Monday, January 16, 2012

Michigander Monday: Eileen Pollack

I'm pleased to welcome Eileen Pollack to Michigander Monday.  (Special note to those of you in the Ann Arbor area:  Eileen will be appearing this Wednesday at Nicola's Books - details below!)

Debbie:  Eileen, please tell us a little about yourself.

Eileen:  I grew up in the Catskills in New York State--my family owned a small hotel there. The region was famous for its working-class Jewish hotels--and the stand-up comics who entertained the audiences there. The most famous of the Catskills Hotels, Grossinger's, which was the model for the hotel in Dirty Dancing, was located in my hometown.

After I left home, I studied physics at Yale, worked as a reporter at a small newspaper in New Hampshire, earned my MFA in creative writing from the University of Iowa, then lived for ten years in Boston with my ex-husband, Tom, a genetics researcher. When Tom was recruited by the U of M, I came along. That was 1994. Ann Arbor was a wonderful place for our son, Noah, to grow up. He attended Community High and is now a senior at the University of Chicago.

Debbie:  And, of course, we want to know all about your books.

EileenBreaking and Entering is my second published novel and my first book set in Michigan. Just after I moved here, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, and stories about the Michigan Militia were all over the national media. I was fascinated to learn about the far rightwing views of many militia members, and equally interested in the conservatism and fundamentalism of other residents of my new state. I spent a day as a visiting writer in a public school to the west of Ann Arbor and was stunned to find out that most of the biology teachers were creationists. And yet here were my husband and his coworkers in Ann Arbor studying genetics, believing as deeply in evolution as their fellow Michiganders believed in creationism. I grew close to a friend living in a town where the minister was making vitriolic anti-Semitic sermons every Sunday. Her husband, who is Jewish, protested the sermons, and their children began to be harassed. Soon afterward, their house burned down. My friend was pretty sure that she and her family had been burned out on purpose; the town fire marshall, in fact, found evidence of arson, but he accused them of burning down their own house to collect the insurance. All that gave me an idea for a book--a book in which I tried to figure out how people so different from one another could all be Michiganders, could all be Americans, and how we could ever hope to make a democracy work with citizens who felt so passionately about such disparate beliefs.

My earlier books include two story collections (In the Mouth and The Rabbi in the Attic), a novel set in the Catskills (Paradise, New York), and a work of nonfiction called Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull, which is about a female artist and Indian rights activist who was friends with Sitting Bull and lived with him and his family toward the end of his life. A long time ago, I also wrote a children's book about AIDS.

Debbie:  Other books or projects on the horizon?

Eileen:  I've just finished a memoir about my childhood dream of becoming an astrophysicist and my time as one of the first female physics majors at Yale. I'm trying to get at the deeper cultural and psychological reasons that so few American women go on in math, physics, engineering and computer science, even today.

Debbie:  Upcoming appearances?

Eileen:  I'll be reading at Nicola's in Ann Arbor on Wednesday, January 18, at 7 pm, and on the U of M campus on Wednesday, April 4, at 5:30 pm, at the Hatcher Graduate Library.

Debbie:  Do you have favorite Michigan bookstore? And/or a favorite Michigan library?

EileenNicola's at Westgate Plaza in Ann Arbor ... and all the wonderful libraries on the U of M campus ... as well as the public library in downtown Ann Arbor.

Debbie:  How about a favorite place in Michigan?

Eileen:  My favorite place in Michigan is the Diego Rivera room at the DIA. I have to say that Bliss Beach near Cross Village is my favorite place on the lake. I like to take walks along the river in Ann Arbor. And when the winters get me down, I trek out to the Matthei Botanical Garden and spend some time in the desert room in the conservatory.

Oh, and I'm a tennis fanatic, so I love spending time at the Varsity Tennis Center here at the U of M. State-of-the-art facility, wonderful coaches and pros, and terrific women to run me around the court.

Debbie:  Do you have a Michigan event or happening that you love to attend?

Eileen:  I love our recruitment weeks in March, when the students we've accepted to our MFA Program in Creative Writing show up on campus. We're one of the top two MFA programs in the country and get approximately 1100 applications for 20 spots (in poetry and fiction). These are some of the most creative young people in the country, and getting to meet them in person after reading their poetry and prose is a pure joy.

Debbie:  A few fun Michigan people we should all know about?

Eileen:  Too many colleagues and students and former students to name ... if I start, I'll leave someone out and be sorry for it later. Let me just say for now that the last three winners of the National Book Award have been women who've either taught writing or studied writing at U of M or Western Michigan!

Debbie:  Something you'd like a non-Michigander to know about Michigan?

Eileen:  We have the best deli and roadhouse in the country right here in Ann Arbor.

Debbie:  Finally -- Some folks in Michigan refer to themselves as Michiganders; others Michiganians. For our ongoing vote tally: are you a "Michigander" or a "Michiganian"?

Eileen:  Given that I've already used the word "Michigander" several times, you know my answer.

Debbie:  Michigander it is.  Eileen, thank you for being with us today!

To learn more about Eileen and her books, stop by her web site.  And if you're in the Ann Arbor area, be sure to head over to her signing at Nicola's on Wednesday at 7 PM.

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