In the early 2000s, a family crisis set physician Lisa Gruenberg on the unexpected path to being a writer. In 2012, she received a Mass Cultural Council Artist Fellowship in Fiction/Creative Nonfiction and in 2019, she published her memoir My City of Dreams.
We asked her about the trajectory of that book, her journey as a writer, and other surprising turns in her life and work.
Where did My City of Dreams, your memoir published by TidePool Press, start for you?
Although I always loved reading, I was never a writer. I took one required English class in college, majored in chemistry and went on to medical school. But around the time of 9/11, my elderly father, a Viennese Holocaust survivor, began having flashbacks to long suppressed memories, and recurrent nightmares about being buried alive. Although I knew my father’s story was sad, that his one brother fled to Palestine alone in 1938, that his parents, friends, and much of his extended family were murdered, and that his younger sister disappeared into Germany in 1941 at the age of 15, he always spoke of growing up in Vienna with great joy, describing wandering the city with friends and spending time with his large extended family. He started his own unfinished memoir with a quote from a famous song of the time, and I think this reflects his attitude:
‘Vienna, Vienna, only you will always be the city of my dreams!’ In spite of the hardships my family experienced and the times when there was not enough money for food, I feel I had a very happy childhood. And most of all – I was in love with Vienna!
At the time he began having these flashbacks, I was in my late forties, a practicing gynecologist, married with two teenaged daughters. Our oldest daughter had grown distant, our youngest daughter was sick with a mysterious illness, and I was suffering from insomnia and depression. After one of his final flashbacks, my father finally said the name of his sister out loud – “Mia.” Prior to that, he had always just said “my sister” if he spoke of her at all, or substituted my cousin’s name or, more often, my name when he spoke about her. When I pointed this out, he tearfully acknowledged he had no real memory of Mia, even though family letters I translated after his death would reveal they were very close. I realized he had replaced his memory of her with his memories of me growing up, also the youngest daughter with two older brothers.
Soon after this revelation, I woke from a dreamless sleep with a sense of tremendous anxiety. I heard Mia’s young voice speaking of the mystery of her disappearance and was compelled to write down her words. This was the beginning of my life as a writer. I was unwilling but I really had no choice.
Were there any surprise twists during the writing – the book or process taking a turn you didn’t anticipate?
There were many surprise twists. The book was originally titled Searching for Mia, then Finding Mia. I wove together stories from my childhood and from Mia’s imagined childhood, based on her nocturnal voice, her letters, my father’s writing and genealogy research, historical research, and the joyful stories he told me long ago. After my father’s death in 2005, I translated his and other family letters, read unpublished memoirs, and traveled to Austria, Germany and Israel, to trace survivors, and to find documentation to trace Mia’s fate, and to discover the fate of many others. The biggest surprise came toward the end of my third or fourth draft, when I realized the book was less about Mia and my search for her, and more about my search for my father’s love, which I found I had misplaced.
And although I had pages that seemed to come to me out of nowhere and went almost verbatim into the book, I discovered that most writing was just sitting down to write awkward, boring, uninspired drafts. I ended up going back to school, earning my MFA in 2007. My first draft was completed in 2008. But I gave up the memoir for months at a time, started writing essays and fiction, or wasn’t writing at all. Currently I have several projects going, but I’m surprised to find it’s a constant struggle for me to get that first draft down.
The long road to publication was also a surprise. I had a couple of publishers and agents express interest, but it came to nothing. After a near miss in 2018, I decided to self-publish. I paired down the story and cut out many documents and photographs. TidePool came through at this point. I’ve heard that people have often been disappointed by the final product when their book finally gets published. But the physical book Ingrid Mach, TidePool’s designer, produced is a visual symphony of my own writing, photographs, excerpts from family letters and memoirs, my father’s writing and genealogy research, and many primary source archival documents. The final product is much more than my original manuscript. Holding it in my hands is really gratifying.
You are also a physician. In a 2013 ArtSake discussion, you said, “Writing deepens my understanding of suffering, and I feel I am a more empathetic physician as a result.” Are there ways that being a physician impacts your writing?
Definitely. My father clearly had PTSD and Parkinson’s, and I think my writing about him and my own depression is influenced by my medical understanding. Medicine is also a profession where you are privileged to hear stories all the time. People are very honest with you, and that understanding goes into characters. And I think hearing so many stories also influences greatly how I write dialogue.
Do you remember where you were (as in, what actual place) when you learned of your 2012 Artist Fellowship?
I honestly don’t! But I do remember I was shocked. I’d submitted a short story set in South Africa the day before the deadline, at the insistence of a friend. It never occurred to me I might win.
Where were you in your career?
In 2012 I was teaching at Harvard Medical School, working part time in the Division of Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology at Childrens Hospital and volunteering at the Metrowest Free Medical Program. In the prior few years I had also completed several service trips to South Africa, Bangladesh, and Rwanda. On the writing front, I’d written a few news stories about volunteer medicine published in the Massachusetts Medical Society’s newsletter, Vital Signs. But I wouldn’t be published in a literary magazine until 2014, when a book excerpt, A Beautiful Day, was accepted by Ploughshares.
You’ve got several readings and events coming up. How do you approach talking about your writing? What do you strive to convey when speaking publicly about your work?
I’m learning to keep it short. This is a very long and complex work, with Mia’s fictional first-person voice speaking in present tense alternating with my own story from roughly 2003-2007 and then going back to my childhood. I do a very brief intro, read from the first chapter, which sets up my homelife and one of my father’s first flashbacks about Kristallnacht. I then introduce Mia’s voice, and read an excerpt from that. Then I usually go to question and answer because it’s always great to hear from the audience. I will probably deviate from this when I speak at the Boston Public Library on April 21. This is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, so I will also read from a prose poem near the end of the book, where Mia’s voice alternates with the mourning prayer.
Do you work on multiple projects simultaneously or do you prefer to focus on one at a time?
I always have several projects going on in my head. But if I have a block of time to work, I generally focus on one project. That said, I have three projects right now: two essays and a novel, that are all completely stalled because of work, family issues, getting this book out – and, if I’m being totally honest – my usual procrastination.
How many revisions does your work typically go through?
Hundreds. I rewrite and reorder endlessly.
How do you know when your work is done?
All my projects are “done” many times. But if I come back to look again, they come undone. But the publication of My City felt satisfying. Other than the possibility it might drag a bit in the middle and a few typos, it is done.
Computer, longhand, or typewriter?
I write first drafts on graph paper with a pen. If I start with the computer, I erase most of my morning’s work by the afternoon. The written drafts look better the next day. From then on, I use the computer.
Do you secretly dream of being a) a pop icon, b) an algebra teacher, and/or c) a crime-solver/writer a la Jessica Fletcher?
I wanted to be a ballet dancer or a doctor when I was growing up. Currently, I fantasize about playing viola in an orchestra and having a great singing voice – pure fantasy! Now I dream of publishing books that are read and talked about.
What films (and books) have influenced you as an artist?
To Kill a Mockingbird. I like seeing an adult world through the eyes of a child. Angels in America, the HBO series, telling a story from multiple points of view, using magical realism, and using the same actors for different roles. This resonates with me, and I’ve used this technique in my book, where peripheral characters in my father’s story are recruited for Mia’s story. Books that are series of short stories with characters coming in and out of view, like JD Salinger’s Franny and Zoey, also inspire me. This was the original format for my book, but my early readers found it too difficult to follow.
What are you currently reading?
I just reread Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. Sometimes it’s restful to know what’s coming. I’m starting The Fourth String by one of my fellow alumni from Lesley, Janet Pocorobba. It’s wonderful to read something I know from early drafts.
What’s the most embarrassing sentence of an artist statement you’ve ever written?
Let’s not go there.
A novel set in multiple decades from multiple points of view, fictionalizing bits cut from My City, and essays about my 98-year-old mother and about our evolving relationship with our medically challenged grandson.
Lisa Gruenberg reads from My City of Dreams at the Brandeis University Center for German and European Studies (Feb 26, 2020, 7 PM), the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires (Mar 2, 2020, 10:45 AM), The Harvard Coop (Mar 3, 2020, 7 PM), and the Boston Public Library (Apr 21, 2020, 6 PM).
Lisa Gruenberg (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellow ’12) is a physician, medical educator, and writer based in Boston. Her essays have been published in Ploughshares, Vital Signs, Hospital Drive, The Intima, a Journal of Narrative Medicine, and in The Michigan Quarterly Review.
Image: Left: cover art for MY CITY OF DREAMS: A MEMOIR (TidePool Press 2019), by Lisa Gruenberg; Right: Lisa Gruenberg (Fiction/Creative Nonfiction Fellow ’12).