YZM: Did you bring anything from your legal training to your writing?
ST: Law is a language, and became part of a love affair with words that began when I was a child. First, I spoke Yiddish, then English, then Hebrew. Jurisprudence gave me another vocabulary, with a flavor of its own. And the rigors of law school gave me the habit of working, head down, at a clip.
YZM: Tell us about the genesis of your first book, Mothering Heights.
ST: Becoming a mother was monumental for me. Despite having had several romances, and two marriages, I had been raised primarily as a brain with legs and arms. A daddy’s girl, I was old-style ambitious, attacking the world with my neurons and grit. With parenthood, I began to feel a soaring love that had nothing to do with achievement. At the same time, experts (with the help of the media) seemed to be turning mothers into students, neophytes who had to be taught how to raise brilliant, fit, multi-faceted kids—or else. Just as women in the past had been told to be great housewives, then ageless lovers, they were now essentially ordered to raised superkids—which was done by broadcasting Mozart or Mandarin tapes to the womb, “enriching” toddlerhood with athletics, and the like. Not only was there a right way to do everything, but it had to be done now, or your imperfect child would shame you.
Nor did the “experts” agree on the road to this perfection. For every one that said you should let the child cry itself asleep, for example, there was another urging mothers to lull the child gently, all night if necessary – or risk a lifetime of anxiety (on both parts). Mothering Heights was both a polemic against mothers feeling pushed and harried, and my own story of unfolding delight as I sought my own way with my child.
YZM: Can we hear more about your father’s experience during the war? His story seems extraordinary.
My father’s own father had been killed by the Cossacks when he was three. By 13, as I mentioned, he had to go to work, and decided to apprentice as a watchmaker. This portable skill saved his life. As a lawyer, for example, he’d have been useless to the Third Reich, but they did need a man who could make time move accurately. He could. While he was in Dachau, he enabled other prisoners to come under the roof of his watchmaker workshop—teaching them to “act” as though they were repairing timepieces. In this way, my father saved many lives—and I think saving these other men saved him, too. There is also a story about how my father refused bread on Passover, leading to a guard getting his wife to bake matzoh for him and his fellow workers. Every Passover I think of my father and his German counterpart.
YZM: Your memoir is titled The Watchmaker’s Daughter, yet it is as much—if not more—about your mother.
The book explores my complicated relationship with my mother, who—despite her concert-level training—was subservient to my charismatic father. She had gone to the ghetto and concentration camps much younger than he, and when they married, fell into a traditional female role as helper. My father trained his ambitions on me. My academic talents thrilled him—but his attentions made my mother jealous. After becoming a mother myself, I began to value the purity of her service, her modesty. Shortly after my father died, I remember my mother asking me to help her apply for a class on “Women’s Studies.” “I want to be smart like you,” she said humbly. I told her, “Oh, Mommy—you don’t need to take that class. You could teach it.” I was not just the watchmaker’s daughter; I was hers.
YZM: In the King’s Arms, your first novel, is largely autobiographical and deals with some of the same material as your memoir. What did these two different formats allow you to achieve?
ST: I like to say that writing memoir is working with marble, and writing novels like molding clay. A memoir conforms to existing facts, from which choices are made. You chip away at all that is unnecessary, and the core of truth remains. Speaking of his “Slave” sculptures, Michelangelo famously said that he simply removed the parts that were not needed, thus “freeing” the art. With a novel, you’re free to mold and shape in the material any way you want. So in writing In the King’s Arms, I could freely play with the “real” story of my love affair with a non-Jew at Oxford. The result is far hotter, wilder, and more fraught with drama than the original story that I lived.
YZM: You’ve also written several plays; what drew you to that form?
ST: I love the intimately psychological parts of novels, the core interplay of needs and wants. I focus on that more—even in my prose—than on the setting, the lay of the land. I love intense close-ups. Essential speech that changes worlds. And that is what plays provide. It’s also fun to have actors give life to your words. At best, it’s exponentially better than the page itself–your dreams come alive in a way that is thrilling. The collaborations of theatre make chemical changes, public ones that reading alone cannot provide.
YZM: Your soon-to-be-released novel, Down Under, has a character based loosely on Mel Gibson. What made you choose him?
He may have chosen me. For a few years, he shot movies on my street–both “Conspiracy Theory” and “Ransom.” I had already thought he was wonderful–as did the rest of the world. Imagine the sizzle of seeing Mel stroll by the MealMart on West 79th Street, slipping into this trailer!
But, as we know, eventually this world-class icon went off the rails a bit. When he began spouting anti-Semitic cliches, my own background as the child of survivors was triggered. I wondered, as I’d done before, what makes people hate like that? And how could my local hero feel that way? In researching Mel’s childhood and adolescence, both of which took place in New York State, I began to create a plausible story of how he was wounded, and warped, as a child. I added a Romeo and Juliet/ Jew and non-Jew slant to the fictionalization.
The boy based on Mel falls in puppy love with a Jewish girl who spurns him. He wants to run away with her, but the plan fails, and he is whisked, instead, to Australia. This romantic disappointment, coupled with his father’s views on Jews, lights a dangerous long fuse. Decades later, a star in decline, he journeys back to find the girl who jilted him. The love of his youth, now a woman in middle-aged married torpor, meets him more than halfway. Will they reconcile? Will fireworks ensue—or a conflagration? A little bit of both is all I’ll say.