Guest Writer – Harriet Bernstein – The Mother of All Interviews Part I

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-edting 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 strugged 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 actualy 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, besoted 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 llike 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 selelction 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, nd then people beat themselves up about it, and I’mnot in favor 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, repect, 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.
11) How did it feel to find a publisher who wanted to publish your story? Was your goal always to get this story published?
12) Describe the editing/revision process? Overall, how can you describe this process?
13) How did you feel leading up to your book launch?
14) What was it like to get on stage, book in hand, and talk about and read from your book?
15) What are your future goals with your book? Readings? Lectures? Travel?
16) Are you working on a new book?
17) Your daughter and granddaughters were at your launch – what was it like having them there? How does ‘family’ fit into your creative life?
18) What is one question you hope people ask you about your book?
19) Do you think that we each have a story to tell? Would you recommend writing as a positive experience?
20) What writers would love to have tea with – living or dead – to talk about writing and reading?