Letty Cottin Pogrebin Interview
Book Passage: Why would Three Daughters be of interest to book clubs? What issues raised in the book would provoke meaningful discussion?
Pogrebin: Book clubs would find much to mine in the main themes of Three Daughters: the corrosive aftermath of family secrets; what categories of behavior inspire secrecy—i.e., shame, imperfection, sexual inadequacy or misdeeds, sense of inferiority about one’s origins. Clubs could discuss what else would motivate someone to lie to the people they love most. Was it right for Shoshanna to tell Rachel what she saw? How does each character in the book attempt to keep control over his or her life? What does each of us do to stave off chaos and disorder? What’s the function of our calendars—how would we feel were we to lose our calendars as Shoshanna did? How do we harness time to human purpose? What role do our memories play in our present lives? What is the legacy of the powerful patriarchal father, especially in the formation of a woman? How did the father in this book, Rabbi Sam Wasserman, leave his mark on each of the three daughters? How important is ritual and ceremony in creating meaning in one’s life? What does the relationship between Esther and the three daughters tell us about inter-generational issues among women.
B.P.: When you appeared at Book Passage in October, you spoke of "family secrets" as a major theme in the book. As one character states, "Shoshanna believed that deception was more damaging than the worst of all possible truths. As the casualty of her family's well-intentioned cover-up, she used to be absolutely sure that the right to know trumped the impulse to protect." Could you elaborate on this in relation to the story and as it applied to your own life?
Pogrebin: Since Three Daughters was published, I’ve traveled to 24 cities and met hundreds of people, many of whom have felt moved to share with me the family secrets they grew up with. In every case, they felt as Shoshanna did—that, when finally revealed, the thing being hidden (whether it was an adoption, an unknown sibling, a step-parent passing as a parent, a youthful abortion, a relative who’d been institutionalized, a falsified educational credential) was so much less painful once revealed than the discovery that someone you trusted had lied to you. That sort of intimate deception is experienced as betrayal. It leaves deep scars that play out in adult life in the inability to trust and the tendency toward suspicion and heightened self-protectiveness.
B.P.: Leah, the activist and feminist sister in the book, is a dominant character. Could you comment on your own role as a women's advocate and co-founder of Ms. Magazine as driving forces in your life, and as they relate to the characters and story line of the book?
Pogrebin: To create Leah, I drew upon my own experience as a co-founder of Ms. Magazine and other early feminist groups. But I was also inspired by Bella Abzug, the feisty, crusading, tough-mouthed congresswoman who led many battles on behalf of women's rights. Also I had in mind the passion of my colleagues in the movement, Gloria Steinem, Barbara Seaman (women's health advocate), Robin Morgan (international feminst organizer), Shirley Chisholm (candidate for U.S. president), Pat Schroeder (U.S. Representative from Colorado). In writing Leah’s dialogue, I reconnected with the days of rage and rebellion when women frequently took to the streets to protest inequality and injustice. I was part of many of those demonstrations—the effort to desegregate the want ads in the N.Y. Times; to get the Times to print more book reviews by women; marches for the Equal Rights Amendment, for reproductive rights, welfare rights, against violent pornography, etc. In Three Daughters, I wanted to make vivid for today's readers the fervor of the 60s and 70s, and to honor the courage of women activists who dared to speak out and demonstrate and “make a scene” on behalf of women’s rights and dignity.
B.P.: As a journalist and as author of Deborah, Golda, and Me, you have been a writer of non-fiction for many years. What prompted you to take on fiction for the first time? How was the writing process different for you (or was it?) in this new genre?
Pogrebin: I’d written eight books of nonfiction but never considered myself a “real” writer because I hadn’t written a novel. The genre frightened me; fiction seemed like sorcery. I believed that what I was able to do—nonfiction and journalism —was craft, but fiction was art. And since I wasn’t Virginia Woolf or Colette or Cynthia Ozick, I couldn’t presume to try to create art. Fortunately, however, I encountered a wonderful line of Grace Paley’s that opened the door for me: “Writing teachers have it wrong when they tell you to ‘write about what you know,’” said Paley. “In fact, you should write about what you don’t know about what you know.” I started to think about all that I don’t know about the things I know—about families, parent-child relations, childhood memories, long marriage, women’s private yearnings and political passions, the power of time and ritual in our lives. The characters conjured themselves to allow me to imagine a story that would address all that I don’t know. It took me four years to write this book. For the most part, nonfiction was easier for me because I used to have facts and footnotes and experts to stand behind. But writing the novel, I had to let go and give myself permission to invent not only people and scenes but motivations and emotions. I became my own expert. I had to learn to trust my voice rather than speak in the name of a piece of research or an authoritative source. The fiction form gave me a freedom I’d never before experienced in my writing. It was—and remains—intoxicating.
B.P.: Shoshanna, Rachel and Leah are such complex characters, similar and dissimilar in fascinating ways. Are the sisters in any way reflections of the “three faces of Letty”?
Pogrebin: I think they are. I see aspects of myself in each of them—my love of family and tradition, my disdain for conformity, my compulsiveness, fears and superstitions, optimism, hunger for justice, interest in all things Jewish. But as I wrote the three women’s stories, they seemed to tell me about themselves rather than let me impose myself or my predilections upon them.
B.P.: What are you working on now?
Pogrebin: A second novel which, loosely summarized, is about Black-Jewish relations as seen through the lives of a Jewish man, the child of holocaust survivors, and an African-American woman who is a radio talk show host. It’s a bit of a leap for me, because this time the protagonist is a man.