How has living in New York changed your writing?
New York has become a major character in my books. It took someone else to point that out to me – I thought I would still be writing the same no matter where I was. New York is like a character in You Gotta Have Balls, I’ve written so much about life here.
I think the city is fabulous for me as a person. There’s no such thing as something that’s good for a writer or bad for a writer. I think what influences you changes you as a person and that’s what comes out in your work. New York is a city that is very hard to be smug in. There’s always something to undermine you. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a city that forces you to see things you may prefer not to see. It’s not an easy city in that sense. It’s a mixture of people from all walks of life, all ethnicities, all religions, and that’s been a fabulous thing for me as a human being.
What do you hope to achieve when you write?
I hope that what I write moves people. I hope it makes them laugh; I always want to make people laugh. And I don’t mind at all if they cry about what I’ve written as I think there are lots of things in life to cry about.
When people tell me they recognize themselves in something I wrote, I’m really thrilled. I’ve had people from such different parts of the world tell me that the father figure in a lot of my books is their father or their grandfather – that’s when I feel that I’ve connected. I’m just trying to connect with people.
How did you become a writer?
People ask me if I always wanted to be a writer. It makes me laugh because I don’t think I had any plans for the future at all. I never thought in terms of ambitions. I had no plans. What I wanted to be was thin. I was always on a diet. One day when I was about 18, riding a bicycle in circles around this small patch of garden trying to lose weight, my mother came out into the garden and told me I’d have to get a job. When I realized my parents were serious, I applied for a series of jobs, none of which I was qualified for.
A friend of mine told me about a job at a new rock music newspaper and that I should apply. I went in and no one asked me if I could write, but the editor asked me if I had a car. My father had bought me a car because he was terrified of me driving with Australian boys whom he thought drank too much. I said, Yes I have a car, a pink Valiant. He asked me could I start the next day. I had to ask the secretary how to put paper into the typewriter! It started a lifelong love affair with typewriters and keyboards, and I learned that I could write. I learned that writing made me very happy. That was one of the most fortuitous things that happened to me and I’ve often wondered what would have happened to me if that hadn’t have happened.
How autobiographical are your novels?
People have thought that I write about my life. I haven’t helped that, particularly in the later books, because when you give your central female character a husband who’s a painter and they have three children and they live in New York, then you’re asking people to think that you’re writing out your life. My female characters have always had parents who were in death camps.
It isn’t my life. If you were to write out your real life, many parts of it would be very tedious. I think that all writers write out of themselves, so people are right to feel that I’m writing out of myself and they’re right to feel they know me especially after reading many of my books. But it isn’t my life, and that’s one of the great luxuries of writing – you can make yourself something that you’re not, something that you aspire to be.
You’re a very funny writer whose books often talk about the Holocaust.
I think a lot of people have been perplexed by how you can be funny when writing a book in which the Holocaust features. The crucial thing to remember is that I’m writing about contemporary life and contemporary life is very funny. One of my saving graces is I have a sense of humor and in particular I can laugh at myself. One of the miracles of my mother and father living through the Holocaust and being the recipient of barbaric behavior and witnessing indescribable atrocity was the fact that they were able to laugh afterwards. I’m not saying they rolled out of Auschwitz and killed themselves laughing, but my dad in particular retained his sense of humor. When I was very young and he laughed I used to think everything was okay with the world. If you’re alive, your life has to have a lot of joy and a lot of humor. So I don’t think there’s a conflict.
What was your family’s experience of the Holocaust?
Both my parents were born and grew up in Lodz in Poland. My father was a child of a wealthy family and my mother was the child of a relatively poor family. They were both, like all the Jews in Lodz, imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto by the Nazis. They were there for almost five years. They were on the very last transport out of the Lodz Ghetto to Auschwitz.
My father had three brothers and a sister, and my mother had four brothers and three sisters, and they each had uncles and aunties and nephews and nieces and cousins as well as having a mother and father and grandparents. Everyone they were related to in the universe was murdered, except for one brother of my father’s. Growing up I felt that the dead were more present in our house than the living.
So I knew when I was growing up in Australia, where my parents migrated with me in 1948, that we were different, and not just because we didn’t speak the language. We were different because of what we had experienced. And I felt it was we who had had the experience, not just my mother and father. I felt I had absorbed it by osmosis in the way children can absorb what has happened to their parents.