First Haregewoin Teferra lost her husband. Then she lost a daughter. She had just about lost her will to live when, without warning, a nearby church in Addis Ababa asked her to take in a fifteen-year-old girl.
Eleven percent of the children in Ethiopia are orphans. Twelve million children in Sub-Saharan Africa have lost their parents. In 2000, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS predicted that the disease would take sixty-eight million more lives on the continent by 2020.
When Melissa Fay Greene's child packed for college, she and her husband began to research international adoption agencies. (She jokes, "My husband says we're backfilling.") In the process, she confronted a tragedy like none she could have imagined. As a mother, she wanted to know, "Who is going to raise all those kids?"
Greene's first two books are vivid, oral histories of the civil rights movement in Georgia. Praying for Sheetrock is "a monumental social history," says the Boston Globe, a portrait of rural McIntosh County, practically untouched by civil rights into the 1970s. The Temple Bombing makes for a gripping crime drama and a stunning portrait of urbanizing, post-war Atlanta.
In Last Man Out, the two-time National Book Award finalist went north to Canada — to Nova Scotia, specifically — and brought back the story of nineteen men who survived for a week one mile underground after a disaster in Springhill's No. 2 mine.
What unites her subjects, Greene believes, "is the theme [of] people intuiting justice who have never seen it." There Is No Me without You, which introduces Haregewoin Teferra, describes "a world that values patent rights above universal right to health" and an impoverished nation where one grieving widow has saved three hundred children and counting.
"Like the very best literature, There Is No Me without You charts the human condition in all its extremes," applauded the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It harnesses the most potent of all human forces: the bond between parent and child."
Dave: When I describe There Is No Me without You, I start by saying, "It's about AIDS and the orphan crisis in Africa — twelve million orphans already." But I always explain that you approach the story as a mother, asking how millions of children are going to grow up without parents.
That puts the crisis onto a scale we can fathom. The story might have been completely unbearable otherwise, given the scope of the tragedy. What brought you to that perspective? How did you come to write the book this way?
Melissa Fay Greene: My family is interested in adoption. When our oldest daughter, Molly, who is now twenty-five, suddenly decided to grow up and leave home for college, we panicked. The idea of having only three children at home felt like empty nest to us. We whimsically thought about adoption. I took the fateful step of typing the word adoption into a search engine.
There is almost no turning back from that. I don't know what to compare it to. Images of children appear on the screen. This was in '98. Bulgaria used to post photographs of orphanage children. They don't anymore; the government got alarmed about the Internet. But you used to be able to see faces of children. We saw the face of a little boy and ended up going through all the legal steps in America and in Bulgaria to adopt him. He came in 1999 — Jesse.
A couple years later, our son Seth announced he was also growing up and leaving home. We started thinking about adoption again. My husband says we're backfilling.
By then, the U.N. was calling Africa "a continent of orphans." It was the combination of these two factors, this impartial, horrific news with data like twelve million orphans and our personal thought: We could bring in another kid. Could you adopt from there? That reaction was not so different than a journalist settling on one story. I can't tell twelve million stories. No one can process twelve million stories. Can I tell one?
We enjoy having lots of little kids around the house, but our friends increasingly think that we're insane. People already thought we were crazy when I gave birth to a fourth child. Everyone was stopping after one or two. The friends I raised our oldest two with, they're not living in Florida yet but they're long into empty nest. Every year when the teachers see me sitting on one of those little chairs in the kindergarten room, I hear them laughing all the way down the hall. She's back?!
Luckily, I've always had newspapers willing to send me places to tell me stories. I've had a cover. I didn't tell anyone we were adopting Jesse from Bulgaria. Instead, it so happened I was working on an article for the New Yorker, for which a side trip to Bulgaria was not out of the question; that was within the subject. So I went to Bulgaria for the New Yorker and came back with a little boy.
When I then wanted to go to Ethiopia — by then, we were matched with Helen, a five-year-old girl — just around then the New York Times Magazine called and said, "Would you like to do something for us? It's been a while." And I said, "Send me to Ethiopia."
So the New York Times sent me to Ethiopia. It was my first time there. It was my first time to meet Helen — and I wrote about what I saw. Humbly. And being sure that they were clear on the fact that I'm not a health professional, I'm not a demographer, I'm not an epidemiologist; it wasn't going to be one of those stories. But I know kids. I could write about kids in the orphanages.
That article seemed to make a huge impact. I still hear from people who read it. I don't know how many adoptions it generated; I couldn't even estimate. Many, although that wasn't necessarily the goal.
Consequently, I was invited to steer seventy-five thousand dollars toward the crisis in Ethiopia, and with that money I helped attract an international NGO that opened a clinic in Addis Ababa and started giving anti-AIDS drugs to HIV-positive orphans. They were some of the first children in the country to get the drugs. Children I met when I was reporting for the New York Times, many of them are still alive as a result. Otherwise they were going to die. Some of them have died since then. My daughter's best friend died of AIDS.
All that gave me a certain courage. I wanted to go back — because by then we had been matched with a ten-year-old boy, and I still wanted the cover. My friends still thought my reporting was coming first.
Dave: No one noticed a trend?
Greene: They thought it was risky for me to go to countries with unclaimed children, I think, but they still thought the reporting was coming first. You know, Who in their right mind would do this?
I was under contract to Good Housekeeping, another periodical I wrote for regularly, and I asked if they'd like a story about a woman in Ethiopia. By then I'd heard of Mrs. Haregewoin — Teferra — but I hadn't met her yet. I thought she'd maybe make a good story for Good Housekeeping. Good Housekeeping said, "We've never done an international story." I said, "Let's do this one. I'm sure she has a lovely home."
So I wrote about her, and there was a tremendous response from Good Housekeeping readers. People, mostly women, sent ten and twenty dollars at a time with little notes, saying, "Thank you. We didn't know." They raised over a hundred thousand dollars. With that, all sorts of good things were able to happen there. We were able to help Haregewoin move out of the very muddy, small compound she was in. Now she has two houses. She got a van. She leased a bed and breakfast that she could use to earn money for the orphanages.
All of this increased my confidence that there might be a place for this, that it would not be a work of epidemiology, that there was a place for storytelling. As a result of the magazine articles, especially the Times article, I was invited to speak to groups of epidemiologists; a group within the World Bank invited me to speak. I said, "Me? You're the one with the PowerPoint presentations." They said that they liked to hear the stories because they get lost in the big numbers and the molecules and the blood testing and so on.
Dave: I read your new book before going back to the older ones. This is the first time you've framed so much of a book around the future, instead of looking back. There Is No Me points to what could happen, the path we're on. Also, it's a contemporary story. How did those differences change the writing?
Greene: I felt I was in a great hurry. Although I love research and I love, love writing — my favorite is when the research is mostly done and I face a stack of blank notebooks and blank mornings and get to just write the book — I've had such a sense of urgency about this project. I have it right now. That has felt really different.
It's also my first book that's first-person. I wrote most of it third-person, but then I ran into a journalistic problem: I had affected what I was looking at. The Good Housekeeping money flowing into Haregewoin's life changed the nature of her project and changed the way she looked at herself. There was no explaining that windfall. And part of the trouble she gets into late in the story is the result of coming into all this money. Where the hell did that come from? People with no concept that there could be twenty-five million readers of Good Housekeeping magazine across the sea thought, Is she selling babies? It generated all kinds of problems. It also got me into trouble. The book is so contemporary that the story was changing even as I was changing the book.
Dave: I read that you got a phone call the day before the book was due.
Greene: It was actually about two weeks. The book was due at the end of December. On December 15th, Haregewoin called from prison. She'd been arrested.
I wasn't sure how I was going to end the book, in terms of which story I'd use, but this was not what I had in mind. The first thing was to make phone calls and make sure the children were okay. Is there food? Is there medicine? Okay.
The second thing was for me to storm around the house going, "I wrote this book already," because in Praying for Sheetrock, the hero, Thurnell Alston, ends up in jail; at the end of that book he's in jail, and I wasn't planning on doing that again.
The third thing was that I had to call Bloomsbury. I had to speak to the editor-in-chief. She picks up the phone: "Melissa! How's it going!?" She's expecting the manuscript.
I said, "Good. It's good. I'm fine. But... things have gotten a little weird in Ethiopia." It was awful. I was furious at Haregewoin. I was bitterly disappointed in her.
Dave: You'd been researching this for years. You knew this person. You knew the story. How did that affect your confidence as a writer? You'd already written the book.
Greene: It was terrible. I felt like, Who the hell is this? I'd spent years with her. I was very plugged in. I knew that there had been accusations of child molestation. I was with her when those were surfacing, and she looked me in the eye and explained that it had not happened. I believed her.
She had a very plausible explanation, and she described for me events. I was confident that things had happened in a certain way. A child had woken up scared in the night, a child who most likely had been abused at an earlier placement; he had woken up scared, half out of a nightmare, half from a young adult male moving around near him, and had been hysterical. But she had calmed it, and it was over. Okay. I had that much in the book. That was there.
But the story got bigger. It turned out that two other boys had come forward and said, "He did us that way, too. He slept with us like women." And she had tried to deeply bury it.
If it had been child molestation of a male with girls, she would have known how to handle it, but child molestation of a man with boys was way beyond anything she had ever heard of. She couldn't have anticipated it, and she didn't know what to do with it, so she chased the young man accused away, and she said, "That's it. Never speak of it again. This is over."
But an American volunteer befriended one of the boys, got the story, or got his own version of the story, or elaborated on the story, or stirred up the story. More stuff was happening, and it spun out of Haregewoin's control and led to her being arrested.
I was so upset. I felt that she had lied to me, that she was trying to cover it up, that she was trying to manipulate me in some way. I was in despair. Now it was the end of December, and I was thinking, Screw it. I don't even have a book now. I was in a tailspin. The editors were trying to be nice, but they couldn't help calling every six hours to say, "How's it coming?" I didn't know where I was with it. I wasn't going to be able to fly over and see her in jail. I tried to help get her out of jail, but that's hard to do in a country without a criminal justice system.
A friend of mine one day said, "You know, they say even Mother Theresa was no Mother Theresa." And I clung to that. It was a lifeline to me. I'd never heard that before. Have you ever heard someone say that?
Greene: It was a lifeline. And I just held onto it. I had to rethink everything I had done. Had I thought I was writing about a saint? Maybe I had, in a way. I had to revisit the whole book and start over from the beginning, but first I had to see what was happening.
I can't even believe at this moment that I'm on the book tour because I wasn't sure this was going to happen, and certainly not by pub date. In early February, just this past February, I flew over to see her, paralyzed by the thought that she was going to say, "No. You cannot write about this." If she had said that, what was I going to do?
Before flying over, I asked Karen Rinaldi at Bloomsbury, "What if I wrote this with a pseudonym?" I was thinking about The Bookseller of Kabul. "If she says I can't write about this, can we change her name?" Karen said, "Don't panic. Just go see what's happening."
Because I thought, What if my choice is between writing an ethical work of journalism or preserving everything Haregewoin has built, including these houses that are homes to more than sixty children? What if accuracy in reporting leads to her losing everything through this scandal of homosexual child molestation?
But. When I went over she had been quite calmed by the prison experience. She had been reprimanded. She was not punished; mostly she was reprimanded. I sat down with her, and I got out my pen and paper. I said, "I have to write about this." And she said, "Yes."
Then I sort of fell in love with her again. I had almost hated her for a couple months. Then, beginning again and seeing it through her eyes...
I've never written a book about people who don't speak English. Having to do everything in translation in a very different culture — although Haregewoin's English is excellent — there were constant reminders of cultural bridges that have to be crossed. Mostly I've gotten pretty good at not judging. Just wait and see what the story is. This is not how life looks in urban Atlanta. She told me the whole story then, a story that I could believe, and I was able to confirm it with a number of people who had been holding back. I even interviewed confidentially some of the boys who had been accusing the young man. I felt like I had the whole story.
So she's flawed. She's no Mother Theresa. And now I say, from the start, "This is not about a saint." Which turns out to be good news for the book and for all of us. Alright, she's not a saint, but she's saved about three hundred children.
Dave: In the beginning of the book you note that too often we elevate others to sainthood, which lets us off the hook...
Greene: For us to think of her as a saint excuses us, yes. As if she's different. I'm not that.
Dave: Each of your books involves prejudice and, to deconstruct a bit further, the notion of Other. One type of Other is threatening on a very personal, immediate level. It's "Blacks (or Hispanics, pick your minority) are getting all our jobs!" or "Jews are taking over the banks!" But there is another kind of Other that people can ignore entirely, for example these AIDS victims dying in Africa. You can't see them, so you're free to pretend they don't exist.
It struck me in reading the books that there's not so much difference between the two. In There Is No Me without You, you're writing specifically about family, but in all of your books what we see is how people excuse themselves to judge others that are distant or different from their own kin. You are not me, therefore I can treat you differently.
Greene: This is what it’s like when you're interviewed by someone who's read the book and thought about it. That's amazing, what you just said. I've never thought about it like that. I think that's absolutely true. It sort of gave me chills when you said that.
Dave: Why? What does it make you think of?
Greene: It's a thread running through the books I never recognized.
At one point, this book began with a scene that is now deeper in the book, the scene in which a father knocks at the door of Haregewoin's compound in the middle of the night. He has a little daughter with him. His wife has died. He's a surveyor. He was educated at Addis Ababa University. He says, "Here, you may see how she was before," and he reaches into his pocket, pulls out his wallet, and flips it open — I saw this — and he's got pictures of his daughter when she took ballet. His wallet is full of pictures. This fat, little girl in her tutu. It was taken in a professional photographer's studio, and she's in her ballet dress.
Now he's widowed, he's HIV-positive, and she's HIV-positive. Even though the pictures weren't taken so long ago, that world is gone, of them being a middle class, happy family with a daughter who takes ballet lessons and gets professional photographs. He puts the wallet back in his pocket, and he gives Haregewoin his child.
He comes back and visits her, and every time he comes he's moving a little more slowly; and then she's moving a little more slowly. I think my final scene with them is her making her way very slowly across the courtyard to him, and he doesn't even have the strength to go greet her. The two of them just sit and watch the healthy children play. I opened the book that way initially because he's a university educated surveyor. They were a middle class family. And they're being decimated.
A good friend I grew up with, when I sent her opening chapters, she said that scene had gripped her and for just the reason you're saying. This notion of AIDS in Africa killing all these people, it's become a sort of background noise, but you don't really think of it as being someone who is educated and carries his daughter's pictures in his wallet. If we were to admit that they're parents just like us and that they love their children every bit as much as we love our children, and when they die the children are as sad as our children would be if we died, the pain becomes unbearable.
Maybe that's why it gave me chills — because I think that's right. That's my main hope for the book, that people might read it and realize they're not Other. You might think they are, but isn't this what you recognize about parenthood and love and family?
A lot of the design of the book went into trying not to scare people away. This is a very scary subject. For example, I can't get on morning TV shows, although producers reply to Bloomsbury, "We love it. We love Melissa. It's a great book. But we can't figure out how to package it."
Dave: It doesn't go well with breakfast.
Greene: Yes, but I think they're wrong. I think about the responses that I got from Good Housekeeping readers, and I think about the responses I'm getting all the time from readers. Gratitude is part of the response. It's not about me. It's just a matter of letting truth come out.
The back of the book, that beautiful photographic image of the little girl — that's the cover of the British edition. In the judgment of the American publisher, it would scare American readers away; they wouldn't pick it up. So we have a beautiful bright color, a fabric — it's Ethiopian fabric — and this ambiguous title. The idea is, Just pick it up. If you can just get it into your hands...
I'm the same when I speak to audiences. I'm not at all grim. It's very light. I mean, it's awful. I'll be at a party and someone says, "What are you working on?" "AIDS in Africa!" It's like, "Goodbye."
That was why the publisher wanted it to be first-person. The editor said, "We need you there." I said, "You don't. You can do this. Haregewoin is not such a stranger. Look, she speaks English. She's friendly, she loves children." But no; it was, "Come with us."
One of my friends said, "You're our Mars probe." It's such a foreign landscape. For me, it's not — it's like my own backyard now. But alright, you need company, I'll come.
A few years ago, all the nonfiction books were first-person. A few in particular, I felt like screaming, "Down in front! I'm interested in what you're telling me, but not in you. I can't even see what you're telling me."
I didn't want to do that. Most of the book was written third-person, so I went back in to add these first-person touches to say, You're not alone. There's a white person there. I'm hoping that I didn't block the view.
Dave: You were quoted in an interview with Bloomsbury online, saying, "I'm not sure Africa feels as far away to our children as it did to most of us in childhood." Could you expand on that?
Greene: I could probably get the statistics for you, but this is by far the most diverse generation, growing up in this country right now, that the world has ever known.
My son was editor-in-chief of his high school yearbook last year before he graduated, and he did a survey asking how many countries were represented in the school. Just a redbrick, Atlanta public high school. Fifty-seven. Fifty-seven different countries were birthplaces of students there.
When Helen first came to America, she had a small circle of best friends right away. Helen is Ethiopian. One best friend was an African-American girl. Another was a blond, blue-eyed, Southern white girl. Helen was bilingual. Another was a bilingual Korean girl whose parents were from Seoul. The fifth was a bilingual French girl who was born in Paris. It looked like United Colors of Benetton — and this was a group of girls playing little ponies. They weren't trying to look like the future, but they did.
What if we elect Barack Obama? We are going to leap over so many generations. Suddenly we could have a President whose father is from Kenya. That would be an amazing thing.
When I was growing up, black and white was a big deal. Integration — whoa! Two different races under one roof! And of course in The Temple Bombing I write about Jews being the exotic outsider in the South because everyone else was black or white. Now, you'll find every people on Earth in Atlanta.
The other day I talked to folks calling me from Pierre, South Dakota. They wanted to learn about adoption from Ethiopia. I said, "Are there any people of color where you live?" And they said, "Yes. This is Pierre." Well, c'mon! They said, "There are Ethiopian restaurants here." Bingo. That's it. If you have Ethiopians there, a child isn't going to feel like he or she landed on the far side of the moon.
Dave: I'm curious about your interviewing techniques. You talked earlier about not getting in the way of your story. In Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing, your subjects talk and digress on all sorts of topics. At points, the mode reminded me a bit of Studs Terkel. Those books are collections of voices more than sharply focused studies.
What are you looking for when you're interviewing? How do you guide your subjects?
Greene: I'll go way out of my way for a good story. I love good storytellers. The first two books were stories unfolding among Southerners. Praying for Sheetrock, in particular, was built out of stories told to me by elderly, rural Southerners. It just doesn't get better than that. You ask a question, and two days later the old man is still perfecting and finalizing his answer. Such great language, black and white.
When I first started learning how to write nonfiction, I was in my mid-twenties. I was living in Savannah, Georgia. I interviewed an old man named Buck Buckley who lived on Tybee Island. He told me what Tybee Island had looked like back in the days of Guy Lombardo and The Dorsey Brothers. Now you drive out on a paved road, but in those days there was a train that took you out.
He was trying to describe the bathing suits worn by the women, which were very complicated affairs that involved bloomers and belts. And he said, "Of course, in that day, I didn't know much about the wherewithal and nomenclature of the female." I've treasured that my whole life, that he said that. He was not in one of my books, but if he had been that line would have gone in it, even if the book wasn't about ocean life.
I was so lucky with the first two books. And then, god knows why, I decided to do a book about Nova Scotia coal miners [Last Man Out]. There are no more tight-lipped human beings on Earth. These are not Southerners. Suddenly, I'm in Nova Scotia with these men who just say, "A-yup." Or, "Nope." I can't get them to talk. So I'm asking, "Was it like this? When you were underground, was it like this?" "Nope."
I saw, near the edge of town in Springhill, a bench that said "Liars' Bench" on it. So I'd say to these guys, "You've got a Liars' Bench here?" "Yup." "Did people tell stories on it?" "Yup." "Are any of them still alive?" "Nope." I said, "Do you remember any of the stories they told?" — just the thought that there could have been a coal miner that talked. "Yup." "Can you tell me one?" "Nope."
I was really in trouble with that book. I couldn't get anyone to talk, so I couldn't tell what anything was like. The old guys took me down into the mine, and I could see what it was like, but I didn't know what it was like for them. What saved me was discovering that in-depth interviews had been done with all the survivors right after rescue in 1958 by a group of psychologists and sociologists affiliated with Nova Scotia universities. They came back in 1959 and interviewed them all again, all the eighteen men who were rescued; and then they came back in 1960 and did it again.
Some of those men had been talkers. It just so happened that by the time I got there the talkers had all died. But here were these tapes — I had them transcribed. Even though I didn't know these men personally, they'd been interviewed in great depth right after being rescued, and suddenly I had the voices of men who noticed the quality of light and noticed what social relations were like, who was trying to edge ahead and who was resentful. I thought, This is a treasure. Now I can write the book. I do love voice.
Dave: You must have conducted hours of interviews with George Bright for The Temple Bombing.
Greene: How crazy was that guy?
Dave: But you don't need to say he's crazy. You just print what he's saying and let readers decide. He was very forthcoming with opinions.
Greene: He was.
Dave: Have you talked to him since the book was published?
Greene: He died just a couple years ago. After the book was published, he was interviewed by the local paper. They asked, "Why did you talk to her?" And he said, "Well, I figured she was after the truth, same as me." And I thought, Good enough.
I learned in Praying for Sheetrock, when I interviewed hostile witnesses, basically, I told them, "I can't promise you'll like the finished product, but I promise to be faithful to your words and not twist your words out of context. I will relay your words as you're telling me, and I'll relay your story as you present it." And I do something that I know a lot of writers don't: I send the quotes to the people I've interviewed. "Is this it? Is this correct?" I did the same with George Bright.
With Praying for Sheetrock, many people in the white community really did not want to talk to me — because it was the white community that had committed the crimes. I said, "Just talk to me. I will not publish anything with your name without permission. If you'll just talk to me, I'll clear everything with you. And when you see your words, if you don't want your name attached to them, I'll make it anonymous."
For The Temple Bombing, George Bright was the breakthrough. I reached some of the other white supremacists, and they instantly asked, "Are you a Jew?" I told them [mumbling], "Yes." And they said goodbye. "You think I'm going to talk to you? Forget it." But Bright didn't ask me.
Dave: If you were to create the Melissa Fay Greene Hall of Fame for the authors that were most important to you in each decade of your life, who comes to mind?
Greene: Each decade of my life? First decade, James Barrie and A. A. Milne. And Ginger Pie by Eleanore Estes.
Second decade, age ten to twenty, that spans a huge development, but at the beginning, unquestionably, like a bright and shining light was The Once and Future King by T. H. White. That book was absolutely life shaping for me. I don't think a month goes by that I don't think about it. I became aware of the notion of an inchoate sense of justice from that book. I was a kid, but the notion of King Arthur, as seen through T. H. White, trying to envision what justice would look like — that's become a theme for me.
That for me is the theme that secretly runs through my books: people intuiting justice who have never seen it. In Praying for Sheetrock, it's the black leaders trying to create a community among equals in rural, Southern, McIntosh County. They've never seen it before, but they can feel that it must exist. Rabbi Rothschild in The Temple Bombing having a similar ideal. In Last Man Out, the fact that there is briefly equality a mile underground in the mine during this disaster when the lights go out; suddenly the Afro-Canadian miner becomes the leader — he has the powerful voice and, without looking at him, his moral force becomes a source of strength for them. But when the lights go on, when they're rescued, he's segregated. And in There Is No Me without You, the absence of global justice, and the consequences of a world that values patent rights above universal right to health.
So The Once and Future King and then J. D. Salinger. I memorized Seymour: An Introduction. I think I've been coping my entire adult life with trying to undo what that did to my prose style. I probably could have recited it. Catcher in the Rye was fine; I discovered J. D. Salinger because my parents came home one day and said there was a very dirty book and I should never read it. I'm sure by sundown the next day I had it. Then, being a questing young autodidact, I suppose Salinger gave way to Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, Hegel... By then I was in college and trying to understand large, abstract thoughts.
In my twenties, Homer... Ezra Pound — not the poetry as much as the ABC of Reading and his anthologies of poetry. I felt that I gave myself my own graduate-level poetry course by reading Ezra Pound's writings and then reading what he wrote about. Maybe I should put Pound before Homer because probably I returned to The Odyssey after seeing what Pound wrote about it, and then I tried to read my way through the western canon under his guidance. So Homer and Dante, Chaucer, and Anglo-Saxon poetry, those rough, noun-filled sentences.
I don't know what I was reading in my thirties. This is too many decades. Do you want more decades?
Dave: You can stop whenever you like.
Greene: I could just say authors I've loved in the next couple decades — Saul Bellow, Philip Roth... Back to the twenties, Dostoevsky, but Tolstoy above Dostoevsky, and Anna Karenina above all. Also in my twenties, the Russian poets. Osip Mandelstam. Anna Akhmatova. Marina Tsvetaeva, Akhmatova's good friend.
I had Russian friends, and one in particular; she was desperately homesick and understood that I loved literature. She needed me to know these poets even though they weren't in translation yet. She would read aloud to me Russian poets in Russian. She could have been reading the Leningrad phone directory, I wouldn't have known. But I watched for them when they started to be translated. Also Pasternak.
I love poetry. In fact I was at Powell's last night, and I bought two books I didn't have by Louise Glück. I love Stanley Kunitz. I'm trying to picture my bookshelves. I read poetry before I write. It's the anti-Salinger effect. I still love him but you just can't be that wordy.
The book I'm incredibly excited about right now is The Master by Colm Tóibín. In fact I tried to email him this morning from the computer in the lobby at the Benson. It is a magnificent book. I was in Dublin last week for my book — which sounds so cool to say, and I've never got to say it before — so I bought it in Dublin; he's an Irish writer and now I have an Irish edition. It is a page-turner for me.
I emailed the man this morning. I'll probably never hear from him, but I said, "I cannot find the source of what is gripping about this, and I can't put it down. I can't wait to get into bed at night to read this." I'm reading it over a hamburger at lunch, but I can't find the source of the tension. It is the quietest book. Will he be able to rent the home? Will he find the letters of his late sister? I can't put it down.
The other thing I bought last night at Powell's was a bunch of Henry James. I've got them, but I felt I had to have them again last night. I'm finding The Master to be one of those books that you start to slow yourself down. I don't want to finish it, and I'll feel lonely on my book tour when I finish it, so now I'm trying to break it up with the master himself, Henry James.
Thomas Hardy. I'll put that in for the twenties-thirties-forties — I don't have to give my age, do I? — Thomas Hardy's poetry and novels.
When I turned in the draft of Praying for Sheetrock, I worked with a younger editor. We were talking about individual adjectives. Is this the right adjective? I was like, Damn, this is easy. Is this it? We wasted months like that, until the editor-in-chief got a hold of it, Jane Isay — this was at Addison-Wesley — and she was like, "Holy shit! This book is not ready to go. What the hell have you been doing?" I definitely had the impression that someone was in trouble, but it wasn't me. Jane called one day, trying to control the tension in her voice — I didn't yet know the woman. She said, "Can you come up here? Right now." I had to come to New York for emergency editing because she didn't like anything that had gone on. Nothing had gone on; we'd been padding adjectives into place. This is a nice noun. Yes, it's a good one.
And so we had to start over. I loved the work; and I still love Jane. We had the whole manuscript in pages. She'd say to me, for example, "Of the Victorians, who do you like?" And I'd say, "Thomas Hardy. I love Thomas Hardy." And she'd say, "That's why we've got all the landscape. Alright, this is what we're going to do...." Every time she came to landscape, she said, "Thank you, Thomas Hardy." She had a whole pile that she called "Thank you, Thomas Hardy."
As we'd go through, she'd ask, "Of the Russians?" I'd say, "Tolstoy." She'd say, "Alright, you know what he did in this scene?" "Yes." "Do that here." We went through it like that.
And then she would say, "What we need right here is something mythic, something epic." And so I wrote down epic, mythic. Later she would say, "Here we need something sparkly, something snappy." Sparkly, snappy. I said later to my husband, it was like she was ordering Chinese food: epic, mythic, sparkly...
We arranged it all from the beginning, and then she said, "Alright, Melissa, you can pick one thing from 'Thank you, Thomas Hardy,' but just one." I'd say, "Can I have the salt marsh." "Yes." We'd go deeper, and she'd allow me another. "The coastal forest? Can I please have the coastal forest?" "Yes."
Dave: What else do people need to hear about before I let you go?
Greene: I'd love them to know about the book web site. There are pictures, and a slide show with music.
This book has been completely life changing. It has altered my family and is part of a project that I think I'll be involved in for the rest of my life. We have adopted two children from Ethiopia, and we're in the process of adopting two boys now. They live at Haregewoin's. They're coming this fall. They're ten and twelve. Brothers. It's become my life story, this unfolding story.
Dave: Will you be writing another magazine article to collect the boys?
Greene: It was going to happen while I was on book tour, and so my husband was going to go — he hasn't been before — and he was going to take Helen, who is ten now and wants to go back and visit. And our son Lee is spending the year in Israel, working with Ethiopian Jewish kids because he speaks Amharic now. He's going to come over and meet them in Addis Ababa. So I might not go this time.
I'll tell you something else cool. Two days ago, we learned that Haregewoin has won the Fervent Global Love of Lives Award from Taiwan. She and I are invited to come and spend ten days in Taiwan in May and meet the President. I don't think I can go because I think it's when my son is graduating from Conservatory, but Haregewoin should go.
Melissa Fay Greene visited Powells.com on October 26, 2006, before a reading at our Hawthorne store.