Nora Eisenberg Answers Some Personal Questions

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  1. Why a ‘memoir-novel’ rather than simply an autobiographical novel?

  2. 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 times.

  3. 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 the book?

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 powerful.

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 here?

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 it.

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.

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The War at Home
PUB DATE: February, 2002
CATEGORY: Fiction
PAGES: 217
TRIM: 6 x 9
ISBN: 0-9679520-4-2
PRICE: $14.95/ Paperback Original