ABOUT ME

As a child in Budapest, I loved books. My parents read me picture books and chapter books, and I graduated quickly to reading on my own. When I was nine, we left Hungary in the wake of the Revolution of 1956 and lived in England, before coming to Canada. In a small town near London, I learned English as much at the local library as in the school yard. This little library had an extensive children’s section, and my homesickness was allayed by the joy I found in the books I discovered there. Many years later I wrote of the experience in Shoshanna’s Story: “Suddenly there were all these alternative lives to be discovered: on the floor-to-ceiling shelves, in books of every size and colour, were children who rode horses, studied acting, engaged in swordplay. Children who lived centuries ago, who served as pages for King Arthur, or crossed the Rubicon with Caesar. … I lived to read. I read Heidi and A Dream of Sadler’s Wells in a single week, and as my speed and understanding improved, I reread them in single sittings. Suddenly and strangely, I was ecstatically happy. It was like falling in love.”

For many writers it’s a natural progression from being a bookworm to wanting to write, but this wasn’t so for me. I remember thinking in my teens that it would be an interesting thing to be a writer, if only you had something worthwhile to write about or say. But I had no such subject or urge, until, out of the blue, some twenty years later I found myself badly wanting to tell a particular story.

After many false starts and setbacks, this became the family biography Journey to Vaja: Reconstructing the World of a Hungarian-Jewish Family. When Journey to Vaja didn’t find a ready home (it was rejected 67 times, including by McGill-Queen’s University Press, which eventually did publish it), I began writing book reviews and--through a back door--became a literary journalist. In short order I got my own column at the Montreal Gazette, and my first published book became a set of author profiles called The Writers of Montreal. (Eventually Journey to Vaja won a literary prize, was adapted for radio, and was made into the documentary film Paradise Lost, for the Canadian History Channel.)

Both Journey to Vaja and its sequel Shoshanna’s Story: A Mother, A Daughter, and the Shadows of History are partially set against the backdrop of the Holocaust and have won prizes for Holocaust literature. Yet I hadn’t intended to write about the Holocaust at all (actually I was originally foolish enough to think that I could avoid the subject completely). What I was trying to do was find the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and half-sister, whose faces surrounded me in photographs as I was growing up and about whom my parents spun tales from my youngest years. I yearned to know these people and to bring them to life on the page.

I am always a little non-plussed when critics commend me on my honesty. Isn’t the unvarnished truth the most powerful testament? Why idealize my ancestors because they came to a terrible end? They were human beings with warts and foibles, not saints, and I needed to know them as they really were. First and foremost for myself, but also for my readers.

Elaine and ArchieUnderstanding the motivation of flesh and blood human beings continues to be part of what propels me forward as a writer. My current book project is set in Montreal in the second half of the 19th century. Entitled Portrait of a Scandal, it will recount the true story of an abortion trial involving a prominent family, and will be published by Véhicule Press in Spring 2013. A clue: the book is an offshoot of my radio documentary for CBC Ideas about William Notman, Montreal’s famous 19th-century photographer.

Most writers need day jobs alongside their writing careers, and I am no different. In addition to teaching creative writing, I lecture widely, mentor fledgling writers, and edit works in progress. I take pride not only in what goes beneath my by-line, but also in all the other varied aspects of what I do for a living.

About the private me: I have two grown daughters and four grandchildren who—collectively--are the apple of my eye. I live on a quiet dead-end street in west end Montreal with my husband, the love of my life, businessman Archie Fineberg. From the first green shoots that break through April’s reluctant thaw, to the last leaf that drifts from my backyard maples, I tend--and am tended by--my modest urban Eden.