Countdown to Publication: The Work of Promoting a Book

My new book, Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė (cover seen above) will appear in four months.

A few nights ago, I had a great conversation with my press’s publicist. Cara told me how she sat down on the couch to leaf through my book and was so drawn in that she ended up reading the whole thing in a matter of days.

Now, if you’re a writer, you’ll know how great it is to hear anyone say this. To hear it from the person who is tasked with promoting your work — in my case, a book that took me about a decade to complete — is like salve to the soul.

The publicist and I agreed to take a collaborative approach to promoting Epistolophilia. She and one other person are responsible for the University of Nebraska’s entire list, so the publicity department is stretched thin. Cara will therefore take care of getting the book to reviewers, talking it up, and submitting it for prizes; I will research and set up readings and lectures. Once I’ve got gigs lined up, she’ll step in to support me with books for sale and signing, posters, leaflets and the like.

Knocking cold on people’s doors and asking them to give you and your book a chance can be humiliating. I’m learning this, but trying not to let the process get me down. Having studied how writer-friends of mine have gotten their books noticed, I’m now doing my best to emulate their processes in a way that makes sense for Epistolophilia.

More than anything, I’m trying to be brave.

Lucky for me, I’ve made friends over the years of researching and writing this book, and have great supporters at libraries and cultural institutions that serve my readership. These are the doors I knocked on first, and I haven’t been disappointed.

Slowly, but surely this do-it-myself book tour is starting to take shape. It will start with a spring launch at Paragraphe Bookstore in Montreal, and then carry on through the fall with appearances at the Library of Congress, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (Washington DC), and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City.

I’ll keep you posted as to appearances and interviews as things progress.

Update: There’s now a tentative Toronto date as well. Details to follow, closer to the event.

If you’d like me to come to your town, library, university, bookstore or other venue to read or talk about the life and writing of the Holocaust rescuer, Ona Šimaitė, write me a note via the Contact page!

Click here for a description of the book.

Wish me luck!

As always: happy writing; happy reading.

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

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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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Life-blood: Andrew Westoll

Andrew Westoll. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery. Harper Collins, 2011.

Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is a deeply humane account of chimpanzee lives, and a troubling testament to how monstrously we’ve treated our closest cousins on this planet. The book tells the story of thirteen former research chimpanzees living out their days at a sanctuary located on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence River in Quebec, a stone’s throw away from where I live. Westoll was invited to live at the Fauna Foundation for a time, and to write the biographies of its primate residents. The framing narrative presents the author learning the ropes of chimp care: the weekly habitat wash that involves complex herding of chimps from one room to the next and the sanitation of feces-encrusted toys; the complexities of medication-laced smoothie production; and the annual fumigation of the Chimp House called “Operation Cucarachas,” when human and primate residents alike live outdoors.

One chimpanzee named Tom sits squarely at the heart of the book. A kind of old soul, Tom seems to change everyone he meets, whether human or chimp.

At Fauna, Tom can often be found slumped against a wall, one hand clinging to the caging above or resting on a windowsill. In this position he looks like he’s slumped on a sofa in a seniors’ home midway through slipping his arm around his sweetheart. When Tom walks on all fours, when he claps to get Gloria’s [his caregiver’s] attention, or simply when he’s lunching, the calmness of his movements suggests he knows all about time – how it works, how it can ravage you, how best to reconcile yourself to these facts. Something about Tom puts the lie to the old cliché time heals all. (29-30)

Tom is the face of Fauna Sanctuary and of the wider movement to protect and provide sanctuary to chimpanzees, and Westoll argues that the footage of him climbing a tree for the first time since his capture affected US Congress Representatives so deeply that they moved forward with legislation to protect great apes. The book is dedicated to Tom.

The tragedy of the chimpanzee, Westoll tells us, is that they are simultaneously so similar to and so different from humans. Chimpanzees and humans share all but a fraction of our respective DNA, yet chimpanzees are creatures with distinctly non-human social rites and needs. Of course, when chimps are raised by humans, they disconnect with fundamental aspects of their own species, and become more like humans. All the chimps at the fauna sanctuary occur somewhere along this chimp-human continuum. Regis loves to paint and listen to music, Rachel carries her gorilla baby dolls with her everywhere she goes, and Toby feels handsome when wearing a scrunchie around his wrist. But as quirky and sweet as Westoll’s descriptions of each chimp’s particularities are, his accounts of the horror that these animals have experienced and witnessed is unflinching. He tells of “knock-downs” with dart guns, countless surgeries and recoveries without pain killers, of years-long solitary confinement in cages suspended above lab floors, of viral infections then experimentation with vaccines. Westoll deftly tells the history of chimpanzee captivity, breeding programs and research. He weighs their outcomes and benefits to human health against the undeniable suffering undergone by its subjects. In the end, he comes out squarely against such research and in favour of chimpanzee sanctuary for all remaining research subjects. It’s hard to read this book and not to come out with the same conclusions.

I must admit that I began reading The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary because Andrew is a friend. It’s not generally the sort of book that I read, and I wondered about the appropriateness of posting a Life-blood review about it, given that its subjects were animals.

But I needn’t have hesitated.

Above all, Westoll demonstrates that these chimpanzee lives matter. That these thirteen strong and troubled creatures deserve the care and dignity that any survivor does, because they carry similar scars and memories. And that their stories too deserve to be told.

[Photo: e_monk]

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CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis

Daiva Markelis, White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

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Her parents never really explained what a D.P. was. Years later Daiva Markelis learned that “displaced person” was the designation bestowed upon European refugees like her mom and dad who fled communist Lithuania after the war. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, though, Markelis had only heard the name T.P., since her folks pronounced the D as a T: “In first grade we had learned about the Plains Indians, who had lived in tent-like dwellings made of wood and buffalo skin called teepees. In my childish confusion, I thought that perhaps my parents weren’t Lithuanian at all, but Cherokee. I went around telling people that I was the child of teepees.” So begins this touching and affectionate memoir about growing up as a daughter of Lithuanian immigrants.

Markelis was raised during the 1960s and 1970s in a household where Lithuanian was the first language and where Lithuanian holidays were celebrated in traditional dress. White Field, Black Sheep derives much of its charm from this collision of old world and new: a tough but cultured generation that can’t quite understand the ways of America and a younger one weaned on Barbie dolls and The Brady Bunch, Hostess cupcakes and comic books, The Monkees and Captain Kangaroo. Throughout, Markelis recalls the amusing contortions of language and identity that underscored her childhood. She also humorously recollects the touchstones of her youth, from her First Communion to her first game of Twister. Ultimately, she revisits the troubles that surfaced in the wake of her assimilation into American culture: the constricting expectations of her family and community, her problems with alcoholism and depression, and her sometimes contentious but always loving relationship with her mother.

Deftly recreating the emotional world of adolescence, but overlaying it with the hard-won understanding of adulthood, White Field, Black Sheep is a poignant and moving memoir—a lively tale of this Lithuanian-American life.

Daiva Markelis is professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her writings have appeared before in the Chicago Tribune Magazine, Chicago Reader, and American Literary Review, among others.

Julija Šukys: Talk a little about how the writing this book. I, for one, heard you read a piece of it at a conference several years ago. How long did it take to write? What was your process? Did you write in fits and starts? Do you rewrite? How much input from others do you take in along the way?

Daiva Markelis: Seven years ago my mother died. Although she was almost eighty-five and had lived a long and interesting life, I mourned her loss deeply. I’d been writing essays and stories for years about growing up Lithuanian-American in Cicero, Illinois. I decided to take the material and add sections about my mother’s life and the year before her death.  The process was quite therapeutic.

I wouldn’t say I write in fits and starts, but I do rearrange material quite a bit. Since I’m not very good at straight narrative, I like to organize sections in a mosaic-like way until a broader picture emerges.  I rewrite a lot. I belong to a writing group of several university women who write fiction, memoir, and poetry.  The group was instrumental in giving feedback as to what worked and what didn’t, especially in terms of structure. White Field would have been a very different book without their suggestions.

Your parents, both now deceased, are central to this memoir. How did their passing help or hinder the writing? Many writers wait until loved ones are gone to write about them (for fear of hurting the living, I suppose). Was this a factor in your case?

Good question. My mother was a big supporter of my writing—the book is dedicated to her memory. I suppose I still would have written the book if she had lived longer since she was a very open-minded woman with a good sense of humour. She would have enjoyed the book, I think, and would have been helpful in suggesting additions and revisions. My father was a writer himself; he wrote short stories and essays in Lithuanian, sometimes about quite sensitive topics.  He was a complicated, interesting man who would have understood the importance of writing honestly and bravely, but I don’t know if he would have necessarily liked to read some of the things I wrote about him.

Another central figure in your book is the ‘character’ of Arvid Žygas (who later becomes Father Arvid Žygas, and eventually grows to be an influential figure in the Lithuanian community). Your descriptions of him are funny and poignant: this oddball, mischievous adolescent develops into a warm and caring adult, who remained one of your dearest friends. Recently, we all learned of his sudden death. This happened before I read your book, so as I read, I couldn’t help thinking how you had managed, without realizing, to build him a monument. And, in a way, it’s a more beautiful monument than perhaps you could make now, because it was built out of love and laughter rather than sorrow. Can you talk a bit about the death of your friend and if your book has taken on a new significance for you in light of his passing?

Arvid was a very good friend and an amazing person. The last time I talked to him was in August of 2010. It was a two-hour conversation—you couldn’t have just a chat with Arvid. He told me he was very worried about his health. Doctors had detected a brain tumor and were going to remove it. But even in the midst of this depressing talk, Arvid found a way to be both humorous and thought-provoking. He was afraid that doctors would take out the section of the brain that regulated empathy, and that he would become some kind of a moral monster. He called back a week later to say that he was going to be okay. Then I heard from friends in January that he was very sick and didn’t want people calling or contacting him. During that conversation in August he’d mentioned that he didn’t want to worry people or take up their time. I was greatly saddened and surprised by his death. I’m trying to write about it, but, you’re right, it’s a different experience, much harder and, of course, not really pleasurable. I’m glad I had the chance to write about the Arvid I knew as a girl and young woman without the spectre of his death hanging over me. Continue reading “CNF Conversations: Daiva Markelis”

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On Obscurity and the Long View

Janina Degutytė. Poezija/Poems. Trans. M.G. Slavėnas. Lithuanian Writers’ Union, Vilnius, 2003.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of obscurity lately, because I’ve wanted to write about a book that’s been sitting on my desk for months now. It’s an English translation of the work of a Lithuanian poet, Janina Degutytė (1928-1990). She wrote her best verse during the Soviet years, and lived openly as a gay woman in a time and place when this was unheard of. She died shortly before her country regained its independence.

My colleague and friend, Mary Gražina Slavėnas published the translations of Degutytė’s poems in 2003. Her book is a labour of love if there ever was one, for can it get much more obscure than Degutytė? What is the significance of the work that Slavėnas put into ensuring that a trace of that oh-so-talented but ever-so-obscure poet remained in a language that was not her own, I wonder. It’s somehow defiant as a gesture — the translator thumbing her nose at obscurity.

I came across Degutytė in my work on Epistolophilia. The (obscure-in-her-own-right) librarian about whom I wrote my second book used to send much-needed heart medication from Paris to the Vilnius poet. In doing so, Ona Šimaitė may have saved Degutytė’s life, and gave her many years of productivity.

I’ve always been attracted by little-known writers, by lives lived on the margins, and in minor languages. A historian friend once laughed at me (though not unkindly), saying “This is what you literary people do: find some obscure author no one’s ever heard of, and voilà, you have a subject.”

In a way, my historian friend was right.

If I have a vocation, it is this: to gather and preserve traces of lives the memories of which I feel are worth saving. Though I see the value of writing books about Shakespeare, Beauvoir, Pushkin, and other iconic figures, this is not my calling (or at least it hasn’t yet been). For me, there’s something thrilling and even weighty about publishing the first real account of someone’s life.

But is there still room for the obscure, unknown and hopelessly uncommercial?

Our industry is changing, and it somehow seems easier and simultaneously, paradoxically more difficult to publish than ever before. As much as I can, I try to ignore the building anxiety surrounding book production, and concentrate on the work of writing. Amidst all the noise, I continue to try and take the long view. I remind myself that libraries, at least, are eternal.

I build homes with poems, wrote Degutytė in “Undeliverable letters.”

I try to do the same.

In my way, I build portraits with words, memorials with paper, and memories with imagination. Even if my work might find but a few readers today, I tell myself that a trace will always remain in the stacks of great book repositories. And most days, this is enough to keep me going.

But lately, with library closures and increasing percentages of library budgets going to electronic resources, I have started to wonder if this long view is naïve. Can we continue write for the stacks? Who will ensure the safeguarding of important (though rarely commercial) works?

The discussions I hear in the media and among writers vacillate between euphoria (anyone can publish now!) and despair (anyone can publish now…). Can a writer like Degutytė (or like me, for that matter) hope to be noticed in this climate?

Perhaps.

I hope.

You built so many houses

to keep people safe and warm.

I would also like to build.

I’ll give it a try. Janina Degutytė, “Undeliverable letters.”

Me too.

For more on this collection, click here.

[Photo: egazelle]

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All Things are Difficult Before They are Easy

I just got off the phone with a translator friend who is in town for a Yiddish festival. Helen has been working on a book-length translation of an important piece of Yiddish creative nonfiction. Since she’s embarking on the publishing process for the first time, she calls me on her visits and we talk about publishing, editing, and the creative process.

Because of the specificity of the Yiddish world she’s presenting in translation, and the weird and wonderful details she comes across every time she researches a piece of its history, Helen’s been struggling to limit her footnotes on the text to the essentials. (I can understand this, because, like her, I too am fascinated by details like how a famous literary editor loses his legs in a streetcar accident, even if it’s completely irrelevant). She told me with a sigh that she’s done a lot of unnecessary writing, and now is cutting with a kind of ferocity, trying to get the down to something more manageable.

As our conversation was wrapping up, Helen said sort of wistfully, “Well, at least I’ve learned something on this first book. The next one will be easy. I should be able to churn it out in three months.”

I laughed, but good-naturedly.

“Don’t count on it.”

I can’t remember who said it (maybe every writer there ever was), but it seems true to me that starting a new book is like learning to be a writer all over again. Every book is hard to write, because each time a writer is confronted with a new reality and a new set of challenges that the last book didn’t prepare her for. Second novels in particular are notoriously hard to write, because the first is often a life’s work, with the writer’s heart, soul and entire existence poured into it. Tanks empty, a second book can be hard to summon. Maybe, for this reason, second books are the real test of a writer’s mettle.

Five years ago or so, embarking on my second book in earnest, I said the exact same thing as Helen: “This time, it’ll be easy.” How wrong I was. Epistolophilia is certainly the best thing I’ve ever written, but also the hardest to write.

Of course, we learn from our past experiences. We learn discipline and research methods and editing techniques. In some ways, I’m sure the next project will be easier for Helen. And of course she has to go into it with a feeling of hope and optimism rather than wincing with dread. Otherwise, why would she ever start? Why would anyone?

“Why don’t you write something easier next time?” asked my mother when I was part way through writing Epistolophilia. “How about fiction? Something that doesn’t require so much research?”

“There’s no such thing, Mum.” I answered. “Even fiction writers do research. And fiction would bring its own difficulties. Plus, if it weren’t hard, it wouldn’t be worth doing.”

[Photo: Yiddish King Lear by BecomingJewish.Org]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Susan Olding (Part II)

Susan Olding, Pathologies: A Life in Essays. Calgary: Freehand Books, 2008.

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This is Part II of a two-piece interview with author, Susan Olding. Click here to access Part I.

Julija Šukys: You describe leaving Maia for the first time– it’s not an easy thing to do, but necessary and desirable for your work. There, after having received positive feedback regarding an essay you’ve written about Maia, you decide to change course and run with the idea of writing a book about your relationship with her. When you workshop this idea, you find yourself harshly criticized by fellow writers and even a revered memoirist and mentor, who compares your project with her own unsavoury idea of writing a book about a pedophile. I recognized so many of my own anxieties and experiences in this piece. Please talk a little about your view and experience of writing and mothering. How did becoming a mother change your relationship to writing?

Susan Olding: In the short term, it made it a lot harder to get any work done!

But over time, it has been the greatest thing possible for my writing life. First, because our daughter brings enormous joy into our lives, and joy begets joy. Also, at times she’s been a muse. And she has taught me so much about myself and my limits, and also about creativity. She’s profluent and spontaneous in a way I’ve never been, and it’s such deep pleasure to share her in her quicksilver spirit. I’m so grateful to be her mother.

You point to how writing about one’s own life is sometimes seen as unseemly, solipsistic, narcissistic. It can be, but it doesn’t have to. What, in your view, is the piece that sets successful autobiographical writing apart?

Successful autobiographical writing invites readers to draw comparisons to their own experience; it prompts and provides occasion for a kind of deep reflection that may be increasingly rare in our fragmented lives, and reminds us of where we stand in a historical or cultural context. Somehow, it affirms the possibility of making meaning. So it’s all about the author—and yet not about the author, at all! Strange paradox.

How does this work? Subtext, subtext, subtext. Language and structure create this subtext. Which is why Virginia Woolf, in “The Modern Essay,” counsels that it is “no use being charming, virtuous, or even learned and brilliant into the bargain, unless…you…know how to write.”

Adam Gopnick claims that the memoir and personal essay are actually the least self-indulgent of genres. You can’t get away with flourishes or padding if you are writing about yourself.

You have changed some of the names in the book and have retained others, like Maia’s. How do you decide when to do this? Do you allow the people you write about any veto power?

My decisions about retaining or changing names weren’t terribly systematic. I went with my gut.

I asked the people I’m closest to—my husband and my daughter. Of course I knew there was no way to get anything like “informed consent” from an eight year old, but Maia knew generally that I had written about our struggles, and her decision to go by her own name seemed consistent with her character. Right now she is pre-teen shy, and would probably balk, but in general she is a very open person and always has been.

I also asked several friends. Most chose to go under their own names but a few preferred to remain anonymous. I respected their wishes.

I changed students’ names and a few identifying features so they wouldn’t be recognizable and their privacy would be preserved. These people didn’t know I was writing about them; it didn’t seem fair to identify them by name; nor, for that matter, did it seem necessary.

As for my parents, I felt their privacy was already protected to some degree (among strangers) because I don’t share their surname. For extra protection, I changed their first names.

I gave veto power only once, to my brother, for  “On Separation,” the piece about my sister-in-law, and I also asked him if I should change her name. He generously allowed me to publish and encouraged me to retain her name because he felt she would have liked that.

Do you still worry about hurting those you write about?

Of course! Although “worry” probably isn’t the right word. I hope I won’t hurt those I write about. And I do my best to prevent that. But I have in fact hurt people that I’ve written about, and suspect I may do so again. And ultimately, I’m loyal to the work.

I want to touch on the issues of critique and courage. I found the description of your devastation and confusion in the face of you peers’ criticisms very moving. The workshop participants (fellow writers) told you that it would be unfair to write about your daughter, and that you risked ruining her life by doing so. After sometime, you came to the conclusion that, despite their objections, you had to or wanted to write about her anyway. I think that this essay tells some deep truths about the writing process: both about how vulnerable writers are, but also how fierce. Even when we are racked with self-doubt, every writer who manages to bring a big project like a book to fruition also needs to have a rock-hard belief in the value what she does. How has that moment of doubt, after you received such criticism for your plans to write about your daughter, shaped your subsequent work and way of thinking?

Such a good question.

The simple answer is that I have not written the book that I proposed to write at the conference. Because in a way—and this is the hardest thing to acknowledge—that teacher was right! It wasn’t the right time to write a book about Maia.

Not because I might ruin her life. Not because it would say something awful about me as a person if I chose to write it. But because I wasn’t ready. And on some level, I recognized this at the time, and my recognition made my peers’ objections and the teacher’s objections cut more deeply. For the fact is, if I had been ready, nothing they said would have stopped me.

I may never be ready. Strangely, perhaps, that possibility doesn’t bother me. The need to write that particular book has passed. I have sometimes mourned other “lost” books—the novel that I set aside 100 pages in, the book of poems that I didn’t manage to finish. But I don’t mourn the book about Maia.

Having said all that, although I may not have written a whole book, I did write about my daughter. And I published what I wrote. So in that sense, I ignored what my critics said. I also wrote about the conference itself. Did I say writing well was the best defence? It’s also the best revenge. [Insert evil chuckle.]

Seriously, though—I hope there’s enough irony in “Mama’s Voices” to suggest that while my hurt was real, and to some degree justified, I also see humour in the situation. The essay includes a parallel narrative about Lana Turner, queen of the melodrama. I had my own little melodrama going on in that workshop!

But “fierce” is such a great word; we really do have to be fierce. People will tell us that what we’re doing can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, or that we’re not good at it, or that it isn’t worth doing. And usually, we’re advised to ignore these critical voices. But I don’t believe we can ignore them. Or at least I can’t ignore them, so I’ve made necessity a virtue.

I say we need to learn to listen, for blanket criticisms can disguise meaningful objections, and we need to cultivate enough humility to recognize when that’s the case. At the same time, we need to hang on to some sense of the worth of what we’re doing. And we need to trust our own inner vision, and constantly measure our work against our felt sense of the beautiful and the true.

“My own criticism has given me pain without comparison beyond what Blackwood or the Quarterly could possibly inflict,” said Keats— “and also, when I feel I am right, no external praise can give me such a glow as my own solitary reperception and ratification of what is fine.”

But it’s an incredibly delicate balance—to remain open to critique while at the same time holding fast to the essential value of what we are doing. The test I sometimes use: Would I want to read this? If not, then I shouldn’t foist it on others. If yes, then I need to keep working on it until I get it right.

Last question: your form is the essay. Conventional wisdom in the writing/publishing community says that essays don’t sell and that the form is unsexy. Tell me about how you came to be an essayist, and what you think the form has to offer.

Conventional wisdom is right; essays don’t sell! At least they don’t sell when the author is an unknown writer. I was thrilled when Melanie Little at Freehand took a chance on this collection.

But why don’t essays sell? It’s a mystery. Maybe it’s even a lie. Because they do sell, in anthologies. Look at how well the Dropped Threads series (and others) have done. Most of the pieces in those anthologies are essays of one kind or another, although typically they are less deeply exploratory than the best writing in the genre. Still, readers love them.  And readers also continue to respond to classic essays by Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and many more. So the form is very much alive, even if writers can’t make a living from it.

Is the essay my form? Actually, I write fiction and poetry, too. It’s just that, in general, I’ve been less satisfied with my work in those genres and haven’t published as much of it (see above). But you’re onto something, because I think I’m an essayist by temperament and inclination. A born questioner and self-questioner.

It’s arguable, but the essay may be our most intimate form. Reading one is a bit like reading a letter from a friend, and in fact, some people believe that Montaigne began writing his essays because he could no longer converse with a dear friend who had succumbed to the plague. Essays can be playful or deeply serious (or both at once); they can be concise or expansive; they can be lyrical or logical. Always, they invite the reader to share in an exploration of some kind. You never know where you’ll end up when you set out, or what you’ll see, but you do know that the author will show and tell, and you will think and feel, that no part of you will be left behind or set aside.

I love the form. I loved it long before I knew its name. That may not sound sexy to publishers, but it sure sounds sexy to me!

Visit Susan Olding’s site here.

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On Archival Photographs and Paper Friends

Today I received the last photograph for my forthcoming book, Epistolophilia.

It shows the translator, Vytautas Kauneckas, at the desk in his Lithuanian summer home. Behind him stands a stack of texts sent to him from France by Ona Šimaitė, the subject of my book.

The photograph is from 1959 and has a few water stains. Yet somehow, despite the fact that his image was captured more than fifty years ago in the USSR, the man in the photograph looks utterly contemporary. When I opened the email attachment my colleague at the Vilnius University archives sent me, I found myself deeply moved.

Since I’ve been reading Kauneckas’s letters for the past decade, he (like Šimaitė) is someone I feel I know. Of course, since he died long before I began this project, I never met him. Our posthumous acquaintance only goes one way, but the eyes in that photo tell me I would have liked him not only on paper, but in person too.

In all, my book will contain twenty-seven photographs and two maps. There are lots of images of the book’s subject, the Holocaust rescuer and librarian, Ona Šimaitė, portraits of her correspondents (like Kauneckas), images of her letters and details from her diaries, as well as the shots of significant landmarks I took in the course of my research: her apartments in Paris and Vilnius, and the camps where she was interned.

The process of finding the archival photographs and obtaining permission to publish them has been complex. It’s required a lot of good will and patience on the part of archivists, who (lucky for me) tend to be kind and generous people. I have to say that it’s been worth the trouble, and I can’t wait to see all the visual materials in print.

I wish I could post the Kauneckas photo here, but I must respect the usage agreement I’ve made with the archive — which doesn’t include posting the image on a blog!

I hope that once they appear in Epistolophilia, these photographs will seduce my readers as much as they have me. And that you too will come to love these marginal, ghostly and paper friends as much as I have.

[Image: Dunesong]

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Back from Washington DC: A Few Thoughts on the AWP Conference

The AWP stands for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. It’s a professional association, much like the MLA (Modern Language Association) or the APA (American Philological Association). These organizations offer a number of services to their members: they publish journals, coordinate job listings, and organize annual conferences.

Though it was my first time at the AWP Conference, I’ve been to a bunch of similar events, normally held in a series of big overheated and overpriced hotels in a big city.

The vibe tends to be a bit hysteric, suspicious and overly competitive. So, I was pleased to discover that the atmosphere at the AWP was far cooler and much friendlier. And this is probably the case because in Washington there were three kinds of conference participants: writing students, writing teachers, and writers, or combination thereof (writers who teach, writers completing degrees, writers who write).

And while at other academic conferences, there’s a lot of anxiety about prestige and success (overwhelmingly measured by the ivy-leagueness of one’s home institution), the same things seem to be measured differently at the AWP.

Writers are interested in writing. They are interested in other writers. And because they spend so much time working in isolation, writers get pretty excited when there are others around who understand the writing process and have something intelligent to say about it.

I, for one, found the experience exhilarating.

I went to a talk on the Essay in the 21st Century, where the room was packed with people who also loved the form and wondered about its unsexy appellation.

Next, I heard a truly fascinating presentation on setting in nonfiction by Kristen Iversen, author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats. She talked about writing about her home town and childhood spent downstream from a secret factory that built triggers for nuclear bombs, and the environmental devastation that has resulted. Though no visible trace of the factory remains, the land (about to be opened as a park to hikers) is plutonium-riddled.

Finally, the session I went to on Strategies in the New Nonfiction was so packed that I had to sit on the floor. There was talk of technology, imagination and (most interesting to me) narrative tension. Author Stephen Elliot (TheRumpus.net) talked about the economy of narrative, and how backstory “costs” tension. In other words, if you want to veer from your narrative arc, you have to be able to afford it. And to afford it, you have to have earned enough narrative tension. It’s the first time I’ve thought about story-telling in these terms, and I’m not sure I completely understand yet, but I have a feeling that this will prove to be an important lesson.

Writers talking about writing creates a great vibe. There’s a sense of community and of real conversation — surprising at a conference with 6,000 participants. But anxiety creeps in when talk turns to teaching. In some ways, these pedagogical conversations were even more instructive.

There has been a rapid proliferation of writing programs in the US recently, yet the jury is still out on so many aspects of creative writing programs: does the workshop work as a pedagogical form? can writing be taught at all? are such programs doing a disservice to their students in some way by sending them out into the world with dreams but bleak prospects? how should such programs address the crisis in publishing?

The good news is that all of this is on the minds of those who work in the field.

All in all, it was a great experience. If you’re a writer in search of a hit of professionalism or wider context, do check out the AWP.

And now, back to work. Gotta start earning that narrative tension.

[Photo: chavelli]

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On Literary Friendship

It’s grant season, so I’m writing my yearly emails asking friends and mentors to act as references in various competitions. I’ve been particularly overwhelmed by the encouragement and unqualified support I’ve received on all fronts, even from writer-friends I’ve never met in person and only know through email. All this literary love, as it were, has gotten me thinking about friendship.

It’s a lot easier to put your head down and keep working when you know you have supporters behind you.

One of my first real literary friends (not counting my husband and my friend, Mark, who reads all my manuscripts) came into my life about two years ago when I published a short piece from my now forthcoming book, Epistolophilia.

It was a bad time. My writing was stalled and I had begun to despair at whether I would ever finish the monster that had already eaten up some six years of my life but whose end was not at all in sight. Then one day an email arrived from another writer, a Toronto novelist, saying that my piece was the most exciting thing he’d read in a particular journal for years.

This note from a perfect stranger who had taken the time to track me down for no other reason than to extend himself in friendship gave me a boost that may just be responsible for my having finished my manuscript.

Literary friendships can be harder to come by than you would think. Writers are loners and they are competitive. We suffer from schadenfreude and pettiness, but our worst vice is, without a doubt, envy. And envy coupled with self-doubt is a very bad combination indeed.

It’s been over a year since I consciously started to try and follow that Toronto novelist’s example, and to extend myself to other writers. To do so, I had to work on conquering my jealousies.

I decided that when another author got an agent, I would be happy for her. When a writer I knew signed a contract, won an award or got a grant, I would celebrate his accomplishment. I would take the success of others to mean that I too could succeed.

I don’t know if it’s the new outlook, or if my work has actually gotten that much better, but there’s a lot more literary love in my life since I made the change.

So, to my writerly friends: thank you.

Because of you, I am less alone at my desk.

[Photo: Jenser (Clasix-Design)]


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