The Beatrice Interview

Dvorah Telushkin

Memories of Isaac Bashevis Singer

interviewed by Ron Hogan

RH: How did Isaac Bashevis Singer come into your life?

DT: It was 1975. I was 21 years old, and I heard from a friend that he was teaching at Bard College. I didn't have the $800 to audit the class, so I wrote a him a le-Shanah Tovah (New Year's) card and said that I would be willing to drive him back and forth between Manhattan and the campus if he would let me sit in on the class.

Ironically, the last conversation I had with my mother before she died was when she showed me an article she'd read about Isaac and said, "You should meet this Isaac Singer, he can help you." And then one night he called. "Halaw? Can you take me to Bard College?" So I would pick him up every Tuesday morning. He'd come into the car wearing an old coat with ripped pockets, and unopened letters falling out. So I'd take the letters and type replies. "You can type?" he said; back then, having good typing skills was like having good computer skills is today. And that's how I became his secretary. He dictated letters to me for many years, and then he started dictating stories for children, and then for adults. Later, I went to Columbia to study Yiddish, and after that I started translating.

RH: What a fantastic opportunity to absorb knowledge about writing, at the side of one of the masters.

DT: "You are in the factory of literature," he said to me once. I could learn more from him than I could in any university program.

RH: And although there's clearly a great deal of affection in the relationship you write about, you're also quite honest about how difficult he could be at times.

DT: Farrar Straus Giroux just published a newly translated novel by Isaac, Shadows on the Hudson, and Richard Bernstein gave it a rave review in the New York Times. Afterwards, though, a few people wrote terrible stories about his dark side. I think that like all great artists he had two sides, a force of light and a force of darkness. Both were intense within him, and they were necessary for him to create work of the depth he did. I don't think he ever got as much control over his dark side as one should with time, and I think he went to his grave regretting that he couldn't quite harness his inner demons.

I was privileged to witness much of his bright side, and I tried to write as positive a portayal as I could because I knew how many books were going to come out that would attack him. It's hard to be his defender, but I do my best.

RH: You do point out that he was aware of his bad side, and that when he realized he had hurt somebody he could be quite apologetic.

DT: He was very conscious of the fact that he could be piercingly brutal. He abandoned his son, he had a distant relationship with his brother. He could tell you that what he did was terrible, but he couldn't quite not prevent himself from doing it. He probably wouldn't even disagree with a lot of the complaints in the letters people have been writing to the Times recently.

RH: What was it like for you to revisit these memories?

DT: Anybody who wants to write a memoir is a masochist. I signed a one-year contract, and I thought writing the book would be a piece of cake. Seven years later (laughs)...

I've kept a journal every day since I was fourteen, even if it's just a few lines. So I had plenty of notes about Isaac, and once I realized I was going to write this book, they became very important in helping me sort out when events I remembered took place. There was no way I could have written this book, especially with such accurate quotes.

I remarried in 1988, the year I signed the contract, and then I had three children in four years. So I had my life as a wife and mother, and then I had to go in my office in the same building and literally step into a time warp to reconstruct everything about the past. Not just the events, but the emotional state. You have to have an incredible focus, and it took me a long time to focus as intently as I needed to. It would take me a full hour sometimes just to put myself into the past to pull out those emotions, recalling them as I read through the notes. It could be a very depleting process.

But having a contract with a publisher was like a whip that forced me to finish the job. I know too many friends who have been working on their doctorates who just never finish because it takes so long and gets so exhausting.

RH: What's next for you?

DT: I was very relieved when I finished this project. I wanted very much to get back to my own fiction. My dream is to bring short fiction back to the newspapers. And then suddenly I got a call from Roger Straus about a book of Isaac's stories in Yiddish that had just been published in Israel. Isaac said to me once before he died, "I have to see to it that you will be busy with Isaac Singer for the rest of your life." And he has so many untranslated stories...

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Carolyn Burke | Deborah Eisenberg

All materials copyright © 1998 Ron Hogan