Nessa Rapoport, EVENING

Nessa Rapoport, EVENING

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nessa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your novel, Evening.

Nessa Rapoport: I’m glad to be here. Thanks.

Zibby: First of all, this was such a beautiful book. I loved it. So great. I love your writing style. It’s so poetic and just great. I’m a big fan. Then, after I read —

Nessa: — You can stop now.

Zibby: I was going to say after I read it, I started investigating more. I read that it took you twenty-six years, really, thirty years, to work on this book. Tell me the whole story of this book. Maybe also tell a little bit about the memoir you wrote and your first book which I know was a huge success. Give me your whole story.

Nessa: I began this book in 1990. The first chapter came to me in an instant. This has never happened to me as a writer before and certainly not since. I thought, great, this is going to be my easy book. This one’s just going to flow out of me. I’m just going to build on that first chapter. I’ll be done really soon. For once, writing will not feel as it usually does, like peeling tiny pieces of skin off my body one at a time.

Zibby: That sounds like fun.

Nessa: I would describe my current life as the further humbling of Nessa Rapoport. One instance of that is how long it took me to write Evening. In essence, what happened was I created a setup with a kind of propulsive story. Then I had all these obligations to the story. I had never written a book like this. The opening is, as you know, two sisters, one is grieving for the other. They’re in their thirties. Eve, the narrator, has come back from New York to Toronto where her sister died very prematurely. Her sister is the most famous Canadian anchorwoman on TV. She has a devoted husband and two lovely children. Eve is almost deliberately indeterminate. She’s endlessly writing a PhD she can’t quite finish on British women writers between the wars. She’s always lived in tiny rental apartments. She teaches English at a community college to women who come in the evening. Her life drives her older sister, Tam, crazy because Tam is a woosh into the future and Eve is in love with the past, as Tam accuses her.

Throughout the whole book, although Eve has died, Tam is always in her head talking to her and in dialogue with her. In this first chapter, you learn very quickly that these two sisters who have a complex but definitely loving relationship had a stupendous fight two weeks before Tam dies. They never reconciled, which is not only an awful burden for Eve but also against their principles as sisters. As you learn as the book goes on, whenever they had a fight when they were both alive, one would call back into the front door, “I love you. I love you,” in case she died in a car accident and never got to reconcile with her sister. So this is bad. Did I know what the fight was about? I did not. That was problem number one, this issue. That thread through the whole book is that, as you know and as readers know, the morning after the funeral, Eve discovers a secret about Tam that upends her view of herself and her future, her sister, her family ecology. I did know what the secret was, but I had no idea how to construct a narrative that would thread that secret through the book and keep you, the reader, engaged as it unfolded. I knew that it didn’t matter if you figured it out soon or later.

I think some readers figure it out right away. Some, to my thrill, don’t figure it out until the revealing scene. It’s not a mystery. It’s a novel, so it’s okay. If you figure it out early, then you know something Eve doesn’t know. That creates its own momentum. If you don’t figure it out, then you have the same surprise she has as she encounters it at that moment. That was a real challenge. I was an interior, more Virginia Woolf writer. I started out as a poet. Language matters a lot to me. I felt I had a responsibility to keep this story pushing forward as I shuttle back and forth from present to past in these scenes. I had the great grace to have a mentor named Ted Solotaroff who was a very eminent editor who’s no longer alive. Bless his memory. I took him out for coffee early on. I said, “Here’s my setup. I don’t know how to move forward. I can’t figure out how to tell this plot.” He said to me, “Plot is character. When you know your characters, you’ll know how to do this.” That explains most of why it took twenty-six years.

I wanted to tell you, I was not one of these, I love babies, I can’t wait to have — I knew I’d have children. I knew it really mattered to me, but I was not a gushy baby person. I was in quite a bit of shock when I had my first one. I really didn’t know how to do anything. The biggest shock was that I couldn’t read, that I didn’t have time to read. I hadn’t understood that that was my great sanctuary for mental health. When I needed to zone out and get out of my brain, that’s what I did. I have three younger sisters. We’re four sisters, no brothers. I always say all of us spent our entire motherhood trying to evade our importuning children and get to finish our books. Even on those grounds, I knew I had to talk to you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I remember literally pumping in the middle of night with my third kid, I have four kids, and having Therese Anne Fowler’s book on the table while I held the things. That was my only time to read, was in the middle of the night when I was pumping. Yes, it’s crazy. Now even with remote school, I can sit in the rocking chair, I can read a little bit of your book. They can be on Zoom. It’s not perfect, but at least you fit it in at some point. Anyway, back to Evening and your wonderful editor who you were talking about and all of that. Now we have this book in front of us that took you all this time and evolved. I read your interview with your daughter, which was so awesome, I think in Glamour.

Nessa: It’ll happen to you. I assume your kids aren’t quite as old as mine. This is what happens.

Zibby: I hope so. I interviewed my dad on my podcast because he also wrote a book. That was really fun. I’m hoping someone will interview me eventually. Tell me what that was like. Also, tell me about having all of this out in the world and how you relate to your family and how this relates to your relationship with your sisters. This is a very sister-heavy book. Tell me a little bit about all of that.

Nessa: I’ll start with the sisters. Having sisters is a thing. We are four sisters within six years.

Zibby: Whoa.

Nessa: Yeah, which was a tribute to my mother. Those were the years after the war when atypically, actually, women stayed home and wanted to be home. It was the great retreat from when women were actively participating because men were at war. In Canada, men went to World War II also. My mother had an utterly exceptional mother. As you know from Evening, the grandmother, who is not quite my grandmother — it really isn’t an autobiography, but little tidbits and tendrils entered. There’s always a remarkable grandmother in everything that I write. One of my friends says, “It’s one of your signature moves.” My grandmother was part of that pioneering generation of first doctors, first lawyers. She was born in 1897. She was the first woman and the first Jew to get a PhD in physics from the University of Toronto. She had five children. She was an observant Jew on top of it all. Plus, she was born in Canada which for Canadian Jewry was very unusual because it’s a much newer immigration than here. Of course, in response, my mother who has many aptitudes and is still with me at ninety-two wanted to be married and raise children and have a big family which she went on to do. The thing about sisters is, as my friend Francine Klagsbrun noted, your siblings know you longer than anyone if the creator is good and everybody dies in order. Sisters know each other in a very intimate way. Do you have sisters?

Zibby: I have a brother. I’ve become very close to sisters-in-law, but I don’t have a sister.

Nessa: It’s different because you know the center of your sisters. You’ve stood next to each other in the bathroom. You’ve exchanged makeup. You’ve inevitably, if not competed, you compare. Because I was the eldest, I didn’t have anyone ahead of me. It took me many decades to understand that my sisters coming behind me noticed and paid attention. I noticed and paid attention too because my sisters were almost my peers at a certain point and then, of course, by now really are. They really noticed. We were in this kind of ecology. It’s funny. You polarize each other into roles. One of the things I wanted to show in Evening between these two sisters is that on the surface, anybody would assume, and the people who come to this shiva house for mourning do assume, that Eve is jealous of her sister. Her sister has “everything,” and Eve is unfinished. In fact, Eve has never been jealous of her sister. She’s aware of her sister. She’s in awe of her sister, but she’s not jealous. By the end, in some ways, you could certainly argue that it turns out Tam was jealous of Eve, which is one of the reasons she makes such sardonic comments about Eve’s lifestyle. As I used to say to my children, a secure person doesn’t have to talk like that. Eve may seem to have it all, but she’s always sort of harping.

Once you release a book into the world, it’s no longer yours. Several readers have said to me that they were alarmed by Tam’s hostility, that’s the world they used, to her sister. I really didn’t experience them that way. I experienced them as sisters. One thing that happens with siblings, I think brothers and sisters, is you each adopt a role. Because you want your own identity within a family, you’re pretty protective of your role. You don’t actually want to be the other person. One of the amusing aspects of the sister issue is — my mother’s one of five. She’s the only daughter. My father was one of three boys. Neither of them had sisters. They grew up in the Depression when you defer to authority and you take on responsibility almost prematurely early. They had these four daughters coming of age in the youth culture where being young is adulated and the economy’s good and nobody’s thinking too much about responsibility. They were totally at a loss. My mother used to say that she worried that we would want each other’s boyfriends. Once you’re in a family, you never want the boyfriend of the other one. One of the things that’s interesting in this novel is there are two other sisters. There’s Nana and her very beautiful kind of amoral sister. That sister, Nell, certainly is impinging on Nana’s life and, indeed, on the life of anybody she can. The last thing I’ll say about your question is I’m very interested in the role of beauty in a large family constellation. There’s always someone or some few people who are exceptionally beautiful. The way the family responds to that is fascinating. I learned everything I know sitting around the kitchen table listening to women talk. I think Evening reflects that.

Zibby: Wow. I’m actually jealous of — I mean, I love my brother. I love my family. I wouldn’t change anything. The unique experience you had growing up with three women and what that does to a person’s character ongoing and your other relationships, that’s just a gift. That’s a gift.

Nessa: As you know and I know and I like to say, if you’d like to mythologize it, great, but of course, it’s not like that. It’s complicated, loving, but complicated.

Zibby: The fact that one sister dies in this book and yours, thank god, are all living, where did that come from? Is this your biggest fear, is that this would happen? Did it stem from other losses? I know you’ve written a lot about loss.

Nessa: That is a really good question. Because the setup happened to me — I’m sure you’ve talked to so many writers. Don’t some of them say, I kind of wasn’t in control of my characters, they sort of took over?

Zibby: Yes.

Nessa: I did not understand that. As I have said, I found it a little pretentious until it happened to me. I did lose a friend in her thirties to breast cancer, but I know she wasn’t in my conscious thought. I think this book is all unconscious. In some ways, that makes it more autobiographical because it’s coming from deep places of collected anxieties, as you note, and impressions that I wasn’t entirely in charge of. In terms of the grief and the loss, I have had a very blessed life. At this point, I have lost four very close women friends. At the point that I started and wrote that first chapter, I had lost only one. I’m a porous person. The daughter whose interview you read used to say, “Oh, Mom, you and your morose childhood.” Writers are dark. I think I wrote to alchemize suffering into something better. I’m a very, very not believer in the silver lining of life. I see no point to suffering. I wish none of us had to endure it. Since we do, I feel I’d like to give something back. What do I have? I have wisdom.

To come back to your first question, the single biggest difference between when I started this book and now is not that my sisters characters changed, it’s that I got older. Life became more nuanced. I endured losses myself. I had to come to understand that loss is absolutely intrinsic to being alive. Tragedy, not necessarily if you’re lucky, but loss, absolutely. The last thing I’ll say — it’s evident in this book. I didn’t realize it was a main theme until I started talking to people who read it. I do not believe that when someone leaves this world, you necessarily need to end that relationship even if it was fragmented and really not where you wanted it to be. I think we keep growing. I like to say the only physics I know, compared to my grandmother, is that we’re always in motion and that energy doesn’t die. It just changes form. I believe that love is a galvanizing energy and that you can heal a relationship that was fraught even if the other person isn’t there. I think you see that in this novel. The biggest change is not Tam and Eve. I was fascinated by them thirty years ago. I, luckily, remain fascinated by them. The biggest change is Nessa as I had to encounter so much more complexity in life.

Zibby: That’s really beautiful. It’s true. I feel like knowing that loss is such a fundamental part of life, it’s a shame that we don’t do more to prepare ourselves or our loved ones for its eventuality. It always blindsides people because we operate under this delusion of invincibility. We don’t want to go there and think about it. I wonder what life would be like if we all checked into that every so often and had some sort of mental preparation other than anxiety. I feel like I am always thinking about the worst case to prepare myself.

Nessa: You’re cutting a false deal where it’s like an amulet. If I worry about it enough, nothing will happen. It turns out not to be that way. I’m thinking as you’re speaking, the strongest indicator of this question is being a parent. When I started out, without even realizing it, I wanted to protect my children from absolutely everything. I’m not of the small children, small problems metaphor. I loved watching my children get older. They’re my teachers now. I really learn a lot from my young adult children. I started to realize that it was very important to go to the school of adversity and learn resilience and teach my children that when things happen that were very hard, they had the fortitude to get through it. This was not in my repertoire. As one of my sisters liked to say, the Rapoport women, they get an A+ on the first try or they quit. This is not a good way to live. As a parent, I had to memorize before I really believed it, that understanding. Do you feel that way as you raise your four?

Zibby: I find that the kids who have gone through the most, I feel the — as with any kids in any family, not to pick out either one, but there’s one child who’s just had to overcome more stuff than the rest. I feel like that particular child now has a sense of grit. She has something that I couldn’t teach. You have to learn it yourself.

Nessa: I’m still learning it. The other thing that struck me when you spoke is if you have a childhood as I did that was very interior, addicted to reading, very dramatic inside, being a very intense person, which is genetic, you have the fake understanding that the graph of life will just go up. You’re just going to get happier and happier as you get older and older because how could such misery endure as you were so hungry for life and longing for things? There’s a lot of true humility about coming of age and understanding that you’re going to grow, not quit growing at forty, which is what I had resolved in my thirties. I’m done with this. It’s too depleting. You grow until you die if you’re lucky. This novel is short, but I tried to show that these people, both Eve who’s alive and even Tam, they are always in motion. Their relationship is therefore in motion.

Zibby: It’s a comfort to hear what you said about relationships continuing on and love continuing on because I know there’s just so much loss these days. To take away that finality of it all is probably one of the most healing things you could say to somebody.

Nessa: You have to get there yourself.

Zibby: I know. You have to get there yourself. There were so many quotes I wanted to read back to you. Of course, I’m not going to be able to find them at the right time. I just want to read at least one example of scenes that I loved. Hold on one second. Oh, I liked this. I like this. I can’t say I liked it. It’s so sad. When Eve was at Tam’s funeral and saying her final goodbyes, you wrote, “People are starting to go, but I cannot turn away from my sister. As if departing from a king, I walk backward from the grave, a solider and an honor guard whose watch is over but who will not relinquish her duties.” I can just see that. Those sentences, you can see the cemetery, the walking. It’s just amazing. Then this other passage, I loved. This is when Eve and Laurie were having their long-distance relationship back in the day before reuniting at the funeral, which was very juicy. You said, “During Laurie’s high school trip to Europe, I was a beggar at the den window pleading with the smug despot of impeded love for the mailman to appear. Only when I gave up did he manifest himself, a potentate in his authority to grant or withhold. However disciplined I tried to be, I could not wait until the letters fell, but opened the door, hand thrust out, speechless.” What a way to describe waiting for the mailman. Seriously, this is an exercise in creative writing masterpiece. Tell me about how you honed your craft. How did you learn to write this way?

Nessa: I began as a poet. I went to University of Toronto. Then as soon as I could move to New York City, which I fell in love with, I did. At University of Toronto I won a prize for poetry. I decided then that poetry was too marginal to the culture. I wanted to be more in communion with people. I’ve written a book of prose poems, as you know. Again, an exhibit here. In addition to the story I had to work out, the other aspect of it, as you said, was language. The last realm of my perfectionism is choosing each word. I jokingly say it’s a very bad attribute for parenting. Your children don’t care for it when you’re a perfectionist. I had to give it up. In one’s own work in writing, the only harm is to myself. I wanted to show you, this is the exhibit. This is a thirty-two-page, single-spaced, double-column document of quite literally every word in Evening except for “the” and “and.” Going on the basis of my friend Daphne Merkin’s aphorism, you can have only one cerulean in a book, so true, I checked every word to make sure it wasn’t too proximate. It’s a very short novel, and I didn’t want to repeat very studded words. I feel that it would be a great diminishment if I did that. Here you have long, long lists by alphabet that sound like this. “Deprived, deranged, deride, descend, desecrated, desire,” with how many times they appear and whether I’m satisfied that they’re far enough apart that you wouldn’t read it and think, didn’t she just use that word?

Zibby: Wow. That is amazing. I’m so glad you showed me that. I can’t believe that I had not asked that question it would’ve remained sitting by your side and I wouldn’t have known about it. What else do you have over there?

Nessa: The only other thing I have is — my husband is a visual artist. When I first started this book, I was using a computer, but it wasn’t really native to us yet. I was still writing some things by hand. This is what it looked like by hand, all these words, before I started typing. He said to me, “I want to frame that. I want to frame that document with how many instances words like light came up in Evening.”

Zibby: Gosh, I didn’t know it was so intentional. All I could tell was the effect of it. Now seeing the work that went into it and how specific it was, that’s really neat. That’s also just a really interesting way to analyze anybody’s work, how often words come. What does it mean? Which words come more often? I’m sure there’s a whole science behind this that I just don’t usually do. Very interesting. What’s coming next for you now? This one was twenty-six to thirty years in the making. Do you have another one that’s been gestating for as long? This is the end? What do you think?

Nessa: I hope it’s not the end. I certainly, doing the math and following the actuarial tables, cannot take another thirty years to write a novel. I do want to give a word of encouragement to anybody out there who has a dream of a project that seems as if it’s not going to come to fruition. There’s a kind of serenity I have from having fulfilled my ambition for this book. Many was the soul who wondered, is Nessa hanging onto this book for its own sake? I wasn’t. I knew I would feel that click, and I did. I have these little waves of wondering that could turn into the next book. I have certain experiences that I’m interested in. I, every day, wish it would coalesce into a next project. I was an editor for many years. I used to tell people, when your book comes out, the most important thing you can do is be immersed in another book. I also was thinking yesterday, I just can’t force it. I am an excellent procrastinator. I am not in the flow, one of those people that — I tell everybody else to do this — sits down, writes every morning, writes badly. I know all the rules, but I don’t follow them. I think it’s probably a little too early for me given what I gave this book to have something fully born, but I’m playing around. It is play, right?

Zibby: I hope so. It shouldn’t only be work. Awesome. Nessa, thank you. Thank you so much for sharing Evening with us, for telling me about your life and the backstory and showing me that amazing document. Now I’m going to go back and read Preparing for Sabbath. This is just such a beautiful book. I love also that you structed it with the days of shiva. I just loved it. Thank you.

Nessa: Thank you for being such a perceptive reader and especially for loving it because that’s it, there’s nothing better.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much. Hope to stay in touch.

Nessa: Thank you for inviting me.

Zibby: Of course. Buh-bye.

Nessa: Bye.

Nessa Rapoport, EVENING