, I spat at him. Because my friend had since died, very young, I began thinking about forgiveness. Beyond that, as I was trying to get some DNA research done on my ancestry (by sending a cheek swab for analysis), I met, through email and phone, a distant relative who’d never known anybody he was genetically related to. Even though our common ancestor lived centuries ago, he was pleased to get to know me. As we shared our experiences, I learned that he’d recently gotten into some legal trouble, so that the life he’d worked so hard to build was falling apart. I began to see him as a tragic hero, undone by his fatal flaw and events beyond his control. This was a challenge to the dear notion that people can repent and change. So I wrote toward this uncomfortable question: What is repentance? How can we forgive? And so forth. I felt that this was a substantial idea at the end of an initially inane essay.

Some time ago, I was introduced at a reading as “an essayist,” and immediately felt a sort of revolt inside me that said “No! I’m not an essayist…” A few seconds later, I reversed this and thought, “Hang on, maybe I am an essayist…” It’s been a long road, but for what it’s worth, I increasingly define myself as such. By contrast, you seem to have understood early on exactly what kind of writer you were. In “On Being Recognized,” you quote Arthur Christopher Benson: “The point of the essay is not the subject, for any subject will suffice, but the charm of personality” (117). What is the point of the essay for you, Pat? Can you talk a little about your journey to the essay? Did you flirt with other genres before you settled on this one? Do you ever (as I did recently) get accused of fetishizing the essay?

“Fetishizing the essay”! I like that phrase. I’ve never been accused of that, but only (I suppose) because it’s so obvious that I do it. People feel it’s unnecessary to even make the statement about me. Of course, I deny the premise, as “fetishizing” assumes that the obsession is “excessive or irrational,” and this is obviously false. In any case, I never really had any other literary goals, and though I like reading other genres, I’ve never seriously tried writing in them. Joseph Epstein says that essayists are all failed at other literary and artistic pursuits (e.g., Lamb the failed playwright and poet; Hazlitt the failed painter), but this is not the case for me. Unless I’m a failed physicist, I guess. Yes, maybe that’s it. I came to the essay because it promised a great freedom. I had a physics degree, but already before I had graduated I felt the narrowing constraints of lifelong expertise in a very small subject area. In physics, this smallness is doubly true: each physicist’s field is metaphorically small, but also a cutting-edge physicist will probably be working with subatomic particles, invisible even to microscopes, and the work tends to involve colliding accelerated particles then sifting through the computer data for years in order to get a read on what flashed into and out of existence during a nanosecond of interesting results. Aaanyway, I felt claustrophobic at the prospect of dedicating my life to this. Meanwhile, in the two years after graduation, I served a Mormon mission to Uruguay, which gave me a lot of time to think about my future. Gradually I realized that I loved to think wildly, without restraint, flitting from one subject of interest to the next as the spirit moved me. And eventually I discovered or decided that writing essays could be a way to keep my life open and free, to study what subjects inspired me for as long as they inspired me, and then move on. So I came to the essay knowingly, intentionally, and with great hopes. I think now that I was naïve, but also very lucky, so that my life has worked out to be what I had hoped for.

By the way, I don’t know who introduced you as an essayist, but I feel that the title is a great compliment. Most people who would use it to describe you would do so knowingly, meaning that you’re an experimenter and explorer. Continue reading

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Joy Castro

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Joy Castro, ed. Family Trouble. University of Nebraska Press, 2013.

Joy Castro http://www.joycastro.com is the author of the memoir The Truth Book (Arcade, 2005) and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s, 2012) and Nearer Home (St. Martin’s, 2013). Her essay collection Island of Bones (U of Nebraska, 2012) is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, Brevity, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine. An associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies.

Essays by twenty-five memoirists explore the fraught territory of family history, analyzing the ethical dilemmas of writing about family and offering practical strategies for navigating this tricky but necessary material. A sustained and eminently readable lesson in the craft of memoir, Family Trouble serves as a practical guide for writers who want to narrate their own versions of the truth while still acknowledging family boundaries.

The 25 distinguished, award-winning memoirists who contributed to Family Trouble come from a wide array of cultural backgrounds and family configurations. They include college and university educators, many of whom have published craft texts.

The contributors, with links to their author websites, are listed here: http://www.joycastro.com/FamilyTrouble.htm.

Family Trouble cover

Julija Šukys: Joy, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to discuss your recent edited anthology, Family Trouble. I myself am working on a project that tells the story of my family’s history, and I’m grateful for the chance to have a conversation with you about it here and with the authors whose works you gathered via the pages of your book.

Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your writing background, and how did you come to want to put together this collection about the challenges of writing about family? How did you find the contributors to this book, who are many and varied?

Joy Castro: First of all, thank you so much for your interest in this book. I’m grateful. I hope Family Trouble will help many writers, aspiring writers, and teachers of writing as they think through these tricky issues.

I’ve published two books of memoir, The Truth Book (2005) and Island of Bones (2012), both from University of Nebraska Press, which also brought out Family Trouble. I’m also a writer of literary thrillers: Hell or High Water (2012) and Nearer Home, both set in New Orleans and both from St. Martin’s Press, and they’ve been optioned for film or television. I publish essays, short fiction, and poetry. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I teach fiction and creative nonfiction in the graduate program.

The idea for this particular collection began to grow when I was touring with The Truth Book. After I read, audiences always wanted to know how my family felt about the revelations it contained. That surprised me. I knew how carefully I’d thought through those issues of respect, privacy, and artistic license, but I hadn’t realized that anyone else would be interested.

At the AWP conference in 2008, I coordinated a panel on the topic—mostly due to my own curiosity, and so that I could hear what the other four panelists thought about it.  I thought 20 or 30 people might show up.  But over 400 came.  I knew then that I’d stumbled onto something that was an issue of real urgency for many people, so I decided to try gathering a collection of diverse views on the topic.

A few of the contributors were memoirists I knew personally whose work I admired.  Others were writers whose work alone I knew and admired, and I e-mailed them with an invitation to contribute. A very few, like Paul Lisicky and Susan Olding, were writers whose work I didn’t previously know but who were recommended to me by contributors whose work I’d already accepted, and their essays were really great and fit the collection’s topic well. In one case, I went after a published essay I’d read online, the piece by Alison Bechdel, because it spoke so beautifully (and succinctly) to the topic.

In gathering the pieces, I wanted to include memoirists whose opinions, aesthetics, and strategies diverged significantly, so the collection could examine the issue from a variety of perspectives.  No easy consensus emerges, and I think that’s a healthy, lively, challenging thing for readers to experience.

I also wanted other kinds of diversity:  cultural, sexual, racial, class, family itself.  There are several pieces by memoirists who occupy positions in the adoption triad, for example. These social, experiential factors inflect how we approach the issue of writing about family, so I wanted to try to include a broad range of standpoints.

Writing about family, just about everyone agrees, is problematic because it involves telling the stories of others. There is almost a necessary appropriation that happens in the writing of family stories, since families are, by definition, networks of relationships and of love, resentment, competing memories, and allegiances. “The details might be a part of my story,” writes Ariel Gore, “but it is not my story alone” (65). Similarly, Heather Sellers suggests in the last essay in the collection: “To write about family is to plagiarize life. I believe it can be done with grace. I believe, in my case, it has been the right thing to do. But it’s still stealing” (211). What do you think of Sellers’ use of plagiarism and theft as ways of talking about the theme at hand? Is writing about family always transgressive?

I was happy to get to write the introduction to the collection, which gave me the opportunity to lay out my own point of view on these matters at length. Here, I’ll just say that I respect, have learned from, and enjoy all the different essayists’ perspectives, but my own is that writing memoir is a search for understanding. For me, if I’m immersed in answering urgent questions that move and hurt me, and I include nothing irrelevant to those questions, nothing gratuitous, then the work is not transgressive or exploitative.

I understand, though, that the people about whom I’ve written may take a different view.

And to be frank, I understand that. When I’ve seen myself written about (as in a newspaper, for example), I often cringe a little, feeling as though a partial, and thus distorting, portrait has been drawn. This has come to seem perhaps inevitable, since we humans intersect with each other in such incomplete ways. Yet I still often find those public depictions uncomfortable and inaccurate. So I understand that people who’ve found themselves depicted in memoir might feel quite the same way—and even more strongly, since memoir often reveals painful material.

I wholly support writers’ right to explore such material, but I also empathize with people who don’t like seeing themselves in print.

Continue reading

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Mira Bartók Wins National Book Critics Circle Award

Congratulations to Mira Bartók on winning the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography for The Memory Palace. The Circle says The Memory Palace “rose to the formal challenge of blending her mother’s journals, reflections on her mother’s mental illness and subsequent homelessness, and thoughts on her own recovery from a head injury to create a heartfelt yet respectful work of art.”

A while ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mira about her book. It was a great conversation You can find it here.

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Mira Bartók

Mira Bartók, The Memory Palace. Free Press, 2011.

“Even now, when the phone rings late at night, I think it’s her.  I stumble out of bed ready for the worst.  The last time my mother called was in 1990.  I was thirty-one and living in Chicago.  She said if I didn’t come home right away she’d kill herself.”

In The Memory Palace Mira Bartók chronicles her life with her brilliant but mentally ill mother Norma, and explores their volatile relationship and ultimately unbreakable bond.

A piano prodigy in her youth, Norma’s severe case of schizophrenia created a hellish upbringing for Mira and her sister. When they were young, Norma neglected the girls, and Mira and her sister were forced to make do on their own. As the girls entered their teenage years, Norma’s illness grew progressively severe.

Finally, after Norma attacked her daughters when they insisted she get help, Mira and her sister decided that, in order to stay safe, they had to change their names and cut off all communication with her. For the next seventeen years, Mira’s only contact with her mother was through letters exchanged through a post office box.

When she was 40, a car accident left Mira with a traumatic brain injury. In an effort to reconnect to her past, she reached out to the shelter where she thought her mother was living and received word that Norma was dying in a hospital in Cleveland. The Memory Palace tells the story of their reconciliation.

Mira’s original paintings of her memory palace appear throughout the book (one of these appears below), as do passages from her mother’s letters and journal entries.

Mira Bartók is a Chicago-born artist and writer and the author of twenty-eight books for children. Her writing has been noted in The Best American Essays series, and she is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (to be decided on March 8, 2012). The Memory Palace has also appeared on the American Library Association’s notable books list. Bartók lives in western Massachusetts, where she runs Mira’s List (miraslist.com), a blog that helps artists find funding and residences all over the world. Please visit her website at www.thememorypalace.com.

Julija Šukys: The Memory Palace tells the story of your schizophrenic mother, and your 17-year-long separation from her, during which time you communicated with her exclusively through letters sent to a PO Box. After suffering a traumatic brain injury, you decided to find her, and discovered that she was dying. In the last days of your mother’s life, you and your sister reconciled with her and managed to find a glimmer of the woman whose essence had been largely hijacked by mental illness for many years.

When you describe experiencing your brain injury, it seems to bring a new understanding of your mother’s path in life. Can you talk a little about whether or how your own memory loss, difficulty with language, and the sensitivity to noise and other stimuli that have resulted from your accident changed your relationship to your mother, perhaps even before you were reunited?

Mira Bartók: That’s an interesting question. While I don’t think I was aware of it at the time, I do think my own brain injury made me, over time, understand more viscerally how my mother’s damaged brain worked. Especially when she was in situations where there was excess stimulation, like restaurants or large crowds. And as I began to study more neuroscience, I understood even more about her struggle to just be in the world. Then you also have to add the fact that she heard voices and saw visions. I can’t even begin to grasp how horrific all that must have been for her.

As far as my injury changing my relationship to my mother, well, I think it made me both more compassionate toward her but also made me feel sad about the fact that I couldn’t rely on her to just be a normal mom. The primary caretaker I really had during that first year and subsequent years was my husband who I met six months after my accident.

Your book is organized around the metaphor of a memory palace, a mnemonic device originated by Simonides that relies on imagined special organization to recollect memories. In your case, you’ve built a sort of mental art gallery that houses paintings – your own and those of others. Each image hangs in a specific spot in the museum or palace, and each anchors a story from your life. My understanding is that this mnemonic technique is difficult to master unless you begin to build your memory palace at a very young age. When did you (consciously or unconsciously) start to build yours, and how?

What we know now about the brain and memory is that this kind of system doesn’t work at all. It was created during a time when people thought that memory was a fixed phenomenon and could be stored away forever. However, I loved the metaphor of it and I also loved the fact that it was an impossible thing. Just the fact that I created a memory palace on my studio wall was an act of love and longing for the impossible. I began to collect and use images for my book early in the process of writing it—making sketches and using images from my computer as memory prompts. Then, toward the end of the book, I ended up using all those images and creating the whole thing on my wall.

For a great book about memory, I highly recommend Eric Kandel’s book In Search of Memory. I believe he won the Nobel Prize for his work in memory research and neuroplasticity.

Because of the traumatic brain injury, you have short-term memory loss. I heard you describe how you would file snippets of writing immediately after getting it down on paper inside your memory filing cabinet/palace of sorts. I’d love to hear more about this particular writing process.

In the early days of writing my book, I had such an issue with memory that I would forget what I wrote from one day to the next. So I searched in myself for a system that would help and because I come from the museum world, it made sense that I create a kind of cabinet of sorts. I put together a cabinet with slots for each chapter and whenever I worked on something I printed it out immediately and placed it in that chapter’s drawer.

I did the same for sketches or reference material. That way, in the morning, I had physical evidence of what I had done. And before I went to bed every night, I repeated as many chapter titles as I could and tried to recall what those chapters were about. I do believe that after doing this for about three years I rewired my brain to some extent, and my memory improved. Thus, the beauty of neuroplasticity!

How long did you work on the book? How long after your mother’s death did you decide to start writing? And did you choose to write the book, or did the book, in a sense, choose you?

Wow, that’s a lot of questions in a row for someone with TBI [traumatic brain injury]. Let me see if I can follow what you just said! Stuff like that is hard for us TBIers. Okay, how long did I work on the book? About four years. But I wrote the last third of it in the six months after my mom died. She gave me the end to my story. So that answers the next question, i.e. I started it before she died and before I even knew she was ill and living in a shelter.

I chose to write the book (which actually began as a book of essays about my mom, then morphed into a memoir with a narrative arc) because she kept getting in the way of my fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. I wrote this book so that I could face this difficult material and move on to the work I will do the rest of my life, the kind of work that I long to do, which is not memoir at all. It’s fabulist fiction with pictures, it’s radio documentaries, it’s multimedia collaborations and dark illustrated books for teens. And lyrical poetry.  I’m happy I did it, happy that I honored my mother in this way. Now on to making up weird little stories and drawing again!

You and your sister changed your names and cut all ties with your mother after a violent incident. Your mother attacked you with a broken bottle, and could very well have killed you. You describe having to make a choice between your mother and your art; between your mother and life itself. It’s not a choice you made lightly, and certainly not without psychic fallout – for me, the struggle with guilt and questions of what else you could have done were palpable all the way through the text. Cognitive issues united you and your mother, but so did art. I wonder if you could talk a little about your mother’s artistic talents, practice and ambitions. Have your own artistic practices – visual, literary and musical – created a different kind of bridge to your mother?

Although my mom was so ill, we had a lot in common. I felt like I really got her and she got me, somewhere deep inside beyond her illness. She was driven to create and to learn everything in the world and to play music, without thinking about pleasing people first or acquiring prestige, etc. I am the same way. Had my mom not been so sick, she probably would be playing Carnegie Hall, or at least she would have been part of a stellar chamber group of musicians and would have mentored many young people. And she might have also become a poet and maybe a great one.

After reading her diaries, I now wonder who the real writer in the family is!

This is a book about memory: about reconstructing memory, excavating memory, but also about its unreliability and its impermanence. The book (in addition to being built around the image of a memory palace) is also, as you’ve just said, structured around excerpts from your mother’s diaries.  One of the most poignant things your mother wrote is “I have forgotten everything I have ever learned.” Once a musical prodigy, your mother seems to have been aware of her artistic and intellectual losses.

I wonder if you could talk a little about where you stand in relation to memory now. Do you see the inevitable forgetting that happens to all of us as a tragedy? Is this book a kind of revolt against oblivion, or is it something more complex? Have you somehow managed to make peace with your own memory loss through writing, or that too simplistic?

What we know now about neuroplasticity, i.e. the ability to change our brain—with cognitive therapy, meditation and other like practices, exercize, biofeedback, etc. (and yes, medication), I have a lot of hope about the future of memory loss for people like me. I know from sheer hard work and determination, I changed my brain and built new neuropathways during the writing of this book. I went from not being able to remember what I wrote from one day to the next (several years after the accident, when doctors told me that I had reached the limit of recovery) to being able to write something one day and remember even a few days later. (Unless it’s just a very bad week and there are those bad weeks of fatigue.)

That said, I do not want to diminish the loss that people feel as they get older and slip into that strange state of forgetting. We are our memories, in many ways. And I have such huge chunks of lost time and lost years. It’s sad sometimes. But then, I am also someone who tries to live in the present. So I guess I just do the best I can.

You’ve written a huge number (28!) of books for children. This is your first book for adults. Talk a little about the difference between writing for kids and for adults. Is there a difference in your experience and approach to writing for different audiences?

Well, many of those books are educational books about different cultures so they are different than writing other kinds of books for children. What I liked best about them though was including folktales in them. I actually do that a lot in my adult writing too. I like to use folklore, both the structure of folktales and their sense of fabulism in my stories and even my nonfiction. I do this with my memoir too. The difference I guess is that you have to be more aware of what age you are writing for. But I don’t start out writing for any specific age group or specific audience. I just start a project and then at the end of it, I decide who its for. My next two projects are probably for older teens but I think they will be for adults as well.

[Image: Mira Bartók]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Nancy K. Miller (Part I)

Nancy K. Miller. What They Saved: Pieces of  Jewish Past. University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

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In her new memoir, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past, Nancy K. Miller tells the story of how she reconstructed her family’s missing past from a handful of mysterious objects found in dresser drawers and apartment closets after her father’s death. The strange collection–locks of hair, a postcard from Argentina, a cemetery receipt, letters written in Yiddish—moved her to search for the people who had left these traces of their lives and to understand what had happened to them. As Miller slowly pieced together her family portrait and assembled a genealogical tree, she felt connected in unexpected ways to an immigrant narrative that began in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century, when her ancestors headed for the Lower East Side of Manhattan. At the end of her decade-long quest, Miller started to imagine the life she might have had with the missing side of her family. Suspended between what had been lost and what she found, Miller finally comes to terms with the bittersweet legacy of the third generation—tantalizing fragments of disappeared worlds.

Nancy K. Miller is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She has written, edited or co-edited more than a dozen volumes, including Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death, But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives, and several books on feminist criticism and women’s writing.

Julija Šukys: I once heard a novelist talk about how she decided to write a book about a house. One by one, she told the story of each room. I very much like the idea of writing biographies of objects or places. Your book, it seems to me, has similar origins; in your case, a private archive of objects passed down in your family, including a collection of letters, a tallis bag containing tefillin, a map of a plot of land in Israel, and a lock of hair enclosed in a soap box. Talk a little about this collection of items, and how your contemplation of them led you to write this book.

Nancy K. Miller: Not long after my father’s death in 1989, as I emptied the family apartment, I found the tefillin and the locks of hair in a drawer. More precisely, I found the tefillin in a set of drawers that resembled a secretary and that was part of the living room furniture, and the box of fancy French soap in which the hair had been preserved in a bedroom dresser. The distinction seems important, if only because following the model of the house, I now in memory recall the objects in their original location. But also perhaps because, now that I think about it, the tefillin were destined to be worn in a public place—a synagogue, or any other place of prayer—and therefore were stored in the living room, whereas the box of hair was stored in the more intimate space of the bedroom. Not that I thought then about what possible difference that made.

At that point in my life, I was about to take off for a year’s sabbatical in France, and there was little time for contemplation. All I could do in the days I had before leaving was to gather these objects—and others, the letters, photographs, and random scraps of paper—and set them aside for storage. I knew I wanted to hold on to these things, but the idea of writing anything inspired by them was very far from my mind. I was working on the book that was to become Getting Personal (1990), and while I suppose I might have contemplated, to use your word, the significance of these objects, I did not. Weirdly, though, it now strikes me, before my father died, I wrote a very short essay about his debilitating illness, a meditation I called “My Father’s Penis,” and that constitutes the last chapter of that book. Even when I wrote the book Bequest and Betrayal (1996), in which I deal with the death of my parents and their legacy, as well as other family matters that I dwell on in What They Saved, I did not turn my attention to what now seems to me a precious collection of memorial objects.

It was only when I received the strange phone call from the realtor in Los Angeles telling me that I had inherited property from my paternal grandparents that I began to realize that this small cache of objects contained, or potentially contained large stores (not yet stories) of information about my father’s side of the family. Since I knew almost nothing of these people—his people—I started to wonder about who they were, what had happened to them, and how their absence, their silence might have affected my childhood. But again, I was not thinking about a book. I related the anecdote about the phone call and the meeting it led to with my father’s nephew (I had known neither my father’s brother, nor his son, except for their names) in an epilogue to But Enough About Me (2002), saying that it was a good story. But the story, such as it was (and wasn’t) kept tugging at my mind, and I continued to research the missing family members. I wrote an academic essay (2007), in which I sketched out whatever I then knew—not much!—and interwove those bits of knowledge with stories of immigration (Mary Antin, Amos Oz) in order to create some perspective for my very slender speculations.

Still no book.

In 2008, after vowing I would never follow the path of the “root-seekers” heading for Eastern Europe, I traveled there myself. And when I returned home, I realized that I had to write this book. It was at that moment that I first understood that the objects not only grounded my story, in some sense they were the story, or at least they provided the clues I needed to construct a narrative.

While reading your book I felt a host of tensions at play in the narrative. You write how as a young woman you rejected your father’s surname, Kipnis, and took on your mother’s name, Miller (retaining only the middle initial K. from your father). Yet, here you are, many years later trying to reconstruct the very past, the otherness, and the patriarchal footprint, I suppose, that you once rejected.

There’s another similar moment: the story of the tefillin — sacred prayer boxes — that you inherited. You consider what to do with the tefillin: “Because the paraphernalia of prayer belongs to men, I could not see the point in saving this legacy, but something about putting the velvet bag in the trash along with the household garbage made me uneasy – would I be throwing away an entire tradition? Part of me said yes, and why not?” (217). In the end, as a kind of compromise, you get rid of the bag and straps, and keep the boxes themselves as a souvenir of your father’s (and your?) abandoned religious past.

It’s a big question, I know, but I wonder if you could talk about this complicated desire both to excavate the past (by tracing family trees and reconstructing histories) and to turn one’s back on it (by discarding pieces of the past like family names, languages, and religious beliefs).

The fact that all the objects were, in one way or the other, connected to Jewish history posed a conundrum. How could I pursue this research when so many of these markers—the pogrom-driven immigration, the property in Palestine, and so on, were parts of my inheritance that I had rejected, or at least distanced myself from? In particular, because of what you nicely call “the patriarchal footprint” (I love that phrase), I had rejected religious observance and, what we used to call “the name of the father.” Above all, in keeping with the seventies feminist ethos I believed in, I dreamed only of self-invention, the second-wave version of the “new woman.”

But by the time I had launched myself into this project of reclaiming the past, I could not quite so neatly sever myself from everything that had shaped it—and me. What surprised me the most and what led me to backtrack on some of my earlier positions was seeing how much closer I was to my grandparents’ immigration than I had realized. I mean that I understood in a wholly new way how much my parents were touched by the fact of their parents (on both sides) being immigrants, and then, by extension, how their manner of inheriting that immigrant past—my father was probably conceived in Russia—had been passed on to me, if only through their silence on the matter. There’s a term from psychoanalysis that one of my students (Molly Pulda) writing about memoir has introduced me to: nescience. Not knowing. The notion is that knowing that there is something you don’t know, in this case in a family setting, can have a powerful effect on one’s psyche. The further I delved into my research, the more I saw that what I saw as far from me—having nothing to do with me—was not outside me, but in me.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Photo: Nancy K. Miller, courtesy of the author]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Nancy K. Miller (Part II)

Nancy K. Miller. What They Saved: Pieces of  Jewish Past. University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

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This is Part II of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: I loved reading your descriptions of how you related to “The Old Country” before this quest. “Russia, a vast faraway, almost mythical kingdom ruled by Czars, was filled with mean peasants, who lived in the forest with wolves [. . .]. Basically, Russia was a place one left, if one was a Jew, as soon as possible” (36).

As you begin to piece your family’s past together, you start to see a much more nuanced picture. Your family, it turns out, comes not from this fictionalized Russia, but from Bessarabia, present-day Moldova. Thus “The Old Country” morphs into a real place. You learn too that your family likely lived a middle-class life rather than a shtetl existence as you’d imagined. How did this process of discovery and understanding change your thinking about both about your Jewish past and your American present?

Nancy K. Miller: Like many third-generation descendants, I had pictured my ancestors as Jews from Eastern Europe were portrayed in Fiddler on the Roof. What other image was there? It took my second trip to Moldova to understand that my paternal grandparents were already modern, Westernized, and to some degree distanced from Orthodoxy (my grandmother was not wearing a wig, my grandfather trimmed and then shaved his beard): city dwellers and not living with goats. True, as Jews, they were subject to pogroms—and probably witnessed the famous pogrom of 1903 that took place in Kishinev (now Chisinau, the capital of Moldova) where they were living before emigrating in 1906, but they were not peasants; nor were they wealthy (alas). At the same time, their decades on the Lower East Side of Manhattan—where my father grew up—had to have deeply influenced my father’s tastes, and ultimately mine. When I was in Kishinev, for instance, I was amused to be served “mamaliga” (polenta), a Moldovan specialty–one of my father’s favorite foods and that he made for himself when he was living on his own after my mother’s death. I saw my father as both more Jewish—and less. In other words, he did not “lay” tefillin, he and my mother joined a Reform synagogue—horrifying my mother’s parents—but he saved what his mother had saved, the traces of their immigration. I now see myself as an inheritor of that history, not purely American, unless we understand American as always marked by ethnicity and coming from another place, never fully belonging.

I was very interested to read your book for purely selfish reasons: I too am writing a sort of family history largely based on a collection of letters that my grandmother sent to her children from Siberia. A constant preoccupation as I write this story is whether or not anyone outside of my immediate family will or should care about this narrative I’m piecing together. I imagine it’s the preoccupation of anyone writing a book based on private and invisible lives. Was this the case for you? How did you work through this question of why this story matters, and what conclusions did you draw about what family stories and private histories can teach us?

Indeed, I was tormented by the “so what” that all autobiographers grapple with. Why should anyone care about these people? The way I convinced myself that readers could care was by trying to show their story as representative—generational and historical. But beyond that, and only readers can say whether I succeeded in wrestling with this paradox, I tried to bring out the less specific, more universal aspects of my quest: wanting to know the story of one’s origins, who our parents were before we were born, where our grandparents came from, how we always come so late to wanting to know, and therefore not being able to ask. I confess that I’m always thrilled when someone who isn’t Jewish, who isn’t from an immigrant past, connects to the story as just that: the attempt to grapple with the past, with incomplete memories, with loss, with absence. I don’t expect anyone to care about my dead ancestors—as people, I’m not sure I did, either—but I hope that readers will relate to my desire to discover them, and the importance of finding out whatever one can. The book is a celebration of knowledge—maybe that’s because I’m an academic at heart. I guess that’s the lesson: there is so much to be learned, it behooves us to search for it. The search itself is probably the most important aspect of my book.

A major theme of this book is the absence of children. You are the last in your father’s line, and therefore there is no one to inherit these objects. It seems to me that your book is a kind of meditation on life, aging and death. Can this book take the place of the heir? Even if there is no child to inherit the dunams, there are the story and map of them, and these will never die. To what extent is writing about the family archive a way of creating non-biological continuity?

Yes, I hope that this book can take the place of the heir—even though I also know that that is impossible. I have found some consolation in having turned the objects into language, put them as words on the page, even though after I die, no one will want them, keep them, save them. That is a sadness but a fact of life, of my life, anyway. So it’s true that the book meditates on the meaning of loss and expresses the mad desire to hold on to whatever remains as traces of what we have lived.

The book ends with the acceptance that some things are unknowable. You can’t connect all the dots. You can’t know what caused a seeming rift between your father and his brother, but “a story about finding always returns to the places where the story got lost. It’s also a chance to begin again.” How does this new beginning look for you now that the book has appeared?

Well, for one thing, I have a different, richer view of my childhood, which always seemed mysteriously unhappy and vapid—standard issue professional, middle-class New Yorkers. But it’s not only about the past. I also feel newly excited to experiment as a writer. To circle back to your first question, in my mind, I’ve created a book about objects, from objects. I had no clue about how I was going to write this book until I did. So I look forward to my next projects emboldened by the adventure.

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How I Write: A Portrait of the Book-in-Progress

kerouac On the Road scroll by emdot

I haven’t written much here on the blog lately. In part, this is because I’ve been working surprisingly well. I’m making swift progress, and the energy I pour into my new book (#3)  leaves little for writing here. Writing resources, it seems, are finite.

Undertaking the writing of a book is daunting. It’s a tough new road every time. I’m not sure how other writers do it, but I thought I’d share how it works for me.

Here’s a quick portrait of my book-in-progress:

Stage 1

Last spring I bit the bullet and assembled everything I’d written for my new Siberian book that tells the story of my grandmother’s 17-year exile to a Soviet collective farm. In the autumn of 2010, I put myself on strict writing regime of producing a minimum of 500 words per day for the new book (often it was like pulling teeth; though some days I wrote between 1500 and 2000). That regime lasted until this past spring, when I took a step back, compiled what I’d written, and found that I had somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 manuscript pages.

Unsurprisingly, it was a mess. I started to group the snippets, stories, and images according to theme. I edited as I went, and wrote more where it felt natural and obvious. Whereas I’d produced most of my 500+per-day words on the keyboard, I undertook this process of compiling and editing in hardcopy and by hand. Finally, once I had something resembling a first draft, I put the whole thing away for a few months while I copyedited book #2 and packed up the house for our sabbatical year in Malta.

Stage 2

It was only en route to Malta that I pulled out that newly unholy mess and proceeded to order it digitally and enter the changes I’d made by hand into my electronic files. At this point, my family and I were halfway across the Atlantic (we travelled to Europe by ship, which is perhaps, I hope, a story for another time). My hand luggage was a kilo (almost exactly the weight of my MS) overweight for the flight that would take us from England to our new home, so I had to lose the hard copy. I ended up spending a few afternoons in the ship’s library and thus produced a new electronic Version 2.0 of the thing. The kilo of paper went into the ship’s recycling bin.

Stage 3

Our arrival in Malta delayed the next stage by a couple of months again. Kindergarten didn’t start until October, and with my husband in Switzerland on research, I was single-parenting a four-year-old for the month of September. I put work out of my mind, and my son and I spent a glorious month on Gozo’s beaches, until he went to school and I set to work on my newly arrived book proofs. Only once those got of my desk did I turn my attention back the new MS.

Perhaps that month of sun and son loosened my mind and gave me some distance. I suspect so. In any case, when I returned to writing, I did so with ferocity and resolve.

I’ve taken Version 2.0 apart again, and am slowly putting it back together, weaving my story with my grandmother’s. I’m playing with voice and tense, working on chronology, and searching for form. In our “CNF Conversations” interview, Myrna Kostash talked about the paramount importance of form in creative nonfiction, and I’m realizing, once again, how true this is.

For now, I’m resisting the urge to read too much, which I think can be an avoidance tactic for me (as long as I’m reading, I’m not writing). Also, I’m trying to keep this book light, without the heaviness of an obvious scholarly apparatus or discourse, my Achilles’ heel.

So far so good. We’ll see how it goes. In a few weeks (days?), I’ll be able to go back through my newly annotated and re-ordered kilo of paper and come up with a clean Version 3.0 that, in theory, should be one step closer to the finished product.

So that’s how I write.

Tell me about your book-creation process. How do you work?

[Photo: kerouac On the Road scroll, a photo by emdot]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part I)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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In this revelatory biography, Beth Kaplan sets out to explore the true character and creative achievements of her great-grandfather Jacob Gordin, playwright extraordinaire and icon of the Yiddish stage.

Born of an Anglican mother and a Jewish father who disdained religion, Kaplan knew little of her Judaic roots and less about her famed great-grandfather until beginning her research, more than twenty years ago. Shedding new light on Gordin and his world, Kaplan describes the commune he founded and led in Russia, his meteoric rise among Jewish New York’s literati, the birth of such masterworks as Mirele Efros and The Jewish King Lear, and his seething feud with Abraham Cahan, powerful editor of the Daily Forward. Writing in a graceful and engaging style, she recaptures the Golden Age and colourful actors of Yiddish Theater from 1891 to 1910. Most significantly she discovers the emotional truth about the man himself, a tireless reformer who left a vital legacy to the theater and Jewish life worldwide.

Beth Kaplan is a writer and actress in Canada. She has taught memoir writing at Ryerson University for sixteen years and at the University of Toronto for five. Her essays have appeared in the Globe and Mail and other newspapers and magazines. Visit Beth Kaplan’s website at www.BethKaplan.ca.

Julija Šukys: In your bio in the opening pages of the book, we read that you spent twenty years raising children and writing this book – “they both left home together.” My writing became entangled with and inextricable from my private life once my son was born four years ago. In light of the connection you draw between your kids and the process of writing, I’m interested to know more about the relation between them.

Beth Kaplan: I had my first child in Vancouver when I was nearly 31. I’d been working as an actress in Vancouver for eight years; when I got pregnant, I left the stage and registered to take an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. So it was as if pregnancy gave me permission to finally sit down and write.

And then the birth of my daughter took that permission away – or at least, made the process difficult. I adored being a mother and didn’t know how to focus on anything else. I’d take the baby to a YMCA daycare for a few hours every few days, so that I could write – but often instead I’d grocery shop or sleep or read the newspaper, things I couldn’t do when she was around. And I felt alone. Almost none of my friends in the theatre or at UBC had kids, and I didn’t know, or even know of, any mother writers.

Someone said once that of the 3 things of vital importance to a married woman – husband, children, work – she could only successfully have two of the three. I thought about Virginia Woolf with husband and work, Margaret Laurence with children and work, L. M. Montgomery with all 3 and a wretched life. There were very few examples of a writer with all 3 successfully. Later I discovered Carol Shields as one very good example, and there are now lots. But around me in the eighties, there were few.

I wrestled with that constantly. I managed to finish the degree long-distance – we moved to Ottawa for my husband’s work in 1983 where I had my son, and then to Toronto in 1985, where I finished my thesis on my great-grandfather and decided to keep going with research and to write a book. When my kids were 6 and 9, my husband and I separated, he moved shortly after that to the States, and so I was a single mother with financial support from him but 100% custody of two difficult children and an old, disintegrating house, in a city where I had no work connections and no family.

The result – the book wasn’t published until 2007. I don’t blame that solely on being a single mother. I also completely lost confidence in myself, was isolated with no support group, had no idea what I was doing – in academic research, there are methods, I just didn’t know what they were. I compared the book to an octopus with its tentacles around my neck – the minute I pried one away, another had me in its grip. And that’s just the writing, let alone getting the thing published. It’s a miracle it ever appeared, in fact.

So this is a very long answer to your question, which is – that I came too late to understand something I call beneficial selfishness. I think writers, artists, have to be selfish sometimes, even with their children. That is, not selfish to the point that their needs are neglected. But selfish in asking them to recognize that their mother has important work that requires something of them. Writing is so invisible. If I were playing the cello or painting, they could hear or see that. But they could see nothing of my work. That was hard for me too, as most of the time, I didn’t believe either, with very little published, that I was a writer.

What helped was writing essays for the CBC and newspapers and for “Facts and Arguments” in the Globe and Mail – I published a lot of short term things that got me out there, got my name in print and showed the world, and me, that I was a writer. Incidentally, many of my essays were about my kids. They grew up being chronicled on the back page of the Globe – always with veto power, of course. But they liked it.

25 years later, I’m still in the same house; the kids live on the other side of town and their rooms here are rented out to help pay the mortgage. I teach but have lots of time, lots of quiet for writing, which is heaven. Except that my daughter has just told me she’s pregnant. Omigod, I’m going to be a grandmother. I can’t wait. But this time, I’ll be able to cuddle and hug and read stories, and then give the baby back and get on with my work.

The fact is that unless you have a spouse who can take over, which I did not, young kids do and must come first, especially when they’re very young (and again when they’re teens but that’s another story.) But that doesn’t mean shelving the work. It means being creative with finding time, and it means taking it and yourself seriously enough to be selfish, sometimes. Otherwise, the work is constantly last, and the book takes 25 years to emerge.

Finding the Jewish Shakespeare constitutes a kind of textual archaeology. It tells the story of your great-grandfather, Jacob Gordin, a Yiddish playwright once compared to Shakespeare and Ibsen, now largely relegated to oblivion. Tell me about the impetus to embark on such a journey, and the research path down which it took you.

I needed to choose a thesis subject for my MFA, and it was my husband who said, You have a great man in your family, write about him. Once he’d said it, of course, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. Because there was the mystery I’d grown up with – why did my father and other relatives have such disdain for a man who’d been in his time so revered? So I blithely began, without realizing that almost all my research materials were in New York City– this was 1982, the Dark Ages before Google, so research meant writing letters, making phone calls, and getting on airplanes. The first time I flew from Vancouver to New York for research in 1983, the thrill of arriving at the YIVO Center for Jewish Research on 5th Avenue, asking for their materials about Gordin, and watching the cart rumble up to my desk with all those file boxes. Then opening them eagerly, and finding that nearly everything was in Yiddish or in archaic Russian – the next tiny hurdle, as I spoke and read neither.

I was lucky enough to find a woman who translated from the Yiddish for me for 25 years. So it’s really our book, Sarah Torchinsky’s and mine.

I wrote lots of letters of enquiry, discovered family members to interview – several of them just in time, as they were extremely old already when I found them – and read everything I could find on or around the subject. I didn’t start using a computer for writing until 1987 or so. And Google, of course, much after that. It seems unbelievable now, how much time research took. And several people have pointed out that in the Internet age, we lose the thrill of hunting and holding the actual artifacts and books.

As I read your book, I found myself continually pondering questions of language. Interestingly, Jacob Gordin’s strongest language, and the language he appears to have loved best, was Russian. Yet, he wrote his plays in Yiddish, a language that always represented a bit of a struggle to him. It’s not the language he used in private: with his wife he spoke Russian, and to his children, English (a language it appears he never mastered). Why, once he had gained some success, do you believe that Gordin never made the switch to Russian? Why did he continue to write in Yiddish, despite the limited audiences, the community politics that you describe, and despite the fact that it was not the language in which he planned his plays?

Gordin didn’t switch to Russian because nobody on the Lower East Side ever wanted to hear Russian again; he would have had no audience at all. Yiddish was the language of mothers, of home, hence not only of the theatres but of the burgeoning Yiddish newspapers. Russian was the tongue of the oppressor, the Cossack enemy, there was no place for it amongst the Jews in America. But Gordin always dreamed of going back to Russia one day. Before he died, he knew that his plays were touring Russia – one of his sisters, who still lived there, wrote to him from her town in Ukraine of her pride in going to the theatre to see two of her brother’s plays. But she saw them in Yiddish, not in Russian. There were Yiddish theatres and troupes performing Gordin’s plays in South America and in Eastern Europe – in fact, all over the world.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Images: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part II)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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This is Part II of a two-part interview with Beth Kaplan about her book, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: My second question about language is about your relationship to the various tongues at work in this book. What is your relationship to Yiddish and Russian, the languages of your ancestor? Given the decline of Yiddish since World War II, there’s a real sense of loss that surrounds that language these days. Does this sense of loss come into play in your relationship to Gordin’s texts and history at all?

Beth Kaplan: Well, this is a very profound question because it also goes to the heart of my hybrid status – as a half-Jew delving into this very Jewish story. Several people, hearing of my work, told me I should learn Yiddish first. A Yiddish academic, who continued to be extraordinarily unhelpful, told me when I called to introduce myself at the beginning that writing a book about Gordin without speaking Yiddish was like writing about Moliere without learning French. As if my family connection were meaningless.

I had no interest in learning Yiddish, though I did take a term of Yiddish classes through the Toronto school board, where my suspicions were confirmed – the class was filled with people wanting to reconnect with memories of their childhoods, especially of their grandparents. I had no such desire. In fact, my grandmother, Gordin’s daughter, spoke no Yiddish and had no interest in it. That’s the irony at the core of all this, as you noted – Gordin, revered as a Yiddish playwright, spoke Russian or English at home and hadn’t much respect for the language of his great success. I did take Russian lessons, incidentally, which interested me much more because it’s the language of a country I could actually go and visit.

So it was thanks to my dear Sarah Torchinsky that the Yiddish documents revealed their secrets to me. My father, whose relationship with his own Jewishness was conflicted, as I point out in the book, loved Yiddish phrases and expressions and used them often, but he would have been horrified at the thought of actually learning to speak the language. Intellectuals like him thought of Yiddish, not as a vibrant language in its own right, but as a kind of hybrid, debased German.

I respect and admire those trying to keep Yiddish alive, especially the amazing Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Centre in Amherst. Right now, I am corresponding with a woman living in rural Texas, who speaks Yiddish in complete isolation and is translating one of Gordin’s plays. But the future of the Yiddish language is simply not my cause.

Although your portrait of Gordin is nuanced (you don’t hold him up as the best playwright who ever lived, nor do you sugarcoat difficult aspects of his personality like his ego), the book nevertheless reads as a project of rehabilitation. Gordin’s legacy has suffered terribly from a vicious campaign waged by the New York Yiddish literary critic, Abraham Cahan. Talk a little bit about the conflict between Gordin and Cahan. How much did you know about it when you began researching? What, in your opinion, lay at the heart of Cahan’s fervour in destroying his rival so thoroughly?

Abraham Cahan was a critic at the Jewish Daily Forward. The more I learned about his vindictive personality and especially his campaign against my ancestor, the more I felt that if nothing else, this book would defend Gordin and expose what he endured. I learned that Cahan pursued several other vicious vendettas, one against the writer Sholem Asch even more single-mindedly destructive than the one against Gordin.

I posit in my book that there was something about Gordin’s largesse, huge family (eleven children) and enormous popularity that goaded Cahan, who was the opposite in nature, an anti-social man with very few friends, no children and an unhappy marriage, who lived not in a home but in a hotel. So the surface of their battle may have been political – they disagreed vehemently on how Jews should be helped to adapt to their new land – but I think with a burning personal base.

When I found some of Cahan’s articles against Gordin and had them translated by Sarah, they broke my heart – they were so petty and cruel. Not without an occasional point, certainly – but far, far beyond the boundaries of criticism. They attacked everything about Gordin with a kind of nasty glee with made me, literally, feel ill.

You describe finding a number of Cahan’s assessments of Gordin’s work almost verbatim in current descriptions of his work, namely that his plays have little literary merit. To me (and I think to you), it is this question of tainted legacy (that of Gordin as a hack, and even, as you describe, of a plagiarist) that is the greatest tragedy of this story. What does Gordin’s story tell us about the capricious nature of literary legacy, or of how writers are made and destroyed?

I made a lot of the tragedy of Gordin’s humiliation by Cahan, because I did come to feel that Cahan had left an accusatory legacy of plagiarism that my father absorbed. But in the end, I have to point out that many people did remember and respect Gordin – that Cahan’s campaign wasn’t completely successful. After all, a quarter of a million people, apparently, packed the streets the day of his funeral. I think that Gordin was more a newspaperman or a teacher than a playwright, in that he was so didactic, always preaching his message. But an elderly Yiddish actor I spoke with from Britain told me his plays were spectacular vehicles for actors. I had to keep in mind how much the theatre itself has changed; that many of the most successful playwrights of a particular time vanish pretty quickly. Our list of great playwrights of other times is much smaller than the list simply of great writers; it’s hard to write a play that is relevant to its time but will also endure. Gordin was a marvel for his time and place, bringing theatre with dignity and finesse to a people who’d had no theatre at all only decades before and who only knew a kind of vaudeville of melodramas and operettas. He accomplished a great deal, but he was no Ibsen.

Most of my own contact with the Yiddish literary scene has been through my research on Vilna. I was amazed to learn of the vibrant Yiddish scene that Gordin was a part of New York at the turn of the century. Do you see echoes of that theatrical and, in some ways, revolutionary world? Or is it really gone for good?

I describe in the book the scene in the 1800s in New York, when factions supporting rival actors playing Macbeth began to fight each other in the streets, resulting in a number of deaths. If only audiences cared so much today about the theatre! But today when people are sitting at home in front of a thousand different screens, we can’t reproduce that time, when sitting in a theatre meant so much, gave people a taste of home, let them hear their past, their homeland… It was an incredibly vibrant time, when New York was flooded with immigrants, desperate to learn and prosper. In a startlingly short time, many of them did.

This is a book not only about your great-grandfather, but also about your extended family, and about you. It’s about your hybrid identity (half-gentile, half-Jewish). It’s about the family silence surrounding the one great, but somehow shameful family member. It’s about the discovery of roots, and the drawing of a line back to the other writer in the clan. How important to this story is the fact that you are Gordin’s great-granddaughter? Talk a little about the decision to write a book that was a work of creative nonfiction, infused with the writerly gaze and experience, rather than a “straight” biography.

I had a big technical problem writing the book, which was never really resolved – that it was, in fact, two books. The first was the scholarly Gordin biography that was needed because there wasn’t one – detailing the history of the man and his plays. The other book, the one that really interested me, was the family story and my connection to him and to his life. I got trapped in the biography, loaded down with facts and names and dates, and then did my best to bring life to all that with the personal stories.

The problem was that the resulting manuscript was too weighty and scholarly for the mainstream publishers, where my New York agent first sent the book, and too personal and informal for the university presses, which wanted a dry biography with footnotes and no personal material. Footnotes! I’d been doing research for over 20 years, most of them as a single mother in chaos, I had paper stuffed into boxes all over my house with no idea where I’d found this quote or that bit of play, and no desire to spend years digging it all back up. I said no footnotes, which meant most university presses were not interested.

Luckily, Syracuse was happy to take the manuscript and turned out a beautiful book, though I had to cut some of the personal stuff. If I had to do it again, I might try to actually do two books – one for the university Yiddish departments, with just cold facts, and another with far fewer facts but more heart and soul about the family.

A wealthy friend of mine, after reading the book, said, “Too much detail. Why didn’t you turn it into fiction? That would have been more fun and would have sold much better.” That may be true. But I have not the remotest interest in taking a fabulously interesting true story and fictionalizing it, inventing characters and situations when I’d hunted for decades to uncover the real ones. My friend Wayson Choy has written two novels and two memoirs; I admire that kind of ambidextrousness, switching between fiction and faction. I have no interest in even trying. Give me a true story, any day.

[Image: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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CNF Conversations: Send Me Your Titles and Come by for a Chat

A few months ago, I started a feature on the site called CNF Conversations, where I interview other writers of creative nonfiction. (CNF stands for creative nonfiction.) I was looking for a way to do something of substance, to build community, to meet fellow writers, and to learn more about what was happening in the genre.

Writer interviews seemed like a good way to accomplish all that.

I also wondered if writers talking to writers might not yield more interesting and in-depth conversations about the creative process, research, and our understanding of what we do when we sit down to write nonfiction.

I think it has.

So far, I’ve interviewed Susan Olding about her fantastic book of essays called Pathologies. Susan was a great first interview: she answered my long and numerous questions with grace and clarity, and weathered the technical bumps of my first attempt.

Next came conversations with Myrna Kostash and Daiva Markelis. Each exchange sparked new ideas and questions for me about the first-person voice, about truth in nonfiction, about memory and memorialization, and our responsibilities to those we write about.

The process has also taught me that I really like the interview as a form in and of itself. Dynamic and economical is how I think of it.

In a few days I’ll be posting my conversation with Toronto writer Beth Kaplan, whose book Finding the Jewish Shakespeare tells of her archival hunt for traces of her once-famous great-grandfather, the Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin.

Then comes my conversation with Nancy K. Miller, a giant in the field of feminist (auto)biography, about her new book called What They Saved.

Please come back to read both chats.

If you have published a recent book of creative nonfiction you’d like me to consider for the CNF Conversations, please drop me a line via the Contact page here on the site. Thus far, I’ve only interviewed women, but only by accident. Men are welcome too! (Note the photograph I chose, above, as proof.)

Spread the word, send me your titles, and keep writing.

[Photo: Paolo Margari]

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