Writer Jeffrey Konis joins me today to talk about his new historical fiction / memoir, The Conversations We Never Had.
After practicing law for many years, Jeffrey H. Konis left the profession to embark on a career as a high school social studies teacher. His first book, From Courtroom to Classroom: Making a Case for Good Teaching, offers a unique perspective for teachers who seek to inspire their students to learn for the sake of learning.
His latest work, The Conversations We Never Had, is a historical fiction novel / memoir about his relationship with his grandma. It highlights the importance of family history.
Jeffrey loves reading, collecting fine art photography, soccer – especially Liverpool F.C. – travel, and his family most of all. He currently resides in Goshen, New York with his wife, Pamela, and sons, Alexander and Marc.
Welcome, Jeffrey. Please tell us about your current release.
My father, a Holocaust survivor, lost his parents by the time he was nine and remembers virtually nothing about them, including what his father looked like; no pictures of him exist. He was ultimately brought to this country by his mother's younger sister, also a survivor, to raise as her own. My dad never asked, for one reason or another, never asked about his real parents. I had moved in with his aunt, my grandma Ola, and lived with her for over two years. It was not until many years after her death, that I realized that I, too, never asked her the questions my father never asked. The Conversations We Never Had is a chronicle of my time with Grandma Ola and my imagining of the stories she might have shared had I only thought to ask the questions.
What inspired you to write this book?
The inspiration for writing the book, based upon profound regret, stems from the fact that it seemed to be the only way I could answer so many unasked questions, if only in my imagination. I also simply needed to write it for my grandmother, for my father and for myself.
Excerpt from The Conversations We Never Had:
From Chapter 2 – Grandma Ola and Me
Over the following days, I found myself picking up the old routine of going to classes, hitting the library, getting a slice or two for dinner, going home and hibernating in my room. Grandma would occasionally check on me, I think more than anything to make sure it was indeed me and not some wayward stranger. I felt bad not spending more time with Grandma the way I had that night when we talked about her dad, but I guess I was too tired after my long days or unsure how to restart the conversation. I knew Grandma was lonely, lonelier with me around than she would have been alone. Then there was something of a break in my schedule. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving and, caught up with all my work, I decided to spend some time with Grandma and talk. Late Saturday afternoon, after the caregiver had left, I approached her.
"I know it's been awhile but I was wondering whether we could talk some more, if you're up for it, that is."
"Up for it? I've been 'up for it' for the last two weeks. What do you think, that I'll remember these things forever? You think my memory will get better as I get older?"
"I know, I'm sorry. I've been busy with school and . . . ."
"Jeffrey, you barely say hello to me. How many grandmothers do you have anyways? Well?"
Interesting question but, of course, she was right. My maternal grandmother died when my mother was a young girl; I never knew her father, Grandpa Eugene, who died when I was two.
But Grandma Ola said something else that made me stop to think for a second: her memory would surely deteriorate, and in the not-too-distant future. Once that went, so did any chance of learning about my paternal grandparents. There was now a sense of urgency to my mission. Indeed, there were increasing signs that her mind was starting to slip.
The phone had rung, a few nights previously, and I gave Grandma first dibs to pick up the phone to see who it was, as this was pre-caller ID. The phone kept ringing and I looked in on Grandma, who I knew was lying on the couch in her room. The scene upon which I stumbled was humorous, though it should not have been: there was Grandma, holding a pillow to her ear and talking into it, "Hol-low? Hol-low?" I quickly picked up the phone just as my dad was about to hang up. He often called to check on both of us, to make sure that we hadn't yet killed each other, that we were still alive.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I haven't yet given serious consideration to my next work, assuming I have another one in me. My best friend of twenty years, who was more like a brother to me, died when we were in our thirties, leaving a young widow and three-year-old son. I sometimes think about writing of our friendship, our lives and his death. But then I immediately reconsider doing so; writing The Conversations We Never Had was quite painful. I don't know if the effort writing such a story would warrant the inevitable pain. Perhaps if I thought I could use some therapy in connection with his loss, some sixteen years ago (May 9, 2000), I might be more apt to write the book.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I considered myself a writer when my father had insisted that, rather than buy birthday cards containing someone else's words, I should make up my own cards with my words. I realized that I was actually pretty good at it. My favorite was a card I had written my dad for Father's Day: I wish you had me younger so I could have you longer.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I do not write full-time as I happen to be a high school social studies teacher who practices law on the side when I can. Having a teacher's schedule, i.e., summer's off, has allowed me the time to write. The challenge remains, however, that I must isolate myself from everyone when I write.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I don't know if I have a writing "quirk" per se but I do write long-hand, typically, in my living room when my wife is out shopping and my two boys are otherwise occupied When writing fiction, I will plop in my favorite chair, waiting to be inspired, for some story to, more or less, drop in my lap. If no such inspiration is forthcoming, which is more likely the case, I will get up to leave and do something else. I will return at some other point and repeat the "process;" I just never know when something will just hit me out of nowhere.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was little, I dreamt of playing tennis professionally, not that I ever had a chance of ever doing so. It was just the idea of playing tennis for a living, travelling the world and, ultimately, being your own boss at the end of the day sounded simply perfect.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
Soccer is my religion; Liverpool Football Club is my faith - no - my belief. Bill Shankly, the godfather of Liverpool FC, once noted how people thought that football, to him, was a matter of life and death. Shankly responded that it was more important than that. Not literally, of course, but I definitely got the point. One more of his favorite quotes that had always very much appealed to me as a fan was, in reference to Liverpool: "If you don't support us when we're losing then don't support us when we're winning." What must be painfully clear by now is that I could on about LFC and soccer but I will, mercifully, spare readers.
Thanks for being here today, Jeffrey.