I’m so, so happy to feature poet, novelist and now, non-fiction author Elizabeth Rosner on the blog this week! Elizabeth and I are literary agency AND publisher sisters – both represented by the wonderful DeFiore & Company in New York, publishing our books with the incredible Counterpoint Press located in Berkeley, CA. Elizabeth is the author of five, count-em five, books — and most recently her first non-fiction/memoir Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory.
Published in 2017, Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory was a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. Elizabeth’s third novel Electric City was named among the best books of 2014 by NPR, and her previous novels Blue Nude and The Speed Of Light were both highly acclaimed national bestsellers, translated into multiple languages. The Speed of Light was shortlisted for the Prix Femina in 2002. Along with writing poetry and essays, Elizabeth is a frequent book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Berkeley.
Elizabeth’s non-fiction book, Survivor Cafe was named among the best books of 2017 by the San Francisco Chronicle — the paperback came out this month. For more about Survivor Cafe – including how you can win a copy! – keep reading.
Check out this week’s guest interview with @elizabethrosner! Follow @DebutanteBall & RT for a chance to win a copy of her non-fiction #book #SurvivorCafe, out this month in paperback from @CounterpointLLC #memoir #writinglife https://t.co/Ab4WZZpruI
— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) September 29, 2018
Talk about one book that made an impact on you.
Asking a writer to choose just one book with impact is a bit like asking a chef for a favorite ingredient, but here goes. Since my most recent work, SURVIVOR CAFÉ, was my first foray into full-length nonfiction, I found A CHORUS OF STONES: The Private Life of War, by Susan Griffin, profoundly inspirational in its content as well as its form. In that ground-breaking book, Susan (who has become both a dear friend and a mentor) showed me it was not only possible to combine personal narrative with scholarly material but that such a “hybrid” method could be the most genuinely meaningful approach to my subject.
Like Susan, I believe that the personal is political and vice versa; writing honestly about the complexities of war and its aftermath demands intimacy alongside intellect, transparency alongside rigor. My friendship with Susan developed during the years I was working on SURVIVOR CAFÉ, and during some of my most challenging periods of self-doubt, she reminded me that I had the right to claim expertise about my own experience. For a book that blends memoir with multi-disciplinary research, I had to be willing to dive vertically into my own life story and also to stretch horizontally into the landscapes of science, history, philosophy, and much more.
Where do you love to be?
I am almost always happiest when I’m near water, whether ocean or lake, river or pond. Even better if it’s swimmable, since my favorite relationship to a body of water is when I can immerse in it. Swimming for me is not only a form of exercise but also a form of moving meditation; in that near-trance state I can often explore ideas and images for a piece of writing, or even dream my way into solutions for life problems. There is something about the gliding and floating motions of my swimmer self that remind me I can relax and trust the elements to hold me. I don’t have to keep trying so hard all the time.
When my breathing is deep and regular, I am both alert and receptive, not just thinking with my brain but with my body too. It’s also true that water helps to mute the sounds of the world, or at least to muffle them. Ocean waves and a rushing river can be so electrifying but also so soothing. Those environments enable me to listen more deeply to the rhythms of my heartbeat and the silences underneath the noise. And I truly believe that my purest writing comes from a source that isn’t even exactly inside of me but somewhere just beyond my consciousness, a place I continually have to practice surrendering to, like gravity.
The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists.
Since SURVIVOR CAFÉ is my fifth published book (after three novels and a poetry collection) I have enough twisty tales to last the length of a decent dinner party at the very least. So let me share, briefly, my most recent journey, which began quite literally as a trip to Germany with my father and my nephew. In April 2015, the three of us traveled to Weimar to participate in a commemoration of the 70thanniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald Concentration Camp, where my father had been imprisoned as a teenager during the Holocaust. At that time, I was still in the midst of promoting my third novel, Electric City, so immediately after returning from Germany I flew to Southern CA for the LA Times Book Festival. While staying at my editor’s place, I started telling him about the surreal days I had experienced in Germany, particularly attempting to describe an event the German hosts had organized and called “Survivor Cafe.” Dan Smetanka (my editor at Counterpoint, formerly my editor at Ballantine Books) interrupted my story to insist that I get out a notebook.
“That’s your next book,” he said. “SURVIVOR CAFÉ.”
I almost laughed but immediately understood what he meant.
“Non-fiction?” I asked. “An essay collection?”
“Let’s draft the table of contents right now,” he said.
It’s no coincidence that Dan has been my editor since purchasing The Speed of Light, my first novel, for Ballantine as part of a two-book deal; for decades now he has practically rented a room in my head, and often seems to know more about what I am supposed to write than I do. In this case, an essay collection rather quickly morphed into a book of interconnected chapters that covered much of the territory I had been thinking about for my entire life. Dan and I also agreed on a deadline for a final draft within two years, which was about 300 times faster than any of my previous books.
“Your father has to hold this book in his hands,” Dan explained.
He was right, as usual. And so, even though those two years of intense and sometimes excruciating work just about wrecked me, I turned in the manuscript and all of the revisions on time. When SURVIVOR CAFE came out in hardcover last fall, my father held up the very first copy for a photo. The good news is that he gets to hold the paperback now, too. I am beyond grateful.
When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
I think if you ask anyone who knew me as a child as well as in my teenaged years, they would say I was always aiming myself toward a life in the creative arts. At various points while growing up (and often simultaneously) I was dancing, acting, singing, painting, playing flute, and of course (last but not least) writing. My parents were constantly pushing me in what they considered more “practical” directions, since they were terrified I’d be unable to support myself as an artist. As immigrants, they were perfectly aware of the value of education and hard work, and they couldn’t quite imagine it was possible to make a living doing any of the things I listed above, the things I cared about most.
Even when I was an undergraduate at Stanford, I managed to complete my liberal arts education while actively engaged in theater, dance, and creative writing classes; I was still determined to follow my heart while using my head. I was also very keen on living in a way that felt “free,” by which I meant being as autonomous as possible, unrestricted by someone else’s schedule or structure. Despite my parents’ fears, I have somehow figured out how to write books and teach privately while paying my bills. I must confess that there are days when I’m astonished at having pulled this off.
Share something that’s always guaranteed to make you laugh.
The antics of Lulu, my dog, are a constant source of delight. When I’m asked about her breed, I tell people she is a Dr. Seuss Spaniel, at which point they pause to consider her and then smile in agreement. She is adorable, hilarious, sweet, and brilliant. Lulu is considered a “rescue” because I adopted her from the Humane Society, but the truth is that she rescued me. While I was recovering from a brutal double-whammy of cancer treatment and a shattered heart, this giddy black puppy appeared on the sidewalk near my house as if delivered by some cosmic comedian who knew I needed to re-learn instructions for joy.
Whenever I have a tendency to take myself (or my work) too seriously, Lulu provides the perfect antidote. She will toss her stuffed squirrel at my feet for some adventure in silliness or let me know she wants to climb out from under my desk and up into my lap. I only wish I could teach her how to use the vacuum cleaner.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
I have two basic pieces of advice. The first is: dig as deeply and truthfully as you can into the material that you feel you were born to write. Find out what it is that only you can say, and don’t even try to imitate the look or feel of anyone else. Listen for the sound of your own voice. The second: Persevere. Take exactly the amount of time you need to write your best work, and go beyond any of the limits others may be trying to impose upon you. Your most difficult and most important task will be, quite simply, not to give up.
Thanks Counterpoint & Elizabeth! Share this post on Twitter or Facebook for a chance to win a copy of Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory for this week’s giveaway! We will contact the lucky winner on Friday, October 5, 2018 (US Only). Here’s a bit more about the book:
As featured on NPR and in The New York Times, Survivor Cafe is a bold work of nonfiction that examines the ways that survivors, witnesses, and post-war generations talk about and shape traumatic experiences.
As firsthand survivors of many of the twentieth century’s most monumental events–the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Killing Fields–begin to pass away, Survivor Caf addresses urgent questions:
How do we carry those stories forward?
How do we collectively ensure that the horrors of the past are not forgotten?
Elizabeth Rosner organizes her book around three trips with her father to Buchenwald concentration camp–in 1983, in 1995, and in 2015–each journey an experience in which personal history confronts both commemoration and memorialization. She explores the echoes of similar legacies among descendants of African American slaves, descendants of Cambodian survivors of the Killing Fields, descendants of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the effects of 9/11 on the general population.
Examining current brain research, Rosner depicts the efforts to understand the intergenerational inheritance of trauma, as well as the intricacies of remembrance in the aftermath of atrocity. Survivor Caf becomes a lens for numerous constructs of memory–from museums and commemorative sites to national reconciliation projects to small-group cross-cultural encounters. Survivor Caf offers a clear-eyed sense of the enormity of our twenty-first-century human inheritance–not only among direct descendants of the Holocaust but also in the shape of our collective responsibility to learn from tragedy, and to keep the ever-changing conversations alive between the past and the present.