Interview by Lara Lillibridge
At sixteen Judith Sara Gelt finally rebels after spending years watching her warm, Jewish home in Denver disintegrate. It’s 1968, and bipolar disorder has been ravaging her mother and has sent her father, a powerful attorney, into a spiteful tailspin. To escape Gelt makes one perilous choice after another, and these decisions carry her unprepared and alone, into a world that is sometimes cruel and often dangerous.
After returning to Denver, she works to understand her parents and her past, and she is surprised to discover her own strengths. Throughout her memoir, Gelt reflects upon how risk taking has shaped her relationships with and her attitudes toward men and sex, Judaism, becoming the mother of a daughter, and her own eventual diagnosis of major depressive disorder.
Reckless Steps Toward Sanity is out now with University of new Mexico Press. We had a chance to chat with Gelt about her memoir and more.
Lara Lillibridge: You and I met at AWP at the Writer to Writer reception. [Writer to Writer is a free mentorship program through AWP which connects published writers with emerging writers.] So my first question for you is about your publishing journey. Was it before you were mentored with Writers to Writers, or after? Or when in your timeline did it occur?
Judith Sara Gelt: It was kind of simultaneous. My mentor, Jill Talbot, is well published in journals, and she had written a memoir, so when I got to the publishing stage, she was great. My publisher is University of New Mexico Press. They had said, yes, and I hadn’t realized that there was a huge process after the yes, at a press like that one. They got back to me and said, well, we want it, but first, we have to send it out to three people in the field that have written memoir, are respected in the field, don’t know you, and have never met you or your work. They must agree and there are certain criteria they will use. And then when we get their responses back, then we send it to our committee of people in the academic part of our school, and they have to also agree.
It was like, whoa, I thought I was in! I had no idea. I don’t know if that’s true at every university press, but it was true at mine. So when I was telling Jill, she said, Oh, yeah, I know. Have them send it to me—I’ll be a reader. And, sadly, she didn’t qualify because we knew each other, and worked together. But I had three wonderful readers, and they all sent notes about things to work on, along with short opinions that became blurbs!!. So that gave me more notes, as part of my editing process, along with those from the university editor. It was a fabulous experience. I’d already worked really hard with editors to get that far. And then I had these things to work on with the publisher. Yeah, it was a great process, although it was scary. Oh, my God, it was so scary at at the point when I believed I was finished. When I thought they had said yes. That the decision was actually made! But it could have become a no at any of those points.
LL: That is rather scary. How did you wind up at University of New Mexico Press? Did you query them directly, or did you query agents?
JSG: Now, that’s another AWP story. I did not get an MFA, and so my journey took me to conferences to study with people whose work I admired. And I would go to every single panel that had agents and editors, and I would meet with them one-to-one if if they offered that opportunity. I met that acquisitions editor at a conference. I talked to her about my book, then met her again at a different conference, talked with her again. I met her three times at different places, before I said, ‘you know, I’m ready, can I send it?’ And she said, ‘yes, send it.’
I liked the press. I’d seen their finished products—I knew them very well, by then. I knew they had a small marketing department, which is very important to me with small presses.
And she sent it back with a ‘no.’ I was so sad, but I said, ‘thank you very much.’ And then she sent her suggestions for changes. I emailed her back, and I said, ‘that was so generous of you to write notes, and I’m only sad that I can’t resubmit.’ Because that’s one of the known parts of the process—it’s not kosher to send it again after you’ve submitted. And she wrote back and said, ‘oh, no, send it again.’
JSG: It was an amazing thing. So I rewrote it—her notes were good—and I sent it again. And she wrote back and said, ‘not quite,’ but she asked me to send it again!
LL: She was really interested!
JSG: She was very interested. So I worked it again, because her notes again, were very good. And she accepted it the next time.
LL: That is so great that she would work with you like that. I mean, that is so unheard of.
JSG: I think she really liked it from the beginning, or she wouldn’t have kept the conversation going. When I first met her, it was very close to being ready. I had worked very hard—I’d had editors’ eyes on it, had talked to agents about what was and wasn’t going to sell in the marketplace.
Again, I didn’t get an an MFA, and so I knew where I was lacking in my connections. I didn’t have an advisor, I had to do my own networking—I knew I had to get out there. And so that’s what I did.
LL: I was gonna say it’s like you built your own MFA with all these conferences you attended. Do you have a favorite conference, or any conferences that you would recommend?
JSG:People ask me that all the time, and I do, I’ll mention them. But everyone’s experience is so different at conferences, depending on who you study with. It was more the teachers than the conferences, although my advice to people is it’s very important to go to a conference that is well run, and most of the well run conferences have been around a while. They know what they’re doing. And you’re not spending – your time there waiting for things to happen while they figure things out.
But they are expensive, so you want to be careful about where you go. I really do follow teachers. And great teachers usually are chosen (and will go to) well run conferences. So Tin House Summer Workshop is one I went to a few times. You have to be vetted by these conferences. So you have to be ready to send work and get accepted. The Gettysburg Review used to put on a very small conference —they may still. Small conferences are delightful because you really get to know the the instructors, and you really get to know each other.
I did go out of the country once. And that’s a whole adventure and a very expensive thing, so I really had to be sure I wanted to spend that money. I went to Italy for Sirenland which Dani Shapiro puts together. It’s quite a life changing experience just to go to Italy, and the conference was phenomenal.
And Lighthouse in Denver has an annual summer conference called Lit Fest and it’s really pretty spectacular. They have so many incredible authors come, and they have many options. They offer craft classes and master classes in over four genres—what it offers is choice. And then since I live in Denver, I always tell people to come here because it’s so great. I studied at Lighthouse and learned so much there. I still do. Denver’s very lucky to have an outstanding community. That’s really helpful.
LL: I’ve heard a lot of great things about Lighthouse.
JSG: Yeah. I highly recommend them.
LL: And that was, for me, the nice thing about the pandemic—suddenly everything was on Zoom. And, you know, I took classes at The Loft, and at The Porches and Tennessee, and, you know, these things that used to be closed off if you couldn’t travel are now so much more available.
JSG: Yes. Same with Lighthouse—they’re still doing virtual classes, and a lot of them. I had classes at Lighthouse recently with a man who attended from Greece—people are still coming from all over the world. I’m currently working on a new project that’s very different from my memoir, and my teacher is in Chicago. I hired him as a book coach, and I met him virtually in a Lighthouse class.
LL: So that’s what I love about your publishing journey—you created and found for yourself, what you needed—you went out and you were pretty diligent about going to places. I’m sure not everything was always the perfect fit, but you just kept trying and going and working and and I just really admire that.
JSG: It’s kind of the story of my memoir, I think.
LL: Can you mention some of the writers you’ve worked with?
JSG: I had an opportunity to study with David Shields—I know he’s very controversial in that he sometimes makes students cry. I studied with him three times He doesn’t do it on purpose. Trust me. He’s just a genius. He said very smart things. I was very new. I was very green. He used me as an example of kind of what not to do, and yes, I cried back in my room. And then I went back the next year, and I was sitting in his class, and he looked at me and he said, I don’t know if I have anything different to teach you. And I said, ‘oh, David. I could come every year and learn something new from you.’ And it was true! And I also worked with Maggie Nelson there, another genius.
I took classes with Andre Dubus III twice. These are wonderful teachers and amazing writers, that you know, I would not have had access to—they weren’t even teaching at universities I could have attended.
LL: I have an MFA and I’m not dissing the MFA process, but it’s not the only way to go. And I think it’s important for people to know that if an MFA is not in your future, it doesn’t mean that you can’t learn and you can’t have a great experience and get published because here you are with the book. So it did work out.
JSG: There are things I gave up, I do have to be honest about that. I mean, I did give up some of that networking and working with one person as an advisor, and that close camaraderie that you have with people that entered that MFA program with you. There are pros and cons, but they both work. And it depends on what you want and what you need. I think the people that don’t get the MFA are a little less likely to push themselves toward publication because they don’t have that surrounding them. That goal to have a manuscript by the time you’re done.
LL: To me, it all depends on how much you can keep to deadlines on your own. And the MFA program forces you to read books you wouldn’t want to read. And honestly, if someone gave me a list and said, read all these books in two years, if I didn’t have to, I probably wouldn’t, because there’s always something else I’d rather read. I mean, not always, but you know how you see a friend’s book or you go to an event and suddenly the new book jumps to the top of the To Be Read pile. But with an MFA, you are forced to read them, and you’re forced to produce on time. And that is the one thing that I really benefited from—that structure.
JSG: I would have benefited from that. I really would have. I don’t have time to read the books that I should read. And did you have to study other genres?
LL: I went to West Virginia Wesleyan College, which is a low residency program. We had two residencies a year that were 10 days each, and then you did the rest long distance. This was pre-pandemic. And at the residencies the morning seminars were all three genres together, then the craft workshops in the afternoon where you were sharing your work was broken down by genre.
But I learned so much from the multi-genre seminars. I went into the program saying, ‘I hate poetry. I want nothing to do with poetry. I don’t read poetry, I just am not interested.’ And I learned the most and benefited the most from the poetry seminars, which I never would have taken otherwise.
JSG: Yeah, I think that’s really important. I studied poetry as an afterthought. My book coach right now is a poet. And it’s been immeasurably advantageous. We are working on a sonnet right now, and I hate it—not really—but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written.
I actually started in fiction classes, because of the craft. And the piece that I had taken with me to workshop was memoir. And the instructor looked at me and said, ‘I wouldn’t do this anymore if I were you . You belong in nonfiction class, you need the memoir class.’
I’m like, ‘oh, no. Sorry.’ It was big a-ha moment. But I had been studying fiction for quite a while.
LL: Well, it’s great for scene, description, arc. absolutely.
JSG: That’s what I was doing.
LL: Let me go back to your book now. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but you wrote about a lot of very sensitive topics about yourself about your family. And at one point, you wrote this quote,
“Honestly, I’m uncomfortable, knowing people will judge me.”
And that is something that I personally struggled with a lot. You want to be really painfully honest for the book to be good, but then the person that lives next door could read it. I just wondered how you dealt with writing so boldly about such hard things.
JSG: I think it depended on who was in my head at the time when I felt that way. Because I didn’t have any trouble writing the painfully honest stuff—it was when I thought of it as though it was on the shelf. I could compartmentalize easily, I could write it and not worry at all. And then the publishing part, you know, I think a lot of people do this, then all of a sudden, you realize it’s going to be on a shelf, or it’s going to be distributed out there in the world. And then the audiences appeared in my head and started to worry me. I was a teacher for 40 years, so then I’m thinking about my students. That was the hard one for me. And I taught middle school most of that time.
LL: So they were definitely not the right audience for your book, right?
JSG: Even my undergrads, when I taught at the university, even my undergrads because they were not very old. So I think that was the hard part for me. The stranger part is easy.
LL: If the stranger reads it?
JSG: Right. I wanted people to relate to it, I wanted people to see themselves, I wanted people to say, oh, my gosh, I’m not alone—that whole thing we can do with memoir. That was really important to me. That honesty had to be there, and I felt great about that.
But people who knew my family, that was harder, but it never got in the way. And I think with my family, just as an example—I never felt I would ever change anything for them, but I gave them the manuscript before it was published. And I said,’you know, this is for you to read. I want you to know what’s going to be out there, it’s fair for you to see. I’m not asking for you to, you know, make changes or anything, but I really would like your opinion.’
My family was grown—my daughter had not wanted to read any of my writing. She’s a very private person. And I said, ‘you know, you don’t have to read this, if you’re not comfortable. It’s fine.’
It’s hard to have your mom show you such painful things about herself but I was most worried about my nephews, because I’m not kind to my sister in the book. I had a very tricky relationship with my sister who was 12 years older. She wasn’t alive, but her kids were. So I said to my nephew, ‘you know, I’m most nervous about how I portrayed your mom. And so I just want you to know that up front. And I’m hoping that you’re comfortable enough with this. But you can let me know how you feel.’ No invitation for people to ask me to change it—there was no invitation for that. I knew that had gotten other authors in trouble. And this felt right for me.
Some authors, they want to make changes for people. My daughter came to me. She did read it—she was in her 30s, so she was grown. And she said, ‘Mom, I know you’re not you going to change anything, but there are a couple things that I want to mention. One that I just think is incorrect. And one that, you know, I’m just sensitive to.’ and I said, ‘plase tell me, especially if something’s incorrect, I want to know.’ And she said, ‘well, it’s about my husband and myself and something I just think you got wrong.’
I asked which thing she was sensitive about. I said, ‘Honey, that is not going to change anything about the book at all. And I have no problem removing it. You’re my daughter, of course, I’m going to take that out.’ And then it was easy to fix the mistake she had noticed.
She is my daughter—I wouldn’t have done that for everyone.
LL: Yeah, of course.
SJG: And then my brother was a really big fan of my writing and a really big fan of the book. He had helped with the research, not of the emotional things. He said, ‘Just call me if you want to know about dad’s car or whatever.’
LL: Fact checking.
JSG: Yeah, I said he could fact check. He said that he had buried all the emotional things. When he read parts of drafts, he would call me and say, ‘I cried. I just cried!. And so he was a big fan. But I you know, I said, ‘I think I was kind of mean to you.’ Because he was really mean to me growing up—super mean.
LL: I want you to get back to that, but let me interrupt and say I don’t think you were mean to him or your sister. But tell me what he said. And then I want to say my impression is a reader.
JSG: Okay. He said what you said. He said, ‘I don’t think you were mean to me at all. In fact, I think you were kind.’ So yeah, he kind of agreed with you, I It’s funny how an as an author, I didn’t pull any punches, I was straight about it.
LL: Whatever you said about your brother, like hiding from him, when your parents weren’t home, you redeemed him later. So you gave him a redemption arc that made us like him by the end. So then to me, that’s totally fair, because that’s life, right? People grow and change.
When it comes to your sister, you were harder on yourself in your judgment of your sister, and you put in your internal language of being uncomfortable about your feelings about her. Which allowed me as the reader to see there’s more sides to the story, you know, and as a writer, I really liked seeing you struggle with that. Because I struggle with that.
I think anyone who has a sibling struggles with that, or who has a family member, it might not be a sibling, that you love them, and you aren’t as close as you wish you could be. And there’s parts about them that embarrass you or make you angry or frustrated and you want to shake them. I mean, we all have that experience. But because you wrote about your discomfort with your feelings so much, you gave grace to the situation, I think.
JSG: Thank you so much.
LL: But your brother was not unhappy with you. And your nephew—was he okay with it too?
JSG: My nephew was hard to pin down. His wife said, ‘I can tell you ,Judith I think you’re a great writer.’ I was so pleased when she said that. I mean, it made me feel so so proud. And I saw that she didn’t worry about the book, so I didn’t worry about it. I decided it was all okay.
LL: Oh, yeah, absolutely. If he was very upset, he would have told her and it would have gotten back to you through the family back channel.
JSG: Yeah. And he didn’t say much.
LL: So you also answered my question about would you make the same writing choices again, now that a few years have gone by?
And you basically said yeah, stand by your work. People ask me all the time if I let my mother read my memoir or essays about her. For me, I did like you. I gave my mother the digital arc after it had gone to print, when it was too late to change anything, because I didn’t want to be silenced. And I love her so much that it would be hard for me not to silence myself. I don’t know if she would have asked me to.
Mary Karr read every single draft of her memoir to her mother before she published it—everyone has a different comfort level with that. And to me, when you talk about children, that’s different, I think that we are protective of our children. And there’s a difference between privacy and feeling silenced.
LL: Being protective of your family or being sensitive to something that that they’re uncomfortable with, to me is totally legitimate. As long as it is not, as you said, a story that’s a major part of your book that you can’t leave out.
LL: Now, I wanted to move on, because, this goes with the conversation about your sister—one thing that you really address well in this book is duality. And this is a quote,
“I was overcome with avarice, and altruism, fragility, and grit, suspicion and conviction.”
And, you know, even with the conversation about your sister, you really showed two sides of your feelings. And then another place, you had this quote,
“It’s conceivable all memories embedded by anger are a bit untrustworthy.”
And I just feel like those moments gave us grace. It’s sort of a moment of showing your internal conflict. It’s not a victim memoir, right? It is a memoir of someone who has been gone through a lot of trauma, absolutely. But who has fought their way out of it and dealt with all of the complications be being fragile and being strong. And that, to me really spoke to the human condition. That’s not really a question, but I’m going to give it to you and see if you have any comments on it.
JSG: Well, thank you so much for noticing. And for appreciating that. A couple of things had happened—my father had died, I needed that to have happened to write. He was the biggest stumbling block for me emotionally—I had to learn how to make make him a full human being.
I had the most problem with that, because he was the antagonist in my story, really. And so learning how to find all the sides of him that made him whole helped me with all the rest. It took a long time. Then that helped me with realizing I had to do that with everybody, and all the situations in my life. And if he hadn’t passed before I wrote the book, I’m not sure I could have done it.
I appreciate you noticing it. I really do. It took a lot of work. I think one of the places you might have gotten that first quote, was when I wrote about having an abortion. I really felt like people think that’s a black and white kind of situation, being pro-choice, and I really wanted to get in there that pro-choice doesn’t mean pro-. I just felt like my feelings were so mixed. A lot of these situations are not pro/con. They’re just not. People are talking about that a lot right now. And, you know, I heard a story the other day about a strong, anti-abortion, pro-life demonstrator who came into a clinic for an abortion and went right back out and to demonstrate again.
How must the people in the clinic felt? To me was amazing, because the whole concept of being torn about that decision—it didn’t show up in this person. But I did feel torn, and representing that on the page was really important to me.
I’ll say more about that regarding my father. I forgave my mother, for everything that I had had difficulty with about her. And I understood my father, by the end, but I never really forgave him for everything. And for a long time, I felt like I should have. I felt like I needed to find a way to forgive him on the pageI, but I realized I had never forgiven him. So I couldn’t do it in the book, because it wasn’t there. I went through my head about all these reasons why I couldn’t do it. I didn’t write them out and say, here’s why I can’t forgive my dad. I felt like people would have to kind of figure some things out.
LL: I got it. I related.
JSG: I mean, I did try and put in reasons why I was understanding some of who he was as a whole person, and why with my mother, there are plenty of reasons why I was able to forgive her for any things that were lacking in her as a mother. Duality—it’s definitely life. There’s no black and white. Maybe it’s my age—I’m settled.
LL: I was going to say that you wrote in the book that you were 64 when you were writing this manuscript.
JSG: Yes. I’m 71 now, so it was published in my late 60s. It took a long time to write it. So I was in a later stage of my life when I finally started writing it. It started as a novel. And that didn’t last—it was all my family, it was all me. And I just had to admit it and write the memoir. So being at that stage of life, I think, made it the book it is and I was really happy with the book it became.
LL: I loved it. And personally, it resonated more, because it was true, compared to a novel. A lot of us don’t get that happy ending with our parents. We don’t get that forgiveness. We don’t get that like, Aesop’s fable message at the end. It’s just like, wow, that relationship was never what I wanted it to be, and then he died. Which has made this conversation very depressing—sorry! But that makes a good book, right? That helps the reader like me go, ‘oh, you know, I’m not the only one. I am OK.’ And that, to me is the beauty of memoir –it’s almost like giving a stranger a hug to say you’re not the only one who feels this way.
JSG: You know, that’s a nice way to put it.
LL: Let me ask you about your ending—without any spoilers—but I’m just really always interested because you’re still alive, and your story is not over. How do you know that you were done? And I don’t mean done with all the revisions, because that’s a whole other story, as you said at the beginning, but done with the narrative.
JSG: When I wrote it, I felt like each chapter was almost its own essay. And I literally took each one and spread them out on the floor and arranged them in many different ways. But I knew that, at the end, to wrap all of that up, I was at a certain age, a certain stage, a certain place with my brother, a certain place in my head with my parents. I had gained a lot of confidence, I was feeling whole. The title is Reckless Steps Toward Sanity, and I was at a place where I wasn’t taking reckless steps anymore. There was a lot of reckless stepping in the beginning, you know—I was out there trying to find a path and I was doing a lot of escaping. I wasn’t safe. And so, by the end, I was safe, and I was confident and, it was calm. It was calm, really, for the first time in a while. And that was a good place. I think.
LL: That’s wonderful. And I like how you mentioned about your title and your awareness of the book’s arc—that the journey of the recklessness was now over. I like that.
JSG: Yeah, I think that was the moment.
“So those of you who are seniors, don’t be shy about saying so. And don’t be shy about offering that as something to be proud of, because it is unique and it’s worthy.” —Judith Sara Gelt
LL:So before I let you go, you know, you said that you started this memoir at 55. And it sounds to me that in your journey to publishing your age didn’t seem to factor into it at all, although I do think it factored into your insights in the book. But I just wondered if you had advice for anyone that was trying to make the leap into writing and publishing, and all of that in the later stages of life.
JSG: Honestly, I think we should be using it as our advantage in the marketplace. I mean, there are all the youngsters out there that have this long career ahead of them, and it can feel like we are behind in the competition, because it does become a competition. But I think there are journals and publishers that find we have something for the marketplace that’s unique. Honestly, I think we should use it. It’s a unique voice. That’s what I’m saying when I say use it.
You know, that may sound a little incorrect politically, but it’s true that we have a different perspective, and there’s a huge audience out there in our age group. I mean, I’m 71. That’s a senior. And if I, if I say, when I present myself, I have a senior’s perspective, that is something that not everybody can offer. So those of you who are seniors, don’t be shy about saying so. And don’t be shy about offering that as something to be proud of, because it is unique and it’s worthy.
LL: I think that’s wonderful.
Judith’s roots in Denver are deep. Her grandparents made their homes in the Jewish sections on the west side from the late 1800s to early 1900s. After completing thirty wonderful years teaching middle school in 2005, she went on to teach Educational Psychology and Philosophy at Metropolitan State University of Denver for the next seven. Leaving her passion for teaching to pursue a dream of becoming a writer proved rewarding, enlightening and impossibly hard. She is a lucky Savta (Hebrew for grandmother) for the first time thanks to her beautiful, smart, married daughter who she hopes will never write memoir. Find her online at JudithSaraGelt.com.