Can you tell us a little bit about your book? When did it come out? Where can we get it?
Alterations (Penumbra Publishing, May 2013) is a collection of short stories written over a period of twenty years, some of them harking back fifty years, stories that had lived in me the way stories do, as a bit a memory—a certain smell, the turn of a head, or the particular sound of a voice. The walkup apartment house where the metal taps on a little girl’s shoes made a satisfying clicking sound as she ran up and down the marble steps. The seamstress in the building, her friend’s father who seldom spoke, the people her parents knew, the relatives—the child’s ear pressed to the wall, hearing talk that was not for her to hear.
Many of the stories in Alterations had appeared in literary journals, among them The Alaska Quarterly Review, The MacGuffin and Passager, so I had a measure of confidence that other readers would enjoy them. But a collection needs a collective link, stories that have something in common, a recurring theme or idea that ties them together. I wrote my stories without a specific theme or idea in mind, the characters and the writing itself bringing the stories to fruition. Little girls and adolescents, a teenager, a father, a son, grown women, a whole slew of characters, who to my mind had little to do with each other.
I no more thought story collection than I thought my name was Joyce Carol Oates. Yet when I reread them all again last summer, I saw that there was a link, and that link was family. Families of different types and mindsets, families that were broken and those that were healing, families my characters clung to, and those from which they ran. And it was to that enduring notion of family life, with all its messy complications, its intrigues and dramas, its loving and sometimes mysterious bonds, that I dedicated Alterations, in memory of my parents, Molly and Max Weingarten.
As far back as grade school, I enjoyed reading, writing compositions and book reports, so when, as a mature adult I decided I wanted a college degree, I chose English Literature as my major, which lead to Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. I picked up the pen in my forties and haven’t put it down.
Wow! We have that in common. I have a Bachelor's in Creative Writing.
So, what's next for you, Rita?
At the moment, I’m trying to find an agent and/or publisher for my second novel, Feminine Products, about a young woman who has an eye for fashion and a gift for messing up her love life. When she finds Walter, a guy who adores her, she thinks she has it all. Not so, she discovers when she tells him she’s pregnant and he suggests a paternity test. I’m also developing “Love, Mona,” in Alterations, into a longer piece. Maybe it will be my third novel.
Do you write in a specific place? Time of day?
I write in my office at least 5 days a week for anywhere from 4 to 6 hours. I like to start in the morning right after breakfast, and for me that would be about 9 AM.
Are there any words you'd like to impart to fellow writers? Any advice?
The best advice I can give is DON’T GIVE UP. It took me 7 years to find a publisher for Lily Steps Out, and “Love, Mona,” the first story in Alterations was rejected ninety-three times before a journal picked it up. It’s frustrating and disheartening to get those rejections, but if you want to get anywhere as a writer you just have to keep at it. And join a writer’s group. A writer needs input from other writers. Is the plot moving forward? Is the dialogue real? Writers are too close to their work to see it clearly. Our words are our darlings, we love them. They’re like our children and we need others to point out their faults.
Here is the blurb for Alterations.
Some of the stories in this gem of a collection are set in Brooklyn and told through the eyes of a child growing up with the rumble of the El along 86th Street, walking with her mother in her big-shouldered mouton coat as she does her errands and talks with the shopkeepers. Others, focus on the impressions of adolescents, young women and mature men, “altered” by their circumstances as they continue to make their way through life. Beginning with Frances, the young child grieving for her mother in “Love, Mona,” these stories come full circle to Rusty in “Feminine Products,” pregnant but unmarried, desperate to make a family for her unborn child.
Here is an excerpt.
Long before my mother was strapped to a wheelchair and fed on beige fluid that dripped into her stomach, she could stand and cook for twenty as easily as I toast a bagel. She is gone now and often when I think of her on the holidays, I think of all those steaming, braising, frying pots, but mostly I think brisket.
Sometimes it was splashed with a healthy dose of Manischevitz, or served with raisins a-swim in Hunt’s tomato sauce, with whole cranberries or walnuts. It was packed in brown sugar, and once in a pepper and lemon crust, so tart it make us choke.
But no matter its reception at my mother’s table, her affection for that salted, rinsed, and near bloodless koshered meat never waned. Now that she is gone, it is a particular brisket I remember, a Brooklyn brisket, of years and years ago.
I was maybe ten, eleven years old, walking with my mother in her mid-thirties, those prime years of her womanhood, when there was about her such health and verve, such an aliveness to the way she moved. It gleamed on her skin that day, and in her eyes, and in the reddish upsweep of her hair.
Right off the train from A & S on Fulton Street, we walked to our neighborhood butcher—she in one of her cotton printed dresses, gored skirt, self-belt, and short sleeves that showed the freckles on her arms, and me, sweating in the new wool of my light blue princess coat with the navy blue velvet collar.
With a handkerchief, my mother patted the swell of her breasts showing out of the sweetheart collar of her dress. “It must be ninety degrees,” she complained. “For the life of me I can’t understand why you’re wearing that coat.”
“Because…” I said, smoothing my collar, tapping each velvet button, “If they put it in the box it would get all wrinkled.”
Behind a wooden table in the butcher store, a man with black curls on his head smiled right away at my mother, little dents appearing in his cheeks. He handed me a thick slice of salami. There on the sawdusted floor I slid, sucking the fat and salt out of the meat, looking down at my buttons, not up at the slanted-top display case, upon which parsleyed trays lay, filled with the meat and bones of animals.
Bloodied apron around his waist, a yarmulke on his curls, he sharpened his big knife on a silver rod, wrist swiveling, red lines of blood in his knuckles, all the time looking at my mother, who sometimes looked at him, and then looked away. His eyes shining, the dents in his cheeks deepened. I did not like his big shinny smile on my mother, so instead I watched the blade slice into the cape of fat atop the brisket’s hump.
“Lean,” my mother said, “make it nice and lean.”
He bunched the fingers on one hand and shook them near his ear, his eyes at the top of her dress. “Fat, you want a little fat on it, that’s where the taste is.”
The blade probed and poked the raw meat, severing all fat, save a thin white overlay on top that would smoke up the kitchen when the burner flame got too high.
He folded and taped brown paper around the brisket and then looked up at my mother. Very slightly, his head moved up and down, as if he were asking and answering a question in his mind and, when he spoke, his voice was slow and serious, as though he was explaining something my mother might not understand. “Like I said, Mrs. Gluck, not for every customer would I run out to Queens, but for you, I would deliver.”
Then, to me he said, “Where did you get such a beautiful sister?” Bloodied fingers offered more salami.
“She’s not my sister, she’s my mother, and I’m full from the last piece,” I snapped, pulling on her hand to leave.
In the street, I asked my mother, “Why did he say you were my sister?”
“I don’t know…” was her smiling answer, and once again she dabbed her chest with her handkerchief.
“I don’t know…” was her smiling answer, and once again she dabbed her chest with her handkerchief.
When I was ten, I was the same size as Grandma standing on a child’s bench at the stove. Onions sizzled in chicken fat and stuffed cabbage puffed and steamed while Grandma squinted through the fog of her eyeglasses, flinging salt into the cookers, stirring, tasting, drizzling coarse grains of pepper from her hard fingers.
But it was the life bubbling on the wooden chairs around the table, and one meal in particular at Grandma’s that takes me back to her Bronx kitchen… my mother in her upsweep and shoulder pads, my father in his Adler elevators, and Grandma ladling soup from a pot she cradled like an infant. “Ess Sammela, ess,” she said to my father. Eat, Sammy, eat.
Eyes closed, my father noisily sucked broth from the spoon. “No one makes soup like you, Mommy.”
My mother, sitting stiffly in her chair, made it known by her posture and grim expression on her otherwise pretty face that she did not want soup, or anything Grandma cooked, with excuses at the ready should anyone inquire. I am not hungry. I have already eaten. I am on a diet.
I liked Grandma’s soup with its dewdrops of fat glistening on top, but I was afraid of the little pin-feathers still on the cooked chicken floating in my plate. I was even more afraid of the vein on my father’s right eyelid, throbbing like a heart. It gave me cramps to watch it. Any minute he was going to let someone have it. But when he started talking in Yiddish, I knew it would not be me.
His words were for Grandma, who had to sit on two telephone books so she could reach the table like a grownup. I remember her hand moving a magnifying glass above the strange print on The Jewish Daily Forward. ‘The Forvitz,’ she called it. Once in a while she looked up at him from it at my father, then she went back to her page.
My father was shouting now, and I heard ‘raffle’ mixed in with the Yiddish words, and right away I knew the whole story. It was about Grandma at the wedding the previous week and how she went around with her raffles. Like the photographer, she didn’t miss a table. Her pencil’s square tip poised above her purse-full of chances for the yeshiva, the orphanage, the burial society. Embarrassing my father. Hadn’t he said he would buy every last one of her raffles? What was she—a pushcart peddler from Orchard Street?
My father was An American now, a provider of a Queens address, piano lessons, and the swaying tails on my mother’s new mink stole. But pull out those raffles and he was an immigrant in the tenements again, six years old and no father, hawking soap and towels outside the public baths on Allen Street.
Grandma stopped reading, and her head, with its thinning hair done up in pincurls, tilted up at my father, who stood and was still talking as he turned and left the room.
A moment later he returned, looking very serious, and comical too, what with Grandma’s big black purse slung over the arm of his double breasted suit. He set the purse in front of Grandma. “Eins… zwei… drei…” One, two, three, she counted, totaling the unsold raffles. She handed them over to my father, who, with equal ceremony, reached for his wallet, pulled out ones and fives, and slid them across the table.
Heavy silence filled our Lincoln Zephyr as it wheeled us over theTri-Boro Bridge. My mother rolled down the window and said to the night, “What’s wrong with my soup.”
I am an author, teacher and interior designer. Before my short stories were published as the collection Alterations (Penumbra 2013), they appeared in many literary journals including The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Iconoclast, The MacGuffin and Passager. I am also the author of Lily Steps Out (Penumbra 2012), the novel of a middle-aged woman who, sick of making beds and cooking meals, steps out of the comfortable domestic life she knows into the business world. I have lectured on interior design and the decorative arts at libraries throughout Long Island, at Hofstra University and CW Post-Hutton House. As the Coordinator of the Interior Design & Decorating Certificate at Queensborough Community College, I teach several courses in the program.