National Book Award nominee Johanna Kaplan joins Zibby to discuss her latest collection of short stories, Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary. Johanna shares how she’s continued to write while she taught for the past thirty-five years, what is the number one thing she looks for both in the books she reads and her own writing, and when she knew she wanted to become a writer. Johanna also tells Zibby about how her characters continue to stay with her and who she hopes this collection will appeal to the most.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Johanna. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary: Stories.

Johanna Kaplan: It’s my pleasure and honor to be with you, Zibby. I think this is a great honor. It’s very flattering. I’m really thrilled and pleased to be here.

Zibby: Aw, thank you. It’s a beautiful collection of stories. I loved the preface by Francine Prose, who I also adore, and of course, Maira Kalman’s beautiful illustration on the cover.

Johanna: I got so lucky with that cover, so lucky.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, it’s beautiful. You have such an interesting story. Tell listeners who might not be familiar with your work how you had this massively successful book and were nominated for everything for Other People’s Lives and also O America! You’ve been teaching. Tell us the life of a National Book Award-nominated author who’s now back with this new collection.

Johanna: I feel very, very lucky to be back. Despite all the awards that I did win, the books got really very little attention aside from those awards. Many places gave me awards and dinners that I went to and spoke at. Otherwise, I really did feel that my books had become a secret between me and those few people, like cousins and friends and the people who actually donated the awards. Then it was gone. I had a very busy life because I was teaching full time. I taught for thirty-five years. Even to me that sounds like .

Zibby: What did you teach, and where?

Johanna: I taught emotionally disturbed children who were hospitalized for psychiatric illness at Mount Sinai. It was a Board of Education job, but I was placed within a hospital setting. There was a very small school. There were five teachers. That was the school. We had three or four classes. In the earlier years, I taught the younger children. That is elementary grades. It was always kids from seven or — actually, I taught even five-year-olds, but they had to be able to sort of keep up. I don’t mean academically. I mean they had to be able to keep up in a social way in the class. Otherwise, I banned them. I taught the kids from five to nine, say. Then toward the end of my teaching career, I taught the high school kids, the adolescents. At that time also, several times a week, I went to another setting where there was a GED program for kids who had dropped out of high school and who wanted to get their high school diplomas.

Zibby: Wow. I cut you off, sorry. You were talking about that you didn’t get very much attention. You were teaching full time. Keep going.

Johanna: I was teaching full time, but I did keep on writing. I did get many stories published. There are a bunch of stories and, actually, a novella that are not in this collection because they didn’t quite belong. They didn’t fit with this. I am hoping that there will be another collection that would include both that novella and the short stories. I did keep on writing, but as I got older, that got harder to do, to manage it all. I would say I haven’t written as much as I would have wished to write, but I have a novel that I intend to go back to. I left it maybe five years ago, something like that. I definitely want to go back to it now because the characters keep talking to me. There’s nothing I can do about it. I didn’t feel that I officially said goodbye to them. I couldn’t. I would say that, in a sense, I tried, but they kept popping back up. There was nothing I could do about it. I would take notes about who said what and who had what dream and all that sort of thing. Now I have to go back to it. That’s really the story of my career or life as a writer. I think it should give courage to young writers who don’t know exactly where they’re going.

Zibby: Interesting. I know the characters keep coming back to you. In all of the stories, I know that — the cofounder of my publishing firm, Leigh Newman, always tells me about how — she’s a short story writer — how it’s actually much harder to write a perfect short story than a whole novel because you have to make sure every sentence is just right. You don’t have that much room to pull off what it is you’re trying to do. You have to do beginning, middle, all of this stuff. How did you become so well-versed in the short story? How do you do it? How do you write great short stories?

Johanna: First of all, thank you for saying that. I think the form sort of announces itself with the character or the characters, but sometimes you can be deceived by the characters. The novel that I’m going to go back to began with a short story idea. Then suddenly, the characters took over. There was nothing I could do about it from that point of view. Otherwise, I think I’m very careful about sentences, whether it’s a short story or a novel. I am very concerned with a sentence feeling perfect to me. I can never tell what will seem perfect to a reader, but I have to go with what seems perfect to me.

Zibby: When you read, do you look for the same thing in the books that you read?

Johanna: I guess I do. Yes, that’s a very good question. I do because I tend to prefer writers who do write what I think of as great sentences. They’re not perfect sentences, but great, great — sentences that have within them, phrases that just knock you out.

Zibby: Who does that really well? One or two people. Not to put you on the spot.

Johanna: I would say Cynthia Ozick does that that’s just mind-blowing. In this collection, there is a story that pays homage to the great Russian writer — we now know he was actually Ukrainian. Who ever knew that? But he was, Isaac Babel. That story is, in a way, most interesting to me because I put him — it’s not a fact, but I put him in the same battlefront train that a real great-aunt was on. They were never on the same train together, but I wanted — he was a writer who wrote about his experiences as a war correspondent. She was assigned by the beginning Soviet administration to be — she was a first-year doctor. She had no choices. They put her on a battlefront train. I wanted to imagine his meeting her and his impressions of her and of the battlefields they were going through and how it — he is, par excellence, the writer I would say writes — every sentence is so perfect and so beautiful. I think I reread that book a hundred times.

Zibby: Isn’t it funny how a book — this sounds so silly now that I’m saying it out loud. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. They all look the same, but whether you — there’s no good way to tell when you’re picking up a book and it’s going to be one of these incredible literary masterpieces on the sentence level or if it’s going to be a page-turner. All you can rely on is the cover. Do you know what I mean? You just don’t know.

Johanna: You know by reputation.

Zibby: Yeah, that’s true. I know. That didn’t sound very — I was just thinking —

Johanna: — You know by reputation. Also, if you don’t know, you would look at it.

Zibby: Read a little.

Johanna: You would read a little or maybe just skim a little. You could tell very quickly who writes a real sentence and who, perhaps, has something else in mind.

Zibby: I’m going to pick at random, one of your sentences to show off your writing chops here too. Let’s see. How about this one? “From behind all the black lines, Fran’s eyes looked as if she was already set to start flirting, but even so, her arm would not let go of Miriam’s shoulder. It was just another thing that Miriam did not like. Simply going from one activity to another, the whole bunk walked with their arms linked around each other’s waist. At flag-lowering, you joined hands and swayed in a semi-circle. In swimming, you had to jump for someone else’s dripping hand the second the whistle blew, and at any time at all, there were counselors standing with their arms around kids for no particular reason. They were all people you hardly knew and would probably never see again. There was no reason to spend a whole summer hugging them.”

Johanna: That’s from my story “Sour or Suntanned” about that sharp-eyed girl in camp. One of the things I thought of just recently is how many of the stories I’ve written are about children who see what adults don’t expect them to see and how that probably happens in life a great deal more than parents, say, know about. I’m only guessing since I’m not a parent. Since I had that sense that I saw things that, of course, you couldn’t say, in the stories, the character says them. In life, I would never have said such things.

Zibby: Here, I’ll pick another passage from a different story. This is a passage from “Other People’s Lives.” “Rebecca’s arm was still around Maria. They had reached the house but continued standing outside it. In her cold and discomfort, Louise concentrated on the odd quality of Rebecca’s voice. She had quacked French verbs at students for so many years that now, without knowing it, she could not stop the quacking. Worse, she plowed down on words and consonants with lingering lopsided lips and with her tongue, emphasized the sounds that students, in a dictation, might have forgotten to underline.” That’s great. So great.

Johanna: Thank you so much, Zibby. I’ve actually sort of forgotten that characteristic of Louise. Louise, in that story, is a very sharp-eyed young woman no matter what her troubles are. She is a very troubled girl. She was in a mental hospital for a couple of years. In this story, it’s her first time out. They’ve placed her with a family on the Upper West Side. I know that kind of apartment very well. What I did with that novella — that’s actually a novella, not a short story. I’ve done this in some other things also. I put two people together who could never really have been together. I put them in the same situation or in the same place. That’s another way of getting ideas for me. My major way of getting ideas, really, is I hear a character’s voice. A character’s saying something. I have to find out who that character is. Almost always, there is a quick answer. In other words, that character’s speaking to someone. Then I find out who that someone is. Then I have to find out more about them. Sometimes if I let them keep talking, they tell me, but sometimes I have to kind of figure it out. Why are they saying those things? Who are they?

Zibby: Interesting. I hear that novelists or short story writers often get spoken to by characters. Was there ever a time when you thought you were just hearing voices? Did you always know it was directed at a novel or on the page?

Johanna: When I was a child, it was just a fantasy. Children have fantasies. I knew from very young that I wanted to be a writer.

Zibby: You did?

Johanna: I did. I didn’t know that I would be able to do it because I thought that’s the greatest thing in the world. How do I dare imagine that I could do such a thing? I’ll tell you — this is going to sound rather silly. One of the books I loved as a child was Heidi. The author is Johanna Spyri. It’s about a little girl who’s very close to her grandfather. I was named Johanna. I was also very close to my grandfather. I thought, you know, if she could do it, perhaps I could do it too.

Zibby: Wow. I had the similar thing with an author named Zibby Oneal. She wrote middle-grade fiction. I was ten, eleven, something like that, and already loved writing. I saw her book in a store on Madison Avenue. I was like, wow, another Zibby. You know what? It’s possible. Who knows?

Johanna: I think coincidence of names does make a difference somehow. It strikes you, especially if you have an unusual name, as I do and you do also. I think that’s part of it. I think if you were named Jane or Susan, it might not hit you in the same way. It couldn’t.

Zibby: No. You’d say, forget it, I’ll never be a writer.

Johanna: I don’t think anyone who wants to be a writer should ever say that.

Zibby: True. Good point.

Johanna: If you feel that you want to do it, you go ahead and at least try it.

Zibby: Yes. What other good advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Johanna: Keep at it. People who want to be writers tend to have read a lot in childhood. I think that’s an enormous boon and enormous imperative, really. If you didn’t read a lot as a child, I don’t really think you can become a writer. I’m sure there are people who would say they didn’t read a lot as children but came to it at some later point.

Zibby: I know. I worry. I have four kids. They read a little, to differing degrees. I read all the time. That was my thing. Maybe that was just me. I feel like it’s much more rare these days to have total bookworms when you’re competing with devices and all of it.

Johanna: I think that’s true. Parents that I’ve heard about, many parents don’t allow a TV in the house and are very, very careful about what they allow kids to do on devices. Also, they shower them with books. They read to them a lot and shower them with books. I think that takes care of it, really. Although, it is bound to be harder. In a world where there were no devices — TV was very limited when I was a child. It was very limited. What you had to do, aside from being with friends, reading was kind of it, unless you were athletic. Then that, of course, led to a whole different life.

Zibby: That’s true. My only electronic growing up was this tiny little game. It was a Casio game called Snoopy Tennis. It was a credit-card size. You would just press these two buttons. It lasted for — I don’t know. That was my only electronic. What are you hoping for by publishing the book now, this book? What are you hoping for? Who do you want to reach? What would make you really happy?

Johanna: I would love to reach young readers, people from twenty to forties. Obviously, I’m old enough so that the people who have read me and enjoyed my work tend to be on the far side of fifty. Put it that way. I would love to reach readers who are really young and coming to this work for the first time and seeing in it, things that really speak to them. It’s a book about families, essentially, and the differences in generations and the differences in the way people become Americans. I really believe that there’s a profound sense in which we are all on the same page internally. If that were not true, we couldn’t read, with pleasure, writers who died hundreds of years ago or even thousands of years ago. There is something inside everyone that really is the same or close enough to the same that you can make that connection. Certainly in terms of families and children and how children grow up and what they see and what they perceive in the world around them, that’s got to be universal.

Zibby: Very true. I love it. Amazing. That’s it. Johanna, thank you. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for mastering Zoom and facing your fear and chatting with me today. I’m impressed. You have a better Zoom background than almost anyone I’ve interviewed, so there you go.

Johanna: My god, really?

Zibby: Yeah, it’s perfectly blurred and everything. Well done.

Johanna: Thank you so much, Zibby. This has been an enormous treat for me. I’m really, really proud and thrilled to have been with you.

Zibby: Thank you. You too. Bravo on your collection. I wish you all the best of luck.

Johanna: Thank you so much. Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.



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