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The Empress of Weehawken

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A Conversation with Irene Dische

Interview excerpted from WSUM’s The Literally Literal: a conversation between Irene Dische and Andrew Hirshman (October 18, 2007)

Literally Literal: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Irene Dische:  I wanted to be a doctor or a scientist. [But] in my first semester at Harvard I failed Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Math.

I was a high school dropout. (Laughs) I worked in a bio-chemistry lab for one of my fathers Nobel prize-winning friends at Harvard and enjoyed it quite a bit.  But I have just absolutely no ability for science, despite the fact that I came from a family of scientists.  So that’s why I had no option but to become a writer; a sort of a last resort.

LL:  Did you write in your school newspaper in high school?  Were you writing poems when you were ten?

ID:  No, no, I wrote stories all my life, I just did it for amusement, starting very young.  To this day I only write to amuse myself.

LL:  In your book your character falls in love early with comic books.  Was that what you were reading?

ID:  I was never a reader.  I always wrote and didn’t read much.  When I read, I read comic books.  And to this day I think they are marvelous. I’m a big fan.  I was sent to an elite school for girls in New York City, a private school, and I used to, instead of reading the long Victorian novels that were on the reading plan, just get the classic comic and write my essays, based on a comic reading.

LL:  Did you refer to certain graphics or no?

ID:  Of course not!  I wasn’t suicidal!

LL: When you were a little kid what kind of comics were you reading?  Batman?

ID:  No, I hated Batman.  No, I read classic comics. They’re marvelous.  I was very sad when they went out of print.  Jane Eyre, for example.  And I still remember it by the pictures.  Not the prose.  I was too lazy to read Cliff Notes.

LL:  How did you meet Louis Leakey, the man who got you into Harvard?

ID:  As an 18 year old I was hitchhiking more or less through Africa and my money ran out in Nairobi.  I didn’t know a lot, but I knew a little bit about anthropology and I was very enthusiastic about it and interested, so I went to see him and simply asked for a job. His secretary threw me right out the door and he heard what was going on—he was in his office while the secretary was telling me there were no jobs available.  He called me in and asked me what my qualifications were.  And I said, “Well, I’m a high-school dropout,” and he said, with a genuine pleasure, “Oh that’s wonderful.”  And he gave me a job.

LL:  You were doing a lot of traveling, which is not something that a 17 or 18 year old girl did back then.  What drove you to travel at this point in your life?

ID:  I think there were two reasons that I did it.  One reason was that my parents had.  Mother was 17, 18 when she left Germany for the United States and abandoned everything that she had.  This was in her book a great adventure and that was how it was always described to me as a child.  My parents were actually Jewish refugees but they never wanted to complain about it.  But they had a habit of describing the exile from Germany and them fleeing from Germany as one great big happy adventure so as not to shock their children. 

I was always rather envious and felt this was a good way of conducting oneself at that age, being adventurous, traveling.  That was one thing.  And the other was that I had been a very fearful child.  I was just afraid of everything.  And in a way by putting myself into such independence and also danger, I no longer felt any fear at all.  And my lack of fear really protected me.  I was also very naïve, very innocent.  I was in the revolution in Libya when I was 17 years old nothing bad happened to me.  Something bad almost happened.  But my naïveté was always on my side, my innocence. 

LL:  And so how did you go from flunking all the sciences you needed to become a doctor to starting to write and being able to pay your bills that way?

ID:  Well I really did want to be a doctor and after I graduated from Harvard I had a very close friend who wanted to be a journalist. I had no idea what I wanted to do and writing never crossed my mind and he was setting off to be a journalist.  I was sure I would eventually go back to do my pre-med courses again and go to medical school, but I was just spending the summer hanging around.  My friend was writing an article about biochemists and Nobel prizes and he asked me to help him.  I think in the back of his mind he clearly had to give me due because he was a concerned friend, so he said, ‘why don’t you write the first page, an atmospheric page about these old biochemists who you know from your childhood and I’ll write the rest’.  And I said no, and he said ‘well I’ll give you fifty dollars.”  So I said okay and I wrote him something and I sent it to him.

Back in those days there was no fax and he called me up and  was very strange on the phone.  He had received my first page and he said he had to talk to me.  He made an appointment and he came to see me and he was very odd, I thought, and then he told me that he had made a big mistake that had become very clear to him.  And that mistake was that I should be a writer, not a doctor, and he should be a doctor, not a writer.  And that the paragraph that I’d written he said, in all modesty, he could not have written himself and it was completely clear that that is what I had to do and I just obeyed what he told me because anything else would have been more difficult.  And I started to write. 

A year ago I went to a great deal of trouble to find out where he was and he was running the Harvard Medical School.  So I was very, very pleased.  He’s just top-notch…one of America’s best doctors.

LL:  Now your book, The Empress of Weehawken, is not quite a memoir and it’s not quite fiction.  Can you explain how it doesn’t really fit into either category?

ID:  I have two children who were always bugging me to tell them about these adventures of mine, and I didn’t want to because I didn’t want to give them ideas.  I thought it was bad enough that I’d done that, on the basis of my mother telling me about all of her adventures.  So I wasn’t going to make the same mistake.  I promised them when they were small that I would write down all the things I’d done when I was a teenager, when they were no longer of an age where I thought I’d influence them! 

And so then the time came when they were 18, 19, 20, and had done an equal number of stupid things any way.  I had started to write this down but to be able to write an autobiography is difficult.  It’s very difficult not to dramatize yourself in a good way and to turn it into fiction.  I was inventing everything and I was making myself out to be a much better person than I am.

So I decided I needed to find someone who would write this for me, who knew me very well and who was very critical of me, the way I’m critical of whatever character I’m writing.  I thought about it for a long time and I decided to ask my grandmother.  She was always very critical of me and she loved to tell stories, and she’d already been dead for twenty years and said that she would gladly do it.  I felt like her ghostwriter actually and that’s why the book turned out as it did because she was also very interested in telling a lot about herself.  That’s how the story came to be.

LL:  Is her character, in your mind anyway, a faithful depiction of what she was like in real life or did you sort of fictionalize aspects of her to make it a more interesting story, perhaps?

ID:  No, to be honest I simply allowed her to speak.  I didn’t want to publish this book under my name.  I was going to publish it under the title “The Autobiography of Irene Dische” by Elisabeth Rother, my grandmother, and my German publisher just nixed it.  He said, “That’s out of the question.”  So that’s why it didn’t happen that way.  That was my plan originally.  I wanted to introduce her as the author because I really felt like she was the author.

LL:  What has your family’s reaction been to this book, both your daughters but also people who knew these characters and know you?

ID:  Well to my delight they were all very happy with it!  I was a little concerned because one of my mother’s best friends is still alive and she actually is in the book.  I changed her name, but she is very recognizably as herself.  I did change a few things that had to be changed.  She’s a very old lady, she’s a doctor, and she’s very clever and completely together at her at age.  And she called me when the book came out and she said, “Well, you didn’t bother to send me a copy and I had to go out and buy it myself.  And I’ve done that and I read it and I see that you changed quite a lot about me but you had to do that, I understand its fiction, and I love the book.”

LL:  And how was it, writing from a character’s perspective, writing about yourself?

ID:  Oh that was a blast!  You know it was really fun; I really enjoyed doing that.  And because my grandmother had been dead for twenty years and I had always had a very difficult relationship with her, for the first time I could sort of see her point of view.  I also saw what a nuisance I was to her. 

At the same time I got to like her a lot better.  I really grew very fond of her in the course of writing this book, which I had not truly been before.  And I think that was really one of the best parts of this book for me.  A lot of people really liked her and she’s not an entirely sympathetic character: she’s an anti-Semite, she’s got lots of crazy ideas and it was a way of making these dead people, including my mother come back to life again.  Or the character Liesl, she was kind of one of the most unbearable people I had ever met, but she was also really a saint.  I think she was as they get; I think that’s what saints are like.  Someone who is unbelievably courageous, she took on the Nazis, she wasn’t afraid of the Nazis and she didn’t have to, but she did anyway.  She was a great character and she was highly unpleasant all the time.

LL:  You called her an anti-Semite right now and I think this needs to be tempered with, your grandmother.  She did marry a Jewish man.

ID:  She spoke like an anti-Semite and she behaved like somebody who actually believed race meant nothing.  So she was full of contradictions, as most people are.  And I think that’s what makes her sympathetic to so many readers in Europe, that these contradictions—they recognized them.  That’s what anti-Semites were.  Some people were like that.  People kept telling me that they recognized their own grandmother in this book.  Something about the character rang a bell for a lot of people and I think that’s what it was so successful in Germany, for instance.  And Italy.  Italy is full of grannies like that.

LL:  Now, you mentioned that when you were younger you read comics, but were you much of a drawer?  How was your artistic ability?

ID:  Yes, I’ve always enjoyed it, but again I’m nothing special, no.

LL:  You would never think of trying to do a literary classic, you know, bring it back?  That you would author?

ID:  No, I wouldn’t do that.  I’m not capable of that at all.  Unfortunately.  I’d love to!  But of course I can’t.  Unfortunately life is too short.

LL:  Well I thank you so much for joining me.