Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Q&A with Leah Kaminsky

Leah Kaminsky is the author most recently of the novel The Waiting Room. Her other books include Stitching Things Together and Writer, M.D. She is a physician, and is Poetry & Fiction Editor at the Medical Journal of Australia.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Waiting Room, and for your main character, Dina?

A: The book has been with me for many years. In my 20s I wanted to write a book about my mother’s war experiences as a teenager in the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz and finally, Bergen Belsen. She was the sole survivor of her entire family.

After she died I only remembered a handful of the stories she had told me and, sadly, there was no one left to ask.

It took me a long time to build on those snippets of my mother’s narrative via fiction. I wanted to create a character who, like me, had been a reluctant listener in her youth. She is named after Dina’s cat in Alice in Wonderland, who waited behind patiently.

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Dina and her mother?

A: Dina is haunted by her mother, who implores her to bear witness. Hers is a metaphorical ghost who cannot rest until her daughter acknowledges her stories and stops running from the past and her own heritage.

She is a quintessential Jewish mother, driving her daughter to distraction by popping up from beyond the grave when she is least wanted, but in a twist at the end of the novel, actually ends up saving her daughter’s life.

Q: The book's present-day action takes place mostly on one day. How did that affect the book's structure and organization?

A: It was important for me to compress the story. This is one day in Dina’s life that will change everything. And the internal pressure and implosion inside Dina’s head, reflects the external threat of a terror attack, in a city hitherto renowned for co-existence within a region embroiled in conflict.

It made the book necessarily shorter, but tighter, the tension building with each chapter until the climax. The opening chapter starts with an explosion that occurs at the end of the day. The rest of the book takes the reader on a journey that begins earlier that morning.

Q: How did you pick the book's title, and what does it signify for you?

A: The trope of waiting is woven throughout the novel. We are all born waiting – to grow up, get a job, find a partner – and ultimately, to die. It is what we do with this waiting that makes a difference; do we wait passively, or wait with intentionality?

The waiting room is a unique place where disparate people are thrown together, feeling anxious and vulnerable, and I also saw it as a microcosm for Israel, which is made up of people of so many cultural backgrounds.

I also think that the way we wait reveals a lot about who we are and our worldview. I’m a very impatient person and hate being kept waiting, so the irony of taking 10 years to write a novel about waiting doesn’t pass me by.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am working on my next novel, called The Hollow Bones, about a very unusual scientific expedition that took place in the 1930s.

In parallel, I’m writing a hybrid memoir/non-fiction book about the poet Melekh Ravitch, who came to Australia in 1933 in search of a homeland for Jewish German refugees. He was the father of Yosl Bergner, who was a dear friend of my father and became my mentor when I lived in Israel for 10 years.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I also love to read and write poetry – without the poets, we’d be dust.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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