Beth Benedix is the author of the new book Ghost Writer: A Story About Telling a Holocaust Story. It focuses on the life of Joe Koenig, a Holocaust survivor, and Benedix's efforts to tell his story. Her other books include Subverting Scriptures, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications. She is a professor at DePauw University, and is the founder of the nonprofits arts organization The Castle. She lives in Greencastle, Indiana.
Q: Your book is subtitled "A Story About Telling a Holocaust Story." Why did you decide to take this approach to your book, and how long did it take to write it?
A: Thank you so much for asking this question! It took about nine years to write, and it went through a number of different iterations.
Somehow I always knew that the story I most wanted—felt I needed—to tell was the story of the process of trying to tell this story, which sounds terribly convoluted when I say it this way. But the truth is that the earlier iterations fell flat because I attempted to mute my sense that it had to be this way.
The questions that I obsess over—the ethical questions concerning how to tell someone else’s story, what it means to choose one method over another, what it means to impose a narrative arc, how to draw out the universal implications of an insular set of memories—are essentially questions of process, and, so, it seemed natural to me to bring these questions out into the open.
My biggest inspirations in memoir--Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) and David Harris-Gershon (What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?)—are painstakingly, playfully, process-driven, and the authenticity of this approach came as a revelation to me the first time I read their books.
There’s a vulnerability to this approach that feels necessary to me, a tentative quality that conveys the reality of what it feels like to just not know how best to communicate the weight of Joe’s story.
I gesture to Paul Celan at the close of the book, and this gesture captures my full sense that a story like this, a story of encounter—raw, real, unscripted—is always “en route.”
Q: Throughout the book, you discuss both Joe Koenig and your father. What do you see as the connection between then?
A: Yes, this connection becomes a central motif, even as it surprised me to make the connection. In the book, I try to make clear that, in so many ways, Joe and my father couldn’t be farther from one another.
There’s a conversation we have, for instance, where I tell Joe in no uncertain terms my sense of the chasm between them: I tell him that, where he is a true survivor, my father—who died when I was 20—squandered his life.
And yet… my relationship with Joe, the time I spent with him poring over his story and learning who he is and what makes him tick… somehow this all brought my father back to me in the most vivid way.
Somehow the relationship we developed—his sense of humor, his brute honesty, the way he challenged me to face my fears, the way he knew how to master the world around him—all of this brought my dad back. And I started to process Joe’s story through the residual ache of losing my father.
In an act of what I can only call grace, Joe told me once that we are “the same” because we both lost our fathers too soon. The weight and generosity of that statement loomed somehow over the book for me; I wanted to understand what it meant that Joe could have said this, when our experiences seemed so far apart to me, when his losses were so profound and mine seemed so prosaic.
So I think the connection is mainly that he validated my sense of loss.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from Joe's story and your approach to telling it?
A: Oh, this is hard, because I most want readers to have their own authentic encounters with the book and I’m so interested to see where those moments of encounter might happen for them.
I guess I would like readers to come away primarily with a sense that they really know Joe. I want readers to see him as a flesh and blood man with a history and a family and a wicked sense of humor, a man who refuses to be labeled and defined by his experience in the Holocaust.
It was so important to me to introduce Joe in this way to readers, because it’s in this kind of meeting that his story becomes most meaningful. Joe’s memories are of unfathomable loss, and I feel an obligation to share these memories, both for his family’s sake and for the sake of recording and collecting his testimony.
Alongside of that sense of obligation is another: the obligation to show that stories of memory take on lives of their own for the people who listen to them. It has to be a shared act, this kind of story-telling, this kind of testimony, it has to be about the attempt to make a connection—even if the attempt feels clunky or flawed or incomplete.
Q: What impact did writing the book have on you?
A: At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it’s pretty fair to say that writing this book has changed my life. I live in a perpetual state of gratitude that Joe came into my life, a perpetual kind of wonder at the workings of the universe.
Knowing Joe has changed the way I’ve thought about… well… everything, from writing to teaching to being a mom. Everything feels more applied now, more hands-on, more in-the-thick-of-it. There’s a clarity that wasn’t there before, a sense of what really matters.
In the book, I talk about the Jewish concept of beshert—fate. Allergic as I am to any form of institutionalized religion, this concept—that there are others with whom we are fated to cross paths—resonates with me in a way that I always sort of sensed but was never quite able to articulate until writing this book.
The magic simplicity of the not-so-chance encounter… I’ve come to honor this as something that can only be felt intuitively and viscerally, and to acknowledge the power of connection when it happens.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m working on marketing this book! It’s been such a long road, and I’m really looking forward to the conversations that I’m hoping this book will facilitate.
I’m waiting for the next writing project to announce itself to me. In the meantime, I’m keeping busy being a mom, teaching, directing a nonprofit organization and gigging with my band.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: This question makes me anxious! I feel like I should have a perfectly witty response. The only thing that comes to mind, strangely, is a line from Rush’s song “Free Will”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
Oh, and a quote from the newly released movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, which I just saw with my kids, a line from Rumi: “the wound is the place where light enters you.” So beautiful.
Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about Ghost Writer, Deborah!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb