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: David Shankbone]

This is Who-Man: On Writing, Play, and Fun

This is Who-Man. My son and I invented him over breakfast this morning.

Who-Man is a superhero whose arch-enemy is a many-eyed monster called “Crime.” Who-Man wears a bumpy suit (as you can see in Sebastian’s rendition of him above). The suit can shoot fire, but our hero rarely has to use this weapon. He has other ways of defeating his enemies: confusion.

Here’s an example of one of his crime-fighting encounters:

Who-Man hears a bank’s silent alarm and rushes to the scene of the crime. He succeeds in intercepting the robbers just as they are about to jump into their getaway car.

Who-Man: Stop! In the name of Justice and Who-Man!

Robbers: In the name of who?

Who-Man: Who-Man!

Robbers: What?

Who-Man: No, Who!

Robbers: Who?

Who-Man: Yes, that’s me! Who-Man!

Robbers: Oh man, what?

And so on until they’ve wasted so much time that the police arrive and arrest the bad guys.

Sebastian was laughing so hard when we acted this scene out that he could barely talk (he’s definitely ready for “Who’s on First”). Then he said “Let’s write a a book about Who-Man! We can make the first page right now!”

As we giggled and added detail upon detail to our story, I had a feeling in my chest that I recognized. It was the elation of creativity and play. It’s the way I feel when my writing is working.

When I started writing my first book, I spent months reading and researching and sitting on my hands, trying to resist the scholarly impulses that graduate school had hammered into me. I had just completed my PhD, and won a coveted postdoctoral fellowship. I should have written a dry literary study, gotten myself a tenure-track job, and settled into a life of literary analysis. But no.

Instead, I wanted to write something that could never be mistaken for an academic book. I decided not to give in to my training (better to write nothing than to write stuff that made me unhappy, I reasoned), not shush my creative impulses, and allowed myself to do some preposterous things. Some of the more insane ideas got cut during the editing process, but others were just crazy enough to work.

Fun and play are not concepts that would naturally be associated with the kinds of books that I write, because so far, I’ve only written about tragedies and atrocities. (Though Who-Man may change all that!)

For example: my first book (Silence is Death) is about an Algerian author who was gunned down outside his home at the age of 37 in a growing wave of violence against artists in intellectuals during the 1990s. My second (Epistolophilia) is about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and my third (working title: Siberian Time) will be about about Stalinist repression.

Nonetheless (and at the risk of sounding psychologically unbalanced), one of the ways I know I’m on to something good is that I start having fun.

In Silence is Death, I wrote a posthumous interview with Tahar Djaout, the subject of my book. A chapter of almost pure invention (though I still had to do a lot of research), it was great fun to write. I visited then wrote about shrines full of saints’ bones, interviewed nuns about the meaning of relics, and dragged my husband on a weekend trip to a funny little Iowa town called Elkader that was named for the Algerian national hero, Emir Abdelkader. All of this made its way into that first book, which turned out to be my first big step into creative nonfiction.

For Epistolophilia, I recorded the trips I made with my infant son to find my heroine’s various homes, including a French nursing home where Ona Šimaitė (the subject of the book) lived out her final years. I wrote about my pregnancy, compared the pronunciation of my heroine’s name to a Leonard Cohen song, and immersed myself in a friendship that only existed in my head. I circumnavigated the globe, collecting archival documents along the way.

That too was fun.

In the Guardian’s famous “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” (or nonfiction, for that matter) Margaret Atwood says, “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.

I would add: enjoy it. Living a life of writing is a great privilege. Whatever way you manage to do it, remember to have fun (in the name of Who-Man!) and to play once in a while.

Your writing will be better for it.

[Image: Who-Man, by Sebastian Gurd. January 19, 2012]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

A Look Back at 2011: Reflections on Preparation, Homesickness, Travel, Language, and Love for a Little Boy

More love messages from the idiot by Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)

Ah, another year. Like most families, perhaps, ours does a year-end review on New Year’s Eve. We go through our calendar and reflect on what we’ve accomplished, experienced, and learned over the past 12 months.

Looking back over that 2011 calendar, I realized that, for me, it was a year of laying groundwork: I prepared our house for tenants; planned our travels to Malta; crunched numbers and made budgets; liaised with our local school so that we could register our son in our absence; searched for and found cat sitters; planned for my book’s 2012 appearance; started lining up 2012 speaking and signing engagements; wrote and submitted two still-in-production essays; and forged ahead on book #3, the one about my grandmother’s life in Siberia.

It was a year with moments of shock and sadness too: recently my  dear friend’s small daughter was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor. Months of helplessness have followed as we witness her treatments from afar. May 2012 bring good health.

So, I greet the new year with hope, anticipation and a bit of melancholy. Yes, book #2 (my new baby) will be born this year, but my other baby is no longer one. As I cradled Sebastian on my lap the other day, I felt like I was rocking a goat. His arms and legs are so long and his body so lean and heavy that soon I’ll no longer be able to carry him. His health and robustness, I now realize more than ever, are miracles.

If (as I wrote last year) 2010 was the year of linguistic gifts from my son, then 2011 was one of discovery and growth. Our landing in Gozo was, in some ways, a hard one. My little one was homesick, and found the adjustment to life on a small Mediterranean island difficult. His calm temperament turned tempestuous and fearful. Slowly, and only over the course of weeks and even months, did my kinder, gentler boy return.

But last week: something new. We made our first trip to Sicily, where after four days, Sebastian declared his homesickness once again. But this time it was different — he was homesick for Gozo. The discovery that he loved Gozo too (that he could love his home in Montreal AND this temporary one on this beautiful island in the sea without betraying the former) was a revelation.

Part of me knew that this 8-month stint would be tough. We would be bored. We would be cold in this drafty stone house (and, boy, have we ever been lately!). Sebastian would lose some of his French skills (he claims no longer to understand the language, though I don’t believe him). But, in planning this adventure to a new and unfamiliar destination, I’d hoped to give my son other gifts. I wanted him to learn early on in life that there are many ways to live on this earth, many ways to speak, and many different kinds of beauty.

With his discovery of mysteriously double homesickness, I think the learning process I’d hoped for is well underway.

For the past year, Sebastian’s become categorical about language. Whereas he once spoke an “alphabet fusion,” switching back and forth between three languages and words of his own invention, in his fifth year, he started to draw boundaries. There was “his” way of speaking (English) that he shared with his daddy; the “school” way (French); and “mummy’s” way (Lithuanian). Out of the jumble of his toddler years, he’d succeeded in making order, and had even become a bit rigid.

The other day — a small Sicilian revolution. Upon hearing his father order pastries in Italian (not “his” language), Sebastian was impressed. If daddy could do it, maybe he could too. Perhaps speaking “another’s” way wouldn’t lead to chaos after all.

“Daddy,” he said, “Maybe I’ll try to learn Maltese.”

Happy 2012. May it bring you happiness, peace, good health and many days of creativity.

[Photo: Sebastiano Pitruzzello (aka gorillaradio)]

How Long Should a Book Take to Write? (On a Writer’s Natural Rhythms and Pace)

Recently, a fellow writer (who publishes short essays and pieces of travel writing) told me about a book she’d just finished reading. It was an excellent book she said, but added with wide eyes: “It took him seven years to write! That’s crazy. I could never do that.”

I have this thing I do when I’m not sure how to respond: I involuntarily freeze stone-faced for a few seconds, thus allowing my brain to work. It’s what happened after my friend’s remark. All kinds of thoughts whipped through my head, as I stood there motionless, considering what to say next: Wait, I’ve spent at least that long on my book! What does that mean? Is it really crazy to do that? Am I crazy? Have I wasted my life? Does the fact that my book took me so long to write mean that I’m a bad writer?

In the end, I shrugged and tried not to seem defensive: “That’s how long my book took me to write.”

It was a bit of a white lie. Truth is, it actually took me longer.

I doubt that anyone who picks up Epistolophilia will guess that it was twelve years in the making. For one thing, it’s not even a particularly long book. But even though I didn’t write consistently for twelve years, and accomplished a lot of other stuff during that period, from the first discovery of Ona Šimaitė’s story to the appearance of the book, that’s the amount of time that elapsed.

There are many reasons why it took so long to complete. First, I had to gather research materials from five archives in three far-flung countries. Once I’d collected these, I had thousands of manuscript pages to sift through. What’s more, to read a large portion of these documents, I had to remember how to read Russian (a skill I hadn’t used for some ten years). When I actually started writing, I made some false starts and took some wrong turns. Finally, I had a baby. That slowed things down even more.

Had I known then what I know now, I could have saved myself a few years. But I didn’t, so I couldn’t. Live and learn. Write and get better at it.

How long should a book take to write? My answer: as long as it takes.

Writing, in large part, is an endurance test. The creation of a book is a marathon, not a sprint, so one of the most valuable traits a writer can cultivate is patience – with herself, with the industry, and with the creative process.

Some writers work incredibly quickly.  I applaud them and, truth be told, am slightly envious of them. But if you’re like me, and write at a snail’s pace, that’s OK too.

Make peace with your natural pace and rhythms, whatever they are. That’s how the best work happens.

[Photo: cishore]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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.

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]

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]

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]

Talking to Children II: Scaling Clouds

My son and I have been spending 24 hours a day together for the past couple months. It’s been wonderful, but also occasionally a strain, because we are creatures of habit who are not in the habit of spending so much time alone together. But here we are in a new place (Gozo, Malta), where we know very few people. So we’re stuck with one another.

And just when I could perhaps be forgiven for feeling a bit saturated by my beloved four-year-old’s constant presence, he reminded me of the beauty of language, and the fact that figures of speech don’t become dull and cliché until we are big. Much older than four.

A couple of days ago, Sebastian had a tummy ache and took one of those mega-naps in the afternoon that should have eaten into night time sleep, but didn’t.

“You were feeling a bit under the weather there, weren’t you?” I said the next morning when he got up.

“Yeah,” he answered, “but now I’m starting to climb up the weather.”

He said this without skipping a beat.

I laughed, because there he was, suddenly in my imagination, scaling the side of a dark cloud, hair plastered to his head from rain, and happy.

Kindergarten starts Monday. And with it, a return to old habits.

[Photo: kevin dooley]

10 Things I Love About Gozo, Malta

My husband, son and I have just arrived in Malta. Sean is on sabbatical this year, so, many months ago we started casting about for destinations we could afford on a reduced salary for 8 months. I wanted to go somewhere warm and sunny. Sean wanted lots of room in the house so that both of us had writing spaces. Sebastian needed to go to school. And, frankly, we all could use a change of pace and the healing presence of the sea.

Malta fit the bill.

We found a lovely house in a village on the sleepy island of Gozo (Malta’s sister island). So, here we are.

I’ll share my impressions as the months progress. I’ll try to dream up a new book too. But, for now, here are my first thoughts:

10 Things I Love About Gozo

1. The crystal blue water at the beach.

2. The lizards that run upside-down along the terrace ceiling.

3. The fishnets that hang in our doorways to keep flies out of the house.

4. The sounds of roosters and cicadas that wake us each morning, and the goats that amble by our front door every night.

5. The statues of saints and of the Virgin Mary that protect houses and traffic roundabouts.

6. The fact that Malta’s energy company is called Enemalta (!)

7. The honey-coloured limestone used to build all the homes here, and the way its dust makes our hair stiff by the end of the day.

8. The way everyone sits out in front of their houses and mills in village streets in early evenings.

9. The sound of Maltese that is a mix of Arabic, Italian, and other languages.

10. That finally, after years of dreaming about it, I get to live on an island. (No, Montreal doesn’t count somehow…)

[Photo: The Azure Window on Gozo, .craig]