A Conversation With Writer Lore Segal

By BENJAMIN BEESE

Posters came up, as they do for all events, announcing author and Holocaust survivor Lore Segal’s reading from her forthcoming book “The Journal I Didn’t Keep”. My attention was caught less than I now wish it would have been. Although I hadn’t realized it at the moment, I had recently read and thoroughly enjoyed one of her stories published in The New Yorker. Although she doesn’t consider herself a Holocaust survivor, she had narrowly fled Nazi Austria in 1938 via the experimental Kindertransport, which had, among other things, served as the basis for the novel that launched her professional writing career. This fact had been widely publicized, although she had not come to talk about the Holocaust, not directly at least. Rather, she came to read from her forthcoming collection of writing, “The Journal I Did Not Keep”.

On Tuesday, April 23, students and community members alike packed themselves into Hillcrest to hear the nonagenarian Segal read three stories spanning, as she described, when you are a “child, a woman, and when you are no longer here.” The room was enraptured. Both “Dandelions” and “Ladies Lunch,” stories she had previously published in The New Yorker, held the rare sort of eager silence most often found when reading to awestruck children. The same cannot be said for “Going to Hell,” her third story, if only because the intervals between peals of laughter were too short for any such silence. Segal is a talented writer.

In the days leading up to her reading, I found myself quickly enamored with Segal’s writing. A Pulitzer Prize finalist (an experience she described as “Irritating. You don’t want to be a finalist; you want to win it.”), she was described by the New York Times as “closer than anyone to writing the Great American Novel.” Segal’s success enchanted me. Then, come Wednesday morning, I found myself sitting in the breakfast room of the Middlebury Inn with Segal, her daughter, and a list of finely crafted questions about life and writing. I pulled out my phone to make a recording, in part for reference but in large part for posterity.

Her thoughts on writing were much as one might expect from the writerly sort. “The real experience is the act of getting the words right so it means what I want it to mean.” She explained in a few different ways throughout our conversation. She made a point that writing is her goal, rather than some reward like, say, the Pulitzer Prize. “I’ll tell you what the satisfaction is in my writing. You get a review and somebody both likes it and understood what you meant,” with an emphasis on the latter half of that equation.

Before long, our conversation turned towards deeper questions. In reference to the state of the world, she said, “People argue with me and say the world is growing kinder and I think that’s probably true too but the rotten part is as healthy as it ever was and will continue to be so. I don’t think we’re improving, I don’t think we’re getting any worse. I think this is how we are.” Without the belief that the world can get better, I, perhaps naïvely, wondered aloud how she found meaning in her life. “Meaning?” she said, “Do you need it to have meaning? … I enjoy life! My goodness look how pretty it is out there!” and she pointed out the window to a warm, gray morning.

I was similarly rebuffed when asking about her legacy. “I don’t understand about legacy. I would like to be remembered forever. Ah! Big deal!” she rattled out in her sharp, kind accent. “Is my life only worthwhile if I’m remembered? It’s worthwhile because it’s interesting. It’s like my little student who would like to get that first story into a magazine,” she then tells me, referencing an earlier point in the conversation when we discussed young writers. “It doesn’t change your life. It doesn’t make you into whatever it is you’d like to be.”

What does make you into whatever it is you’d like to be? “Writing a good sentence. A good sentence where the words fit and describe precisely and powerfully what the sentence is about. That’s really what I want to do.”

She sent me off, teasing, “I hope your life is meaningful and you leave a good legacy …. And I hope you write truthful sentences. I hope your words mean what you mean. That’s what I really meant.”

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A Conversation With Writer Lore Segal