Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Samantha Bernstein

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Samantha Bernstein

Samantha Bernstein is the author of Here We Are Among the Living (Tightrope Books), a brand new memoir written as a series of emails to friends and family.

Today we talk to Samantha about the epistolary format, family ties and autobiographical literature.

Don't miss Samantha launching her book this Sunday, July 8, 2012, with a bonfire in Dufferin Grove Park! Click here for event details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Here We Are Among the Living.

Samantha Bernstein:

It’s a story about the first years of the 21st century, as the children of Baby Boomers are entering adulthood and trying to understand the state the world is in. It grew, in part, out of a deep frustration with how Boomers have exploited the self-expression and personal liberty they fought for in the sixties. I think there’s a growing desire these days to live ethically, and the characters in my book are trying to do that — largely by trying to understand each other and their choices. Mainly, though, it’s a love story — love for the time and place it documents, between friends and family, and romantic love.


What drew you to the epistolary format? What were some of the challenges and pleasures of writing in this constraint?


In the last year of my undergrad I read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. At first I found Werther whiny and ridiculous, but as the novel progressed I started to see how the letters’ immediacy generated a personal story that’s also a letter to society about its hypocrisies and the fears of its youth. As I learned more about the epistolary, I loved its history of social engagement and criticism.

The pleasure was that it was just like writing to distant friends — especially Joe and Eshe, to whom I write in the book. It makes the story a conversation from the beginning, which combats the feeling of solipsism I sometimes had writing about myself. Letters create a sense of community and mutual engagement, and also come from a need to construct our experiences for friends and thereby ourselves (maybe especially strong in one’s early twenties...).

One challenge was making the emails believable but not confusing. A maybe bigger challenge was to write a younger version of myself. By the time I was doing the last major edits, I was nine years older than the Sam at the beginning of the book, and some of her responses to the world seemed very naïve. I had to keep myself from altering that youthful voice too much.


You're also an academic — how do you find your academic writing and work intersect with your literary projects?


In strangely wonderful ways! Academia has provided a framework for researching and thinking about stuff I want to write about, like youth movements. It also helps to show me what I’m interested in — as I was editing my book I realized my dissertation was going to be about relationships between ethics, aesthetics and class; I saw that this was a theme in the memoir and it helped to clarify my ideas and structure my edits.


Do you feel there is unique pressure on you as a debut writer given your literary family? Or is there a unique source of support there?


Both, but maybe more support than pressure. I don’t fear comparison. Maybe I should, but I guess I got some of Irving’s chutzpah. I sometimes worry that people will put too much emphasis on the dad aspects of the book; he’s an important element, but as part of what structures my character’s questions about art, creativity and love. The main source of support in this area has been my mom. She’s an incomparable editor, and she also gave me free reign to write what I thought was important.

My brother David (who I meet in the book) offered some really valuable (and harsh!) criticism on an early version. It’s lovely, too, to find that people are still interested in Irving Layton — even people of my generation. He contributed important things to Canadian literary culture, and I feel privileged that I can sort of continue this dialogue with him after his death.


Part of your Master thesis explored autobiographical literature. What interests you about this genre? What unique opportunities do you think it presents for writers?


I’ve always just felt compelled to document the world around me. There are a lot of interesting things happening in Toronto right now, and I felt it was important to write them down and to explore how they relate to current social and economic conditions. I just read an interview with Maya Angelou (in The Paris Review) where she talks about the responsibility of autobiographical literature, of “speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning we.” From its inception autobiography has been about writing a community’s experience focalized through an individual who was there. It allows a writer to think in a particularly immediate way about how the personal and the political intersect, as well as about the ways that our perceptions shape what we do.

I love realist literature, and autobiography comes from the same representational impulse, while also explicitly claiming and investigating its subjectivity. In this era of self-creation — especially through various forms of media — autobiography seems an honest and timely way to consider how we become ourselves and why that matters.


What are some other memoirs you've read and loved?


Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter had a really big impact on me. She writes beautifully, and captures so much of importance about the time she was living. Gail Scott’s Heroine was a more problematic read for me, but I love the way it explores a cultural transition and the perplexities of political engagement.


What are you working on now?


I should be reading for my next comprehensive exam…. I’m building up my fiction muscles, working on some short stories that all seem to concern masculinity and career choice. I’m collecting ideas for a project on North American middle-class life. And I’m always scribbling poems.

Samantha Bernstein is from Toronto, a city that figures largely in her poetry and prose. Samantha began working on the emails that would comprise her memoir during her undergraduate degree at York. After a Master’s in English at University of Toronto, she returned to York for her PhD. In part because of her absent father, poet Irving Layton, Sam has always questioned the relationship between aesthetics and ethics; her memoir examines whether making the world into art can help one live more ethically, a question she continues to pursue in her doctoral research. Sam’s writing has appeared in various publications, including Exile Literary Quarterly, Books in Canada, The Fiddlehead, and TOK 3: Writing the New Toronto.

For more information about Here We Are Among the Living please visit the Tightrope Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.


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