INTERVIEW: Michelle Ephraim, Author of Green World

Interview by Amy Fish

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cover of the green world with title and subtitle, a tragicomic memoir of love and shakespeare by michelle ephraim, with a stone doorway fading into the skyFrom the first time I saw the cover at the AWP Bookfair, I knew Green World: A Tragicomic Memoir of Love & Shakespeare by Michelle Ephraim was for me. I wouldn’t say I wrestled it out of (Hippocampus interview editor) Lara Lillibridge’s arms, but I did make a convincing argument that I was the perfect person to read this book and interview the author.

And I was not disappointed.

This book has a great premise: how a regular person from the suburbs, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, became an English professor and Shakespeare scholar. Michelle’s delivery is everything you want in a memoir: chatty, warm but makes you think.

As soon as she came on the Zoom screen, I said “I love your book and I want to be your friend.”

“All things are possible,” Michelle said, showing you just how unprofessional I was and just how charming she was. We then got to work; see the full interview below.

AF: You don’t understand how much I loved your book. I was at this writing conference, AWP –

ME: I was there too!

AF: I read your book on the plane—this is one of my questions later, but you’re so vulnerable in the book—and I was like I want to be this person’s friend. I have to speak to her.

ME: All these things can happen.

AF: My first question is: Are you teaching any courses this semester and if so, which ones?

ME: This semester I’m teaching a course on writing memoir/creative nonfiction. I get to wear two hats at my university. I’m a Shakespeare professor, but through a series of lucky things—starting with doing my PhD at Wisconsin before they had an MFA program—they let people like me in the PhD program teach undergrads creative writing which never would have happened if they had an MFA program at the time. They do now. So, as a result, I got this amazing experience teaching.

I became the poetry editor of the Madison Review, so then when I came on the job market, I was just lucky in that I was able to say, “Yes, I can teach literature, but I can also teach writing,” which put me at a great advantage. It was just serendipity that put me in this position. At WPI, where I teach, we have a seven-week term. So, just digest that for a minute. It takes a while to get used to as a teacher. For this course, they write a short memoir piece, so we only read short memoir pieces because I want them to be focused on models they can use—and that I want them to think about as they craft their own pieces.

michelle ephraim writer headshot

AF: Is this a book that you’ve wanted to write for a long time? The journey to publication?

ME: I wrote an essay after my father passed away about the hazards of being a Shakespeare professor. You think about, you know, jobs that enmesh you in mortality, working in the health professions, obviously. But what I realized in teaching literature, of course I’m going to talk about Shakespeare. But I think this is probably true more broadly for those of us who work in the literature field is that themes of death and loss of family members comes up so much. Which of course I knew factually, but to actually feel it emotionally, that I would be going into really difficult and very personal and emotional terrain every time I cracked open Hamlet and talked about Hamlet and other plays and it felt, it made me feel extremely vulnerable.

I felt like I had to keep going back to death and in ways that poetically captured it, which made it all the more painful and acute. And so I wrote an essay about that experience, about the hazards of being a Shakespeare professor when you lose a parent and it was published in the Washington Post, which was really exciting just to begin with, because, you know, you are very excited when anything you write gets published anywhere, so this was a very cool publication so “Yay!” But then what was even cooler was that it got republished all over the world in different newspapers.

Then I started getting emails from literature people, from teachers, from literature students—but also from like everyone. Not just the theatre geeks or the literature students or the professors, but people who had lost a parent, people who feared losing a parent, or people who almost lost a parent saying that you really captured grief for me, and thank you so much.

I think that’s how the book idea got started. Thinking about literature, its role in my life vis-à-vis my parents, it kind of unfolded from there.

AF: And then what happened?

ME: I have the last book I did, which I co-authored with my very good friend, Shakespeare professor Caroline Bicks who’s at University of Maine. It’s the most amazing relationship, she’s like my work spouse and we do a podcast together. Back in the 19th century we had a blog together, which was the inspiration for our book, Shakespeare Not Stirred: Cocktails for Your Everyday Drama, which was published by Paragy, an imprint of Penguin. We actually got an agent. We wrote emails to agents that I would not like to see now; I’m sure I didn’t know what I was doing.

That book got sold—it actually went to auction—and that agent remained my agent and she shopped it out to a number of the Big 5 and their imprints. It got pretty deep at a lot of houses, and at one, it got to the point of “is this going to be a major blockbuster? Is it going to sell enough?” I got no negative feedback about it, and talking to other writers this is not uncommon. I’m actually proud of myself that I’m talking about it because I sort of feel like—like with many things that are hard to take—sometimes things are made easier when you talk about them, in work and in life. And my agent’s awesome, she’s great.

Everyone was super nice. At one of the houses, we ended up having a conversation: It was me and the editor and the agent. Yes, they would be interested in the book (very likely) if I turned it from an apple into a banana. I had been around the block enough to know—I thought about it for a couple of weeks. I thought, this is not a good idea.

One, I’m not sure if I’m really on board with that idea. I’ve written the apple, and I’ve worked really hard, I’d had a ton of readers, I’d had a lot of feedback—my agent was actually amazing at giving feedback—so it was deep in development for four years, major revisions, all that stuff. Obviously, like every writer who is serious about publishing, I’m very open to tough love and deep revisions. But this wasn’t a deep revision. This was turning it into a different product, and I felt like if I can’t get behind this completely and I do it more for the sake of getting under contract with [insert name of big press], it could go really south. It could sell poorly, this editor could dump the project at any time, and what would I be left with?

AF: Knowing you through your memoir, that’s not your brand. You went to a university where you could do what you wanted. Your PhD program was like that too. It’s consistent that you would choose a press where you could express what you needed to express and not be concerned with the “yichis,” whatever the English word is.

ME: Thank you for saying that. I take it as a compliment. At first it was this real sad thing, well it felt sad, where I was like “Now I have to send it out by myself?”

AF: She didn’t want to stick with you?

ME: She had sent it to all the presses that she thought would be the right match, and she doesn’t have any connections at university presses or whatever. She just felt like, it’s better coming from you.

AF: So how was the uncoupling?

ME: I was Gwyneth, and she was Chris Martin… (laughs) wasn’t even an uncoupling. It was I’m going to do this, mutual respect-mutual respect. And we were talking about my next book project actually; she’s like, let’s get back on track when you’re ready to talk about that. It was very businesslike and professional, and the next chapter remains to be written. I’m not ready to talk about my next book project, but I certainly will be running it by her and see what she has to say about it.

This being said, I have to say, this experience with UMass Press, I submitted it for the Juniper prize, which felt very pie in the sky for me to receive. I did not think I was going to win it. I mean, who thinks they are going to win a prize? And I think, in retrospect, this book is a very good match for a university press that has a trade imprint. Actually, one of my colleagues who’s a fiction writer and former managing editor of the Missouri Review— her name is Kate McIntyre and her collection of short stories won the Flannery O’Connor prize—told me that my manuscript sounded like it would be loved up by a trade imprint of a university press, and that ended up being true.

I do feel like at the end of the day, not only did it find its true home, but to win a literary prize just feels like such a special honour—that it’s being recognized on its literary merits more than as a product to be sold. Not to throw shade on the Big Five presses because there’s a lot of wonderful work coming out of all those presses, but I do appreciate what this means, and it’s been a really great experience.

AF: (confused) So, the publication was part of the prize? Is that correct?

ME: (gently) Yes, that’s right.

AF: So what you win is the opportunity to be published with this press?

ME: (still gently) Yes, exactly which is very cool and very unusual because there aren’t a lot of opportunities like this. I mean, they exist, I think Yale University Press has one as well—basically, you submit an unpublished manuscript, and winning the prize is this book contract. It’s been a really great experience—and an interesting one. Every publication experience, it’s very likely that you learn something new. I thought I knew a lot, but I knew something.

AF: You mentioned being vulnerable in the book; what was that like to write? You’re coming from academic writingwith the exception of the cocktail bookparticularly around your PhD and again when you were pregnant and up for tenure. Those are very hot topics and you really shared with us, you really opened up. I want to know what that was like to write. For me, the highlight was the moment was [redacted because it’s a spoiler] I could cry talking about that moment. [Also redacted, I talked too much here.]

ME: It’s such a great question, I mean, I was earlier talking about how I have my students read model memoirs so they can talk about how they’re built. For me, I’ve always loved memoir. When I was starting to work on this book, I went into hyper-craft mode where I was reading memoirs, and I was opening up the hood. Why did this work? Why didn’t this work for me? Oh, this is hinky! What did it deliver to the reader? I was really trying to do a deep dive into the mechanics of the craft.

Two things: One, I found the memoirs I loved the most were unbelievably honest; there was that from a writerly perspective. And then from a personal perspective, I have felt so much shame in my life, and like recognizing that and then at some point—wish I could tell you exact moment or series of moments—I realized that the superpower that one can have to get rid of shame or at least make it very manageable is to call it out, or is just to say “I feel this,” “You’re making me feel like a loser.” Just to put it out there.

Don’t keep it inside (said every therapist ever), but it took me a long time, you know, I’m not a therapist. But I do have to say—talk about being vulnerable—there was a moment where my agent and my therapist were saying the exact same thing to me. I was like Oh my god, this is probably good advice. Sort of putting it out there—I’m not going to keep it inside anymore—I’m just going to bring it out. It was a convergence of a more vulnerable emotional state to exist in and a study of the craft that works well.

AF: What was interesting to me too, is that children of Holocaust survivors describe their parents living life to the fullest, because life had been so hard for them, and your experience was very different.

ME: (laughing) You think?

AF: You spoke about your parents very honestly but very respectfully.

ME: Thank you for saying that. I think that’s hard to get right. Not just for how it reads to other people but for yourself. The paradox of creating characters in a memoir is that they need to be highly crafted to feel authentic. That’s something that took me a while to understand. How do I want this character to come across? You can highlight just the difficult moments, but then they come across just crazy or just this or just that. How do you curate moments in a piece of writing so that the composite is the persona that you want?

AF: I was wondering if there was anything you wanted to include in the book that you didn’t end up with? Anything that you cut?

ME: You know, it’s so painful. I did very deep revisions, and I don’t want to find out if this is true, but I probably excised the equivalent of two more memoirs. It was mercy killing, it was the right thing to do. But I do talk about that with my students. I’ve done some serious major surgery.

One example of a fresh storyline or me wanting to extend or build on a storyline was when I was in graduate school. There was a guy I was involved with for a long time, and I had written a storyline about our relationship, which did not end in a pretty way. I was definitely the villain in that relationship, if one had to name a villain. I’d written all these great scenes. Someone with a good head on their shoulders said, “He just seems really irrelevant.” He wasn’t adding anything to the story. This could happen in nonfiction or fiction.

And another example: I was trying to extend a narrative with my mother. I wanted to talk more about being her little girl and being excluded in our neighborhood—and all these things that happened, that stick with me so hard, but it was just too much. I could write two more books about my relationship with my mother. I won’t, but I could.

AF: It was so interesting how you wove your scholarship in with your emotional journey, and I’m wondering if your scholarship changed and evolved because of your writing this book.

ME: I think my teaching has changed. When I teach Merchant of Venice, I think that I’m more comfortable about it now. I’ve always taught that play. I have colleagues, Jewish and non-Jewish, who won’t touch that play. And I was like, No, touch that play. Go see that play.

I was teaching it in October 2023, and a lot was going down as it continues to do. I find that I’m comfortable being a Jewish professor teaching it. I don’t bring that up at the get-go, but it will come up. A student will hesitate to bring something up, or they’ll ask me “Is it weird?” or “Are you worried what someone is going to think?” And I think as a result of writing the book, I’ve thought about the complexity about what’s going on emotionally with this play and me—and I guess not just with Merchant of Venice—but it’s become a model to talk about emotional things, and I love it when students do that, when they can talk about what made them feel a certain way. We are serious about the text, but let’s just feel for a second. Let’s feel. I like that, and I think it’s because of the book that I feel comfortable shifting to that.

AF: The title, Green World, is where they go solve their problems and come back. Bring that home for me.

ME: Green World is a Shakespearean literary term to refer to a place that is usually a wooded place, a forest. As You Like It, Midsummer Night’s Dream—where young women go, it’s a gendered excursion or escape. The Green World doesn’t really get you away from the problems and eventually you must return.

AF: Did you consider any other titles?

ME: I am terrible with titles. It was my agent and people in her office who collectively came up with this title. We were brainstorming the concept. We liked tragicomedy, but then what? It should be clearly about Shakespeare but not academic. She or one of her co-workers came up with Green World and I love it. Other people can prove magical when you’re writing. You have to be open to their magic.

AF: What are you reading now? What would you recommend?

ME: Zadie Smiths’ new book, The Fraud. Her ability is amazing. This book of essays The Lonely Stories, really good. I’m almost embarrassed to say this —the octopus book, Remarkably Bright Creatures. I’m a sucker, I have a soft spot for books that have a narrative from the point of view of an animal or creature. It’s narrated partially by an octopus. I like it when a book makes me cry. I really enjoy that.

AF: You have a good theme of perseverance, too.

ME: Ah, yes. On a straight level, yes. But even on a meta level about getting this book published. But I mean you have to, right? As a writer you have to have a bit of Teflon on the outside of you. What’s going to give you pleasure and satisfaction as a writer? It’s going to come from revision and perseverance. Writing a book length project got me into unknown territory. My agent suggested I read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and The Story. And that book for me, as a memoir writer, that book resonated so much. That book enabled me to make the crucial shifts in the book.

amy fish

Amy Fish

Staff Reviewer & Interviewer

Amy Fish is a writer of true stories, some of which are funny. She is the author of “I Wanted Fries with That: How to Ask for What You Want and Get What You Need” (NWL 2019) and “The ART of Complaining Effectively” (Avmor 2015). Amy is currently doing her MFA at Kings’ College in Halifax, Canada. She is the Ombudsperson at Concordia University in Montreal, where she lives with her husband and kids.

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