Interview with Fern Schumer Chapman
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
I had a difficult childhood, but writing saved me. I discovered that capturing my emotional life on the page could be therapeutic. As Anne Frank wrote in her diary in April 1944, “I can shake off everything if I write. My sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
What were your hobbies as a kid? What are your hobbies now?
Reading, biking, art projects. Reading, biking, art projects.
What book is on your nightstand now?
I read on my iPad now, so my nightstand is clean. But my iPad bookshelf includes Jeanette Walls, The Silver Star, Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life, and Michael Hainey’s, After Visiting Friends.
I’m also researching adoption issues for my new book, so I’m reading Betty Jean Lifton’s Journey of the Adopted Self and Nancy Newton Verrier’s Coming Home to Self.
Where do you write your books?
I have a home office and I usually write there. But, on cold winter days, I take my laptop and sit in front of the fire.
What sparked your imagination for Is it Night or Day?
After reading my memoir, Motherland, a woman called and told me that she didn’t think I knew about the program that brought my mother to this country. She was right. I didn’t know because my mother didn’t know. My mother was too young to understand what was happening to her. All she knew was that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) had a role in bringing her to this country.
The reader said she thought she could help. She directed me to the “One Thousand Children” website where I first learned about the program that brought my mother to America. As soon as I made this discovery, I realized I could write about my mother’s childhood immigration experience. I wanted to raise awareness of this small American program that wasn’t mentioned in history books, or even documented in museums. In addition, I wanted to make readers aware of the many children who come to America all alone.
I don’t remember the reader’s name, but I’d like to thank her for directing me to this path.
How much involvement did your mother have in writing Is It Night or Day?
She answered all of my questions as best she could. But she knew little about the program, and she had shut down her memories in order to cope with her losses. Still, she wanted me to write the book to fulfill a lifelong wish: “I hope this book is like an open letter to my old ship friend, Gerda Katz,” my mother said. “I hope Gerda reads this book and finds me. I’ve thought of her often, and I always wanted to see her again.”
How did she feel about your work researching the “One Thousand Children Project?”
She was eager to know what I learned. It helped her understand the mosaic of her life. Since this American program was so small and it received little publicity, there wasn’t much information about it. In fact, only one book provided original source material — letters, diary entries, and pictures of the One Thousand Children. I relied heavily on that book for details about the childrens’ immigrant experiences. In fact, though the book is a work of historical fiction, every story and anecdote in the book came from the experiences of the One Thousand Children.
How do you think you would have acted in your mother’s place?
I like to think that I would be as willing, open, and supportive as she has been of me. I admire her for that, and for her ability to grow and change.
Here’s a great example of how this wonderful characteristic presented itself in her ninth decade. Even though she types with two fingers and thinks that only birds “tweet,” she recently figured out how to post her first Facebook message on my wall:
“Dear Fern, Congratulations–Thank You for bringing my story to the world.
Note: She still capitalizes the pronoun “you,” which is correct German grammar.
How did knowing what she went through change the way you viewed her?
I felt more empathy for her once I understood her childhood immigration experiences and her profound losses. Now, I appreciate her and love her more deeply. I have a much better understanding of why she struggled with the role of mother.
Did you have any experiences with immigrants growing up?
Yes, I went to a school that had many immigrant students. Now, I speak at many schools with immigrant populations. My mother’s experiences gave me great compassion for these students.
Even though I have written about the challenges, immigration also can be a positive metaphor. In fact, all of us can enlarge our world as “immigrants.” I love what Writer Jean Rhys said about reading and the immigrant experience. “Reading makes immigrants of us all,” she wrote in Wide Sarasso Sea. “It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.”
Are you a baseball fan like your mother?
Yes, I like the White Sox but, deep in my heart, I am a long-suffering Cubs fan.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid?
Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield and illustrated by Robert Greiner. In fact, I just ordered another copy of the book. Originally published in 1957, my copy is from the second printing in 1958.
What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?
Writing should really be called “rewriting.”
I love what E. L. Doctorow said about writing a novel: “It is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
That’s how I do it.
What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were younger?
I wish someone had explained to me that the darkest days are just one snapshot in the photo album of life. Things change quickly. I also wish someone had explained to me that I control what I think.
Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do to get back on track?
Most writing ideas strike me while I’m riding my bike. That’s not surprising, given the research that exercise enhances creative thought. For me, biking is a way to stoke my brain. I’m often asked, “Why not use a stationary bike?” Not the same. The combination of exercise and nature feeds me.
Ideas also strike me while I’m driving, walking, even showering, but not with the same frequency or intensity. That’s why I am the last biker off the path in December and the first one out in March…maybe even February.
What do you want readers to remember about your books?
My books are about stories, to be sure, but they are much more than that. I would hope my readers understand how deeply I feel about family and history. I want them to know how my mother’s experiences defined her, influenced the way she mothered, and, ultimately, shaped the way I see the world. I hope my books inspire readers to learn about their parents and themselves through family history.
As a Jew, I have an obligation to remember and recount. In retelling, even those parts of the past that are painful to relive, I hope to consecrate the memory of those who came before me. In addition, I often recall what Iris Chang, author of the Rape of Nanking, said about genocide: “First they kill, and then they kill the memory of killing.” I write, in part, so the memory of those who perished and of those who survived the Holocaust endures. I hope to give voice to survivors and refugees who are not capable of telling their own stories.
What would you do if you ever stopped writing?
I’m fascinated with how trauma is transmitted in families. If I stopped writing, I’d love to better understand trauma and study neuroscience.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Being a loving, steady, present mother.