Friday, October 20, 2017
Could you leave behind your friends and family and religion? Tova Mirvis talks about her exquisite memoir, THE BOOK OF SEPARATION
"Luminous,unsettling and fiercely brave, Mirvis's memoir insists on a simple but earth-shattering truth: "There are other ways to be." Shelf Awareness (Starred review)
"Introspective and fascinating." Publisher's Weekly
Tova Mirvis is spectacular for so many reasons, the first being her wonderful books, including the novels, Visible City, The Outside World, and The Ladies Auxiliary which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in many publications including the New York Times Modern Love, Real Simple, Psychology Today and the Boston Globe Magazine. But I also am drawn to her warmth, her humor and her absolute brave honesty. I'm so honored to have her here. (Plus, as you will notice, she has the best curly hair in the world.)
Thank you Tova.
Were you worried at all about any repercussions from your book from your previous community, or were you hoping this might encourage others to explore their faiths and what it does or doesn’t do for them? As of now, do you have contact with any of your previous friends?
I was worried! Writing this memoir felt very different from writing fiction where there’s always a place to hide, a way to say this is me and this isn’t me. But in memoir, there is such a sense of vulnerability and exposure. I worried how people would respond, how people I portray in the book would react, how I would feel to have such a private story out in the world.
But I worked through that fear by making use of what I have learned as a fiction writer – to write from a compassionate stance, from the most open, expansive place inside myself; not to castigate or attack or tear down but to write out of a desire to understand. I hope that my being honest on the page will help others to be honest as well - honesty invites honesty, and I hope that those who read it feel a space to explore their own questions about who they are and who they want to be.
I do remain connected to some of my former friends, and very closely connected to my family, almost all of whom are part of the religious world that I have left. One of the questions I was most interested in exploring was what happens when you don’t match the people you love, and with my immediate family, I have found that it might be complicated but you can maintain that sense of connection.
What was it like writing this book? Where there different pleasures and concerns from writing your wonderful novels? Was there any fear about seeing this through to publication or was it simply relief?
Writing this memoir pulled on a different aspect of my creativity. It wasn’t that sense of invention that is at the heart of fiction writing. I didn’t struggle with the question, as I always do in my novels, of what happens next?? Here I felt like I was excavating rather than inventing; trying to get at the story underneath the story, to unearth my own self.
But one of the pleasures (as well as the craft challenge that was the hardest and most rewarding) was coming up with the structure to tell the story – and this is true for me in writing novels as well: How to build a shape that will hold the story I want to tell. How to move between past and present, how to create a feel of seamlessness.
And in finishing it and sending it out into the world there was both fear and relief. One of the themes I wanted to explore in The Book of Separation was how we navigate through fear, how we do things even when we are afraid of them. So in some sense, writing the memoir was an experience in doing the kind of thing I was exploring on the page.
So much of this exquisite book is about how we navigate our lives when our lives are no longer mapped out for us—as yours was. How did you ever handle your doubts, and can you talk about the moment when you knew you had made the right choice?
In The Book of Separation, I wanted to explore what happens when we decide to leave the path that is mapped for us. I was born into an Orthodox Jewish community, and though I sometimes heard the quiet nagging voice of doubt, I thought I could make it through without really listening to it. I got married at a young age, very quickly, and thought that if I pushed aside my doubts, they wouldn’t be able to find me. But I think no one gets to make it through unscathed, and eventually I was ready to face those doubts, both about my religious community and my marriage. Change can be enormously terrifying but sometimes it becomes necessary. In this memoir, I wanted to look at the cost of change and also the freedom and possibility it brings. I know I have made the right decision every time I no longer have to censor myself – my ideas, my thoughts, just who I am. I feel freer, in life and on the page. I don’t have to tuck away the messier parts of myself.
Is there anything you miss—besides certain people—from your past community?
I miss the sense of community, the feeling that there is a place I am supposed to belong; I miss the sense of continuity between the way it used to be and the way it is now –that feeling that there isn’t a diving line between then and now.
What advice would you give anyone in any sort of closed system?
I know that many people are happy inside these closed systems. But what happens when you don’t match the world you are born into? What happens when you don’t believe in a religious world you have been raised inside of? What happens when you feel that you have to hide your true self in order to belong? To those of us who do not belong inside these closed systems, I would say that you are allowed to choose your own life. You are allowed to decide what you believe. It feels both simple and impossible, but there are many ways to be.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Besides the (bad) news of the world which is always consuming me ... what’s obsessing me is the small fragments of ideas that are the very early stages of a new novel I want to write. I’m starting to assemble those pieces in my mind even though I haven’t started to write it in a serious way. I’m trying to let the book take shape in my head before I really sit down and do the hard work.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Ask me about my favorite memoirs! Before I started writing this memoir, I decided that I was going to spend the first year only reading memoir. I usually read fiction almost exclusively but I wanted to immerse myself in this form. I read and took notes and fell in love with memoir. In particular: My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff; Drinking: a Love story by Caroline Napp; Not that Kind of Girl by Carlene Bauer, Devotion by Dani Shapiro; Aftermath by Rachel Cusk; This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (An essay collection but I adored this) by Ann Patchett; The Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong; Lucky by Alice Sebold. These books helped me learn the craft of writing memoir, but they also helped me feel a little less alone on my own journey of setting out.