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Nessa Rapoport on Writing, Confidence, and Being My Mother

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Nessa Rapoport is the author of four books: a novel, a book of poems, a memoir, and her latest, a novel titled Evening, out this week. Two of them I have read in manuscript form, each in one sitting. This is, to me, the mark of addictive writing. It is also—as I like to remind…
Nessa Rapoport on Writing, Confidence, and Being My Mother

Nessa Rapoport is the author of four books: a novel, a book of poems, a memoir, and her latest, a novel titled Evening, out this week. Two of them I have read in manuscript form, each in one sitting. This is, to me, the mark of addictive writing. It is also—as I like to remind the woman who wrote the books and who happens to be my mother—the mark of an attentive daughter.Evening is set in Toronto, where my mother was born and raised. It opens just after Tam, a TV journalist and mother herself, dies of breast cancer. The book follows her loved ones—including her sister, Eve—over the week of shiva in the sisters’ childhood home. Eve has been living in New York; Tam is gone before the two have a chance to recover from one last, epic fight. The novel is about first loves and great loss, ambition and faith, the pull of comfort and risk in equal measure, and the people we leave behind—because we can or because we have to.It’s odd to read a book that your own mother wrote, although I have done it several times now.I know her as the person who can pour the ideal number of Cheerios into a cereal bowl. Who has devoured every single book about the Bloomsbury Group ever published. Who let me read Middlesex in middle school because she doesn’t believe in “censorship” but wouldn’t let me read Junie B. Jones because she felt Junie had bad grammar. Who carries a sweater in her bag in case there’s a chill in the air. Who has at least a dozen travel-size toothpaste tubes in the medicine cabinet at all times.The world knows her for her dark sense of humor, her intelligence, and as one reviewer put it, her prose that “crackles with wit…and erotic heat.”So, as I said, odd.Still, I am the fortunate writer and editor to have been born to a writer and editor; I have never had to explain “what it is I do” to my mother or why I love a certain book or even sentence. We share thin wrists, distinguished noses, and an obsession with words that runs as deep as marrow. In the run-up to Evening’s release, I called her up to talk to her about craft, confidence, and making space for grief in our heartbroken world.Mattie Kahn: This is very exciting. Do you have any questions for me before we start?Nessa Rapoport: I really don’t. I trust you.I should hope so. Okay: You started this book when I was two, correct?I started it in 1990, before you were born. I wrote it in 26 years, but it’s been 30 years since I started because I had to find an agent, get it sold, get it published. So it’s been 30 years since I sat down and wrote that first chapter.The book’s two main characters are in their 30s—35 and 38. So when you started, you were closer in age to them and to me than you are now. I wanted to ask you what you know about life now that you didn’t know then.Wow. In relation to my being a writer?In relation to being a person in the world. You have experienced so much more life than Tam—whose shiva is the setting of the book—will ever get to experience and you have seen much more of the world than Eve knew she would experience. When you wrote it, I feel like you were more likely looking out of the world from their eyes. And now you have a different vantage point.Well, as a writer, I would say, we all know in abstract ways that we have our craft, we have our art, and then there’s the marketplace. But as a younger writer, I found it harder to have the clarity to understand that my confidence in my work and the quality of my work had nothing to do with my effectiveness in the marketplace.As a person, I would also say—which you’ve heard me say—that there’s a wisdom that comes from being in your 60s; you have a lucidity about life and what matters and who matters, and a much stronger desire to follow the love and part from all kinds of poisonous inputs because they don’t seem necessary anymore. And I’m sure that I didn’t have the same clarity in my 30s.I know we both agree that shiva is one of the Jewish tradition’s most intelligent rituals. You also wrote a book of poetry focused on women’s grieving. Loss is a predominant theme in your work. What about it is so interesting to you?You identified early on what you called my morose childhood. I was sensitive and porous, from the beginning. As a child, I made the child’s calculation that the pain that I was in would inevitably have to be ameliorated over time and get better. That’s how a child survives. And by pain, I mean all kinds of pain—emotional pain, historical pain, the awareness of the fragility of life, which I think I felt.And I was of course not able to understand that loss is intrinsic to life and that even if one doesn’t endure a natural tragedy, there’s always loss. And the kind of pain that I’ve experienced with loss is something I wanted to alchemize to make it useful. And the last part is, actuarially, the older one gets, the more loss there is.Yes.So, as a person who is always thinking, from the minute I wake up until the minute I fall asleep, I was trying to make my peace with it. How could I accept sorrow and suffering? How could I turn it into something valuable since it’s inevitable?Mom, that’s beautiful. What is the stupidest thing someone can say to someone who’s grieving?“How are you?”True. That’s terrible.Or, “You’ll have another child.”Oh, God. Oh, that’s worse.People do say that. I’ve never lost a child, thank God, but people do say that. Or, “Time heals,” even though it’s the truest sentiment, it takes time to understand how that’s true. And the last one is, “Let me tell you what happened to me.”People are going to read this and definitely think, Oh no, I’ve said that.Let me also add that this question is one of my favorite things to ask people who have been sitting shiva. After everyone leaves, that is a question that’s really fun to answer and laugh about later.So you’re saying that if you’ve said something horrible to someone who is grieving, hopefully that person laughed about it with their sisters later.Well, actually, the truth is that whenever people come to a shiva, they’re there because they’re trying to console. And that’s a great thing.The sisters in the book have a terrible fight, and they never really get to make up. What is your view on making amends when one person in the fight or the disagreement isn’t there? Can you still find resolution after someone has died?I have not experienced a rupture on the level that these two sisters do, but I know that the relationship with someone who’s gone continues, and it changes because as we grow older, we tell our stories to ourselves in different ways.We change our narrative to ourselves; things that felt impossible to live with assume a more modest place and other issues that we never even thought about become trauma. We look back on our relationships with people who aren’t physically there, and we reinterpret them and we remember things and we change our viewpoint as we change, and we can grow kinder toward that relationship. We can grow more critical. We can carry both those feelings.I understand now that that process continues as long as we’re alive. And I really think relationships, people who have died—not the ones that are just pure loss, where the love was untarnished by any complexity, but the other ones, the more complicated ones—I’m always renegotiating them for the better.Here’s something I knew I wanted to ask: Every time I sit down to write, I stare at the blank page and think, Oh, God, I have no idea how to do this. Really every single time. That never seems to happen to you. You have this incredible confidence about the work that you do and, sure, you have other insecurities like anyone does, but not about this. How did you nurture that? And why did I not inherit it?One way that I avoid that feeling is by not writing, as you know. [Laughs.]Fascinating technique!It really works. There are many, many pieces of swirl in my head that don’t make it onto the screen or page. I have helped so many people as an editor write their books. And I always say to them, “Write badly, write something stupid because you have to get that flow.”And the more frequently you write, the more in the flow you are. The blank screen is the worst, but I am a terrible role model. Do not follow my path. I have confidence in my work, but I don’t have the kind of confidence it takes to just sit down and be what I call in the flow and pour it forth.Well, no, I’m going to push you on this: It’s true that you don’t force yourself to write all the time. But it is also still true that when you do write, you don’t seem to really doubt yourself or doubt the quality of the work that you produce.It’s much more normal to think all the time, I’m a terrible writer and I have nothing to offer the world. But you would never say that. You have a sense of worthiness that I think is rare. And I want to know whether that ever wavered or whether that’s just my impression of you.I’m sure that I didn’t feel the same way when I was younger. I’m really thinking about this. For many, many years, people said to me, “You’re so articulate.” And it would just wash right over. I didn’t actually know what they were talking about. I came to see only with time that the ability to put thoughts into the right words is a gift.You are right that even when I got a bad review in my 20s, though, it did not make me feel, Oh, my work is terrible. But I also want to say, this is the only realm in which I feel this kind of solidity, and I also do think that you can get there over time. And I will also say that until you get there, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve produced or how many compliments you get. I have in no way received only compliments for my work. Not at all. I had to find a way to earn that confidence. That’s what I would say. I earned it, and you can earn it.That first line of this book is so haunting. It’s talking about a person who believes about relationships that “one loves, the other is loved.” That is so dramatic! Is that true?No.You paused.I was thinking, It can be true in some relationships, but do I believe it obtains as a principle of love? Not at all. I actually think that love is intrinsically reciprocal. It can take different forms, but no, I don’t believe it as a rule. I think there are couples for whom it’s true because there are people who want to worship and there are people who want to be worshiped.What do you think the allure is for people to make those kinds of declarations? I do it all the time, and you’re always like, “Don’t proclaim.”It’s hard and sometimes excruciating to live fully with the knowledge that it’s not up to us. We long to figure it out. We long to have a plan. Some like me wanted to understand life in the deepest, most profound way from the moment I can remember being a thinking person. Again, to get back to the kind of wisdom that accrues only when one’s old, I’m now finding it a relief to understand finally that I’m not in charge. Something that all the greats knew, that every religion has been trying to teach its adherents since the beginning of time.I think living through the pandemic, if we didn’t consciously know it before, we know it now. It doesn’t mean there aren’t many, many things we can do. I really believe that we’re agents in the world. And as you know, I believe in a Creator, and I believe in being a partner with the Creator, so no passivity for me. But I also understand now that life is so mysterious.We want maxims and aphorisms because we look for wisdom and we need it. And sometimes they serve. Sometimes they serve very well, but if you’re depending on them to make sense of life in order to avoid just how much we can’t know or figure out, they will let you down.That is a very good answer.Thank you.Love you, Mom.Love you, darling.Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour.Read More

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