Interview with memoirist Sandra Hurtes

I’m happy to introduce you to memoirist Sandra Hurtes today.

She’s doing a virtual book tour with Goddess Fish Promotions for
her book, The Ambivalent Memoirist.

During her tour, Sandra will be awarding a copy of her book in the
winner’s choice of either print (US only) or digital to a randomly drawn winner.
To be
entered for a chance to win, use the
form below.
To increase your chances of winning, feel free to visit her other tour stops and enter there too.

Hurtes is the author of the essay collection On My Way to Someplace Else and the memoir The Ambivalent Memoirist. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post,
Poets & Writers, The Writer
and numerous other publications. Her
personal essay “The People We Love and Create” received an American Jewish
Press Award. She is an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College.

Welcome, Sandra. Please tell us about your current release.
My book chronicles my midlife journey to find purpose and meaning. After my
parents, who were Holocaust survivors, pass away, everything inside me shifts.
As a single woman with no children, my responsibility is solely toward
enhancing my own life. This is both freeing and startling. I tentatively move
through the world by leaving Brooklyn—the place I’d lived all my life. I set up
my new home in Manhattan, only to wonder, where next? Where is my happiness?

Through my life as a teacher, writer and yogi, I seek answers as
to how to continue to move forward.
inspired you to write this book?
I was born into a family with a complex and brutal history. My
mother raised me on stories of her pre-war life and on some of the horrors of
Auschwitz. Most children of survivors had the opposite experience—their parents
never spoke of the war. My mother often did; and so one day I took my place as
storyteller to make sense of all she’d told me.
from The Ambivalent Memoirist:
mother’s warm breath seems to tickle my ear; the scents of her Dentyne and
dime-store lipstick rise up my nostrils.
           “You’ll zug gurnish, mámala, tell no one,
you hear?”
           The years go by like a train speeding through
stations. 1957. ‘56. ‘55. We’re seated on the wide bulky chair in the apartment
on Union Street.
Hitler came to our village, he sent us on a train to Auschwitz,” my mother
said, only she sounded like this: trrrain to Ausch-vitz.
           “There were two lines formed. One for death,
one for labor. I was on the selection line with my sisters Surika and Sharika.
They were so skinny, like little sticks, like nothings. And I was plump. What
would the Germans need my sisters for? They couldn’t work, they couldn’t lift
heavy machinery.
           A few feet away from us is my
parakeet, Pokey. Unwitting witness to the unfolding of my mother’s life, his
yellow-gold beak twitching forward and back.
           “You know what would become of them?
           A square dirt yard, the circumference
of a schoolyard, a row of women dressed in rags, barefoot, hairless. Another
row of fleshy women, their bodies bulging with life.
           “The SS looked up and down the lines,
knowing that the skinny ones with their ribs protruding were useless. But the
SS didn’t know who they were dealing with. You understand, m
           My mother has ways of getting through
the worst circumstances.
           “My mother didn’t give birth to a
nar, a fool. Surika’s name was called. She was so skinny I knew what would
happen to her. I pulled her back and stepped off the selection line in her
place. One look at me, with my fat cheeks, and he shouted ‘Labor!’ I pushed
Suri in the direction of the labor line.
           “Then he called out for Sharika.
Again, I stepped forward before he could send her to death. ‘Labor!’ he said,
barely lifting his head. I pushed her to stand with Suri.
           “What did he know? With a quick look,
all of us with no hair, we looked the same. Then he called me.
           “I came forward. I stood as still as
I could, although I was shivering in the cold. This time he looked at me from
my filthy bare feet to my face.
           “My sisters were huddled together
watching. Then when he was good and ready, he gave his order. ‘Labor!’
           “If not for me, Símala, my sisters
would be dead.”
           My mother’s head on my shoulder. I tap her on
the back the way she taught me. Soft touches as her mother did for her.
tap tap.
scheina, you are my reason.”

exciting story are you working on next?
I recently heard someone tell a story that began: “To make a long
story short…” I loved that opening. And so while my students were doing an
in-class writing, I began, “Long story short, I didn’t kill my husband.” My
protagonist is in jail, waiting for her court-appointed lawyer and remembering
when her marriage began to fall apart. I don’t have a plot outline or know who
the murderer is. I’m just writing and will see where the story takes me.

When did you first consider yourself a

I was a model student as a child; I wrote short stories for extra
credit. I loved to write, but thought of writing in the way I thought of other
things I enjoyed like drawing and playing with friends. In my mid-twenties I
went through a divorce. I was in a lot of pain and wrote poetry to alleviate my
feelings. I began to feel I had an affinity for writing. I wrote only for
myself through my thirties. That was because I didn’t have the confidence to
call myself a writer. In my early forties, I became driven to publish my work.
That meant working much harder—revising, getting critiqued, researching the
markets. I loved every second, every task, even going to the post office to buy
stamps for manuscripts I mailed. A voice inside kept saying, I love this! That’s when I knew.

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?
Writing full-time was a dream, but never a reality. When I was in
love with writing, I wanted more than anything for that to be my day job. I
looked for a corporate job as a staff writer, but couldn’t find one. I
freelanced quite a bit, but never enough to earn a living. I write and research
slowly and am not a good marketer. I have the writing skill and talent, but am
terrible at sales.
I went back to school several years ago to get my MFA in
non-fiction. My goal was to be able to teach college. That’s what I do now. I’m
an adjunct at two and sometimes three colleges, teaching Composition. Sometimes
I get an Intro to Fiction class, which is my favorite.
In terms of finding time to write—by 4:30 a.m. I’m at the
computer. It’s my favorite time to write or simply have my coffee and think
about life and the world. My mind is like putty then. I don’t think about form
at all; I just put sentences on the page. But when I’m into a writing project,
finding time is easy; I write between classes, on the subway, while waiting for
a bus, anywhere. I don’t need to coax myself to the page.
What would
you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I write best when surrounded by noise. I know that contradicts my
early a.m. writing; both have their place. But I’m most productive when in the
midst of activity, like at a noisy cafe. I tune it out and completely focus.

As a child, what did you want to be when
you grew up?

I was asked to act out this answer when I took an acting class many years ago.
Without thought, I crossed my arms and rocked them, as if a baby lay atop. I
was raised to be a traditional Jewish housewife—not Orthodox—but traditional in
the sense of the 1950s role for women. My parents didn’t realize that might be
limiting; that was what they knew, as they’d lived impoverished lives in
Czechoslovakia. They had little education there, and didn’t study English in

As it turned out, I divorced young and don’t have children. Much
of my life’s journey has been filling in the gaps in my younger self’s goals. I
went to college, discovered I was smart enough to have a career (and wanted one),
figured out what I could do in this world.
additional you want to share with the readers?
I have many creative outlets. I used to have a hand-knit sweater
business and knit all the time: on the subway, at the movies (yes, in the
dark), while waiting for an appointment, and in bed, promising myself “just more
row.” By 3:00 a.m. I finally went to sleep
I then taught myself how to make hats and bows. I became as
wrapped up in it as I had with knitting. I love color and texture. I sold a few
pieces; simultaneously, my writing life took off. I had to focus and so I went
one-hundred percent into writing. Now, twenty years later, I’m taking
watercolor painting classes.
Creativity and expression are most important to me, regardless of
the mode.


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