Featured Member Interview – Renate Stendhal

Interview by Nina Lesowitz

Renate Stendhal by Louise Kollenbaum (member interview) Member Renate Stendhal’s newest book, Kiss Me Again, Paris, a visual-textual memoir, came to her out of her fondness for Gertrude Stein and her fascinating life arc from Germany to Paris and now the Bay Area. Aspiring memoirists can learn a lot from Renate’s process and her expert advice for writers.

“As a school girl in Germany, I already longed to be a writer. My Muse was Gertrude Stein, photographed by Man Ray with a Caesar haircut and makeup. I had no idea how to read and understand Stein until I left my stifling country and oppressive family behind and took up life in Paris, as she had at the turn of the century. I was twenty-two, and Paris was my dream of a chosen exile—the bohemian place of culture and sexual freedom that turns artists into Artists. Being an outsider rebel like Stein, a maverick, was in my blood.

“Having studied literature in Hamburg, I did ballet and underground theater in Paris then became a cultural journalist and translator. I introduced Audre Lorde, Susan Griffin and Adrienne Rich to German readers and I translated a novel by Gertrude Stein. When I composed my photo-biography Gertrude Stein in Words and Pictures (Algonquin, 1994), I had figured out that she could be read both visually and textually, and that both readings informed and enriched each other.”

The title of her book came from this line in an obscure text by Stein: “Kiss me, I said. Kiss me again. She did.”

Stendal decided to go with a smaller publisher to control the artistic details: “I had always been a hobby photographer and photo collector, and after almost twenty years in Paris, a whole crate of vintage pictures had come with me to California. I could not imagine my memoir, my love declaration to Paris and Parisian women, without a wealth of images. I quite deliberately chose a small, local, literary publisher because I wanted to be intimately involved in the creation of a visually exciting book. For the Bookwoman feature, “The Full Story,” I wrote about the experience of going small and indie with IFSF Publishing, and how different it was compared to my previous experience with the Big Five.

The best part of the indie way was the local teamwork, going regularly to the studio of book designer Tom Ingalls and shaping the book page by page, being in control of every artistic detail—the size, font, paper quality, cover, photo placement, page design, etc. My publisher, whose own beautiful book on France, Monsieur Ambivalence: A Post-Literal Fable, had been my initial inspiration, looked on and added his ideas. This process took nine months, and the moment the book went off to the printer, I already felt nostalgic and missed my team. She worked with a filmmaker to create a book trailer.

“I have never had the dream of being a full-time writer. Journalism showed me the value of being fully engaged in life outside the ‘ivory tower’. This form of writing has taught me invaluable lessons and still does. Describing and critiquing a theater performance, for example, for a radio program of a few minutes, forces you to press your message into an exact and unforgiving frame, be succinct and evocative with few words, have an arc of suspense, and end your piece on a high note. Not easy to do!”

Today, she still writes reviews for Scene4 Magazine and HuffPost. “But this doesn’t give me a living. When I moved to the States, I worked as an editor in private practice. I also went back to college to get a Ph.D. in psychology, to work as a therapist. Both are professions that allow a writer to remain relatively free and flexible, and both are intimately connected to the deep soul work of writing.

My advice for new writers is not to waste time dreaming up the exceptional career of bestseller success and full-time writing. Yes, it can be frustrating that life constantly interferes with our creative desire, I tell my clients. We writers always complain that we don’t have enough time to write. But my life companion, writer Kim Chernin, taught me that writing first thing in the morning and not for more than three hours, was all I needed to satisfy my craving and, just as importantly, avoid the panicky feeling that writing was eating up my life like a hungry beast, throwing me out of control.

What I tell my writing clients is: You can have it all. You can have a writing life and a life. Keep the focus on being playful in order to fight off the inner critic and perfectionist. Listen to your intuition. Pursue your goal with passion and patience. It doesn’t matter how long it takes for your manuscript. As Rumi said: ‘When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.’

It took me patience and many, many drafts to finish my memoir, years of work to let my message simmer down like a fine sauce reduction. I soothed my impatience by writing short pieces of criticism or blog posts, and even put out a quick, short collaboration with Kim (Lesbian Marriage: A Love & Sex Forever Kit) in the DIY fashion. It was a way to engage with the world, and refresh my inspiration.”

I consider memoir writing technically the same as fiction writing. You need to hone the same skills: fine-tune poetic, evocative description, catch the telling detail, follow a good rhythm of sentences and paragraphs, and show keen psychology in drawing up your characters and their dialogues. The best way to learn is to read lots of great literature, classic and modern: you’ll absorb their quality and technique even unconsciously. As a memoirist, if you want your story, your era, your personal experience to shine and draw in a reader, you need to think just as strongly about plot, story arc, and suspense as a novelist does.”

Kiss me again Paris cover To meet Renate, and hear her speak, there will be several readings in the SF-Bay Area: For details go to http://renatestendhal.com/home/news-and-events/.

Her essay on the process of writing the memoir appeared recently in the Lambda Literary Review:
Kiss Me Again, Paris, or: How Many Drafts Does it Take to Screw In a Light Bulb?

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