I was introduced to Samantha Bernstein once at an event at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore not long before her memoir Here We Are Among the Living came into the world. When her book was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-...
I was introduced to Samantha Bernstein once at an event at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore not long before her memoir Here We Are Among the Living came into the world. When her book was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, one of just three books written by women on a long-list of ten, I knew I had to read it, and it turned out to be one of my favourite books of 2012.
Yes, this is a memoir written by Irving Layton’s daughter, but Bernstein’s literary lineage was less interesting to me than the Toronto she writes about, and her stories of what it was to come of age at the turn of the millennium. I came away from the book wanting to expand on the questions it posed, and so I was very pleased when Bernstein agreed to engage in an email conversation with me.
The following interview was conducted over the past five months, which seems like a long time, but considering it took place between two pregnant women with rich and busy lives, it’s really a wonder that we pulled it off at all.
KC: Did you always know that your memoir was going to be in epistolary format? Why was it important that it was? And were the emails in your book based on actual correspondence?
SB: Yes, I knew from pretty early on that the book would be in emails. I first started working on it during my undergrad in creative writing at York, and my prose assignments started coming out as emails. The idea of writing a book was like a pair of sunglasses I couldn’t take off, but which I felt quite stupid about wearing—Who am I trying to be? and all that. My world at the time was completely tinted by those damn glasses (which, as my mom would tell you, I was super pissed off about much of the time). That need to transcribe everything got funneled into my correspondence with my friends Eshe and Joe; so writing in emails was at first just a less intimidating way to write, because it was familiar and because they presuppose an interested audience.
In my last year of university I read The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe’s epistolary novel that sparked rebellion in the hearts of his contemporaries. Werther’s letters, at first, just seem ridiculously whiny and self-indulgent (as twenty-somethings are apt to sound…), but as we discussed the book, the self-narration began to take on a broader significance. The intensity behind Werther’s writing is fueled by the fears of youth, fears of being turned into something you despise, of betraying ideals, of failing to properly appreciate or capture the beauty you are experiencing. And as I learned more about the epistolary form, I liked its history of social engagement and criticism, its continual probing of moral and ethical questions. I felt like it would make sense for this book to be in that tradition. Especially because, as it appeared the book would have to be a memoir, I thought that the epistolary concern with subjectivity—its political implications, its distortions and narcissism—would at least be a formal recognition of the problem of writing about one’s self.
The book is based on actual correspondence, but the letters are almost entirely made up. Some lines are direct from emails I’d sent to Joe and Eshe, and certainly the correspondence we’d had helped me to remember what was going on at the time, and what we’d been thinking about. Thoughts and images from our emails got reworked into the book. I’d also been gathering moments and things people said in notebooks for years. I’ve been surprised, though, at how many people think I just printed out my hotmail folder. If only! But I’m glad the emails are believable. It was hard, sometimes, to keep my late-twenties self from editing my early-twenties self into a less obnoxiously naive/enraged person than I was.
KC: How does email change the epistolary format? Granted, your emails aren’t so cyberish—no emoticons and LOLs. But I imagine the immediacy makes a difference. Does email offer