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.

Relat­ed Content:

Andrea Simon is the author of the mem­oir BASH­ERT:, A GRAND­DAUGH­TER’S HOLO­CAUST QUEST, her recent nov­el ESFIR IS ALIVE, and sev­er­al pub­lished sto­ries and essays. The recip­i­ent of numer­ous lit­er­ary awards, Andrea holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the City Col­lege of New York where she has taught writ­ing. She lives in New York City.