I get to do things like this — interview myself, I mean. Which is kind of a love/hate thing right away. Because in this type of activity there is a temptation toward grandiosity and humility all in a single moment. Because I have to wonder who really cares what I might ask myself and what the answers might be. Because when I post on Facebook that I’m going to do this and invite some help with questions, I actually receive some really intriguing and compelling suggestions. The point is, I truly enjoy (I am amazed at this!) being given the chance to investigate myself and to know that this is “my job.” Asking myself questions and trying to answer them is in fact a basic description of my full-time employment.
Why do you write?
Writing is one of the few ways I know to make sense of the world. Here is an incomplete list of things I love to do: swim walk dance eat drink make love sleep laugh cry dream hug listen to music sing play with my dog climb trees lie in the sun give presents to people whisper in the ear of a child taste something new learn something amazing watch the clouds count the stars memorize the sky. Yes, this list could go on for days. But when the state of the planet is too heartbreaking to endure, when I am convinced there is probably no hope for the human species and that the damage already done is far too vast to be repaired — when all of that looms so large and inevitable that I can hardly manage to stand up anymore, I still think it might be the tiniest bit useful to put a few words on a page. For the sake of remembering beauty, at least. Or truth. Or both.
“I wanted to make something out of nothing. Out of air, words.” This is a line from a poem in my new collection GRAVITY. When I was about eleven years old, I took a Jewish philosophy class (really!) in which we discussed interpretations of the Old Testament indicating that only God has the power to “create,” whereas mere humans can only “make” things out of other things. That planted a challenging seed of inspiration. Despite the fact that my father had told me (this is in the poem too) that I needed to learn how to use my hands, because those were the type of skills that kept people alive in a concentration camp, I had other ideas about what to do with my life. Creating out of air, words.
How do you write? Do you have a particular method?
Writing demands and also grants full attention to/from every part of my being. This may sound melodramatic, but when I am “in the zone,” which only happens every once in a while and cannot really be summoned forth but happens all on its own, I get to have the most exquisite experience. I’m simultaneously in my mind and out of it; inside my body and observing it; at the heart of my heart and yet all the way beyond it. Dare I say that when this miracle occurs, I feel as though I’m in the presence of grace, in awe of the mystery, a soul in surrender to a vast and unknowable universe?
I wake up almost every single morning and choose how I am going to spend my day. You undoubtedly know many other writers who do not feel this way because they have a disciplined practice of marching over to the desk as soon as they open their eyes, ready and willing to pound away at whatever project for some pre-determined number of hours or until they have produced some pre-ordained number of words. This is not how I do it. I’m not proud of this fact about myself, because I often feel quite ashamed of having so little discipline, but somehow despite my random and even haphazard approach to writing, I manage to persevere and to complete book-length works. At least every seven or eight years. Which is not fast. And which pacing probably has a lot to do with aforementioned lack of discipline. AND, that being said, whenever I mention in front of an audience that sometimes I only write for thirty minutes a day, there is always a collective sigh of relief in the room.
What is one thing that constantly surprises and delights you?
Everything is connected. For instance: reading an airplane magazine I see little tidbits about how many mechanics it takes to change a reading lightbulb on a plane (answer = 1) and a few pages later I find a random mention of Thomas Edison (in a promotional article about a new condiment, which of course has absolutely no relevance to electricity whatsoever and yet there he is, being quoted for saying “there is no substitute for hard work,” and the article implies that everyone will recognize his name and not even need to be reminded what he is famous for). Another for instance: A few days ago while visiting a friend in Sacramento, I am introduced to a friend of his whom I have never met. When I ask where she is from she says, “Schenectady.” I say, “That’s impossible. No one is from Schenectady. Except me.” We laugh. Then she says, “My parents met at GE and my grandfather was friends with Charles Steinmetz.” At this point, I am about to fall down in a state of absurd wonderment. She knows nothing about me, or about my book, but I explain to her (and to you): my newest novel ELECTRIC CITY is about to come out. It’s all about Schenectady and Charles Steinmetz and GE. And everything I see and hear and taste and smell and touch — absolutely everything seems mystically and perfectly connected to that. While I was writing the novel, every piece of history and image, every scientific and magical detail came floating toward me exactly when I needed it. A simple formula: Research + Imagination + Synchronicity = Bliss.
What worries you most about being a writer?
When I walk into a bookstore or a library, I might (or might not) find one of my books on its shelves. This is complicated. The day my first novel was published I walked into my closest neighborhood bookstore, where I’d been buying and browsing for years, and suddenly realized I could look for my own title and my own name on the cover of a brand new book. I also suddenly realized that the store was FULL of other people’s books. People very much like me. Which instantly led to the question, how was anyone going to be able to find mine, or choose mine, amidst all of that seemingly infinite variety? (Note: The launch date for my debut novel THE SPEED OF LIGHT was exactly one week before 9-11.)
What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
Writing is the practice of being yourself. This is a line borrowed (and adapted) from some teachers of an improvisational dance form that used to be a big part of my life. I love the idea that my most essential responsibility is to be exactly and completely myself, nobody else. It takes conscious and ongoing effort to find just the right balance between absorbing the influences of writers I admire/revere while at the same time remaining free of competitiveness enough to stay true to my own voice, material, sensibility, and passion. By keeping my gaze turned inward — to discover the stories I’ve been given, and to decipher the poems and messages that are passing through me — I am able to share myself with you, one word at a time.
Persevere. This is the one-word answer.
Why didn’t you become a doctor like your mother wanted you to be?
Because sometimes it feels as though the right good book can save someone’s life. The poems and novels and essays I write are sincerely offered as a form of humble service — that is, I imagine myself whispering about hope to one reader at a time. I’ve talked at length elsewhere about what it means to write as a daughter of two Holocaust survivors. Whether or not my material directly addresses this inheritance, it’s always present in the form of my sense of obligation to live a life that is meaningful and generous of spirit.
Beinga writer feels like a (mostly) noble pursuit. Again, complicated. Because there is still a certain ingredient of ego involved in being a writer, more than, say, being a forest monk. And because despite what I’ve said above, I do often suffer from an excruciating abundance of existential doubt and despair, wondering what I am contributing to the world. How my writing can matter in a genuinely positive sense, and whether it might not have been better for everyone if I had become a doctor after all? Answer (one of my favorite lines spoken often by my brother): Nobody knows.
Any final words for now?
Curiosity is one of the few absolute requirements for an optimistic life.I started writing poems and stories as soon as I learned how to shape letters on a page. If all goes well, I will be privileged to sustain this endeavor for however many years remain to me, and I will get to grow and change and improve and even surprise myself, by way of an insatiable curiosity (and a generous dose of courage). If legendary cellist Pablo Casals could say that he still practiced at the age of 90 because he was “making progress,” then I will consider myself astonishingly fortunate to do the same as a writer.
Can I start over now, and redo this interview with an entirely different set of questions? 🙂
ELIZABETH ROSNER is the author of The Speed of Light, which has been translated into nine languages and was awarded the Harold U. Ribalow Prize administered by Hadassah Magazine and judged by Elie Wiesel. It was shortlisted for France’s Prix Femina and the recipient of the Prix France Bleu Gironde. Rosner also received the 2002 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer Award for fiction. Her second novel, Blue Nude, was named a 2006 Best book by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her essays have been published by The New York Times Magazine, Elle, the Forward, The Huffington Post, and many anthologies. She is a frequent book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Review of Books.