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Interview: Henry Massie, Author of Felice’s Worlds

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Dr. Henry Massie, a psychiatrist who now resides in CA, is an award-winning author. He is also a pioneering researcher in the field of autism. His book Felice’s Worlds: From the Holocaust to the Halls of Modern Art, is a memoir and biography of his mother, a brilliant and beautiful woman who survived the holocaust and participated in many of the most critical periods of the 20th Century.

Dr. Massie says, “In writing about her, I understood for the first time how her experience of losing loved ones to the Nazis had been passed on to her American son.

“But as a psychiatrist, I was drawn to Felice’s story because it shows so much resilience in the face of terrible emotional trauma. Her life dramatizes how just keeping on through days of having nothing but a belief that someday I will have something, can be a powerful survival tool.”

Could you please tell us a bit about your book?  The story? The characters?

Felice’s Worlds is the biography of the odyssey of a daughter of the 20th century whose life provides a window into some of the most important events in the political history of that age and the world of modern art. Raised in a Polish village near the Russian border, Felice was an escapee from the Nazis, a high-school political activist in Lithuania, a university student in France who lost her first love tragically, and a partisan for Arab-Jewish coexistence in Palestine. She arrived in America in 1937 penniless with one small suitcase, yet when she died she had amassed one of the most important collections of Abstract Expressionist art in the world.

Felice Ozerovicz Massie was also my mother, and the book is my memoir of the stories she told me of her life. she regaled me with tales of her adventures crossing borders through ruses in her youth, how she became a part of the world of Abstract Expressionist Art in America, and her circle of psychoanalyst, artist, and writer friends, who appear in the book. She also shared with me the crushing experience of the loss of members of her family in the Holocaust. What appealed to me most as a psychiatrist and author about Felice’s life–what drove me to write about it–was her boldness and resilience in the face of emotional trauma. She had the ability, in her words, “to keep on going, put one foot before the other through days of having nothing but the belief that someday I will have something.”

How did you come up with the title and how much say did you have on the cover design?

The publisher, Julie Smith of BooksBnimble, and I brainstormed endless variations of Felice, Felice’s Lives, the Holocaust, America, modern art, a woman’s journey, a mother’s journey, coming of age tale, Polish shtetl, village, and so forth. One day Julie announced, “You choose: Felice’s Lives or Felice’s Worlds.” Then we debated some more about the subtitle. For the cover I suggested a background using one of the paintings in Felice’s collection. Julie’s friend the mystery writer and artist Nevada Barr executed the cover, using the color and shading of a Mark Rothko painting from Felice’s collection for the background and superimposing the Star of David over it.

Do you have a favorite line or excerpt that you would like to share from your book?

Inside the stone building, a British officer examined passenger’s travel documents. When Felice’s turn came, the crisply uniformed colonel looked at her bare shoulders and her short beige and cream linen dress…A marriage certificate issued the day before by a rabbi in Beirut said they were husband and wife. The man looked malnourished. He had a red beard and long ear-locks, and large spectacles covered his face. His black suit was all dusty, and his head was covered with a large Hassidic black fedora. The couple did not speak to each other…The colonel was under orders to do his part at the border to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into Palestine…He asked Felice first in English, which she didn’t know, then in French, “Are the two of you married?”

“Yes, of course,” she answered him.

“What language do you have in common?” he continued, probing the ruse.

But Felice and her newly certificated husband had no language in common. He spoke Arabic and Hebrew, and she Polish, French, German, Yiddish, and some Russian. “The Language of love,” she said in perfect melodious French, not missing a beat, flirting with the colonel.

His rejoinder: “Tomorrow is my day off. I will meet you for dinner at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. She smiled at him. He stamped her entry visa!

What are some of your favorite ways to promote your work?

Talking with people about it, giving an excerpt, answering their questions. For Felice’s Worlds I like to explain the themes–enduring war in Palestine and Israel, the passage of psychological trauma from one generation to the next, immigration and loss, the transmission of religious feeling from one generation to the next, and psychological resilience. These are some of the things I would like to do on the virtual book tour.

What is a typical writing day like for you?

I get up at about 6:30, read just the morning newspaper over breakfast, take my second cup of coffee to my study by 7:30, and write until lunch time. During this time I do nothing else but write at my computer–no telephone calls, no email, no surfing, no paying bills. I try to do this four days a week. After lunch the rest of the day is devoted to any and all other pursuits.

What are some way that you like to relax?

Most of my writing days are at our cabin near the Russian River and Guerneville, California, two hours north of home in Berkeley. My best relaxation is taking Poki, my big standard poodle, to the ocean a half hour away and walking on the beach while she romps. There are also redwood forest lanes and ridges to wander nearby. After that comes relaxing with books of all sorts, kind of in rotation from mysteries to romances that aren’t clichés to history. In the evenings my wife and I watch movies at home, especially off-beat, little, character driven ones.

What author/s do you think are overlooked in the writing/reading world today?

When I discovered Daniel Woodrell’s The Death of Sweet Mister a number of years ago, I wondered why this incredible craftsman of Ozark mountain dialogue and sadness, with language as poetic and vivid as Shakespeare’s, was not famous. Now he is, thanks in part to the movie made from his book Winter’s Bone. When I first read Amy Bloom’s moving novel Away, about a strong, opportunistic young woman leaving Eastern Europe and coming to America like Felice, the critics had not yet lauded it. Now they have. Presently I am waiting to stumble on my next great overlooked writer. Maybe you can give me a lead.

What author would you most like to meet and why?

I would like to have dinner with Ian McEwan, the author of Atonement, whom I think is the best living English language writer. Whenever I read one of his books I wonder who the man is that can create such compelling characters and the conundrums in which they find themselves. How much of his work is artifice and how much comes from his own life? I would like to ask him how he works, and whether he knows that each of his novels ends ambiguously, leaving me wondering what happened or will happen.

Do you have any upcoming project that you would like to share with readers?

I am writing a novel called Prom Date. It is about a high school student whose family was close to Marilyn Monroe for two years before her death, and it tells about the impact of his relationship with her on the rest of his life. This really happened to a person I knew. But mostly this real experience is just the kernel of fact in a story about how the romance of Hollywood affects three friends, two boys and a girl, growing up there, about their dreams that were lost and found. I am writing it as one of the youth’s adult memoir, but it is fiction.

What is something about yourself that would come as a surprise to many people?

Since I’m a psychiatrist sometimes people are scared of me because they think that I can see into their minds like an airport security x-ray machine sees their bodies. The surprise is that I know much less than they think and they have nothing to worry about.

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About Tracee Gleichner