The ProsenPeople

Writing About My Friends and Relatives

Monday, December 05, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Andrea Simon wrote about transforming her family memoir into a novel and the research she puts into fiction writing—particularly for her new book, Esfir Is Alive. Andrea is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

25 years ago, when I finished my first semiautobiographical novel, my mother, a highly critical woman, begged me to read it. I put her off, finding all kinds of excuses, thinking as only a naive first-book author would that my novel would be published soon and she could read it then. But I had not anticipated that my mother would be relentless in her quest, finally swearing that she wouldn’t utter a word of negativity. So one Friday evening, I left the manuscript on her kitchen table, with a note, “Please be kind.”

All that weekend, I sweated. My heart thumped every time the phone rang. I worried that my mother would recognize the nuclear family of the young protagonist summering in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Surely she would remember the startling familial events of my childhood, no matter how I embellished them; she would cringe at the character’s motives and descriptions, cutting through my disguises and convolutions.

After an agonizing few days, my mother called and said, “I have only one criticism.”

I knew I couldn’t trust her. “What is it?” I said, upset with myself for even asking.

“I don’t know why you named the mother Estelle,” she said. “My own name is so much better.”

This exchange exposed a few lessons to follow throughout my writing career: sometimes reality is preferable to fiction; sometimes the people you know are flattered to be made into a character; and sometimes those real-life counterparts are more emotionally evolved than anticipated.

As a person who freely gave people “a piece of her mind,” my mother was my best source of material. In numerous personal essays, I recorded her outlandish comments (“This book was so bad, I can’t understand why yours isn’t published”) and motherly advice (“Marriage is not to be happy”). My larger-than-life grandmother, married three times (to a rabbi, a millionaire, and an owner of a drag cabaret), has been the inspiration for several works.

But not all relatives are so forgiving. Often, when the inspiration is someone displaying unsavory characteristics, I am tortured by possible recriminations. In general, I am heartened by the advice of Anne Lamott, who wrote in her classic, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life,“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Friends don’t escape my pen, either. There is Penny from high school, who says “in other words” before she speaks and my childhood friend Joanie who provoked her eye doctor to say to her, “I hate you.” I could go on; there is certainly no shortage of material.

When I was interviewing my family for a memoir that interspersed personal stories with historical events from the twentieth century, I became fascinated by the voices of my mother and her siblings, nine in all. Born in Poland and escaping extreme poverty and discrimination, they came to America in time for the Depression and then World War II. Many were formed by economic need and antiquated roles. Two of the males died early, one in a wartime plane crash, the other from suicide.

I recorded family stories on my tape recorder and took voluminous notes. I respected confidences, especially from my great-aunt Sophie (real name disguised) who kept a secret for sixty years. She unburdened herself to me, knowing I was writing our family history. But I was careful not to include those aspects that gave her the most anguish. When the book was published, Sophie’s daughter said that her mother was extremely hurt about my revelations.

“But she gave me her permission,” I protested. “As a matter of fact, I left out any detail that involved her participation.”

“Still,” she said, “it was shocking for her to see it in print.”

Since the publication of my family memoir, I have written other fictional and autobiographical works featuring characters based on family members, as well as friends and acquaintances. Generally, unless the person is dead or being eulogized, I change the name and obvious physical characteristics. However, an amateur sleuth could guess the initial role model by recognizable anecdotes or behavior. The people in my life form the people in my writing, no matter how I disguise them. They are my prototypes; their experiences underpin the themes and motivations of my “oeuvre.”

Mostly, though, relatives and friends are good-natured about their presence in my work. They are flattered and come to my readings bragging about their likenesses. Though my sister often disputes my memories, she signs her e-mails, “Love, Brenda,” the name of her fictional counterpart. Of course, there are others who can’t wait to tell me that I got their professional title or birthplace wrong (even if it’s fiction).

My cousin Bernice once accused me of misrepresenting her. I resorted to a white lie and said, “Oh that wasn’t you. It was your sister, Diane.”

Surprisingly, Bernice, a longtime sufferer of sibling jealousy, said in a choked voice, “Really?”

I didn’t answer, but I’m thinking of writing about the time Bernice drove 500 miles to a bar mitzvah on the wrong weekend. I may even use her real name.

Andrea Simon is the author of the memoir Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, the new novel Esfir Is Alive, and several stories and essays. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and lives in New York City.

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If It Didn't Exactly Happen, Can It Be True?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Andrea Simon’s wrote about transforming her family memoir into a novel, which was published earlier this month: Esfir Is Alive. Andrea is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As a writer, I’m drawn to autobiographical events for inspiration. I use old photos as reference material, I conduct interviews and record conversations, I comb through letters and official documents. I’m a stickler for getting things right. I once drove a hundred miles to check out the road sign that appeared in a story to see if it read “Fallen Rock Zone” or “Falling Rock Zone”—and when I found both signs in similar locations, I flipped a coin and convinced myself that no sane person would ever check such a detail.

Non-evidentiary materials, especially remembrances, are harder to verify. When I once gave a coming-of-age novel to my childhood friend Joanie to read for accuracy, she wrote several times in the margins, “Oh, I remember that.” In those instances she was wrong: they had been manufactured. What Joanie recalled was more of a truthful impression of our childhood rather than a factual representation. From her reaction, I knew I was onto something.

In that book, I wrote about a girl named Amanda who overhears adults talking about a disturbing incident. In my memory, I had gone to hide in the woods; in the novel, Amanda turns in the other direction, heading to the drugstore to order an egg cream. This Amanda, I soon discovered, was not me; she would lead her own life. And the older I get, nonfiction and fiction are so intertwined in my stories that I often forget what really happened.

In writing historical fiction, the author has even more pressing obligations. I longed to tell the story about my uncle Abraham, a World War II navigator killed in 1943 with eleven crew members aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress on a training mission in Florida. A reverential family figure, he seemed “too good to be true.” I set out to animate him into someone I could call my own. But history beckoned. I read manuals on the B-17, poured over personal narratives of service people, downloaded photos of Florida in the 1940s, and even attended a World War II aviation exhibition, crawling into the body of a Flying Fortress. I imagined the thrill of directing one’s course through the sky and the loneliness of being away from home.

Before long, my fictional Abraham spent a day off from flying at a local plantation where local black community members were reenacting slavery. A Jew in the South, Abraham became a man immersed in racism and prejudice. I gave the story to an aviation expert who found no technical mistakes, and was impressed by the personality of the protagonist. To him, Abraham was a real man. To me, he was alive for the first time.

My latest novel, Esfir Is Alive, was inspired by the true story of a twelve-year-old survivor of a Holocaust massacre and my ancestral family in a Belorussian village. In tackling such an immense tragedy, I had two guiding principles: whatever Esfir did, it had to be within the realm of her personality, and whatever happened in the novel had to accurately reflect the events of the time. If my fictional characters were to be viable, they had to make their own decisions. If I could accomplish these lofty goals, the reader would feel “the truth” as my friend Joanie had years before.

Although my mother did not live to read my novel about Esfir, I think that she would have approved. She may have said that she did not remember my family’s village, which she visited as a child, to be exactly as I describe. But I think she would have agreed that even though Esfir hadn’t been a real member of our family, she was a true Jewish girl of her time.

Andrea Simon is the author of the memoir Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, the new novel Esfir Is Alive, and several stories and essays. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and lives in New York City.

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Rewriting My Family Memoir as a Work of Fiction

Monday, November 28, 2016 | Permalink

Andrea Simon’s novel Esfir Is Alive was published earlier this month. She will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

During the research for my memoir, Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, my cousin Barbara sent me an envelope affixed with a Post-It, writing, “Hope these help toward closure.” Inside were six postcard-sized, sepia-toned photos, most with names or other identifiers in Yiddish, one stamped with the photographer’s place of business: Visoke, the nearest town to my ancestral village of Volchin in present-day Belarus. My heart sank. These were the photos of the Midler family, my lost relatives killed in the Holocaust. Finally, I could put faces to the people I had been writing about.

As I assembled the photos across my desk, it struck me that these people were well-dressed, stylish even, so like my relatives spread across the United States; I had expected characters out of Fiddler on the Roof in raggedy clothes, lugging overloaded bundles. In my research I not only discovered more about life in the nearby towns and villages, but living people who actually knew the Midlers. These Jews read multiple daily newspapers, joined Zionist and socialist movements, acted in Shakespearean productions, studied Yiddish and Hebrew literature, and argued about the latest psychological and educational theories. They were modern people, not stereotypical facsimiles.

Over the next ten years following the publication of my memoir, I thought about the issues that I was not able to fully cover—particularly the daily life of Jews during the interwar years, a time of great intellectual flux. I wanted to write more about the Midlers. And there was also the story that did not seem to go away: the massacres of 50,000 Jews at the forest site of Brona Gora, culminating in the incredible testimony of the only recorded survivor, a twelve-year-old girl, Esfir Manevich. How could such a young person survive this ordeal?

The more pressing question for me as an author was how I could integrate these topics into a single volume. Would it be another memoir or a work of fiction? How could I include Esfir in the story when I didn’t know if she was still alive to offer corroboration? How could I introduce Esfir to my relatives when they were from different places?

I pondered these challenges over a long time, though I was not aware that various pathways had been germinating in my unconscious. Then it came to me: what if I began a fictional story in 1936, when the real Esfir would have been seven years old? My cousin Ida Midler would have been around fourteen. What if I send Esfir to Brest, the city where Ida attended the Tarbut Hebrew Gymnasium? I thought of my grandmother, who had run a boardinghouse in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Before I knew it, my grandmother morphed into Esfir’s fictional Aunt Perl, proprietor of a boardinghouse in Brest. Because of grave antisemitism at Esfir’s school in her hometown, I would send Esfir to live at Perl’s boardinghouse where she would become roommates with Ida, the counterpart of my real-life cousin. And thus the novel was born.

From the original photos and eyewitness testimony I had collected for my memoir, plus my subsequent research, I reconstructed the village of Volchin. Then I constructed Brest and the area around the boardinghouse. My childhood friends, twin girls, became Ida’s classmates. Now I had the setting and the characters. For a while they were on their own.

As I changed genres, my focus tightened from revelatory wide angle to exploratory close-up. I switched the point of view from the memoir’s first-person observer to the novel’s first-person actor. I tried to avoid the danger of telling a story by showing Esfir living through trauma, keeping in mind that she was also a witness plodding her way through history. At this point, I decided to pretend that Esfir would be recalling her life as an adult. I was gratified by the reaction of early readers who thought that the novel was nonfiction, an actual memoir written by the real Esfir. So my original memoir found new life in a fictional one.

Now when I look at the Midler photos, I no longer see a pleasant middle-class family. I see the eldest daughter, Ida, as an idealistic young woman who loved literature; I see my uncle Iser, a handsome man of prominence in his village who also yanked his slacks over his belly. I often wonder what they would think of me, their long-lost relative, poking around in their lives, making up conversations, creating scenarios out of slight resemblances. I like to think they would be proud of me, happy that they were transformed into fully developed lives, to be cherished on the page.

Andrea Simon is the author of the memoir Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, the new novel Esfir Is Alive, and several stories and essays. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York and lives in New York City.

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