Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Author Interview: Erika Dreifus on her short story collection, Quiet Americans

Sometimes, a particular writer friend comes along at a perfect time, and through that friendship, that writer seems to "answer" for us questions we didn't even know to ask. Thus it was with Erika Dreifus, with whom I first connected through her excellent blog. Since then, we've stayed in touch, met up at writer conferences, shared meals, and she even showed up at my first poetry reading (now that, believe me, is a true writer friend!). I am completely thrilled her debut short story collection, Quiet Americans, has just been published. I'm not in the habit of praising a friend's book simply because it's a friend's book; with that in mind, let me simply say I loved every single story, paragraph, sentence, phrase and word.

Lisa Romeo: We all know the old advice: Write what you know. And its corollary: Write what you DON'T know about what you know. In this collection, I get a sense of you maybe starting from what you know (family stories and history), and then exploring what you wish you knew, what you suspect you might know but really don't know, and even what you want to know but perhaps might prefer not to know. Does any of that make sense to you as you look back over your motivations and inspirations for the collection?

Erika Dreifus: First, Lisa, thank you so much for conducting this interview. I am a longtime fan of Lisa Romeo Writes (and Lisa Romeo, Writer), so this is a true privilege for me.

Yes, your comments make quite a lot of sense! In many of these stories, I began with something that I knew, but built a story based on what no one had spoken about, or what I'd been left wondering. For example, I've written elsewhere about the kernel of truth that inspired the opening story, "For Services Rendered": a factoid recounted by my paternal grandmother about a German-Jewish refugee pediatrician she met here in the United States. "For Services Rendered" was definitely motivated by my ruminating over the backstory, which I didn't know, and which, by the time I began drafting the piece during my last semester in my MFA program, I could no longer discuss with my grandmother, as she had passed away a year earlier.

LR: As a Christian and an Italian-American, I have no experience hearing Jewish family stories about atrocities of World War II. As I read these stories, however, I found that while the specific context is of course paramount to their meaning, the larger issues -- of human compassion, justice and the delicate nature of family history – were extremely universal. Was that a consideration for you when writing, to be sure the shared human themes were clear?

ED: I think that many of the motivating questions—the things, to borrow your phrasing above, that I wished I knew, or that I suspected I might know but didn't really know—are, in fact, universal. At their core, they are questions about why an individual makes the choices s/he does, and how one's actions can radiate out and affect others in unexpected ways. I'm not certain that these were conscious considerations for me while I was writing, but I'm very glad to have discovered them in the end.

LR: I keep wanting to say this book is such a "great read," but that sounds almost too close to saying it was "entertaining," which I was afraid sounded belittling. But as a reader, it was so engaging, in a literary sense – I did not want to stop reading at the end of each story – and yet I wondered if it was okay for me to be deriving "entertainment" value from a book about such important (and harrowing) issues. Does that make any sense to you?

ED: Well, thank you, Lisa. And yes, I think that I can understand what you’re saying here. I’m encountering some similar feelings, for instance, as I am signing books. Somehow, I shrink from inscribing anything such as “Hope you enjoy the read! J”

But I'm certainly not the first person to write about harrowing issues. To the extent that as writers, we learn about craft from reading, I have learned from others’ examples. The writer has to be careful: You don’t want to drive the reader away.

A current example from the film world comes to mind: Right now, I’m avoiding “Black Swan,” because I just don’t think that I can tolerate watching it. Your response to my book—appreciating the intensity but also being able to remain immersed—is, to me, far more preferable (although it appears that “Black Swan” is doing just fine without me!).

LR: As someone who suffered two serious bouts of postpartum depression, I was gripped by the story, "Matrilineal Descent," in which a character in the 1910s suffers from the condition, and its long-reaching effects on her descendents. I also especially loved the directness you attained by the partial second-person point-of-view. The story seemed to be not so much about PPD itself, but about the absence of it from the cultural conversation. What got you interested in that theme for a story? And how did you arrive at the double POVs?

ED: Here we return to the matters of source material and motivating questions. Like the situation of European Jews under Nazism, but on a much quieter and more private scale, postpartum depression is also a significant part of my family history and inheritance. In its own way, it left me with as many questions and anxieties as the more public history did.

This specific story grew out of emotions and questions attached to my paternal grandfather's life and, more specifically, the circumstances surrounding the death of his biological mother (my great-grandmother) the summer after he was born. There's been postpartum depression on both sides of my family tree, and I've thought about changes in awareness and treatment over time, and how all of that has played out across the generations. So I think that your point about the story's emphasis on a certain phase in that history—a time when both awareness and treatments were rudimentary at best—is right on.

As for the POVs: that's something I'm not certain I can answer. Again, there were things I knew, or was able to discover, and there were things that remained far more elusive to grasp or write about. In some way, I think I needed the additional POV as a way to help me mediate the distance between those two realms.

LR: Many characters, and/or their descendents, appear in several stories, and in places the collection feels like a segmented novel. Yet other stories are completely independent (or did I miss something?). When you were writing, were you intentionally linking the stories, or did you find that certain characters simply kept showing up (or wouldn't leave you alone)? And later, when you were assembling the stories for this collection, how did their inter-relatedness influence which ones you chose and where each would occur in the book physically?

ED: You're quite right, and you didn’t miss anything!

Several of the stories—but not all of them—are linked by characters and family ties. And I've written other stories featuring members of this extended family, many of which have been published in journals and magazines but are not included in Quiet Americans. Somehow, a collection comprising only stories about these characters didn't really come together.

Initially, I was a little squeamish about including only some linked stories. But I gained some confidence when I read Yes, Yes, Cherries, a wonderful collection by Mary Otis (Tin House Books, 2007), in which some, but not all of the stories feature the same protagonist over time.

As for the assembly process: Looking back, I've realized that two literary agents who expressed strong and sustained interest in earlier iterations of the collection were instrumental in helping me select and order the pieces that have gone into the final book. For that, I am extremely grateful.

There's a chronological thread, too, and perhaps it's the academically-trained historian in me that was pulled to this structure. More specifically: The first three stories are set before or during World War II, and the last three stories take place in the first several years of 21st century. The middle story—the fourth of the seven—is pretty much set at a midpoint, in 1972.

LR: Related to that, when writing, do you use any kind of physical or electronic document, family tree, or other device, to keep relationships, time periods and other elements clear and correct?

ED: This is a terrific question, but I have to say that no, I don't use those devices. Which means that I'm especially glad that my publisher/editor caught an inconsistency or two as we progressed toward publication!

LR: The second person POV again, in the story "The Quiet American, or How to Be a Good Guest," for me at least, seems to suggest a bridge (a blurring?) between fiction and nonfiction. While I understand that fiction is only in part reliant on the author's live, that story especially struck me as one that may have had roots in a personal experience. Care to comment?

ED: Yes, there are definite autobiographical components in that story. For example, like the narrator, I did visit Stuttgart in the summer of 2004. I, too, have a terrible sense of direction. And I did, indeed, sign up for a bus tour of the city.

But other elements of that story are entirely invented, and one major thread is borrowed (a much nicer word that "stolen," don't you think?) and adapted from a travel experience in Germany that a dear friend shared with me over a meal a shortly after my trip. This is part of what is so alluring to me about fiction-writing: the opportunity to combine fragments of personal experience, research, what we learn from others, and what we imagine, and create something new and whole in its own right.

LR: I loved the final story, "Mishpocha," in which a man learns he not be quite who he thinks he is; it seemed to tie together threads you explore in the stories that come before. It feels current, since he traces ancestry online, but it's timeless too, the idea of searching for truths we may not eventually want to confront; and you weave it so beautifully into a larger family story. When I read a story like that, I often wonder about the initial drafts and the writer's intentions in the early stages, whether the writer always intended to have these two parallel narratives in the same story, or if that emerged during the process of drafting two separate ideas?

ED: Well, here's a variation on the recipe I just mentioned: Take a discovery, add some research and a dash of personal experience, and mix thoroughly with imagination.
I definitely had more than one idea from the start, but it took awhile for the strands to sort themselves out. First, I'd been captivated by a newspaper story that ran in the Boston Globe during the summer of 2006, about a man who had pursued his family history and genealogy for decades avocationally. He took immense pride in his family heritage, and was stunned to learn around age 70—his mother was in her nineties when she revealed the information—that he'd been adopted. (Jewishness, by the way, was not a part of this particular story.) I clipped the story and put it aside.

About a month after that article appeared, I attended a Jewish genealogy conference for the first time, and that's where I discovered the advances in DNA technology that are referenced in "Mishpocha." In one session, a panelist recounted a true story about someone who learned through this technology that the man he'd considered to be his father was not, in fact, his biological parent. And I just sat there in the audience thinking: That is a story.

So those elements emerged not quite, but almost, simultaneously. And at some point shortly thereafter, as I processed other aspects of the genealogy conference and considered, yet again, the impact of Nazism and the Holocaust on successive generations, the story came together.

LR: As someone who is being published for the first time in book form, did your perception of yourself as a writer shifted at all during the post-acceptance and pre-publication process? Do you now have different writing goals and thoughts about what's possible for your writing future, than before you were able to claim the title, "author"?

ED: It would be great to nod and smile and answer confidently and affirmatively here, but the truth is that I still don't quite know what to expect or hope for from this book's publication. Last Light Studio approached me quite unexpectedly, at a time when I'd long since accepted (and, to a considerable extent, come to appreciate) the ways in which my writing life had turned out to be quite different from what I had envisioned back as a beginning MFA student. So I'm taking a wait-and-see approach here. Time will tell.

Note from Lisa: A free signed copy of Quiet Americans will go to one person chosen from those who leave comments to this post by midnight, Feb. 8 (must have U.S. postal address). Erika is donating a portion of her proceeds from the sale of Quiet Americans to The Blue Card, which supports survivors of Nazi persecution and their families in the United States.


Laura said...

Thank you Lisa, you have successfully whet my appetite, I want to read the book now!

kario said...

I love story collections and I especially appreciate them when I have some first-hand knowledge of what the author is like. Thanks so much for the interview, both of you. Can't wait to get this book!

Lanham True said...

"...[T]o combine fragments...and create something new and whole in its own right...." Love this. Thank you.

Erika Dreifus said...

Thank you so much, Lisa, for the generous introduction and wonderful questions. (And thanks to the commenters, too!)

Alyssa C. said...

I love Erika's blog and this was a great interview with her. Thanks for sharing!

Sarah said...

Great interview! I'd love to read this book.

Anonymous said...

I've been following Erika's blog tour. This strikes me as an especially thoughtful interview - on both sides. Many thanks for the interview and for the chance to win a copy of what sounds like a fabulous book. Colleen

Lisa Romeo said...

Colleen (threecreditsatatime), you are the winner of the book!
Congrats and thanks for reading & commenting here. I've sent you an email to arrange shipment.