Posts tagged ‘memoir’

An Interview With Talented Author Susan Petersen Avitzour

How did you become involved with the subject or theme of your book?

My eighteen-year-old daughter Timora died of leukemia in 2001. My book is a memoir of my journey with her while she was ill, then without her after she left this world.

Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre?  If you write more than one, how do you balance them?

I find that writing stories on or based on my own life comes the most easily to me; I’ve also found that people are very interested in hearing my stories, as I’ve had quite an eventful life. Whether I write a story as straight memoir or use it as the basis for fiction depends on my intuition as to which genre will be most effective for that particular piece.

Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?

I come from a bookworm family.  I started reading at the age of four and haven’t stopped since; before then, my mother read me stories just about every day.  I can’t say why, but I’ve loved writing from the time I remember myself, though I’m the only member of my family who writes seriously.

How long have you been writing?

I wrote my first story in second grade; it was called “Susan the Clown,” and was inspired by my experience of being the odd child out among my peers. I’ve been doing creative writing ever since.

What kind(s) of writing do you do?

In the past I did translations (Hebrew to English) and a bit of journalism, and spent three years as a grant writer raising funds for nonprofit organizations. Nowadays I concentrate on my own writing – personal essays, memoir, and fiction.

What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling/etc.?

By getting us to laugh, cry, and ponder, books and stories also get us in touch with our deepest inner selves.  Reading, writing, and storytelling also connect people with each other through their common human experience; they let us know that we’re not alone in what we think and feel.  This can be done literally or symbolically: whether through memoirs like my own, which directly reflect readers’ experiences, or through creative fiction – even of the wildest kind – which strikes deep emotional chords even where readers will never come close to action such as that which takes place in the bookstory.

How does your book relate to your spiritual practice or other life path?

One of its main themes is how my belief in God and practice of Judaism affected and were affected by Timora’s illness and death.  One of its two main parts is a journal that records my thoughts and reflections as I grieve for my daughter.  Whenever an entry falls on or near a Jewish or Israeli holiday or other special day, I explore the day’s meaning and message for me, in light of Timora’s story, or my own journey.  Interestingly, the meaning I find in each case is relevant to all people facing hardship, and not only to Jews or to bereaved parents.  In addition, some of the book’s segments deal with completely universal spiritual subjects, such as the question why and how to love God in an often-cruel world.

What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

My goals were mainly two: To tell Timora’s and my stories in a way that would engross and move readers; and to write a book that would be of some comfort and/or assistance to people enduring hardship. From the feedback my readers have given me so far, it seems I achieved both goals.  As far as my first aim – to write a good story – goes, a great many people have told me they couldn’t put the book down, and many of those stayed up all night reading it.  Just about everyone who’s contacted me after reading it has used expressions such as “beautifully written,” “powerful,” and “extremely moving.”  As for the second, some have told me they found it uplifting or inspiring; others have told me that it’s helped them deal with difficulties they are facing in their own lives, even if these difficulties are very different from those I describe in the memoir – and thanked me for writing it.

What do you think most characterizes your writing?

I think my writing is clear, emotionally honest, intense, and evocative; in any case, so I’ve been told. I’m not afraid to write about topics that might be difficult for most people to tell about.

What was the hardest part of writing this book? 

Timora was a writer herself, and left behind a diary she’d kept from the time she returned to school after her first bone marrow transplant; the last entry is dated a week before she entered the hospital for the last time.  My husband Daniel read the diary a few months after she died, and then again when he had it typed up, but I couldn’t touch it for many years.  Even after I finally decided to read it, I’d open it, read a little and close it, then “forget” to go back to it for weeks at a time.  Writing the memoir, which is as much Timora’s story as mine, forced me to finally read the diary through, as it was very important to me that the book be as factually accurate as possible.  Reading the diary was one of the emotionally hardest things I’ve ever done, as you can well imagine.  Yet it was a wonderful experience in another way, as I rediscovered just how resilient Timora was.  One day she’d write about being physically hurting, mentally exhausted, and emotionally drained – and the next she’d be writing cheerfully and optimistically about plans she’d made with her sisters or friends.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Creating the book was a double process for me. On the one hand, it was therapeutic in that it forced me to dig into deep aspects of my experience which I’d been avoiding, and to explore various facets of their meaning for me.  That part was quite hard, but ultimately strengthened me.  On the other, the process was deeply artistic in that I had to decide how to take my raw experience and put it into language, and fashion into a whole with integrity – a work that would be meaningful to others besides myself.  I very much enjoyed this second part of the process – choosing my words for accuracy and for flow, and structuring the text for maximum impact. For this reason, I loved being edited.

Are there vocabulary words or concepts in your book that may be new to readers?  Define some of those.

The book contains Jewish concepts and Hebrew and Yiddish words, but I was careful to make sure their meaning would be clear from the text itself.

Are there misconceptions that people have about your book?  If so, explain.

People might think that a book like mine is a depressing read.  People who’ve read it, however, have found the story sad but optimistic, as it depicts a loving family dealing with extreme hardship in a way that only increases their love for each other, and a grieving process in which I ultimately affirm faith and love despite suffering and loss.

What inspires you? 

Seeing how other people face life’s hardships without losing their sense of humor and their ability to enjoy themselves and love others.

How did you get to be where you are in your life today?

I think I’ve gotten where I am in life due to a combination of attitude and action.  I’ve always been very open to the world and to new experience, which has brought me to places I hadn’t even dreamed of – such as moving to Israel and raising seven children.  I’m also quite an optimist; part of me refuses to accept limits to what I can do if I set my mind to it – such as raising seven children while working full time in successive careers as a lawyer, a mediator, a commercial writer and, now, a psychotherapist. Finally, as just about anyone would say in response to this question, I’ve always been willing to put in the hours and work hard.

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?  What impact have they had on your writing?

I’ve probably been influenced one way or another by every author I’ve ever read.  What comes to mind when I’m asked this question, though, is that Arhundati Roy (The God of Small Things) showed me that one can write about even the most traumatic of subjects in language that flows like poetry. The memoir/novel that most impressed me was Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness), which he calls a novel, and reads like a novel, but is very closely based on his life.  I think it’s the best of his books, and reading it has made me feel less like I’m “cheating” by basing my stories on my own experiences.

What did you find most useful in learning to write?  What was least useful or most destructive?

Good editing was probably most useful for all the kinds of writing I’ve done – from legal opinions to translation to short stories to my memoir.  I’ve also benefitted a great deal from feedback I’ve received in workshops given by professional writers.  The most destructive thing I’ve done is compare myself with other authors.  My writing is my own, and what I need to do is just make it the best I possibly can.

Are you a full-time or part-time writer?  How does that affect your writing?

I’m a part-time writer. This certainly reduces my output, as I have many fewer hours available for writing, and am more tired during those hours, than would be the case if I wrote full-time.  But at the same time, being involved in all my other activities mean that I’m living more of life; perhaps this provides me with more raw material for my writing.

What are some day jobs that you have held?  If any of them impacted your writing, share an example.

My work as a lawyer sharpened my ability to analyze situations logically and describe them in clear, concise language.  Mediating taught me to listen closely when people describe their inner experiences, and to see beneath the surface of their words.  Commercial writing, of course, polished my style by giving me the opportunity to work with fine professional writers and editors.

How do you feel about ebooks vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?

I personally love the sensual feel of holding a print book in my hands, and of turning paper pages one by one. I think print books are easier on my eyes, too, though that problem will probably be solved in the near future.  But there’s no turning back the tide of technology, and we’ll just need to adapt.

What do you think is the future of reading/writing?

Reading fills a deep human need for storytelling, and it will certainly always be with us, though it may change its form.  It’s true that at the moment, as attention spans continue to shorten, there is a move away from longer, slower-paced works.  But I believe there will be a backlash, because people have been enjoying long tales for thousands of years, and it’s hard to imagine something so central to our collective experience just disappearing.

What process did you go through to get your book published?

I spent many, many hours over many, many months sending out queries, summaries, and excerpts to literary agents and small independent publishing houses.  Finally, a local agent recommended me to a small Jerusalem-based English-language publisher, and I co-published together with him.

What makes your book stand out from the crowd?

My book is different from the typical illness or grief memoir in several ways.  First, it looks back at Timora’s illness and death from a long perspective; it ends sixteen years after she was diagnosed and nine years after she died. Second, it’s the literary equivalent of a “mixed media” work of visual art, comprising both a narrative that recounts Timora’s story and mine during her illness; and a journal documenting my own journey as I grieved for her.  Third, the journal contains several different kinds of segments, some dealing with my emotional state, some with the life decisions I had to make, and some with my spiritual and philosophical reflections in light of Timora’s suffering and my loss. Examples of their highly diverse themes include “Hair,” “Forgiveness,” and “The Bare Necessities: Fun.”

Thus, in the book’s first part the reader goes through the experience of getting to know Timora; of witnessing her struggle to lead a normal life despite the cancer, and mine to support her in any way I could; and finally of losing her.  He or she then processes those experiences together with me in its second part.  Most memoirs bring the reader into only one of these – either the illness/loss, or the processing.

How do you find or make time to write?

To tell the truth, that’s one of my greatest challenges.  The only way I’ve found that works is not to take on too many other commitments – not that I always follow my own advice!  It certainly helps that at this stage in my life I no longer have children living at home.

Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two?  Summarize your writing process.

I think all good writing involves a combination of intuition and logic.  In my case, intuition – or, if you will, inspiration – usually comes first.  I have a general idea of what I want to write about, and often walk around thinking about it for a few hours or days, but never know exactly what I want to say until I sit down at the computer and start writing.  It’s the writing itself that gets my juices flowing, and it’s in the middle of the first flow that I usually understand intuitively which words to use and how to structure the piece. Unlike many writers, I revise as I write, often going back in the middle of writing the first draft to change what I’ve already written in light of an idea or language that the act of writing has given to me. Logic comes in here too – I may realize after writing a paragraph that it’s inconsistent with something that came before it, so I go back and either choose one of the contradicting pieces of text, or reconcile them.

After I have a first draft, or the draft of a first section, I again check its logic – whether it makes sense as a whole.  Inspiration comes in here too, though; if I find a logical flaw it’s often intuition that tells me how to fix it.  I love the revision process, as it allows me to polish what I’ve written.

What are some ways in which you promote your work?  Do you find that these add to or detract from your writing time?

I’ve spoken about the book in a few different forums – my synagogue, a literary café, and two social work classes – but my main method of promotion is the virtual tour I’m now taking, visiting various blogs, book sites, and radio programs.  I must say that the virtual tour is taking up all my writing time, but it’s just for a month, so I’ll get back to my creative writing soon.

What do you like to read in your free time?

I’m an extremely eclectic reader, and love good books in most genres.  I usually read a few books at once.  Right now, for example, I’m in the middle of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, Scott Turow’s Innocent, and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (in Edith Gross’s modern translation, it’s as great a read as any contemporary novel). Recently I’ve read several books by Indian authors, such as Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

What projects are you working on at the present?

I’m working on various short stories in the framework of a creative writing group.  I’d like to publish my finished stories in a collection that I’m tentatively calling Scenes from My Life and Other Stories.

What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book, but nobody has? Write it out here, then answer it.

What was your greatest problem in writing the book, and how did you solve it?

Hardest for me was balancing my desire to tell the story of Timora’s illness and death and the need to protect my family’s privacy.  One of the most serious challenges facing parents of children with serious illness is dealing with the family dynamics – I wanted to be honest about the very real difficulties, but without revealing things that my children would much rather be kept from the public eye.  I eventually wrote just enough not to idealize our family – to let my readers know that a situation like ours is inevitably going to be very hard on the other children, and that parents will sometimes find themselves at a loss about what to do.  At first I wasn’t sure whether to publish under my real name or a pseudonym; in the end I asked each family member if I could use his or her given name, and ended up “renaming” three of my children.

To learn more about Susan Avitzour, author of And Twice the Marrow of Her Bones, we invite you to visit her site – For the full virtual tour schedule, visit

Interview with Jen Knox, Author of Musical Chairs

Jen Knox writes both fiction and creative nonfiction.  She never writes poetry, not on purpose (she asked me to include this detail), but she enjoys reading it. Jen is a graduate of Bennington‘s Writing Seminars and currently works as a Creative Writing professor at San Antonio College and Fiction Editor at Our Stories Literary Journal.  Jen is here today to answer a few questions about her current title, Musical Chairs and her experience as an emerging writer.

Jen, tell us, what compelled you to write a memoir?


Jen: Hello.  I didn’t want to be bothered with plotlines.  I’m kidding!  I wanted to tell my story because it’s a hell of a story, and although it’s a hell of a story, it’s not unique. Teenage girls, especially those who are prone to depression or anxiety, have it tough to begin with. There is a lot of confusion during this time, and when a person is depressed, the desire to ‘escape’ is prevalent. If undiagnosed, however, the dilemma compounds.  It’s common to seek escape. My family wasn’t perfect, no, but I was not abused. Yet, I was sure that my life would be better, if only I got away from my parents. My memoir is about the tumultuous journey that follows this decision.  Honestly, I did not set out to write a memoir. When I began writing, when I returned to college, I wrote fiction. Meanwhile, my personal stories were surfacing in the characters. Once a phenomenal teacher introduced me to the art of essay and memoir, I decided to give it a shot. Memoir is a tough genre, but incredibly rewarding.


In telling your story, has it made life easier or more difficult for you?


Jen: Interesting question. I can’t say my life has become any easier, but I do feel as though the process of memoir writing, if taken seriously, allows more perspective on the past.  I have received quite a few unsolicited diagnoses from readers.  I suppose they might’ve been solicited, in a way, seeing as how I chose to publish, but either way, I had some really interesting responses.  One man accused my father of molesting me, he said it was the sub-text he had read in the book.  This did not happen, and so for my father to read this review was incredibly painful.  Moreover, I have had quite a few people accuse me of being an amoral person, a person who “needs Jesus” or some other sort of saving, and this can be a little tough to take.  The truth is, I’m very happy now, and I wouldn’t trade my decisions for anything.  My memoir was important because it gave voice to my younger self, a girl many other girls may relate to.  And the positive feedback I’ve received, those who’ve told me that they have a similar story but are ashamed to share it; those who tell me that I am a tough girl for having the courage to change my lifestyle; those who have also abused alcohol or drugs, they make up for anything negative others might say.  They are my audience.


What is your favorite color?

Jen: Gray-blue, like the sky just before it storms.

Did you experience writer’s block during the writing process? If so, how did you overcome it?


Jen: No. I wrote the draft in a summer. It took five years to revise and refine. I did have many days in which I didn’t want to revise though, but it’s my feeling that if a writer hires a ghostwriter for a memoir, it shouldn’t be considered a memoir.


What advice can you give to those who suspect that they too could be suffering from some form of mental illness?


Jen: Talk to someone you trust. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone, then write it down. Record how you feel and when you are most depressed, and then bring this information to a reputable psychologist. I am not a huge advocate of quick fixes, and I highly suggest that a person who wants a lasting cure to pay close attention to how the mind works; study for yourself. The fact is, depression is not a rational thing, and so you cannot fix it with a quick, rational cure. It takes time and support. There are support groups and physical tools that will help, such as regular exercise, that helped me immensely


What was the most difficult part of the writing process for Musical Chairs?


Jen: Figuring out which scenes to cut and which to include. It seems that a memoir would be easier to write than fiction, because the story is already there. But life doesn’t follow a clear narrative path, and therefore a writer must impose one–this is no easy thing! The structure of memoir requires a lot of reworking and adjustment in order to maintain integrity and best tell a personal story.



Did you ever feel that by distancing yourself from your family, you might be able to avoid mental illness?


Jen: No. I feel as though distancing myself from my family did give me more appreciation for them, but I was a depressed little kid; it was with me long before I could name it. I strongly believe that mental distress, to a certain degree, is chemical. This doesn’t mean that a person cannot find a personalized cure, and it doesn’t mean I advocate medication as a quick fix, but it does mean that it’s not wholly sociological.



How long did it take you to research, write and have your memoir published?


Jen: Five years, in total. A few months of writing; years of fact-checking and research; more years of revising.



What do you hope that your readers will take away from your book?


Jen: I hope that they will better understand what it is like for a young girl to deal with depression. I hope women will read this book, and chose to tell their own stories (in whatever way) rather than staying silent. Behaviors repeat if we don’t address them, and the dangers that exist for a teenage girl will not go away. Awareness, however, can decrease a girl’s odds of endangering herself.



Do you have any new books planned for publication in the next few years?


Jen: I plan to release a collection of short stories in early 2011 with All Things That Matter Press.  It’s entitled To Begin Again.  I am currently working on a novel entitled Absurd Hunger. I hope to release this one in 2012, but I’m not sure this is realistic.  We’ll see.



Thank you, Jen, for your time.  Musical Chairs can be purchased at at:

Check out Jen Knox’s website and blog:

My Review of Musical Chairs by Jen Knox

Musical Chairs is a naked view into a young woman’s sometimes anguishing journey through life. Jen Knox tells her story with heartfelt honesty and gutsy determination. From page one the reader becomes immersed in the struggles of a young girl to become something better than herself. She attempts to climb new heights as she wanders through a life filled with angst. This is a memoir worth delving into for anyone interested in the highs and lows of a girl in search of herself and the meaning of life. Knox writes with wit and wisdom as she leads the reader through a series of adventures of life. It is not always easy to follow her through this twisted maze. It is full of pain and heartbreak, as well as love and good times. Readers will come away from this story with a deeper understanding of what it is to really live a life.

Julie Achterhoff
Author of Quantum Earth and Deadly Lucidity

Jen Knox: ATTMP Author of the Week

Jen Knox: ATTMP Author of the Week.

Jen Knox Blog Tour

Musical Chairs explores one family’s history of mental health diagnoses and searches to define the cusp between a ’90s working-class childhood and the trouble of adapting to a comfortable life in the suburbs. In order to understand her restlessness, Jennifer reflects on years of strip-dancing, alcoholism, and estrangement. Inspired by the least likely source, the family she left behind, Jennifer struggles towards reconciliation. This story is about identity, class, family ties, and the elusive nature of mental illness.
Throughout the summer of 2003 I repeatedly underwent what psychologists have since diagnosed as post-traumatic stress and panic disorder.  A spiritually-inclined friend refers to the same summer as my rebirthing period.& nbsp; Still others, who claim to have had similar experiences, tell me that such episodes were probably a warning, my body’s way of telling me to adopt healthier eating habits, exercise more or quit smoking.  At the time, all I knew was that the onset was swift.

Review: Alvah’s Book Reviews (to read the entire review, click here).
“[Musical Chairs is] well-written, which means Jen Knox knows how to string words together into comprehensible sentences.  And her ‘voice’ is honest, unapologetic and – vital! – likeable.  In other words, she’s like the Apostle Peter in the Bible.  She’s a weak, frail, vulnerable human being, who makes lots of mistakes.  Which means – thank God – that she is human.  Which means that despite all her flaws and failures, she is not a fraud or a charlatan.  She’s not pretending to be someone who has their ‘shit’ together. 
Jen and most of her family are gloriously dysfunctional – just like most families.  And they have a tendency toward mental illness.  And – shockingly – she talks about it.  Which is what makes her story and her book so wonderful.  It’s downright refreshing to read a book that acknowledges what most people know is true, but are afraid to confess:  Most people are one brick short of a load.  Which is what makes them and life so interesting.”

To watch the Musical Chairs Trailer, go to Knoxworx Multimedia.
To purchase Musical Chairs, go to Amazon, ATTM Press, or Barnes & Noble.
For more information about Jen, go to or
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