The Psychoanalyst Behind a Novel

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:15

Author with a background rooted in psychology tells stories that captivate diverse audiences

Lisa Gornick has taken her degree in psychology and combined it with her love for writing. What results is a thoughtful second novel, "Tinderbox," in which she explores themes of family, culture, and violence, skillfully intertwining them with Jewish history.

Due to its in-depth analysis of certain groups, the book, which has been out for a year and just released in paperback, is a favorite among a wide range of readers.

Since its release last September, Jewish groups, mothers, and men have all reached out to Gornick, praising her work as relatable and relevant. "People" magazine even hailed it "perfect for book clubs."

Why did you choose "Tinderbox" as the name for the book?

The title really refers to the way that fire exists on many levels in the novel. First, there is the reality of fire. One of the characters has been very impacted by having been out west and witnessed the wilderness fires there. Second, the concept of fire is used as a metaphor in the book. There are ways in which the management of fire has been very misconceived for years. The whole Smokey Bear policy of trying to put out every fire, essentially what that led to was an increase in underbrush that made many areas more vulnerable to out-of-control fires. That idea becomes like a tragedy of good intentions. Winding back to the book, this is what happens, it is a novel about someone who is trying to do the right thing, and in so doing, sets up a dangerous and incendiary kind of situation, a tinderbox. There's a lot of Jewish history in the book. Are you Jewish? I am Jewish, but I was raised very much in a secular family. My discovery of the Jews of the Amazon happened quite a way into my working on the book. I had set the nanny, who comes to work for the family that's at the center of this book, from Iquitos, Peru, based on my fascination with [Werner] Herzog's movie, "Fitzcarraldo," which is set in Iquitos. But I didn't know about the Jewish community there, and once I discovered that, I became very curious. One of the things that was remarkable, was that I had the mother already from a Moroccan-Jewish community, Essaouira, which is a beautiful, windswept city on the coast of Morocco. I had been there and was aware of the very interesting Jewish community there. In the 19th century, that city was nearly half Jews, and now there's only a handful there. And it turns that many of the Jews of Iquitos originate from Morocco, so there was this aha moment when I realized that my characters, independently conceived, actually were part of the same diaspora and could have even be related.

When did you start to pursue writing as another career?

Like many writers, I had been writing since I was very young. I wrote poems, which morphed into stories. And at some point, I decided to try my hand at a novel. I was extremely lucky that my first novel, "A Private Sorcery," was published by Algonquin in 2002. I then began working on "Tinderbox," and simultaneously was working on stories. That collection of linked stories, called "Louisa Meets Bear," will be out next June.

You've lived in Morningside Heights for 22 years and all three of your works are set on the Upper West Side.

I absolutely love this neighborhood. It's been described as the "Parthenon of New York," with all its open spaces and educational institutions. There's also Riverside Church and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, so there's this grandeur and sense of history about this neighborhood. The first novel is set on Riverside Drive, and ends with the character looking at a map of this neighborhood from the 19th century. I actually saw this map at Argosy Book Store. And at that time, this area was marked by the New York Lunatic Asylum and the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum. "Tinderbox" is set on West 95th Street, and "Louisa Meets Bear" spans 50 years and ends on Morningside Drive.

How have you seen the neighborhood change?

I'm afraid that it's the contradictions of gentrification. It feels like a college town up here now. There are lovely places to eat, and you can sit outside, all between 110 and 116th. And now Amsterdam Avenue is having a whole renaissance and Harlem is starting to combine with Morningside Heights. And the neighborhood has become safer. Thank God we still have our wonderful bookstores. Labyrinth became Papyrus, which became Book Culture, but is still here. Bank Street Bookstore is moving locations, but will remain here.

The book was released last September. In the year since, what feedback have you gotten?

The book seems to really resonate with women who have raised their children, because there is a character who is the mother of adult children. So I get a lot of very interested readers there. Male readers are interested in this book because it has a lot to do with male sexuality and male psychology. Others who are quite passionate are those who are interested in Jewish history. I've talked at many synagogues and met with the Hadassah group in Charlottesville and gave an illustrated lecture, which I had also given at The New York Public Library. It was on my discovery of the historical links between the Jews in Morocco and the Jews of the Amazon. So I would say that those three sets of readers have been part of my fan base.

What I liked about the book was how you created siblings who were so different.

Thank you very much. I was really interested in the dynamic between this brother and sister. They have a very loving relationship, and are very close. But, as I say in the book, it's almost as though Adam, who is the younger sibling, has picked his character traits from those that his sister, Caro, hasn't taken. One of the dynamics of the book is that she actually introduces him to his wife, and I think that's interesting, how people outside are part of the history of the couple. In a way they're a triad, Caro, Adam, and Rashida.

You have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Explain your background and how that affects the outcome of your books.

My evolution as a psychologist and a writer really went hand in hand. I wrote from a very young age and was interested the concept of psychotherapy from a young age. I marched along doing the two of them in tandem for a long time. My first book is about a young psychiatrist who gets into a lot of trouble, and it has to do with medication. In my second novel, the family matriarch, Myra, goes back to school to become a psycholgist.

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Lisa Gornick set her second novel, Tinderbox, on the Upper West Side. Photo by Sigrid Estrada