I'm thrilled to be interviewing Alice Eve Cohen here. Her memoir, The Year my Mother Came Back, is about how relationships--especially those with our mothers--don't end after death, but continue in surprising and profound ways. Her first memoir, What I Thought I Knew won the Elle's Grand Prix for Nonfiction; it was selected as one of Oprah Magazine’s 25 Best Books of Summer and Salon's Best Books of the Year. Her solo theater adaptation of the book has been produced at the Kitchen Theater in Ithaca and other venues. Thank you so much, Alice!
Q: There’s so much in the book about when we ourselves become mothers, we yearn for our own mothers--even if they were not stellar in the maternal department. Even though your mom is dead, you still find yourself needing her, and most miraculously, you get to have her.
A: I’d pretty much exiled my mother from my memories for decades. During this crazily difficult year, I found myself yearning for her in a way I never had before. Then suddenly, there she was, sitting beside me at my kitchen table, typing on her old, manual typewriter.
A fringe benefit of writing this book is that my daughters also get to have her. Just last night, I asked Eliana, my fifteen-year-old, what she thinks of her grandmother, now that she’s read the book, and she said, “She inspires me. I’m humbled by her work and dedication as an early feminist, before that was accepted at all in American society. I wish I could meet her. I feel privileged even to be able to meet her in this way, through this book.”
Q: What I so love about this memoir is that you have included the fantasies you had.
A: The fantasies are the heart of the book. My mother died such a long time ago that I’d nearly forgotten her. She came back to me in a flood of memories and vivid fantasies. She was at my side during my radiation treatments. We had conversations and arguments. She revealed secrets she’d never told me before. I asked her advice on parenting. Her answers surprised and enraged me. We fought. We forgave each other.
For a while I thought the memoir police would arrest me, for violating some unwritten law of memoir-writing. I talked to my editor about it, and I’m so grateful that she encouraged me to free my imagination. It allowed me to bring my mother to life on the page as a fully realized character.
Q: Did writing this book intensify the conversations you have with your mother (do you still have them?) or lessen them?
A: My mother is with me, but in a very different way now. She’s not in the room any more.
A: You recognize that time alters memory. Yet, there is still such truth on every page. Which makes me want to ask you: If stories change with the telling, and we are always changing ourselves, what do we mean by truth?
B: Wow, your question goes to the fundamental, paradoxical core of memoir. A memoir is a story told through a subjective process that includes remembering and forgetting, imagining and inventing. Everything alters memory—time, emotion, current events, brain chemistry, caffeine, aging, childbirth, politics, you name it. Whenever we look at an old photograph, or hear an evocative piece of music, or read someone else’s account of that event, it changes our memory. From the moment an experience slips from the present into the past, it starts to change. Every time we describe an experience, the story evolves, and so does our memory of it. I have an insatiable appetite for stories. I love the fluid and mutable quality of storytelling. Humans are the storytelling species. It’s in our DNA. I love being a storyteller.
Q: Do you think if you had written this book say, ten years from now, it would be different?
A: I can’t imagine writing this book at any other time. I wrote it exactly when I needed to.
Q: What I also love about the book is the humor. And then you move to emotion that’s wrenching.
A: I’m not religious, but I have a religious faith in humor. I subscribe to the belief that even in the most difficult circumstances, there’s salvation in story value. I love to make people laugh, and if I can’t laugh at myself I’m doomed. In Jewish folklore, if you’re too happy, it’s an invitation to the Evil Eye. Once you let the Evil eye in, you’re in terrible danger. In the book, I talk about the Evil Eye in a self-mocking way. When things are going too well, I’m terrified.
Q: I love your question, “Who gets happiness?” Care to answer?
A: I’m better at questions than answers. There’s a chapter about happiness in the book, and it’s all questions.
Q: This was one hell of a year for you, yet you managed with grace and humor. Are you a worrier?
A: I am a word-class worrier, an Olympic gold medalist.
Q: What’s obsessing you now and why?
A: I’m obsessed with my students’ stories. I teach creative writing and playwriting at The New School. My current playwriting students are wonderfully diverse—nationality, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and age. Their plays are equally diverse, and I’m fascinated by their works-in-progress.
Q: (What question didn’t I ask that I should have?) What are you working on now?
A: I’m writing a novel, and I’m thrilled to be making stuff up.