Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2
November 19, 2013 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
In Lisa Gornick’s haunting second novel, Tinderbox, a young nanny recently arrived from Peru rattles both the composure and professional ethics of psychoanalyst Myra Gold. But this is not new territory for Gornick, who is on the faculty at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research and a graduate of the writing program at New York University. Her first novel, A Private Sorcery, revolved around Saul Dubinsky, a sensitive, dedicated psychiatrist who turns to drugs after the suicide of a patient. Gornick recently chatted with fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the ways in which the fields of literature and psychotherapy feed each other, the Jewish experience filtered through the lenses of Morocco and Peru, and the redemptive power of fire.
YZM: You are a novelist with training and degrees in clinical psychology and psychoanalysis; can you talk about how fiction writing and psychology come together (if they do) in your work?
LG: Last summer, I stayed at a bed and breakfast in Maine. Next to the main house was an enormous old barn that stretched towards the back of the property like a railroad car. It was sealed tight as a drum, but my antennae went up: inside that barn was a story. My husband watched me reading the literature about the property (the house had once been the home of the Woolworth brothers who’d raised prize harness race horses and entertained the likes of Clark Gable), examining the photographs in the album left out in the breakfast room, striking up a conversation with the current owner, and, of course, ultimately asking if he would open the barn doors for me. “She’s a writer,” he apologized to the owner. “She’s very nosy.”
Although handled with more tact and in the service of healing, nosy equally describes the psychoanalyst, also always on the alert for the moments when emotions peek out from the crevice between words and their cadence, for the pulse points in a patient’s stream of words, for the places where a gentle inquiry, perhaps just the repetition of the patient’s words, will open a door. In an essay “Analyzing and Novelizing,” I gave the much altered example of a remote scientist who, after many months of treatment, used the phrase, “When we lived in Old Millbrook,” and how it was my writerly ear that sensed the tragic story behind these seven syllables.
Freud, whose early immersion in literature and writing suggests he might with a different turn of events have become a novelist himself, was deeply ambivalent about creative writers, a subject I’ve written about in an essay “Freud and the Creative Writer.” On the one hand, he credited creative writers with having already discovered everything analysts would learn in their consultation rooms. On the other hand, he viewed creative writers as on the verge of psychosis. Putting aside these idealizing and devaluing extremes, analysts and creative writers clearly share many tools — free association, attentiveness to language, dreams. Most centrally, both work with narratives, how they are constructed and unfold, an initial tale often hiding a more complicated and taboo story yet to be told.
YZM: Myra, the protagonist, is a psychotherapist; how did you draw on your own professional experience to create hers?
LG: I feel very lucky to have trained as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst and to have had the great privilege during the many years when I treated patients to participate in their daring to let go of the ways we all hold ourselves back. It is hard, painful but sacred work for both patient and therapist. As a novelist, our characters usually have a job or profession. I often write about psychotherapists both because it is fascinating work, but also because I know it in my bones. It lets me avoid what I hate as a reader–the sense that a character’s work is tacked on rather than part of them. One of the aspects I admire in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is that we come to understand through the narrator not only what a butler does but how it has utterly shaped his way of seeing the world, his personality — even his gait.
YZM: In Tinderbox, there are Jewish characters from both Morocco and Peru. What drew you to these places?
LG: Although I was raised in an entirely secular way – my grandparents were Communist “fellow travelers,” not synagogue members—I have long been fascinated by the diaspora: both as a story and from a philosophical point of view. In 2000, I visited Morocco and the skeletal Jewish communities in Marrakesh, Fez, and Essaouira.
Essaouira, where part of Tinderbox takes place, is particularly fascinating because in the 19th century, 40 to 50 percent of the population of the city were Jews. For the most part, Muslims and Jews lived peaceably side by side, as they had 400 years before in Cordoba and other parts of Andalucía when the enlightened Moorish rulers had promoted a spirit of “convivienda” between Jews, Christians and Muslims. In the context of contemporary ethnic and tribally based bloodshed, it is eye-opening to realize that there have been earlier more tolerant societies: that time passing does not automatically equate with progress towards a more benign politic.
In 2003, just as I was beginning work on Tinderbox, there was an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art of the photographs of Frédéric Brenner. Brenner spent a quarter of a century traveling to far-flung Jewish communities in forty countries, places I’d never known had Jewish communities: India, Japan, China. Seeing these photographs prompted me to think about the happenstance by which my grandparents, three of whom had emigrated from what is now the Ukraine to this country, had landed in the United States rather than in Argentina, as had my paternal grandmother’s older brothers, or in Peru, as had my paternal grandfather’s younger sister. This awareness — the sense that my grandparents might have as easily become citizens of a South American country or Canada or South Africa or Australia or any of the numerous other places to which their landzman immigrated — colored my feeling about being an American and my curiosity about Jews in other parts of the world.
YZM: The character of Eva, the nanny from Peru, is complex, mysterious and ultimately, frightening; what inspired you to create her?
LG: Many years ago, I heard the story of a young woman who worked as a nanny and housekeeper for a loving family. Witnessing the parents’ care of their child unleashed in this young woman ravenous longings for a mothering she’d never had herself. She completely unraveled, creating a Gordian knot for the family as they simultaneously attempted to help her and began to fear her. From Werner Herzog’s magnificent movie Fitzcarraldo, I was fascinated with the Amazonian city of Iquitos, Peru, a landlocked city deep in the jungle that was a boomtown during the late nineteenth century rubber trade. In the transformation from history to fiction, the young woman whose story I’d heard became Eva and she came to hail from Iquitos.
YZM: Most of the central characters are Jewish, yet each has a different understanding of what that means. Can you elaborate?
LG: Myra is more shaped by the scars of the immigrant Jewish experience of her father than by Jewish practices. At the age of 14, her father left the Ukraine, never to see any of his family again save for Misha, his debilitated and exploitative sister who became his ward. Having made his way through the years of the first world war by driving an ice truck while he studied bookkeeping at night, he landed a job as the comptroller for a kosher meat-processing plant. When Misha died, “Myra’s father appeared so desiccated that the rabbi called in for the service thought he was Misha’s father. Once he learned the truth, a light bulb had gone off for the rabbi: a match for his equally dour thirty-six-year-old spinster sister.” Myra, their sole offspring, grew up in a cold and loveless home. Her primary experience of Jewish practice was the stomach pains she suffered each year on Yom Kippur, which she guiltily survived by stashing licorice under her mattress. Spiritual questions play a large part in the monograph Myra is writing titled “The Teleology of Love,” but having been raised without a Jewish education, her one attempt to join a synagogue leaves her feeling embarrassed, “sadly aware that it was too late for her not to experience the rituals as false, or, worse, silly.”
Larry, Myra’s ex-husband and the father of her two grown children, came from a wealthy German-Jewish family. Like Myra, he also had an uncle who was a rabbi, but his own father, Max, was a successful entertainment lawyer who counted Zero Mostel and Doris Day among his clients. Larry’s parents attended synagogue on the High Holidays and celebrated the other major Jewish holidays, and his mother was involved with the local B’nai B’rith. The main spiritual influence on Larry, however, was his father’s mystical transformation in the spring of 1952 when the family visited a client of Max’s, who lived in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and Max, “a man who until that moment had been an unadvertised atheist, felt for the first time that he had seen God–seen that the duty of mankind is to honor nature and to live in harmony with the earth and all her creatures.”
Rachida, Myra’s dermatologist daughter-in-law, is from Essaouira. Her mother is megosharim, i.e., with a family lineage that dates to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain; she considers herself of superior cultural lineage than her husband, whose family are Berber toshavim, i.e., dating from the original diaspora of Jews in ancient times. Rachida left Essaouira to escape its ravaged Jewish community, most of which has emigrated to Israel and North America, and what she experiences to be the oppressive expectations of her religious father, who she accuses of valuing her only for her capacity to produce Jewish offspring.
Eva, by contrast, has come to New York from Iquitos as part of her attempt to claim a Jewish identity. Her mother is a fourth-generation descendant of one of the Moroccan-Jewish rubber traders, many of them young graduates of the Alliance Israelite Universelle schools set up by French Jewish philanthropists to help westernize Moroccan Jews, who came to the Amazon in the late nineteenth century due to the dire economic straits of their families. When the South American rubber boom went bust shortly before World War I, most of the Moroccan-Jewish men returned to Fez or Rabat or Tangier, leaving behind the offspring they’d had with local Indian women whom they’d taken as common-law wives. In the 1990’s, many of these descendants, educated for the most part in Catholic schools and with virtually no understanding of Jewish practices, began to seek Jewish education with the hope of ultimately immigrating to Israel.
YZM: I love the use of fire in the novel as both negative and positive symbol; can you say more about this?
LG: I was in Montana and Idaho during the wildfires of the summer of 2000, and saw the peaks of the Crazy Mountains shrouded in smoke, the flames leaping across the interstate, animals fleeing to take refuge in the Salmon River. A New York City resident, I’d never known that forest fires, usually caused by lightning strikes, are part of the natural cycle of forest regeneration: fires enrich the soil and clear the underbrush of the easily ignitable tinder which in sufficient quantity can lead to larger trees burning. The Smokey Bear policy, well-intended as it was, increased fire risk by creating excess underbrush so what might have been small fires that would have naturally extinguished were transformed into the out-of-control conflagrations we’ve experienced over the past twenty years. I was deeply moved by this paradox–that we need smaller fires to prevent larger ones–and by this example of the tragedy of good intentions, a dynamic we’ve all experienced when attempts to spare someone from small pains only enlarge the risk of larger pain. Tinderbox opens with precisely this situation: a mother who says a yes to her grown son that she knows should be a no.
YZM: You are working on a collection of linked stories; tell us about them.
LG: The collection, Louisa Meets Bear, takes its title from the longest story, actually a novella, and spans fifty years in the lives of a set of interconnected characters. It opens in 1961 with a story that centers on a freak occurrence experienced by a social work student in East Harlem, and the reverberations in her own family, particularly on her daughter, Lizzy, who gets pregnant the first time she has sex. We turn then to the novella, which is about Lizzy’s cousin Louisa. Louisa has been raised in San Francisco under the lax supervision of her scientist father, who works on “the chemical directions on how to build a person,” and her boy-crazed babysitter, Corrine, who is now Louisa’s best friend and on the verge of becoming a cocaine abuser. When Louisa meets Bear, a working class boy from Cincinnati who has landed via an athletic scholarship at Princeton, she tells Corrine that he has something chugging in him that they both lack: purpose. The eight stories that make up the rest of the collection move forward from Louisa and Bear’s tangled affair to their early fifties, alighting on people they both touch: the evasive man with whom Louisa betrays Bear; the women who both men — the betrayed and the betrayer — go on to marry; Bear’s sister and her life with an ice hockey player who becomes a disabled fisherman; Corrine who has a child with a man she suspects is a drug dealer; the daughter Lizzy gives up for adoption; and ultimately–well, I’ll leave you to discover this yourself.