What a pleasure to meet author Nadja Spiegelman! Over lunch, we discussed Paris, the challenges and rewards of writing, and her fabulous new memoir about four generations of women in her family, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This. Nadja is the Eisner-award nominated author of the Zig and Wikki graphic series for young children and Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure. She currently divides her time between Paris and Brooklyn.
What brought you to Paris?
I had been to Paris often as a girl, but I knew the city only in the quiet months of August and December, only in the context of long dinners with my French grandparents. I did not like Paris growing up — when other Americans would talk about the Seine, the romance, the macarons, I would correct them. I’d tell them about shopkeepers who slapped your hands for touching keychains and neighbors who scolded you for laughing too loudly on a Sunday afternoon. But at the age of 26, my book – and my desire to get to know my grandmother better – led me to move here.
What keeps you here?
I fell in love with the city. At first I tried to resist it. I didn’t want to be one more cliché. But hey – the Seine, the romance, the macarons! All those things are true. I was able to reinvent myself here. I formed deep friendships. And I love the slow rhythms of the city itself. Of course, compared to the French countryside, Paris is not calm. But compared to my hometown of New York, Paris is a city that finally matches my sense of scale – just big enough to get lost in, just small enough to never be more than 30 minutes from home.
How did you get the idea to begin your book?
I knew that my mother had left Paris at the age of 18, and I had glimpsed, during those aforementioned Christmas dinners, the deep tensions within her family that may have led her to do so. But when I asked about her past, she answered with “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” My admiration for my mother – who could hold down two high-powered jobs, dress impeccably, handle all of the finances, and still drive us to school each morning and be home each night for dinner – was almost crushing. If she was a woman, then I didn’t understand how I would ever become one myself. One day, during my final semester of college, she began telling me a difficult story about her past, a story in which she had been as vulnerable and lost as I often felt. I asked her if she would be willing to tell me more, and if I could write about it. She didn’t say yes right away. She thought about it carefully. But when she did agree, she held nothing back. She answered all of my questions with a searching honesty rare even in the privacy of one’s own thoughts. And I discovered this complicated, troubled, painful past, that I had never guessed rested beneath my mother’s invincible exterior. It allowed me to find a path to her, and through that to my own adulthood.
What were some of the challenges in writing it? And some of the rewards?
Of course, some of these stories were very difficult to hear. And my mother and grandmother are ferocious, independent, self-made and self-invented women. They’re both very good storytellers, and I don’t think it was easy for either of them to see themselves as narrated through my words.
But there were many rewards. As my mother told me about her life, I began to be able to imagine her as the young girl she’d once been — and she, in turn, began to see me as an adult old enough to hear these things. In that symmetrical motion, we pulled each other out of ourselves — we were able to see each other as separate and whole, and it created an intense bond and closeness between us. That was certainly one of the biggest rewards.
I also got to know my grandmother better, when I came to Paris to hear her side of the story.The structure of the project, and my very personal questions, built an accelerated intimacy between us. Getting to know her, and our relationship, is one of the things I’m most grateful for.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
My mother often told me – “The hardest part is just knowing what you want.” Once you can define what you want clearly, once you articulate it, then there’s nothing that can stop you from getting there.
What advice would you give to first-time authors?
Oh, how exciting to get to answer a question like this! This is exactly the kind of question I used to day-dream about in grand shower fantasies, where I am being interviewed by Terry Gross. But – shoot – now that it’s actually being asked, it’s hard to actually feel like an authority. For me, it was helpful to realize that writing isn’t magic, or muses or inspiration — it’s work. It’s a muscle you build. It’s tempting to wait around for inspiration to strike, but inspiration comes most often when you’re already working. Rather than command myself to “write an extraordinary scene” and inevitably feel I had failed, I gave myself concrete, quantifiable goals, like writing 800 words a day, even if it meant throwing them away later. After a week, after two weeks, after three weeks of forcing yourself through the paces every single day — that’s when the heavens open and the muses start singing.
What books are on your nightstand?
I have My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante propped up on a little stand next to my bed. I’m in awe of the intelligent, cool, feminine strength of her language. I just finished reading Stoner by John Williams. Several friends had recommended it, but it took me a while to get over the title. It has nothing to do with marijuana. It’s a novel about a man named William Stoner, who lives an almost entirely unremarkable life – sitting out two world wars from within the confines of the University of Missouri. Reading it is like sitting in a forest clearing and becoming absorbed in watching an ant trying to move a large piece of food. At first you regard your own absorption with self-conscious amusement, then you become completely engrossed, and then, by the end of the book, you find you care more about this ant and his struggles then you’ve cared about almost anyone you’ve ever met. It’s one of the most incredible books I’ve read.
The most difficult question! I’ve published almost no short articles or essays up until now — I had an anxiety surrounding my recognizable last name that made me shy about making my writing public. This book cleared that for me — the comparisons with my father’s work are plain, they’re there to be made — and now I feel capable of writing about everything, anything else and so eager to do so. I’m working on several short, non-autobiographical, non-fiction pieces for various magazines and I look forward to writing many more!