I’m always looking for good memoirs by women writers and I devoured this one in just a few days. Kvetch is about growing up an Orthodox Jew and a tormented child piano prodigy in South Africa, and offers a rare look at Jewry’s response to the events of apartheid, circa the 1960s. It also goes behind the scenes of two rarefied worlds: classical music performance—and the workings of a California metropolitan daily newspaper.
Huge thanks to Greta for answering my curious questions about her work and her book!
Your memoir begins with your childhood in South Africa, when you were discovered as a piano prodigy. Later, we see you travel to the US and become a journalist. Did you always have a feeling that you might become a writer? Or did this seem to happen totally by accident for you?
Growing up an isolated pianist in Johannesburg, I emerged a serious reader, spending hours at the local library and devouring biographies of the great artists. I also found solace in the writings of British children’s author Enid Blyton and her myriad adventure series. Around age 10, I declared that I too one day would be an author; I knew with certainty that I’d write a book about the family saga. Journalism also beckoned early. After every musical triumph my mother would schlep me to the nearest newsroom for photo ops and interviews. I soon was comfortable in that milieu, and to this day remain fascinated by media coverage of the arts.
How did you go about piecing together your memoir? Did you rely almost solely on your own memory, or did you call on family members, friends, or old journal entries for the information you needed?
After leaving the Los Angeles Times I took my retirement monies and hit the road. Traveling across the States, or visiting New Zealand and parts of Europe, I began slowly getting my story down. I relied solely on memory. Seems every incident, scene, and bit of dialogue from my difficult life in Africa remained indelibly etched in my brain, my cells, my very DNA, all begging a type of retrieval. Miraculously, soon after the publication of “Kvetch” the scenes and snippets of dialogue began to break up, even fade. Today, I could not author that memoir. Did I call upon family members during the process? Or rely on old journal entries? Given my household dynamic, I find these sentiments quite endearing. My mother was a star at covering her tracks, so keeping any diary could spell a certain death for me. Remember, perpetrators hardly tolerate documented evidence of any dastardly deed, let alone permit access to potentially sympathetic friends or relatives. Isolation is the game. But I’m proud that throughout, I managed to keep my story aloof and safe.
Did your background as a journalist help you or hinder you while writing this book?
I don’t believe I could have assembled the book without my background in editorial. As Arts Editors at the Los Angeles Times our emphasis remained on cutting stories to their bare essence, eliminating any extraneous phrase, every repeat word. The writing of “Kvetch: One Bitch of a Life” evolved over a decade. And while originally a doorstopper, I developed a system of putting the book away for months at a time, then hauling it out to “hone and refine.” Also, as an arts reporter I interviewed many music celebrities over many years, and this surely prepared me for my own promotional efforts. I enjoy interacting with media. I try to be good copy because there’s nothing worse than chatting with a reluctant subject across the table.
You address a few topics in your memoir that are extremely hard to talk about: Abuse from a parent, and sexual abuse from a sibling. Were you afraid to write about these things? If so, how did you overcome that fear?
Do you have any advice for women who might be going through some of the same painful things you experienced? Or who are trying to write creatively but feel blocked from fear of what others may think?
Let’s combine these two questions. I’m lucky that I’ve always been disciplined, and have no concept of writer’s block. Once I decided to do the memoir I felt little fear. I was hungry to get the horrors down on paper, eager to have readers bear witness to my saga. To my surprise, when I first published on Amazon Kindle I felt scant emotion. In fact I was quite cheery about it all. But that changed when a friend insisted the book deserved to be in print. Holding the paperback edition and my whole world in my hands, I went into a type of shock. There was my mother, father, brother, cousins, uncles and all the family dysfunction on grand display, along with my failed career and doomed marriage. In retrospect, I find my initial reaction quite amusing.
But even now, feelings can get triggered during presentations say at book clubs or at readings. The first time I heard the query—a fair one given my history—“How come you loved your mother” I was stunned. But it gets easier.
I could give a seminar on writing/publishing about abuse—and its inherent pitfalls. First rule: STAY SAFE. As indicated above, I wouldn’t leave journal entries lying around, let alone describe a beating in a diary that’s kept in a drawer. Privacy is hardly a top priority in a destructive setting. Perhaps keep such recollections at a trusted friend’s home. And it’s hardly a great idea to log on to the family computer with complaints of mistreatment. How about getting a library card or visiting an internet café and accessing your own private e-mail account to continue the work?
Why let the pain stop the process. Remember, YOU ARE A WRITER. Hurt is useful material. What shape is the bruise? How many you got this time? And how did that slap feel on your face? Tingly, leave any marks? And did her familiar scorn & sarcasm send you into a downward spiral? What words this time? Don’t think how it will all play out in print. You’re not there yet. And put relatives out of the picture. They don’t belong there yet, either. When the time comes, you’ll know what to do, what legalities to consider, if any. What boundaries to push, if any. And whether it’s worth annoying, even alienating friends and/or family. We’re not all obliged to publish you know; not every effort needs to make it into the public domain. I wish someone had told me that starting out. Mostly, we don’t have to be heroes.
Many writers question whether they should go the traditional route with publishing, or self-publish. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about the way you chose to go through the publishing process?
Today, for writers of all ages, there exist so many options and opportunities towards publication as opposed to when I started on the path. Yet I shudder that after all the strides we’ve made many aspirants buy the buzz that constructing that perfect query letter surely holds the key. We must know as individuals what we’re willing to do/endure to get where we want to go. In my case, when an interested agent balked, recognizing that my memoir was too personal to handle, I knew I had to go it alone. I could never trust to any outside editor, no matter how dedicated, the three chapters, carefully calibrated for authenticity dealing with sibling sexual molestation. However, I have friends who’ve published with major houses, and they’re successful and happy. I think it’s great to have a supportive agent and publisher behind you; but it’s also marvellous to have control over your own product. Some caveats: Despite advances, a type of stigma can still attach to the self-published label. Not much, but it’s there. And countless charlatans can mushroom overnight, all-too-ready to take your money while promising glossy publications and huge promotional deals on the pearly path. Don’t be too desperate to sign. Do the due diligence.
Are you planning to release any more books in the future? If so, what topics are you interested in exploring?
I’ve published three stories, all autobiographical. While it has been suggested that I do a follow-up to “Kvetch,” I now so long to move on from personal story, am so loathe to revisit the darkness. Strangely, at this time, my passion for journalism is returning. I recently published a piece in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about symphony conductor JoAnn Falletta. I discovered by happenstance that she’s a terrific writer and poet. Focusing on the creative process of great artists feels like a new chapter in my life. Perhaps along the way I’ll uncover my next book/project.
If you’re interested in Kvetch: One Bitch of a Life you can buy a print or Kindle copy on Amazon.
American journalist/author Greta Beigel was raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in South Africa during the apartheid era. A child prodigy pianist she went on to win a scholarship from the University of South Africa and studied with famed pedagogue Aube Tzerko in Los Angeles. In California, she soon morphed from concert performer to music scribe, working for many years as staff writer and arts editor for the Los Angeles Times. She has contributed articles to the New York Times, Oregon Jewish life, Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Cat Fancy magazine, etc. Her published titles include “Mewsings: My Life as a Jewish Cat” (e-book/audio), the short story, “A Jew from Riga,” and the music memoir, “Kvetch: One Bitch of a Life.” Beigel lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.