My special guest today to help me kick off a new week is writer Sharon Kirsch. We’re chatting about her memoir, The Smallest Objective.
Sharon Kirsch is most recently the author of The Smallest Objective, a literary memoir published by New Star Books, Vancouver. Winnipeg Free Press praised the book’s “impeccable research,” noting how “the prose is equal parts unsentimental, edifying and engaging.” In turn, The Miramichi Reader called the memoir the work of “a writer in her prime.” Sharon’s debut book of literary non-fiction, What Species of Creatures, was a playful narrative of first encounters between early settlers to North America and unfamiliar “beasts.” Over the years, Sharon has also published shorter work ranging from flash prose pieces and short fiction in subTerrain Magazine and Room Magazine to travel stories in The Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. A former Commonwealth Scholar, she is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, where she was mentored by the US novelist and memoirist Howard Norman. Originally from Montreal, Sharon has lived in York, England, and Washington, DC, and is currently based in Toronto.
Welcome, Sharon. Please tell us about your current release.
The Smallest Objective can best be described as a story of lost and found. It begins with the search for a buried treasure in my family home in Montreal—a home I’m about to surrender because my mother’s memory is failing and she can no longer live independently. To help unearth the treasure my father claimed to bury under the floorboards, I borrow a metal detector and call on the expertise of a carpenter friend. Eventually, with the treasure proving elusive, I recruit a team of archaeologists to excavate my childhood home. I won’t say here whether I found the treasure, but after that first search, I go on to discover all kinds of hidden objects in the house that are revealing of family secrets: a Jug Handle microscope from 1919/1920, postcards from Mexico and the Caribbean, a recipe book from the 1950s, a nugget of fool’s gold. This microscope inspired my book’s title, the smallest objective being the lens that allows for the highest degree of magnification. It points to how my memoir is a close-up examination of forgotten objects and lost family.
In fact, all the objects turn out to be an inheritance from several little-known family members whose pasts are illuminated by the belongings that survive them. One is a celebrated black sheep of the family turned raconteur, another a child immigrant from Lithuania who overcame the odds to find his vocation as a botanist, a third a daring young woman who came of age in the lead-up to the sexual revolution of the 1960s but, tragically, didn’t live to fulfill her promise. This last story serves as a reminder of the fragility of life when this is top of mind for all of us. Each one of these lives was quite dramatic, offering a vantage point on 20th-century Montreal and the history of its Jewish community in particular. More broadly, these are stories of immigrants inventing themselves in a new world that for many readers will evoke their own family histories.
What inspired you to write this book?
The urge to share my experiences began with the search for buried treasure in my parents’ house, which seemed a story too rich and suggestive not to be told. While I was sorting through other objects in the house after having placed my mother in assisted living, I came to realize that the theme of treasure and its many meanings was asserting itself time and again and could be explored in more depth. As important, though, was trying to salvage something of worth from an immensely difficult situation. Throughout the book, I’m bearing witness to my mother’s memory slipping away and, with it, her sense of self. More practically, I’m also confronted with the difficulties of long-distance caregiving as I travel back and forth between my own home in Toronto and my mother’s seniors’ residence in Montreal. Each time I returned by train from Montreal to Toronto, I felt compelled to take extensive notes. These eventually became a starting point for my memoir, having somewhat established the voice and tone for the experiences I wanted to make sense of.
I couldn’t have anticipated when writing about my mother’s decline that a pandemic would soon threaten so many elderly people in care homes, resulting in great suffering and a tragic number of deaths. I can in no way compare my own experience to what families and residents of care homes are now having to endure. Nevertheless, my own more usual experiences were traumatic enough that I turned to writing as a way of channelling my grief and anxiety. In this respect, I do hope that others supporting a loved one through the dementia experience or having already done so might find some comfort or a sense of community in my memoir.
Excerpt from The Smallest Objective:
Several days after my mother’s move to assisted living, my husband had joined me at her house, and, alone there, we shut ourselves into the master bedroom, closed the Venetian blinds, and with effort peeled back the white wall-to-wall. The tacks yielded up the carpet reluctantly, the sound of their forced parting like corn popping. Beneath the carpet lay a maple hardwood floor that had rarely been exposed since the house was built for my parents in 1955. Only the day before, we’d tried passing a metal detector over smaller areas of the same floor but quickly found the device reacted to every nail, of which there were multitudes. We resorted now to examination by feel.
Crawling across the floor, we palpated boards that were slightly raised, prodding the widest of spaces in between. Only one floorboard stood apart from the rest. On each of its four sides, space was generous, suspiciously so. My husband, a historian of gardens, seized a wrench. He forced it into a groove by the floorboard, got purchase, pulled, pushed, grunted, found no give. At least a dozen nail heads no bigger than lentils secured the floorboard to whatever lay below. My father’s last gift, tantalizingly present but off limits.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m engaged in a number of small-scale stories. I started writing short fiction several years ago, both because I was so much enjoying the form as a reader and because the more limited time commitment was compatible with brief interludes away from writing The Smallest Objective. It’s felt a natural progression for me insofar as my writing has always tended to the concise, plus I’m drawn, also, to the somewhat elusive nature of the genre. As well, I’ve been working intermittently on a series of flash prose pieces—almost prose poems—about animals, each of which takes as its departure point a photograph of an animal representation. This venture allows me to imagine how the arts, scientific understanding, alchemy, and even culinary tradition shape our interaction with other species.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve realized that the act of writing and considering oneself to be a writer are quite distinct. My first publication, a poem titled “Poverty,” appeared when I was seven or eight in an anthology of writing by children in Montreal’s Protestant School Board. Yet I didn’t really think of myself definitively as being a writer until several decades later, coinciding with the publication of my first book, What Species of Creatures. This second book, The Smallest Objective, has further increased my confidence in identifying myself as an author.
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 the time to write?
The answer to your first question is yes and no. There are periods when I have the luxury of writing full time punctuated by intervals when my primary work is editing. The two pursuits are related, of course, which can make intensive writing alongside editing a difficult balance to achieve. In the past, I worked as a freelance editor for some large book publishers, both trade and educational, but I found the effort and time involved in editing a full-length book to be incompatible with my own book-length writing projects. As a result, I shifted my editing practice principally to longer academic articles. These rarely amount to more than a week to 10 days of work, allowing me time in between articles to concentrate fully on my own writing. As far as my work days when writing full time, my most productive period is mornings, and I always make sure to exercise outdoors for at least an hour each day. I find that locomotion—whether walking or running—can spark the imagination, helping me through tangles in the writing process.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I need to feel as though I’m in a sterile bubble—alone, with no noise or other disturbances, and a clutter-free desk. The absence of clutter is a quirk for me because I’m otherwise somewhat untidy and apt to scatter piles of clothing, books, newspapers, etc., throughout the house. As a young child, my favourite reading spot was inside my bedroom closet, and my writing space preferences may date back to that early habit of seclusion.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
My earliest aspiration was to become an interior decorator. This was likely a goal imparted to me by my mother, who had an insatiable interest in home décor and a good eye for the aesthetic. Friends used to ask her to make decorative Kleenex and toilet paper covers for their festive occasions—weddings and bar mitzvahs. Also, my aunt Rae, my father’s aunt, lived in Manhattan, where she worked as an interior decorator and, unusually for a woman of her era, married but did not have children. Her apparently glamorous lifestyle may have influenced me, too.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I haven’t lived in Montreal for several decades. Yet in researching and writing The Smallest Objective, I felt I became once again a full-time resident of the city. Montreal is for me the place where my parents and grandparents are buried, where the evidence of my family survives in built structures and institutional legacies. There’s nowhere else that exerts this claim on me. The city as a cornerstone of my identity is irreplaceable.
Thank you for being here, today!