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Twenty Questions with memoirist Harriet Bernstein – Part 1 of 2

Writer Harriet Bernstein is a force. A woman with a life story that rivals any Hollywood romantic drama Academy Award winning film. I think maybe Meryl Streep could play present-day Harriet…looking back over a lifetime of adventures. She’d at least get nominated for an Oscar! To play the leading man? Hmmm. Antonio Banderas, perhaps? But who would play young Harriet and her leading man, Canadian poet Irving Layton? The mind wonders. At least my mind does!

I’d like to introduce you to writer Harriet Bernstein. Her new book, a memoir entitled Irving Layton Our Years Together is like no story you’ve ever read before. And it’s all true.

published by Inanna Publications

Yes, Harriet is a writer – a stellar poet too, but I first met her in the movie industry. When I was a manager at Cineplex Odeon theatres, Harriet was working for what was then Paramount (mega studio and distribution house in the film industry). I met Harriet at big distributors conference in Halifax because I had one a grand prize for a movie promotion we’d done at the theatre. Harriet and I became fast friends…and that friendship has bloomed into a beautiful garden of love! Indeed! So, when Harriet told me that her memoir was coming out, I was over the moon for her…and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her story! I was able to be at her book launch in Toronto, which is where the photos of her come from. It was a beautiful celebration of the culmination of her hard, hard work in writing her story.

Here are my thoughts on this extraordinary memoir:

Time does not heal all wounds. It can’t. It shouldn’t. Especially the wounds of true love. Time does, however, allow for reflection, for reckoning, for recounting and retelling. Harriet Bernstein’s memoir ‘Irving Layton: Our Years Together’ is a story about true love. It is unbelievable. It is maddening. It is passionate. It is sexual. It is sensual.It is torturous. It is extraordinary

On its surface, this book is Bernstein’s telling of her relationship with Irving Layton – a relationship that has been discussed, assessed, judged and dragged across the jagged landscape of the literary world. It’s quite possible you’ve not heard of Bernstein except perhaps in stanzas of poetry written by said famous Canadian poet – a man notorious for his biting love affairs with women. 

But this is a not a story of surface. This is a story that begins in the fiery depths of true love – the kind of true love that literary giants like Homer and Shakespeare wrote about. Except this story is real – our heroine and her poet travel to distant lands, face the furies of nature and nurture, sip wine, smoke cigarettes, make love on floors and in beds, and chase the seemingly uncatchable ‘poems’ that live at the core of two creative souls. 

It reads like a story only a goddess could experience – and perhaps that’s exactly what happened. There is no doubt in my mind that Bernstein’s role as muse, lover and mother was lived in a realm that only a woman of fierce, empowered, tragic and magical love could endure. This is a story that my own goddess soul has been waiting to read. 

We cannot come out unharmed at the end of this story for it slaps the soul into oblivion with its wildness and its pain, with its passion and its devastation. At the centre of ‘Irving Layton: Our Years Together’ is a woman with an extraordinary ability to love – this story expands beyond the ‘surface’ of the relationship between two people destined to love each other. The poetry lives in Bernstein’s soul as much as it does in Layton’s, and we are at once voyeurs witnessing the daily endurance that is being a poet’s muse – an inhuman expectation – and being a woman in undeniable love with a self she is fighting to continue to discover and uphold. 

As the pages turn, rampant with adventure and pain, disbelief and forgiveness, the brilliant mind and strong heart of Bernstein is revealed. But she is not indestructible. She is not unfeathered. She exerts rage and hurtful vengeance like any goddess – and we learn as she learns. As she writes in her journals, as she writes letters to her dearest female friends, as she reads books by authors who teach her fortitude, attitude and wisdom – keep a pen and paper nearby for as you devour this unbelievable memoir you will be schooled in how to find your ‘self’ amidst a love affair every heart hopes to at least taste.  

Bernstein is more layered than ten onions – and as sharp and juicy and sensual too. Here you receive a window into a soul that is part muse, part poet, part lover, part goddess, part feminist, part mother, part wife, part professional, part princess, part player, part crone, part friend, part daughter and part gypsy. You may find it difficult to take in this love story as Bernstein unveils lust, lies and love that reads like a Hollywood script but feels like a literary masterpiece. And that’s because it is. It is both Hollywood epic and literary gold. 

Harriet Bernstein is a living muse. These are as rare as unicorns, and yet here we see how one lived and breathed life into a man – a poet – and what happened when love met torment met passion met creativity met madness…and how the muse, scathed, learned to navigate the many faces of true love.  

This is also a story of creative damnation. A story of how the birth of a poem can trump even the birth of a home, a marriage, a child. Bernstein was not blind to the power she held as the ‘muse’ for part of her loving Layton was her understanding and respecting (with extreme devotion) his creative process. Sometimes creativity moves a spirit to madness and murder – to taking the pen which is indeed mightier than the sword for a stab at an outcome that finds glory on the page rather than in the person. How does one breathe with the disease that is ‘muse’ spreading over body and mind? If ‘Irving got a poem out of it’ it would seem it was worth the disaster of living through the pain. Is the poem more important than the person? This is a question that plagues the pages of this story. 

The lesson here is not to shun love or throw a belt of caution around your heart – no! The lesson here is to learn how to listen to the many songs that a heart and soul emits. The lesson is to dive in – get wet, get dirty, get hurt – be broken – so you can learn that for all the pain that love explodes it will always rebuild a much deeper, much thicker, much more magical heart that will be able to love more profoundly than before.  

To be clear, Bernstein was her ‘own woman’ before she met Layton. Her life experience was rich in work and sexual endeavours that built a strong foundation for the kind of love and passion that would at once consume and devastate her. And, despite how it may seem as we are hurled around the pages by this muse and her poet, in the depths of this woman remained a force that pushed her to make choices that would inevitably give her freedom from the man who was more a poet than a partner – and what remains is a beautiful child made from love and light who is the essence of the best of both of her parents. 

Irving Layton: Our Years Together’ is an exhalation, an exaltation, an explanation on a love story that is up to this point in time only half told. Behold – let the herstory unfold. 

I asked Harriet if I could send her twenty questions for this blog…and she said yes! So here are the first ten questions. The rest will follow next week with a reminder about her upcoming reading in Toronto (poster below). Thank you Harriet!

1) At what point in your life did you begin to feel/know that you wanted to write a book to share your story about your relationship with Irving? 

I think somewhere around 1984 or ’85 was when the idea began to germinate. There was just so much written about our separation, and it was so horrible to see my private life displayed in such an exploitative manner. My legal counsel advised me not to respond to any of the incidents, so I was holding my tongue. Everything was too fresh and painful to be able to write about at that time, but the more others wrote lies about my life, the more I resolved to one day set the record straight. 

2) Do you remember the day/time when you sat down and started to write it? 

I don’t actually remember the precise date when I began the first draft. What I do know is that it took me a very long time just to get that first draft down. I kept having to walk away from it, because I was too raw, the pain was too much. The other thing I know is that my initial goal was just to get the story down, without self-editing along the way. That was hard. The first draft was much longer than the final version, because I just poured everything out.

3) From start to holding the book in your hand – how long was the process of writing to publication?

From start to holding the book in my hand was probably around 29 years.

4) Where did you do your writing (at home, cafes, etc.)? How important is writing ‘space’ to your writing process?

I do my writing in my home. That said, if something comes to me, I always make a note of it, no matter where I am. I’d love to have a designated office with a green lamp and an ergonomically proper desk and all, but the fact is, I write at my dining room table, or on the couch, or in bed.  I don’t have a desktop anymore, just my Air laptop, so any place can be my office. 

5) There are excerpts of letters and journal entries in your book – did you always know you’d include them in your book? What made you decide to include them?

Over the many years, the book began to present itself as a weave: my journals were the foundation, the truth as I recorded it at the time; the letters presented Layton’s voice, in its truth.  I struggled not to edit the voice of the young Harriet in the journals, because there were times I was embarrassed to read what I had written. I had become a more mature woman over the years, of course, and that was the voice of a young woman, so in love with this man….but I had to resist the urge to edit, because either the truth was going to be told as it was, or I could not publish the book. Any edits that were made in Layton’s letters or in my writing were made only to minimize potential hurt to others that might have been caused. My book is not a revenge piece. My book is designed to tell the truth, so that all the distortions and lies that others have written about me and my life with Layton will not be all that there is out there. The writing that joins both those components, and presents  the perspective I now have, is what ties it all together and makes it a story, a story of a great love, a story of a feminist in the most seemingly anti-feminist position possible, and a story of how a marriage can end even though love does not. The book also, of course, presents a view of the CanLit scene during those years, as well as insight to the genesis of some of the best poems Layton wrote in his last years. 

6) What was it like reading back in your journals and letters – did your memory serve you well or did the journals/letters reflect something different?

This is an interesting question. Memory is selective and unreliable. There were times when I was working with my journal that I actually felt as if I were reading some other woman’s journal. That’s how much I had forgotten or put away, for self-preservation’s sake. I had forgotten some of the cruel things Layton had said or done, but there they were in my journal so I had to present them if I were to tell an honest story. Some of it was painful to read, because I sounded like a silly fool, besotted with love. Some of it was like when you’re watching a movie and you know what’s going to happen when that character on screen goes into that room or opens that door, and you’re yelling at the screen ” Don’t go in there!”; well, parts of the journals were like that for me, when I felt like I wanted to shout at myself : “Don’t fall for it again, don’t let him pull you back again!”  But of course I did, and I have no regrets about that.

7) Would you recommend writing letters/writing in a journal to writers – as a way of keeping those memories alive and/or fodder for writing ideas?

I would think that anyone wanting to write a memoir would be very well served to keep a journal, otherwise it is impossible to accurately remember events. I also kept a “Samantha Book” from when my daughter was born until she married, and it’s a fantastic thing to do. Because no way can even the most adoring, attentive mom remember every thing their child does or when they did it. So even if it’s a couple lines a day, just jot down some thing your child said, or did, get it down! Kids love to hear about themselves, so for many years, once Samantha was old enough, on her birthday each year we would read a selection from “The Samantha Book”, which was always fun for us both. Journaling daily is something that can be helpful, and if a person has the discipline to do that, that’s great. But of course our lives are very full and writing for a half hour a day or whatever is not always possible, and then people beat themselves up about it, and I’m not in favour of that. So, whatever works. When I kept these journals on which the book is based, it was because I somehow just knew, without thinking about it, that it would be important for me to do this. My soul told me. 

8) At your launch you mentioned that you’ve had some health issues over the years, how does your relationship with your body/health affect your writing life? What advice would you give to writers who have challenges with their health but still also feel that need to write? 

Health/body issues make life in general quite challenging. As a glass half-full kind of woman, I am usually in a state of gratitude & appreciation for the blessings in my life; that said, there are times when illness or pain make it impossible to do many of the things I would like to do, or in fact have planned to do. When I had pneumonia last year, and recurrent upper respiratory issues following that, there were weeks when I had to be in isolation in my home. Those times for me increase introspection, and since I’m an introspective woman to begin with, I go deep within. My daughter and granddaughters are an incentive to be as well as I can be, however my life is separate, and so at those times, it is writing that anchors me, writing that gets me out of bed ( even if it is only to get my laptop & bring it back to bed with me!). I feel better when I write. I feel like I have been in touch with a core part of myself, when I write. Writing, after all, is one thing we can do, alone, so forced solitude has its upside too! If one has to write, one will, even if it is a few lines. As Gertrude Stein said ( I am paraphrasing): if you write every day even if it is a few lines you will find over time that you have quite a lot of writing done…..

9) When you were in the thick of writing – so reaching back into your life/relationships – what was it like? Were you emotional? Did you have to stop? Did you have days where you wrote and wrote and wrote – and days where you couldn’t write at all? Describe the process of writing about your past – the hard parts and the lovely parts.

Writing this book took a very long time – decades – because it was so emotionally difficult. Over and over I had to walk away from the project, knowing that I was going to complete it, but not that day….I had my journals, after all, which form part of the weave of the book. The young Harriet in the journals told the details of what was happening as things happened; it was the truth, unvarnished. The current Harriet, reading those words, often cringed, and wanted to edit, but could not because that would not have been honest. So, I had to face myself, and allow that woman to speak. At times, it was as though I was reading the words of someone else, because memory, as we know, can be unreliable; I had forgotten a lot, or put it away because it was too painful. And this process made me go through it again. That was the hard part. Also, re-reading Layton’s letters, very beautiful and also painful. Then came the days when I wrote and wrote, did not get dressed, did not go anywhere or see anyone, and those days were some of the happiest. As any writer knows, the feeling of being in the flow is divine. And I mean that literally, because it is as though something is moving through us, some energy that is just splendid.

10) There is much writing in the book about ‘muse’ – certainly your experience with this…shall we say ‘power’ has changed over the years. Can you share your definition of what a ‘muse’ is – do you think you embodied this definition? How did that make you feel to be someone’s muse? Who was/is your muse? And, finally, do you think that a muse is necessary for creative output? 

I do frequently refer to myself as a muse for Layton, and I believe I was. I also believe that an artist’s creativity can be sparked by anything; certainly the world and everything in it was inspirational for Layton. That said, the role of muse is, to me, more specific, while still held within the generally accepted broad concept of “inspirational”. If a woman has an affair with a man, is she automatically his muse? I would say no. I would say she may have inspired some painting or writing or song composition, but she was to my way of thinking an inspiration, not a muse. It’s something like that saying in the metaphysical realm: all mediums are psychic, but not all psychics are mediums. All people can be inspirational – in a positive or a negative way – but not therefore necessarily also a muse. The relationship with Layton was fertile ground: being 36 years older than me, there was automatically the piece of the picture that represented passion lit anew by a much younger, beautiful woman. That obviously inspired him. However, we also loved each other, which kicks everything up a notch or ten. Add to this cocktail the fact that I came to him out of my deep love and admiration for his poetry. I loved the work long long before I met the man. So, I brought that added component, a deep respect and passion for his art. I do believe that any woman who has a significant relationship with an artist must admire, respect, love the artist’s work, because living with or marrying or having a longterm relationship with an artist is not easy! And why is that? In part because his or her first love will always be his art, and the partner must accept that she will always be second; in part because writing is done alone, so the partner must accept that he or she will shoulder the bulk of some responsibilities (often domestic), and be able to do things alone; and in part because the creating of the art is like always giving birth, so requires a lot of understanding, support, lovingkindness, and reverence for the creative. I revere creativity. I was excited, amazed, and grateful to be a paticipant in Layton’s creative process. Watching his process, sharing his life, being the first person ever to hear a new poem was an experience unlike anything else in my life. To be asked for input, to comment on his work, was challenging because I admired it so much and how was I to feel qualified for that opportunity?  I was deeply humbled and also extremely excited to realize myself as not only an inspiration for Layton, but in fact, his muse. His last great burst of creativity was during our years together, and I will always be proud of my role in that.

If you’re in the neighbourhood, be sure to mark your calendars for this fine event!

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