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A Year of Memoirs

Friday, September 08, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tova Mirvis wrote about the value of personal writing. Today, she delves into the many memoirs she read before writing her own, The Book of Separation, out later this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Before I could write a memoir, I needed to read.

I was primarily a fiction writer and read mostly novels. But before writing The Book of Separation, I decided to spend a year reading only memoir. I asked friends and fellow writers for suggestions. I made lists and assembled a stack of books. I kept a notebook where I wrote about what I could learn from each memoir. How did the author structure the story? How did the author make use of flashbacks? How did the author create a compelling voice?

I began by re-reading two of my favorite memoirs: Devotion by Dani Shapiro and Aftermath, by Rachel Cusk. I loved Devotion for its probing questions and compassionate voice, Aftermath for its blunt force honesty. I had turned to these books for comfort as I navigated my divorce and leaving my Orthodox Jewish world, and my copies were well-worn, passages underlined, pages creased.

From there, I set out. Memoirs of childhood. Memoirs of addiction. Memoirs of divorce. Memoirs of coming of age. Memoirs of excursions and adventures. I scribbled notes in the margins, folded down the corners of pages I wanted to return to.

There were books whose stories haunted me – the voice of the writer pained, honest, bold. Reading them, I felt like I understood not just the author’s story but the world around me more deeply: Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped; Alice Sebold’s Lucky; Pang-Mei Natasha Chang’s Bound Feet and Western Dress; Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story.

There were books that parceled out wisdom about how to forge a genuine self: Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick; Through the Door of Life, by Joy Ladin. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff was a coming of age story so sure-handed and moving that I devoured it in one sitting. In Cabin, Lou Ureneck turned the process of building a cabin into a pensive, moving exploration of family and growth.

Some books, like Alexandra Fuller’s Leaving Before the Rains Come, I read more than once. This memoir, about Fuller’s divorce set against the backdrop of her African family and upbringing, was lush and piercing. On each page, I stopped to take in a moment of beauty. “In the end, at least in this end,” she wrote, “the world beyond me and the world inside me could no longer exist in the same place and I broke.”

I underlined and underlined.

I was particularly interested to read memoirs of leaving the ultra-Orthodox world, especially Shulem Deen’s searing, masterful All Who Go Do Not Return, and Leah Vincent’s bold, powerful Cut Me Loose. In both, the pain of forging a change and the bravery required to do so was apparent on every page.

These bore much in common with memoirs that explored leaving other religious worlds. Through the Narrow Gate and The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong describe the author’s journey to becoming a nun and then the slow leaving of her convent. What captivated me was her portrayal of the mystery and power of religious faith even as she describes the slow encroachment of doubt. I also loved Losing my Religion by William Lobdell, a Catholic journalist who covered the Catholic sexual abuse cases and whose faith was burned away as a result.

I savored Not That Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer, which traces her desire to be a good girl inside her Evangelical Christian world, and the process by which she came to question her role there. In this book, the author’s voice jumped off the page and carried me into a world that was both foreign and familiar. “As far as I could tell,” Bauer writes about the official church teachings, “that was the only story told by the officious soul, and the real and true sadness had been excised for a more mellifluous account....”

I folded over this page. My Orthodox Jewish upbringing in Memphis was a world far from hers, yet I knew the feeling that parts of your experience were not permitted. The particulars might have varied, but the emotional truths landed close to home.

In all these memoirs, I found a common theme: the transformation of the self over time. In many of these memoirs, the author leaves one world and begins to make way for another. The kinds of leavings varied – leaving a religious world, a childhood, a destructive way of being, a former self. But in all, there was a palpable sense of the loneliness that comes with change and departure.

This was a feeling I knew well. In the years of leaving my marriage and religious community, I felt more than anything the sense of the known world receding – the way it looks when you set sail from a fixed shoreline and move into something that is uncertain and unmapped. Throughout those years, I wondered: did anyone around me feel this way too?

The answer, for me, came in these memoirs.

Reading memoir helped teach me how to write memoir. But most of all, my year of reading helped me feel a little less alone in the world. Now, when I look at these books on my shelves, I think of the authors as fellow travelers. These memoirs are books to take with you on the journey across.

Tova Mirvis is the author of the memoir The Book of Separation. She has also published three novels: Visible City,The Outside World, and The Ladies Auxiliary which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

Holding Each Other's Stories: Why Personal Writing Matters

Tuesday, September 05, 2017 | Permalink

Tova Mirvis is the author of The Book of Separation, a memoir, out later this month from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.


Never read the comments, my writer friends all advise when publishing a personal essay online. Wise words, and I followed them when, several years ago, I wrote an essay that ran in the New York Times about my Orthodox Jewish divorce ceremony in which I realized that I was leaving not just a marriage but the religious world in which I was raised.

But I hadn’t expected the flood of emails.

When the essay was published, I happened to be on a hiking trip in Corcovado National Park, in a remote region of Costa Rica. It was a trip where for a week, I was cut off from the world—I had hiked fourteen miles into the rain forest, spent two nights at a ranger station, then traveled by boat to an eco-lodge in Drake’s Bay where sloths hung from trees and toucans and scarlet macaws flew past.

I checked my phone only once—in the sole spot at the edge of the forest where there was reception, and saw an email from the Times editor that the piece would run the next day. I was excited, of course, but also worried about putting the most private, painful part of my life into the world. I’d never felt so vulnerable, on the verge of such exposure.

On a laptop borrowed from another guest at the eco-lodge (in an attempt to be fully away, I’d left mine at home) I answered the copy editor’s queries. I sent a heads-up email to my family letting them know about the essay. But finally, in this remote locale where the word looked like it had been painted entirely green, there was nothing to do but let go. 

When I came back to everyday life, I had hundreds of`emails waiting for me. A few were from people I knew, but mostly they were from strangers old and young, of all religious backgrounds, sharing with me their stories of change and transformation. I had prepared myself for the cruelty of the comments section, but I hadn’t expected this.

One letter after another saying, I too have felt trapped. I too am on the brink of upending my ordered life. I too have forged a painful change. People I didn’t know, saying I am holding your story, and in exchange, handing me theirs. It’s all too easy to feel cut off inside the remote locales of our own lives; to look at those around us and only see the well-constructed exteriors; to dash off the mean-spirited response to someone else’s experience; to lose sight of the fact that inside everyone around us, some painful question is being asked. But by telling a story in which we are made vulnerable, we are holding out a hand, making a connection, offering a direct point of entry into our lives.

A few months later, I started writing the memoir which eventually became The Book of Separation, expanding on the story I’d told in the essay. I still felt afraid – inside me were the voices of censure and judgment, my own internal set of trolls, casting eternal judgment. In order to write, I summoned that rain forest in my mind, a place where I could quiet that swirl of thought. I kept those emails as a rebuttal to those naysaying voices, and reread them, to remind myself of the ways that telling our stories can help us see, really see, ourselves and those around us.

Tova Mirvis is the author of the memoir The Book of Separation. She has also published three novels: Visible City,The Outside World, and The Ladies Auxiliary which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

Header image courtesy of stephXstitch

30 Days, 30 Authors: Tova Mirvis

Friday, November 20, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.


 

Plus, Tova shares the first novel that she fell in love with.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Commentary, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, and Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.


 

Interview: Tova Mirvis

Tuesday, September 02, 2014 | Permalink

by Adam Rovner

Best-selling author Tova Mirvis achieved mainstream success with her novels about women in insular Orthodox communities. After a ten year hiatus, Mirvis is back with her third novel, Visible City (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), an intensely personal tale of love, loss, and transformation.

Adam Rovner: Some reviewers of Visible City found the novel to be pessimistic because it depicts failed relationships. Can you discuss your own sense of whether Visible City was optimistic or pessimistic?

Tova Mirvis: I wanted to write about real life and I don’t think we divide real life into optimistic and pessimistic. Life has its ups and downs. The hard parts and good parts are all intertwined. I felt that the book was about the possibility of change. At the beginning of the book, a lot of the characters are in a state of paralysis, but what I think is amazing about life are those openings—those windows—where we can and do make a change.

AR: Speaking of windows, a central plotline in Visible City concerns the search for a lost masterpiece of stained glass by American artist John LaFarge (1835-1910). Stained glass seems to me to be an especially Christian art form. I always associate stained glass windows with churches, even though synagogues have them as well. For a writer who is so steeped in Jewish tradition, why did the motif of stained glass attract you?

TM: I have those same associations! Stained glass was probably one of my least favorite areas of art, ironically. I got interested in stained glass because of my ex-husband. That was how I learned about John LaFarge. There are stained glass windows that LaFarge made near Boston that I went to see. They are huge and stunning. You can look at those win­dows as a whole, but you can also look at each individual piece of glass and get a sense of how they were constructed to be a part of this mas­sive work. It made me think about novel writing and I said: “That’s what I’m trying to do, to put all my little pieces together.” And so I developed this love for stained glass.

AR: Jeremy is one of two characters in Visible City who searches for the lost LaFarge window. He’s intriguing because he has left the Or­thodox Jewish world. At one point in the novel there’s a lament from Jeremy’s perspective about the loss of Shabbat observance. Why was Jeremy’s abandonment of tradition so crucial to the novel?

TM: His story felt important to me because I was interested in what happens when we make change. I felt like the idea that we can change our lives doesn’t tell the whole story, because of course we bring the past with us. I was writing a book about physical objects that were left behind in the city—stained glass windows that are walled up, or [aban­doned] subway stations—and then I thought about the parts of our own past that are sort of emotional ghost stations. Even when you make a change, even when you want that change, there is still regret and loss. I felt like Shabbat was an example where you view time differently, and having some experience with lawyers myself, every second can be taken up by work. But Shabbat is kept separate. By leaving that behind, Jer­emy no longer had the feeling that at least for those twenty-five hours, his time was his own.

AR: Would it be fair to say that Visible City may be even more personal a novel than either of your previous books?

TM: Visible City was hewn out of my own need for change, my own emotional trajectory. It took ten years [to write], which I can’t really believe. […] It took a lot of time and a lot of soul-searching to figure out how to finish this book. Ultimately, I feel like I had to be willing to unleash the characters and write a book where people make changes. I think I had to come to learn that people do make changes, do take action. I had to be willing to let that happen, both in my own life and for the characters.

AR: Can you let us in on what you’re working on next?

TM: I’m working on a memoir, which is new for me. I wrote an essay that was in The New York Times about my divorce that will be the first chapter. Writing [that essay] was not the emotional part—putting it out there was. But I ended up getting a few hundred emails from strangers and it was so nice to have people share their own stories of change, of divorce, and of religion. There was this feeling that I’m telling a story that other people experience also. So now I’m writing a book—the tentative title is The Book of Separation, which is a translation from the [biblical] Hebrew term for a divorce document: sefer kritut. I’m writing about how you make changes after having lived in a certain world, what you leave behind, and what it means to recreate you own sense of com­munity or belonging that’s different from what you’re accustomed to. I have to turn it in December of 2015. That scares me because I’m used to the ten-year plan, so I’m hard at work.

Adam Rovner is an associate professor of English and Jewish Literature at the University of Denver. He is the author of In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands before Israel (NYU Press), a narrative history of efforts to establish Jewish homelands across the globe.

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Stained Glass

Friday, March 14, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tova Mirvis wrote about the parts of New York that are buried out of sight and how that relates to her fiction and how both novelists and voyeurs watch other people, trying to uncover the hidden parts of their lives. Her newest novel, Visible City, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 18th. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

How is this book different from all your other books?

The most obvious answer: in Visible City, there are no description of Shabbat or shul, little grappling with religion and community. My other novels, The Ladies Auxiliary and The Outside World, were clearly Jewish novels. My subject matter was steeped in questions of Jewish belonging and identity, belief and doubt. In the ongoing panel discussion debates about who is or isn’t a Jewish writer, I always felt comfortable saying I was certainly one. I didn’t feel the label as limiting, didn’t think it prescribed me in any way, but it did describe the place I was writing from, the world from which my imagination sprung.

There was no clear cut choice then, back when I was writing my first two books, to write a specifically Jewish novel. I wrote from what moved me, preoccupied me, fascinated me. I wrote out of my own grappling with my Orthodox Jewish community, a world which has shaped so much of who I am. My Jewish self has always been inextricable from my writing self.

And then here too, when I started writing Visible City, there was no explicit decision to write a different kind of book, no moment when I decided I was going to write a book with less Jewish content. I started Visible City without being sure where I was going. Each piece led me to the next, one interest kindling another, one character creating the need for another. There were Jewish parts that I arrived at along the way – one character was raised Orthodox but no longer is and this leave-taking impacts the choices he makes in the novel. Throughout the book, many of my characters are Jewish, though this isn’t mentioned explicitly. (Academics, lawyers and therapists on the Upper West Side. You don’t need to tell us that they are Jewish. We know! Said one of my early readers.)

For a time, I thought that the book would round some bend, become more specifically Jewish. But as the months and then the years of writing went by, the book continued to take me in different directions. Every book is a surprise, to the writer as much as to the reader. I arrived at underground explorers, historical preservation. I arrived at stained glass windows, an art form I’d always associated with churches and which I was little interested in. But now, I fell in love: the abundance of color, the intricacy of the work, the varying colors illuminated depending on how the light shines through.

In a novel too, there are the parts that more easily catch the light, parts that are less clearly evident. Even in a novel that is ostensibly about other things, where my Jewish identity and interests are less prominent, I feel the Jewish part of myself present here as well.

In particular, I see it here in my interest in the way the individual relates to the group, in the way we shape ourselves to match outside expectations. But more than that, on the instinctive gut level from which writers write, my Jewishness is part of everything I write. It’s entrenched inside me, a permanent part of my eye even as I look out at other worlds. All of us, we write from the mix of shapes and colors inside us, the mosaic of our personal and family histories, from our own experiences and from the experiences that live in our imaginations. Like the stained glass windows I’ve come to love, a novel is an assemblage of blazing colors, the individual pieces of who we are visible at different times, depending on the light.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

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The City Below

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tova Mirvis wrote about how both novelists and voyeurs watch other people, trying to uncover the hidden parts of their lives. Her newest novel, Visible City, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 18th. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I started writing Visible City in the weeks after moving from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the suburbs of Boston. More than anything, I missed walking in the city, down Broadway, up Columbus, where there was always the chance of something interesting happening.

In the suburbs, I felt a kind of sensory deprivation. I still walked, to the library a few blocks away, to the town center that was half a mile from my house, but there was little to look at, no one I might pass: just houses, just cars.

On every visit I made back to New York, I felt my eyes regaining a wider stance. I was like a tourist, always looking up. Once I started writing about the city, my homesickness eased. When I wrote, I could still be on my beloved streets, still walking as I always had.

But as home as I felt, there was no denying the fact that the city I was writing about was changing – new buildings were going up, stores were changing, the people I knew moving away. The city I was writing about was my particular version of a place that comes in millions of versions. Each city dweller occupies a different place. We all navigate our own internal maps. In addition to the sights we see around us, there are parts of the city that exist in our memories: those old buildings that once stood, torn down to make way for something new. The people who occupied our apartments before us, leaving behind tiny traces.

And there are also parts of the city buried out of sight. As I wrote Visible City, I became fascinated with the idea of yet another version of the city that lay below, the old “ghost” subway stations which are no longer in use but still intact. The stacks beneath the New York Public Library, what used to be the water system of the Croton Aqueduct. The labyrinths beneath Grand Central. The steam pipes and atomic tunnels beneath Columbia University. The unused Amtrak tunnels under Riverside Park.

As a novelist, the metaphors were inescapable: what parts of ourselves are buried too? Can those closed-off parts ever come above ground, become visible?

There seemed to me too to be something very Jewish about the notion that the past remains a part of who we are, and in this case, physically so. As I wrote, I thought often about the different archaeological sites I’d visited in Israel, the excavations underneath Jerusalem’s Old City or in the town of Bet Sha’an. Here was the Manhattan version of these ancient sites. Even in a place so bustling, so modern, the physical remnants of the past were close by.

I researched urban explorers who snuck into thse sealed off spaces. I visited City Hall Station – which is fleetingly visible if you stay on the 6 train after the last stop and is accessible by MTA tours a few times a year. Each time I went back to New York, I rode the 6 train, staying on for this glimpse of the grand stairway, the red and green tiles.

What is the allure of gaining entrance to these closed off spaces? What are these urban explorers in search of? A place, amid the crowds and congestion, that we can think of as being all our own. A view we share with no one. A feeling that we alone have discovered something new.

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

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Walls, Windows, Doors

Monday, March 10, 2014 | Permalink

Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. She is blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For me, writing fiction always begins with curiosity about other people: what are they really thinking but not saying? What does it feel like to live inside someone else’s body?

I trace this curiosity, in part, to my Orthodox upbringing – to the feeling that people (or was it just me?) were thinking things they were not saying, that there existed for many a shadow inner life that did not align with the outer one. There, tucked away under a hat, walled inside the private domain, were the feelings not allowed into the light. So much had to be encased, or run past the internal censor before it could be said. Everywhere, the sense that you were being watched, evaluated, judged. So few places where the inner experience – messy, complicated, impolite – could be revealed.

But in a novel: here, finally, there is freedom and access. The walls give way to windows. Here, what people really think, say, feel. In life, how many of us walk around with no trespassing signs affixed to our bodies? But in a novel we enter into characters who stray and fear and lie and love and seethe and desire, that great messy stew of what it means to be human. Real empathy comes not from concealment but from revealing. We hide out truest selves for fear of what others will say, yet in those messy spaces we are, however ironically, most sympathetic.

This chance to peer into others is what makes me read, and what makes me write. I’ve always thought of the novelist as a kind of voyeur – a job which requires you to assemble pieces of other people’s lives into a larger whole.

In Visible City, my third novel, I started with a young mother who watches her neighbors out the window, catching snippets of their lives. In the city, we live a combination of anonymity and intimacy. We watch but act as though we don’t see one another, thus allowing this shadowy dance to continue without becoming overly exposing and invasive. So much around us is packaged and covered. Here, the chance to see one another unrehearsed. To escape our own lonely nights, to pretend as though we occupy other lives.

But at the same time, in all those views out the window, surely we are seeing not just others but ourselves. As I was writing, I was fascinated by the question of whether we can watch and remain unchanged. In my novel, my main character is ultimately not content to just watch. Watching breeds the desire for something more. Doors open and she becomes entangled in the lives of those she watches. But even if we are never caught watching, even if we never walk through our own doors, we are still changed. When we see into other people, we grow wider, more empathic.

Tova Mirvis's latest book, Visible City, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on March 18th. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children. Visit her website here.

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