Women’s Memoirs Interviews Author Barbara Scheiber

by Matilda Butler on April 7, 2014

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #114 – Memoir Writing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Welcome Author Barbara Scheiber

Kendra and I are always thrilled to have the opportunity to talk with an author. Each person has her own struggle to write and to craft her story. There are highs and lows along the way. In our discussions with authors, we cover a broad range of topics that we believe will be of help to you in your writing.

Although we primarily interview memoir authors, today we’re pleased to welcome Barbara Scheiber to discuss her recently published book, We’ll Go to Coney Island. We think you’ll find her responses quite intriguing.

Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: Welcome Barbara. Congratulations on your new book. We’ve just finished reading it and are delighted to have the opportunity to explore several facets of this enthralling story with you.

Your book, We’ll Go to Coney Island, is part memoir, part fiction. Can you share with us why you wrote in this cross-genre? In other words, were you ever tempted to write it as pure memoir?

Barbara Scheiber, authorBarbara Scheiber: I’ll never forget the day when, as a child, I was away at camp opening letters from home. One of the letters was in a handwriting I didn’t recognize, and when I opened it, I was overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and fear. It was a love letter to my father from his secretary — a woman I had met many times on visits to my father’s office. Clearly, she had put it in the wrong envelope. I tore it up and flushed it down the toilet and never said a word about it to anyone.

That moment stayed in my mind forever, and when I started to write, it became the source of one of my first stories. I had spent my working life as a journalist and non-fiction writer, and had looked forward to the day when retirement would give me freedom to write fiction. I was to discover that the roots of my fiction would be entwined with memory.

Memories – sometimes remembered events, sometimes places and people – inspired and shaped the narratives that unfolded. Different scenes from the past came to mind, and became the source of stories. The scene described above – of my accidentally reading a love letter to my father – was revised in many ways when I wrote the story ‘Sycamore Farm.’ I re-invented the content of that letter and the surrounding incidents, but what I didn’t try to change was the emotional impact of that incident.

As I wrote that story and the others that came after, I searched for a deeper understanding of the characters, and for story lines that revealed their conflicts and yearnings, strengths and flaws. I gave myself freedom to imagine new characters and create events; none of the family members, as drawn in the book, are a total reflection of their real-life selves. But in their own individual ways, each of them reveals truths that have emerged in my life about myself and the people closest to me.

Though I drew from my experiences, I wasn’t tempted to write the book as pure memoir. In many ways, I feel that pure memoir is more challenging than fiction, with the need to be as true as possible to actual experiences while exploring deeper layers of meaning. Though it is not a typical example, I do see my book as a form of memoir – fictionalized, but throughout, driven by a search for underlying emotional realities in my life.

Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: Barbara, I’m particularly taken with your statement about not changing the emotional impact of a scene from your life. I think so many memoirists struggle with that aspect of writing. It often seems easier to engage in writing facts rather than emotions. I’m so glad that you highlighted that aspect of your writing.

As I mentioned, we enjoyed reading your book and were especially struck with the structure you used. Of course there are many structures a writer can use. Some people, for example, write using a time-based structure. But you did something quite different. I wonder if you would explain how you decided to develop your story? Was the final structure the original idea or did it change over time?

Barbara Scheiber, authorBarbara Scheiber: I did not originally think of my stories as part of a novel. When I finally retired and had time to try my hand at fiction, two stories emerged – “The Eclipse of 1925” and “Sycamore Farm.” Both were published in Whetstone, a literary magazine, which encouraged me to go on. I didn’t know then that the stories would grow into a novel – or that the novel would span two generations of a family’s life.

As I went on to write other stories, I realized that a form of novel was taking shape – from different points of view and covering nearly a century in time. I was concerned at first about the gaps in years between many of the stories, but came to feel that readers would willingly fill in those gaps, using their intuition to imagine the missing parts (not really missing, I realized, but simply not visible).

There was another way the book “just grew” rather than being planned. “Minna” was originally a single short story. I began to feel that the story needed more, that I wanted to give details of the courtship of the two main characters – Aaron and Minna. I wanted to tell about their painful earlier lives as immigrants living on the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 20th century. My wish to expand the understanding of their experience brought about an even greater change: The story grew – chapter by chapter – into a novella.

My challenge then became how to incorporate a novella into a collection of short stories in an uneven time frame. The combination felt awkward and for a long time I was frustrated by the problem of structure. The answer came as a bolt of inspiration: to alternate chapters of the novella with stories in the book. I tried it out – and felt excited that the new form worked, that it added an understanding of each character, and gave greater insight into later actions.

With this format it became easier to tell the full story of a family – showing how actions and decisions of one family member can affect others in many different ways, and have an impact on future generations.

Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: The photo on the cover of your book is quite striking. I understand that it was taken by the famous photographer Walker Evans and not only has a link to you but also influenced the opening of the book. We’d love to have you share that story with our readers.

Barbara Scheiber, authorBarbara Scheiber: I saw the photo taken by Walker Evans while I was working on the final stories in my book. I was stunned. The photo – Couple at Coney Island – was like a message from the past. A man and a woman stand with their backs to the camera, his arm around her waist, she leaning close. Despite the fact that their faces are turned away, there was no question in my mind about their identities, or their romantic relationship. I recognized the couple immediately. It was my father and his secretary.

The picture was taken in 1928. I was six years old at the time, and already had a sense of the secret in my father’s life. He often took me on visits to his office, where I drew pictures endlessly on typing paper, and gradually absorbed clues and hints that he and his secretary had a special connection, a romantic one. It was a disturbing awareness; I knew I wasn’t supposed to know, and tried to pretend to myself that it wasn’t true. I kept the knowledge hidden, and never revealed what I had observed to anyone. Here – in a photo taken by a great photographer who roamed the city looking for stories-in-pictures – was an actual image of the fear that had pursued me as a young child.

The Walker Evans photograph was a revelation of themes that pervaded much of my life, and inspired the book. It caught the seductive dream my father held out to those who loved him – a dream of joy and new discoveries. It was a dream that held a hidden side – of abandonment and loss.

In the opening of the book, I tried to capture the essence of that dream – in the heart of the woman who went with him that day to Coney Island. I wrote the section right after seeing the photograph, seeking images and words to describe a pivotal moment of promise and risk.

Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: When you wrote the fictionalized memoir, did you have a theme and message in mind when you began? In other words, did you have a specific message that you wanted your readers to take away? If so, what was it? Did having a theme and message help to direct your writing? Do you think having a theme or message helped make it clear to you which vignettes or stories to use?

Barbara Scheiber, authorBarbara Scheiber: The themes and message of the book emerged as I wrote it. I did not have a pre-conceived idea of the central thoughts I wanted to convey; I was more focused on the conflicts and strivings that consumed each of the characters.

As I wrote, it became clear to me that the central characters share a common need for secrecy, an impulse to conceal knowledge of the actions and motivations of others and of themselves. Each of those characters — Aaron, Minna, and their daughter Rachel – habitually bury truth to protect themselves and to protect others, to keep danger away.

Despite their flaws, I felt the courage within all those key figures. Aaron and Minna, in their own ways, struggle to overcome the deprivations and hurts of their early lives and strive for a better life. Scars remain; success in many ways eludes them. But each of them brings an indomitable force to their efforts to fulfill their dreams.

For Rachel, the heritage of self-deception brings her to the edge of life crisis. Secrecy has its costs and the revelation of these costs is an underlying theme of the book – along with the will and determination to confront deception and face the truth.

Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: Barbara, would you tell our readers a little about your background?

I grew up on 173rd Street in New York City, in a small apartment overlooking the Hudson and The George Washington Bridge, and spent hours scribbling stories and writing plays to act out with my brother. Writing continued to be a key part of my life during high school and college, where I wrote for our school newspapers and enjoyed dramatic production.

I graduated from Vassar in 1942, just after World War II broke out, and joined two classmates in a project to build community-level support for the goals of the war effort. Our work in a small town in Iowa stimulating the creation of a community-wide cooperative program caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited us to the White House to describe our effort to the President – a truly thrilling moment in my young life. I wrote numerous articles about that experience, and went on to work for United Press Radio and later, to write extensively on civil rights, focusing especially on rights of people with disabilities.

My two non-fiction books grew out of that work – Unlocking Potential – College Other Choices for Learning Disabled People, and Fulfilling Dreams, A Handbook for People with Williams Syndrome.

My husband, Walter A. Scheiber, has had a successful career as a local government administrator – work that took us to various different communities in the United States. We have four grown children, all writers, the youngest of whom has Williams syndrome.

We’ll Go to Coney Island is my first novel.

Women's Memoir LogoWomen’s Memoirs: Thank you Barbara for sharing your perspective with our readers.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tanmay Roy April 7, 2014 at

Thank for the detailed discussions between two of you. Inspired by reading the Barbara’s background. Thumbs up!

Louise Appell April 7, 2014 at

Wonderful interview. The questions give Ms. Scheiber an opportunity to expand on the motivations and conundrums of writing a story that is at once personal and universal.

jamuna advani May 25, 2014 at

interesting interview with lots of ideas to learn.

Matilda Butler May 26, 2014 at

Hi Jamuna: Thanks for stopping by. Barbara Scheiber’s interview and her book are both fascinating.

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