Thursday, April 21, 2011

Questions with Irena Praitis, author of One Woman's Life

Irena Praitis is the author of One Woman's Life, a biography of her grandmother Ona Kartanas.  She was gracious enough to answer a few questions.

When did you decide to become a writer?
I started writing poems when I first learned to write, at about age 7 or 8.  By the time I was in sixth grade, I knew I wanted to write a book. I've pretty much always been writing.  It's just something I do.

I noticed you are a professor of literature and creative writing. How do you feel your job has aided your writing?
One of the great things about teaching literature is that I'm always reading the best things ever written.  I study incredible pieces of literature and I present them to others so I always have the best models around me.  Teaching writing to others also makes me think closely about how it works.  If I can figure out why a particular piece of literature is emotionally moving, I can bring some of that knowledge to my own work.  And my students are inspiring people.  They balance so much and work so hard and believe in what they're doing that they inspire me to do the same.

When did you find out your family's story?
I'd heard bits and pieces of my family's story my whole life.  In interviewing my grandmother I wanted to bring the entire story to light.

Your grandmother seems like a remarkable woman. What prompted you to write her story?
First, I just think it's a great story--but there's more than that.  If anybody has a right to be bitter about my life, my grandmother has that right. Yet, she's not bitter at all.  She's generous, thoughtful, and one of the most loving people I know.  I wanted to know more about how she could have suffered what she did and still be a loving person.  I wanted to present that spirit of her life in a book.

You were able to present an image of her as a woman that suffered a lot but was able to keep striving. Often overcoming setbacks can be the greater part of the struggle.
She refused to give up.  She refused to give in.  She refused to be anything other than who she was.  I admire her integrity tremendously.

How does your family feel about your publishing the family story?
They've been incredibly supportive.  We all admire my grandmother so much.

The book is written in the style of the diary. Why did you choose this technique?
I interviewed my grandmother in 2004, and then I just couldn't figure out a way to present the story.  I thought about poems, or a novel, or a straight out biography, but nothing was clicking. Then somehow I just knew it was time to turn to the transcriptions of those interviews.  By the way, my grandmother told her story in Lithuanian, her first language.  My mother translated my grandmother words into English (English is my mother's third language), and I typed my mother's words into my laptop.  I opened up those transcriptions in 2008, and I just very strongly felt a sense of voice step in and shape the transcription into vignettes.  I wasn't sure if I could trust the sense of voice at first.  I thought I would be writing in third person, not first, for example, but once the voice opened up, there was no denying it.  I sent my grandmother the first twenty pages I wrote and asked her if it was ok.  She said of course it's ok!  Just keep writing!  So I did.  She's read the book and I'm so happy that she likes it.

Any parting words for your readers?
If you're called to write a story, listen to that calling.  Stories are exactly what we need to make sense of the world and of ourselves.  Your words might just be what another human being, here and now or years from now, needs.  Without these stories we would be lost.  With such stories we can heal.

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