Today's guest is non-fiction writer/journalist Greta Beigel. Her book Kvetch: One Bitch of a Life--A Memoir of Music & Survival is the topic of conversation, but there's a lot of other fun stuff, too.
American journalist Greta Beigel worked for many years as an arts reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of three Jewish-themed books: The humorous/satirical Mewsings: My Life as a Jewish Cat (also in audio); the short story, “A Jew from Riga,” about her efforts to learn more about her Dad’s mysterious past, and Kvetch: One Bitch of a Life, a memoir (paperback and e-book) about growing up an Orthodox Jew and a gifted pianist in South Africa during the apartheid era. Beigel now lives in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Welcome, Greta. Please tell us about your current release.
"Kvetch: One Bitch of a Life," recently released in paperback, tells the courageous true story of the author who grew up in Johannesburg as a gifted piano prodigy, only to be exploited by her superambitious mother desperate to be accepted by a scornful Jewish society. Subtitled "A Memoir of Music & Survival," the book also takes a hard look at everyday living in apartheid-South Africa, where prejudice dominated all. The memoir soon migrates to Southern California where our protagonist morphs from music performer to music scribe, becoming a staff writer specializing in classical music coverage for the Los Angeles Times. Sadly, once in America, three chapters call forth the details of sibling sexual molestation--a subject so taboo, yet one that begs for further public discourse. The last chapter of "Kvetch" hops around the world, as the author gets her story down, and seeks a type of spiritual transformation.
What inspired you to write this book?
All my books to date have been personal, autobiographical, even my favorite, Mewsings: My Life as Jewish Cat, a humorous, albeit learned take on Jewish life from one feline’s perspective, but in reality reflections on Judaism from my alter ego. My desire to pen “Kvetch: One Bitch of a Life,” evolved over decades. The need was propulsive, with no way out. I felt compelled to get a certain event, a certain image, a certain dialogue down on paper. I usually write in cafes, or coffee shops or restaurants, away from my normal milieu, and carry a notebook and jot thoughts or chapters down in shorthand, a skill that I learned in Johannesburg in my 20s that sustained my early years as a newspaper reporter, interviewing celebs in Los Angeles.
Excerpt from Kvetch: One Bitch of a Life
Copyright©2014, Greta Beigel. All Rights Reserved
Under cover of darkness a secondary terror rages forth: the abuses of apartheid. Often my mom wakens me, beckoning me to the window. Fingers to lips, we watch members of the Afrikaner police force as they conduct raids and make arrests and throw African men into the backs of waiting vans, as though they’re nothing more than sacks of mealies to be stacked up one against the other for transport.
For what? These men apparently are guilty of walking around without the requisite "pass books" documenting their existence. They can be stopped and picked off the streets at any time and in any place, and if failing to show reference books, detained. Whites for the most part merely look on, or cluck-cluck or perhaps even deem it all a good idea. I often hear shouting from upstairs as a husband or lover or friend of a servant employed by someone in the building is cornered and carted off by yet another zealous copper.
History note: In 1947, the Nationalist Party comes to power. This Afrikaner govt. soon begins its diatribes against Indians, “Coloreds” and Africans. The Dutch Reform Church sanctifies this apartheid, or apartness. Now the church makes damn sure that everything shuts down on Sundays and that cinemas and shops and places to eat remain closed. They make sure there’s bugger-all for all of us to do. Except go to church, I suppose. Sex ranks next on the agenda, and the passage of the Immorality Act mandates sex between whites and non-whites illegal.
Mornings, Johannesburg streets are jammed with giant green Putco buses packed to capacity with non-white workers streaming into the city to work as domestics or gardeners. Evenings, the train station in Hillbrow remains chaotic with workers rushing along non-white platforms to catch trains alarmingly stacked to the rafters as they head back to Alexandra or Soweto townships with their shanties and smokestacks and no water or electricity and marauding tsotsis.
By contrast, whites-only platforms stand clean and orderly and calm. At virtually all public facilities, separate entrances exist for blankes and nie-blankes. Signs are posted in front of banks and at government buildings and outside post offices. Ironically, the nie-blankes are there for the most part to buy stamps for the blankes, and yet they have to resort to their separate entrances and stand in separate lines to make these purchases. Beaches are marked separate, and park benches painted blankes-only. Restaurants, cinemas, theaters and concert halls remain the sole purview of us Caucasians.......
What exciting story are you working on next?
The conclusion of Kvetch refers to my longing to return to live in Hawaii, a place of great beauty and pineapples, coconut and palm trees. But also enormous social and economic complexities. Now that I’m back in Honolulu, I’m toying with writing about the islands in either a blog or a column, covering the joys and setbacks. Also plan to get back into journalism, and write about classical music, both online and in print. And perhaps start on that book about a certain pet sitter.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
From a young age, I became fascinated with the inner workings of newspapers. Perhaps this resulted from my mother's pushing, for after every musical triumph she'd schlep me to the various newsrooms for interviews and photographs, and I became fascinated with the editorial process. Daily, I'd compare arts stories between the morning and evening papers, and was not above calling editors to point out lapses in coverage. I also loved entering writing contests. So albeit I was a terrific pianist, methinks I was always destined to be a music writer and later an author. I've always loved seeing my name in print.
Are you a fulltime writer? If not, what else do you do, and how find time to write?
Yes, I write most of the time. I also need to concentrate on getting the word out about my books. Social media takes time and we all must engage. It's an ever-evolving process. These days I'm focusing on making appearances at book clubs.
What would you say is your fun writing quirk?
As mentioned, I like to write in cafes, anyway away from home. I also do good works traveling on buses, in fact public transportation is a great way to get through the slog of research and underlining, etc. For many years, I've preferred to use computers at libraries--I have many cards from many cities--to laboring at home alone, and also enjoy sitting amongst students at university labs and libraries. The staffers are so helpful with technical stuff. Journalism, far more rigid, is easier in many ways. I do much research, interview subjects, transcribe my notes (moaning all the time), and then prepare an outline of the story to follow. It’s a far easier world of writing, albeit much more disciplined. Once the story is published, my job is over. But birthing a book, remains a lifetime commitment.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
Growing up a lonely child in South Africa, I became obsessed with British author Enid Blyton who wrote wonderful mystery series for children. I resolved by age 10 that I, too, would write a book one day. This pronouncement continued over the years and in many countries and I would insist that I’d tell my story of growing up a gifted child pianist with a cruel mother and an absentee father. Even when I worked as a music journalist for the Times, I’d tell everybody that one day I’d write my story and be published. I always KNEW. But did not know when.
Readers, if you'd like to chat with Greta in person, she's going to be a guest at The Writer's Chatroom on Sunday, December 7, 2014 from 7-9PM EST. Feel free to join us!