Apr/May 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Mary Akers

Interview by Clifford Garstang

In March 2008, Allen & Unwin will publish Radical Gratitude and Other Life Lessons Learned in Siberia, by Andrew Bienkowski and Mary Akers, a truly moving book that draws on the real-life experiences of Bienkowski in Siberian exile. As a trained psychotherapist, Bienkowski is uniquely able, with the help of Mary Akers's literary talents, to present his story through a series of "life lessons" that are sure to inspire readers.

"My grandfather made the decision to put our needs before his own and paid for it with his life. To honor his sacrifice, I have in turn aspired to make my life meaningful to the world. One of the best ways I have found to do this is by sharing my time and talents. Even as a small child I understood that helping other people was a worthy goal. I learned that when we help others, everyone benefits. My whole family understood this, and each one of us assumed a role in feeding the family and staying alive. From picking up dried cow dung for fuel, to picking berries in spring or mushrooms in autumn, there was something for each of us to do to participate in our survival. We had to help each other in order to stay alive.

As a way to help visualize our human connectedness, I tell my patients the following story. Picture yourself entering a room filled with hungry people. In this room, there are tables loaded with all types of wonderful foods—foods that must be eaten with a spoon. The only problem is that the spoons provided are 1 meter long. Because of this, no one can eat; the mood in the room is one of dissatisfaction, anger, and frustration. Now leave that room and enter the room beside it. In this room, the same situation exists—delicious food everywhere and only 1 meter spoons to eat it with. But in this room, the people are happy. They are laughing and eating. How? How did they manage to eat with 1 meter spoons? Simple. They are feeding each other.

Which room would you rather visit?"—Lesson Two, "We Are All Connected"

Mary Akers has published poetry, fiction and non-fiction in numerous literary journals and magazines. Her fiction often looks at the intersection of science and art, especially environmental conservation, one of her many passions. She is a co-founder of the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology, a study-abroad program in Roseau, Dominica, and also is active in outdoor sports: snorkeling, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, canoeing and snowshoeing. She has worked as an historical interpreter in Colonial Williamsburg, a potter at Historic Jamestown Island, an art teacher, a fabric seller, and a food server in a nursing home. Although she considers Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains her home, she currently lives in Western New York with her husband and three children.


CG     You were first trained in the visual arts. Can you tell me about that experience and how you got into it, and also how that training has affected your writing?

MA     Yes, my undergraduate degree is in the fine arts, and I was a self-employed potter for more than ten years. How has it helped me? Well, it taught me to appreciate that a lump of clay can start humble and yet still be made into something beautiful and useful if you aren't afraid to muck about with it. (My first draft of a manuscript is my literary clay.) It's also helped me to visualize the form of my longer works. Let me explain: It's easy to work on a book as a series of chapters, as discrete parts, but harder to step back and take a look at the whole composition. You have to, though, if you want to craft something beautiful and cohesive. Can you imagine painting a giant mural by only viewing one tiny section at a time? Sure, you'd get finished, but you'd have a jumbled, out-of-scale mess. It is important to pay attention to the details, but it's equally important to remember to pull back and see the whole—as with a mural, so it is with a novel.

CG     I know you have an MFA. How has the formal training changed how you approach the work? Do you write differently now than you did before the degree?

MA     Well, some days I think I write better than I did before my MFA, some days worse. Mostly my writing is improved. What I lost by no longer being the innovative neophyte, I gained in terms of discipline and big-picture concerns. The best thing that the external deadlines of a degree program taught me was not to wait for inspiration. If it comes, great. If it comes and I'm already in the chair working, even better.

CG     You think of yourself primarily as a fiction writer. How did this non-fiction project come about? And how do you think your fiction writing experience affected the writing and your approach to it?

MA     Yes, I do write mostly fiction. And initially, I wasn't sure I wanted to take on a non-fiction project, particularly one I saw as someone else's book. But a good friend of mine, Joy Herrick, who is also a writer, knew Andy and knew he was trying to write a book about helping other people. She also relayed a bit about his family's story and I found that intriguing. When the two of them came to my house to discuss the book's prospects, Andy told me the story about his grandfather starving to death to save his life. I got goose bumps and thought, "This story needs to be told." That's probably when I knew I'd have to give it my best shot.

Andy didn't want his life story to be a part of the book—he's very modest. But the more he told me about his family and their amazing survival against tremendous odds, the more I knew it had to be part of the book. Enter my fiction training! Since the Siberia stories had been passed down from his grandmother, and a few were very fractured memories of Andy's from childhood, it was up to me to re-imagine how his grandfather must have felt on his deathbed, how his grandmother felt when the Russian soldier put a gun to her head and ordered her to pray, how Andy felt picking up single grains of wheat in the field until he had enough to bring home to his mother to cook. I spent a lot of time trying to get it right, to do his family justice. I hope I succeeded.

CG     What was it like working with a co-author?

MA     I really enjoyed working with Andy, sharing ideas and concepts for the book. We were fortunate in that we had very similar belief systems, so we were almost like one mind. The best part for me was when he read the whole, completed manuscript and cried. Even though he knew all the stories, had recited them for years, the way I presented them made him relive them in a fresh and immediate way. It was very gratifying.

CG     That gets at something readers may be curious about. Unlike a ghost-written memoir, you and Andy are considered co-authors of the book, and yet a reader may have the impression that you have actually written Andy's story, rather than it being a joint effort. I wonder if you could elaborate on the process the two of you followed, and why you consider yourselves co-authors.

MA     The answer is a very, very complex one. But I'll try to keep it simple, yet thorough, because the path is important.

Andy first tried to write a book called Helping Others with another gentleman a number of years ago. They got through three chapters or so, but Andy wasn't happy with them. He said that they felt more like a textbook, or a manual on how to help others. Dry, if you will. Academic, even. But he wanted to keep trying to write an accessible book, and he offered to pay me by the hour to both edit what he already had and write the rest of the book, based on chapter outlines. I agreed and started editing/writing.

For starters, I found that I'm not very good at charging by the hour for writing. Sometimes I head-write in the shower, or while driving across town to pick up my kids —not all writing happens at the keyboard—and how do you charge for that? And, as I wrote, I kept feeling that his personal story deserved to be in there somewhere, so I decided to write a sample Forward for Andy that incorporated his family's amazing story. It felt like "a way in" to the denser text. It also felt like a huge liberty to take, writing his forward, for his book, but he liked what I wrote, so I kept going, and I gradually began to change more and more of the text, too, always worrying that he would be offended, but he never was.

And slowly I began to see greater possibilities for this book. I told him, "Forget paying me, Andy. I'll do it for free for now, and if the book sells, we can figure out a percentage for me then." He agreed. His expectations for the book were always very modest. On more than one occasion, he told me would should just self-publish it and sell it locally. I never, ever saw that route for this book, and since Andy is patient and trusting, he agreed to let me exhaust all other possibilities first.

I soon realized that to really get at the heart of the book, I would have to change Andy's mind in two important ways. First, the book had to be about him—at least a little—because his family's story is not only amazing, it establishes his credibility to write the book. He never wanted it to be an ego book, and I respected that, but I always saw his personal story as the way into the lessons of the book. We remember lessons better when a story accompanies them—like parables—so the stories were key for me. And he had lots and lots of them.

Second, he needed to think bigger in terms of market, but he is so modest and self-effacing, and all about helping others ... so to convince him I said, "Andy, if we sell locally, we only help locally. Imagine if we could sell this book all over the world. Think of how many people would be helped!" That convinced him.

Then, as I was investing so much of myself in this project, I began to realize that my name deserved to be on the book, too. I primarily write fiction, as I said, and Andy has been very supportive of my fiction—read my whole unpublished novel, reads most of my stories, wants me to succeed—and he knows I still don't have an agent for my fiction. So I told Andy how good it would be for my career if we could be co-authors. I was nervous asking, but it really seemed fair to ask that, and since this was never about ego for Andy, he agreed right away. Soon after that we also agreed to split everything fifty-fifty. Because basically, I couldn't do any of this without him, and he couldn't do it at this level without me, so why wouldn't we split it? When he tells me he feels bad because I did most of the work, I tell him he did his work during his two years in Siberia, and his 40 years as a psychotherapist. It all evens out.

Then, as the book progressed, we dropped the Forward, picked up the Siberia stories, then thought, "Aha! Lessons!" and reorganized everything so that the Siberia sections would sort of introduce and complement the lessons that followed. Very little of that original book remains; it's mostly the spirit that's still there—the desire to give back, to help others.

Whew. Did that answer your question?

CG     Yes, and it leads me to another one. As you say, Radical Gratitude consists of a series of "life lessons learned in Siberia." The Siberia experience was your co-author's, obviously, and the "life lessons" are his. But did you find yourself adopting them as your own?

MA     Yes. Or maybe even more accurate, I found that they were life lessons that my own, very different, experiences had led me to embrace as well. In this same way, everyone can relate to the lessons in the book.

CG     The first lesson, from which the book's title is taken, seems particularly compelling. What does "radical gratitude" mean?

MA     Radical gratitude is the notion that we can learn to be grateful even for the difficult experiences in our lives. Ultimately we can be grateful because they make us stronger, wiser, and more empathetic to the suffering of others. Most of the time, radical gratitude is best understood in hindsight, when we've had time to reflect. Another way to express it would be to quote the old adage, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." Assuming you want to be stronger, you can find a sense of gratitude, even for suffering.

CG     Without being religious, the book strikes me as being deeply spiritual. I think many people equate the two, and yet the book suggests otherwise. How do you think the book's spiritual message will be received?

MA     Well, I'm not sure. I've wondered about that, too. As you know, we have a chapter titled "Have Faith," but we were very open in the interpretation of what faith means, because faith is an intensely personal and private thing. The medium of faith is not what's important here. Faith itself is. For Andy's grandmother, faith meant Catholicism, and it helped take them all through an experience that many others did not survive. But it didn't have to be Catholicism. It could have been any deeply held belief in a power greater than themselves.

I hope readers will be open to the spiritual message, but frankly, I never know how people are going to react to a discussion of religion/spirituality anymore. I sometimes despair at how spiritually polarized and intolerant we've become as a nation. I mean, I see people who are so deeply religious and so convinced of the rightness of their beliefs that they are willing to change the U.S. Constitution to fit their religious vision. And then I see people who have become so jaded and frustrated that they want to have absolutely nothing to do with anything that carries the slightest whiff of religion. When did it become so black-and-white to believe? When did doubt and debate become a bad thing? Where have all the religious moderates gone?

CG     All the "lessons" resonate, but one that I found particularly valuable was "Listen and You Will Learn." It seems to me that few people listen well—to family members, to colleagues, to anyone. Which lesson is your "favorite" and why?

MA     I'm sorry, what did you say?

Just kidding, it's a great question. "Nurture Hope—Wherever You Find It" is my favorite lesson. Hope (with a capital h) is so important, and so integral to the human psyche, so unique to being human. Do animals hope? I doubt it. I mean, my cat rubs against my leg every morning, hoping I'll feed him, but it's a momentary hope associated with that one action—and with his belly. But humans can choose to be generally hopeful, to be optimistic in the face of terrible odds. And history has shown that the hopeful survive.

My second favorite lesson is one that follows closely on the heels of hope: perseverance. When you put the two together, it's hard to go wrong.

CG     What is so remarkable about the book is that the lessons are derived from Andy's real-life experience, which most readers are likely to find tragic and sad. And yet the book's message is quite the opposite—that life is wonderful when we know what to look for. Since this is Andy's story, was it difficult for you to grasp that paradox and reflect it on the page?

MA     Thank you. You'd think it would have been difficult, but honestly, it wasn't. I think it's because Andy is such a hopeful person, forgiving and accepting and wise. By the time he told me his stories, he'd been telling them for years and he had already made peace with the pain and the tragedy—he'd already turned it around in his mind and in his life. All I had to do was convey that for the reader. Since I'm optimistically inclined myself, that was probably one of the easiest parts of writing the book. Fortunately, it's also a big part of the magic of the message.

CG     You describe the incidents in Siberia in great detail, although they took place a long time ago. What was it like for you to put yourself in Andy's place and imagine these incidents?

MA     His grandparents came very easily to me. I kept a picture of his grandfather a month before his death—looking haggard and gaunt—near my computer. The fire in his eyes, even in that awful situation, kept admonishing me (across more than fifty years of distance) to get it right. And Andy's grandmother was a feisty storyteller—a woman who would do anything to keep her family alive. For some reason, she came very easily to me.

His mother Zosia was much harder. In fact, the first time I tried to depict her, I got it all wrong, and Andy had to gently steer me back to the right path. His mother was complex. She was educated, spoke several languages, read novels in French. In the writing, though, I came to understand that the emotional side of the family's banishment was probably the hardest on her. She was in her prime, taken from her husband who was in a POW camp, watched her father starve to death so her own sons could live, then watched her sons slowly starve anyway. When I imagined her as a mother, a daughter, a wife, that's when she came to me.

CG     You and Andy could probably write a whole book just expanding on Life Lesson 2, "We are all connected," which is about building problem-solving partnerships. Given the spiritual nature of the book, I was surprised at how many of the lessons, perhaps this one most of all, are practical and applicable to daily life—starting today. Can you elaborate a little on this one?

MA     I'm glad you noticed that. From the start, Andy and I both saw this as a book for the everyman (or everywoman). We didn't want it to be hypothetical, we didn't want it to be highfalutin, and we didn't want it to be read and immediately forgotten. We wanted it to be a book that was genuinely helpful as well as interesting. Andy has spent more than 40 years helping people, giving back his grandfather's gift to him. This is just the next helping step for him, one that can go on for years, and even outlast us—if we wrote it well enough.

CG     What's it been like working with an Australian publisher?

MA     Well, I can't say what it's like to work with any Australian publisher, but working with Allen & Unwin and Maggie Hamilton has been amazing. When I learned that our book would initially be coming out on the other side of the world I was concerned. But my fears were very quickly allayed, and if I had it to do over, knowing what I know, I would absolutely go with them again. My wonderful editor Clare Emery consulted me on every aspect of design and layout. Their marketing and publicity people are top-notch. They never treated me like I was "just the author" and they've been so supportive and excited. As I said in the acknowledgements, I'm pretty sure I'm spoiled for all future publishers.

CG     Are you and Andy planning to follow this one with another book?

MA     Yes. A working title would be something like Getting Old Isn't for Sissies . Or The Idiot's Guide to Getting Older. Basically we envision it as something that takes a lighthearted look at the process of aging and explores the ways we can do it gracefully. Andy will be 74 this year, and he still goes backpacking every summer, grows an amazing organic garden, and heads to the gym (almost) every day. I can't think of a better ambassador for aging well than Andy.

CG     What are you working on now?

MA     Me, personally? I'm completing a linked short story collection with an ocean theme, finishing final edits on a novel, and beginning research on a new historical novel about Elbert Hubbard and the Roycrofters of East Aurora, New York.


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