Novelist Elizabeth Rosner - Blue Nude, The Speed of Light

I call her Tuesday, September 12, 2006.

She's the middle child. "My parents were Holocaust survivors and that found its way into everything. They wanted us to be able to take care of ourselves. That I wanted to become an artist made them nervous."

"My father was from Hamburg, Germany, and my mother was from Vilna, Lithuania.

"My father was a research scientist and then an entrepreneur. My mother was a homemaker and then an interpreter."

"They were big on education. My boyfriend calls me an overachiever. It was instilled in all of us."

Luke: "What you found that children of Holocaust survivors have in common?"

Elizabeth: "We feel that we're carrying our parents' histories. We want to compensate our parents for what they endured. Sometimes this is imposed by the parents -- when kids are named after the dead, after lost children. Some children resent this and leave their parents.

"There's an unusually high frequency of artists and psychotherapists. We want to express ourselves and to heal."

Luke: "How do you react to the rampant victimology in our society? How do you ration your compassion?"

Elizabeth: "I want to say that compassion should never be rationed. It should be infinite."

Luke: "Do you ever tell anyone, 'Buck up! I'm a child of Holocaust survivors!'"

Elizabeth laughs. "No. People feel equally strongly about their own drama. I have a hierarchy about which dramas are more deserving of empathy.

"I grew up in an environment in which my suffering was never counted as legitimate. It was measured against something so extreme, so incomparably excruciating... I was denied a sensibility about my suffering."

Luke: "Should survivors of great evil and their children be held to the same standards of moral accountability as anyone else or do they deserve a break?"

Elizabeth: "That question comes up around Israel. In some ways, people who've suffered should be held to a higher moral standard."

"I was always infuriated and saddened when I'd hear anything that sounded like racism from my parents or from other survivors. You of all people should know that that is completely unacceptable under any circumstances."

Luke: "What crowd did you hang out with in highschool?"

Elizabeth: "I was somewhere between the nerds and the cool people. I never felt like I belonged to any of the crowds."

Luke: "What attitude were you raised with vis-à-vis God and Judaism?"

Elizabeth: "It was complicated. We were Modern Orthodox in our affiliation. My parents had huge disagreements about how to observe [Jewish law]. We kept kosher. We kept the Sabbath. My father and the kids would walk to synagogue on Saturday mornings and my mother would go shopping. We went out to dinner, we'd eat fish and vegetables and she'd have a shrimp cocktail. It'd piss my father off. My mother's way of being Jewish was internal, how she felt and identified. My father was more about observance and rules and affiliations. Yet, it was shocking to me to find out in my early teens that my father did not believe in God. It wasn't a theology for him but a way of life.

"It was a brutal way to grow up. I became a feminist at a young age because I felt so pissed off about being a second class citizen. My father and I had fight after fight about it. He blamed my mother for setting a bad example.

"I went to a public school and then to Hebrew school in the afternoons.

"When I became an adult, I rejected [Judaism and God]. I became a kosher vegetarian. It was a way of retaining a tribal identity. I searched in vain for a Jewish community but I'm not much of a joiner. I was looking for a place with more liberal interpretations of love and no longer referring to God with male pronouns, but even that didn't do it for me. I had mixed feelings about declaring myself as part of us vs. them.

"I feel a lot more drawn to Buddhist and other Asian notions of God that are more abstract and less patriarchal and domineering, more god in the self, god in the collective, god in oneness."

Luke: "That picture of you on the dust jacket of Blue Nude. Is it just me or is that a very sensual photo?"

Elizabeth: "It is. The photos for Speed of Light and Blue Nude were taken on the same day by the same photographer. It was a five hour session. I hadn't written Blue Nude yet. I decided to use that photo for that book because I felt it went with the book. A lot of the themes in Blue Nude are reflected in that photograph."

Luke: "How important is it to you to look good?"

Elizabeth: "That's a loaded question. In our culture there's so much emphasis on appearance. We respond to beauty. That was reinforced by my mother. The theme in Blue Nude -- can beauty save your life? That has a literal association for me with the Holocaust. I did hear stories from my mother that implied or even stated explicitly that a particular kind of non-ethnic beauty saved her life.

"One of the reasons that I chose writing over other art forms was that it wasn't going to be about me and what I looked like."

"The things that writers do to get their books read and how willing they have to be to put themselves out there. John Updike wrote recently that in the early stages of his career, he never went on the road. He never put himself out there. It was just the books went out. Now there's so much emphasis on book tours and interviews and making sure your name is on everybody's internet site.

"I was dumbstruck by how many people asked me if they were going to turn my book into a movie. I'm asked if I'm going on a book tour and how many cities I'll be going to. Everybody knows the marketing lingo now."

Luke: "How necessary were the science definitions in The Speed of Light?"

Elizabeth: "To whom?"

Luke: "To you."

Elizabeth: "I loved them as metaphor.They were useful to me as a fourth voice in the novel, as a way for Julian's inner voice to become visible to the reader. Structurally they were important for transitions and framing.

"There were times when I thought that if some readers skip these, I'd be OK with that. They were there for people who wanted to make use of them.

"I had a lot more in my draft than my editor allowed me to keep. He was right.

"Did you not like them?"

Luke: "I started skipping them."

"Do you write your books so that they are a pleasure to read or is there something more important to you than the reader's pleasure?"

Elizabeth: "I'm not thinking about pleasure, either my own or the reader's. I'm trying to get at some emotional honesty. I want the reader to feel met in some deep place."

"I have a short attention span. I watched a lot of television as a kid. I can be focused but for a short period. So I listen for the sound of one of my characters and that would last as long as it lasted [even if just for two paragraphs in the case of The Speed of Light]. For a while, I just wrote in pieces thinking I'd assemble them and they'd be longer but it felt more mosaic and I just had to surrender to telling the novel as a braid of three overlapping interweaving narrations. Any number of readers said that was challenging for them. Most people who talked to me said that once they got used to it, they loved it.

"When I started working on Blue Nude, I knew I did not want to repeat that structure. It felt right to linger longer with each character [there are two main characters, a German artist and an Israeli model]."

Luke: "How has your choice of vocation affected you?"

Elizabeth: "I have a lot of freedom. I'm free of the day-to-day grind. I choose my own schedule. I have a more insecure life, wondering when my next check is going to come. I feel that I use my best self when I write.

"I felt the same way about teaching, which I did for 20 years at the college level [Elizabeth graduated with her MFA from U.C. Irvine in 1985].

"When I get up on stage or at a book store to talk about my work, I feel lucky to do that. Having this conversation with you feels like a great privilege to me. There was a lot about my childhood that made me feel I wasn't being listened to. Now I feel seen and I feel listened to."

Luke: "If a reader feels that Julian and Paula [two of the three main characters in Light] are self-absorbed spoiled brats, is that a legitimate interpretation?"

Elizabeth: "Are you speaking personally?"

Luke: Yes. I wanted to say to them, "If you had to work for a living, you wouldn't have this privilege of self-absorption." Did you have sense of them?

Elizabeth: "I saw them as damaged and needing to grow. I was more empathetic towards them and less judgmental. I feel that's my job as a writer. If I had those judgments, I wouldn't have been able to keep going.

"I had more critical feelings about [the German artist] Danzig in Blue Nude than I did about either Julian or Paula. Danzig's more narcissistic.

"Writing for me is an exercise in compassion."

Luke: "You love that word 'compassion.'"

"How has your choice of vocation affected your relationships?"

Elizabeth: "It matters what people close to me think of my work and their willingness to read my work and talk about it with me and respond to it, preferably positively. I remember having a brief involvement with someone who was dismissive of my writing, and that was completely unacceptable. When I write, it's on my mind all the time and I want to be able to talk about it."

"It's heightened my sensitivity. I'm more easily affected by other people."

Elizabeth Rosner writes in The New York Times Sunday Magazine May 28, 2006:

Twenty-five years ago, while an undergraduate at Stanford, I got a job on campus as a lifeguard, deepening a love of swimming and water that has lasted throughout my life. I took the duties seriously and studied the swimmers with professional vigilance, relieved at the end of each day that no emergency rescue had been required. But the greatest challenge of the job was standing poolside in a bathing suit with my body on display.

Work began in the locker room, where I changed into my Speedo and surveyed my reflection, assessing what would be on view for the next few hours. I was plagued by self-criticism. I imagined the swimmers judging my shape, until I made myself remember that I was there to guard their lives, not their fantasies. Later I performed my variation of the same ablutions everyone else did, showering and hair washing, the application of lotion and makeup -- preparations for re-entering the other world of walking upright on solid land.

I call her Thursday afternoon, Sept 14, 2006.

Luke: "When did you first attempt a novel?"

Elizabeth: "When I was in graduate school in my early twenties, I was supposed to be writing fiction. I kept on feeling pulled toward memoir, so I wrote a pretend fictionalized memoir that felt like a deformed baby. I got my degree but I wasn't happy with the writing outcome. I gave the narrator the name Irene so I could trick myself that I was still writing in first person. As someone pointed out, every time I inserted an ellipse, I was hiding something, which was a good point that I did not take kindly to at the time.

"I ended up discovering that it was a [free verse] poetry collection in disguise.

"All my poetry is free verse.

"My prose has always been lyrical and my poetry prosaic.

"In my new novel, I'm working in autobiographical territory. I'm expecting it to become more fictionalized as I work with it. It might end up a memoir."

Luke: "How do you know that people are engaging with your poetry when the audience for poetry is so tiny?"

Elizabeth: "That's the truth. I don't know. I imagined that more people would find my poetry after I became published as a novelist but I'm not sure that has happened. I have this collection of poems that I sell when I do readings and speaking engagements. It is the autobiographical companion to my novels."

Luke: "How did your life change after you published a novel?"

Elizabeth: "I felt legitimized. Even so, there was something about the publication of the second novel that really affirmed that. Several people said to me after the second book came out, 'Now you're a real novelist.' As though the one book was a fluke.

"I left my teaching job when my first book was bought. That was a leap to full-time writing that I wouldn't have made [without a book contract]."

"For a long time as a kid, I was aware of being different from my peers. I grew up in a WASPy part of upstate New York (Schenectady). I was an Orthodox Jew with parents who survived the Holocaust. I was odd. When people would talk about WWII, it was so abstract, and I would think, 'My parents were there.'

"A lot of my parents closest friends were also European Jews but most of my friends were not Jewish.

"I graduated highschool at 16 and went to live in the Philippines for a year by way of a scholarship from Rotary International, who, many years later, sponsored me to live in Australia for a year.

"That (the Philippines) added a bizarre layer to my life, living in this Catholic and exotic landscape, where, again, I was a complete freak."

Luke: "Have you sought out situations where you would be isolated?"

Elizabeth: "It's starting to sound like that. I know I've sought out experiences where I would be challenged. My father turned 16 in Buchenwald. I had a profound realization of how different my life was from his, and at some level, I wanted to test myself in a difficult place. I don't have anything like a death wish. I don't choose life endangering things."

"I lived in Israel for three months in 1980. I was 20. I stayed on a radical kibbutz in defiance of my father. It was about experiencing Israel through my own awareness, not as it was imposed upon me by my family.

"I was with Israelis who were communists. They were Zionists in a completely different way.

"I had an Israeli boyfriend but it never occurred to me to imagine my life there. I never felt like I belonged there. I have mixed feelings about even traveling there now."

Luke: "Did you find teaching enervating?"

Elizabeth: "Yeah. I love teaching, but to teach well, you have to draw from the same sources as writing. You have to be present and spontaneous and attentive. I use that up in the classroom and when I get home, I'm empty."