Best-selling author Ann Pearlman is out with a new mini memoir, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, about a biracial couple’s “coming out (to her family and his) in the early 1960s. Here are some of Pearlman’s thoughts on luck, and death.
Are there any themes that you find recurring in your writing?
Two themes recur in my writing, though neither one is apparent in His Eye Is on the Sparrow, except as harbingers of things to come. The first one is death. Many of my books, especially my fiction and memoirs, have a death as a significant turning point. The origin is in my life. About six weeks after the events of His Eye Is on the Sparrow occurred, my father died at 44 from a heart attack. I was with him when he died. Within the next decade, my grandmother and mother died. As well as two best friends: one from an allergic reaction to an anesthetic, and another was murdered. I was impacted by the knowledge that death strikes anywhere, at any time, without respect for age, or health.
The second is the sister of death, and that’s luck. Since I was a child, as soon as I understood the basics of reproduction, I wondered at the miraculous event of my existence. If my parents had made love a different day, if a different sperm fought its way to the ovum that was my other half, I would have been a different person. Maybe a boy. Maybe not loving art so much, or writing or dancing. I’ve always been grateful for the luck of my existence and my parents, who were able to nourish and encourage me.
But luck is a two-edged sword. Life is full of serendipitous events spinning into new directions. Some of the eventual outcomes cannot be predicted from the incident itself. For example, my divorce was a watershed event that I struggled to survive. But survive I did and later realized that my ex-husband had done me a huge favor.
How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?
My family is Jewish. But not only Jewish as my grandmother was German and had a sister who was pro-Nazi in the ’30s. As if containing these diverse elements in a family was not already complex enough, my Jewish grandfather supported my grandmother’s German parents who were visited in his house by their pro-Nazi daughter. As a child, I was chilled by the knowledge that in Europe during the ’40s, some of my relatives could have killed other relatives, unaware they were distantly related to each other. History impacts individuals, but individuals impact history by their personal decisions.
I am a woman who married a black man during the civil rights movement, and I’m the mother of biracial children; the effect of straddling two different worlds is visible in my work. W.E. B. Du Bois writes about the double-consciousness black people carry as they deal with the white attitudes toward them, along with a sense of themselves as African. I, too, straddle these worlds, but in a peculiar way. My family and grandchildren are black. Yet, when away from my family, I’m treated as “white.” And yes, even today, that treatment is different. Yes, even today, after the wonder of a biracial president and the subsequent billowing vitriol prove the intransigence of our racism.
Although the biography Inside the Crips was a collaboration with Colton Simpson, I could not have written it without an intimate knowledge of black people and sharing life with them. Both of my novels, The Christmas Cookie Club and A Gift for My Sister, deal with the formation of a biracial family and the continued racism the two sisters witness. I suspect that my grandmother’s straddling of her own German and Jewish identity, though not as visible, taught me comfort and skills without my realizing it.
His Eye Is on the Sparrow examines that point in my life when this dual identity was forged.
Have you ever experienced sexism as a woman writer? How so?
Of course. Women writers outnumber men writers, just like women readers outnumber male readers. Maybe our great numbers make us less seriously considered. This is similar to social work, where men have more cache, garner more attention, and are promoted more often than women. Yet, it is not just the rarity that we struggle against. Men’s thoughts, words, attitudes, very bodies, are taken more seriously. As a result, we try to get our work on a level playing field. Many women write under gender-nonspecific names or pen names ( George Sand, J.K. Rowling, E.L. James, etc.).
For women, there’s another issue: If we’re mothers, and working to financially support our children, the pressure of time and attention delays our writing. Yes, I wrote four books while I was still raising children, but dreamt of a time when I would no longer write while I was waiting for a child to finish soccer, football, rehearsals, saxophone lessons, etc., or would have to wake up so disgustingly early. I dreamt of a far-off “future” when my children were raised (or at least in high school). But there’s another discrimination that hits women harder than men: ageism. I have been told by an editor that they’d publish my novel, except that I’m now “too old” to build a career. Several others suggested that my characters were “too old.” I have even received a few snarky reviews about the age of my characters. Apparently publishers think readers are interested in young, fertile women; their lives still have significance. This seems to be more prevalent in the U.S. than in the U.K., where mature women are often the heroines of novels.
So women have two strikes against them, and it’s the same that we deal with throughout our lives: We’re women. And then we become postmenopausal women, and I guess, if we’re lucky, we’re supposed to simply drift away into grandmotherville.
Ironically, after The Christmas Cookie Club, I received a fan letter from a woman in her 20s who profusely thanked me. My book gave her hope for the future because she assumed her life would be boring by the time she was 40. My characters taught her life could be exciting and fun, even as you get older.
When did you first decide you were a writer?
I didn’t “decide” to be a writer. When I was in eighth grade, we were asked to write thank-you notes for a painting our school received. The painting was of two girls sitting on a beach; behind them the sea stretched to the horizon. While writing about the sea, I was transported into a sensation of taking dictation from the universe. The piece I wrote became a published poem. Re-experiencing that sensation propels my writing. I write because I love it; I write because I want that feeling again. I write to make sense of the world. Weeks later, when I’m editing, I cannot tell which prose was awe-inspired and which was written prosaically.
How do you define truth in memoir?
Truth when writing memoir is your truth. We now know memory distorts and shuffles things, especially for children who can be easily led into beliefs simply by the questions of adults. Yet, what we believe becomes our history, the narrative of our lives, establishing our worldview and propelling our actions.
When I write memoir, I try to check what I can. For example, in Infidelity, I related an incident that took place while my mother was giving a speech. I found supporting evidence on the Internet in a report of the speech, the venue, and her order in the program, all of which corroborated my teenage memory. Sometimes our memory is right on. However, during family discussions, it’s clear we each witness different aspects of events as a collage of stories that are created from our unique memories. All are right. All are pieces of the truth.
Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?
I have been a psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist in a private practice for several decades. I continue to see a few long-term patients.
As a social worker, I’ve had a number of fabulous, fascinating jobs: working with gangs, protective services, the poverty program, in schools, in a women’s prison, a child-guidance clinic. The craziest job I had was working in a science lab under a grant from NASA to ascertain if animals could grow in space conditions. When we started on the chameleons, I collected flies from the farms around Iowa City. Nonplussed and not curious, the farmers graciously escorted me to their pigpens, assuring me I could take all I wanted.
But it was not until I was a therapist in a women’s prison that I understood much about America. There you see the underbelly of our country and witness the failure of every institution in our society: justice system, schools, churches, families, and our economy. But in spite of the enormous trauma of many of [these women’s] lives, I was awestruck by the resilience, fortitude, hope, and desire to change. Prisons and our justice system are present in Inside the Crips, but also in Christmas Cookie Club and Gift for My Sister. Currently I’m working on a novel set in prison.
Are you or have you ever been a member of a book club? What does/did that experience offer you?
I resisted joining a book club because I didn’t want to “have to” read books others chose. A few friends wanted to start one and pestered me to join. Joining was a great decision. It’s scads of fun. I’m reminded how varied opinions and reactions are. My book club has helped me understand the reviews/comments I get from readers. How words are interpreted is only partly the writing, the other part is what the reader brings. Listening to fierce discussions and opposite opinions about the same book highlights the immense difference in tastes and interests.
My book club has also read my books and discussed them. The first time it was anxiety provoking. There was nothing anonymous about this discussion. Would my friends spare their criticism because of our friendships? But they didn’t, and I learned from that, too. They are intensely curious about how I develop my ideas to weave a story together, and they notice things about me or our city in the book.
Do you have a quote, mantra, or thought that you’d like to end with?
Follow your bliss, but consider others.
Read Ann Pearlman’s nail-biting short memoir, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, only at Shebooks!