Interview with She Writes

Sonia Taitz, author of In the King’s Arms weaves a literary tale about love, family ties and anti-Semitism.
She was interviewed by Elizabeth Cassidy:

SONIA TAITZ is an author, essayist, playwright, legal advocate and the mother of three children. While she tends to her writing and family and makes us all feel like underachievers, her work has appeared in the New York Times, O Magazine and MORE. Sonia has appeared on the Today Show, CNN and National Public Radio. Her theatrical works have been staged in Washington DC and New York and in the 2009 PBS showcased The Mystery of Love, which featured Sonia’s work under the heading of “Love and the Family.” And I bet she sews her own clothes.

I am not even sure I want to go on with this interview, but I shall try.

Q. Sonia, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions about your life, your words and the issues that are near and dear to you. It is always an honor to have an author such as you come and offer inspiration to all of us writers out there.

So my first question is: milk or dark chocolate?

A. I’m trying to convince myself that I’m sophisticated enough to appreciate dark chocolate, but when no one’s looking–milk all the way!

Q. Okay, now on to some slightly tougher questions. I think it is always interesting to hear about the genesis of a published author and playwright. Can you tell us a bit about your education and how your life has impacted your writing?

A. I’m horribly overeducated by normal standards. I have a Bachelor’s degree in English and Psychology from Barnard College, an M.Phil in English literature from Oxford, and a law degree from Yale. My parents, who were immigrants, placed a huge value on education, which no one could ever take away from you. (And you do get to talk about it in interviews like this!) But I always wanted to write — for example, I started writing plays while I was at Oxford, and eventually quit law to write full time. Still, I think that the more you read and learn, the better a writer you are.

Q. Was the love of writing something that came to you early on in life? Did you always know that you wanted and needed to write?

A. I always had my own peculiar point of view, and a big need to question and delve into things. My childhood was unusual and difficult, since both my parents were Holocaust survivors and had lost many close relatives. I was named after my father’s mother, who perished in a death camp. As I grew older, my need was less to express how I felt, and more to make sense and something beautiful out of the broken world into which I was born.

Q. Your newest book, In the King’s Arms, intertwines two very different families and your story travels back and forth between 1944 and 1976. Lily, the protagonist and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, is caught between love and acceptance and religious discrimination while attending Oxford University in England. Since fiction does seem to come with a dose or two of real life, do any of Lily’s characteristics mirror yours?

A. Well, as I mentioned, my parents were also survivors, although not from the countries mentioned in the novel. And I was a headstrong young girl who wanted to heal them by traveling out into the world and proving that it was no longer as scary and dangerous as they had experienced. My mother had been kicked out of her music conservatory in Europe just before graduation (she would have been a concert pianist). My brilliant father had lost both his parents, and had to learn the watchmaking trade to survive. So I did travel to Oxford to study English literature – something they never dreamed a Jewish girl, daughter of immigrants who could hardly speak English, could do.

Q. In the King’s Arms will haunt my soul for a long time. The characters in Lily’s life seemed to be on the verge of happiness and yet something always seemed to happen to snatch it away from them. There are so many life lessons in this book—what do you want people to take away from your book?

A. I want them to believe, as Anne Frank did, that people are basically good. For me, I’d add that if the goodness is hidden, love will bring it out. I want us all to heal the world through open-heartedness. I want us all to bravely and patiently look for the hidden spark of goodness in everyone.

Q. If the timeline of your book went back and forth from 1944 to 2011, how differently would you have handled the anti-Semitism that Lily had to deal with being around the Kendall family? Have we as a people come to really accept and embrace the differences in people? I think I know the answer but would love your perspective on this.

A. I think that there is great progress in that direction. Does my answer surprise you? Yes, the world is still full of factions and hatred, but more and more people understand that we are all endowed with the same capacity to love and to do good. And corny as it sounds, I will always be grateful to America for providing this haven of hope for my parents. I was lucky to be born in this fair and generous place, where equality and happiness are part of our very core.

Q. A few years back, you wrote the best-selling book: Mothering Heights: Reclaiming motherhood from the experts. In 2011, O: The Oprah magazine listed you as one of the “20 Best Famous Writers” on motherhood. I am going to let you have that since I don’t have children, but what advice do you give parents about them being the best judges when it comes to rearing their kids?

A. Simply that they are the best judges on their children. They will make mistakes, they will have moments of confusion, fear and even despair, but the bond is something no one else can ever fully understand. As I said in the book:

“What children take from us, they give. We become people who feel more deeply, question more deeply, hurt more deeply, and love more deeply.”

I plan to have it out as an ebook for Mother’s Day 2012. Fingers crossed!

Q. As a successful author, I know our readers will want to know how you go about writing your books. Are you an early riser, do you write a certain number of words or pages a day or do you settle in front of your computer when the moon is high in the sky?

A. I hate to get up early – alas, as the world is run by the larks, not the owls. But still, when that moon is high in the sky, watch out! I do try to make myself write a little every day, but along with my love for the night is my love for the spontaneous. So sometimes nothing good comes out, and sometimes I can’t stop writing and I look up in a fog, hours later.

Q. What advice can you give all the writers out there who want to add the title “author” to their resumes? So many people say they don’t have the time to write. Your life seems so busy and yet you manage to write your books and articles. What seems to be working for you?

A. Treat writing like a great, great luxury. It’s your time to say what you need to say. You get to make the world over; you get to change chaos to beauty. And don’t think about getting published when you’re creating. The writer in you should be left alone to play, like a cherished child. Find a safe spot and let yourself disappear into your own world. As for the time element – it’s quality, not quantity. People with the most time on their hands sometimes have the biggest writer’s blocks.

Q. How did it feel to be quoted on ABC’s Nightline about Steve Jobs? Please let everyone know your clever response about Steve Jobs and Heaven? If memory serves me right, I believe I said it first.

A. It was the greatest surprise ever!! I had done almost nothing, and then a friend from San Francisco told me I’d been quoted on national TV! What happened was that I’d seen a tweet from The New York Observer (where I once had a column) about how Steve Jobs believed in heaven, but wasn’t in a hurry to get there. I tweeted back: “It there isn’t a heaven, Steve Jobs will invent one. And it will be user-friendly and available to all.” The next day, this friend told me I’d been quoted on Nightline, at the end of the tribute to Steve Jobs. I felt a little guilty – I can barely use my Mac, and this genius has just passed on. But my youngest daughter was so proud of me (even if you do claim to have said it first)!

Q. Your next book is a literary memoir called Time out of Joint. Can you share what your book will be about and when will it be published?

A. It’s kind of a sequel, in a way, to IN THE KING’S ARMS. It tells the real story of my life as an immigrant’s child, from my birth to my parents’ deaths. I’d married out of their culture (which they’d been wary of my doing), and yet, at the end of his life my father said: “Thank you for bringing these people into my world.” I hope to have this memoir published next year. By the way, which title do you like better? TIME OUT OF JOINT (it’s a quote from Hamlet about making things right for your parents), or WATCHMAKER’S DAUGHTER?

Q. And finally, what is next for you? Bringing about world peace? Your own reality TV show?

A. I want to learn to eat dark chocolate and like it. And I want you to admit that I DID write that quote about Steve Jobs.

In the King’s Arms is now available at Amazon. It’s at Barnes & Noble. It’s also at many independent bookstores, like Shakespeare and Company in New York. Please ask for it at your local place!

Please visit Sonia to learn more about Sonia. You can also read her insightful and amusing blogs there. And don’t forget to follow @soniataitz on Twitter!

For all of us New Yorkers – Sonia will be reading at Barnes & Noble in NYC (on 82 and Broadway) on Monday, October 31, at 7:00.