Housing Works Bookstore, New York City
June 30, 2008
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Victoria Redel So one of the things that both Honor and I found as we started reading each other’s books was that in novel form and in memoir form we had begun tackling, in wildly different stories, subject matter that overlapped, that came together, in startlingly similar ways and then in surprisingly different manners.
Honor Moore Our fathers, or the fathers in the books, their lives were really determined by World War II, the kind of catastrophe of World War II. In my father’s case, he went from being an extremely privileged, rather sheltered young man, who had had a dramatic religious conversion at 17 at a Prep school—St. Paul’s school, in New Hampshire—and he sort of thought he might become a Episcopal priest. But his idea of doing something wild was to become headmaster of St. Paul’s school, which, you know, compared to becoming the banker his father and brother were was wild I guess. But the war really altered that, the war really sort of freed him from those kind of constraints, and he decided to go into the priesthood. And part of what he said at the time was … he talked about meeting all different kinds of people in the war.
VR It’s the story of an immigrant, it’s the refugee story, and in that way they strike me as so interesting—that both boys are trying to escape the limits of their own childhood. Itzak says early on in the novel, he confesses to Eleanor Roosevelt, that he couldn’t help it—that when Brussels was bombed he was excited, he couldn’t help it, he couldn’t help even feeling on the side of the Germans, just get me out of Brussels and get me to Paris, get me to America.
HM The difference with my father, of course, was that he was in combat, and so it was not only a kind of disruption in his cultural life and the expectations, but also a disruption of his body. I mean he really was almost killed, and had to crawl back from that, which interestingly sort of affected his spiritual growth.
VR So, in a certain sense, what you’re saying is that your father came back from the war, and the response was greater growth and a kind of widening of a world view. And I think for the character of Itzak, the catastrophe of war and the experience of being a survivor—not of the camps but as a refugee—creates that kind of guilt and the shame of what the choices he’s had to make through the catastrophe of war have been, and he becomes a much more narrow kind of creature, just trying to move in an assimilated manner through New York and to raise a daughter who’s going to be protected from the possibility of danger. Which was the opposite, in a way, than the position that the character of your father takes in the book.
HM Well, what my father did was not only to leave sort of society, as it was called, that he was part of, but he and my mother went and lived among the poor, in Jersey City, in what was then called the slums of Jersey City, and which now is gentrified. But they lived what they … . They began to live their ideas. What happened to me was that I was inspired by their story and I began to see that this was not just my coming to terms with what was actually a quite turbulent and complicated relationship with a complicated father who had a secret life as a bisexual man, but also it was a big story of someone’s life over 80 years of the century and living through those changes.
VR The obvious thing between us is that you’ve made this amazing work of imagination in which it’s within the realms of memoir, and I jumped over to fiction.
HM I’m curious about that choice—did you think of writing a memoir?
VR I never, ever imagined writing a memoir. I think for me one of the concerns was to think of—I mean, in fact, my father and his mother, and his father, came on the ship together and they were among the 86 that were held off from coming first into New York, and …
HM But in the novel Itzak comes alone.
VR And Itzak comes alone, and it let me explore some of the questions that I don’t think I could have explored if they came together.
HM What kinds of questions?
VR For example, one question was the question of what was it to be a young modern European boy and to want that kind of freedom, want to get out, where the parents, in the case of my grandparents, there was a way in which they felt that even though they got here, they were still completely pining for their prior life and that kind of provincial sort of experience. And I guess there was a way I could have thought about that in memoir form, but for me to enact it in the novel, to have Itzak alone and to have him making the choices that the war demanded on all of them, it gave me a kind of freedom to explore questions that I think were present—what was it, what is it to be a refugee? The other question was: I wasn’t entirely interested in writing a … You know, I think anyone who has a story that comes up out of the holocaust at this point, has to ask, do we need yet another story that comes out of that? And when I began, and I first conceived it as a book that was just letters, it was in my imagination the book was “Dear Eleanor Roosevelt,” and it was young Itzak writing to her, and it kept feeling small and part of what I think felt small was that I hadn’t at that point yet, imagined the way that that book, that that boy as a refugee, could parallel, could speak to, could thread into and weave back between current refugee concerns, and they appear all though the book whether it’s the Lebanese hairdresser, or Carmen the housekeeper who is Salvadoran, and the question of what are the choices people make in war.
HM It was kind of shock for me to realize that I had to be a character in this book. It was one thing to write about the other, in this case my father, and quite another when I realized that the reader had to be introduced to his daughter, who was writing this book. And it was kind of embarrassing and creepy, at first. And then, I was very lucky. My family wrote letters—I had about 2000 pages of my parents letters during the war, including when she was pregnant with me—that was a trip—and I also had my letters from my mother and my letters from my father, and they kept my letters to them.
VR That’s amazing.
HM And so I actually had the voice of this 19-year-old. For instance, in her first trip alone to Europe writing to my father and saying: Dear pop, I’ve just finished Lady Chatterly’s Lover … I like it so much better than Women In Love, its so much—I can’t remember the adjective—and then I said, it’s so candid. And that sort of gave me the idea that this ‘I’ of these letters was not me, 40 years later.
VR I thought several times that it’s really a generous act in a way, I think, to somehow be able to write about one’s self as a child and not kind of enter into the self judgment, but to let her be a character. One of the things that I loved in the book is that you give her some free rein to be girlish and ridiculous and hyperbolic and true and earnest. And you, Honor Moore, who has a vision about those things, I thought you managed, in this whole talking about memoir and imagination … . it’s what makes the art of the book, you learn when to stand back and let her be and you learn when to come forward as the adult eye. Honor Moore has a very clear awareness of participating in a family that’s participating in history. Whether it’s living in Jersey City, whether it’s when the family moves to Washington or activism, whether it’s civil rights activism or feminism. And Sarah is a girl in the dark, a woman in the dark, and has determined to stay in the dark as a way of protecting her relationship with her father. So it’s really the decision to adopt a child that begins to let her understand a place in history. And that’s …
HM She’s observant, but really until she makes this decision to adopt and then really is forced into looking at—by the adoption agency questionnaire, to looking at what her family is, she would really rather not know either, she’s her father’s daughter in that way.
VR I’m interested all the time when people write in sort of the ways in which the content or subject matter or writing style, on the level of sentence but also on the level of subject, works with the form chosen, how’s it being told, how’s it being narrated, what are the ways … . obviously, there’s the three sections you wrote of the book, but inside of that there’s all this threading and layering that happens and so I wonder if you would talk a little bit about the making of the book.
HM Well, one of the great things about writing poems, about being a poet, is that you’re not ever really writing in a linear way, and I’m very interested in sort of collage, in a way, and so when I’m working with letters, I do quote some letters and I sort of have letters interrupting each other or the narrative voice interrupting the letters, or that kind of thing.
VR Collage is the exactly the same way that I wrote this book, it’s the only way that I’ve figured out how to write something long in fiction, and letters, obviously with Itzak’s letters, that whole part you know …
HM There are these letters that Itzak writes and then Sarah hasn’t read the letters and one of the remarkable plotting devices or strategies about the book is we don’t know until the very end whether or not Sarah is going to read those letters and I wondered if you always knew she was or wasn’t going to.
VR There was period of time Sarah didn’t exist in the book. So, as I said, I imagined it first as this collection of letters, and two things happened—this is kind of coming at that the question a little bit sideways—the first thing was that I would go to the New York Society Library to write, to get away from my house, and it formed the point between where two of my kids were in school, so it was kind of safe zone to hide out. And as I would walk off in through the park, suddenly this other creature, I could feel her sort of walking with me and that she was doing something. Whenever writers have talked about that I’d thought that is such a lot of malarkey, some character joins you, and then one day I went—and this is sort of switched around but quite close to in the kind of switched around way seen in the book—it was a Saturday and I had taken these crappy ladderback chairs that were falling apart and duct-taped and were our dining room chairs to this wonderful store that no longer exists on Amsterdam that mended chairs and I brought it up and this guy was there, and I asked about maybe fixing the seats on the chairs and this woman asked me if I was my father’s daughter and I said “Yeah,” I thought probably she was a businesswoman or something, and she said “Well do you know me? I’m Francine Goldenhar, or have you heard of my father, his name is Maurice Goldenhar?” So I, unlike the scene in the book, the Victoria Redel character, in life, sat down in the chair and said, “Do I know Maurice? Right now he’s standing on a hillside with my father smoking a cigarette just on the other side of the border into Paris.” And she looked at me and we went off and started talking and, when I left there, it became clear that it was an error not to have a woman who was reckoning now with what it would be and so Sarah began to emerge and exactly as you said in these chunks and the first chunks of her either working on these translations—she’s working on these translations of Walter Benjamin—or her with her father. And it was finding—the first draft of the book had maybe 30 pages of Sarah, and now it’s kind of her book. So the evolution was really an evolution of finding a character.
HM It’s so interesting—the role of coincidence in writing any book is so mysterious. There’s a phone call that happens—well, there are several phone calls—but there’s one phone call in particular, on my father’s birthday, the first birthday of his after he dies. I’m unpacking what I’ve inherited, and the phone rings, and it’s this man who was in my father’s will, who none of us knew except that they’d gone to Greece together the last summer of my father’s life. What unfolds in this scene is that this man was my father’s lover for almost 30 years. And I remember I had a migraine headache and I kept saying to myself, I should write this down, and I grabbed a pen and continued the conversation, and I don’t know what the book would have been if he hadn’t turned up.
VR When I was creating Itzak as a boy, as a kid who wanted to flee and get out of Brussels and have a bigger life, I decided he would love the movies. It’s 1940, and the movies were full of all those sexy starlets, which seemed like a thing a boy might like, and it was also a way for me to learn something while I was writing, which has been one of the things … I sort of give myself a challenge each time I’ve written something long so I don’t bore myself. But then soon afterwards I was meeting with my dad, and he said to me, “So you know Marcel Dalio was on this ship.” I didn’t know who Marcel Dalio was, so I said, “Well no, who is Marcel Dalio?” And he said—he looked at me as if I was so ignorant and said “Oh, Marcel Dalio was one of the great, great French actors, he was in all of Renoir’s films, he was in The Rules of the Game, he was in The Grand Illusion, his wife Madeleine Lebaeu and him were both in Casablanca later.” And I just could not believe it; I had struck gold. I said, “What do you mean he was on this ship? Did he get off in New York?” “No, he was among the 86.” And I thought, Oh my god, my character is stuck on board with a fantastic 40-year-old actor and his 19-year-old drop-dead gorgeous wife.
I was talking about the layering of voices in your work, but also there’s letters, there’s story, both of our books have tons of wanting to tell stories, there’s all of the historical material, there so many kinds of registers you wanted to …
HM I just was very interested though this time since I had written a biography before, which has its own kinds of requiring, of really allowing the kind of spiraling of the experience of life to happen and I … One thing that of course invited that in the case of my story is that I was writing in order to integrate into my memory of my father a life that he kept hidden and even after it was revealed in our family 13 years before he died, he wouldn’t talk to me about it, very much like Itzak’s father won’t talk to Sarah. And there’s a kind of double question that arises, is this illumination a betrayal of someone else’s life and I think our books answer that question in different ways. I needed to tell the truth of this story, it seemed the most healing thing I could do for myself and really for my father was to recreate him as whole, as this much more complex figure than I had any idea he was. And perhaps it’s the difference between the experience your father character has which is of great loss …
VR The character of Itzak who then renames himself as an American as Richard, the secrecy he carries and the shame that he carries is central in the book, and so for Sarah, for me let’s say as a writer, one of the questions I went into the text with was thinking, What are secrets inside a family, how do they affect you if you don’t know about them at all, how do they affect you if you know about them, and in order to move forward in your life do you need to know? So, for me, I was trying to create a situation in which the reader begins to know things that Sarah doesn’t, and we watch her both get things right and back away from things, but also get it wrong. The question in the very end of the book when she’s got all the letters, and he, in fact, as she’s been seeking and he’s been realizing he’s getting caught and caught, he kind of poses it finally by having this man present her with this sheath of letters and say, I’d like them returned to me, and she has to face whether she’s going to bust in and read them.
HM And he says he doesn’t want her to read them.
VR And he doesn’t want her to. And she’s going to have to face that choice, and for me the choice was … . She knows a fair amount at that point, and he’s let her know. She’s had access finally to knowing quite a bit. But, for me it was the thought that part of loving someone, of part of even moving past a place where you’re stuck, might not be having to know everything, but the gift of love is the gift of acknowledging our separateness, our secrets, that we can know some and that we won’t. And that wasn’t something I came into the book thinking; that wasn’t how I thought I was going to solve the question.
HM I think one of the most interesting things writing a non-fiction book is just the process of writing offers illumination, when you put one thing next to another thing and you say, Oh my goodness! Look at that. There’s a story in the book, there’s a character in my book of my father’s teacher at St. Paul’s school, who was a gay man who was kicked out of the army and defrocked as a priest for his homosexuality, and my father really cared about this man, and he’s threaded throughout the book, and it was not until after I learned of my father’s hidden life that I understood a lot of what that connection was about.
VR In the sections of the book where Itzak is writing, in the letters—they’re in contrast to what I was saying before—he feels although he’s kind of a smart aleck and he wants to beseech Eleanor Roosevelt to help him, help him, help him, and he’s busy saying, I liked this movie and this happened to me and I liked that woman, he also is holding back from finally what he knows he has to do, which is confess something. He has this thing he has to say in order he thinks in some way to be saved it’s a kind of act of confession with, in this case with somebody who he begins to see as a kind of iconic American mother, for him.
HM And he’s confessing the betrayal of his mother.
VR Exactly, his betrayal.
HM The Sarah character imagines being at the port to greet the Quanza, and so it’s a kind of imagined reunion with her father, and I go to Patmos where my father went with Andrew the last summer of his life, and I imagine being on Patmos with my father, and it’s just this striking thing that these two books which are in some way about daughters coming to understand their fathers and then leaving their fathers behind, then have imagined reunions with their fathers in which they control the story.
Audience Member 1 Itzak escapes over the border; he leaves his mother behind. In order to do so he gets on to the Quanza; he’s very lucky in many ways even though he has a very rough time on the ship. Your character, his daughter Sarah, is a translator from the German to English of Walter Benjamin, who did not make it over the border. I’m wondering if you could talk about why you chose Walter Benjamin, and, in particular, the essay about “The Angel of History.”
VR When I was in college and began to read Walter Benjamin’s work I learned that he had killed himself on that side of the border. It was the same border two months after my father had crossed that border my father crossed at Parapinia, and Benjamin crossed just a couple miles away, he trekked though those same mountains that my father and, more importantly, in this sense, the character Itzak, is looking at and imaging, you know if I don’t get through I’ll just take off, leave my parents, leave my mother, and walk through. And at the time, well, for this book, it seemed to me in the question of luck … here’s this young boy using all of his cunning, all of his luck, and his yearnings are the yearnings of any 17-year-old boy: I want to get on with my life, I want to go forward. Whereas it seemed to me, Walter Benjamin was sick, he was ill, he was crushed by the act of trying to make it through those mountains. He’d already had to leave some of his work behind in safekeeping, and it seemed amazing that maybe one of our greatest minds of the 20th-century was crossing so close to where this young boy was crossing. And the absolute wildness of that border was that, for example, for Benjamin, he got all the way through and on that day the Spanish decided they wouldn’t honor the fact that he’d snuck through because he didn’t have an exit visa from France. And apparently that was why he killed himself, because he thought he was going to be returned over to France. In comparison with Itzak, who gets to that border and it’s shutting and opening Vichy and he kind of keeps maneuvering, he’s got youth on his side. And that was part of my interest in seeing that, and seeing the sorrow of that.
Audience Member 2 I hope I’m not misquoting but I thought you said you wanted to be true to your father. So my question is, seeing as he kept his secret all his life, how do you think he might of responded to your outing him?
HM I don’t think outing is the appropriate word to use when the person has died. We talk about the sexuality of people like Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf; it’s a central part of human experience and important to understanding human existence. There were conversations that I had with my father that led me very much to believe that he wished that he could make this public. His concerns with not making it public were personal concerns, having to do with his wish not to further disrupt my stepmother’s life and their marriage that they were mending and also other family members, family members of his generation. So he was very aware that it would have a quite extraordinary impact if he had made this public. And more than once he said, “I wish I could, but I just can’t.”
Audience Member 3 You both have stories of mothers so I’m wondering if there’s anything you’d like to talk about the role of the mothers in your book.
VR Mothers are layered all through the book, right? Itzak’s central shame has to do with his mother, he’s writing to Eleanor Roosevelt, and Sarah is attempting to become a mother as well. She’s lost a mom when she was quite young, when she was 11. The notion is that that loss has put her in a kind of quasi-wife relationship to her father and she feels he’s the parent left to take care of her and she’s going to be true to him. And if he wishes to remain silent that’s going be the kind of bond of their relationship. It’s also impaired, in the book, her capacity to have really great relationships, as an adult, with men. So part of the action, her action, her move in the book, is, that through navigating this path with her father she’s going to be freed to not be sort of the wife and she acknowledges the mother in other ways. The mothers kind of a fantastic character who keeps giving her gifts even after she dies. She’s had this mom whose made all these little pouches for birthdays all of her life and so there’s a way that she’s been able to imagine the mother. And the more she becomes free of this having to harbor a secret she didn’t even know she begins to acknowledge the mother more.
HM I interviewed a few people and one thing stuck with me: A man I interviewed who had been close to one of the priests who worked with my father in Jersey City, their first ministry, said, “Well, you know, your mother, and Kim Meyers, this priest, were the intellectual centers of that work, your father was the man of action, but they were doing the thinking and they were the ideas behind it.” I hadn’t actually realized that my mother was an actual official part of the team ministry. And then there was the letter in which there was the very striking thing that happened which was that my parents, like all young people in love in long-distance, kept breaking up and coming back together and so on and their final coming back together happened after my mother became confirmed in the Episcopal Church and she writes my father this and suddenly their whole conversation becomes serious adult conversation, suddenly they are having a conversation and that was fascinating to me. It was important for me to sort of allow my mother to have her power in this narrative. The other element is that after her death my father quite quickly remarried and I felt abandoned, that I had betrayed my mother, my mother’s memory. It was always my job … . She became my cause. After writing this book, I could let go of her as my cause and see her again as a person in this life that they had, so that was quite wonderful.
VR I want to say one thing more about that, because one of the things that I love about the book, just to jump in, is that that’s part of the fullness of the imagination of the book, that nobody is condemned, everybody gets to be full and complicated, as we are, whether we like or not. I loved that.