Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
By Ariel Gordon
Alison Pick is a southern Ontario born-and-bred poet, novelist, and memoirist.
As an adult, Pick discovered her great-grandparents were Jews and that they died in Auschwitz. Her grandparents fled to Canada, keeping their Jewish identity a secret—even from their children, including Pick's father.
That story inspired her 2010 novel Far to Go, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. It has also given rise to Between Gods, a memoir of Pick's conversion to Judaism. Pick was in Winnipeg earlier this week for Thin Air, Winnipeg International Writing Festival.
She recently spoke with Winnipeg writer Ariel Gordon.
Q: What do you want people to know about Between Gods?
AP: Between Gods tells the story of the transformation of my religious identity, but it is a book that will appeal to anyone who has gone through a transformation of any kind. It speaks to both obvious external changes (from a single person to a spouse, from a child-free person to a parent) and to the more subtle, internal changes that we all experience every day as part of our inner lives.
Q: How was writing a memoir unlike writing poetry or fiction? Or is all writing writing?
AP: Poetry—still my first love—is a genre unto itself. But writing a memoir, I was surprised to discover, is not so different from writing a novel. Both require the same basic elements: a setting, characters, tension, a narrative trajectory. I think there is an idea that memoirs tell The Truth, and that all a writer has to do in order to write one is transcribe, in beautiful language, "what actually happened." In fact, as a memoirist you are making curatorial decisions very similar to the ones a novelist makes: where to begin your story, where to end, what to include, what to leave out.
Q: This book is written out of your own history, out of your family's history. What were the hardest things about this project for you? Was there anything surprising in it for you?
AP: The hardest thing was to turn this huge mess of complex and nuanced feeling and experience into a pleasurable reading experience. Life doesn't always flow, and doesn't tend to resolve itself—at least not entirely—and yet, with a book, you are bound by a set of literary expectations and conventions. As the writer, you have to wrap things up to a certain extent or else risk leaving your reader unsatisfied. Also, while the majority of my family members were fully on board with the project, I did have some strife with one or two relatives who weren't so keen on me telling a story they felt (correctly!) was also theirs.
Q: Is it strange to be a character in someone else's memoir—I'm referring to Jennifer Kingsley's Paddlenorth, an account of a 2005 canoe trip in the Arctic, which will also appear this fall—or are you accustomed to the distortions that storytelling sometimes imposes on 'real life'?
AP: It is strange, yes, and humbling in the best kind of way. In a year when I am publishing a book that implicates various people in my own life, it was a good experience to be on the other side of that equation and to be reminded how vulnerable it is to be written about. Someone else's version of "the truth" goes into the public sphere, and regardless of whether you remember things the same way, their version is the one that gets preserved for posterity. All that said, Jenny did an excellent job and I very much enjoyed reading her book. I would have described some of the events that happened differently, but that's only natural as I am a different person.
Q: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?
AP: I'm not writing anything yet—too busy with the publicity for Between Gods (a happy problem). My next novel is already under contract with my UK publisher, though, and they'd like to see a draft in a very short amount of time (I won't say how long as it will just make me panic). So, very soon I will be writing again.
On the reading front, I have a great stack of books beside my bed. I'm heading out to the Banff Centre to teach next week, so I'm re-reading some books I think my students might like: Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, and, my own writing-Bible, A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins. I've got The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri lined up, and I've also been dipping into When I First Held You, an essay collection about fatherhood. My friend Alexi Zenter, the author of The Lobster Kings, has a truly spectacular piece in there about anger and his daughters. I recommend it.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Stowaways, her second collection of poetry, was published earlier this year.