We are all shaped by the past, by our individual experiences and by the combined experience of all human beings. That is what history is. In Spanish the word for “history” and “story” are the same, which makes sense to me. I think I am especially conscious of “history” as “story” and “story” as “history” because of the history/story of my family and also because my father was a historian, so I grew up learning a lot of what we call “history” while at the same time I was learning my parents’ and grandparents’ “stories,” especially those that intersected so dramatically with the Holocaust, war and revolution, all of which are considered part of “history.” For me they were part of the same narrative. What I try to do in my fiction is what all fiction tries to do—evoke the connection between individual lives and the narrative of humanity.
Setting is very important for you. What are the places that have influenced your writing?
As a reader I like books that have a strong sense of place such as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, in which the two volcanoes loom, like gods, watching, and the cantinas speak to the reader like a drunken Greek chorus. As a writer I strive to make the places in my work come to life. My goal is for the settings to be characters in their own right. I want my readers to feel the loneliness that the New Jersey suburbs feel, to be drawn to the dangers and protection of the jungle like one is drawn to a lover. For this reason my stories are set in places that have in some way formed me and how I think and feel about the world. The places that make the most appearances in my work are the New Jersey suburbs where I grew up, New York where I went as soon as I could leave the suburbs, Vienna, where my mother was born and where we lived for a year when I was sixteen, Madrid, my second homeland, where I learned to think and dream all over again in another language, and San Francisco from where I am writing now, looking out the window of my study at Mount Tam and Twin Peaks and the scruffy backyards of my neighborhood. Bolivia is the only country that figures prominently in my writing where I have never been, yet I allow myself to write about it because I spent my childhood imagining it and because I would not exist today without it. I understand that the Bolivia of my fiction is not the real Bolivia, but it is still a real place, a place that offered shelter to my family when the rest of the world turned its back.
You travel a lot, have visited many countries in Latin America and lived abroad, so, if Bolivia is so important to you and your writing, why haven’t you been there?
That is a difficult question. I have, over the years, often begun making plans to go there, to go to the places where my mother and her family lived, but it has never happened. When I finished my studies, I considered going to Bolivia to teach English, but then I met some Spaniards that I liked, and they encouraged me to go to Spain, so that’s where I ended up. There was a time when I thought I would make a film of returning to Bolivia with my mother, but she didn’t really want to go back. She was afraid that it had changed so much, that she would no longer recognize it. Perhaps the reason I have never gone is similar to hers. I have lived so long with the Bolivia of my imagination that I am afraid that the real Bolivia would replace it, and then I would lose a part of my past, part of myself.
What frustrates you most about the publishing world?
The thing that frustrates me most is when I get no response, when I wait for weeks, months, even years for a simple reply, and all I get is silence. When I first started sending things out long before the Internet and email, I always got a response. Sometimes it was a form letter, but usually it was a personalized note that contained some kind of valuable feedback. Perhaps the work involved in responding by regular mail—putting the paper in the typewriter, folding it, tucking it into an envelope, sealing the envelope, affixing a stamp, posting the letter— gave the simple act of acknowledging someone’s existence and effort more weight. Today it is so easy to send an email, to write a few lines. Perhaps that is why we don’t value it, but it is still important. An editor or agent not responding to an author is like a teacher who takes a student’s assignment, throws it in the garbage, and never mentions it again.
How has teaching high school influenced your writing?
I cannot imagine not writing or not teaching. They are equally important, equally essential to my happiness and also to my unhappiness. Both pursuits involve more frustration and rejection than recognition and rewards, yet I can think of no other pursuits that make me feel more alive. I did not always feel this way. Ever since I have been able to read, I have wanted to be a writer, yet I chose teaching as a means to an end. I thought that it would be easy and that it would allow me the time and the flexibility I needed to write. This perception of teaching was both incorrect and arrogant. Teaching high school doesn’t leave you with extra time. It doesn’t leave you with extra emotional or intellectual energy, all of which are necessary to write. And it is not easy. Yet it was teaching not writing that pulled me into the world, fueling my curiosity and creativity so that over the course of twenty years, teaching and writing have become no longer separate pursuits but simply, my life. People love to quote the adage, “Those who can’t write, teach.” I despise this sentiment for two reasons: because it implies that writing is more important than teaching and because it implies that teaching has nothing to do with creativity or talent. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A teacher like a writer must imagine the lives and thoughts of others. At every moment in the classroom I must be aware of my students’ thoughts and emotions, their histories, their struggles and triumphs. I must know what confuses them, what excites them, what makes a student fling a book across the room and scream, “Fuck this shit,” what makes another stay up all night writing the story of how she travelled with her younger brother from Guatemala and how the coyote abandoned them in the bus station in Tijuana. And I must imagine what would have happened to her and her brother if the wrong person had found them, sitting on a dirty plastic bench, crying. That is where the story is for both the writer and the teacher, for the essence of both writing and teaching is imagining other people’s lives and, by doing so, helping them understand themselves and their own talents and strengths.
Do you ever write about teaching?
I do. In 2010 my wife Lori accepted a fellowship as Visiting Writer at UNC, and I was the following spouse. Since we moved to San Francisco in 2005, I had been the main breadwinner in the family while she had worked part-time so she could finish her collection of short stories. I did not want to move to North Carolina, but I had just finished a particularly difficult year at a charter school where many of the students were involved with gangs and had little faith in their abilities and the future. This had not been my first time working in a difficult school, but the hopelessness and violence had gotten to me and I was exhausted. So, when Lori was asked to stay on at UNC for a second year, I took a break from teaching and worked as a server at a PF Chang-type of restaurant in Chapel Hill, the kind of restaurant with way too many types of Asian food on the menu and really cheap lunch specials. I finally had more time to write, and what started pouring out of me were essays. Most of the essays were about teaching. I hadn’t written nonfiction since writing term papers in college, and, though I enjoy reading nonfiction, I never really considered writing it. Still, that’s what came out.
Also, the protagonist of the novel that I am working on now is a high school teacher. In the beginning of the book her partner of twenty years has left her for a man and she is incapable of holding it together for her students, so she abandons them, gets in her car, leaves San Francisco and goes back to New York and eventually to Nicaragua where her mother lived during the war.
Did these essays turn into a book?
As a matter of fact, they did. The first version of the book was a collection of essays, but people in the business told me that it was really hard to sell essay collections and that I should try to turn it into a memoir, so I did. Now people are telling me that memoirs are really hard to sell unless you’re Michelle Obama or Bruce Springsteen, so I might try to turn it back into an essay collection. One of the essays is part of an anthology that also just came out. The anthology is edited by Lee Gutkind and is called What I Didn’t Know: True Stories of Becoming a Teacher. Anyone who is interested in education and what it is really like to be a teacher should read it.
Is it true that cats serve as your muses? And why do you say it’s difficult to understand how anyone can write without cats?
I think it’s possible to write without cats, but it would be extremely difficult. If there are no cats around, then one has to rely on the memory of cats, which isn’t the same. Some people try using photographs, cat mugs and calendars, and cute cat videos, but that has never worked for me because the reason that cats are such great muses is precisely because they’re not cute at all. They are annoying and selfish and independent like the great heroes of literature. I don’t know how I wrote without cats before I learned to love them. I guess that’s why it took me twenty years to write my first novel. Perhaps if I had figured things out about cats earlier, it wouldn’t have taken me so long.
ANNE RAEFF is author of the story collection The Jungle Around Us (October 2016, University of Georgia Press),
which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Raeff’s debut novel Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia
was published in 2002 by MacAdam/Cage. Her stories and essays have appeared in the New England Review,
ZYZZYVA, and Guernica among other places. Raeff, who is fluent in several languages, has lived in various
cultures around the world. She has also taught in Spain, Malaysia, New York City, Albuquerque/Santa Fe, and
San Francisco. Today she is proud to be a high school teacher at East Palo Alto Academy, where she teaches
English and history, and works primarily with recent immigrants. She, too, is a child of immigrants and much of
her writing draws on her family’s history as refugees from war and the Holocaust. She lives with her wife in San