Past contributor, Stephanie Hart published a collection of memoir and short stories earlier this year. Mirror Mirror, collects vignettes that explore Hart’s life in ways real and imagined. It is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble in print and digital formats.
Fiction editor, Janice Eidus, recently interviewed Hart. The exchange follows:
JE – What was your experience of writing memoir like?
SH – I found that exploring and reimagining the distant and recent past was a process of discovery. I can compare it to tip toeing into a dark room and turning on the light. People and places came alive to me in a way, which felt both familiar, and in some respects entirely new. I was living the experiences this time from the vantage point of the present; I could feel the heartbeat of the moment and then stand back and reflect upon what had happened.
JE – Why did you decide to write this book in the form of vignettes?
SH – I have written each vignette as a complete story in itself with its own rhythm and intention. By linking the vignettes together I felt I could make the narrative whole all the more powerful.
JE – Your book is a combination of memoir and stories. How do feel fact and fiction compliment each other?
SH – By working from both memory and imagination, I believe I have been able to bring my family members and friends to life in greater depth than I would have if I had relied only on heard and remembered facts. The stories about my grandmother in 19th Century Moscow are based on a felt sense of her character and personality. I could feel myself entering her consciousness on the eve of her wedding. I was able to walk with her down the winding dimly lit streets of Moscow feeling her love for the city.
JE – Your book is divided into sections, which travel in time from your childhood to your adult life, back to the imagined lives of your grandparents and great grandparents lives in 19th Century Russia, and again to the present. What connections would you like readers to make between past and present?
SH – The vignettes are organized in way that will allow readers to see past and present on a continuum. Despite differences in culture and century, my relationship with my parents in Manhattan of the 1950s and 60s has a definite similarity to the relationship between my mother and her father in Newark of the 1920s and the relationship between my grandfather and great grandfather in Odessa of the 1890s. This alternately harsh and tender love from parent to child is the framework for many of the stories.
JE – There are many stories about family members, especially about your mother. Do you consider the mother/daughter relationship to be an important element in the book?
SH – Yes. The mother/daughter relationship is a very important element in the book. As a child I saw my mother as larger than life, dazzlingly beautiful, fashionable, a charismatic figure like a queen or a fairy princess who would dispense kindness or cruelty on a whim. I write about learning to move out of her shadow, establishing my own identity, and coming to see us both as separate entities with our own dreams, fears and aspirations. It was an enlightening journey getting to know us both not only as mother and daughter but as individuals in our own right.
JE – Are their any themes that recur in the book?
SH – We come from the past; we learn from the past; we can’t escape the past and all the experiences that make us who we are today. Don’t be afraid to hold up a mirror to your own past; you will discover joyful moments, painful moments, and revealing moments. While recalling the past can be life changing, inhabiting the present is equally important. In a story called “Decisions, I describe myself sitting in a Jazz Café in New York with friends distracted from the moment by my racing thoughts. Finally I become attuned to the music, which “… sounds like jangling bells and then begins to jump and spin and swell into a caravan of joining rhythms, the only sounds there are.”
JE – Has examining your life and the lives of your family members been a healing experience? Do you believe your stories would invite other readers to do the same?
SH – Writing this book has been a form of artistic healing for me. I came to know my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents as people distinct and separate from me yet at the same time intimately connected to me. By writing and reflecting on painful moments, I was able to let them go and extend compassion and forgiveness to my parents and myself. I believe my stories have a universal appeal. Readers relate to them and naturally recall their own family backgrounds in a way that is both healing and enlightening.
JE – What are you working on now?
SH – I’m working on a novel about two brothers who grow up on the Brooklyn waterfront during the 1920s and 30s. One brother becomes a political leader in his community while the other brother leaves Brooklyn to become an architect in San Francisco. The love and contentiousness between them plays out against the backdrop of World War II and McCarthyism. I am interested in the way historical events affect the lives of ordinary people.
JE – Do you have a set writing schedule?
SH – Since I have a heavy teaching schedule, I find that working in the morning is most productive so that my creative process doesn’t get fusedwith lesson plans. While walking on a track in the gym, I let stories take shape in my mind and then come home and begin to type.
JE – Where does your inspiration come from?
SH – My need to know and understand the people I write about and of course most importantly to know myself. I think in pictures and am inspired by the visual world around me; I have a need to look and listen. In one of the final stories of the book I let time narrow and almost stop…”In a moment I fully inhabit I hear chimes, I feel the wind, a motor hums; birds sing and stop. I hear a rake, a hammer and a whistle…I see a profusion of blue flowers, fists of delicate petals.” Small details as part of the fabric of memory are my greatest source of inspiration.
Stephanie Hart teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons The New School for Design in New York City. Mirror Mirror A Collection of Memoirs and Stories is her third book. She is also the author of Clouds Like Horses and Other Stories (which contains some of the stories of Mirror Mirror) and the young adult novel Is There Any Way Out of Sixth Grade? A member of Poets and Writers, and the Authors Guild, her stories and essays have appeared in anthologies such as Mondo James Dean, The Best Stories from ducts.org, and literary magazines including The Sun, Jewish Currents, And Then, and ducts.org. Stephanie was born and raised in New York. She lives in Manhattan.
Novelist, short story writer, and essayist Janice Eidus has twice won the O.Henry Prize for her short stories, as well as a Pushcart Prize, a Redbook Prize, and numerous other awards.
Janice’s 2008 novel, THE WAR OF THE ROSENS, won anIndependent Publishers Award in Religion, and was nominated for the prestigious Sophie Brody Medal, an award for the most distinguished contribution to Jewish Literature for Adults.
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Janice’s latest novel, THE LAST JEWISH VIRGIN was published in the Fall of 2010. Read about it here. Marion Winik, NPR commentator, called it “Twilight… with a sense of humor, a brain, and a feminist subtext.” JANUARY MAGAZINE named it one of the top 10 books of 2010. Buy it from Amazon.