Interview by Lara Lillibridge
About the Book: Judy Bolton, girl detective, embarks on the life-long exploration of her bifurcated ancestry; Judy inherits a Sephardic, Spanish/Ladino-speaking culture from her mother and an Ashkenazi, English-only, old-fashioned American patriotism from her father. Amid the Bolton household’s cultural, political, and psychological confusion, Judy is mystified by her father’s impenetrable silence; and, similarly confounded by her mother’s fabrications, not the least of which involve rumors of a dowry pay-off and multiple wedding ceremonies for the oddly mismatched 40-year-old groom and the 24-year-old bride. Contacting former associates, relatives, and friends; accessing records through the Freedom of Information Act; traveling to Cuba to search for clues, and even reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for a year to gain spiritual insight into her father; these decades-long endeavors do not always yield the answers Judy wanted and sometimes the answers themselves lead her to ask new questions.
About the Writer: Judy’s work appears in variety of venues including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Cognoscenti, Brevity, and Catapult. She’s a Pushcart Prize nominee and a four-time recipient of the Simon Rockower Award for Essay from the American Jewish Press Association. Judy is a recipient of the Alonzo G. Davis Fellowship, awarded to a Latinx writer, from the Virginian Center for Creative Arts. She also was the Erin Donovan Fellow in Nonfiction at the Mineral School in 2018. Find her online at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and her website.
Our interviews editor Lara spoke with Judy about her memoir and much more.
Lara Lillibridge: The theme of the family secrets is so powerful to me—you had family secrets in spades.
Judy Bolton: In spades! There’s the big one—that my father was a CIA agent.
LL: Let me say, I did not expect that at all.
JB: Oh good!
LL: That sounds like something we’d make up as kids—that our father was a CIA agent. It was really an interesting surprise.
JB: I’m glad it worked that way for you.
LL: Let me start by asking you about the title. I loved your quote that you grew up on “Asylum Avenue, at the intersection of crazy and refugee.”
JB: That was pretty accurate.
LL: And then later you wrote, “The Asylum Avenue bus lived up to its name and gave my mother asylum in other ways; it provided opportunities.”
JB: That’s interesting that you picked up on those two quotes. I actually grew up—as you know—at 1735 Asylum Avenue. So the name of the street was a gift from the universe for a writer. When I was going through titles for the book, I had a variety of titles, but my publisher loved Asylum and it stuck. And asylum was of course the actual name of the street. It was named for the asylum that used to be there, built in the 1800s for a little girl. The Asylum, and I hate using these words, for the Deaf and Dumb, but that was what it was called, and it later became the American School for the Deaf, but that’s the original title. And then of course, my mother immigrated here, but the rest of her family were refugees in the early 1960s from Cuba and they sought asylum. So seeking asylum is a theme. And of course it was ‘the intersection of crazy and refugee,’ and there was definitely a lot of craziness going on in that house, so it worked on a bunch of levels.
LL: And that’s the actual house on the book cover?
JB: Yes, the book designer embellished it and made it look really nice, but that’s the actual house.
LL: It’s interesting, they say words with more than one meaning make excellent titles, so you’re right, that really was a gift.
Now, you wrote about finding your grandfather’s memoirs, and the quote was
Grandpa imparted so little personal information that the reader ends up learning more about the city of New Haven’s murky sewer system, which he dealt with as a civil engineer, than Grandpa’s interior life.
And I thought how interesting, that your book is so interior, and rich with authenticity, and here was your grandfather who spent years and years writing and rewriting, and editing out anything personal.
JB: That memoir, he was not a CIA agent or anything like that, but it seemed to me that he tamped down many things about his life. He was born in Russia, came here when he was two years old. He was the first in his family to go to college, and he went to Yale. He was a very accomplished violinist, and he joined the musician’s union, and I like to say he fiddled his way through Yale. He didn’t really discuss what it was like to be a Jew at Yale. One of his classmates was Cole Porter, and I’m sure they never mixed, but the only story he ever told me about being a Jew at Yale, or at least being someone without means, was when he had played a fraternity party all night, and he went to the dean the next day and asked if he could take an exam in the afternoon instead of the morning because he’d been up all night. The professor told him, “Poor boys should not attempt to go to college if outside work interferes with their studies.”
And that anecdote is in his memoir, but he skates over it. It’s more of a book of reportage—my father’s birth gets one paragraph—and I had hoped there would’ve been more color about raising his children, but my grandfather was very straightlaced, and that came off in his memoir.
LL: Your father sent you a thick envelope that could have had who knows what wonderful information, and then asked you to burn it unopened, which you did. You wrote,
At first blush, I obeyed him because I was the faithful daughter. But there was something more—I believed I could garner his affection if I did not expose the secret he had buried so assiduously. I believed he would love me more if I faithfully protected him.
So your grandfather wrote this really impersonal story, and your father sort of teased you with these secrets that you don’t get to have, and it seemed to me that writing this book, in your particular family, was almost subversive, or an act of independence. Secret keeping was very important in your family, and I was curious if you thought about that when you were writing.
JB: I think you put it really well, and articulated something I want to articulate. I struggled with writing this story. It took me, on and off, 16 years to write. I scrapped it completely when I found out my father was in the CIA and I had to start all over again. I had to articulate those secrets because they were woven into the fabric of my life.
People ask me if I regret burning the letter, and I don’t, for the reasons you just read and for other reasons. I was afraid—I was in my early twenties—and I was afraid it was a suicide note. All of those things really frightened me, and I think burning that letter set me out on this journey.
There’re always some feelings hurt and things can be fraught when you write a family memoir—it’s always a risk—but I have to say my cousins on my father’s side, my Bolton cousins, have been amazing. They have really appreciated this history coming to light and the history about my Grandmother Bolton coming to light. For them, it’s almost like ‘a-ha!’ moments—like, ‘now that makes sense.’
My mother’s family—although the book is sort of focused on my father, my mother is a larger than life character who threatens to jump off the page every time she’s on it. The only person that I heard from was my aunt, and she was not happy with my portrayal of my maternal grandfather. I really had to weigh how important was it that I include his alcoholism, that I really bring it forward. I decided that it was just a few lines, and I did cut them for her. And you know we can debate whether that was right or necessary, but I felt that it didn’t’ really move the story forward, I didn’t need it for my purposes, and I’ll save it for another time, for the next project.
LL: So at what stage did they read the book then?
JB: She didn’t read the book at any stage up until I gave her a finished copy. She’s friends with me on Facebook, and I had published an essay based on the book in Tablet Magazine, and one of the lines was about how he came stumbling home at night after having drunk his paycheck, and that just set her off. She was really upset—I’m lying, it didn’t happen that way—I’d seen him drunk when I was a kid, it did happen that way. And my mother had confirmed in her own sort of roundabout way that he drank a lot.
I know his alcoholism had a lot to do with my mother’s emotional challenges, but for purposes of this particular book, I didn’t think I needed to include those lines. For my next project, almost certainly yes, because I’ve been writing essays about my mother and I’ve been lucky to have them published, and I don’t think my grandfather’s alcoholism can be excluded from her story. I think it’s very much a part of her story. But for this book, not so much, and I could cut those few lines for the sake of peace in the house, as they say.
LL: I think that creative nonfiction writers are always curious about how those decisions are made, so I appreciate you going into such detail about it.
JB: You know, if I thought it compromised the integrity of the story, I wouldn’t have done it and I would have taken my chances, but it didn’t at all—not this story. Maybe another story or project, but not this one.
LL: That makes sense.
Now, you have some really beautiful lines—I have four pages of quotes, I won’t read them all now, but let me just read one:
The silent symphony was the rhythm of my baby moving inside of me. It was the inadvertent beat of my father’s shaking Parkinsonian hand on my pregnant belly. It was the silence before and after the shovelfuls of dirt that made a thwacking noise against the lid of his coffin. It was the silence between regret and forgiveness.
Can you tell us about your path as a writer, the people who most influenced you? How did your craft develop?
JB: I think you know from the book that I shared a name with a fictional detective who had her own series of books, and I was about six years old when I first saw one of those books, and it just thrilled me that my name was on the cover of a book. And I think that persona, Judy Bolton, Girl Detective encompassed some things about me—I was a very curious kid, to the point of annoying my parents, I also liked to write as a little kid.
The first book I wrote, when I was eight years old, was called Mr. Swanson’s Seals, which was a blatant rip-off of Mr. Popper’s Penguins. But that’s how writers learn—by imitation, and I guess was doing that. Somebody must have sealed up the letter for me, but I looked in the phone book and found a publisher in Springfield, Massachusetts, I grew up in West Harbor, Connecticut, and I didn’t realize he was a legal publisher, but I wrote him this note and apparently someone stamped it and sent it for me—maybe my dad. And he wrote me back the most charming letter, which has been lost over the years, but saying that he wished that he could publish my book. And look, I’ll be sixty-one at the end of December, and I still remember that moment, that little bit of encouragement kept me going.
So fast forward to when I was in graduate school. I went to Columbia School of the Arts to get an MFA in fiction writing, and in order to get my degree I had to have a thesis, and mine was a collection of short stories called The Ninety Day Wonder which was a tribute to my father. The titular story was about his time in the Navy, when he was what was called ‘a 90 day wonder,’ which doing research for this book I discovered was kind of a pejorative term, but during World War II they fast-tracked these graduates to be officers and there was a lot of resentment from people who had been in the military for a lifetime to have these you know young whippersnappers come in to be commanding officers and having to salute them—they had socks older than these guys.
So anyway, the first stirrings of Asylum are in that thesis. I’ve gone back and read some of those stories, but I saw there in black and white that my father’s story and my father himself fascinated me. He was very much alive when I wrote that. My mother said that when he was reading it he was crying. He never told me that, but that’s what she told me. So became apparent to me after I left graduate school that I was not a fiction writer and I found my voice in creative nonfiction in my thirties, writing about my kids. I had weekly parenting column and I contributed a lot to the New York Times Parenting vertical when it was its own separate thing. So my path to becoming a writer was a little zig-zagy, but I found my voice, and I’m very grateful for that. And that voice belongs to creative nonfiction.
LL: When did the book came out?
JB: Just this September.
LL: How has your publishing journey been? What was it like—how did you find a home with this publisher? What was your release like now that we’re living in this hybrid life?
JB: I have an agent, and people at the big five publishing were interested, but in the end, they weren’t willing to take a risk in publishing this book. We then started going to smaller literary presses, and Mandel Vilar Press was one of them, and ended up being my publisher. They had the book for almost two years, and plus they had a rewrite. Then one day I got an email out of the blue—I thought I was putting away this project for now, and moving on to other things. I thought it would never see the light of day. This happens sometimes to writers. It happens a lot to writers, I guess. And I got an email out of the blue asking if the book was still available, and we went from there. Mandel publishes a lot of Jewish titles and Latinx titles on the social justice spectrum, and this book intrigued them, and I think the book found a perfect home.
The other half of the answer for your question—I’ve had a virtual book tour, but one of the most important things about publishing, even though I’ve been writing for a lifetime, this is my first published book, it happened when I was sixty. And I wrote an essay about it for a website called Next Tribe for Women Who are 45 or Older and I try to get this message across at every event I’ve done—I’ve done some bookstore events virtually, I’ve been a guest on a lot of programs, so it’s been wonderful, all of it virtual at this point, but I want to say to women, don’t give up. Just make your art no matter how you make your art—if you’re scribbling on an envelope that’s writing, if you’re sketching something on a napkin, that’s art. Keep at it.
One of the ways that I ended up finishing this was that I started taking notes on my iPhone. It’s been a tremendous help to me—I’ve even written essays from my notes. There’s no expiration on when you make art, and there’s no right or wrong way to make art. There’s no expiration on your dreams. Age is just a number—it’s a cliché, but it’s really true. It’s been tremendous for me to find my footing in the literary community at sixty. People have been so generous
My day job is as an arts and culture writer for Jewish Boston and I’ve been doing that for almost six years. I guess I must have whipped up some good karma among all the people I interviewed, because I’ve been interviewed by a number of them: the Hadassah Brandeis Institute, the Jewish Women’s Archive, and these are all people I’ve done stories about and they have been just so generous, coming back to me and wanting to talk about my story and my book.
LL: I’m almost fifty, and I feel that my perspective has shifted so much in the last ten years. If I had written my book at twenty-five it would have been very different. There is insight that only comes with age.
JB: I think your forties are a real time of shift. That’s when things started shifting a lot for me, when I started having confidence in my voice, where I knew I was a creative nonfiction writers as opposed to a fiction writer—that was a big shift. Now in my sixties, I’m learning to own my story, to share it, to hopefully have it be valuable to other people. Not just the book, but the process of how I came to tell my story and how I got it published. My message is for everybody, but particularly for women.
LL: And you said you wrote this story over sixteen years.
JB: Yes, on and off.
LL: Did you set it aside for years at a time, or work on it between other projects? What was that like?
JB: Yeah, it was a lot of stops and starts. In 2008 when I found out my father was in the CIA and I acted on that hunch and found the man that he served in the CIA with, that’s when I started to give the book a little more attention. My kids were still young at that point, and I was freelancing, but the book was always there and always lived in my life.
In about 2012 I decided that I really want to do this book, so I worked for years with a wonderful developmental editor who helped me find structure and really cracked the whip. It was ready by I guess 2018-2019. I didn’t want it to be linear, and that took time, and she was great. She had me write out every single scene in the book and move them around. I’m not good at that kind of thing, but she made me good at it. That was hard—I did that exercise several times. It also helped to go to writing colonies—writing residencies.
LL: You went to Virginia Center for Creative Arts?
JB: I did, and this past summer I was there for the third time, working on other things. I had a very generous fellowship from one of their benefactors for Latinx writers. I’ve had fellowships for other schools but that fellowship for Latinx writers really touched my heart because I really do identify as Latinx—my mother is from Cuba and my father is from America, and sometimes I felt more like my father, sometimes I felt more like my mother, but I really do identify as Latinx.
LL: That to me came across so clearly in your book. It was interesting, I don’t recall another Jewish-Latinx memoir. There’s a hole in the literature you’re filling.
JB: Well, there’s certainly Jewish-Latinx writers, but there must be memoirists—I can’t be the first. Jews went everywhere, all over South America, first after the pogroms in the late 1800s, and then of course just before and after the second world war. Ruth Behar is a Jewish Cuban writer who does some memoir work—she’s folded in her memoirs into various books.
LL: I will look her up! And you’re involved with Grub Street?
JB: I am. I was in Grub Street’s first Memoir Incubator class, which is still going strong. They have a different cohort every year. I was in the first cohort in 2013. And that actually turned things around for me—I was forced to turn in a coherent first draft by the end of the year. The instructor that year—we were very fortunate to have Alex Marzano-Lesnevich and they were really smart and insightful and their comments on Asylum were just spot-on.
I love the people I was with, and we’re still in a writing group together after eight years. They’ve read more versions of Asylum than anyone should. They’ve really been with me through thick and thin. One of us published a book on apologies, and I’m the first to publish a memoir, and I’m certain the rest of them will publish as well because they’ve been getting a lot of attention for their work, so I’m excited.
LL: Do you have any advice for new writers about finding a writing community?
JB: I think that finding a writing community is key. And you know, if I tell writers, ‘oh, go and find a writing group,’ how do you do that? Do you put an ad on the internet? I think that writing centers like Grub Street, The Loft in Minneapolis, the Writers Grotto in San Francisco, Hugo House in Washington State—I think they’re wonderful places where you can find your people and your tribe. And now that everything is virtual, it opens up worlds.
I could not have done what I did without Grub Street. They sponsored my launch. I launched it at a local book store in Cambridge, Massachusetts called Porter Square Books, and they emceed the evening—it was just wonderful. I am a big Grub Street supporter, and I know they have been in the news lately, but I hope that doesn’t take away for the great work they’ve done in the community, and they’ve expanded their reach now that we’re virtual.
LL: That’s great. I think the online world for all its shortcomings has really opened things up in so many ways.
JB: I agree. I took a class through Lighthouse Writers Workshops in Denver that was fantastic.
LL: So your next project is an essay collection about your mother.
JB: That’s the plan for the moment. I have an essay that just came out in Atticus Review which I’m thinking is very much part of a collection. And some of those essays have gotten some nice attention, so I’m excited about that. It can’t take me sixteen years to finish the book this time.
LL: And I always like to ask, what are you reading now?
JB: I just got Ann Patchett’s new book of essays, and I have Sue William Silverman’s essays on my nightstand. I love Beth Kephart’s work, she’s a mentor and a friend. I wish more people knew about her—I think she’s tremendous. Her latest memoir in essays, Wife Daughter Self is really beautiful.
LL: Thank you. Before I let you go, I wanted to ask you if there was anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to talk about.
JB: I wanted to talk about how important it was for me to say the Kaddish for my father—the Jewish prayer of mourning. The Kaddish is really what started this book. I kept a journal for a year, and I thought this was going to be a book about saying the Kaddish. But after I’d been working on it for a couple of years, I realized that this book was too internal, it was a book that only my family would be interested in. It needed legs, it needed an arc, it needed a story. And I was very lucky that my hunch on what that story would be turned out to be true.
But the Kaddish is woven through out and I love the fantasy and lore of it, hoping your loved one gets to heaven—I call it a spiritual jetpack—helping them uplift their souls. That was a very important part of dealing with my grief around my father’s death. At one point an editor suggested taking it out, and I thought, ‘no, no, no, that’s the spine of the book.’ I was determined to keep it in there.
LL: It’s important as writers to be able to fight for what is important to us.
JB: Absolutely, I knew that my hunch that the book should start with the Kaddish, and have the Kaddish launch me into writing it, it later became other things, as happens when you’re writing a long project, but I knew the Kaddish had to be there from beginning to end
LL: Sort of the backbone.
JB: Absolutely, and I end with the Kaddish, saying it for my father in the chapel where my parents got married.
LL: And that was a great story, how you cajoled them into letting you in.
JB: That poor custodian must have thought I was a crazy person. I think it helped that I spoke to him in Spanish. I’m glad I was able to have that moment.
LL: Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Asylum: A Memoir of Family Secrets is out now with Mandel Vilar Press.