Welcome to our newest blog series: Where Are They Now?
In this series, our editors interview past Literary Mama contributors to see what they’ve accomplished since publishing in LM and talk about their writing journeys.
This week, Senior Editor Christina Consolino talked with Erika Dreifus, whose fiction was published in Literary Mama in 2011. To read more of Erika’s writing, check out her website.
Christina Consolino: In 2011, Literary Mama published your short story “The Kiss.” It’s beautifully layered with themes of motherhood, guilt, obligation, Jewish culture, and more. Where did the inspiration for the story come from? Do these themes emerge across most of your writing?
Erika Dreifus: Thank you so much for those kind words about that story—and for publishing it in the first place, and for returning to check in with me now, all these years later! Yes, many of these themes have found their ways into much of my writing, in prose and in poetry.
Your question about the inspiration for this particular story happens to be a timely one. In the briefest terms, family history inspired this story. But since our audience here is composed of so many writers, please indulge me while I offer more detail.
I’ve been thinking lately about an installment of Sarah Einstein’s newsletter, which focuses on “the work of reconstructing and writing about family history, and turning that writing into work that is of interest to people beyond our own kin.” In an issue titled “What About the Einsteins?”, Sarah addressed the topic of focusing on one part of her family history instead of others. This caught my attention because so much of my published writing (including most of the stories in my collection Quiet Americans, which was published just a few months before “The Kiss” appeared in Literary Mama) has been grounded in just one side of my family tree—in particular, the histories and experiences of my paternal grandparents, who were both refugees from Nazi Germany.
At one point, one of my mother’s cousins asked, “When are you going to write about us?” Now, I’d long recognized a kinship with something that Elizabeth McCracken once expressed in an essay titled “Lottery Ticket”: “A would-be writer is supposed to have either a rich inner-life or a rich outer one,” McCracken explained in that piece. “I had neither. Still, I had to get material from someplace, and so I stole it, piecemeal, from my family.” For me, it’s often been “easier” to “steal” from my paternal family history, not least because so much of that material intersects plainly with History (capital “h”). It is, in a sense, fairly “public.” And my paternal grandparents’ backgrounds and lives, both in Germany and in the United States, were also relatively well documented and easier to research, even in the days before the Internet accelerated and expanded that kind of work, so I’ve always had access to a rich array of authentic detail to incorporate into the relevant stories.
The material that seemed ripe for fictional plumbing on my mother’s side, however—including her parents’ divorce shortly after her birth, at a time when divorce was far less common and far more stigmatized—was much more private. Beyond that, I had less to go on: Although I am lucky to have known all four of my grandparents, my maternal grandmother passed away when I was a teenager, and my relationship with my mother’s father was cordial but not close. I inherited fewer stories from them; even their documentary legacy was thinner: To this day we aren’t sure exactly where in Eastern Europe my maternal grandmother was born. And the state of New York won’t let me look at the divorce records for another 25 years.
Still, a few times, I have trained my writerly focus on the maternally-sourced material. And “The Kiss” is one result.
CC: The poems in your first poetry collection, Birthright (2019), are “about holiness and everydayness and, in part, about the convergence of these two movements as a way to embrace and discover mercy, love, and honesty.” I love the juxtaposition there, of “holiness and everydayness,” and it’s a good reminder to the reader to find the beauty and awe in the everyday occurrences. What is your writing process like to capture that convergence?
ED: You’re citing some of the very generous praise for this book that came from poet Matthew Lippman. I wish I had an answer to your question about the process, but I don’t! It’s not something that I’m aware of having studied or aimed for.
CC: The detailed bio on your website gives readers an inkling of how long a writing journey can be and that sometimes, things don’t turn out as planned. What have you learned on the journey to where you are today? Is there anything you’d do differently if you could? What advice would you have for writers just starting out?
ED: One lesson that I’m especially mindful of is that rejection is part of the package. You have to try and keep trying: You have to send your work out; you have to keep sending it out (as I take part in this interview, I’m awaiting publication of a story that received 24 rejections elsewhere before an acceptance arrived); you have to apply for opportunities; you have to put yourself in the game, so to speak, and stay there. You have to do this not only because you can’t possibly win any competition that you don’t enter, but also because you just don’t know what might happen along the way—what you might learn, who might take an interest in reading more of your work, and so forth.
At this point (I am in my early 50s), I have few, if any, regrets about my path. Perhaps I have occasionally wished that I’d fully absorbed this lesson about giving myself/my writing the chance to fail/be rejected just a little sooner. (I’ve alluded to this in an essay.) I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if, instead of being so daunted by the crowds at the initial meeting for first-year students who were interested in the competition process that was required to write for my college’s esteemed newspaper that I literally turned away outside the door and left, I had pushed my way into the room—or, at the very least, if I had tried to attend another meeting, that semester or the next one. I wish that I’d given myself that chance to be rejected/fail, instead of denying myself the opportunity at the outset.
CC: In 2004, you launched The Practicing Writer, “a free monthly newsletter” that “focuses on the craft and business of writing fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.” (And let me just mention how useful this newsletter is!) What was your intent in launching the newsletter? Did you have any idea then of its longevity? What do you like most about compiling the newsletter?
ED: I’m so glad that you like the newsletter! I’ve long possessed an inexplicable impulse to share opportunities and resources with others in the writing community. For a time after I finished an MFA program in 2003, I was sharing this sort of information on the program’s listserv. Not everyone welcomed my many posts! So I decided to find another, opt-in platform; the first issue went out in early 2004.
Back then, I was also trying hard to cultivate more teaching and related opportunities in the writing world. I was freelancing, adjuncting, and working with community centers. So the newsletter also allowed me to alert subscribers about my own services and courses. In this respect, it shares some roots with many other writers’ newsletters that serve self-marketing purposes.
When I returned to a full-time office job in 2007, the newsletter had already come to mean a lot to me. Subscriber feedback was wonderful. I simply wanted to keep the project going.
The newsletter still means a lot to me, in large part, still, because it seems to matter to others. I’m especially gratified when subscribers share “success stories” with me—news about an opportunity they learned about from my newsletter that has made a difference in their own writing practices/writing lives. (I share lots of those stories within the newsletter and on my website.)
Many subscribers also tell me they appreciate in particular the newsletter’s careful focus on curating lists of opportunities that 1) don’t charge writers submission/entry fees and 2) pay for published/winning work. There are plenty of lists and newsletters that share contests and calls, but far fewer that maintain those criteria, let alone without charging for a subscription.
There are so many ways to contribute to the literary community, to perform a sort of literary service or citizenship. The newsletter and supplements are, for me, a key way of going about that work. But did I think that when it started it would be a project that would continue for 18 years (and counting)? I don’t think so!
CC: What’s next for you?
ED: I wish that I knew. Please stay tuned!