What do you write?
I write whatever bubbles up. I’ve written a lot about my late parents, because they were fascinating, larger-than-life characters. Also, writing about them has been a way of continuing to be with them.
What got you started writing?
School teachers got me started writing. They also spooked me into stopping. From the time I penned my first compositions my mother kept getting called in, because my teachers didn’t believe I was producing my own work. They refused to believe that what I handed in was the work of a child. They would be embarrassed when my mother showed up. In their eyes, Mum appeared to be little more than a shabby immigrant woman with an accent. They assumed she could not have done my homework, either. Finally my mother suggested, “Why don’t you keep Sharon in after school, give her an assignment and watch her while she writes. Then you’ll see what she can do.” My teachers followed my mother’s advice. It put an end to the suspicion of plagiarism, but it did not put an end to the pressure.
When I was barely twelve, I read an article in the Saturday supplement of the now defunct Montreal Star. It was called The Art of the Warsaw Ghetto. Among other horrors, the author of this piece claimed that people would slice the skin off corpses and use it as parchment, in order to have something to write on.
As you know, my parents were Holocaust survivors, though the media had yet to coin this term. At the time, Holocaust education did not exist. Meaning to protect me and my brother, our parents did not speak about the war, though inadvertently information was transmitted through our mother’s sometimes confusing and erratic behavior. Our dad called the predominantly Jewish neighbourhood we had recently moved to (after the Six Day War, and in response to it) “a golden ghetto,” and I knew that Mum came from the city of Warsaw, which was the capital of Poland. I had picked up the term “In Ghetto” in reference to Warsaw. When I asked about the Warsaw Ghetto, I was told it was “the Jewish district in Warsaw.” So I pictured the Warsaw Ghetto as a middle-class suburban neighbourhood. Until I read this article. I was shocked. I also realized that my parents were hiding something hideous. I didn’t feel I could confront them with this article, so I turned to my English teacher. This woman was a frustrated writer who, after retirement, carved out a second career as a minor poet. But that lay in the future.
When I showed Mrs. Yelin the bit about the skin of the dead being used as writing paper, she rolled her emerald eyes and exclaimed, “You see, my child! You see what it means to be a writer! A true artist will resort to any means in order to be able to write!” Now I was not only shocked; I was traumatized. If this is what it means to be a writer, I thought, I don’t want it. At the time I said nothing, neither to my mother nor to my teacher, but I stopped writing. For years. It was only after leaving school that I once more took up a pen.
Years later, when Mum and I could speak freely about her past, I told her about the article and my teacher’s response to it. “Nonsense.” She put my childhood fears to rest. “It never happened.”
Do you have a particular routine?
No, but I work best after sleep. Either first thing in the morning, or after a nap. I consider the sub-conscious a helpful writing partner. Writing problems tend to get solved during sleep. I trust the phrases which manifest behind my eyes before I open them.
Do you have a dedicated work space?
Yes. I work at a desktop, in front of a large-enough monitor. I don’t sit on a chair. I sit on a fitness ball. It keeps me lifted. As I write, I bounce and rotate and work my core.
When did you decide to call yourself a writer? Do you in fact, do that?
I decided I was a legitimate writer after being published three times. For years I have called myself a writer. In the past year, with the traditional publication of two books (I self-published a book ten years ago), I stopped calling myself a writer, and now define myself as an author.
How supportive are your friends and family? Do they understand what you’re doing?
My mother was my greatest ally. She was my best friend and first phone call. When I was eight years old she said to me, “Everybody has biiiiiig feelings!” Mum illustrated the immensity and intensity of such feelings by opening her arms wide and seeming to lift the air. “But few people are able to express their feelings in writing, the way you can. By the way you write, in the way you write, you can show us our feelings and help us to understand them.” At the moment I write this I can hear my mother saying it. I can see the light of hope and encouragement in her eyes. At the time I thought, “I can do this? What a responsibility. I’m not even sure what it means.”
Other allies turned up along the way. When I was twenty, the man to whom I Want You To Be Free is dedicated said to me, “Your talent is mature, but you are not. You’ll have to grow into your talent.” They are all dead now. The last to be taken was an historian and history professor. He managed to avoid the pandemic by dying in December of 2019. He considered me a serious, albeit unrecognized talent. Lately I’ve been thinking of him. I recall when he compared my work to that of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Of course it was a great compliment, but it took a while to realize what he meant. Williams and O’Neill were outsiders who exposed the dark side of Family. They aired dirty laundry, transforming it into art. In their work, they were uncompromising. When I feel uncomfortable with what is clamoring to be expressed, I try to remember that.
A friend who read I Want You To Be Free called it “a work of maturity.” The man, so long gone, to whom the book is dedicated, would’ve been pleased to hear it.
What are you most proud of in your writing?
I am most proud of the memoir I Want You To Be Free. It is a labour of love and a tribute not only to my courageous mother, but also to those she loved. I have succeeded in honouring them in a way which would be most meaningful to my mother—in the form of a book. With this work, I believe I have fulfilled the potential foreseen for me, and in me. It is a great relief to have finally done so. Though it doesn’t mean that I will stop writing!
How do you get on with editing and research?
I just do it. When I feel stumped on research, I turn to the reference department at my wonderful local library. This library has become my second home. No question is too large or bizarre for its dedicated staff. The head of the department has said to me, “I live for questions like yours.” They were immensely helpful with the historical research needed for I Want You To Be Free, and I officially thanked them in the Acknowledgements page.
Do you have any goals for the future?
I have completed work on another memoir. This one is of my dad. I wrote it not only to celebrate the life of a beautiful human being, but also to challenge the public perception of Holocaust survivors and offer a different perspective. As I Want You To Be Free is about Memory, Daddy’s Remains is about Legacy. The title was inspired by the fact that my father was buried twice. As I wrote, the narrative developed and evolved into an exploration of my father’s legacy through the lives he touched, through the children he left behind and what happened to them. I consider it a companion piece to I Want You To Be Free. It may not be marketable, but it was satisfying to have written it. There is also a comic novel sitting on your intimidatingly long waiting list. I look forward to working on it with you.
Which writers have inspired you?
When I was young and for a long time, I claimed Shaw as my favourite writer. I began my professional life in the theatre, and Shaw wrote terrific roles for actresses. I was also enchanted by his satiric wit. Shaw’s halo slipped when my historian friend informed me that the jester of Ayot St. Lawrence kept a portrait of Stalin in his home. Since then I have turned to women writers for inspiration—Alice Munro showed me that a Canadian woman can create a literary landscape as legitimate as any other, and Anita Brookner’s novels modelled the dignity of a woman on her own. But ultimately it is Mark Twain who strides like a colossus above the rest, not only as a writer, but also as a human being. Born into pre-Civil War America Twain, who came from a slave-owning family, evolved into an abolitionist. Unlike Dickens or even Shakespeare, there is nothing to apologize for, in the works of Mark Twain. He took on all the important issues of his time. He was prescient and humane. His message was serious, yet delivered with wit. He sustained personal tragedy which would’ve destroyed a lesser man. He outlived his wife and two of his three daughters. He lost a son at the age of eighteen months, and out of his grief Tom Sawyer was born. It is Mark Twain’s example which taught me what can be redeemed from bereavement and grief.
Tell me about your book.
I WANT YOU TO BE FREE is a memoir of my late mother, the pioneering Holocaust educator and activist Renata Skotnicka-Zajdman. In 2011, terminally ill, my mother was awarded the Polish government’s Order of Merit, which was a singular honour not only for a Canadian citizen, but especially for a Jew. I Want You To Be Free is more than my mother’s story; it is her wish for posterity and her message to the world.
Tell us about your research for the book.
My mother left a wealth of documentation in the form of several filmed testimonies, myriad recordings, speeches and documents, and a private memoir which she intended to be used as a reference for her children and grandchildren. All were helpful, especially the memoir. I have woven passages from this work through my own. In the book, the blending of my mother’s words with mine becomes a form of posthumous dialogue. The recordings I relied on most were the last, which we made together during day-long infusions in hospital. Mum knew her time was running out and she finally revealed all to the daughter she trusted and loved. In her final days, at home on morphine, she was still making notes for me. What additional information I could no longer get from Mum, I got from the library.
What inspired you to write this?
Grief. Soul-searing anguish, torment and grief.
As I said earlier, I’ve completed a memoir of my dad, as well as a novel. After this, I just don’t know. I don’t know if I have another book in me. But I do and will keep writing. My mother knew that after she was gone, writing would sustain me. She was right.
How can we get a copy of the book?
In the UK, it is possible to buy the book in physical book shops, as well as on Amazon.uk. Google has a listing. Outside the UK there are various outlets, but the best bet would be Amazon.
Do you have any events planned?
In early December of 2022 an international virtual launch was held under the sponsorship of Montreal’s Holocaust Museum, in partnership with my local library and a hook-up to the publisher in the UK. The program was recorded and can be accessed through YouTube. At the time of this writing (January, 2023) there are no further plans.