MONTREAL — “I have a certain amount of energy every day,” said Montreal writer and journalist Mireille Silcoff. “When I use it up, it’s not there anymore. So I need to be very parsimonious and prudent with it.”
Talking with the 41-year-old in her airy N.D.G. home filled with art and books, you would never guess energy was an issue; Silcoff is as effervescent an interview subject as you could hope for. And writers do love going on about how hard it is to find the time to write. But if you’re tempted to think the author of the new story collection Chez l’arabe (Astoria/House of Anansi, 200 pages, $18.95) might be indulging in a bit of dramatizing here, think again. She’s got a very good reason indeed to parcel out her energy, and it started to show itself 10 years ago. She was walking down the street one day while living in Toronto.
“I started feeling untethered in ways that are hard to describe,” she recalled. “I was dizzy. It was as if my feet weren’t hitting the ground as I was walking. I thought, ‘I must have the flu, or maybe this is some crazy PMS.’ ”
It was neither of those things. Silcoff, it turned out, was showing early symptoms of a condition known pithily as spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak — basically, a gradual draining of the fluid that cushions and stabilizes the brain.
“It’s genetic, something I was born with but didn’t know I had,” said Silcoff. “It’s a tissue disorder — the tissue of my spinal cord has a strange over-elastic consistency, so it tears. It didn’t start tearing until I was 31.”
By that time, Silcoff had already packed in a lot of living. Born in Montreal, she was raised in a high-achieving secular-intellectual Jewish home — her grandfather, the late Maurice Silcoff, was a prominent union leader, her father is superior court judge Joel Silcoff, her mother, Yaffa Meir Handel, an Israeli who came to Montreal in the mid-1960s with a touring folk dance troupe.
“My family never belonged to a synagogue,” she told me. “My mom is as secular-Israeli as they come. I tell a story about how she used to send us to orthodox elementary school with ham sandwiches with the directive, ‘Just tell them it’s turkey.’ Although she denies it.”
Of her experience at the Jewish Bialik High School, she said, “It was not a great fit for me, although now I’m glad I did go there because I rebelled against it so hard that I started going to nightclubs on St-Laurent when I was 15, 16 years old, and that ended up as my ‘in’ into writing and journalism. I began as a nightclub reporter. That was my beat.”
Montrealers of a certain age will recall her 3 a.m. Eternal clubbing column for the late Montreal Mirror, where she eventually became music editor. She also wrote two books about club culture, lived in England for a year, founded a popular Jewish-themed salon in Toronto, and launched and edited the New York-based Jewish culture quarterly Guilt and Pleasure. For this self-described “introvert capable of great extroversion in bursts,” it was all fast-track. Until that day in Toronto, when the symptoms first hit. And they kept intensifying.
“I went to eight doctors (in Toronto) and had trouble being taken seriously,” she recalled. “If you’re a Type A personality, quite stressed out, living alone, 30-something Jewish editor walking into a doctor’s office complaining of dizziness, headaches and a ‘vague untethered feeling,’ people are going to tell you to do some yoga or take a holiday.”
The search for a diagnosis and treatments led Silcoff on an odyssey that took her to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles. Returning to Montreal after a series of increasingly aggressive but unsuccessful procedures, feeling like “a husk, just a blanket slug,” cared for on a rotating basis by family and her husband, TV producer Michael Kronish, Silcoff was flat on her back for the better part of three years.
“My brain was in a constant state of sinking into my occipital bone,” she recalled. “It’s a very excruciating condition. Trust me, you don’t want to feel your brain. I couldn’t speak for a few months — I wore a sign that said, ‘Not speaking.’ I had bad tinnitus. My entire head was in an uproar. I felt choiceless and cut off. There were no avenues for me. I could not do journalism, I couldn’t do essay writing. There were many months when I couldn’t even parse a headline.”
Finally, as a kind of last-ditch emotional life raft, she seized on something she hadn’t done since a bit of poetry in high school: creative writing. At first she was limited to tiny windows of work time — the piece that turned out to be the title story of Chez l’arabe was written over a two-month span in sessions of 15 to 20 minutes per day. It was the most she could manage.
“I would never say illness is a gift,” Silcoff said. “I hate people who say that. But when I found myself at this point of stillness, the beauty of the universe — and I know this sounds cheesy — opened itself up to me. Staring out my window at a tree fluttering in the breeze became an actual activity. It was a very good state for writing fiction. There were no distractions, nothing more enticing that I could have been doing. And it was very interesting to create these stories in my head, because the story outside my head was pretty awful.”
Now seems a good point to transition to the new book — after all, this would be simply a human interest story, albeit a very compelling one, if Chez l’arabe weren’t so good. As it happens, it’s one of the most impressive literary debuts in years. Its eight stories display a remarkable range of tone and voice while hanging together as a coherent reading experience, linked by themes of recovery, separation and confinement — both literal and psychological. It can serve as a textbook case on how to make creative use of personal experience without being beholden to it.
Told that not many of her protagonists resemble her directly, Silcoff agreed, while stressing that the choice was unconscious on her part.
“One thing that struck me when the book was finished was, ‘Wow, I wrote a lot about women in their 60s.’ It’s funny — I spent a lot of my early life writing almost exclusively about youth culture, and then went through this illness and came out the other side. It’s like I skipped a generation.”
Many of the stories also pull off the feat of finding fresh perspectives on one of fiction’s most well-worn standbys: the Jewish mother. If she’s comfortable with that archetype, suggested Silcoff — a mother herself, with a 2-year-old daughter and another child on the way — it might be because she’s got a lot of them.
“I’m surrounded by a Greek chorus of extraordinary mothers,” she said. “I’ve got a mother-in-law, I’ve got a mother, I’ve got an ex-stepmother, I’ve got my dad’s current partner, I had two grandmothers I was very close to. I grew up in this universe of maternal love, and all of my mothers are quite extraordinary women, and quite different from each other.”
Silcoff proves herself no slouch when it comes to writing men, either. One story, the ribald mid-life farce Eskimos, struck this reader as especially Richlerian in subject and treatment. I can’t resist asking Silcoff if a certain spirit was hovering when she wrote it.
“Actually, I’ve got a dirty secret about Mordecai Richler — who I greatly admire — and that’s that I have not read him,” she said. “Well, I have read The Street, so maybe there was something formative there. But not any of the biggies. I always mean to, I always want to. What I was really trying to describe with (Gerry Dubinsky, the anti-hero of Eskimos) is a section of Jewish society that isn’t often written about — this seriously non-intellectual, moneyed, top-of-the-mountain person, a man who wants some kind of spiritual connection but does not have the first clue how to find it.”
Gearing up for Chez l’arabe’s imminent publication, Silcoff continues to write a weekly column for the National Post and contributes frequently to the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Not to mention raising a child. Clearly, I suggest, she’s got the energy management thing down cold.
“Well, they’ve never resolved completely,” she said, referring to her symptoms. “I still never quite have a full tank of spinal fluid, so to speak. I can’t run, I can’t jump, I can’t reach, I can’t bend, I can’t exercise. There are many, many things that I can’t do. It might get better, it might get worse, I don’t know. But the successful sick person is somebody who can adapt very quickly to change.”
Besides, as she points out, occasional spells of enforced inactivity can have their perks.
“Sometimes I have to eat breakfast in bed. But, hey, who doesn’t like doing that once in a while?”
Chez l’arabe has its Montreal launch Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. at the Emerald, 5295 Parc Ave., between Fairmount and St-Viateur. The event, presented by House of Anansi and Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, will feature food, drinks, readings and a surprise musical guest.
A comment from Jerry:
On one hand, I believe that it showed a lack of both class and respect for her mother to send Mireille to a Jewish School with ham sandwiches that she was supposed to tell people was turkey; on the other hand, it could really mean nothing …
What was her mother trying to prove? More importantly we should perhaps ask what the mother was thinking, if she was at all, and what she was trying to teach her daughter by flaunting Kashrut, an ethos of the school in the sense that non-Kosher food is not on the school’s menu. (Nor are any school activities held on erevs, on Shabbat, or on High Holidays.) In other words, Bialik is a Jewish school and presents itself as such.
No, it is not in the same level as either UTT or the Hebrew Academy (HA). The latter is the most “observant” and Orthodox of the three school boards with the United Talmud Torahs (UTT) slotted comfortably between Bialik and the Hebrew Academy on what I call the ‘observant Jew’ scale.
We are talking official lines here, as in official lines of the schools and school boards to which the schools are responsible. When Bialik kids are on their own time, they can eat pulled pork with a chocolate milk shake for all I care. When they are in school or out on a school sponsored and/or related activity, however, they are understandably expected to conform to norms established by the school.
If you don’t like it, don’t send your kids there. But once you have taken the decision to actually have your children attend a “religious” school, you must behave in a manner consonant with your decision to opt for a Jewish education for your kid or kids and you do not get to cherry pick those tenets of Judaism you accept and those that you do not.
Have a good week-end.