Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Alexandra Silber who’s the author of memoir White Hot Grief Parade and After Anatevka: A Novel Inspired by “Fiddler on the Roof”. She is a Grammy-nominated actress and singer who has appeared on stage internationally and regionally from the West End of London to esteemed venues like Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, and on Broadway. Her most recent role on Broadway was as Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof. Originally from LA, Alexandra grew up in Detroit, Michigan. She currently lives in New York.

Welcome, Alexandra. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alexandra Silber: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: I am so excited. I was just saying I’ve had this book for so long. I’ve been so excited to talk to you. I happen to really love this color of the cover, which is my two favorite colors.

Alexandra: Thank you. I love it too. It’s so funny. When you were talking about White Hot Grief Parade, as an author, you get presentations of cover options. You never even think about how other people will come to an image of your book in one image. They were all so different, but this one jumped out at all of us. We’re really excited about it.

Zibby: It’s really awesome. Can you tell everybody what White Hot Grief Parade is about?

Alexandra: Of course. White Hot Grief Parade is a memoir about the six months around the death of my father when I was eighteen years old. Beyond that plot point, I tell it in a very up-to-the-moment blogger voice. I break all the rules, I think, of writing memoir. There’s a maze. There’s a word search. There’s things that are written as plays as well as more traditional prose. I think that’s the parade. It’s that when you’re in the middle of a grief storm, it feels like one thing after another is hitting you. I wanted the style of the book and the format of the book to reflect that bombastic experience. It really focuses on my relationship to father, obviously, my relationship to my extended family. The real stars of the book are my remarkable eighteen-year-old friends and my mother. This point at the crossroads of childhood and adulthood, what does one do when they’re hit with this thing that every culture fears the most? It doesn’t even matter what animal you are, actually. Every time period, every era, every socioeconomic class, every language spoken fears losing someone they love. Yet it’s this thing that we don’t talk about very often. We don’t talk about it very well when we do talk about it. On top of all of that, there aren’t a lot of resources for people in between childhood and adulthood. I wanted to make a point that young adults are remarkable. The ones that were in my life are still in my life. The big question of the book, I hope — I don’t necessarily address it directly, but I hope it emerges. What does it mean to stand back up? We hear so many books about how bad things are, chapters and chapters and chapters of describing the bad. Then you get this fast-forward moment where it’s like, ten years later, here I am and I’m fine. But what happens in that fast-forward? What is it like to stand up? This book, hopefully, is an homage to that because it’s very universal.

Zibby: Also, who are you when you stand back up? because you’re not the same person.

Alexandra: You’re not the same, no.

Zibby: What do you look like? What does it mean to be upright anyway? Everything gets —

Alexandra: — All of it, yeah. Totally. It was obviously an extremely cathartic experience. So much of it I started and realized I couldn’t finish because books like this can’t be written until you’re fully processed emotionally. I would start to write something and get to a place and go, okay, I might need to table that for a couple of months or years. It was an extraordinarily rewarding experience, and feeling connected again to all of the people that were there to help me and my mom.

Zibby: Did you start at the time? Did you record any of it? Is it all from memory? Not to write, but even just to remember.

Alexandra: Sure. The only things that are direct from that time are a series of letters that I received from my then boyfriend, Kent. I did journal at the time. I referred back to it, but it’s just gobbledygook. In a way, what White Hot Grief Parade is, is a “translation,” I put in huge quotes, “translation” of that gobbledygook of my journals and my thoughts and my feelings. It’s like, now that we’ve sifted through all of this, this is what that was actually about.

Zibby: I’m interested, you’re an actress.

Alexandra: I am, yeah.

Zibby: You’ve taken this show on the road. You’re amazing, Grammy-nominated, international star. You’ve been everywhere. It’s insane. I don’t even know how you found the time to do this. You look like you’re twelve.

Alexandra: Oh, thank you!

Zibby: You wrote After Anatevka after you’d been in Fiddler on the Roof. Bless your heart, you just thought about what might have happened after, and you went ahead and wrote that book.

Alexandra: I did. That book took nine years to write, top to tail.

Zibby: Really?

Alexandra: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think one of the many things that — about the nature of your podcast, I think so often in our lives we’re told what we are is defined by what we do. I have this really, I suppose, conventionally successful night job, I joke, being a working actor and sometimes a working actor really at the height of what it means to be an actor in the theater. I’ve worked in the West End and on Broadway which are where you aim for in English-speaking theater. I’m honored by that. I also knew that I had other identities that weren’t just connected to my job. I think everyone feels that way. You’re not just a mother. You’re not just a finance person. We all have hobbies and loves. What if we started to bring those things to the forefront and not necessarily have them replace the old identity, but stand side by side with them? For me, it was about creativity. I realized that right around the same time I was playing Hodel. I’ve done two productions of Fiddler on the Roof. It’s sort of crazy and bizarre and proof that there are no accidents. The first time, it was about five years after my dad passed away. I was twenty-three years old and stared in a regional production of Fiddler in Sheffield, England, a production we didn’t know would transfer to the West End and eventually did. It took up, top to tail, about two years of my life. It was incredibly powerful, I think for the reason that — I should say, these books are connected. They’re completely different genres. They’re completely different voices, but they’re first cousins because they’re tied to the same experiences.

I’ll say that when my father passed away, I felt a responsibility to table my grief and become myself, fulfil the potential that both of my parents and everyone around me, my teachers, my peers, had charged me to become. I had all this potential. I had all this training. I had all this natural talent. What if, in the face of this tragic event at such an awkward time in a person’s development, what if that leveled me? I think that’s a question a lot of people are faced with. Will this level me? Will I stand back up at all? The way I responded to the event was — this happens right after the events of White Hot Grief Parade. I decided to have a huge adventure. I thought, I have two choices. I could curl up and die too, which of course isn’t literal. It’s collapse on myself, collapse on my dreams. Or in the face of this adversity, I could really live. I auditioned for a school in Glasgow, Scotland. I moved to Scotland and had a huge experience that was crucial to my development, but I don’t think I faced the feelings and the real experience of grief because I felt this responsibility. There I was five years later rehearsing Hodel who has probably one of the most beautiful and perfect scenes in musical theater where she stands on the train platform and says to her father, alone, that she’s going to pursue her heart and soul despite all of the adversities presented to her, and sings that beautiful song, “Far From the Home I Love.” Then her final words to him were words I didn’t get in my life, “Papa, God alone knows when we shall we each other again.” His response to her is, “Then we will leave it in his hands.” I didn’t get to say goodbye to my dad, but I did through Hodel. It’s one of the beauties of the theater. You get to live these multiple lifetimes. I realized that was this five-year mark.

Zibby: Could we pause for one second?

Alexandra: Yeah.

Zibby: You wouldn’t sing any of that, would you? Would you ever do that?

Alexandra: No, but I can send you a clip of me singing.

Zibby: Would you?

Alexandra: Yeah, I have the recording, for sure.

Zibby: How do you go on? I’m in tears. That’s emotional. How do you go and perform that over and over and over again when it hits such a personal note? How do you draw the line between, oh, this is what I’m doing and this is my acting job, versus —

Alexandra: — It’s really interesting. That’s a question I get a lot.

Zibby: Oh, sorry. I hate to ask questions you get a lot.

Alexandra: No, it’s a question I get a lot in sort of a different form. It’s not always under that lens. It’s a very fascinating question to ask. How do you do a show eight times a week for years on end? There’s no other job in the world that’s really like it. Even if you work in a factory and you literally do the same thing every day, you talk to different people. You wear different clothes. Theater acting is lot like Bikram yoga in the sense that you’re doing the exact same series of movements. You’re wearing the same outfit. You’re saying the same lines. You’re telling the same story. The difference in Bikram yoga is the same difference in the theater, which is you are different every day. You wake up and you’re feeling vulnerable. Therefore, so is Hodel. You wake up and feel strong and have a day where you feel extraordinary resilience and hope. Therefore, so does Hodel. You might feel physically like you’re aching and suffering. Therefore, so does Hodel. That’s the distinction. You might be saying and doing the same identical things in the same outfits, but we change moment to moment. A matinee might even be different from the evening performance depending on how you feel or what happened in between. That’s a circuitous answer to that question. There were just days when it was work. There were days when I was just so happy to sing. There were days when I felt really connected to Judaism, but not necessarily to grief; to life purpose and being charged to do something and pursuing something greater than yourself, and not necessarily a goodbye to my dad.

Then there were days when it was exquisite pain. It was touching the nerve directly and an exposure so white hot. I felt like, in that way, playing Hodel cradled me and gave me a place to feel that grief and utilize those feelings and ultimately give me the goodbye I was robbed of. Therefore, she meant so much to me. I suppose I did wonder what happened to her in a very personal way. I did a lot of research during the run about what happened to women in her position. What happened to people that boarded this train to meet people that they were married to or associated with in some way or related to? What I kept discovering over and over again was this loophole of women that were affianced but not married. They fell into this no man’s land. The government processing didn’t know what to do with them. They got trapped. Often, they would be utilized. Because Siberia had so few women in it, they would be sent to increase the population. It was a really hard life. It’s a beautiful song. It’s a beautiful scene. But what happened next? I had to know, and saw it through, and saw it through so thoroughly. I went to Siberia to find out.

Zibby: No!

Alexandra: Yeah, I went to Siberia for a huge research trip. It was one of the most profound examples of, you cannot know until you experience something, the colors, the smells, the people, the culture, the change in how a language alters being in the world, what beauty means in one place versus in another. It was mind-blowing. Also, sometimes when you’re on a spiritual journey, you have to match it with a geographic one. You have to match it with a literal journey. As you said earlier about when you stand up you’re not the same, when you return to the point of origin, you’re not the same. That’s the oldest story in the world. That’s Odysseus and Dorothy and Bilbo Baggins. It’s there and back again. It was a really powerful experience. I started writing during that first Fiddler because I realized also, while I was a performer of course — technically, performance was what was on my tax returns, if you will — that I wasn’t as connected to performing as I was to creativity. There’s just a moment in a long run when creativity starts to ebb. You can’t look to the night job or the theatrical experience to fulfill your creative needs anymore. You have to fulfill them yourself. I didn’t really know how to do that, but I’d always been a big reader. We definitely have that in common. For those of you listening, I’m sitting in the middle of the most expanse, beautiful library. My mouth is watering. So yeah, had this really bibliophilic other love story going on inside my theatrical career.

Zibby: I love that. Biblio… say it again.

Alexandra: Bibliophilic.

Zibby: Ooh. Bibliophilic love story.

Alexandra: It was just a real love affair with books. I don’t remember who said it, maybe you can look it up, a good book is a good friend. Finishing a book is like losing a friend. I started writing a blog when I was in London. I had this unbelievable feeling of, oh, my goodness, the two hundred words that I put together today in this order didn’t exist in this order before I put them in the world. I’d made something. It ticked the box. It filled me up. It fueled me. Then I was able to go to work at night and, if you will, I required less from work. I kind of went to it with a purer heart. I kept writing and writing. Eventually, a literary agent found my blog and contacted me about expanding essay and blog writing into critical essay writing, into something novel length. After Anatevka was sort of born of these questions. I’d never considered putting it into a narrative structure. Once the idea was in my head, it was pretty hard to stop the horses from running away.

I just wrote it in between scenes backstage. If I wasn’t in a scene, I’d open up my computer. I’d set a timer so I didn’t lose track of time. Sometimes you’re so in it that you just fall into that world. I would set an alarm to make sure that even if I wasn’t listening to the loudspeaker, I would still make my entrances. I did a play at The Kennedy Center and then on Broadway called Master Class. My character Sophie was only in first act. That was a huge joy because I would finish work. Then I’d have to stay for curtain call, but I had this big half hour chunk where I could write exclusively in act two of that play. Both of my books were born in dressing rooms and on airplanes and were my loyal companions alongside my theatrical life. Interestingly, when I was doing Master Class, funny that that just came up, Master Class was the ten-year anniversary of my father passing away. White Hot Grief Parade was born of a blog post that I wrote titled, very simply, “Ten Years” where I decided to take the veil of author voice, blogger voice — I know that voice is a big thing in writing. You have to feel an affinity with the narrator. The quality of the narrator changes book to book, and of course style, etc. My chatty and conversational tone, I wanted, of course, my blog to feel like having a conversation with an informed friend about things that you cared about. I don’t think I ever allowed the blog, until “Ten Years,” this post, to reveal what I would describe as the distinction of intimacy.

I had never taken that last boundary down and said, let’s talk about what this was really like. I would do what in psychology is called book reporting. I would say, my dad died. I moved to Scotland. As I say in my book, here we are at this cocktail party. I would talk about and around the facts of the loss, but I wouldn’t sit with you or anyone and experience the emotions surrounding the loss in real time, which I think is the distinction of vulnerability. The revelation of vulnerability is, I think, what defines intimacy. I had never done that. I just decided, for one night only, for one post only, let’s really talk about grief. The response to the post was watershed insane. The responses, the strangers, the shares, the reach, the desperation of other people to discuss this inner ache and this universal fear that we will all experience at some point or another in different forms, in unimaginable ways, but we’ll all meet in this land of grief. Some people choose to totally disguise themselves while they’re there. Some people can’t. It was really surprising to me, again, this discovery of what I’ve already said, of, wow, I guess we don’t talk about grief very often. When we do, we talk about it very poorly.

My agent said, “Okay, stop the presses on After Anatevka. You have to write something more expansive about this. It clearly shows that you’re ready to start that process.” While After Anatevka took me many, many years to write, White Hot Grief Parade galloped out of me in weeks. The first draft was done in about nine or ten weeks. It built, it grew, it evolved, but the structure was almost intact in its print form now, a story that was demanding to be heard, demanding to be expressed, and wasn’t going to take no for answer but was waiting for the moment that I was prepared to write it. They both sat on my computer as manuscripts, essentially. I was pleased with that. I was pleased to say, I wrote some books. I don’t know that anything will happen to them, but how exciting. You know, I ran the marathon. I don’t need to tell everybody about it, but I did it, whatever that may be for you as an individual. Two years later, really by coincidence/divine intervention, I was cast in the fiftieth-anniversary production of Fiddler on Broadway. I had moved back to the States. This time, I was cast as Tzeitel. A lot of people ask me, was it so hard to not play Hodel? It was seven or eight years later. First of all, I don’t think I could possibly have told Hodel’s story more thoroughly. I mean, I went to actual Siberia.

Zibby: Yeah, you could check that box.

Alexandra: Right, I had told her story. Also, Hodel is a character that is becoming herself, discovering who she is and the nature of what matters to her and the order in which it matters. When I played her, so I was I. I was in the same place. By the time I was playing Tzeitel, I was a woman, not a girl. I knew what mattered to me. I knew what my values were. I was thinking about partnership and children and my relationship to the divine and to society at large, which I think made me ideally suited to serve Tzeitel’s story. Just as a little footnote, I was also given another iconic father-daughter moment that I know I will always ache for in life, which is being walked down the aisle by your father at your wedding. I remember going to a wedding a few years before Fiddler on Broadway. When my very good friend was walked down the aisle by her dad, I had this unbelievable ancient grief explosion with this knowledge that no matter what I do or achieve, how much money I ever make, how successful I ever become, that’s not a purchasable moment. That was something I would never have. Through Tzeitel and through Fiddler, I did get that. It’s been a really important gift to me, and I know to so many people. I was really lucky that if there was a moment to sell After Anatevka specifically that was a cherry, cherry, cherry on the slot machine, this was it. I was so blessed that Pegasus actually bought both manuscripts at the same time. Here I am, an identity-shifting but also identity-expanding moment for me as an artist. It’s such an honor.

Zibby: It’s amazing. What’s coming next? A little of everything?

Alexandra: Oh, of course, a little of everything. After Anatevka actually turned into, through the genius of the minds at Symphony Space — a couple years ago just before the book came out, Symphony Space contacted me and said, “We’d love you to identify some chapters in your book. We want to give those chapters to Broadway composer lyricist teams to have them write original music based on After Anatevka.” Then we performed it in what felt like a This is Your Life, but This is Your Characters Come-to-Life kind of a moment where I would read the prose of my book. Instead of the moment dramatically ending in prose, it would end in this original song sung by my Broadway friends. It was crazy. We didn’t want it to be over. It was such a successful, wonderful evening. My musical director/collaborator, one of my dearest friends, Ben Moss and I fashioned a version of that concert that included a few songs from Fiddler and five of the original songs from the Symphony Space evening. We took it on the road as a duo. We’ve been touring with it literally ever since — the last time we did it was last week, not even eight days ago, which is so rewarding because it’s taken me to so many Jewish communities. I’ve gotten to meet incredible crossover audiences, if you will, some people that know me as an author, some people that know me as an actor. One of the things that’s so rewarding about those concerts is it’s a celebration and an enacting of me doing all of the things I do in one evening. I dramatically read and embody these characters that I love so much. I read my original text. Then I use my singing voice to bring them to life in a different way. It’s one of those unimaginable hybrid things you could never have conceived of being a part of your life.

Zibby: I have to get to one of these performances.

Alexandra: I hope you do. It’s a real joy.

Zibby: Weren’t you just in Florida? Did I make that up?

Alexandra: Yeah, I was in Florida. We did a whole tour of Southwest Florida, which was a joy. So, definitely more of that. I’m working on two new books, which is really exciting. Actually, kind of a companion to each of these, definitely the next installment of what happens to this family that we know and love from the Sholem Aleichem stories in Fiddler on the Roof and a lot of the continuations of the original characters that I’ve brought into the book as well. Then I’m also writing a really interesting collection of critical essays about how to love the theater and why to love the theater. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing those in the future. Then I do have some theatrical projects. I don’t know when you’re releasing this, but I think I can say. I don’t know that I’ve ever been so excited to start working on anything. I’m going back to London in about ten days to start rehearing the Broadway production in London, England, of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, which is a beautiful Jewish play about a beautiful Jewish play. We’ll be running at the Chocolate Factory until the beginning of May. I’m so blessed to have a little bit of everything in my life.

Zibby: That is amazing. I’m so happy for you.

Alexandra: Oh, thank you.

Zibby: I mean it. I feel like I’ve gone on this journey with you after reading your book. You end up just so rooting for you before I even met you in person because you’re rooting for you in the book. Now to see all this come to life and the way you help other young girls, like the scene you tell when you were helped as you were exiting a theater and how you helped, all this full-circle stuff, it’s amazing.

Alexandra: Thank you. The greatest gift I’ve been given in my life is this charge to continuously thank, express gratitude to and for the people that have helped me and people that even resemble the people that have helped me, and hopefully give back to people that, if you will, resemble me and show them grace and show them that even though they think it might never, ever, ever get better, that it can, and live that. I hope that even that is enough, that I try to really meaningfully contribute as much as I can.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors?

Alexandra: Oh, sure, a couple things. One, and I actually think your podcast speaks to this directly. Time comes to those who make it, not those who try to find it. I think that is absolutely how I’ve gotten so many things done, if you will. I’ve been disciplined. Discipline, though, doesn’t come from rigor. The best kind of discipline comes from really knowing what your values are and making a decision to do something versus simply wanting to. Those are really big distinctions. I often think of, if you’ve made the decision to eat healthy and lose weight, it’s a very different thing than simply wanting to. You make plans. You commit. You explore your soul about why. I encourage everyone to do that work. Then additionally, once you’ve made the decision and you make the time, just sit down. Just sit down and do it. I equate the just sitting down — speaking of which, the just sit down is an unoriginal phrase. It’s actually, I’ve already mentioned him, Ben Moss’s phrase, my musical collaborator. He’s been engaging in a really interesting creative action where he’s sitting down at his piano every day and writing original music no matter how silly or where the inspiration comes from and then posting the results online, really for accountability, not for exposure. He said, as long as I sat down at the piano, something always came.

The metaphor that I extended that to is if you take the trouble to put on your gym clothes and your shoes and go to the gym, if you walk into the gym, you’ll probably work out. If you go to church or the synagogue or the mosque or any place of worship, once you walk in, you’ll probably sit down and pray. I think that by going to the place of creativity, the piano for Ben, the canvas for artists, the computer for me, you’re basically saying, I’ve entered this holy space. I’m ready to engage with life in that way. May the muses move through me. But it can’t happen if you don’t do it. All of that together is to say just make things. Don’t worry about what they become. They are things that are rapping on the window of your mind and heart and soul that want to be in the world and have asked you to be their birth canal. Don’t deny them.

Zibby: Wow. That was beautiful and inspiring. Thank you so much.

Alexandra: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: Thank you for all of that, Alexandra. That was amazing. Wow, I have to go play this back and write out some of those quotes and put them on this bulletin board because that was great. Thank you so much.

Alexandra: Thank you.