Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Q&A with author Elizabeth Benedict

Elizabeth Benedict, photo by Daniel Lake
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including The Practice of Deceit and Almost, and one guide to writing fiction; and the editor of two anthologies, including What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-one Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most, just published as an original paperback.

Q: Your new book, What My Mother Gave Me, is a collection of essays by different writers about the mother-daughter relationship. Why did you decide to put this book together, and how did you select the other writers to include?

A: It takes an obsession to pursue a book, and this case is no exception. When she lived in an assisted living facility, my mother bought me a beautiful wool scarf made in India that she’d bought from a vendor who was at her facility for a few days during the holidays.

I began wearing it on my winter coat all the time, and got compliments frequently - and still do. But when people ask where I got it, I kind of choke. I'd love to toss off the name of a store or a country, but I'm stuck with this sad piece of my mother's life.

After she died, I became more attached to it, even though I had had a distant relationship to her. When I thought I lost the scarf once, I went into a full-blown panic. And then I began to wonder if other women had a similar gift from their mothers, one that was an entryway into their entire relationship, as the scarf turned out to be for me.

I chose writers who have written about their mothers, those known for personal essays and memoirs, and those of different ages and backgrounds, including a political activist and a minister. I invited Nora Ephron early on. She said no, because she'd written all she was going to write about her mother already. Sadly, that turned out to be true. 

Q: Were there any common themes that particularly interested or surprised you?

A: First, most of the gifts were modest - a used cake pan, a family photo, a wok, a plant, hand-me-down jewelry and clothes, a trip on a boat that lasted three hours. There were a few non-tangible gifts (including a year of sobriety by an alcoholic mother), and one passport and a trip to Europe, but generally the gifts were not flashy, pricey items.

On another note, I was struck by the overwhelming power of the connection between mothers and daughters. I know that sounds self-evident, but to read each writer's story of this connection, even if it was frayed, really brought home the complexity and immutability of the bond.

Finally, having had an unhappy mother - a mother burdened with a difficult husband and a lot of serious problems - I was surprised by all the happy mothers who appeared. There's a real mix in the collection, and quite a few pieces about very difficult relationships. 

Q: Your previous book, Mentors, Muses, & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives, is an anthology of essays. What inspired you to compile this work, and what did you learn from the experience?

A: I wrote a long essay for Tin House about my college writing teacher at Barnard, Elizabeth Hardwick, after she died in 2007. The night I sent in the essay, I began to wonder if other writers had written about their mentors, and when I saw little evidence of that on-line, I realized it might make an anthology.

The first person I asked to write a piece - Mary Gordon - said yes before I'd finished my sentence. It was like that with nearly everyone - great enthusiasm from writers.

What did I learn from the experience? 1. Writers are happy to express gratitude to the people who helped them along the way, especially to people who saw something in them that they themselves didn't know was there.  2. There are many kinds of mentors and muses, including specific books and experiences. 3. When people have a subject they feel passionately about, they do their best writing. Two pieces won Pushcart Prizes, one went viral when posted on-line, and many were published in great magazines just before the book came out.  

Q: Among your five novels, do you have a particular favorite book or character, and why or why not?

A: I have a sentimental attachment to my second novel, The Beginner's Book of Dreams, which Knopf published in 1988. I was inspired writing it by James Salter's novel Light Years, by that kind of compressed prose that he writes so brilliantly. It's about a certain slice of sophisticated New York City life in the early to mid-1960s and the dreams and illusions that go with that.

The main character is a plucky, lost girl with a glamorous, alcoholic mother who figures out how to find herself. The mother was modeled on a woman who lived in our building when I was a kid and whom I wanted to be my mother. I'm delighted it will come out this summer as an eBook.

The other novel I like is Almost - about a sudden death on a Martha's Vineyard-like island. I suppose it's an emotional mystery. Nearly everything about writing it was difficult. It took four years and is only 260 pages - so I'm thrilled when people say they read it in a day. It took four years to make that happen! 

Q: You also are the author of The Joy of Writing Sex:A Guide for Fiction Writers, first published in 1996 and then updated six years later. If you were writing it today, would there be still more changes you would include?

A: Two things come to mind. I'd probably expand the "sex and technology" discussion to include the latest sexual technology as it appears in fiction. I'd mention Helen Schulman's novel This Beautiful Life, about New York high school kids in a sexting scandal.

I think I might also add a chapter on memoirs. There is a surprising paucity of sex scenes in memoirs. There are a few memoirs rich with sexual encounters, but the general bare-your-soul memoir stops short of baring many breasts. It's a most curious phenomenon, given the number of memoirs in our midst. I have some ideas, but it would be fun to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Q: Are you working on another novel?

A: I am, but it's probably bad karma to say so. So that's all I'll say for now. Except that the end is a long way off.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I'm doing many events in NYC, Boston, and Washington, D.C., for What My Mother Gave Me with some of the many contributors. The first is at Politics and Prose, Washington, D.C., with contributors Susan Stamberg and Eleanor Clift. Tuesday, April 9. Please check my website for details.  www.elizabethbenedict.com

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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