Interview: Patty Friedmann, Author of Too Jewish | by April Pohren
Patty Friedmann has several literary releases to her name, including six darkly comic literary novels set in New Orleans, as well as the humor book Too Smart to Be Rich, and a young adult novel, Taken Away, as well as her latest literary e-novel titled Too Jewish.
In addition to novels, Ms. Friedmann has published several reviews, essays, and short stories in Publishers Weekly, Newsweek, Oxford American,Speakeasy, Horn Gallery, Short Story, LA LIT, Brightleaf, New Orleans Review, and The Times-Picayune. Oxford American listed Secondhand Smokewith 29 titles that included Gone With the Wind, Deliverance, and A Lesson Before Dying as the greatest Underrated Southern Books.
Patty Friedmann’s novels have been chosen as Discover Great New Writers, Original Voices, and Book Sense 76 selections, in addition, her humor book was syndicated by the New York Times.
Ms. Friedmann resides in New Orleans. Readers can learn more about her and her work at her website, blog and Facebook.
Please tell us a bit about your book, Too Jewish, and what you hope readers take away from reading it.
I’ve always been unabashed about autobiographical elements in my fiction, but Too Jewish set out to tell a deeply personal story, through and through. I came from what I called a “mixed” marriage: my mother was fifth-generation upper-crust New Orleans Jewish, as well assimilated into that city’s crazy-quilt social fabric as was possible; my father was a German Jew who had escaped Germany at the last possible moment, leaving behind a mother who refused to believe what was happening. The novel deviates from truth in a crucial way: the father character does not want to know his mother’s fate. As the young couple struggles against their separate legacies — her parents being perhaps the most cruel of all — the novel downspirals to tragedy and yet buoys the reader with the love they have for each other and for their daughter, a misfit based on what I mold into my imagined self.
I want the reader to see an unusual Holocaust story. Here is a man who escaped one form of prejudice only to learn of prejudice that comes from his own people in the mid-century Deep South. I also want the reader to cut down another layer and consider the central issue of the book. The father deals with “knowing.” Not knowing his mother’s fate is a major choice. It’s a universal decision: when do we probe; when do we protect ourselves?
Who are your favorite characters in the story?
This book is told in three novellas, through Bernie the father, Letty the mother, and Darby the daughter. Since Darby is based on me, it would make sense I’d like her best, but since the book is written flat-out to vindicate my father’s sad life, Bernie is my favorite. When Darby wants to fit in with the other girls, Bernie buys Coke and Oreos, not Pepsi and Hydrox cookies. He’s just like my daddy.
Do you have a favorite line or excerpt from your book?
“When the train came to a halt, it was not rail personnel who came to the compartment but an SS officer. I was accustomed to SS officers. I didn’t flinch. “Raus!” he said. The English meaning of that word is “out,” but in German it means so much more. Germans say it to their children, and their children learn to jump and run. I stood up, bumping into my compartment mates as we pushed to the exit. “Juden?” the officer said. None of us said a word. He asked for our passports. The gentleman handed over their passports, and as he did so, I carefully slipped one of the gold coins out of my left shoe. My socks were damp and made it difficult to reach down, but some power inside me made my fingers nimble and fast, and I palmed the coin. I felt where the other coin was, just in case. The ring was nestled down in the toe of my other shoe. It wasn’t coming out unless I had a gun to my head. That didn’t seem to be what was going to happen. This officer was no older than I was. He was frightened of himself. When he pushed the man and woman out farther, I told him to wait, that surely there was some misunderstanding. He asked for my passport. Instead I slipped him the coin. “They’re my parents,” I said. “I don’t think so,” he said. He turned and walked away, pushing the woman roughly down the passageway.
Their baggage was still in the overhead rack. I considered my other coin. They hadn’t smiled at me. They hadn’t believed me.
“Until I saw Axel in America, I did not allow anyone in any crowd or small space to be an individual to me.”
If your current release were to be turned into a movie, who would you love to see play what characters and why?
I’d raid “A Serious Man” for Sari Lennick for the role of Letty because she has that quality of worldly unworldliness. She could be ethnic and yet assimilated, and she could age through the role. Natalie Portman also seems a logical choice for Letty because she could play a young Jewish girl — New Orleans natives actually have no accent — and then could age with the story.
Christoph Waltz from “Inglourious Basterds” (and also “Water for Elephants”?) could pass for Jewish, and he could master the evolution of the German accent as Bernie learns English. Most importantly, he would come across as vulnerable and sympathetic.
“A Serious Man” also offers Michael Stuhlbarg. He’s a companion piece to Sari Lennick, A Bernie to her Letty.
What are your favorite aspects of writing?
I’m no different from most writers. I like the pregnancy part, the gestation. I write from the opening sentence to the moment when suddenly I find I’m finished — no outline, no summary. I rarely rewrite, except maybe from one day to the next in a few words or phrases. It’s just like reading a book. Forward motion only. So I revel in the unfolding, sometimes chortling with pleasure when a great phrase or scene surprises me. It’s a few months filled with hope.
Your least favorite aspects of writing?
I loathe, absolutely loathe “having written.” No good can come of it. I don’t hear the praise, I don’t do well with editing suggestions. And promotion, especially public appearances, makes me insane. No one except J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon has figured out how to make writing purely a solitary pursuit. But it should be. Writers are raw people. Or at least I am.
Who are some of your favorite authors/books?
I’m shamelessly mired in the past. I could reread and reread J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. On a superficial level, each conjures up a place I’ve lived and loved. A little deeper, each has a wise humor. Most importantly, all have a certain ambiguity about how people behave that makes me keep exploring.
What are you reading right now?
Despite my daughter’s brilliant analysis that the reason I was depressed was because of what I was reading, I’m still mired in Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home. It confirms what I think I heard a long time ago, that her freshman year she had the third-floor single in Haven House at Smith, which was my room junior year. A year when I was completely nuts. There’s no connection, except my current mood. My personalized license plate reads “BELLJAR.”
If you could have a dinner party and invite five authors – dead or alive – who would they be and what would you serve them?
I’d invite Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, Jerzy Kozynski, Franz Kafka, and… Shirley Ann Grau. The first four are the greatest wordsmiths of the past century or so, which makes them the greatest wordsmiths of all times, and it doesn’t hurt that their world views are very dark and bemused. I’d invite Shirley because she’s a friend of mine. One night she and I were in our cups with a local theater director named Carl. He said, “What do you look for in a friend?” Shirley told an anecdote that said, in essence, that she looked for someone who could find fun on the spur of the moment. I said I looked for cynicism. Then Carl said he looked for loyalty and devotion. To which Shirley replied, “Oh, you meant something personal.” She’d fit in with that crowd.
I’d serve hard liquor and peanuts.
What is a book that you wish you could say that you had written and why?
I wish I’d written Ulysses. It would mean I was that brilliant.
What is the greatest piece of advice (for writing and/or just living) that you have heard?
I’d say the same thing I told an audience at a high school where I once was a guest speaker. I was asked if I had any advice for aspiring writers.
“Misbehave,” I said.
I heard a version of this idea from a very strange source. When I was a freshman at Smith, I was asked by Mlle. Weed to come in for a conference. The surely virginal 50-something professor said to 17-year-old me, “I’m not telling you to go sit in bars, but unless you do something, you’re never going to have what it takes to understand nineteenth-century French literature.”
To me that meant one thing. Misbehave.
I’ve been off the map ever since.
Probably my longest lasting cut-up was choosing to have a child out of wedlock in 1975 when it was decidedly not a Hollywood thing to do. It’s forgotten now (the act, not the daughter), but at the time I caught a lot of flak and built a pretty good novel around it. I’ve toyed with law and convention and personal safety. Drugs have had little to do with my adventures in squalor, and the result is that I know a lot about human nature, all of which informs my fiction. When the end of my life comes I’m not going to have any regrets.
Interview: Patty Friedmann’s New Orleans Love Story | by Kasi Williamson
Novelist Patty Friedmann is a native and keen observer of New Orleans. Side Effects, out in January from Shoemaker and Hoard, is the newest of her five novels. We recently chatted via e-mail about her work and her city—topics which, I learned, are about as separate for Friedmann as one breath from the next.
Kasi Williamson: New Orleans is the setting of your books, but more than that, the city is a character in your books, or the characters in your books are the city. Class and race become personal issues, rather than only social ones, and the network of people and places involves an intense familiarity and love. I’m not someone who has an intimate relationship with New Orleans, but your books make me feel the loss of the city utterly.
Patty Friedmann: Since my very first novel, The Exact Image of Mother, I’ve always thought of New Orleans as a mother figure in my books. In that novel the mother was very vain and irresponsible, and I can’t think of a better description for the city. I picture a woman, beautiful and disheveled, and thoroughly incapable of tending those entrusted to her care because she’s just too busy looking at herself in the mirror. When I got to Side Effects, I had no way of knowing that I was going to be so prescient in portraying how poorly the city’s institutions takes care of its people—rich, poor, black, white. Luciana’s very proper uptown white mother dies in Baptist Hospital, and Luciana comments that there are no good hospitals in New Orleans, that if a person brags about a hospital it is only that she came out alive. Baptist was showcased on the national news for unspeakable horrors. And Vendetta Greene’s daughter attends an all-black public school where there’s really no place for a well raised child. We’ve all seen now that the New Orleans public schools are a disaster. My characters’ personal issues become social issues because they live in a city lacking the ability to tend its “children.” It’s only by the fluke of a natural disaster that it’s been revealed what kind of a maternal character New Orleans is. To lose New Orleans would be like losing one’s mother. But to lose her as a young child.
KW: Is New Orleans lost? Or, do you think, is your New Orleans lost?
PF: My New Orleans isn’t lost, and of course I think that’s the only one that matters. My New Orleans is the one with a sense of humor and irony, and it’s out in full force. I pay fierce attention to what people say and how people act, and while I know there’s a low-grade post-traumatic stress disorder in probably a hundred percent of the population, everyone seems to be wise and funny and philosophical about the circumstances. I have one friend who’s been living for two months without electricity, three others who lost their houses, another whose mother died after evacuating. But they can make FEMA jokes with the best of us. That’s surface stuff, though. I have to touch on the deep racial, socio-economic material I dealt with in Side Effects. If I look at the national news, I have fears because it looks so much as if we’re going to have racial turf wars. And then where will we have a chance for the kind of love and friendship that was possible in my novel and, I think, not so possible in many places outside New Orleans? If I ignore the national news and just get out on the streets, I don’t think New Orleans is lost at all.
KW: I’ve read in a couple of recent pieces that you intend to keep working on Plastic, the book that you were writing before the flood. I also know that you’ve been working as the first floor of your house is being rebuilt. How is your writing progressing? I don’t mean to be too analytical about what is likely an organic process, have you noticed any particular shifts in your writing, in how or what you write?
PF: Continuing to write Plastic at first struck me as being as frivolous as, say, having plastic surgery as soon as I came back to town. The story is a sequel to Eleanor Rushing, a sort of “Eleanor Does Body Dysmorphia.” But I literally had an epiphany one day that the book was about transformation, and the storm was about transformation, and with that I went back to the keyboard and segued straight into the storm. New Orleans is nothing if not transformed. It was easy to write when I first came home because I had no TV, Internet, or telephone. A shameful confession. Now I play too much and write less, so I’m back to my old habits. As for how I’ve been affected internally as a writer, I’m not sure. I do know that while I was trapped in the city because I didn’t evacuate, I hand-wrote a huge piece about my experience that the Oxford American whittled down. I also had a piece in the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, accompanied by a full-page photo; yikes! So I have allowed myself to put a toe into nonfiction and have found I don’t like it. I have a suspicion that when I finish with Plastic I’m going to find a shocking qualitative difference in my tone. I’m afraid I’m getting sweet. I waded waist-deep through the muck, and my dark cynicism might have washed off.
KW: What do you hear from other New Orleans writers? I’ve heard often about musicians who have relocated or returned home, but I’ve only heard news of a few writers. Do you know of many who, like you, have made it home?
PF: I have to divide writers between fiction and nonfiction, and in truth what I’ve seen coming out of here mostly has been nonfiction. In carload lots. No one can stop talking about what a treasure New Orleans is and was; no one can stop talking about his or her experience since August 29. So if I were asked whether people who put words on paper have returned and put out work, I’d say yes, I’ve seen a lot of them. But fiction writers? Nope. I had a very long talk with Chris Wiltz just today. She sees herself a year away from producing a piece of literary fiction, and she says she’s hard-pressed to name more than one other writer who’s back in town and resuming the mantle of being a New Orleans novelist. It’s a baffling job. Avoiding clichés always was hard; now it’s especially hard.
KW: For those of us who live outside of the area, and who, no matter how much CNN we watch, may never really be able to grasp what’s going on in all of its complexity and immediacy—what seems urgent to you that we should know about what’s happening now?
PF: I don’t know why, but an expression I hear around here pops into mind: “The Lord takes care of children and damn fools.” I think that we in New Orleans have believed this for a long time, and we believe it now. And that’s why we continue to act like damn fools. If I could make a single pronouncement to the world it would be: We are damn fools who do not know what is best for ourselves, and some philosopher kings should come in here and dictate a plan of action. And then those philosopher kings should underwrite that plan. I’m being hyperbolic, but in realistic terms, I’d like us to be able to listen to experts like the Urban Land Institute and move forward, keeping our character while losing our shoot-ourselves-in-the-foot mentality. But maybe that’s not possible, because New Orleans’s charm derives from its astonishing ability to live happily in previous century.
KW: In Eleanor Rushing, the title character attends every city council meeting, and as I was reading I couldn’t help but wonder: are you doing that now? What are those meetings like?
PF: It would be hard to find a person more politically apathetic than I am. Katrina has forced me to be aware of my surroundings, and I’m not comfortable having to formulate opinions. Though I do vote, to quote A Thousand Clowns, “somewhere to the left of whoopee.” I have watched what are called “town meetings” on television, and they are tiny bits of constructive activity interspersed into huge stretches of group therapy. People get up and screech and ventilate and accomplish nothing, and the mayor listens and nods and uses no discipline. This is a frightening waste of time. I’m glad they’re not televised nationally. It was bad enough when Representative Jefferson brought Mama Dee Cole to a congressional hearing and she spouted off about dynamiting the levees. It’s no wonder we’re perceived as a town full of cranks. Our cranks are our treasures, but they shouldn’t be running the asylum. I’m one of them, and I don’t want any power.
KW: Side Effects, your newest novel, and Secondhand Smoke—even the titles of your books refer to unintended consequences, or people and places at the periphery. What about New Orleans, do you think, gives voice to these characters?
PF: I like that: consequences done twice. I never caught that. I guess if I take it a step further, I’d have to say I’m dealing with the effects of toxicity. Especially in Secondhand Smoke, I was dealing with a character who was so mean that everyone around her was poisoned by being in her presence—more than by the smoke from her cigarette. Don’t forget that secondhand smoke kills the innocent bystander a lot faster than the smoker herself. Jerusha Bailey, the woman in question, was an angry, racist white woman, lower middle class and baffled by urbanity. She’s the New Orleans no one pays attention to, but she’s the real New Orleans, the one that made A Confederacy of Dunces so over the top. With her it’s easy to see cause and effect. With the characters in Side Effects, the marginalization is more nuanced. Yes, this book is about race, but it’s also about family, and all three protagonists have siblings who are bullies. Luciana’s brother is a classic Tulane dropout who sees socializing with blacks as demeaning; Vendetta’s alcoholic sister thinks Vendetta’s willingness to fix up her white friend with a black man is treachery. These women may work in a drugstore, but what threatens to harm them happens on the side.
KW: Love and ugliness live side-by-side in many of your novels. In Side Effects, Ciana, Lennon, and Vendetta are lovely but still human, and though Corinne is shallow and greedy to the point of darkness, I can still feel some amount of empathy for her. Again, realizing that I’m asking about an organic process, can you give any insight into how you discover these characters?
PF: When I’ve had to explore exactly how I write I a novel I’ve come to realize that I start with a character. In the case of this book, I started out with Ciana. I only needed a couple of pieces of information about her, and the story could begin. Since I had a slightly sick fascination with my pharmacy (what goes through the minds of these people who give me the drugs that keep me behaving like a civilized person?), I had an entire world for her to live in. And since I have weight issues, I made her fat. I’m very small now, but I was a fat kid, and once fat, always fat. With those two pieces of information, Luciana was fully formed in my mind, and she immediately had a very strong voice. An attitude, even. And in no time her world became populated. Then I gave her a story, a pretty easy task because my mother died recently and strangely. Once I had the infrastructure in place, the characters had to speak and act, and I had to be careful to manipulate them to give sympathy where sympathy was due. I’m surprised that Corinne evoked any positive feeling at all, because, as she evolved, she took on the back story of my most despised relative, and I made no effort to redeem her. Though of course I couldn’t make her into a caricature. You can actually have people in your life who are caricatures, who have no redeeming qualities, but you can’t use them straight up in fiction because it seems too contrived.
KW: When it comes to Jerusha Bailey and Eleanor Rushing, though, who clearly embody some of these darker elements, I found myself being…well, maybe not completely won over, but I sort of loved them like family (that is, with clear knowledge of and no endorsement for their shortcomings, though “shortcomings” is probably a mild word in their cases). Did you meet any difficulties in creating these characters who are dark, yet empathetic?
PF: Jerusha Bailey and Eleanor Rushing are my two favorite characters and, strangely, the histories of their creations are polar opposites. Jerusha is shamelessly based on an actual person; Eleanor was made up out of whole cloth. But they each emerged with a distinctive, can’t-catch-me voice, and each made the reader go all the way through the book to fall in, well, not love, but like with her. Crusty old Jerusha learned her lesson and softened up just enough; Eleanor didn’t learn a thing, but the reader learned that he couldn’t believe half of what Eleanor was saying and that Eleanor should be forgiven. I love both characters to death, and when I do readings I channel each of them like crazy. It’s probably because neither has any censors when she speaks. I might not believe the words I’m saying, but it certainly is fun being that outrageous. So I have a feeling that it’s easy for me to create these dark characters because I’m just spouting out from my dark recesses. I’m not bragging when I say that everyone considers me darkly comical. And I’m not bragging when I say not too many people hate me. So I guess I bring my capacity to be dark and not despicable together in my writing.
An excerpt of Side Effects is published in the winter 2005 issue of Speakeasy.