The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this book and this book now?
Nancy Davidoff Kelton (NDK): In 2005, I wrote an essay about my mother, her illness, and my relationship with her that was published as a “Lives” column in The New York Times Magazine. I went somewhere in that piece I had not gone before in my work, had more to say on that and about my family of origins. Other areas of my life I had not explored deeply before began finding their way into my writing: my being a mother, my relationships with men, my female friendships, and my struggles with myself. It kept coming out of me.
TWM: Did anything surprise you while writing?
NDK: What surprised me most and in the most wonderful ways was when what came out of me was close to how I wanted it to come out. I felt so alive, so full. The Finding Mr. Rightstein sections in which I felt that happening even in early drafts included: my drawing penises in my notebook in school and my teacher confronting me, the Florida scenes with my mother and with my daughter, my experiences with my female friends, Irene’s death, the southwest trip with Jonathan, and the scene with Geraldine, the cleaning lady who didn’t clean.
TWM: What is your writing process?
NDK: I write most days during the week and weekends. Sometimes I get going right away. Sometimes it takes a while. It seems to flow best after a hour or so, although some days it doesn’t flow at all and I spend a lot of time going to the refrigerator. I get to my desk consistently and try not to get upset if the muse is not on my shoulder. I am always writing, even when I am not at my desk. Things comes to me when I’m walking, showering, teaching, eating, with other people, reading, everywhere. If I can, I take notes. If not and if whatever happens inside me is important enough, I remember it.
TWM: Who do you show your writing to? Did you share any of this with the folks mentioned in the book?
NDK: I don’t show my early drafts to anyone. That would not work. My writing is between me and me. When I’m getting close to sending it out, I show it to my husband, mainly for technical matters. He’s a good editor. He had no say on the content. The only people in the book who did get to see pages were my daughter and son-in-law and only the sections in which they appeared. They were fine with them.
TWM: In writing this book, you seem to have tackled complex relationships and emotions with your father, mother, and sister. What was the greatest challenge in writing this book? The greatest satisfaction?
NDK: I wanted to tell my story the best way I could, showing how I related to the members of my family, how they related to me, how our relationships affected me, and how I reacted/hurt/ grew/learned/adapted. Families are so complicated. In the wonderful fan mail I’ve been getting, people are thanking me for understanding and articulating what they went through in their lives with their families. That touches me to no end. My greatest challenge was getting out of my way to tell my story with honesty, which meant showing up fully with everything I had, and then revising and revising some more, and even taking out parts I liked but didn’t work or didn’t serve the narrative. My greatest satisfaction: was the same thing. Now it’s hearing from people, many strangers, that I struck a chord.
TWM: I love the title. How did you come up with it?
NDK: Finding Mr. Rightstein was always the title. I was writing essays about my dates, relationships, and the men who ranged from reptilian to simply not quite right. Those pieces were tons of fun. Somewhere while writing them that title must have sprung from me. From my unconscious. When I partner with my unconscious, I get to my favorite things.
TWM: You teach and have written a book about writing from personal experience. What are the three most challenging aspects about writing from personal experience? Is there something that beginners often shy away from?
NDK: The challenges seem to be the very things beginners shy away from:
- Getting under one’s skin, revealing oneself in an artful way, not spilling things out with self-pity and self-absorption.
- Writing scenes that have immediacy, pull readers right in, and keep them there.
- Using fresh, telling details and dialogue that shows who the character is, moves the story along, and is not ho-hum.
TWM: Parts of Finding Mr. Rightstein appeared first as published essays. Do you recommend writing short essays first before tackling a book—or does it not matter?
NDK: My mother used to say that there are different ways to skin a cat. I don’t think there is one way to write a memoir. Whatever works. What I tell my students who are tackling books: Generate manuscript, generate pages. Do NOT keep writing and rewriting the beginning. Do NOT worry about what will make a good opening. Just write. The opening of Finding Mr. Rightstein did not find itself until somewhere between a third and fourth draft. And then I saw it, felt it.
About Nancy Davidoff Kelton
Nancy Davidoff Kelton is the author of the just-published memoir, Finding Mr. Rightstein. She is currently scheduling book readings, talks, and writing workshops on the west coast, east coast, and in between. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Hadassah Magazine, The Boston Globe, and Redbook among numerous other publications. To learn more about Nancy, go to her website:www.nancykelton.com.