Dorin Schumacher is the author of the memoir Gatsby’s Child: Coming of Age in East Egg. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Brooklyn Rail and At Large.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir?
A: My mother was a wonderful storyteller. I grew up on her stories about Helen Gardner, her eccentric silent-movie-star mother. My mother narrated dramas such as the affairs Gardner had with men that she had her young daughter try to hide from her lesbian lover. It didn’t work. The lesbian lover “flew into violent jealous rages.”
I too love to tell true stories, especially funny ones. I had a head full of memories from my childhood that demanded to be written. I began writing, and they began grouping themselves into chapters that I would pick up, work on and then put away. This happened over several years as I built a university career. All along, I didn’t know if my work would ever be worth publishing.
I received a notice of a memoir-writing workshop at a Yale Summer Writing Conference and submitted my chapters. The leader of the workshop was Eileen Pollack, a professor in the University of Michigan MFA program and a successful writer. I was brought to tears when she and the participants in the workshop said they loved my memoir and I just had to get it published.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and how do you see your life relating to The Great Gatsby?
A: My father, a first-generation Jew trying to pass as Gentile, a man barely making it who wanted to pass as wealthy, moved us from New York City to Sands Point on the “Gold Coast” of Long Island. We lived for a time on the grounds of Beacon Towers castle, a Gilded Age medieval fantasy built by Alva Vanderbilt Belmont in 1918. The castle is said to have inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write The Great Gatsby, in which he fictionalized Sands Point as “East Egg.” My father was a Jay Gatsby type, a phony trying to impress the old-money upper-one-percenters hidden in their mansions behind thick hedges.
My mother let it all hang out. My father lied about everything. As a child, I saw what was going on around me and ultimately decided I didn’t want that life. Since I wasn’t allowed to say what I knew, I stored it up and ultimately wrote it down as Gatsby’s Child: Coming of Age in East Egg.
Q: Did you need to do additional research to write the book, or did you remember most of what you write about?
A: I remembered it all, in great detail. The sad, the ridiculous, the hilarious, the classist, and how I managed to survive.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: The book is a story of survival, of how a determined young girl used her inner resources to live without love and without moral teachings to become a strong woman. I hope my readers will be inspired and encouraged as they face their own life challenges.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My book on Helen Gardner’s film, Vanity Fair (Vitagraph, 1911), has just been accepted for publication. I wrote it in an innovative style that blends film art and literary art. It will become part of the coffee table book that I am writing about Helen Gardner’s movie career. Just as with the historic contributions of so many women, her impressive achievements are largely unrecognized. I hope to correct that.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My advice to aspiring memoir writers is Write it Down. Don’t worry about style. Just get it down. And keep working on it. The book will come. Write the truth from your heart. Don’t worry about what the people you write about might think. These are your memories, your stories.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb