Tova Mirvis’ memoir The Book of Separation chronicles how questioning her faith sparked monumental changes in her life, including the dissolution of her marriage. Through clear-hearted prose, Mirvis wrestles with her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, her evolving faith, and the courage it takes to step away from one’s community to forge one’s own path. Mirvis’ previous novels include Visible City and The Ladies Auxiliary, both of which were met with critical acclaim. Response to The Book of Separation has been equally rapturous. The Chicago Tribune praised Separation for its “wry humor and darkly apt turns of phrase,” while Kirkus Reviews labeled it a “thoughtful, courageous memoir of family, religion, and self-discovery.” Mirvis spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on September 19th, 2017.
The book starts with Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey. Obviously you go through a huge journey of your own through the memoir, but why was it important for you to kick off your story with that poem?
That poem was so important to me in so many ways. I had long loved the poem and right as I was in the middle of finishing and selling my third novel, Visible City, the person who is now my editor, Lauren Wien, asked me to make some changes. We were going back and forth and I ended up telling her what was going on in my life, that I was perched at this place where it felt like I was about to jump off a cliff. I kept waiting to hear if she was going to make an offer on Visible City, and one day in my inbox, instead of an offer, I had this poem that she had sent me. I just felt like this is an editor who understood so fully the moment I was in and knew the right poem for it, who knew, yes, this describes it.
When you change your life there are no instruction manuals, no one who can show you a map, no one who can tell you how to do something. I felt like that poetry was a place where I could find some sense of guidance, that I could hold on to this poem as I was jumping and these words could catch me, that they could understand that you sometimes step off that ordered version of how it’s supposed to be.
One thing that was so moving in your memoir was when the other Orthodox women start using you as a resource to share experiences in their own marriage, and you talk about how you have to forge your own path, because the trail disappears behind you along the way.
I feel like we turn to each other to say, “How do you do this?” just to feel like someone else is doing it. I think naming it is very empowering and helps you realize you’re not the only one who feels a certain way. Even when you see other people make changes and do things, I think you have to do it on your own. There’s always the feeling whenever I’m about to do something
physically scary when I think, I just have to go. I think even when there are supportive people around you, there’s that moment of doing it by yourself.
One of the experiences I’ve had in starting to write about this is the number of people who have emailed me sharing their own story of leave-taking of one kind or another. There is that sense of commonality and connection when you leave, that you know you’ve set off on your own.
What has that experience of communicating with readers been like? In the book you talk about having to defend your writing about how you portray the Orthodox faith when your first books came out.
For me it was really like trial by fire. My first novel, The Ladies Auxiliary, was the first thing I had ever written and it was thrilling that it was going to be published. Months before the book came out I started hearing—mostly from my family, who were all in Memphis—that people had heard that I had written a book and that it was nice or it was not nice, it was good or bad. Those were the operating questions. It was very hard for me because I had always been raised to be sweet and good and please people and not to speak my mind and not speak too forcefully and not to speak too loudly. It was my first moment of realizing if you wanted to create freely or if you wanted to say what you think, there is reaction. I think it took me a long time to understand that that was one of the prices to pay for being a writer.
That has followed me. I think my second novel as well, there was that sense of “is she negative or positive?” Those were the words used to judge the writing, not “what is the book saying?” Of course it’s so much more complicated than that. I feel like fiction usually doesn’t want to operate in that grid—is it either nice or not nice? I felt like that grid was being applied to me as a writer in the orthodox world.
In writing this book about orthodoxy and my leaving it, I’m still aware of reaction. I’m doing my best not to be, mostly by not reading comments. (laughs) I do feel a sense of connection with lots of readers. The memoir began for me after an essay I wrote in The New York Times about my Orthodox divorce ceremony, the get ceremony. It was the first time I was publicly putting out there that I was no longer part of that world. And I had just hundreds of emails, overwhelmingly nice and supportive, mostly people just sharing their stories. People saying, I am from a world so far removed from yours but I feel the same way.
Recently a piece of the book ran as a “Modern Love” column in The New York Times and I had the same experience. I was flooded with emails from people across a religious spectrum. I got emails from people within the Orthodox communities who loved and understood the piece. I had an email from a Mormon man who told me he was getting divorced. He gave the essay to his parents because he thought it would help them understand the changes he was going through. I got a Facebook message from a woman in a Southern Baptist community who was getting divorced who felt like the responses to her shattered her faith because she was seen as someone breaking the rules.
Those moments remind me of why I am a writer. They remind me that when you put your story in the world, you make yourself vulnerable. In novels, at least there’s a place to hide. In memoirs, it’s just you out there on the page. I guess it creates the possibility of connecting with people who might live in a very different world than I do or in a very different tradition or in a very different place, but they find those connecting points in the story. It’s what moves me most as a writer right now.
So after writing novels your entire career, what was it like writing a memoir?
At first I couldn’t even say I was writing a memoir. I was like, I’m writing an essay that’s very very long. (laughs) I felt like I would break out in hives every time I said the word memoir. Even now I think of myself as a novelist. I love the freedom of writing fiction, the sense of creating a new world, the feeling that In your different characters you can think about so many different things and travel different places.
With fiction, the hard part was always, “What happened? Who are these people? What did they do?” With memoir, it was a different question. I knew what happened. I knew the people. I knew my protagonist all too well. (laughs) But I didn’t know what was at the heart of this story. I had to turn that lens I was used to turning on characters onto myself. It got emotionally harder to be willing to go there and find myself.
I also learned a lot from reading. I decided before I started writing that I was going to read memoir. And so I spent the first year working on the book just constantly reading memoir and taking notes and always asking myself the question, “What can I learn from this book?”
I learned a tremendous amount about structure and craft. Being so immersed in reading memoir, I felt a sense of kinship with the writer. I felt like all these books were chronicling some sort of change or transformation. It made me feel less alone. It made me feel like there are so many people who go through these questions or journeys or changes or struggles. I felt very attached to what I was reading.
And what were those books that you were reading?
I loved Rachel Cusk’s memoir Aftermath. I love Rachel Cusk in general, she writes like no one else. I love Annie Shapiro’s Devotion, which is gentle, wise, and has this expansiveness of spirit. I read a lot of memoirs about leaving religious worlds. I love a book called All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish writer. Carlene Bauer wrote a memoir called Not That Kind of Girl about leaving an evangelical Christian community. I love Karen Armstrong, who wrote two memoirs about leaving a convent. I loved Drinking: A Love Story, Glass Castle, and Wild. I love Lou Areneck’s memoir, Cabin, about building a cabin in the woods with his brother. Also Howard Axelrod’s The Point of Vanishing about spending a year secluded in a country in a cabin. I would just read from one memoir to the next. Now I’m slowly returning to fiction. I feel like I haven’t read a novel in so long. I’ve missed a lot. (laughs)
The book reads like a novel, where we bounce around in time and there’s a lot of suspense in terms of how things will turn out. What was it like approaching your life through a novelist’s eyes?
At one point I realized the same things I knew as a novelist I needed to make use of in my memoir. I didn’t want it to feel episodic. In novel writing, the part that really engages me the most is the question of structure. How do we build this novel? I draw these pictures for myself of arcs all over the place—it feels like I’m building a building. In a memoir I’m saying the same thing, I’m building a story.
Another thing I’d ask is, “What is the best way to tell this story in a novel?” I’d ask that question in a memoir also. So I knew I couldn’t tell it chronologically, it didn’t feel interesting enough. But the timeline was the piece that drove me crazy. I had the present, the far past, and the near past. I’d write scenes on notecards and spread them across the living room floor and tell my kids, “Don’t you dare walk in this room right now.” I’d have the cards all laid out to have the central arc, plus the flashback arc cutting into the central arc. That part was definitely the most challenging technically. It was the part that would keep me up at night. I felt like I was a builder. How am I going to splice this board into this other board and craft it together?
Throughout the book, you reference different authors—like Emily Dickinson, Sharon Olds, and Cynthia Ozick—in relationship to certain periods you were going through. How has literature helped you understand your life?
For me being a reader has always been central. Growing up we were a family of readers. We were one of those families where everyone would drift away from the dinner table because everyone was reading. Reading books was a way for me to leave the small world I lived in. I always felt there were two realities at once—the place I was and the place my mind could go. I think because I so often felt constricted where I was that the ability to travel in my mind was all-encompassing.
I think the other way fiction was really important to me was that I felt like I grew up in a world where things might be thought but weren’t said. There was always this feeling that there was an under layer. There was always this sense that you were being taught one thing and there was this attempt to package a kind of contentment—no questions here, we were all happy, and we all believed. But every once in a while you could catch sight of the fact there was some kind of underworld. For me one of the pleasures of reading is you get access to that inner world. In reading and novels, there’s of course course people leading more complicated lives than on the surface. Reading novels was the first place I had confirmation that yes, the world is much more complicated and people are much more complex and messy than these outer presentations.
What role has the library played in your life?
Books were always crucial as a child. We would always go to the library in Memphis. I live in Newton now, and the library here feels like a respite. I spend a lot of time writing at the library. It’s just a place to go to when I’m not quite sure what to do with myself or I need a quiet place or I need to get out.
My nine-year-old daughter is a very avid reader. The idea that we can go to the library and she can get all the books she wants is this amazing concept that this world is here for you, just take it. I always have that sense of something waiting to be discovered. The library in Newton is one of those few places where if you get there five minutes to nine, there’s a line of people at the door waiting to get inside. It’s just a given, it’s like the grocery store and the library. It’s one of those main things that’s always at the center of our lives.