By Savanna Scott Leslie
In a Pale Blue Light (Sumach Press, 2009) describes the experiences of your largely autobiographical protagonist, Libka, and her family, who are Lithuanian Jewish immigrants to South Africa in the 1930s. The Newcomers (Sumach Press, 2013) picks up their story after they’ve emigrated again, this time to the United States. How do your diasporic experiences inform your writing?
My motivation for writing is to reveal what lies in the human heart. The circumstances of the setting and dislocation will influence the characters’ lives but the heart is the same everywhere. In the case of my novel In a Pale Blue Light, the class system and the prejudice in South Africa had a deep effect on Libka. In the sequel, The Newcomers, the cloistered small-town environment in New England and the expectations for a young woman were contrary to the life Libka envisioned.
In your preface to The Newcomers, you write that “it would be untrue to say that I was not drawing on personal experience in creating my story,” and that the “imagination” of fiction that you’ve used to write these books “reveals the truth in a greater dimension” than pure autobiography. Why did you choose to focus your imagination on Libka’s life (or your own life) as a young woman between ages twelve and sixteen?
I did not choose to focus on Libka at that time in her life. Her story wrote itself. It appears from my writing that adolescence is a strong force for me—a time when one is exposed to new experiences, when one is exploring and discovering and feeling deeply. It was in Libka’s adolescence that she lost her beloved father; it was then too that the family relocated to a new country and she was faced with bewildering experiences.
As for imagination, it is often difficult to differentiate between reality and what lies in one’s mind. When I discuss my childhood experiences with my siblings, they remember the same events in their own way. In my writing I draw on what is emotionally sound and authentic. The behaviour of the characters must ring true; but the power of fiction is that it allows one to penetrate deeper, to venture beyond the surface and the cold facts, and therefore to reveal the character in a fuller dimension.
Does your work usually “write itself” in that sense, without your choosing deliberately to focus on a specific space or time?
In a work of fiction, an outline would set a barrier for me. Though within my mind the characters live, the excitement for me is the writing process and how they reveal themselves in a deeper way. Yes, the characters do take over and guide me.
While both novels focus mainly on Libka, her mother, Sara, is also a focus. She’s eccentric and often misunderstood, but very much a quintessentially selfless mother. Why is motherhood, and especially Sara’s style of motherhood, such a strong current in your novels?
Motherhood has never fascinated me. I write about a particular woman who happened to be my mother and how she handled displacement and widowhood, and the deep devotion she had for her children. Many readers have written in to say mothers are no longer like that.
Vivid characters abound in these books. The major characters, Libka and Sara, especially stand out with their individual reactions to their shared experiences. But even characters who are present for very little of the plot—like Sayyed bin Noor and, later, Garfinkel—figure prominently throughout the narrative. How important are your characters to your writing?
Even before I became an editor and novelist, I was a playwright. When I went off to New York it was to study theatre. The first play I wrote that received a national award was written in a long weekend — the characters took over. Hearing them talk and seeing them in action seem to come naturally to me. I surprised myself when in recent years I actually produced a few novels.
Both of these novels discuss sexual assault. Libka is twice molested by trusted adult men. Her fear of bringing “disgrace to the whole family” (The Newcomers, 120) prevents her from seeking help. Libka thinks that her penchant for solitude and quiet must somehow have “invited” this violation—that it could never have happened to “other girls, fun-loving girls” (In a Pale Blue Light, 135). As well as stigmatizing reticent or solitary children, does society protect them less from abuse?
My intention was not to make a statement about sexual abuse and how society reacts to it. The experiences Libka encountered were transitory, not sustained. Perhaps a more outspoken and aggressive girl could have dealt better with the transgressions than the shy and withdrawn Libka.
In Canada, the majority of sexual assaults aren’t reported to police and women and girls are likely to experience sexual assault multiple times. Do you think discussion of sexual assault has become more open since the 1930s–1940s, when your story is set?
I am not an authority on sexual abuse, but I’m quite sure that nowadays women are more outspoken about the subject and are quick to condemn the offender.
You’ve worked for and with many publishers. You were an editor at The Macmillan Company, McGraw-Hill, and McClelland and Stewart. You’ve published short stories with Lyle Stuart and published plays with smaller presses. Your novels In a Pale Blue Light and The Newcomers were published by Sumach Press, an imprint of Three O’Clock Press in Toronto with a feminist mandate. How did working with a feminist publisher differ from working with publishers that aren’t officially feminist?
I was not aware of any difference, nor was that the reason I published my books with Sumach Press. I had faith in the company as a respected literary publisher, and the editors responded sympathetically to my work.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? Has feminism informed your work?
I have never liked to be placed in categories and I do not consider myself a feminist. Perhaps I have been fortunate that men have been my strongest proponents. It may be because I was working in major cities (New York and Toronto) and the men I encountered had achieved a status and did not have to prove anything. If I encountered difficulty, it came from women who felt threatened and insecure.
Did these women have something to prove?
I found that accomplished women who felt secure within themselves welcomed other women whom they respected professionally. In New York I had the good fortune to be hired by a brilliant woman who had made a mark in the “man’s world.” She bore no bitterness or animosity. I am well aware that there is another side to the issue. If, like the character Libka in my novels, I had tried to navigate in a small, cloistered environment, I might have had a different experience.
Many people reject labels like “feminist.” Is there something specific about “feminist” as a category that doesn’t resonate with you, or do you choose not to identify with the word as part of your wider dislike of categories?
It goes beyond the category. I trust in the power of the individual. If I have been helped in my life, it has been by an individual, no matter what gender, not by affiliation with a group,
The Globe and Mail’s Jim Bartley describes your writing style as “quietly extraordinary,” unpacking a “powerful purpose” with subtlety. As we’ve seen, Libka is very quiet and reserved. The people around her, both in Cape Town and Little Falls, mistake her quietness for mental illness or snobbery. How has this quietness shaped your works and your career?
I have always tried to be myself, and if I am quiet, so be it. Perhaps two people talking about me may wonder if it’s the same person. But whenever I have tried to go against my nature and be more demanding and aggressive, it has backfired. Being myself has worked best for me.
Do you consider yourself the same person as Libka from the novels, or has Libka developed her own individuality?
Deep within me I identify strongly with Libka. Emotionally I think we are the same. But fiction has enabled me to imagine and go beyond reality, so that she is perhaps larger than life.
Have literary reviews made a difference in your career?
It is encouraging to get good reviews from respected sources, but I derive more satisfaction when I touch the lives of readers.
When you were writing the second of these novels, The Newcomers, did you write with your readers in mind? Did you know from the response to In a Pale Blue Light that this story had touched readers’ lives?
I write from my heart and for myself. I also find that this is the best way to touch readers emotionally. I could never write to order or to satisfy a certain market.
Racism, classism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism are powerful currents in your novels. From your experience as an editor and writer, do you think Canada’s publishing industry encourages diversity?
I myself do not write to confront the injustices of the world. These themes evolve only if they impact on the lives of the characters. But, yes, Canada’s current publishing industry does encourage diversity.
What does motivate you to write?
I suppose emotions that live deep within me. Often these are buried in my subconscious and only through writing do I discover how powerfully alive these memories and emotions are. There are painful events that I have wanted to leave behind, but they have not permitted this in my writing.
CWILA found that in 2013, men wrote 57% of books reviewed by major Canadian publications while women wrote 37% and non-binary authors wrote 0.03%. (Men and women authors collaborated on 5.06% and 0.14% of reviewed authors’ genders were unknown.) Are these numbers significant to you? Do you feel that numbers alone can describe the state of equity in Canadian publishing?
I have never viewed it in terms of numbers. There are men who excel and women who excel. I do not know if these individuals are chosen due to their gender or their accomplishment. I would hope it is the latter.
In your opinion, what makes a book excel? Is there a universal quality to literature that resonates with disparate individuals?
As a reader and editor, I admire fine descriptive writing and a unique style, but for me the essence of a work is the creation of living characters. I believe that a good writer must have a deep understanding of the psyche. And the human heart is universal.
Lily Poritz Miller was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and came to the United States with her family when she was fifteen. She began her editorial career in book publishing in New York at The Macmillan Company and later McGraw-Hill, then moved to Toronto, where she was senior editor at McClelland and Stewart for eighteen years.
She has written three plays, which were performed in New York and Toronto, and received a Samuel French national award for her play The Proud One. Her short stories were published in the anthology American Scene: New Voices. She has also written for film. In 2009 her novel In a Pale Blue Light was published to critical acclaim, followed by the sequel, The Newcomers, released in 2013.
Savanna Scott Leslie is an editor based in Toronto. She has a BA in philosophy and Russian literature from the University of Toronto and a certificate in publishing from Ryerson University.