Tuesday, August 4, 2009

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER'S MISTRESS, Part 2

Esther, more diminutive than I remembered from the night before, is at the kitchen table smoking a cigarette, waving away smooth gusts of smoke with nicotaine-stained fingers. She stands up and gives me a kiss.

“Did you sleep well?” she asks.

“Yes,” I lie.

I wore two sweaters and a blazer to bed and was so cold that I imagined icicles forming on the ceiling above the bed.

“Do you like eggs? How about an egg and a piece of toast? Do you like jam? Deborah, do we have jam? No jam. I can give you a little piece of toast with butter. Deborah, do we have butter? No butter. Maybe there is still that honey I put in the back of the cupboard. I’ll go look.

“Eggs are fine,” I tell her.

There is no honey. Deborah and her mother are now chattering back and forth in Yiddish. I understand most of what they’re saying. It’s about why there’s no butter or jam or honey. Deborah’s tone is snippily impatient, Esther’s is forbearing, sweetly indulgent. Old memories of mine – erased, I thought, by the distance of years – dart out of hiding. Images bombard me of a stifling apartment, Holocaust survivors staying for days or weeks, four people to a bed, people eating and talking at all hours. The doctor comes because I can’t stop vomiting. He says, My, my, she’s a very high-strung child, and takes everyone’s blood pressure before he leaves.

Esther fries an egg for me on the ruined stove. As she turns off the burner, the knob breaks and falls to the floor.

“We’ll hurry and write this book before the house comes down on our heads,” Esther says, and laughs a hoarse cigarette-limned laugh.

She wants to know about me. I tell her about my children, about my husband. I tell her about California and that we live a mile from the beach.

“The beach is deserted this time of year,” I tell her, “but this is the best time to walk along the strand and not get run over by a bicycle.”

She listens bright-eyed. I had imagined she would be a withered relic of the death camps, a human time capsule, buried in a house in Flushing and forgotten, but she bursts with life. I envision her as she must have been in pre-war Europe, a vividly present, sassy girl with a personality as unlocked as her daughter’s is shut tight.

A teenage boy, lank and dark-eyed, comes into the kitchen.

“My son the yeshiva student,” Deborah says.

He doesn’t look at me while Deborah tells him who I am and why I’m here. He’s bent at the waist, leaning forward as though about to pray, the yarmulke bobby-pinned to his brown curls pouting blank-faced at me from atop his bent head. When Deborah has finished talking, he raises up, grabs his books and is gone out the front door. I hear boys’ voices, loud at first, then fainter, then too thin to hear.

“Have you ever heard of Rabbi Schneerson?” Deborah asks me.

“I’ve read about him,” I tell her.

“Then you know he’s wisest rabbi in the world. He’s predicted the coming of the messiah. Soon. The meshiach will be here soon.”

Esther asks me if I’m religious. I tell her I’m not. It doesn’t seem to bother her. She prays at the sink before she sits down and eats a piece of dry toast.

I have the definite impression that both mother and daughter have decided they can trust me to be compliant, to listen to what they have to say, to write the book exactly the way they want it, and to get them enough money for plane tickets to Israel.

Before we go into the living room to get started, Deborah says offhandedly, “I tried to write the book myself, but gave up. I’ll give you what I’ve written. If you can use it, fine. If not, not.”

Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Guest Post with Nina Vida on Bloody Bad, a Book Blog

7/22/09

Hi everyone. I’m guest-posting, hoping Trin’s readers will stop and say hello, read what I have to say, maybe ask a question or two.

A question I’m always asked, Where do the ideas for your books come from? As close as I can come to an answer is to say that an incident or character calls out to me to be written. I begin without any plot in mind. It’s sort of like wandering into a store, looking around, examining the goods, and deciding what to buy. The actual act of writing is the catalyst that carries me forward. Each step unlocks another door.

What is easier to answer is where events and characters come from. They’re everywhere. Newspaper articles, experiences I’ve had, experiences someone else has had, people I meet, people I know, people others know and tell me about. Overheard conversations are a great source for dialogue. Lots of writers say they write in cafes, and I think they’re not writing at all, they’re listening in on the conversations going on around them and taking notes. Family members are a great source for characters (you have to alter characteristics so they don’t recognize themselves). And all that gossip at family get-togethers about who’s doing what with whom? Invaluable. A few times my sister has said to me, “The way you wrote that scene isn’t the way that thing happened to me in Ensenada at all.” Or someone will say, “I bet that policeman in ‘The End of Marriage’ is my Uncle Joe,” when it isn’t his Uncle Joe at all, it’s someone else’s Uncle Frank or George or Bill, or a combination of all three.

For example, on one of my research trips to Texas before I began to write “The Texicans” I met Dr. Milt Jacobs, a native Texan and amateur historian. He took my husband and me out to dinner at the Barn Door in San Antonio (fabulous steaks; and I don’t get a commission for mentioning that – not even a free dessert), and after dinner we went over to his house to see his Texas memorabilia, a fascinating collection of photographs and letters. Sort of offhandedly he said that he had an ancestor who walked from the East Coast all the way to Texas. On foot. Walked. Across the plains. By himself. Dr. Jacobs’ casual remark was the spark that created the character of Joseph Kimmel in “The Texicans.” A man hardy and stubborn enough to walk from New York to Texas deserves to be the hero of a book.

Another question I’m often asked is how long it takes me to write a book. I do so much rewriting and work at so many other things at the same time that I’m never sure how long a book takes to complete. About 15 years ago I wrote a novel about a 17-year-old Jewish girl who escapes Lithuania one step ahead of the Nazis and ends up in Shanghai, where she enters the dark world of the black market and becomes a rescuer of abandoned children. Including the time spent on interviewing Shanghai refugees and making a research trip to China, the book took almost two years to complete. My agent sold the book, the publisher loved it, the editor loved it, and a few months later the publisher cancelled it. No explanation. I put that book away and wrote three other books that did get published: “Goodbye Saigon” (optioned for film by 20th Century Fox/Dick Zanuck), “Between Sisters” and “The End of Marriage.” Two years ago I pulled the book about Shanghai out of the drawer, rewrote it and named it “Lilli.” I also changed agents. We’ll see what happens with this version.

Sometimes I’m asked what my writing routine is. I don’t write for any set number of hours a day, but I do think about writing all the time. Sometimes an idea wakes me up at four in the morning and sends me upstairs to my desk. Sometimes for days I do nothing but write. Sometimes for days I do nothing but read or work in the garden.

About a month ago I came to a crucial point in a novel I’m writing and needed more time to think about it. My husband and I also wanted to spend some time with our three granddaughters, who are 17, 16 and 12. Their summer schedules are hectic: the 17-year-old is getting ready to leave for NYU in September, the 16-year-old is in a volleyball league and the 12-year-old is on a water polo team. It required a logistical feat to get them all together at the same time. The three of them slept in our guest bedroom (they didn’t want to be apart), giggling late into the night, the hum of their voices reminding me of the toddlers they once were. Days were spent doing whatever they wanted to do. We played miniature golf and went to the beach and ate and shopped and kissed and hugged and laughed, and I was sure I could feel the hours ticking away until they were too old to want to spend time with us. I was also sure that sometime in the future one of them will say, “The girl in your new book is me, isn’t it, Grandma?”

Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Sunday, July 19, 2009

ISAAC BASHEVIS SINGER'S MISTRESS, Part 1

A few weeks before Thanksgiving I got a telephone call from a producer who had optioned one of my screenplays. He wanted to know if I knew much about the writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. I told him I knew that Singer was a Polish Jew who wrote in Yiddish, that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978, and that his novel,”The Slave” was one of my favorite books.

The producer asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book about Singer’s 30-year relationship with his mistress (I’ll call her Esther), that the woman’s daughter (I’ll call her Deborah) was looking for a writer.

“Esther is a Holocaust survivor,” he said, “and Deborah told me she’d be more comfortable confiding in a Jew. I told her you were Jewish, and that cinched it.”

“Sounds intriguing, but I write fiction.”

“From what the daughter told me this is more fantastic than any fiction a writer could dream up. Singer was eighteen years older than Esther. She was the only one in her family to survive the Holocaust. She married another survivor she met in a Displaced Persons camp in Europe and divorced him when she came to the States. She had Deborah then and was destitute. Singer offered her a job as his translator. She had been a poet in Poland, spoke seven languages, and when you hear what Deborah has to say about her mother’s affair with Singer, you’ll realize that she was the inspiration for the character of Masha in the movie of Singer’s book, ‘Enemies: A Love Story.’

“Is this a vengeance book, a woman scorned?”

“She says no, that Esther doesn’t want to hurt him or his wife, that she’s agonized over it for the past few years and now that he’s dead she’s decided it’s time to tell the story. Mother and daughter are broke. They need the money. If you agree to do it, Deborah wants you to go to New York and stay with them for as long as you need.” He laughed. “From what the daughter said, it seems that Singer was something of a sexual athlete.”

“Is the mother willing to go into all of that?”

“No holds barred. The straight scoop. Diaries and photographs and letters. Full cooperation. And Deborah contends that Singer got many of the ideas and material for his work from Esther, that she was victimized twice, first by the Nazis and then by Singer.”

I had made my first solo trip from California to New York ten years before to meet the editor of my first book. At that time I was such an inexperienced traveler, that my husband, worried something would happen to me en route, had me call him when I got off the plane, when I got to the hotel, and when I got to my room. It was as if I were a kindergartener on my first day of school, except that he didn’t pack a snack or tie my shoes.

This second solo trip had my agent worrying about me. Is this woman’s story for real? Who are these people? But go, please go, it’s irresistible.

I was on a plane to New York the next day.

Deborah picked me up at the airport, a tall woman in her forties, with even features and a mane of auburn hair. She was dressed for cold weather, a stylish scarf wrapped around her neck (I was dressed for California and didn’t own a scarf). She insisted on carrying my bag, told me she had gone to the wrong gate, “what the hell was wrong with the airport putting the wrong gate up on the board?” gave me a hug and said she was happy I had agreed to do this.

She had parked her battered Chevrolet in the airport lot.

“My mother is on welfare and food stamps,” she said as she drove through the rain swept streets. “This is a desperate move on our part. We have no money. What my mother and I have to say about Singer has never been said before. It will be a shock to everyone, but a good shock, a shock worth money. He ruined my mother’s life and mine as well. I want to go to Israel to live, get out of New York, take my mother away. We can forget everything in Israel. I get a few days of substitute teaching, but it’s not enough. My husband and I are separated. My daughter lives with him, so you’ll have her bedroom. The house isn’t much. As a matter of fact, it’s falling apart. I don’t have the money to fix anything. Wear socks and a sweater to bed. The heat isn’t working. It gets cold at night.”

I wasn’t prepared for cold weather. I was sorry I hadn’t brought the coat I bought the year before that I had never worn because it never gets cold enough in California for a coat. I also wasn’t prepared for the extravagance of hope that Deborah had placed in me. I felt overrun, outtalked, although I did manage to say that my agent wanted to meet her and her mother, and that nothing was settled yet, that I’d have to see how much story there was, and then there was the contract to be agreed to, and, well, let’s just see what happens.

She wasn’t kidding about the house. It was a wounded relic of a 1950’s brick faux-Tudor in a housing tract in Flushing, its walls gouged and scarred, the kitchen a half-remodeled ruin of missing appliances and broken cabinets. Bales of twine-wrapped newspapers moated the dining room table, the uneven rampart of old news planted beneath the windows as though to protect against invasion. In the living room frayed drapes cloistered the scatter of furniture and a reek of tobacco and gribbines floated up out of worn upholstery as from the windings of talliths in some ancient talmudic study hall.

There was no sign of Esther.

“Where is your mother?” I asked.

“She reads most of the night and then sleeps on and off all day. She knows you’re coming. She should be up soon.”

My bedroom was upstairs, a cell-like narrow room, the only sign of Deborah’s absent daughter a few abandoned stuffed animals on the single bed. The door had no doorknob, merely a reamed-out hole stuffed with toilet paper. I was startled to find myself in this strange house, this strange room, and overwhelmed that Deborah expected me to produce a book that would rescue her and her mother from the final teeter into the abyss.

There was a phone in the hall. I called my husband..

“I haven’t seen the mother yet.”

“Say the word and I’ll get you a flight home tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll let you know.”

When I went downstairs Esther was there, standing in the door to the kitchen. A diminutive woman in a cotton house dress, a wild ruff of gray hair partially tamed by a plastic head band, her long-ago beauty reviviscent in the barely lined face and crushed-ice blue eyes.

She took both of my hands in hers and cocked her head mischievously.

“Don’t worry about anything,” she said. “I will be the worm to catch the fish.”


Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Age of Reason

1946 was my freshman year at Adolph Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, California. It was one year after the end of World War II, and the high school was bulging with returning servicemen – not to get their high school diplomas, but to begin college on our campus. There was no provision yet for all the veterans who wanted to take advantage of the GI Bill, and the crush of veterans eager to leave war behind and move forward in their lives was so intense that the school district was willing to split the high school in two: days for high schoolers, afternoons and evenings for veterans.

Everyone in school had a story about war to tell; mine was about Uncle Morrie, a bombardier lost on a bombing flight somewhere over the Pacific, neither plane, nor crew, nor Uncle Morrie ever found. I remember Uncle Morrie as thin, his eyes the same cherry brown as my mother’s. We saw him off at Union Station in Los Angeles, handsome in his uniform, kissing my mother goodbye, patting me on the head, smiling at everyone. Lost over the Pacific. Disappeared as cleanly as if he had never gotten on that train in Union Station and headed to meet that airplane, that crew, that death.

Concentration camps, Nuremburg trials, Holocaust newsreels, lost relatives in Poland, atom bombs, radiation sickness were for adults to ponder. Teenagers aren’t good at tragedy. We were sunk in the business of sock hops and who was going to win the talent show. We felt a little crowded by the veterans, many of whom showed up early for their classes and jammed the halls, and there were pairings between students and veterans, the inevitable result of off-kilter fraternization, but for the most part we were getting back to normal.

The school was built on Japanese farm land. When people wanted to disparage where we lived, they’d say we lived out in the bean fields, although there had been no bean fields since 1942 when the Japanese were interned. I don’t remember paying much attention to where all those Japanese farmers went, except for hearing references to places like “Manzanar” and “Tule Lake” on the radio. I’d like to think I thought about where they had gone, had even examined the rightness or wrongness of their going, but I didn’t. No one I knew did. All during the war we were exposed to news stories and photographs depicting all Japanese as grinning, barbarous, murderous sneaks with protruding teeth and bottle-thick eyeglasses.

I’d also like to think that that image was erased when the first Japanese boy showed up in one of my classes in mid-1946. His teeth didn’t protrude and he didn’t wear glasses and he showed no fear. He raised his hand in class and twirled his pencil with the nonchalance of the innately brave. No one knew what to do, what to say, he was so alien, so out of place, so associated with everything bad we had ever read or heard about the Japanese. I remember thinking that maybe one of his relatives had shot Uncle Morrie’s airplane out of the sky. I was embarrassed for him, wondered how he could come to class every day knowing that everyone was thinking that he shouldn’t be there.

No Japanese farmers returned to the bean fields until years later, and no other Japanese student returned to school except this one. Propaganda images faded, the war receded, but he stayed, came to class, made friends, won us over. The stubborn courage of his presence was for us the real end of the war.

Copyright Nina Vida 2009

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Queen of Annam's Daughter

The publishing world is in a muddle. Celebrities write “fiction” and get hefty advances while good books go unpublished and editorial staffs are pared and the phone doesn’t ring in agents’ offices.

“Are you still writing?” friends ask me.

“Of course,” I reply.

I wasn’t published until I was 50. I had been writing and rewriting and rewriting for four years. Every year at Thanksgiving my brother-in-law would ask me when I thought I’d get a book published.

“Soon,” I’d reply.

“If you were going to get published, you’d have been published by now,” he’d bite back. “Know what I think? You’re too old.”

Old at fifty. The new demographic: an army of fifty-year-olds languishing in old folks’ homes, winding macramé into pot holders, talking back to the television, putting their dentures in glasses before they go to bed, waiting for the kids to call, waiting for the grandkids to thank them for Christmas presents they don’t like. Waiting. On hold. Watching the calendar. Preparing to die.

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” my uncle said when he turned up with the cancer in his ear and stopped doing everything he liked to do. “Can’t fight reality.”

In the six years it took my uncle to die, he could have done lots of things. He could have taken that longed-for trip to China, could have bicycled around Italy, could have dug out his old cornet and given a concert for his fellow Shriners.

Cancer didn’t get him. Age didn’t get him. It was his mistaken notion of what reality is that sucked the life out of him.

So while the publishers whimper and moan and have no idea what to do about their shrinking units, I’m writing a new book. Title: The Queen of Annam’s Daughter.

Excerpt: “Good luck is in the air, so fat and juicy Anh can almost reach out and grab it and stuff it in her purse. No joke. Didn’t the fortune teller on Friday say good luck was waiting for Anh around the corner? Didn’t she say go buy Lotto tickets on Tuesday, Tuesday’s the day your luck is going to come and sit in your lap? Didn’t she? She even picked the store for Anh to go to to buy the Lotto tickets. The mini mart on Bolsa and Magnolia – not the one with the blue sign behind the doughnut shop – that one’s bad luck, she said – the one in the corner facing the noodle shop – and get there early, she said, so someone else’s good luck doesn’t swallow yours up.”

Copyright Nina Vida 2009
I can be found on Facebook, my blog
Nina Vida on Writing and ninavida.com.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Blogging My Book

Until two months ago, my desk, computer, books, the hummingbird that perches on the tree outside my window and waits for my husband and me to join him in the afternoon so he can buzz our cheeks and nose and chin were the fill of my days. My little kingdom. My ivory tower. My husband and I and our hummingbird in a bower of roses. No need to advertise my books; their charms will carry them on bird wings right into the hands of readers.

Then shock! My seventh book, THE TEXICANS, published in 2006 to reviews like “luminous,” “radiant,” “should be required reading in the immigration debate” was being buried beneath an avalanche of books by writers who understood that books don’t sell themselves, who understood the market-boosting possibilities of the internet. Someone should have lit a firecracker in my ear when I gave up on society and started cozying up to that damn hummingbird.

Publish or perish? Well, I won’t perish if I don’t publish, but what will I do with all those millions of words skirling like windswept leaves into papery nests on desk and floor and chair? And what about my new book, the one my agent says she “loves SO much,” the one about the fractured lives of Jewish refugees in Shanghai during the Holocaust? Will some publisher out of some sudden burst of altruism overlook my dismal sales record and sweep me and my coffee-spotted pages into his/her arms?

And so I stepped out my door into cyberspace. I stepped tentatively, gingerly, not knowing the road, testing first one direction, then another. I dug deep into the online cosmos and finally came to a place unlike anyplace I’d ever seen or been told about, a virtual universe that anyone who loves books can enter, a stitched-together bazaar where book reviews, book recommendations, book giveaways, and book-reading contests bring readers together, where their emails and blogposts sail through the ether like confetti. I found the world of the book blogger.

I approached it as I would the study of a foreign language, memorized terms of art, examined book blogger profiles, studied their book lists to judge their reading preferences. And then I began sending out emails: a free copy of THE TEXICANS to any book blogger who would read and review it. My once silent email inbox soon hummed with activity. I ran out of books. I ordered more. I sent out copies of THE TEXICANS like bread crumbs and waited for readers to follow the trail. I happily responded to online interviews beamed to me from as far away as Malaysia.

My son-in-law is fond of telling me that no one reads anymore. Reading is dead, he says. Tell that to the book bloggers, that army of stalwart readers. They are oblivious to my son-in-law’s opinion. They are busy hunting down neglected books, consoling authors, cheering the winner of the last giveaway, mining publishers’ lists for the next good read, knitting friendships between people with no more in common than the book that keeps them reading until dawn.

So has any of my frenetic emailing and book-sending and interviewing increased my sales? I don’t know yet. It’s too soon to tell. But one thing I know: I’m out in the open, have shed my disguise. Anything anyone wants to know about me or my work can be found somewhere in Google-land or on my blog (yes, I’m even blogging), Nina Vida on Writing. I have laid myself bare. I have shucked the modesty. I am my own publicity mill, my innate diffidence sweetened by my genuine desire to connect with readers and tell them about my book.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Stacy Interviews me for Stacy's Book Blog

This week I asked the author Nina Vida to answer a few questions. She is the author of seven books and gives hope to anyone who thinks it is too late to start a writing career. Visit her website and her blog to learn more about Nina and her books.

Thanks for stopping by Nina!

1. You began your writing career after your children were out of the house and some encouragement from your husband. Can you tell us a little about how you became a published author?

When the children went to college, so did I, majoring in English, with no thought of writing anything more complicated than a grocery list. As part of my course work I was required to take a creative writing class. I said to myself, oh, no, creative writing, what do I do, what do I say. But I was stuck with it. So I wrote an essay about my sister, who had had heart surgery at age 38 and how it had affected the way I looked at life and health and everything else. The professor loved it, said it made her cry. My husband (who had been a Navy journalist) read it and said he thought I should try my hand at writing a novel. I had always been a fanatic reader, but reading a book and writing one are two very different pursuits, and I couldn’t conceive of myself as a writer, so I resisted. I told my husband that writers were born writing, they wrote books and poems in the cradle, that writing was a sacred profession, not to be taken lightly. He wouldn’t give up. Finally I agreed to try, and that was how it began. Every evening my husband read what I had written that day, and then we discussed it, and after a while I began to get the hang of it.

2. How was the writing experience different from your first book to your last?
The writing experience from the first book to the seventh was a tremendous learning curve. Whatever talent a writer has, nothing worthwhile is accomplished without craft, and craft only comes with writing, writing and more writing. Which is what I did. I kept writing, and with each book I struck out farther from shore, began exploring stylistic tropes, began thinking in terms of imagery and metaphor, but always wanting to tell a story and tell it beautifully.

3. What is the best writing advice you ever received?

The best writing advice I ever got was from my husband at a time when prospects for getting my first novel published looked bleak. “Your time will come,” he said, “and in the meantime where else can you get all these cheap thrills?”

4. How do you feel about the new electronic readers? Do you have a Kindle or plan on buying one?

I don’t have a Kindle, but my husband does, and he loves it. I’ve learned never to say no to anything new, but right now I still like the smell of a book and the feel of the pages turning beneath my fingers. I even like the dog-eared look of a well-read book.

5. You’ve written books in a few different genres. What is your favorite genre to read?

I read mostly literary or mainstream fiction, but an author who uses language distinctively, who has genuine insight into his characters, who uses dialogue in a realistic way, and who knows how to tell a story without padding the book to death with unnecessary exposition – that’s my kind of author, my kind of book.

6. I love quotes. Do you have a favorite?

A favorite quote: Take nothing on its face; take everything on its evidence.

7. What are you currently reading?

I just finished “The House on Fortune Street” by Margot Livesey.

8. If you were trapped in the life of one fictional character who would you choose?

Elizabeth Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice,” because she’s so smart!

9. And finally, what are you working on right now and do you have a book hitting the shelves soon?

I’ve recently finished work on a novel about Jewish refugees in Shanghai during World War II.

Monday, June 8, 2009

An Interview with Sylvia Plath's Ghost


Sylvia and I sat across from one another in Ruby’s Diner at the end of the Huntington Beach Pier. I ordered two diet cherry cokes, and when the waitress brought them to the table Sylvia said huffily that ghosts don’t eat or drink, and then she stared grim-faced out the window at the fishermen. After a few minutes of staring she turned to me, grim face erased, and remarked in a sweet little voice that she wished she could remember what fresh mackerel pan-fried in butter and olive oil smelled like.

I didn’t want to hurry her, but I was worried about taking up a table with nothing but cokes in front of us. It was eleven in the morning and the sun was out, which meant we only had a half hour before the lunch crush began and people began to line up at the outside desk to put their names on the list for a table. If there’s anything that makes me blotch-faced in embarrassment it’s inconveniencing anyone, so I made up my mind to talk fast, get in as much of an interview as I could before the manager came over and asked us if we were going to order something for lunch, which would not only have turned me blotch-faced, but also incoherent. I tend to get very embarrassed when anyone questions anything I’ve done or implies that I’m not being fair or good or decent.

Me: Shall we start?

SP: Yes. But I won’t answer any questions to do with suicide or orphaned children. Take it or leave it.

At the utterance of the word “children” she seemed to lose herself for a moment, but only for a moment. She quickly regained her unsmiling, emotionless pose and didn’t even appear to notice the little boy at the booth to our right rolling a cardboard Ruby’s Diner motorcycle across the table. She kept her head turned toward me and aimed her laser-beam gaze at a spot somewhere in the vicinity of my right eyebrow. No glassy-eyed reveries, no hint that she would rather be somewhere else. One thing I have to say, for a woman in her seventies she looked pretty good, almost as good as she did in the picture on the cover of the book, Ariel’s Gift, where Ted is holding her around the waist, a stubbly grin eating into his cheeks, a glaze of impatience in his eyes, and Sylvia is leaning slightly to the right, her tawny hair in an adorable wave, a teeth-baring smile spanning her plump cheeks. She was even wearing the same white blouse and print peasant skirt. The only difference that I could tell was that now her former ruddily healthy complexion had the pale sheen of someone who has spent too much time indoors.

Me: First, I have to tell you how much I admire you. I’ve read everything ever written by you or about you. You can’t know what The Bell Jar meant to me. I read it over and over and over. All I could think of was how much alike we were, kindred spirits held hostage in a culture that repressed women. And then at the end of your life, that remarkable poem of victory.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

SP: And do you know what I remember? Cooking. I was an A-plus cook. An epicure. In all things. Writing, cooking, flower arranging, interior decorating, fashion… I knew exactly how long my hems should be and whether a headband was better than a barrette. I never advertised any of it. No one liked a know-it-all woman in those days. Women were supposed to be modest and unassuming and were vilified for any display of overreaching or self-aggrandizement. I tried to repress my individuality, but it was a struggle. I had none of my mother’s selfless mercy. But I learned. Oh, how I learned. I broke myself in two. I became chameleonic. With strangers I was prim and well behaved unless speared with sharp knives. With my mother I was alternately loving and vicious. I hated her for not understanding. I mainly hated her because my father was dead instead of her.

Me: I didn’t want my mother dead, but I certainly loved her and hated her at the same time. She was disappointed that she had two difficult daughters instead of two ordinary sons. She would have known how to raise ordinary sons.

SP: What surprises me now is how many of us there were, all of us fighting our natures, hiding, pretending, acting as if everything was so fucking perfect. Anyway, I like your intensity. That’s why I agreed to the interview. You’re the only one who’s managed to snare an interview with me since my death, although a lot have tried.

Me: Intensity. Hmm. I appreciate that. Anyway, I can’t believe I’m here talking to you. Do you know that when I read The Bell Jar I went crazy with relief because I wasn’t the only one who felt the way I did? Would you believe that at 15 I wore pancake makeup and slept with steel curlers in my hair and went with my girlfriend to the 49th Street Corral and danced with strange men in cowboy boots who called me Babe and that I never told anyone that I got straight A’s in school?

SP: Wasn’t the struggle to be a goody-two-shoes a fucking mess?

Me: It was. I look at my daughter and my granddaughters and marvel at the opportunities they have. There’s a whole history of women’s struggle that they don’t know anything about, a blacking out of what I once thought would be a communal memory.

SP: Have you ever had shock therapy, where wires are glued to your head and then they zap you with electricity and it feels as if you’ve been hit by lightning?

Me: Never have.

SP: You’ve never felt as though your skin had holes as big as thimbles and that every day they grew a little bit larger until your body felt as though it had turned into a big pit full of rocks and gravel?

Me: Well. Sometimes. Once in a while.

SP: You see what you just did? You pretended to be crazy so as not to hurt my feelings. What a fuckingly stupid thing to do. Unsaid words bottle up inside and in time come out in ways you might not like. Never mind, I can see you don’t know what I’m talking about. No one ever did. That was the problem, the reason I wrote all that poetry, I was trying to understand what was wrong with me, trying to explain myself to myself, and there was all that oblivion just a few feet away that I could crawl into if the pain got too intense. I vacillated between the two: oblivion and poetry. Which poem was your favorite?

Me: Should I recite it?

SP: Of course.

Me: Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

SP: Lovely. You know, at the end when I had finished the Ariel poems I knew I was a genius. No one could take that away from me. A goddamn genius, and most of my poems were rejected before my suicide. Can you believe the stupidity of publishers? Ted always said they prefer their heroes and heroines laid out on their biers. Or maybe I said it. It’s hard to remember.

She had a dribble of spit on her upper lip. She licked it away, shook her head and sighed.

SP: I’ve been told that my fans keep defacing Ted’s grave.

Me: They blame him for your death. Do you?

SP: You know what they say. All men are dogs. Don’t look so stricken. I didn’t say that. I said you know what they say. There’s a difference. My death was perdurable, a dripping of water on granite. Who can say which drip bore away the last scrape?

It was then I noticed the scar on her cheek. In 1952 she took sleeping pills, crawled beneath her mother’s house and was found three days later, unconscious but alive. It was a minimal scar, an exotic scar, a scar that made me think of love bites and self mutilation. I had the sudden urge to confess something I had never confessed to anyone. I stumbled around at first, unsure how she would receive it. She had the reputation of being insensitive when confronted by the problems of others, and when cornered had been known to draw blood with her rapier tongue. I decided to risk it.

Me: I have to tell you something.

SP: Well, smash bang, whose interview is this?

Me: Sorry?

SP: Never mind. Go ahead.

Me: With the recession and all, publishers are firing editors and cutting book lists. I’ve had seven books published and suddenly I’m facing a brick wall. Sometimes I think I should just give up, throw out the file cabinets and computer and take up ballroom dancing. Sometimes I feel the pressure to do something rash. Sometimes standing at the edge of a cliff, I have the weird feeling that I want to jump. I don’t, of course, because I have excellent impulse control. Still, just thinking about it frightens me.

SP: I told you no references to suicide.

Me: You brought it up first. You said the poems were rejected before your suicide.

There it was, the rapier flick of tongue, the darting irises, the looming siege. And then suddenly she recovered, lowered her eyes momentarily, let emotion seep away.

SP: I’m not in the mood to argue with you.

Me: But you used the word suicide first. Don’t say you didn’t. Nothing I ever read about you said you were a liar.

SP: All right. I used the word suicide.

Me: Thank you.

SP: Back to the poem. If you were to give it a grade, what would it be? I don’t even know you and I want your approval. That’s really sick, isn’t it? Anyway, what grade would you give me?

Me: An A. And as long as we’re talking about suicide…

BP: We weren’t.

Me: You broke the agreement.

SP: Oh, please.

Me: Why did you kill yourself?

BP: Death lived behind my eyes all my life. It winked at me -- a leering wink, a knowing wink. I couldn’t shut it off.

Me: But there were periods when you were okay. Was it like a meteorite? You were fine one day and then the next day you woke up and everything was destroyed, so you said to yourself it’s time to go?

SP: I was always in pain.

Me: And all that moaning over your father’s death, writing poetry about it, I never understood that part at all. My father didn’t die, but he might as well have. He didn’t speak to me once I was old enough to know what a fraud he was. Not a word. Not a sentence.

SP: And you think that didn’t affect you?

Me: I don’t know. I don’t write about him. I don’t think about him any more. I’ve excised him from my life. Your father was in every sentence you ever wrote. And then you married a man whose betrayal was like your father’s death.

SP: You think I married Ted because of my father?

Me: I didn’t say that.

SP: Well, I didn’t. Do you know how hard it was to find a man who didn’t care that I was as talented as he was?

Me: I found one.

SP: Well, lah de dah, lucky you.

Me: I didn’t mean to upset you.

SP: Look, this interview was your idea, and I don’t even know who the hell you are. Who the hell are you?

Me: I told you, a girl just like you.

SP: We’re no longer girls. And for Chrissakes, would you just speak your mind, say what you think and be done with it? I know you think you could have lived better than I did, that you could have figured it out. Well, maybe you could and maybe you couldn’t, but I didn’t have a Bell Jar to read, and all that fucking poetry I wrote and all that love that I poured into everything with such intensity that it made me loonily, screamingly, frustratingly insane because nothing was ever as perfect as I wanted it to be, nothing could ever be as perfect as I wanted it to be, with a father who died and left me and a mother who hovered and cooed and drove me crazier than I otherwise would have been.

Me: But taping doors shut and putting your head in the oven isn’t something one does on the spur of the moment.

SP: You just said you sometimes feel like jumping off a cliff.

Me: But I don’t.

SP: Have you any idea what it’s like to be so out of control and know how out of control you are, to feel as though you are on a sled going ninety miles an hour and no one can hear you screaming and you’re afraid you’re going to crash and die, and you want to crash and die? Do you?

Me: I absolutely, positively was enraptured by your poetry.

SP: Enraptured? What kind of a stupid word is that to use? Are you trying to make me angry?

Me: I’m trying to identify with you. We’re the same, you and I. Apart from the talent and fame thing, that is. Both of us children of the fifties. But I didn’t do what you did, and I don’t think having a father die and disliking your mother and even having a husband walk out on you – my God, men are all over the place, better men than he was -- and if you had just had a few psychotropic pills you would probably have stopped wanting to off yourself, and wouldn’t have scarred your children for life. How could you have calmly left milk and bread out for them to eat when they woke up in the morning without a mother? How could you have done such a horrendous thing? It infuriates me that you did that, infuriates me that we lost you so young. It just blazingly, fuckingly, maddeningly infuriates me.

I had to take a few moments to let my face unblotch and my pulse simmer down. I was surprised that Sylvia seemed unaffected by my outburst except for a small twitch at the corner of her mouth.

Me: Well, it’s been incredible meeting you. And before you go I thought maybe you could give me a few quotes that my blog-readers might enjoy, those who’ve read The Bell Jar and your poetry and have lost a father and hate their mothers and have been betrayed by their husbands and…

SP: Carpe diem.

And that was it, both of us now on the verge of tears, sitting there while the tables filled up and the manager glared at us and the fishermen on the other side of the window cast silvery threads toward the sun.

Nina Vida copyright 2009

Friday, May 22, 2009

Irene Nemirovsky

In 2006 my novel THE TEXICANS was published. The Texas Monitor judged it one of the two best novels of the year. THE TEXICANS was written in my home office in sunny California, absolutely no threat of death hanging over me while I was writing it. The other novel, SUITE FRANCAISE by Irene Nemirovsky, was written in Nazi-occupied France and followed the most tragic trajectory to publication imaginable.

Nemirovsky was born to a Jewish family in Russia in 1903. Her father, a prominent banker in St. Petersburg, fled Russia after the revolution of 1917 and settled his family in Paris. Nemirovsky eventually married and began her writing career. In the 1930’s a stream of anti-Semitism ran like gutter water through all levels of French society. By the time Hitler came to power in 1940 anti-Semitism was a roaring putrescent sewer. Nemirovsky and her family converted to Roman Catholicism. They also attempted unsuccessfully to acquire French citizenship. It was too late. Nemirovsky died of typhus in Auschwitz in 1942; her husband was gassed there four months later. Their orphaned children, hidden by friends until the end of the war, were left with a battered suitcase that they lugged from place to place, the manuscript pages of SUITE FRANCAISE locked inside with other notebooks and papers and not discovered and published until sixty years later. It became an instant classic, and deservedly so.

I’m not going to critique the book except to say that for me the novel’s origins and its author’s obscene death stain its pages with grief. But I would like to discuss the charges of anti-Semitism that have been leveled at Nemirovsky since the book’s publication.

During Nemirovsky’s career she published in anti-Semitic journals and wrote DAVID GOLDER, a best-selling novel about French society in which the protagonist was a stereotypically rapacious Jew. Her writings and political leanings sixty years after her murder by the Nazis have put her and her book in the cross hairs. There have been articles accusing her of being a fascist as well as a self-hating Jew, and SUITE FRANCAISE has been criticized for concerning itself with the fall of France without mentioning the plight of the French Jews. I wonder what she might say if she were here to defend herself. Perhaps she would say that she thought by accommodating herself to the Jew haters she might buy herself and her family an opportunity to escape. Perhaps she would say she regretted having written for fascist journals, sorry she wrote DAVID GOLDER, which ironized the excesses and pretensions of French society as much as it reinforced anti-Semitic caricature. There is no prism through which we can disperse a beam of light, illuminate the past and evaluate her intentions or her heart. All we really know is that she was an artist in a Gehenna not of her making who devoted the last two precarious years of her life to writing a great novel.

On a summer night when I was eight years old I awoke to the sound of sobbing in the kitchen. I got out of bed and walked down the dark hallway to the kitchen. A man with black curly hair, his body like a wire hanger in its shabby suit, was sitting at the kitchen table talking to my mother in Yiddish, tears furrowing his cheeks. A young boy in an oversized jacket and too-short trousers stood at the sink eating a banana, rolling it between his fingers as though it were an ear of corn. They were an uncle and cousin from Poland, my mother told me later. To escape Hitler, my uncle had left his wife and younger son in Poland, and he and his 14-year-old son somehow made it to Mexico.

They were gone when I woke up the next morning. Back to Mexico, my mother said. I saw them once again at an aunt’s seder. By that time they spoke a polyglot of Spanish and Yiddish and seemed happy in their new lives.

They were the mystery of my childhood. When I grew older and would ask my mother how the uncle had gotten himself and his son out of Poland, what he had had to do to manage it, and how he could have left his wife and other child behind, she wouldn’t answer me.

Maybe questions like that shouldn’t be asked. Maybe Irene Nemirovsky should be left in peace.

Nina Vida copyright 2009
(I’ll be away from my desk for ten days and will reply to any comments sometime in June.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eric Forbes Interview of Nina Vida, May 21, 2009

Tomorrow I’ll post some thoughts about Irene Nemirovsky, author of “Suite Francaise.” Meanwhile, if you’d like to read an interview I gave to Eric Forbes for “Eric Forbes Talks to Nina Vida,” on May 21, 2009, go to www.goodbooksguide.blogspot.com.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Writing Muse

When my husband said he thought I ought to try my hand at writing a novel, it was as if he had shoved me into a dark room and asked me to describe the furniture. I had always been able to compose a pretty sentence, but had never, ever, for one single, solitary moment thought of writing a story or poem or essay without being required to for an English class. I thought of writers as magical beings who from the cradle were touched by the writing muse. Ordinary people weren’t writers. And, anyway, wouldn’t the urge to become a writer manifest itself as soon as you learned to scribble your name on a piece of paper?

My husband had been a war journalist, had even attempted a novel of his own when we were first married, typing away on an old Remington in a corner of our apartment’s small bedroom in the evenings, me tiptoeing around so as not to disturb him, him not allowing me even a peek at what he was writing.

“No good,” he said after a year of typing, and threw the coffee-stained, cigarette-bit sheets of paper in the garbage.

What did he see in my little essay about my sister’s heart attack and surgery that gave him the idea that I could write a novel?

I argued with him. Did he know what he was asking me to do? Did he understand that I was a contented person, happy in my domesticity? Didn’t he realize that we knew no one who had ever written a book and gotten it published?

“You need some excitement in your life,” he replied. “Anyway, I have nothing to read.”

“But what should I write?”

“About something you know.”

I had read a gazillion books, had no idea how to write one and didn’t really think I could do it. I was sure that it would turn out to be a failed venture, a “Look at me, I’m writing a book” hallucination.

I began my writing career in the summer of 1979. During the week I read Stenotype notes for a court reporter, plinking away at my brand-new Lanier word processor, turning out pages and pages of deposition testimony, sturdy words flipping across white paper beneath my fingers – vernacular, slang, idioms, imbroglios of confusion and obfuscation as attorneys sculpted questions in order to scalpel truth from lies, explosions of temper as witnesses fell into sentence traps, climbed over their own words, denied the obvious, everything stripped raw, nothing left but pure, unadorned drama. On weekends I sat out in the yard in a lounge chair, one of my husband’s yellow legal pads on my lap, and began to write what I thought was a mystery, although I didn’t read mysteries and didn’t know that there was a discrete, classical template for the genre. That was the first mistake, not writing about what I knew. The second mistake was that I had the notion that the depositions I had been typing all week had nothing to offer me, that ideas and inspiration came from somewhere else, that if I concentrated really hard, the heavens would open and story lines would skid down sunbeams and smack me in the head. The third mistake was that I was writing variations of what I had been reading all my life, and I was doing it without metaphor, imagery or beauty. I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what constituted voice or style. I just wanted to get something down that wouldn’t embarrass me when my husband read it.

Some more history: During World War II my father left his bookkeeping job and went to work at Todd Shipyard in Long Beach, which qualified us for a war worker’s house in a housing tract on land that interned Japanese farmers had raised beans on before the war. The house cost two thousand dollars: a stucco box with two bedrooms, one bathroom, the whole of it a chalked square sitting dumbly in a sea of weeds. There were no stores, no school, no churches, no synagogues. I took a bus to a grammar school that had been built in 1910 and was so overcrowded by war workers’ families that the local feed store was pressed into use for classrooms. I met my husband when I was eleven and he was thirteen. I was mad about him even then, but I was so shy I darted away if he so much as looked at me. He says now he always knew he would end up marrying me.

Nina Vida copyright 2009

Saturday, May 16, 2009

My First Blog

Two months ago an editor at a major publishing house asked my agent if I had finished “that book about the Jewish refugees in Shanghai,” that since she spoke to me about it last year on the phone, she had been thinking about it and wondered if I had made the revisions she suggested, and, if I had, she wanted to see the novel again

I had had seven novels published. This would be my eighth. I was up for an offer, but surprised to have an editor who had semi-rejected it make a second run on it. When we spoke last year she hadn’t said no, hadn’t said yes, hadn’t said if I revised she’d make an offer, but her suggestions made sense to me, so I had gone ahead and revised with her criticisms in mind. I had no sooner finished the revision than the semi-rejecting editor called to inquire about it. What a coincidence! The revised manuscript was in hand! It sang! It yodeled! It was deliciously ripe! My agent sent the editor the manuscript, she read it, said she loved it and wanted to buy it. The only thing left to do, she said, was present it to the editorial board.

The book business was once a cottage industry, a time when the editor Maxwell Perkins practically co-wrote Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ “The Yearling” so it was publishable, and also, without glory or attribution, hand-edited Tom Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel” so it didn’t come in at 5,000 pages. There are still dedicated editors, but they’re now ruled by editorial boards and sales departments, all of whom are armed with vetoes. Which is to say despite the aforementioned editor’s love for my latest novel, it was rejected, which made the editor sad, my agent sad, and me sad. But it didn’t surprise me a bit. I had been through this before.

And since this is my first posting, and I’m feeling my way, let me go back and fill in some history on the beginning of my writing career.

I was a bride of the 1950’s. My husband was a veteran of the Korean War. I was brought up to be decorous and decorative, loving and kind. All of which I mastered quite easily. As a matter of fact, I was born to the role.

When our two children (the girl, now a partner in a major accounting firm, and the boy, now a partner in a law firm) went off to college, my husband said to me, “Now it’s your turn to go to college.”
Up to that time I had been a contented person. I was satisfied with my life. I thought I was smart enough. But being the yes girl I was brought up to be and not wanting to disappoint my husband, I went to college, and along the way, in some now forgotten English class, I wrote a paper about the effect on the family of my 38-year-old sister’s heart attack and subsequent bypass operation. My husband, who had been a Navy journalist, read it. “I think you ought to try your hand at a novel,” he said. Which I thought was the most preposterous idea I had ever heard, but which tickled me to contemplate. So I began to write. Seriously. Industriously. And what happened after that I’ll take up another time.

Nina Vida copyright 2009