Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Author Interview: Rebecca Coffey
Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist with a flair for literature and history and an offbeat sense of humor (See, Nietzsche's Angel Food Cake: And Other 'Recipes' for the Intellectually Famished).
Her new book is a "mock memoir" or "fictional autobiography" of Anna Freud, Sigmund's lesbian daughter, sounding board, chief collaborator, and a psychoanalyst in her own right. The book is just out this week and is earning enthusiastic praise, including a mention in the June issue of Oprah's O Magazine.
How did you come to write Hysterical: Anna Freud’s Story?
For another project, I had been reading Sigmund Freud’s papers. Intrigued by possible examples of intellectual hubris on his part, I began reading his biographies. They are paeans to him, written by devotees, and they get pretty boring with full and glorious information about a roster of characters about whom most people know no real context. But even through my exasperation with these tomes, all of which had about as much inherent drama as Lives of the Saints, I noticed that one name popped up several times. Even though the named woman was generally described as “Anna’s life-long friend” (and Anna was generally described as Sigmund’s Mini-Me), the biographies seemed to race by mention of the woman—and certainly to elide over her importance in anyone’s life. That name, of course, was “Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham,” the woman with whom Anna shared a monogamous relationship for more than five decades. But I didn’t know that then.
As I read, I became enchanted with the realization that, every once in a while, an author quoted some relative or another talking about how Anna had been courted by this esteemed man or that but that, alas, all of those relationships had turned out to be near misses. “Poor, lonely Anna, too devoted to her Papa to live a full life” was the general sentiment. And indeed, Sigmund himself referred to both Dorothy and Anna as “virgins.”
Eventually reading beyond the biographies to the criticisms of Sigmund Freud, I discovered a delightful passage in the Foreword to one of Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson’s books. For a short while Masson had been Projects Director of the Freud Archives, where his job was to root about in the cubbyholes of desks in the Freud family home in London (by then the Freud Museum) and piece together an accurate historical picture of Sigmund’s work. In that Foreword he told a tale of being fascinated by the sweet relationship between Miss Freud (as she was called at the museum) and Miss Burlingham. Were they lovers? They doted on each other so dearly. Masson made gentle inquiries of Anna’s family and friends but everyone was far too polite to answer. He guessed that they had also been too polite ever to dare to inquire, though they all seemed as curious as he. So Masson did the obvious and asked the maid who had been with Dorothy for nearly 60 years. Masson asked whether Miss Freud and Miss Burlingham shared a bedroom. The maid responded that they each had their own but they shared their bedrooms whenever they wanted.
I roared. Sigmund Freud had defined lesbianism as a gateway to mental illness. And yet his Mini-Me seems to have been a closeted lesbian—and a happily “married” one, at that. The more I read about Anna and her accomplishments both professional and personal, the more I admired her—and I especially admired her diplomacy and her loyalty, both of which must have been sorely taxed by her father from time to time. Eventually the idea of writing her story took hold
What is your work background?
By day I am a science journalist, making movies and writing books and also contributing to Scientific American and Discover magazines, to PsychologyToday.com, and to Vermont Public Radio. I also present a weekly radio spot, Family Friendly Science, on the nationally syndicated drive-time show, Daybreak USA. It is only “by night” that I am a novelist and humorist. Nietzsche's Angel Food Cake: And Other "Recipes" for the Intellectually Famished was published in October 2013 by Beck & Branch. I’ve also contributed to a number of literary humor e-zines.
How much of your novel is based on true, historical events?
I have relied heavily on facts and materials from the historical record and on commentary from Anna’s and Sigmund’s supporters and detractors. (The bibliography in back lists my sources.) But I have also relied on invention. I have created dialogue, scenes, and situations based on both fact and imagination. I have followed implications to their logical and sometimes outrageous conclusions, and I’ve made small adjustments to chronology in order to better relate a complex story within a sound dramatic framework. I have invented no characters, although I have sometimes given personalities to characters about whose actual singularities I am unsure.
I licensed photos of the Freud family from the Freud Museum in London.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?
It was very difficult for me to step away from fact and glide into fiction. I felt almost sinful creating dialogue for scenes I hadn't witnessed. And, of course, a plot requires conflict, which means that the main characters can’t be perfect. Seeding Sigmund and Anna Freud with plain old human foibles was a real struggle for me, given that I knew I was writing against the grain of the many uniformly admiring tomes written by psychoanalysts. It was extraordinarily helpful to me to have the criticisms of Sigmund’s theory at hand. They helped me see Sigmund, especially, as a person, not an icon.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by who you read?
• E. L. Doctorow (an influence)
• Harper Lee (an influence)
• Elizabeth Drew (an influence)
What are you reading now?
Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything by Barbara Ehrenreich.
What kind of books do you like to read?
I read mostly nonfiction. When I read fiction I like historical novels (though not bodice rippers), humor, and literature from the early 20th century.
From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?
Not much. I do tweet, and I do have a Facebook page and an author web site. But I don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time with social media.
What do you do to promote your books?
I do readings at bookstores, I do radio interviews, and I blog on PsychologyToday, which has a tremendously large readership. For this book I’m trying to line up at appearances at colleges and universities and at psychoanalytic conventions.
Do you read e-books?
I read all of my nonfiction on my Kindle because I travel when researching science stories. The Kindle lets me bring my whole library with me and do searches across books. I try to buy fiction, however, in book form so that I can support bookstores.
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
Hire an editor and a publicist.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
How many books have you written? Do you have a favorite?
Four published. Murders Most Foul: The School Shooters in Our Midst; Unspeakable Truths and Happy Endings: Human Cruelty and the New Trauma Therapy; Nietzsche's Angel Food Cake: And Other "Recipes" for the Intellectually Famished; and Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story.
My least favorite is Murders Most Foul. I don’t enjoy the readings or radio shows. The entire subject is so sorrowful.
What’s next? Are you working on your next book?
• A sequel to Nietzsche’s Angel Food Cake
• A serio-comic sci-fi fantasy novel, with historical figures from science, journalism, and entertainment as lead characters.
YOU CAN FIND HYSTERICAL AT POWELL'S, ON-LINE, OR ORDER IT FROM YOUR LOCAL BOOKSTORE!