Summer Diary: Father’s Day

Today I found myself purging the files from the research I did for What They Saved. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, but today I felt I absolutely had to. Only when I had jettisoned fifty pounds of paper, did I realize that today was the 25th anniversary of my father’s funeral. He died on Bloomsday in 1989 and was buried on Father’s Day.

Among the folders filled with the research I had done for the memoir, my quest to uncover the history of his side of the family, was a cache of quotations, handwritten, typed, and glued from newspaper clippings, mostly on index 3X5 cards, that he had saved, and that I then saved, too.


For the longest time I could not figure out what purpose these cards had served for him. Were they quotations for his law briefs? Presumably those from Oliver Wendell Holmes were. Interesting vocabulary: Serendipity “created by Horace Walpole circa 1754 after he had read a nice fairy tale called “Three Princes of Serendip.” Sentiments that caught his fancy? Finally, I saw that quite a few of the cards were dated from 1946 and 1947, when my father had returned to finish his B.A. at City College. He had been practicing as a lawyer for over a decade, as one could do in those days, minus the B.A. But clearly he wanted the degree, and studied for it successfully so that he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa (he saved the clipping from that honor, too).

If the index cards helped him study for exams, the wisdom they distilled seemed to carry him through life, since they all express the kind of positive, self-help thinking he always tried to convince me would make me a less miserable person (they did not succeed, but he never stopped trying).

From How Never to Be Tired (1944): “Mental work cannot cause fatigue.” From A College Text Book of Hygiene. “The prevention of worry reduces itself, first to realizing that at its base is fear of failure or disaster…”

What can I say? I was a slow learner.

There’s a black and white snapshot of my father sitting at a card table on the rooftop of the building my parents lived in, with what looks like paper work spread out in front of him. The snapshot is not dated. But because it was included with the packet of index cards, I’m guessing that my father had gone to the roof to study–he loved the sun–and get away from his wife and daughters. He looks very happy.

I miss him, bromides and all.


As a New Yorker born and bred, I feel entitled to kvetch, and I may have never kvetched more than in dealing with the fate of my Paris memoir. But for once I have something to kvell about: Breathless now exists as an Audible book! (Imagine a smiling emoticon here.)

I’m happy about this venture into the land of book listeners. I’m also happy about part of its backstory.

By the time we entered into negotiations, I knew from a novelist friend that Audible was not always flexible about the selection of the narrator. Nonetheless, I started doing some online research to see―oops, to listen to―the various voices available so that I’d be ready with my own preference, even if my taste didn’t ultimately prevail over what the production team wanted.


Many of the books in the memoir section were self-help books: how I overcame my anorexia and other personal challenges. Those books were self-narrated. For the overcoming of suffering to sound convincing an autobiographical performance seemed appropriate.

It was hard to find a first-person nonfiction book that was not of the self-help bent read by a woman. But I finally found what to me felt the perfect choice: the narrator of Orange is the New Black, Cassandra Campbell. In the first few minutes of the sample it became clear that Ms. Campbell had two qualities that mattered to me: a sense of irony and the ability to pronounce French words.

At first Audible was reluctant to commit to my choice, and I feared that they might impose a voice that felt wrong to me. Like a good New Yorker, I prepared to argue my case. But before the choice of narrator blossomed into conflict, the conflict evaporated. Not only did the team agree with my choice of Cassandra Campbell, I received lovely email message from the Director of Business Affairs. “As a side note,” he wrote, “in learning about you and Breathless, I read up a little on What They Saved. I watched an interview you did on TV and so much of your story reminded me of my family and some digging my brother did into our family tree.” In closing, my correspondent apologizes for sharing all the autobiographical (and quite interesting) details of his family history, and concludes by saying, “I just had to share.”

And I just had to share his share. There was to me something incredibly delightful about having made this kind of warm connection in the process of doing business. Almost everything I’ve had to do in order to bring about some favorable attention for my two recent memoirs has been draining or shaming. I could not believe my good fortune in the interactions I had with Audible. My pleasure was not purely about getting the contract. What made me smile, was the writer’s sharing of his story, further proof, it proof were needed, about why memoir is a relational genre (my academic hat).

A friend recently asked me whether I wouldn’t have preferred to narrate the book myself. Audible did not offer me that choice and I was glad. Creating the voiceover for the book trailer showed me the limits of my acting skills; nor did I love hearing my New York accent through my written prose.

Now I’m watching Orange is the New Black, the hugely successful memoir made into an equally successful television series. I can’t say that I identify with the heroine, even if we in some way share a voice. But I am thrilled to share our narrator. I love hearing her voice tell my story.

I’m all ears.


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.


“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.


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.




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

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 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.


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,, 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.

Jewish Book Week

I’m just back from Jewish Book Week in London,  a city I now love the way I loved Paris when I first lived there—that feeling of everything to discover, that naïve and dopey conviction that everything is so much more wonderful there, especially everything old and literary.


The streets are dotted with blue plaques (850 of them) on the walls of buildings, indicating the years of residence of famous writers and artists, and otherwise famous people.


Here’s one for Ezra Pound I happened to stumble on my first morning walk. The blue plaque that generates countless pilgrimages—mine on another occasion—is the one affixed to Sylvia Plath’s house.


Even the generic Whole Foods displays look more interesting in London, with local blue eggs on offer.

English friends, less amused, complained about the mountains of fruit piled up at the entrance to the store. “So much waste!”

Jewish Book Week was all what I hoped it would be— a literary festival, literary but not in an academic mode, and not only about books. Located in a new venue at Kings Place, the event included many foreign participants, some young and just becoming known, others quite famous. My panel, moderated by journalist Henrietta Foster, had me paired with Orlando Figes, a well-known Russian historian.  I suspected (correctly) that everyone in the Sunday morning audience (except for a few friends of mine who were kind enough to attend) had come for him, but I managed to survive as an underdog. At the book signing, several people told me they had family stories similar to those in What They Saved, and I was thrilled, as I always am when that connection is made. I love sharing a generational history.


The day after the festival, I crossed the bridge to the South bank and was delighted to see the announcement for another exciting festival under a rather different sign: “Women of the World Festival,” with a roster of fabulous names. It began, alas, the day I was leaving.