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.