Cancer Gadfly: My Envyometer

There’s lots of writing about cancer―memoirs, graphic and prose, blogs, narratological and anthropological studies, science reporting. Most of the writing is bad, by which I mean overly cheerful about outcomes, dull and cliché-ridden (my pet peeves), but in some cases my envyometer starts going wild: Oh this is so good (true to my experience, dark and savage), I wish I had written it myself.

In the category of recent fabulous cancer writers and cartoonists: Miriam Engelberg, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person; Susan Gubar, Memoir of a De-bulked Woman (and her columns in the New York Times); Lochlann Jain, Malignant; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Dialogue on Love (and her essays and columns in Mamm). There are other superb memoirs but I’m not looking to create a bibliography. These are twenty-first century texts (except for Eve’s in 1999), and cancerography is changing along with the new drugs―in particular, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. Writer Jenny Diski is publishing her memoir now by installment in the London Review of Books.

waiting roomEDITsmallNaturally, some things about the illness don’t change. One of them is the waiting room. My friend Jay Prosser, living in England, sends me clippings of Diski’s memoir as it appears. I don’t have a subscription to the LRB, and so I’m dependent on Jay’s excellent clipping service. The memoir seems mainly focused on Diski’s cancer―very much like mine, late-stage lung―and her grouchy persona inspires me to increased bitterness. Unfortunately, even with comparable staging, so many variations within a given cancer exist that it’s rare to find someone having exactly the same treatment. Diski, for example, has undergone radiation and I haven’t (yet). Still, I recognize myself in her weariness and fatigue, impatience with being a patient.

Sometimes the most dispiriting aspect of cancer treatment is time spent in the oncology waiting room. Diski’s seems more depressing than mine―at hers you have to wait for your number to be called―like the line at the fish counter at Zabar’s (my analogy, not hers). But in key ways, the experience is overwhelmingly similar. Here’s a passage from her February 5, 2005 installment in which Diski describes the setting where she watches for her number.

You began to recognize faces and played the new guessing game: which one has the cancer? It wasn’t always easy to tell. What was clear was the distinction between those of us who were having ‘curative’ radiotherapy and those who weren’t long for the world and were having it to help with pain management. Some of the latter arrived in beds pushed by porters, patients all of them grey of face and still, never looking about them at their surroundings. Others more mobile, came having been delivered by volunteer drivers and sat grimly with various wounds and scars from surgery, breathing heavily, none of them looking around at the other patients waiting. We―the less ill ones―stole glances at these patients, those on their last legs or whose legs no longer held them up. Even the most buoyant and cheery patient in the radiotherapy waiting room must have seen the mirror the bedridden held up for us.

And so the distinction, clear at the start, between those undergoing treatments that in theory will prolong life and those for whom the game is up, finally doesn’t hold. Unless you are very lucky―who knows, you might be―while you are there you can’t escape the prognosis that one day you will be waiting in the place of those beyond hope.

All in the Timing

By the time I was making the final revisions to the Breathless manuscript, I had been diagnosed with  lung cancer―“incurable but treatable,” as today’s oncological discourse codes the situation of late staging. In the final pages of the memoir, where I reflect upon the destinies of the characters important to me in the narrative, I account for the deaths from cancer of my ex-husband as well as that of my Paris roommate. I did not, however, reveal my diagnosis. Despite the truth-telling pact of autobiography that I’ve always held to, despite the fact that I wasn’t sure I’d survive to see the book’s publication, I could not bring myself―as a writer–to end the memoir with that revelation.

Naturally, it was not the only omission in the book―I spared the reader many humiliating episodes of my twenties―but this was different. To end the story on my prospective death would have recast the narrative as cautionary tale, since the girl I was smoked on almost every page. I didn’t want to provoke the moralizing logic that stigmatizes lung cancer patients: you smoked, therefore you got cancer. Invariably, anyone I told of my diagnosis would ask: “Did you smoke?” When I said yes, a horrible silence would ensue during which I imagined my interlocutor’s speech bubble saying with unabashed relief: “I’m so glad I didn’t smoke.” What I heard, spoken or not, was “You brought it on yourself.” But lung cancer, I’ve learned, affects a substantial number of people who never smoked (especially women, and including my mother―no one knows why) and some smokers never develop cancer. Nonetheless, both the current stigma and blame for the former smoker is as pervasive as secondhand smoke, and fundraising for research into the disease suffers from this vision of the disease.

No pink ribbons for us. Lung cancer ribbons are white. It’s difficult, if not impossible to imagine a campaign to “beat lung cancer” with the appeal of “the race for the cure,” not to mention all the pink artifacts you can buy to support research. Of course, it’s easier to picture breasts than lungs, and white isn’t much of a color. Except for the color problem, though, I’m not suggesting that one cancer is “better” or “worse” than another (though some surely are in terms of survival statistics). But the disparity in fund raising remains significant, and lung cancer in women now claims more lives than breast cancer.

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Breast cancer can generate the same sense of blame and shame. Miriam Engelberg, in her bitterly hilarious graphic memoir, Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person, shows the response acquaintances typically give when they realize―from her chemo baldness―that the artist  has cancer. When she explains that she has breast cancer, the interlocutor typically asks: “How awful, did you have a family history?” And Engelberg imagines a cancer-free person reassuring another cancer-free friend: “So don’t worry―you and I are perfectly safe.” Naturally, we all want to know what caused our cancer, even though in many cases the origin remains a mystery: what could I have done? In one panel Engelberg depicts a support group member saying, “and I think I caused this by eating too much cheese.” Engelberg died in 2006 the year her memoir was published.

Now that Breathless is launched, and its survival rate in book land more or less clear, I’ve wanted to come clean. To that end I’ve created a new project on the website, “My Metastatic Life,” and I will post about the experience of living with cancer from time to time. It makes me anxious to expose myself this way, but it’s important to acknowledge the place of cancer in the world, since statistics suggest that a staggering number of people have or will be having cancer, and to realize that cancer patients are not, in that sense, alone.

October was breast cancer awareness month. November is our turn to clamor for attention and support. Look for those white ribbons.

Looking Jewish

I’ve just returned from a lecture trip to South Carolina. Among other things, I gave a talk called “My Memoirs Made Me Jewish,” a paradox I’ve rehearsed here recently. The visit went well, although I was perplexed when during the Q&A a woman in the audience seemed unclear about what exactly I mean by the conceit (note to self: make this crystal clear in the next iteration).

At La Guardia we caught a cab and headed home. I was exhausted from the visit and the early flight so I huddled in the corner, eyes closed, lips sealed, hoping to nod off, while the driver engaged my husband in conversation. In the past twenty years or so, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single Jewish cab driver (as he would prove to be), let alone a driver fluent in English. By this I mean the driver who would immediately start talking the moment you entered the taxi and never stop. He’d be full of opinions and sure he was right on all topics.

But today when the driver, who was from Ukraine, ascertained that my husband had been a professor of literature, and proceeded to engage him on the subject, I knew we had encountered a cultural throwback. The driver held forth on the relative merits of Victor Hugo (whose work he had read at age eleven) and Balzac. And of course War and Peace read in Russian at age twelve. After that our autodidact emigrated to America and reading was replaced by television. Did we remember The Twilight Zone? He was shocked that Sandy (when quizzed) said he had never read Pushkin (though I almost piped up to correct the record: we had seen Eugene Onegin at the opera).

I had also been tempted to ask about Ukraine today, tell him my grandfather had been born there in the nineteenth century, that I had traveled to his country a few years ago on my “roots” journey, but I was afraid to start down that road, even though I had noticed his name on the identification plate, Kirschner, and thought it might be Jewish.

MI0000029004Mercifully, despite the rain and the traffic, the ride finally came to an end in front of our building. As I went to get my bag from the trunk, eager to escape any further attempts at conversation, the driver looked at me and uttered a phrase from Yiddish I hadn’t heard since my father died in 1989: “Zei Gezunt.” I was too stunned to comment.

What had led Mr. Kirschner to bid me stay healthy in Yiddish?

I was forced to conclude that my memoirs had succeeded beyond anything I had dreamt of in “making me” Jewish, as if I didn’t look Jewish already.

Be well!

 

My Memoirs Made Me Jewish

In the year 2000 I received a phone call from a real estate broker who informed me that I had inherited a small plot of land on the outskirts of Jerusalem from my paternal grandparents. The phone call led to years of research and traveling because it opened the door on a family history I knew nothing about. What I found―and didn’t find–ultimately made me want to write a book.

This is the first paragraph of that book: What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past.

When my father died, I became a middle-aged Jewish orphan. It wasn’t that I wasn’t already Jewish, of course, or that I had set out to say Kaddish for him―I had no idea how to do that, even if it had been a daughter’s place. But now that the last keeper of my Jewish past was dead, I began to worry about the future of my Jewish self.

TOOJEWISH

“Triple Silver Yentl (My Elvis)” copyright  Deborah Kass

It was only when I read this passage aloud while giving my first book talk that I realized I had used the adjective “Jewish” four times in three sentences. I had reread and rewritten the paragraph many, many times in the editorial process, and never noticed. And what could be more important in a book than an opening paragraph? But it was too late. I was Jewish in print. Repeatedly.
Thinking about the paragraph now in retrospect, I would say that my unconscious was telling my writing self that I was anxious about whether I was Jewish ENOUGH to justify the book’s subtitle– “pieces of a Jewish past.” True, I had grown up immersed in Upper West Side New York Jewish bagels and lox culture, and I had archival proof of my origins, but my Jewish self and my writing self belonged, I had always thought, to separate domains. What They Saved made me understand how they were joined.

I composed Breathless: An American Girl in Paris a decade before publishing What They Saved, and when I returned to that story almost immediately after the “Jewish” book I saw for the first time that the “American Girl” who went to Paris, was not simply an American girl, à la Jean Seberg. The girl whose adventures I had narrated was, as we used to say, “a nice Jewish girl,” and what she wanted to leave behind in New York was the Marjorie Morningstar fate that had become shorthand for an entire generation of girls. The memoir could well have been called: A Nice Jewish Girl in Paris, but the publishers thought that was, well, “too Jewish,” too niche.

NKMLN

Birthday card from Lorie Novak, with self-portrait by author.

What’s not Jewish enough and what’s too Jewish? I learned from What They Saved and then Breathless that I could only solve the Goldilocks problem–the “just right” of Jewishness–through writing itself, in other words by not solving it at all.

 

 

Dream Reader, Nightmare Reviewer

This weekend brought two radically different responses to my new memoir that caused joy and despair, the alternation of outcomes my friend Carolyn used to refer to as the “swings and the roundabouts”―what you lose on the one (the swings), you gain on the other (the roundabouts). Things balance out in the end. In this case, though, it started with the roundabouts: a friend forwarded an email her twenty-year-old babysitter had sent her from vacation in the Dominican Republic, along with a selfie. I could not help smiling and sending it on to my friends.

IMG_8655The message read: “A pina colada and a cigarette in one hand, Nancy’s book in the other, with Spaniards and Frenchmen surrounding me. It’s actually a great vacation read.”

This image of my book lying on the thighs of a young woman I do not know, clearly enjoying herself on the beach, gave me a terrific kick. No other way to put it. While it’s true that the Press had labeled the book “travel/memoir” on the back cover, I had been skeptical about the category that I associate with guidebooks. The girl’s snapshot put another spin on travel: the book itself had traveled, and also the book could be read on vacation. I loved the beach atmosphere and above all the girl’s confidence radiating from the shot itself. I can’t quite work out how she took the picture, but the angle told the story.

There was also the surprise of seeing my younger self looking out from the book jacket on the lap of this lovely twenty-year old; it made me feel, more than any positive review (though I’ve been very grateful for those), thrilled that I had written a book that could speak to women in their twenties today, not just women of my generation, and that “real people” could read and enjoy. I was, briefly, a happy author.

A few hours later, I received an email from a young friend who had happened to see a review of Breathless in a newspaper I don’t read, but which is a major newspaper. She was excited for me and I was too―though cautiously―because this would have been my first, and probably only, review in national media. She hadn’t read the review but told me it was long.

I know enough by now not to look at reviews that might be negative, and I’ve asked the Press to send all reviews to my publicist and so that she can filter them. I need to know if there’s something bad out there (if other people know, and with Google everybody can, then I should know too), but I have found over the years that the hostile words stick in my brain and so I try to avoid reading bad news as much as possible. This one, alas, did not make it through the screening process. The Press let me down. But it turned out that our neighbors, who were away for the weekend, subscribe to the paper and it was sitting out there on the landing―unread. So my husband tiptoed over to their door and borrowed the paper in order to read the review for me. He stood in the kitchen with his back to me, reading for what seemed like a very long time. I studied his back, hoping for some kind of involuntary movement that would give me a clue as to what the review contained. Finally, he finished and turned to look at me, sadly. I asked him if there was anything good in it, and he said no. But he gave me some of the flavor of the prose, enough for me to recognize this as one of those “mean girl” reviews and one that smelled like the culture wars. He put the paper back on the landing.

One of the dangers of writing in the first-person―as a critic or a memoirist―is that readers may outright hate you, your “I,” your persona. A version of “he’s just not that into you.” But what has always baffled me is why, when a critic picks up an essay or a book and feels a visceral repulsion for the writer, and everything she stands for, why go ahead and review it? It always then gets personal in the most ad feminam way. I remember a reviewer of a book about my family, who wrote: “And she’s not even grateful her parents sent her to Barnard.”

Not surprisingly, the bad review erased all the pleasure the email with selfie attached had given me. And being me―and not my friend―in this situation the roundabouts did not even begin to even out the swings.

It’s too late in my life for me to develop a thicker skin―always the recommendation at this point. So I’ll just have to wait for the bad stuff to exit my system. Like a hangover, it always does.

Where were you when you learned that President Kennedy was shot?

What does a memoirist really remember? Mortifying to confess, I remember where I was when I heard the news of the event in relation to my love life. That was the main event when I was twenty-two.

In November 1963 I was living in Paris, and teaching American English in a ée for girls. The night I heard the news on the radio, I was waiting in my maid’s room for a man I had just started dating to arrive. When he did, we went out to an Irish bar to watch the news on television. I reported the French coverage in a letter to my parents the next day.

handwriting     I hadn’t had time to send my letter when the news of Kennedy’s assassination came over the radio. I was able to follow the reports from the first “flash” to the confirmation of his death. Today the radio has not ceased to talk, speculate, and lament. Even the vegetable sellers are upset and talking about it.
     I myself was completely overwhelmed and I shudder to think of what will happen in the next elections. Please keep all documentation that appears on the subject.

 

I continued a few days later in my girl-reporter mode.

     There was complete (radio, tv, newspaper) coverage here. People were stunned and heartbroken. Everyone seemed to have admired, and more, liked Kennedy, finding him “jeune et sympathique.” We talked about it in my lycée classes, and my kids seemed quite impressed. Different people came and expressed their sympathy and shock to me. Over here the main questions were: how could the protection of a president be so inefficient? And, what was going on in the Dallas police force (i.e. police and Ruby? police and FBI?) I and everyone here were especially disgusted by the violence of the whole thing, and could not understand how such important things could get so out of hand. There still is no explanation and I wonder if there ever will be.

KennedyI had been living in Paris for three years without going home, and working very hard on becoming an expatriate. The fact that I was on the verge of falling in love with an American expatriate made that dream even more irresistible. The man, whom I was to marry two years later, was Irish American. As a nice Jewish girl from Manhattan I knew that an Irish American Catholic from Boston was not what my parents would consider husband material. Even I had my doubts at the beginning. Looking back it now seems to me that the prestige and glamour of Kennedy in France―with his Irish and Boston Irish origins―insidiously made my choice more acceptable, less foreign, in my eyes, at least, if not theirs. Still, in the second letter about the assassination, I introduced them on paper to the person I now call Jim Donovan.

It’s hard, if not impossible for me to separate in memory what I felt about the event from the French fascination with Kennedy (and Jackie) in which I experienced it; it’s even harder for me to sever the connection between my incipient love story, the failure of the marriage to which it led, and the shock of what seemed unthinkable. In my mind, the two tracks of memory are intimately linked.

The replays of the moment on television bring everyone back there, even those by definition too young to remember. The spectacle of the shooting and other now iconic images of the scene, not least Jackie Kennedy’s bloodied pink suit, John John’s salute, and Caroline’s little blue-coated, blonde girl adorableness become instantly familiar, instantly part of collective memory. All of us will connect learning of the event with some aspect of their personal life―hence the “where were you when?” In that sense, my memories are no more significant than belated ones, despite the fact that this happened in my lifetime. That’s how, I think, we remember, where we were when. In more than one way, political memory is always also personal.

COUNTDOWN TO PUBLICATION: Breathless Is Out! Read Chapter One Today. (Please?)

This my fourth and final Countdown to Publication. Wish me luck.

It’s even in two bookstores in Brooklyn. For the first time in my life (as a Manhattanite), I wish I lived in Brooklyn. I’d love to walk by a bookstore window and see my book lined up in the company of other books. A paper object to hold and touch that someone might choose to pick off the shelf and read. This is not the first time for me—the first was Getting Personal way back in the twentieth century—but it’s the first time in the twenty-first, and the thrill is the same.

booksnbooks

After weeks (or is it months?) of platforming–let’s call it what it feels like, masochistic groveling—the book is launched into the great marketplace. Was all the efforting (this is actually a term from yoga!) worth it?  I don’t know, maybe I’ll never know. But I do know I am thrilled that the book can speak for itself at last. I hope you will like what it has to say — and consider buying it, sharing it, and helping me tell the world. And don’t worry, it doesn’t start out slow. Chapter One is short, but there’s sex, there’s Schubert, and of course, there is Paris.

 

COUNTDOWN: “Is it you?”

This is the third installment of my “countdown to publication” for the members of shewrites.com

A few months ago, I showed the book jacket of my forthcoming memoir to a friend. This was a woman about my age, maybe a bit younger, a person and writer I admire but only know slightly. “You were pretty,” she said, with an air of perplexity. What did this mean, exactly, I wondered? That she found it hard to believe that the woman sitting across from her at a café table had ever looked good? If that was really me, my face had undergone a long decline. She must think I look awful, I decided. “Oh well,” I said, “it was a long time ago,” joining her disbelief in a gesture of wounded politesse.
Maybe putting one’s ingénue face on a memoir cover is a dangerous activity, dangerous to one’s vanity, it seems. But who would want to look at my face now, as I look back over my twenty-something life? Certainly not me. Better to run the risk of retrospective narcissism.
There are three photographs of me from my early days in Paris in the book: the cover, that was a street photo of me walking along the quais of the Seine; my passport picture; and another street photo, of me walking on the Boulevard St-Michel with my roommate. To me the pictures are there in order to document my narrative: yes, I lived there, and to me the girl I looked like then is important to the story. I was an American girl—in some ways generic—but I was also that American girl. A French major, a nice Jewish girl from New York, a girl who wanted above all to be happy, although she did not seem to have much of a talent for happiness, but was ready for any adventure.

envelopeThe photographs document a moment, a moment past that certainly was, but if I only had had my snapshot album, I would not have been able to write the memoir. True, the images dated the change of boyfriend, the change of hairdo and hemline, but something crucial was lacking—but, as it turned out, miraculously available to me, something written: a cache of letters that I had sent home from my first day in Paris to my last. In the beginning, the weekly report was my parents’ particular pound of flesh—write a letter or we won’t send you any money (I was always broke). But after a while, the letter production became a habit. It was easier for me to write than to have them send me telegrams asking what was wrong. It was another era, when parents were unwilling to let girls be free and on their own.
Many, many years later, after my parents died, when I emptied the apartment I found the letters in my mother’s underwear drawer. They were bundled in chronological order, and occasionally, my father had included drafts of his letters (mainly of threats and condemnation). The letters were a gold mine of information—and misinformation. I could still remember what I had lied about. But even the letters were not enough. Yes, they gave me names and dates, but was I really in love with my husband to be, little dreaming I was about to marry a con man? “I’m really, really in love,” I wrote.
It’s hard to measure feelings fifty years later, not to mention recapture them.
And yet that is truly the challenge of memoir: to sort and sift through photographs and whatever documents remain, and try somehow to get back there in memory. It’s not only memory, of course. There’s the task of finding the story line that makes sense of each point of remembrance and holds them together in a coherent pattern, a narrative that feels like the truth. Have I found that?
I’m not sure, but I know that I never stopped asking: Was that me?

COUNTDOWN: PLATFORMING

This is the second installment of the “countdown” posts I’m doing for shewrites.com.

In my last post I chronicled the long and winding road I travelled to a contract for my new memoir. I feel incredibly lucky, but, as I’m sure you know, getting a book contract is only part of the publishing picture.

In the same message telling my wonderful agent that my memoir had been accepted, the kindly editor added a kind of warning, or at least a very strong recommendation, despite her enthusiasm for the book: “Nancy will have to work on her platform.” Platform?

I was not completely bewildered by the phrase—translated by the editor as the need for me to develop an “online presence.” I had heard it before. Indeed, I had entered the “platform” world with What They Saved. And shared my struggles with the process of self-promotion (at the heart of the platform) in this very column. I described the injunction to launch news of my work into the vast Internet ether as a sado-masochistic plot. A twisted plot in which I became my own torturer. After all, I was promoting “me.” So why was I complaining? And to whom was I complaining?

DominatrixI learned a lot and even enjoyed my book launch. So this is what  “real” (read: non-academic) writers do. But now that I’m ready for another go-round in  dizzying trade book land, I’m having that sinking feeling again. It’s not enough to write your book, you have to take it to market. It’s time to take out the whip.

At this point in my countdown, I have no idea whether I am successfully platforming, or whether my shameless self-promotion has accomplished what it is meant to do. Has my online self come into existence? Will that make a difference in the book’s fate?

Is platforming even a verb? Maybe not, but hey there’s: Tweeting, Tumblring, blogging, Facebooking, just to name a few of the activities that have been urged upon me and that I’ve done, with a little help from my friendly publicist, who is a fan of Tumblr; ditto for Twitter. (Tweet: Pretend you are sending newspaper clippings to your friends. Remember, like your father used to do?) I comb newspapers and magazines looking for something to comment on. Oh, and there’s Goodreads. (Well, I would be reading anyway, wouldn’t I?) As far as I can tell, Goodreads is a place where my publisher gives away book galleys for free. (A good reader is someone who knows a bargain when she sees one?)

Um, should I participate in something that’s not a real word—tumblr?—to tumblr? (tumble +bumble+blunder?), though tweet probably is one by now, since everybody does it. Am I not contributing to the illiteracy problem in our country? Next I’ll be saying “awesome.” Every week, at the instigation of my web designer, I post a meditation on the diary page of my website, instead of preparing my seminar. My students can just check out my website if they want to know what I’m thinking!

At least I have eschewed LinkedIn (that must have been the inspiration for leaning in, another unfortunate coinage), and a few other web activities that are supposed to be good for one’s profile (platform?)

There’s also the fact, if we think about these words literally, that for a woman of a certain age, by which I mean a woman like me in her seventies, standing on a platform, or showing one’s face in profile, may not really be a selling point. And above all, no “selfies.”

Only time will tell. For now, given my grouchy temperament and my Jewish anxiety genes, a shameful confession: despite immense gratitude that I’m finally publishing my memoir, I can’t help feeling I’d rather be home trying to write another book than out there (is there a there there?) trying to sell one. In the end, it’s less lonely.

COUNTDOWN: The Journey

I’m posting four installments on the amazing website shewrites.com about the imminent publication of my new memoir. The countdown is a regular rubric where members share their experience of that special moment when a book is about to come out. Here’s number 1.

In four weeks, Breathless: An American Girl in Paris will be officially published. So soon, you say, didn’t you publish a book in 2011? Two years ago? What is this, speed writing? Yes and then no.

breathlessBookCover

I’d be thrilled if I were the sort of writer who could produce a new book every two years. Alas, I’m not. The secret to the appearance of my streamlined production is that I began writing the Paris memoir in the late twentieth century―if anyone remembers that far back. For an academic to write a memoir is a guilty pleasure. And so I only felt entitled to devote myself to this project during my sabbaticals. To be sure, sabbaticals are supposed to provide time for research and the preparation of “serious” books. But as luck would have it, my sabbaticals happened to fall right after I had just published an academic book. In that way, my crime remained safely hidden. Not that I wasn’t punished.

I wrote a first draft in the late ’90s; a second in the early aughts; a third and final draft after finishing What They Saved. That modest number does not include many, many rewrites and revisions between drafts. After the second draft I sent the ms. to an agent with fancy credentials who said she “loved” the memoir. Unfortunately her love did not translate into a book contract. The ms. was rejected 35 times over a period of almost three years, a miserable phase during which fell deeper and deeper into despair, hoping, as Gertrude Stein said of her own, that someone would “say yes to the work. Everyone said no, sometimes regretfully, to the tune of a phrase I came to loathe: “not quite marketable.”

The problem with having your memoir turned down is that it becomes impossible―at least this is the case for me―to separate the book from the life. Each rejection of the ms. felt like a rejection of the life I had lived, in a word, of me. I had to reenter therapy and resume anti-depressants to deal with the wounds the refusals inflicted on “me”―the “me” of the memoir, the “me” of the memoir writer. By the end of the therapy, and the 35th or maybe 36th rejection, I concluded that the book should be filed away in a very deep drawer, never to see the light of day.

In order to get over my sense of defeat and disappointment, I turned to a completely different project. I had been doing research on my family history. Thanks to the Internet, ancestry.com, and other archival sources, little by little I pieced together a missing piece of my family story, the origins and immigration of my father’s side of the family. After a while, I started to see a book in the making. I found a new agent for this project who fairly quickly (as if anything ever happens quickly in publishing) found a publisher in University of Nebraska Press.

What They Saved had a nice reception, primarily in the world for which it was written: Jewish readers interested in their family origins. I was quite happy―the book looked great and felt like a new departure―but paradoxically its (moderate) success made me feel worse about the Paris memoir. It pained me to know that the ms. was sitting in a drawer. Maybe its time had come. Maybe with my new agent I could try again.

I steeled myself against rejection. But this time, we proceeded more realistically. No big deal presses, just small independent ones. At the risk of making this sound like a Cinderella story within a few months, a friend who believed in the book and knew an editor at Seal, urged her to look at the memoir. The editor acquired the book for Seal. I was astounded at my good fortune.

Someone finally had said yes.