by Mitch Ginsburg
The first night of the International Writer’s Festival in Jerusalem a few dozen people sat down in the Mishkenot Sha’ananim auditorium to hear Zeruya Shalev and Siri Hustvedt discuss their work with Yediot Aharonoth reporter Eilat Negev. Hustvedt, a PhD from Columbia University, has written a dissertation on Dickens, authored a book of poetry, several novels and several collections of essays, on painting, literature and popular culture; Shalev, an editor at Keter Publishing House, has written a book of poetry, a children’s book and four novels, including Love Life, which was nominated to Der Spiegel`s prestigious list of “20 Best Novels in World Literature” over the last 40 years. Both women had read each other’s work. Both seemed keen to discuss the material.
But Negev had another agenda. She wanted to know if the women worked at home, in proximity to their husbands (novelists Paul Auster and Eyal Megged); she wanted to know whether their husbands read their work while it was in progress; she wanted to know whether their critiques ever stung badly enough to start domestic feuds; she wanted to know whether their feuds ever made it into their respective work; whether they found themselves dipping into the same well of material. And on and on. Till at long last Hurstvedt pursed her lips, shook her head, and said, “You know what, these are not interesting questions.” Shalev concurred, but the hour was up.
Not wanting to leave the festival on that note, I bought another ticket, to Kathryn Harrison and Gadi Taub. Their conversation was spellbinding. Harrison has written twelve books, fiction, memoir, non-fiction, biography and travelogue. Taub, who confessed to a deep fascination with her writing, made an interesting point. Love, he said, was one of the last taboos still standing in our culture. We are instructed to see it as an all-conquering force of benevolence. But it seemed to him that love’s dark side, where murder and revenge sometimes come to feed, was Harrison’s home turf as a writer. She agreed. Tapping an alligator skin boot she began discussing While they Slept, and the draw she felt as a writer towards the real life protagonist, Billy, who murdered most of his family with a bat. Strangely she told how his sister, a PR executive in Washington DC was far harder to talk to. Billy, in prison for life, was rather likable.
I think at this point the people in the half-filled auditorium were still breathing regularly, Then the two began discussing The Kiss and the attention in the room tightened like a knot. The memoir explores the author’s relationship with her cruel mother, her rigid grandparents, her protected upbringing, and the absolute devastation of those ties, when, at age 20, she first met her father, a charismatic Baptist preacher, and proceeded to sleep with him.
I know. there is a slight impulse to run for the double doors upon hearing such information, but the humanity with which Harrison conveyed it, the honesty, the self deprecation, the awareness of the gravity of what she did, the human capacity for revenge—the kind she inflicted on her otherwise impenetrable mother and the kind her father visited on the rest of the family—and the need to wrestle this onto paper, even at the pain of ruining her relationship with her unknowing children, was tremendous.
Harrison does not write for a drawer, she said, she writes for people and she does not write because she likes it but because she must. And so the story, in order for her to reach a point that she could live with it, had to be told, even though she was fully aware that the retelling could cost her her relationship with her children. She recounted how when her daughter was twelve she heard her call to her and ask, in an unfamiliar voice, “Mom, is memoir non-fiction?”
Mitch Ginsburg is graduating this June from the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing