Interview with Florence Reiss Kraut, Author of How to Make a Life
08 Feb 2021
What can you tell us about your new release, How to Make a Life?
My novel, “How to Make a Life,” is a family saga, covering 100 years in the lives of the Weissmans, an immigrant Jewish family. It begins when Ida, with her two remaining daughters, escapes a murderous pogrom in Ukraine, determined to save her family. She has high hopes for a new life in America, but she cannot foresee the struggles her children and grandchildren have once there. Through the 20th century as the five Weissman children grow, marry and have children of their own, each generation’s actions impact the lives of the next.
Secrets about the family’s past, the betrayal of one sibling by another, mental illness and mistakes made in the name of love undermine the lives of the children and grandchildren who must take comfort in the bonds of family and find the courage to forgive. It is the strength and resilience of the family members that allows them to live with joy and success in their lives. Kirklus Reviews called it “An engaging and heartfelt portrayal of intergenerational trauma and hope.”
What or who inspired you to become an author?
I grew up in a large family with 27 first cousins and 20 aunts and uncles. I used to listen to my aunts tell stories as they washed and dried the dishes at family parties, and I loved hearing them. As a child I scribbled stories in my notebooks, and made up stories as I walked down the street. As a social worker I heard the stories of my clients as they tried to work out their problems. These stories have always informed the way I think. Growing up, all the authors I read inspired me to want to be an author. I have written and published all my life…stories, essays and even two unpublished novels. How to Make a Life is my first published novel.
What’s on your top 5 list for the best books you’ve ever read?
No doubt the answer would change from year to year. Right now I would nominate Amy Bloom’s Away, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Margaret Atwood’s books, particularly The Handmaid’s Tale, Toni Morrison’s Beloved which seared my heart and Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories. I must also mention Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women which inspired me when I was a little girl, to be a writer.
Say you’re the host of a literary talk show. Who would be your first guest? What would you want to ask?
I would invite Jane Austen, another of my all time authors, and ask her how she had the courage, in her time and century, to write and publish. I have struggled through my life, as a daughter, wife and mother, to be able to put my writing first, or even second, in my life.
What’s your favorite thing about writing?
I love writing characters that readers find so real they think they know them. The greatest compliment is when a reader says the characters were so real they stayed in their heads for weeks.
What is a typical day like for you?
I like to write in the morning. I rise early, have coffee, ideally write for a few hours and then go on the business of the “un-writer” part of my life, although I am always writing in my head. I go for a walk, do some yoga, read, watch TV. But, of course recently, COVID has really dictated the choices and rhythms of my daily life.
What scene from How to Make a Life was your favorite to write?
My favorite chapter in my book is the chapter in the voice of Ruby, the sister who is afflicted with mental illness, as she struggles with feelings of revulsion about herself. I wrote the chapter in the first person although the rest of the book is in the third person, because I wanted to get as close as possible to Ruby’s mental state to show her suffering and give the readers a chance to really connect with her. My sympathy and understanding of this difficult and beautiful woman increased enormously as I wrote from her voice.
Do you have a motto, quote, or philosophy you live by?
As I have gotten older I realize how precious and unpredictable life is. I have adopted two motts. The first I saw in an ice cream store many years ago (I love ice cream): Life is short. Eat dessert first. The second I adopted from my sister-in-law who has told the world: Life is not a dress rehearsal. I agree with that.
Both mottos remind me to do the important things.
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