My author Q&A with Leslie Maitland appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books last week. Her memoir Crossing the Borders of Time, about finding her mother’s first love whom she had lost in the Holocaust in France, just came out in paperback and thus has been rather successful. One of the questions I asked her dealt with writing a memoir about someone else’s experience in the third person, i.e. from that person’s point of view. I have gotten a lot of pushback from editors on that myself, often hearing, “That’s not memoir,” so I was particularly curious to see how she managed to get away with that.
My question: Large parts of your book are written from your mother’s point of view. Did you ever question your authority to do that? Did you ever fear you were betraying your mother in telling the story of her long lost love? Especially when you describe her in intimate sexual situations?
Leslie Maitland: Mom and I have always been so close that I never questioned my authority to speak from her point of view. She freely shared it with me, both informally throughout our lives and quite formally, in sitting down for in-depth interviews. I never felt that I was betraying her in telling her story, because she fully endorsed the project and assisted me in countless ways. She traveled with me to Germany, France, and Cuba on reporting trips, and she spent innumerable hours translating complicated documents and letters, many of them written in Sütterlin, a virtually indecipherable form of Germanic script that was outlawed by the Nazis in 1941.
No doubt, she was brave and generous in allowing me to write so openly about the troubles in her marriage, and because she is in fact a private person, somewhat shy, I’m sure the sexual scenes made her uncomfortable. At her request, there were a few things I cut out to satisfy her modesty. But everything that relates to her personal life is based entirely on what she shared with me.