Family Histories: Writing Memoir with Marianne Szegedy-Maszak

Posted by December 5th, 2013

December is when writers are surrounded by rhetoric about family. For our Book Country Author Q&A this week, I wanted to talk to Spiegel & Grau author Marianne Szegedy-Maszak, whose book I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES is one of the best books I’ve read this year. A stunning blend of political intrigue, intimate romance, and drily funny commentary on the central European upper classes of a bygone era, Szegedy-Maszak’s book delves into her own family’s rich history. The author is a descendant of an important and wealthy Jewish aristocratic family who’d traded their lives for safe passage into neutral Portugal during World War II. Her father, who served in the Hungarian foreign ministry, was interned as a political prisoner at Dachau, where he very nearly died of typhus. With painstaking journalistic skill, Szegedy-Maszak pieces together an incredible true story of survival, ultimately revealing the truth of how her own quiet childhood in America, with Sunday mass and Girl Scout camping trips, was the result of extraordinary twists of fate.I KISS YOUR HANDS MANY TIMES

As an aspirational memoirist myself, I was blown away by the elegance of Szegedy-Maszak’s prose, as well as her ability to weave historical detail and idiosyncratic family lore into her narrative so smoothly. Below, I asked her to fill us in on how she brought this writing project to life.

LS: It seems like the amount of detail in this book would be difficult to pull off in such an engaging way, but you did it with effortless warmth. Do you have any tips for other writers contending with such a large amount of facts, dates, and names?

MSK: Of course my first response is one of gratitude for both noticing the historical heft and appreciating the way it was integrated into the more personal story. As compelling as I found my family’s story, I also realized that it couldn’t be really understood without the broader context of the world they inhabited and the history they took for granted, the history that shaped them. I suppose that this is where the journalist in me stepped in and took charge. I needed to report this story as I would any big magazine piece and marshal the history, the documents, newspaper clippings from the time, the interviews with others who were either experts or eyewitnesses, and of course the mass of secondary sources dealing with this period. I would like to say that I had a sophisticated computer system in which each bit of information was at my fingertips, but I am still stuck with the need to look at paper. So I had a very unsophisticated but extremely practical system of dividing everything chronologically, putting whatever I had in file folders labeled with each month. When I was ready to write, each file folder contained a great combination of the history and the letters my parents wrote, and the letters that were written to them. Somehow the integration of the personal and the historical had already happened within that file in a rudimentary way.

LS: The central thread running through the book is the love story that developed between your parents between 1940 and 1945, as documented by your father’s letters in Hungarian to your mother, which survived the war and the journey to your parents new home in the US, as well as a draft of your father’s unpublished memoir. What was it like to delve so deeply into your parents’ personal lives?

MSK: It was a great privilege, actually. I think we all have a deep curiosity about who our parents were, and what were they like before we were born. And then there is the additional fascination with what was it like for them when they met and fell in love. I don’t mean all the old narratives that have been dulled by time and repetition, and whatever regrets that age or sadness or time has imposed. But we all must wonder what it all might have been like in real time, as it was all unfolding and before they knew exactly how it would end. Reading these letters for me was such a wonderful revelation: I could see them in real time, I could hear their voices expressing worry or joy or a fresh romantic love that was absolutely never a part of their voices when my brothers and I were growing up. There were of course moments when I felt a bit voyeuristic, as if I had perhaps intruded a bit too much, but those moments passed. In the end, delving into their story introduced me to two people I never really knew, but loved in their later years.

LS: You write that you hired a translator to sit and read your father’s letters as you typed them out.  How would I go about doing that if I wanted to do the same? Is there a secret nonfiction writers’ research network that you can clue us into?

MSK: Wouldn’t it be great if there were! No, I am afraid that we are all on our own in this situation. In my case I was fortunate enough to have a Hungarian friend who is a professional linguist and she was game to help me out. But unlike some of the other translations that I had to have done—where I would give a letter or a document to a Hungarian speaker and then get it back a week later in English—we approached these translations in a rather unorthodox way. She read them while I sat and typed out their contents. This gave me a little bit of the sense of immediacy, of the thrill that my mother might have felt when she received them and read through them for the first time.

LS: Did the act of writing and revising this book helped you to connect with your Hungarian identity in a new way? Do you feel “more” Hungarian as a result of writing this?

MSK: An ethnic identity in the melting pot of America is always a complicated thing to quantify. Growing up as a Szegedy-Maszak in the United States immediately conferred a Hungarian identity because friends and acquaintances would see the name and ask about it. Since I was a first generation American, I was a bit of mongrel in terms of how I fit.  And in many ways, I liked that dual citizenship. I grew up in an environment that was much more Budapest in the 1930’s than Washington DC in the fifties and sixties but as soon as we stepped outside the door, we were immersed in America. I didn’t grow up speaking Hungarian and the Hungarian identity that I appropriated was for American consumption only. When I visited Hungary—even with friends and family there—I was always the American whose face was pressed against the Hungarian window.

In the process of writing my book, of learning more fully about my parent’s world and about their lives, I became much more aware of all that I didn’t know, couldn’t connect with, haven’t experienced in ways that were not simply generational.  The experiences of World War II and the early years of communism formed the warp and woof not only of my parent’s generation but also of everyone who lived and grew up in that complicated country; it formed a sort of collective unconscious that I could never share. In the end, indulging in the risky business of quantifying, I think I feel both “less” Hungarian and less American after writing my book. Like many children of émigrés I occupy the interstices of national identity.

LS: The book moves forward in a mostly chronological way, but there is some fluidity in the narration here and there, in order to connect events, people, places, and to help the reader get a clear sense of how this book fits into the larger catastrophe of World War II and the Nazi regime as it spread over the European continent. Tell me how you stayed organized as you were drafting and revising.

MSK: Again, this is where the journalist stepped in, pushed the ruminative daughter out of her chair, and started writing. The chronology disciplined my writing, but at the same time, I also understood that my readers would need a narrator they could trust, someone who could act as an intermediary between the complex history and family relations and their own experiences. I wanted to insert myself at various points where it felt right to provide some ballast and some accessible context for a story that could have been just a little too remote. But keeping organized required that I avoid digressing and make my personal associations or experiences connect to the larger narrative that was taking place.

LS: Who do you see as the typical reader for this book?

MSK: A dangerous question, of course, because I have been surprised to hear from all sorts of people who have read and liked my book who I thought might be too young, or too American. The typical reader would be someone who is first of all curious about that time and that place, about Hungary during the first half of the twentieth century. But those who might have a special interest in the Holocaust, or in the complexity of religious experience in Central Europe would also find it interesting. Finally, anyone who enjoys a terrific love story played out during one of the most tragic historical periods would be drawn to my book.

LS: I am a massive audiobook fan! Tell us what it’s like to narrate your audiobook.

MSK: I too am a massive audiobook fan and love the experience both of reading aloud and being read to. I really hoped that I would be the one to read my book, not just because I love reading aloud, but also because it is such a personal book, I would have had a hard time hearing someone else refer to my parents and all my relatives as their parents and relatives. The experience was absolutely wonderful. First because I had a terrific producer and support team at Random House who made it easy to spend eight hours a day reading aloud. But it was also wonderful to revisit my book after having read it so many times before. Writers should always read their work aloud, but of course we very rarely have the discipline to do that for a sustained period of time.  When I read it for the audiobook, I could see a few places where I wished I had done something differently, and other places where I felt quite happy with how it unfolded.

My daughter is twenty-one years old, and like all mothers of young adults, I look back with tenderness and nostalgia at those precious times we spent together reading aloud. I know that those days are long gone, but somehow while I was reading I imagined reading it to her. And that gave it an intimacy for me. She has listened to it on her long drives to and from school, so in the end, being able to read it for the audiobook, gave both of us a very special gift.

Marianne Szegedy-Maszak Marianne Szegedy-Maszák is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, The New Republic, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and Psychology Today, among others. She has worked as a reporter at the New York Post, an editor at Congressional Quarterly, a professor of journalism at American University, and as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report. She has won the awards for her journalism from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the National Mental Health Association, and the American Psychoanalytic Association. The recipient of a Pulitzer Traveling fellowship and the Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship, Szegedy-Maszák has been an officer on the boards of the Center for Public Integrity and the Fund for Independence in Journalism. Connect with her on Facebook.

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