from the horse's mouth: with sarah einstein
“The Small Things That Make Up a Life”
Sarah Einstein talks to us about her memoir Mot, a new book that’s in the works, and how literature can illuminate the future as much as the past
Jess: How are you today? Are you working on anything you’re excited about?
Sarah: I’m great, thank you for asking. And yes! I’m just getting started on my next book project, which I am really excited about. It’s going to be an exploration of my relationship to my husband’s family’s past. He’s Austrian, and I’m an American Jew, so two generations back our families were on very different sides of World War II. Today, I’m going to start reading the letters and journals of his cousin, Gotthard Heinrici. Gotthard, who was known as “The Poison Dwarf,” was a general on the Eastern front and, briefly, The Supreme Commander in Berlin. But he was also out of favor, because of his refusal to join the Nazi party. His wife was half Jewish, his children a quarter Jewish, and so they would have been in great peril except that—in recognition of Gotthard’s military prowess—Hitler himself gave them “German Blood Certificates.” It’s such complex stuff, and I’m fascinated by the way that people had to navigate ways of being and resisting under Nazi rule. I think that this is a particularly timely project, given the rise of Donald Trump, the occupation of the federal building in Oregon, and the backlash against #BlackLivesMatter. How will we negotiate being good people if the political situation in the US becomes toxic?
Jess: Oh how fascinating and, yes, timely. I once saw the poet Laura Cronk read from her book Having Been an Accomplice, which included a discussion about feeling complicit with the Bush administration though she did not vote for him, about being part of a war she did not agree to enter. What are your thoughts on that negotiation, as you called it? What role does literature play in a society that may be turning toxic?
Sarah: I think that literature, at its best, allows us to crawl into the skin of another person, and to experience their way of thinking from the inside. Hopefully, this gives us both empathy and insight. The insight isn’t always pleasant. The family stories around Gotthard suggest that he refused to join the party because his wife was half Jewish, but actually, through his letters to her, it’s clear that he supported the Final Solution, and that his objections to National Socialism had more to do with the radical changes it proposed for Germans and nothing to do with Shoah. (As I read, I can’t help wondering how his wife received these letters about the “dirty” and “lazy” Jews he encountered in occupied Poland. Did these sadden her? Did she see herself apart from them? Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found a record of her answers to him, but I hope to get funding to go to Germany to search the archives for them.) But still, even if Gotthard is not a person to be admired, I think there is still a lot to learn from his intimate correspondence, and also from how family story has transformed him into a better person than he actually was. It’s both fascinating and horrifying to see, enacted on the page, the thinking that allowed him to lead the war on the Russian Front and to really come to understand what it means to believe that one is, by virtue of nationality and ethnicity, somehow uniquely entitled to keep for oneself all that is good in the world, at any cost. Hopefully, by understanding the ways in which his arguments presage some of the arguments being made today in the US, we can also see the faults in them and turn away from them.
Jess: Your memoir, Mot, is not only a meditation on friendship and the limits of what we can do for each other, but also a moving exploration of the state of homelessness in this country. Have you had any stirring or surprising reactions to that?
Sarah: Yes, I have. I’ve gotten lovely responses from people with mental illnesses who found something of themselves in the memoir, from veterans who have also struggled with homelessness, and from family members of both, and that’s been very moving.
Jess: The details in this book are just incredible. Did you keep a journal during your times with Mot? How did you find or make time to write when you were with him all day, every day at some points?
Sarah: I did. I kept very careful notes. And here I have to confess something that, it seems, I have been confessing a lot in interviews lately. The book was born as a sham. When you tell your family and friends that you are going out West to visit your homeless friend, they look alarmed and try to stop you. But if you add “because I’m writing a book about his life,” they suddenly brighten, offer you camping equipment, tell you what a great idea it is. I didn’t, then, imagine that I’d actually get the book written… who was I to write a book? But the notes were my proof that it was moving forward. Really, it wasn’t until well into the first draft that I realized I actually did have the makings of a book, and that it all started to come together.
Jess: I understand that impulse! How did telling people you were going to write the book change the attention you brought to the friendship, if at all? Did you ever tell Mot you were planning to write a book?
Sarah: Mot and I both knew that I was telling people that I would write the book. We also never believed, either of us, that I actually would. Writing a book is a big thing, and at the time, I didn’t feel capable of even some of the small things that make up a life. So it didn’t change much, except the note taking, and that became fun for us. Mot was fascinated by the process of documenting our time together, at least for most of the friendship, and because we had so much to untangle about our days, we both found sitting down at the end of them to agree on events and their causes really useful. Jess: How fascinating that you say you "didn't feel capable of the small things that make up a life," and yet you were doing so much. One of the many beautiful messages of the book, it seemed to me, was that we must be honest with ourselves about the situations we're in, about what we're capable of in the framework of those situations. I was very moved near the end (small spoiler alert!) when you chose not to keep Mot's plants because you didn't want to make false magic out of caring for them. Can you talk to me a little bit more about that impulse and your ability to overcome it?
Sarah: It was hard, because of course my friendship with Mot was infused with all the magical realism of his delusional system; magic had become an everyday thing, with old gods and portentous signs everywhere. But that was also, I knew, part of what I needed to separate myself from in Mot’s absence, and that his leaving allowed me to return to the more mundane parts of my life. Keeping those plants, and caring for them, would have made that return more difficult. As I think the book makes clear, there were a lot of things in the other parts of my life that I was not dealing with, and that I’d been using this friendship as an escape from other, more difficult truths. Letting the plants go was a part of letting Mot go, and getting back to parts of my life I’d ignored while pouring most of my energy into our friendship.
Jess: Lastly, any thoughts or advice for aspiring writers and memoirists? Is there anything you'd like to share about this book, your new book, or the writing life in general?
Sarah: I’m not sure I believe in aspiring to be a writer. Once you are putting words on the page, you are a writer—there is no need to aspire to it. If you have a pencil and a notebook, you’re good to go. (But really, of course, we are all using computers, which you probably already also have.) The tricky part is becoming a better writer today than you were yesterday, and again and again. And to keep at it even if the writing is lousy for long periods of time. It’s never about becoming a writer, which isn’t hard at all. It’s about becoming a better writer, which never ends, no matter how much you publish. I think the secret to becoming a better writer is to read all the time. Every day. I’m not someone who can, or should, write every day… some days, my brain is made of mush and it can’t conjure a single worthy sentence. But I am someone who reads every day. I try to read at least one book and one literary journal every week. I also try to read outside my tastes and my particular interests, because I think that we can set up little echo chambers for ourselves if we stay too close to the tight little niches in the writing world where our own work lives. For memoirists, this means sometimes we steal too heavily from one another, and we get these gluts of particular kinds of memoirs and personal essays… we forget that we should be stealing from the poets and the novelists instead of burglarizing our own brethren. Writers are vultures, and as soon as a work is published it becomes a corpse we’re free to pick. The secret is to find the best bits, and metabolize them into your own work. To be the best carrion eater you can be.
Sarah Einstein is the author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), Remnants of Passion (Shebooks 2014). Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Sun, Ninth Letter, PANK and other journals. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, a Best of the Net, and the AWP Prize in Creative Nonfiction. She is also the special projects editor for Brevity Magazine.