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Interview: Laura Ester Wolfson

Laura Ester Wolfson, winner of the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction, never believed she would be a published author.

“I had always believed that success would never come,” Wolfson explained in a recent interview. “And that getting published, even in an obscure literary magazine, was something that happened to other people.”

“So when my first piece was accepted by a literary magazine – a magazine that I had never heard of before (someone recommended that I submit to it) – I was extremely excited. I couldn’t sleep and I walked the city for hours until late at night.”

Wolfson would eventually publish 11 of the book’s 13 essays as stand-alone pieces in literary magazines. And while the book is made up of essays, she’s hesitant to classify it as a collection.  

“I’ve noticed that the people who have written about [the book] can’t really agree on what it is. To some it’s an essay collection, to some it’s a memoir. One reviewer even calls it a book-length essay, and someone else calls it autobiographical stories.”

“And the more different labels that get attached to it the happier I am because I don’t think it’s only one thing. And I don’t think it’s important to label it.”

The book is autobiographical, detailing Wolfson’s career as an interpreter and translator of Russian and French; her experiences with cultural differences; her chronic lung condition, as well as her marriages and divorces.

And while Wolfson writes about her own life, her purpose “is not to report on what happened, my purpose is to make the stories. There are parts of it where I’ve changed things or embroidered, but I can’t really remember what actually happened after I changed things a little bit.”

Wolfson began “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors” in 2002 and finished in 2016, though it didn’t take her 14 years to write the book. She would set the essays aside to focus on work, and on what she describes as a “failed novel” that took 3-4 years to write.

Despite the unsuccessful first book, “not writing was not an option,” Wolfson explained.

“At the time that I wrote most of these pieces I was married to the man I call Tristan [in the book], and he believed very much in writing as an activity of great value absolutely regardless of success or publication. He encouraged me and created the conditions that enabled me to write.”

“He lived a very quiet, scholarly existence, and we lived in a very small space and he didn’t want me to disturb him so I had to sit down and be quiet,” she laughs. “And that meant either reading or writing.”

Wolfson also found inspiration from her language studies. Her high school Latin teacher taught her to read classics like Virgil and Cicero with an eye for literary devices, and her advanced studies in Russian and French gave her keen insight into the mechanics and style of language.

“Style is very important to me. It’s achieved by a lot of very slow, painstaking polishing. I liken it to when you’re making a clay pot: before you put it in the kilm you rub at and rub it to make it smooth. It’s tremendously time consuming.”

For example: after the overall form of an essay was complete, Wolfson would spend “weeks or months just rereading, changing a little tiny thing here or there. And it felt like I was doing almost nothing – but those tiny changes accumulate and make a significant difference.”

“Sometimes I play games with syntax and I’ll use word orders that sounds strange in English. Word order in Russian is much more flexible. The grammar allows you to move words around and put words in the starting position of a sentence to stress them without changing the meaning or what’s the subject or the object of the sentence. Sometimes I like to do that in English.”

Wolfson didn’t start studying Russian until she was an undergraduate at Cornell University, and she learned French as an adult. Learning another language is challenging, she says, but it’s something anyone can do.  

“I think a lot of people, especially people from large countries like the United States whose languages are widely spoken, they have a block about learning languages and they think they can’t do it. It’s really because they don’t have to. Because everywhere you go you meet people who speak at least some English.”

“But what you miss out on is you can’t understand what people are saying to each other – and I mean that on a broad cultural level: you can’t read the newspapers, or the books.”

 “I’ve met very uneducated people who live in tri-lingual environments and they speak all three languages. They don’t speak them at a high literary level, but they speak them pretty fluently.”

“I think that if people could just get over that block they would realize that it’s just a question of exposure, and immersion. It takes time. But I think almost anyone can do it.”