Q&A with Amy Wachspress about Memories from Cherry Harvest

1. What is Memories from Cherry Harvest about?
If I had to sum up the book in one word, I would say it’s about memory. But there is so much more to it than that of course. It’s about the relationships in women’s lives, and about loss and recovering from trauma, and about the creative process. It’s also about the life of the spirit and celebrating life’s abundance, and well, just about everything, including the kitchen sink. Especially the kitchen sink! It’s about life.
If you want an overview of the story, I can tell you that it begins in a relocation camp in Palestine around 1925. Two very young Jewish sisters, Ruth and Rivka, have fled the pogroms of Russia with their parents. Their family is quickly blended with the family of a widower who has two children, Avram and Miriam. The first and longest part of Cherry Harvest follows the lives of Ruth, Rivka, Avram, and Miriam as they leave Palestine and settle in France and in America and are subsequently swept up in the historical events of World War II and its aftermath. The second part of the book moves into the life of Rina, who is Ruth’s daughter. She is an artist who lives a bohemian lifestyle in New York in the 1960s. The third part of the book is about Rina’s daughter, the lone heiress of the matrilineal family line, and her involvement in the Sanctuary Movement to aid Salvadoran refugees in the 1980s. The final part of the book, the conclusion, pulls together the threads of relationship and connection from throughout the book as the women in the family come together for a defining life cycle event.

2. What inspired you to write Memories from Cherry Harvest?
The initial spark for the book was my desire to capture in fiction the kernel of the true life story of the experience of some of my cousins who survived the Holocaust. But the book quickly grew exponentially. I have a huge stash of stories rattling around in my head, about both my internal life and my external experience, and I felt compelled to share. The stories that emerged in Cherry Harvest include my relationship to memory, my magical college years, my political activism when I lived in Berkeley, parenting my multicultural children with my husband, and my beliefs about the life of the spirit. I have often thought of this book as my version of War and Peace, written from a woman’s perspective.

3. I understand that the development of this story and the publication of this book was a long journey for you. Tell us about that journey.
The publication of this book is a miracle in my life. How it came about is a long story. Even the short version is a long story. I began making notes for this book over 20 years ago, when I was in my thirties. Probably earlier than that. I actually began writing the book in earnest in 1993 when my husband and I were both working full-time and raising our three children on 40 acres of remote forest in rural northern California. We lived a half an hour’s drive from the nearest town and our youngest child was two years old. I got up at 5:00 AM every morning Monday to Friday and worked for an hour before waking my wonderful children and beginning the mad dash in all directions that any working mom will recognize. I wrote on an old desktop computer with a DOS operating system, long before the mouse was invented. Every morning I confronted the glow of that old-style cursor, which was a green rectangular box, blinking at me like a challenge. Some days I wrote no more than a few sentences. I did that for over six years before I finished a first draft of this book.
I wrote and rewrote the book more times than I can count. After a while, I set it aside and wrote other things, including two other novels. I sent query letters, sample pages, and even the entire manuscript for Cherry Harvest to publishers and agents for years, meanwhile my children grew up and left home and my file of rejection letters got fatter and fatter. I was beginning to feel rather embarrassed to have dedicated my life to writing and to never have published a single book. It sure seemed like I would die in obscurity with a pile of unpublished manuscripts gathering dust in my closet. So I founded a publishing company, Woza Books, and self-published my children’s fantasy adventure entitled The Call to Shakabaz in 2007, and it did quite well for an indie self-published book.
Then, in 2009, I entered Cherry Harvest in a writing contest and, miraculously, it won. The book is the official 2011 winner of the Frances Fabri Literary Prize, and the award was a publishing contract with Counterpoint Press. It has taken a couple of years to complete the production process for the book, and that is a whole other story. I am on a remarkable journey that continues to unfold in surprising ways.

4. What are some of the main themes of the book and why did you select these themes?
As the title implies, one of the main themes of the book is memory, which I believe begins centuries before birth. I believe that humans carry within them deep cultural memories as well as memories of past lives extending back thousands of years. Of course, as this implies, I believe in reincarnation. I believe that we can remember things about our past lives and that we can sometimes recognize the spirits of those who have returned or whom we knew in previous lives. Some of the characters in the book are able to do this. I think that our recognition and awareness of this dimension to our consciousness is an important step in human evolution.
Another main theme of the book is the exploration of how healing occurs for individuals who have suffered trauma. I feel very strongly that people who have suffered violence at the hands of others and have survived deserve the opportunity to defeat the perpetrator of their suffering by overcoming their pain and grief and reclaiming their right to celebrate life and feel joy. It’s like that saying, “Living well is the best revenge.”
One of the most important themes of the book for me is the exploration of how we nurture our children through positive parenting. My parenting philosophy in a nutshell is that parents are not supposed to tame and discipline children, molding them into model little people who fit into society, but instead to nurture and discover these extraordinary spirits placed in our care and to support and guide our children in the paths that are right for them so that they have the best chance of reaching their full potential (to the benefit of all humankind).
There are so many other central themes to this book that I find it difficult to single out some over others for more attention. I could talk at length about any one of them. Some of the other main themes that are deeply meaningful to me include the immigrant experience, the call to action to make positive change, mining the richness of our ethnic and cultural diversity, the challenges of living a gay or lesbian lifestyle, heroism, the experiences of women in the many relationships in our lives, and spiritual connectedness throughout creation. This book is many-faceted.

5. What makes Memories from Cherry Harvest distinctly different and original?
I think that my voice is a vibrant new voice on the scene. There are certain books that I think of these days as “multiculti,” meaning they embrace a widely diverse range of characters and lifestyles and weave them into the fabric of one cohesive narrative. I think this perspective and framework is very 21st century, very rooted in the global village as it unfolds with increasing impact on our personal lives every minute, especially with the explosion of Facebook. We humans are able to learn more than ever before from others living lives vastly different from our own. I also see more and more fiction incorporating what is often referred to as “fabulist” or “speculative” elements. But these elements are not as fabulous or speculative as might at first appear. We humans are moving into a more sophisticated relationship with our spiritual lives, and with the interconnectedness of the infinite manifestations of spirit, with each passing day. I believe that imagination is rooted in memory and the extremely real life of the spirit.

6. I understand that some of the book is based on family stories. Tell us a little bit about that.
I have to be careful with this question because I don’t want to give away too much about the plot. One of the things that makes the book a page-turner is that during the Holocaust section, the reader is driven to find out who will live and who will die. The story is my imaginative fabrication based on the true lives of my French Wachspress cousins. I can safely say that some of my father’s first cousins were living in France when the Nazis invaded. I lost most of my father’s family, who lived in the Galicia region of Poland, in the camps. Obviously I never knew these relatives. Part One of Cherry Harvest includes many pieces of true family history that have been passed down to me in stories. For instance, one of Rivka’s friends dies during the invasion of Paris when the Nazis throw her into the Seine. She does not know how to swim. Two of my father’s cousins (a mother and daughter) died this way in real life. The Holocaust stories are not the only family stories that form the foundation for the book. Ruth’s story has many parallels to the lives of some of my mother’s relatives, a Hungarian Jewish family that lived in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Again, the story that has emerged is an imaginary fabrication and not the real truth.
As the book moves into the lives of Rina and Miriam, the stories are built more on my own life experience than those of my ancestors. I loved my college years in the 1970s. I believe fiercely that every young person deserves to spend several years pursuing a college education to the exclusion of all else and it makes me sad that this experience is out of the question for most young people living in today’s economic reality. Most college students must work while in school and others can’t afford to go at all. As for Miriam’s part of the book, I wanted to write about my years as a political activist. I think that the issue of immigration is fundamental to American culture and it is explored throughout the book, from the war years when Jews were fleeing the Holocaust and trying to come to the U.S. with FDR’s quotas in place, to the portion of the book that portrays the Salvadoran refugees fleeing Duarte’s reign of terror. I think we in the U.S. have largely forgotten that episode of Salvadoran history and I want to remind people that the death squads and reign of terror in El Salvador happened, that this type of injustice is still happening throughout the world, and that there are compelling life-and-death reasons why people leave their once-beloved home communities to face the overwhelming challenges of life in the U.S. This is not a new situation; it is the foundation of this country.

7. Where do your ideas come from?
The same place that your ideas come from. I think that imagination is a muscle; when you exercise it then it grows stronger. I believe that our thoughts and creative ideas come to all of us from a deep well of memory and spiritual connectedness that permeates all of creation now, in the past, and in the future. If you want to learn more about my thoughts on the creative process, then read Cherry Harvest. That’s one of the main themes and it is discussed outright in the Rina part of the book.

8. What impact do you want this book to have on your readers?
I think that every author’s greatest hope is that her words will change someone’s life for the better. If even one reader walks away from my book with something of value that can be of use in his or her life, then I have done my job and I am satisfied. I would like my readers who come to Cherry Harvest as strangers to me to leave feeling like kindred spirits, like we have connected in a deeply meaningful way in this short life we share. Because this is my debut as a serious novelist, I am also hoping that readers will have a sense of discovery, as if they were walking across a field and then suddenly came across a star tangled in the branches of a tree. Make that the branches of a cherry tree.