Looking At Looking Up with Linda Pressman

I’m honored today to feature an interview with Linda Pressman, author of the newly released Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors, and Skokie.  Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to offer such thoughtful insights into your book and the process of writing it.

When did you decide to tell this story?  How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

I feel like this book was inside me my whole life, that the need to write this book was in me my whole life. Everyone who’s ever known me knew that I was going to write a book about Skokie. The only surprise really ended up being that I put my parents’ stories in there too. I don’t remember ever not having the idea to write this book. I even started it several times when I was younger but needed writing instruction, which I finally got starting in 2001 with my first Creative Writing class. By 2005 I had earned a Master’s in English and had heeded my professor’s advice to always have a writer’s journal. As of today, I’m on my 38th one, with each one containing 100 to 200 pages.

Since I tend to be somewhat prolific, it turned out right away that with this amount of material I needed to have a cut off point and I had to figure out what could be in the book and what couldn’t. I probably have enough perfectly good cut material from Looking Up to write two more versions of it!

It was extremely hard to get the structure of the book right, to be sure that the humor properly balanced the tragedy. At different times I wrote out all my chapters on note cards and changed the order repeatedly; another time I printed the entire book and then cut it up with scissors until it was in the order I wanted.

As far as the time period in which I finally had all my material together, to the date of publication, I would say it was 3 ½ to 4 years.

Can you talk a little bit about how you carve out time to write in your day?

I haven’t made standard New Year’s Resolutions in many years, but starting in 2007 I have made “Writer’s Resolutions” for myself. One of them is to write every day no matter what. I had a writing teacher who told me once that the more you write, the more you remember and the better you write. It’s like a muscle you exercise – it just works better, and that happened. By midway through 2007 I had so much material I had to change my definitions of what “writing” meant each day, including book organizing, chapter organization, etc.

There have been times that my daily writing has been a haiku or a list of what I plan to write, but all I know is that I try to keep moving in the right direction. Right now my definition of writing has expanded to include promoting. I think of it as “work in service of the book,” and if it satisfies that requirement it counts as writing.

Humor is a key element throughout Looking Up.  To whom or what do you credit your great sense of humor?  Did you see humor in situations as a kid or did the humor only come in looking back on them?

I do consider that our family, in between battling for each apple and the best chair in the family room, had a great sense of humor. Even the grown ups, despite their various tragedies, would sit around their poker table and hoot and holler for hours, crying with laughter, telling jokes in Yiddish. I’d say each one of us has a certain sense of humor based somewhat on the juxtaposition of what life was like compared with what we expected it to be, which also has its roots in the fatalistic Yiddish humor we heard around us.

I think part of being a writer is that part of you is absorbing a lot of details, almost distracted by details that others might not even notice. As a kid I was very observant and later developed a sense of the ridiculous, especially once I was in school and realized my family was so different from the others around me.

What does your mother think of your book?  How about your sisters?

The day I handed my mother a copy of Looking Up was really one of the best days of my life, and hers too I think. All seven of us had spent our lives hearing our mother ask us to “write her story,” and, truthfully, it was something we brushed off along with running from the Holocaust. When I came to the painful realization that my childhood book of growing up with seven sisters and Holocaust Survivor parents needed to have her story in it, it was an awful moment for me. I put the book away for about six months and worked on other things trying to get over my aversion to facing this history head on. Then, when I was ready, I sat down and interviewed her. She has complimented me on the handling of her story and expressed satisfaction that it’s in print, that she doesn’t have to worry any longer about “someone writing her story.”

The names of the majority of the people in the book were changed and this was difficult for my mother – the connecting of people with names, especially since she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But the portion of the book that is her story was very special to her.

The majority of my sisters have been wonderful about the book. This didn’t happen overnight. When I first began writing, I think it was somewhat disconcerting for them. Over time I had to get over a lot of my fears of writing and what this person or that person would think of it. I just tried to keep a few rules front and center: tell the truth and be kind. Hopefully I did that. One sister was one of my early proofreaders. Others have sent me lovely notes about how much they enjoyed the book. For the most part, my fears were unfounded and I feel the reception in my family was better than I could have hoped for.

Being Holocaust Survivors clearly influenced the way your mother and father parented you.  How do you think being the daughter of Survivors affects the way you are raising your son and daughter?

I’ve been very careful about my children’s exposure to the Holocaust because of growing up with Survivor parents. Most of this is related to my concern that, in a way, my mother was passing her atheism/agnosticism down to us with all of her stories. I wanted my children to believe in Judaism and not to have the Holocaust get in the way of that. I’ve been the transmitter of Holocaust stories to my children; a one-generation filter between my mother and them, telling them her stories but making sure that, somehow, there’s not just despair at the end of each one.

Looking Up ends when your family moves to Arizona when you’re 13.  Do you have any plans to write a sequel?  (I hope so!)

I am planning a sequel, which starts upon our arrival in Arizona. I haven’t worked out the story arc yet, so I’m not sure if it will go through only high school or get through a portion of college. Our lives changed a lot with the move and there’s a lot of story there, like Looking Up, a combination of tragedy and comedy that I hope will appeal to readers.

I enjoyed Linda’s book so much that I want to share a copy with one of my readers.  I will draw a name from the comments sections of both this post and my post reviewing the book (using the tool at www.random.org) to receive a copy of Looking Up.  Deadline to enter: midnight EDT, Monday, August 22, 2011.  (You may comment on each post to double your chance of winning!)

And the winner is…Justine!  (Giveaway is now closed.)

Please also click here for my review of Linda’s book, and be sure to check out the favorable review of Looking Up from Kirkus.

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16 responses to “Looking At Looking Up with Linda Pressman

  1. What a lovely interview with a lovely writer! I’m so glad there’s a sequel in the works!

  2. I love, love, love the idea to make “Writing Resolutions” each year. I might make mine at the beginning of the school year because that’s the “biggest” beginning for us every year – bigger than January, frankly.

  3. I am a big proponent of writing every day and in complete agreement with how it makes writing easier. The practice and discipline that come from it provide many benefits.

    I think that it is great that Linda wrote the book. So many survivors are gone and there stories disappear with them. There is a lot of value and meaning in keeping those stories alive and I think it honors the people that lived them.

  4. It’s so helpful hearing more about how Linda approached this process, how her family is reacting, and the ways in which she kept focused through the incredible effort this must have taken.

    “Tell the truth and be kind” – words to live by, aren’t they?

    As for writing daily, I get it. Exercise the muscles, through good days and bad.

    Love that you did this, Kristen!

  5. I’m right with BLW on “Tell the truth and be kind” as being words to live, and write, by. I look forward to reading “Looking Up,” and hope it finds its own mysterious way in the world just as Linda has… and Kristen too.

  6. Kristen, what a lovely interview with a lovely author. I am looking forward to reading this book. My father and his family were survivors and I have so many stories I’ve been holding inside. I am happy that Linda found a way to honor her family with writing this book. Thank you for a great post.

  7. Thank you both for this interview! I love the idea of Writer’s Resolutions. 🙂

  8. Wonderful job with your interview, Kristen! I enjoyed the book a great deal and am looking forward to a sequel, Linda! For now, I must get back to writing every day, getting myself back to writing fiction to flex those writing muscles…

  9. Kristen, thank you so much for your support of my book! I loved answering these thought-provoking questions because they made me think so much about the process and what I learned in going through it. Thanks once again to you and to your (and my) friends in the blogging community!

    • I’m so grateful to you for answering these questions, especially the one about your family’s reaction. I often read memoirs wondering, “What must her mom think of that?” so it was very satisfying to hear about how that went for you.

      I hope all my readers get a chance to read Linda’s new book!

  10. Kristen, thanks for sharing Linda’s insights with us. And Linda, I love the idea of writer’s resolutions and how keeping a writer’s notebook helped in the process. Congratulations on your success. I look forward to reading the book. Thank you.

  11. Great interview! Thank you for doing this really since it serves as a big reminder: I immediately got my act together and ordered it from Amazon!

  12. I always wondered about your family’s reaction when you think about writing your memoir/biography. It’s great to see Linda met plenty of support even though her family seemed reluctant about the idea in the first place. My grandparents lived through the first and the second world war (in occupied France) and they had stories to share with us, but often didn’t want to talk much about it. Those were very dark times in their times they seemed not to want to remember too much. A couple of my aunts lived through WWII and were more open to talk about it. I may sound very cowardly but I hope this is something my family and I never have to go through in our lives.

  13. Thanks, Kristen, for an inspiring look at a writer telling a story that cannot have been easy to get down. I’m sure that Linda’s book is not only true and kind, but also necessary.

  14. Thank you to everyone for your own inspiring comments!

  15. Yay! I won!!! Thank you Kristen.

    “Tell the truth and be kind” should be everyone’s mantra. I’ve struggled with that on my blog because I want to be honest but I’m always worried about how the people I mention in my journey will perceive what I write about them. Like today’s post, for instance. My mom will always be a part of this journey and she’s very black and white about many things – it’s either I thought what she did for me is great or not; there’s never a grey area.

    For me, most things are in various shades of grey.

    I love reading about Linda’s balance between telling the truth and making sure her family is on board with her honesty. And the fact that they are is a testament to her strength as a writer.

    p.s. Linda, I lived about a block from Edgewater Hospital (now closed) and am now a few minutes’ drive from Skokie/Evanston. Reading the memoir about these places that are so near to me pulls me even closer to your story. Love it!

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