Sunday, October 23, 2011

Questions the New York Times Magazine might ask me...

I've been thinking a lot about memoir, my short stories and how earning my PhD helped. And now, I'm really ready for the New York Times Magazine to interview me! So here are a few questions I'm guessing they might ask.

Questions for Marlene Samuels
What do you make of the current obsession Americans have with memoirs that reveal incredible intimate details? I don't think this is some obsession unique to Americans. Keep in mind some really nasty memoirs have been published in France, the UK, Canada and Australia, just to name a few. If we delve a bit, we'd probably find explicit memoirs in almost every country except - of course, those in which they're banned and the authors have been stoned to death.
The motivation to write memoir really is surprisingly complex, but I think making decisions not only about what to include but especially what to exclude is vastly more difficult. Never mind - I'll take that back, it's mindboggling! We have a responsibility to ask what purpose is served when we tell our life stories. Once we answer that, the next question is whom do we serve by telling it?
The memoir writing process is, in many ways, a personal search for meaning in which the writer tries to share experiences and insights with the reader. It's almost as though the writer is engaging in a "conversation" with potential readers and by sharing a life story helps others as well as the writer. Of course, there's also a less principled side to memoirs - those that are predominantly narcissistic and self-aggrandizing. I suppose that's ok, too. Let's face it - almost everyone has a voyeuristic side. Then, in addition to good old fashioned voyeurism, we also enjoy a bit of "schadenfreud!"
Do you think memoir has evolved over the last century? It seems memoir fans can't even recall any that were popular during the last few years much less the past decade. Yes, I do think memoir has evolved. It's become a genre that's taken much more seriously than ever before. For a long time, the genre was regarded with disdain or cynicism, almost grouped with high school girl diaries or romantic "bodice rippers".

Read more of "Questions From The New York Times"

That's an interesting comparison. What do you think has changed? My feeling is that the number of memoirists or "life-writers" who've produced work of significant literary quality has really grown. Lately, memoir is equated with creative nonfiction. In other words, the memoir writer incorporates literary writing elements. Even some of the one we consider sordid are often well written and greatly entertaining! Running With Scissors (Agusten Burroughs) for instance, overflows with incredibly offensive details- the kind that prompts us to say, "Wow, way too much information!" But that didn't matter to me because I actually loved the book and Burroughs's writing style.
I suppose that's one example of how to approach memoir writing. David Sedaris also does some of this by creating work that's primarily memoir but is greatly entertaining reading. Another is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. It's an important element of reading, being entertained. I think most memoirs from prior centuries were intended to be powerful social commentaries and most often were written by women. The goal was to highlight unjust treatment. One of the best known was published by Celeste Mogador in 1850's Paris, entitled Memoirs of a Courtesan in Nineteenth-Century Paris. Others memoirists include Margaret Oliphant, Harriet Martineau, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton but as I said, these women recounted the numerous societal injustices of their day.

Your own memoir is a collection of interdependent short stories, most of which are based upon events from before you immigrated to the USA. Why did you take this approach? Real life is a sequence of vignettes that all tie together to create our interpretation of our life story. We're always in a state of flux and so is the way in which we interpret our life's stories. We gain perspective and emotional distance and that required us to continuously editing that reality. Yet, there's a broad cohesiveness.

I chose this approach because my story really is an immigrant's story comprised of a clash between the values my parents tried to inculcate in me and the culture I so desperately wished to blend into. Drawing upon events that occurred before I moved to the USA and then others once I moved, is a way to illuminate the contrasts between the two parts of my life even though most Americans regard Canada as some northern version of the USA. I'm an immigrant by origins, by association, by culture and by heritage.
Americans should be reminded that not all immigrants hail from far off war ravaged nations, nor do all immigrants arrive with tremendous in-your-face losses. My parents did however, when they moved to Canada from war ravaged Europe. Their intense traumas and losses were passed down to me. There was always this intense mood of loss in our home. Those feelings penetrated us in complex ways. Those are revealed in the stories that form my progress in becoming American.

I understand you identify yourself as ethnically Jewish but non-observant. What do you mean by that? Basically, I ‘m not a religious person and rarely do anything religious except for traditional or cultural reasons and those usually are greatly social. We always celebrate what we refer to as "the food holidays" - Passover, Rosh Hashona, Hanukah - you name it. If there's a big feast involved, we do it. But in general, I'm pretty cynical about organized religion. To me not being religious isn't the same as not being spiritual. My parents paid an unimaginable price for being Jewish during the Holocaust. When they got done paying, I feel as though they passed a fair amount of the change to me from that payment! So even though they raised me in a Jewish household, they emphasized values, ethics, moral conduct and personal effort rather than religious observance.
You earned a M.A. and PhD in sociology at University of Chicago.Prior to grad school you worked as a psychologist at a mental hospital. Does that influence your current writing? Definitely - both parts of my life have had a huge impact upon my writing. Working at the hospital, dealing with troubled teens and helping their parents manage them was very moving. It made me a more compassionate person. The academic work, fairly esoteric and demanding of precision was critical to developing my research capabilities. That's a very important but often overlooked component of memoir writing.

Can you explain that a bit more? Sure, for instance I wrote an very quantitative book about long-term career attainment. It contained extensive and complex economics and before that, I wrote a number of sociology articles - also very theoretical and filled with statistics. A few years ago, I had an opportunity to rewrite my mom's unpublished memoir. Putnams published it in hardback and Penguin-Berkley published the paperback. In retrospect, I'm certain I couldn't have managed all the research my editors demanded if I hadn't acquired some advanced research skills when I was working on my PhD. More recently, I've been teaching research methodology workshops to writers of memoir and nonfiction. They've been excellent opportunities that drawing from both my careers.

How did you transition from what you've now consider was "long and boring" to short and fun? Was it Winston Churchill who's credited for apologizing about having written a long letter because he didn't have time to write a short one? When I was trying to finish my dissertation, manage two young sons, be a wife, work and try to run a home, I really had no time to write anything short, tight, intense, and personal. Long, impersonal and by the time I finally finished was boring me was all I could manage. Now I'm trying to write more from my inner soul instead of based upon external and rigid requirements.

1 comment:

  1. Have you read Anonymous's "A Woman
    in Berlin"? The movie based on the book couldn't capture the claustrophobia of this woman having to demean herself in order to survive not once but multiple times. It feels like she wrote it in a prison cell.


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