Tag Archives: family

A Look at “Almost Her”

What’s it like to be the identical twin of a celebrity? Here’s an excerpt from Caroline Paul’s Almost Her. Buy it here.

thumbs_past14

January 1966 – first look at their baby brother Jonathan.

Initially, Alexandra and I exhibited all the signs of being identical. We had our own language, arunic babbling that our parents heard from the next room and which stopped when they entered. We called each other by my name, Caroline, supposedly because I could not pronounce Alexandra. We looked very much alike. But we also fought (Alexandra could not be seated behind me in the stroller because she pulled my hair, and in the crib she took to sitting on me when she felt like it.) Early on, Alexandra was the more precocious one, I more shy. Baby photos are easily deciphered because her mouth was always open, mid-babble or laugh, while I stared at her or at the camera like a marmot caught in the beam of a flashlight, baffled and resigned. And so it was pre-ordained: Alexandra had the makings of an actress, and I was already comfortable with the fleeting attention due a fake celebrity.

 

family4

June 1999- at a gay rights parade.

Here are the questions I am most often asked:
Are you and your twin close? Yes.
Do you look alike? Sort of.
Do you have ESP powers? Not sure.
Are there any strange coincidences? I rescue people in real life while Alexandra rescues people
on television. That’s pretty strange.
Have you ever fallen in love with the same person? I’m gay, she’s straight, so no.

 

family56

1992- Caroline and Alexandra in their work clothes, LA beach.

But there was always a moment, in the time between the initial recognition and my demurral,
that I felt famous. I heard the wonder in the voice of the person before me, saw the awe in their eyes, was awash with their adulation and hope. Did I like it? Of course! I was living, if only
momentarily, the stuff of the American Dream. I was given free drinks at bars (again, no one inquired), better service at restaurants, solicitous attention in stores. This continued to amaze me – celebrities are the last to need anything extra. And yet I accepted it all. It was so damn fun (meanwhile, I wait for the day when I hear a waiter say to someone at the back table, “You’re a regular joe? A person of no repute? By golly, you deserve a comped lemon meringue pie.”) I was hugged by Dan Akroyd. I was kissed by Ray Liotta (when he realized I was not Alexandra, he stammered, stuttered, apologized, and fled.) After a trip to New York City I returned home to find photos of me posted on a celebrity site. I had had no idea that I was being followed by a paparazzi. There I was reading on a bench. There I was walking along the sidewalk. There I was making a funny face. These mundane movements, suddenly endowed with sparkling import!
It was amusing.
It was creepy.

 

Rosemarie Robotham: “The greatest risk every writer takes is to tell the truth”

Rosemarie Robotham, author of the Shebook memoir Jamaica Dreams—a story about first love and a forgotten youth in tumultuous 1970s Jamaica—shares the ups and downs of her writing process.

JamaicaDreamsWhat prompted you to write Jamaica Dreams?

I wrote most of Jamaica Dreams right after I got back from my most recent trip to Jamaica in January. My mother was very frail, my uncle had died, and all the family had gathered for his memorial service. I had lived abroad in New York City for more than 30 years, and there were cousins and old school friends whom I had not seen since leaving home at 18 to attend college. It was an extraordinary gift to discover that the bonds you make in a shared childhood can outlast decades of no contact. I cannot even begin to express how grateful I am for that. But to meet so many people from one’s past after years of absence is very much like confronting your former self. Suddenly, the hidden girl I was before leaving home was once again visible to me. Being in that place, with those particular people, unlocked something in me, a sense of who I used to be. It felt as if a lost piece of me had been rediscovered and could finally be reclaimed.

Are there any themes, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?

The last house I lived in before leaving Kingston to attend Barnard College in New York City has definitely become a central character in my own personal narrative. That house on Paddington Terrace sheltered everything, the sprawl and tumble of my family, the secret teenage infatuations, the cousins and friends who moved in with us for months at a time (so that the neighbors across the street at first thought we were a boardinghouse), the barefoot walks with teenage friends up and down the baking asphalt, the twilight conversations just outside the front gates, spun out as long as we could before our parents finally called us in; all of it settled in me like so many shimmering fragments that have found, in this story, a permanent home.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

robotham-photo-300x400I didn’t publicly own the title until I got my first book published in the mid-’90s, but I certainly knew from the time I was a little girl hiding in my room writing stories that it was the activity that most excited and filled me. Even so, I actually started out in college as a studio art major. But I was taking writing classes as well, and they were more thrilling than anything else I was doing. So I switched gears and became an English major with a writing concentration. That was when I started secretly to think of myself as a writer.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

The quick answer is not really, because I could not begin to write if I let myself think about how a reader might respond to what I am struggling to express. I pretend, while I am writing, that no one will ever read these words; it is the only way I can be completely honest and fearless in the writing. But afterward, when I am done, at some point I will read what I have written trying to imagine my mother’s response to it. In that sense, she is my imaginary reader. I don’t change what I’ve written if I imagine a viscerally negative response from her; I just want to know I have to brace for it. But you know, my mother has turned out to be my most generous reader. She is 92 now, and somehow she has always found a way to expand her understanding of her only daughter to accommodate whatever I might write. And I always felt if my mother could deal with it, then it didn’t matter who could not.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

The greatest risk every writer takes is to tell the truth, especially the deepest, most difficult emotional truths. That’s what makes it all worth it, though. That’s what sets you free.

Have you ever written anything personal that you thought would upset people close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

In Jamaica Dreams, I wrote about my father’s drinking, which was not something I thought I would ever put in the public square. My father died 18 years ago. He was my life’s best example of goodness and integrity and an impeccable work ethic. He achieved much in his life, even being knighted by the Queen of England for his work as a jurist. This was the face most people saw, but I knew this private struggle he’d had during my growing-up years. It has always been so compelling to me that my father, this towering figure, had this very human struggle, and don’t we all? I really did think my outing my dad’s battle with alcohol like that would upset my family. But I wrote the story anyway, because the way he waged that war, the example he set for me, would give me the tools to reset my course when my own life threatened to be derailed. He showed me how.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Keep a journal. Start a blog. Write every day. Write about what terrifies you. Write as if no one is ever going to read your words. Listen to how people talk. Tell your story. Tell other people’s stories. Dare.

Want to be swept away in lush stories about new love, family ties and forgotten youth? Read Rosemarie Robotham’s short memoir Jamaica Dreams, only at Shebooks!

Risotto Tour

Join the Shebooks Life, Love and Risotto Tour and you could win a collection of ebooks and a Try the World gourmet box. Enter here.

Ethel Rohan: My Fear, Revealed

A guest post by Ethel Rohan, author of the Shebooks memoir Out of Dublin.

 

Out of Dublin, my short memoir from Shebooks is just ten thousand words. Ten thousand of the hardest words I’ve ever laid down. I’ve felt similar pain, and fear and anxiety, when I published my chapbook, Hard to Say. Yet while there’s a lot of my past in those fifteen tiny linked stories, I wrote them as fiction peopled with characters, and with distance and imagination. Out of Dublin is a whole other beast. In Out of Dublin, there’s no where to hide.

That’s why I wrote Out of Dublin, though. I’m done with hiding, and with the unsaid. The unsaid has tormented me over decades. What price will I pay, though, for these ten thousand words. I’m frantic Out of Dublin will cost me family and friends, that some will criticize me for putting in print what they believe should stay private. I write, though. That’s what I do. I write about what matters most to me.

These past several months, the fifth commandment, Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother, has breathed on the back of my neck, chasing me. My parents would hate that I’ve written this book. That’s what presses on my chest, makes me panic. I’ve agonized. For me, it comes down to intention. My intention is not to dishonor my parents. I love my mother and my father. My intention is to make the truth into writing that’s artful and valuable, because the truth alone hurts too much and does no good.

I’m often scared and confused. I often don’t know if I’m doing the right or the wrong thing. I always try, though, to do my best. Recently, when I felt most afraid, most anxious, and most confused about publishing Out of Dublin, I made myself sit in my garden, and close my eyes, and listen to the birds, and feel the gold of the sun on my face, and even though I got calm and still, I didn’t feel or hear or see anything that seemed like a sign.

I had to make up my own mind, and I did.

It’s easier to look away from the hard things, to stay silent.

Easier isn’t enough for me. I decided to keep scaring myself.

 

Out of Dublin cover

Read Ethel Rohan’s powerful memoir, Out of Dublin, only from Shebooks.

Ann Pearlman: on taking dictation from the universe

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.

EyeOnTheSparrow

Read Ann Pearlman’s nail-biting short memoir, His Eye Is on the Sparrow, only at Shebooks!