Today, Alicia Oltuski interviewes Randy Susan Meyers, who wrote The Murderer’s Daughters, about her experience touring the nation’s synagogues and JCCs with Jewish Book Council…and talking about domestic violence in Jewish communities.
How and when did you first hear about the Jewish Book Council and their author tour?
When my book came out, my lovely (and Jewish) literary agent pushed me to try out for the author tour. “Don’t forget, Jewish people read an enormous amount,” my lovely (and Jewish) literary agent said before my book launch. “We really love books.”
I’d had the good fortune of hearing authors speak at the Jewish Community Center in Greater Boston many times; I very much wanted the chance to participate as an author.
What do you think it was about your book/yourself that made the JBC audience respond to you?
My book The Murderer’s Daughters is about sisters who witness their father kill their mother, and how their life unfolds for the next thirty years. Everyone seemed eager to discuss the reality of domestic violence in Jewish families — so long a forbidden topic. In addition, everyone opened up about the ways in which sisters — any siblings — respond so differently to the same family events, almost as though they’d been raised in different homes.
And, as always in great Jewish events, no matter how grim the topics, we found plenty of ways to find pockets of humor. There was plenty of laughing in my sessions, especially when I talked about publishing my first novel after the age of fifty.
What was your favorite experience on tour?
I grew up with a slight case of anomie, surrounded by a cultural belief that all-things-Jewish equals families-pushing-one-towards-great-achievement, while, among other family oddities, my grandmother taught me to shoplift. I was unclear what being Jewish meant or if I belonged.
Then I participated in the author’s tour. How to describe the feeling of walking into these fantastic Jewish community centers filled with readers eager to hear from you? I felt as though I were finally meeting every aunt, uncle, and cousin I’d ever wished for. Warmth and love was present everywhere.
What do you remember as the most thought-provoking or insightful question/comment you received from an audience member?
In Columbus, an audience member questioned what could be done to prevent domestic violence, which engendered a discussion about the importance of educating boys, as much as girls, about the importance of emotional and physical violence-free relationships. A healthy debate about the age to start teaching children about these issues provided, I believe, a forum for parents and educators to think about how to best bring these discussions to schools and their homes.
You’re working on a second book now. Did you feel that your experience on tour has, in any way, influenced your writing?
My second book, The Comfort of Lies (the story of three women connected by a child from a past infidelity), is finished and releasing in January 2013, from Atria Books. I’d already written most of the book before I was on tour.
Do you have any advice for authors about to go on book tour of any kind?
Anything you wish you’d known? Any favorite airports?
Pack light, in no more than two colors that all mix and match each other, have a pair of comfortable shoes to slip into, and always have almonds mixed with raisins in your bag. Layer, layer, layer outfits. Black dresses, colorful scarves.
Airports? When switching planes, know the route from one terminal to the next!
Funniest experience on tour?
In St. Louis, unbeknownst to us, they were trying out new onstage chairs: round, high, and with rotating cupped seats, Alyson Richman (author of The Lost Wife), Ellen Futterman (moderator of the panel, editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light) and I perched up in these seats and began twirling around.
Alyson tried to keep her dress from popping open, and I, too short for the chair, was desperate to stay facing the audience, rather than addressing the back of the stage. I guess our plight was all too apparent — within a short time they rescued us by bringing up regular chairs.
Did you find that most of the questions related to craft/writing or to the content/subject of your work?
Most of the questions were related to the content of my book and how my life influenced writing my novel.
Best post-reading after-party?
Past a certain hour, I am incredibly boring. The only after-partying I did was allowing myself to have room service.
Sometimes, standing in line for airport security toward the beginning of my book tour, I felt I knew what my ancestors experienced on Ellis Island — you know, minus the fumigations and crushing anxieties about how they would ever make it in this country. (I use the term ‘ancestors’ loosely here.) Excepting a supply of what I’d like to think of as shrewdly dispersed contact lenses, I had not packed well.
I’ve always thought of my profession as nothing like my father’s. Throughout much of my childhood, he earned his living as a traveling diamond merchant. Last summer, though, as I began touring for my first book, Precious Objects, my job began to resemble his just a little bit more.
When I was young, my family ascribed a sense of solemnity to travel. Baggage claim was something grave and sobering. The women would step aside and wait for my father and grandfather to push through the throngs and tug at our suitcases, sometimes faltering and being pulled along the conveyer belt for one terrifying moment before they got the better of gravity and lifted the mammoth thing from the belt. I watched as they threw their weight into it, like a sport.
Our job (my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my sisters’, and mine) was to try and spot our bags, which we did by looking for black, nondescript suitcases with ribbons my grandmother had tied around the handle, as had every other traveler. Our other job (my mother’s, my sisters’ and mine) was to prevent my four-foot ten-inch grandmother from crossing the line from waiters to luggers to try and help with the heavy lifting.
I myself am actually a relaxed traveler. Having spent a few years commuting for work and school, I’m used it. And now, after more than thirty events in about twenty cities, I’m even more used it. I’m so used to it that when I had a late-night layover in a time zone different from both my departure and arrival cities, which coincided with a run of three different events in three different states, I didn’t tell everyone about it. Only the lady at the boarding counter. She clearly cared a lot.
Since that first tour stop, I’ve also managed to pick up on a host of traveling tricks—for example, that the C-line on Southwest is something like the lowest level of the Titanic. (This is actually not true; the C-line has landed me in a seat between two of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and who were more than generous vis-à-vis armrests.)
I learned that when you travel a lot your hair smells like a different flower in every city,
owing to the array of hotel bath products.
I learned that after a full week of consecutive travel, I do not look like my author photo.
I learned that no one does not have an iPad.
But most importantly, I learned that everywhere, in every city, there are readers.
Passionate, enthusiastic, razor-sharp readers. I feel hugely grateful to the Jewish Book Council and to everyone who’s been having me over at their community centers, book stores, libraries, and clubs for allowing me to meet an incredible and eclectic sample of bibliophiles. This is amazingly heartening for a writer, and not just because it implies the possibility of an audience, but much more so, because writers love readers. Writers are readers.
My favorite thing to think about every time I get on a plane is that all over the country, there are millions of people who read in between job shifts, who get together to talk about books; people who can’t help themselves, people don’t want to help themselves. And I love them for it.