Nora Eisenberg Answers Some Personal Questions
1. Why a ‘memoir-novel’ rather than simply
an autobiographical novel?
I began the book as a memoir, but as I wrote my imagination
kept hurling it into fiction. Partly, I think, that's because
I am principally a fiction writer, drawn to dialogue and heightened
scenes. But partly, I think, the novelistic drama, the exchanges
and actions—the talk among family members, the escape on
the river, near-deaths and real deaths— allowed me to get
at the truth of my childhood more fully than the literal truth
would have. The book is truly a hybrid, combining fact with imagination—for
the purpose of rendering the experience of the family in those
2. The book is remarkably devoid of self-pity. How did
you create such a childhood without coming off as a victim?
I don't convey self-pity because I don't feel it. As horrible
as parts of my childhood were, other parts were wondrous. And
the good stuff and the bad stuff—the brutality and the tenderness,
the terror and the hilarity—braided constantly, really shaping
the family experience. I still think my major response to those
years is awe. And for my parents, with all their imperfections,
I feel immense gratitude. Not just for what was so wonderful in
them, but because their contradictions were so rich and wild;
living beside them all those years was as great a privilege as
it was a burden.
3. The Bronx you describe is almost pastoral: an old
farm behind your apartment building; the parks you wandered in
without fear; the adults who offered kindness. What’s changed
in that neighborhood, and in the city in general, today?
The Bronx of those years in many ways was pastoral. True, there
were some gangs and drunks and addicts and perverts, and even
as we wandered the park, my brother and I were on the lookout.
But our neighborhood and borough often did seem an innocent place,
all the more so because the war had recently ended and people
lived with hope. I think that's what was really taken from people's
lives; when so much of the Bronx was burnt out in the seventies,
hope was burnt out, too. The Bronx River, which in the book and
in my life, meant beauty and freedom, became a toxic dump, which
you couldn't touch, and it provided no opportunity for release
but was just another barrier. The degradation was worst in the
south Bronx, but even in the north Bronx, where we lived, the
parks were neglected—benches and bushes on Mosholu were
torn down because of an administrative mistake. The whole borough
was "dissed." The crack epidemic and AIDS have taken
their toll. But I'm encouraged that the river is being cleaned
and revived, and that's largely because of local activity to reclaim
the borough's resources and beauty.
4. Your mother is still alive. What does she think about
My mother has read a story excerpted from the book and loved
it. She is pleased that I have written a whole book about those
years—and her. She knows that I have loved her well. If
she reads the whole book, some sections might be hard for her,
but I hope she will see the children's love for their mother,
which suffuses most every page.
5. Raising a daughter must have brought back much of
your own relationship with your mother. Was it sometimes a struggle
to keep that learned behavior from surfacing?
It was easy to raise a daughter—because I had already raised
my mother. Those years with my family gave me lots of skills in
caring for people, which was not just a burdensome legacy but
a source of joy. In some ways having a child allowed me to fix
my own childhood, creating one free of the dramatic trauma and
burden I knew. The fact that my daughter is so unburdened mostly
makes me very happy about the job I've done, but sometimes it
angers me, too. I mean, I want in so many ways the opposite of
what I had for my child, but there are times when I think, you
spoiled brat… Sometimes, when my daughter was young and
I was angry, my face would transform into my father's face when
he was on a rampage and sometimes my mouth would fill with his
terrible words, and I'd feel as if I'd been possessed. Which in
a sense I was; you never rid yourself entirely of something that
6. Your politics are proudly progressive. How is it that
with a father who used his political beliefs to bludgeon you with
guilt, you managed to grow up with politics not unlike his?
My father's rhetoric was like thunder and lightening, and it
wasn't anything a child with my timid temperament could embrace—though
my brother, more aggressive and brave, took to it. I spent my
childhood recoiled from my father's "big ideas." When
I got older, though, in the relative peacefulness of my adult
life, I was able to consider and accept many of the ideas behind
the bombast. The greatest legacy of both my parents was not so
much ideology as aspects of their character. They could be wild,
screeching beasts; but they were also both extremely kind to friends
and strangers—showing great compassion and generosity. In
times of "peace" we often had someone between homes
sleeping on our couch. When it wasn't a locked asylum, our house
was very warm and welcoming, with people crowded around our kitchen
table. It's that part of my parents—their feeling for people,
their sensitivity to their hardships and yearnings—that
has most shaped my politics.
7. You are a university professor with a doctorate in
English from Columbia. The War at Home has been praised as a delectably
accessible and emotional read. Is there some kind of contradiction
What I loved about studying—and teaching—literature
is not so much the academic and often farfetched constructions
many in my profession impose but entering into a genuine exchange
with literature. When I write, I hear the voices of those I've
read; they mingle with the voices of people I've met. The best
of my academic peers keep the juices of literature flowing for
students; the worst force readers into a weird relationship in
which there is nothing natural going on and students must follow
academic rules: don't say I; don't suppose any relationship between
a writer's life and her work, and so on. I studied literature
because I love it. I love writing it and reading it. I do not
like laying out on a table and playing some rule-ridden game with
8. Was it painful to conjure up your past in writing
this novel? How did you manage it without sinking into the material?
It was painful at times to re-enter the past. But mostly it was
thrilling. And that, I think, was because I was writing about
it. I would write some dialogue or analysis, and it would be so
much fun to feel I was getting it right, getting those lunatics
down on the page. It's so satisfying to turn a crazy mess into
something shapely and maybe even beautiful. There were times when
I'd hear them talking in my head, and I'd just double up in laughter.
And I'd keep laughing as I decided just what they would say to
each other and what would happen. My poor parents actually had
very little power in their lives, but in time they both wielded
great power at home. Now, remembering that home, I had suddenly
had power—to tell the truth, to decide what words and scene
would best tell the truth. So sometimes it was painful to remember,
but mostly it was wonderful.
9. There seems to be a backlash against novels about
growing up in a dysfunctional home. Do you think The War at Home
offers us something new in the genre?
I don't think there's a reader's backlash against novels about
childhood struggles. Most readers I know can't get enough of these
stories. True, some critics may be impatient with childhood novels
that are crudely expressed and dripping with self-pity. I think
The War at Home, like any good novel, gives every character his
due. I try to make every character breathe and move on the page
in their own perfect way. I wrote every character with affection.
10. What are you working on next?
Much of my work is not particularly autobiographical. Mostly
I write in the first person with a very personal voice, though
not necessarily mine. Right now I'm working on a book of non-fiction,
a kind of memoir about my husband and the new healthcare system—
a doctor becoming a patient, a victim of managed care.
The War at Home
PUB DATE: February, 2002
TRIM: 6 x 9
PRICE: $14.95/ Paperback Original