I spent five or six years of my youth interviewing rock stars. I interviewed them backstage, after concerts. I interviewed them in their homes, in recording studios and in radio and television stations. I interviewed them in London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Monterey, California.
I interviewed Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, the Who, the Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher and dozens of others.
It was the mid to late 1960’s. It all began because my father wanted me to be a lawyer. He thought that I would be better than Perry Mason, the lawyer played by Raymond Burr, who won his case, on television, every week.
It is very hard to rebel if, like me, you are the child of two people who were imprisoned in Nazi death camps and had almost everyone they loved in the universe murdered. My rebellion was unplanned. It seemed to come out of the blue. I was at a high school for gifted students, and I successfully botched any plans to become a better lawyer than Perry Mason by going to see Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, twice, instead of sitting for my final year school exams.
I’m not sure what I thought I was going to do with my life when it became obvious that I had not sat for the exams and therefore failed the year. I think I wasn’t thinking. Psycho didn’t help me to think any more clearly. It just left me terrified—it was a terrifying movie.
Eventually, after months and months of watching me riding my bicycle in circles around my parents’ small back yard in order to lose weight, my mother, much to my horror, said I would have to look for a job.
My father was bitterly disappointed when, through a stroke of massive good fortune and possibly a degree of deception, I, who didn’t know how to load a sheet of paper into a typewriter, got a job as a journalist. He thought journalism wasn’t a real job. And certainly not a profession. He was even more appalled when he realized I was working for a rock music newspaper. Australia’s first rock music newspaper.
I traveled the world at a very young age for this newspaper. I interviewed rock stars in an era when you could talk to them without today’s entourage of minders, assistants, managers and public relations people present. I interviewed Mick Jagger in his apartment, Cher borrowed my false eyelashes and Janis Joplin and I discussed difficult mothers. It was, in so many ways, a much more innocent time.
A lot of people thought I had a glamorous job. Although, let me tell you that travelling with Gene Pitney or the Troggs, whose hit at the time was “Wild Thing,” and staying at boarding houses in the north of England is far removed from anyone’s notion of glamour. My father couldn’t have been less impressed or less interested in my job. For several years he harbored a small hope that I might yet end up a lawyer.
In my new novel, Lola Bensky, Lola Bensky is a nineteen-year-old rock journalist who irons her hair straight and asks a lot of questions. Mick Jagger makes her a cup of tea and Jimi Hendrix, possibly, propositions her. Lola spends her days planning diets and interviewing rock stars.
I loved being Lola Bensky. And I liked sharing initials with her. My long-term editor calls me LB. I called Lola Bensky LB in all the notes I made for the novel. It wasn’t at all confusing. I knew exactly which LB I was referring to.
Lola Bensky, which is set in 1967, is a book of fiction. But, I did, in real life, interview every one of the rock stars I wrote about in the novel. I wanted to paint as honest a portrait of the rock stars I interviewed as I could. I wanted to draw an accurate and intimate picture of this remarkable group of musicians.
When my father, who is now ninety-seven, saw the book, he was annoyed all over again. I have written sixteen books. No other book of mine has irritated him like this one. It has brought back all of his dreams of having a daughter who could stride into a courtroom brandishing her law degree, and, week after week, against all the odds, win every case.
The Mothers is the first book I’ve written that does not primarily consist of Jewish characters. It’s a little weird that with my first book—where there are pretty much only Jews, even in the department stores and hotels, at the theater and the market—I had no idea I was writing an American Jewish novel. I was just telling this family’s extensive story. I was writing an American story.
This book is also an American story. But similarly, I had no idea that this book was dealing with “cross cultural issues,” which is what some reviewers and readers have reported. I wrote a book chronicling a couple’s struggle to have children. But what I didn’t realize is that, because they are from different backgrounds—the wife, Jesse, is Jewish, the husband, Ramon, is first generation Italian and Spanish—they handle their highs and lows of their experience differently. Though her family has not been particularly observant, Jesse’s memories and her experiences are distinctly Jewish, in addition to being particularly American. She has memories of Passovers with her family, as well as growing up with her sister in suburban Virginia. She remembers the seventies when her mother working was an unusual situation. Her mother was one of the few women she knew who held a job.
Ramon is European and his experience—of speaking many languages and traversing a European landscape embedded in the past—differs from Jesse’s. The two argue over how they will raise the child they don’t even yet have. They don’t know the gender or the race of their potential child, nor do they know where in the country he or she will come from, or when, and still these issues of identity and how the child will be raised are of huge concern to them.
What happens when how we raise our children becomes an intellectual pursuit? Jesse has had more time than most to think about what it means to be a mother. As we know, it all becomes clear once a child arrives, but Jesse is stuck in a zone where she can only think about the future hypothetically. What is lost and what is gained from a shift in cultures? As a mother, what will she bring with her from her past? What will she choose or be forced to leave behind?
Do writers always know what we are writing? No. I am always—always—surprised by what readers take from my books. And they catch things that a writer doesn’t. This book is about Jesse’s struggle to become a mother, but it is also about a marriage. Because this is a story about two families joining up. It’s about sameness; it’s about difference. It’s about being yoked to another and about being freed. I think this is a story about wanting. But you, reader, might find an entirely new and other story being told.