Award-winning author Merrill Joan Gerber almost gave up writing more than once in her long career, and yet she always bounced back.
The day I read her latest novel, The Hysterectomy Waltz, she cheated death on the 210 Freeway when three big rigs smashed into her car, turning it the wrong way around, and leaving her screaming and covered in glass. Not a funny scene at all.
Often, though, Gerber's writing--ambivalent, despairing, and heart-wrenchingly honest--manages to make you laugh while nodding and sighing in recognition of her and her characters' foibles, farces, and tragedies.
Much of Gerber's writing has great comic timing, calling to mind Woody Allen when he was still very funny. She can do self-deprecation with the best Jewish wits, while making good points right and left.
Gerber, who teaches fiction writing at California Institute of Technology, agreed to respond to a few questions about her creative process and her thoughts about the publishing industry.
Q&A WITH MERRILL JOAN GERBER
Q: You wrote a scene in The Hysterectomy Waltz about being followed by a hearse. How long after your very recent accident did it take you to recall that scene?
Only when you wrote me that you had finished reading The Hysterectomy Waltz did I recall that “death on the freeway” appeared as a hearse in one of my chapters. I am still hearing the crash of metal around me and I doubt that this event will ever find a way into a “funny scene.” But it’s true, you never know!
Q: This new book, though its themes and voices are certainly fresh, isn't a just-out-of-the-computer novel. When did you write it and why is it only now being published?
The Hysterectomy Waltz was written 33 years ago! It was too early for its time, then—although several publishers (as so often happens) had ideas for changes that would render it (in their minds) “publishable.” So I followed their suggestions, one by one—sometimes working for weeks on making the suggested changes, till they each told me, as publishers do, “thanks, but that’s not exactly what I had in mind. I’m just not in love with this book. Good luck elsewhere!” See my essay on “Why I Must Give up Writing.”
Clearly I thought I was done with it all, but then I was discovered by Dzanc Books who offered to publish The Hysterectomy Waltz as a print book and also to put sixteen of my earlier books on line as e-books for Kindle, Nook, I Pad, etc. These books can be found on the Dzanc site as well as on Amazon, BN, and other book sites.
Q: Are you willing to say what percentage of this book is true? Is half of it based on real incidents and characters, or even more? I know there are some very funny scenes you probably concocted, but certainly the emotions hit the reader as genuine.
Though writers are often asked this question, it can’t be answered. All fiction is a combination of observation, experience, imagination and magic—and often when a writer has finished a book, she can’t even recall the factual basis (if there was one) for the scenes she has written.
Q: You told me once about the incessantly barking dog that nearly drove you mad. You invested the dog's owner, in the book, with a consideration that she never actually had, right? She was also a kind of witch, but a good one, in the book. Was that satisfying to write, or were you tempted to have dreadful things happen to her in the fictional version? Do you always take the high road?
There have been a series of barking dogs in my life, and not one owner has had the kindness and good sense and pure courtesy to shut up an endlessly barking dog. Intrusive, persistent noise of any kind is a threat to health, to sanity, and to the peaceful use of one’s home. See my story “Dogs Bark” in my collection of stories called This Is A Voice From Your Past.
Q: Years after the events depicted in the book, do you feel the same anger toward doctors who perform unnecessary hysterectomies?
The world of doctors has changed since I wrote The Hysterectomy Waltz!
There are so many female doctors now (thank heaven!), and there is so much information available on the Internet. While some women find the removal of their reproductive organs a freeing and positive experience, many women are still not questioning their doctors who assure them they won't lose any sexual functioning.
Q: Some of the funnier scenes involved the three daughters and their dating experiences. These had to be grossly exaggerated, right? '
Nearly everything in the book is “grossly exaggerated”—that’s what satire is: “holding up human vice to ridicule, often using burlesque, caricature, wit, farce, derision and mockery.” I hope I’ve got all of those elements in my novel. Let us say that all parents (of daughters and of sons) hold their collective breath while the lottery of their kids choosing mates is going on.
Q: I love the way you wrote about the surgeon, that he never once looked at the patient. Now, rather than staring out the window, he'd be focused on his laptop, inputting data, right?
It’s true that some doctors are so busy “inputting” information into their computers that they often don’t pay attention to their patients. I say “some doctors” because I have recently had treatment for breast cancer, and nearly all my doctors were attentive, sensitive and deeply aware of my presence.
All but one, and perhaps you will find out about this doctor when my breast cancer memoir (Breasts Are Everywhere In Brooklyn) is published.
That is, if I’m fortunate enough to have some editor fall in love with it, which seems to be the primary requirement for publication (along with an editor’s clear sense that a book will make lots of money for the publisher). I’m hoping that the recent burst of interest in the subject due to the brave decision of Angelina Jolie to have her breasts removed will open some doors for my memoir.
Q: Merrill, you were one of the interviewees in my Writing in Flow dissertation and book, around 15 years ago. Any fresh thoughts about entering a flow state?
I loved Writing in Flow and I still yearn for that state of being. It’s always difficult to let go of the mundane and fly into that other world where one can be lost in the vast spaces of imagination and joyful creation.
- Merrill was profiled in depth in an excellent documentary by Mary Trunk about mothers who are artists or writers: learn more here.
Copyright (c) 2013 by Susan K. Perry
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