Interview with Memoir Author Lisa Fineberg Cook

By Jerry Waxler

Firewood heats you twice, once when you chop it and once when you burn it. I find the same applies to memoirs, which warm me when I read them and then again when I dive back into them for lessons. In some cases, memoirs warm me a third time when I interview the author and find out more about her process. In this entry, I have the pleasure to speak with Lisa Fineberg Cook, a generous writer who has shared her experience in “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me.” In this three part interview she answers questions about how it felt to share her life, and what is a JAP anyway.

(To read the first of my three part review of her memoir, click here.)

Jerry Waxler: Of course, all of us make mistakes and go through rough spots. But most of us try to forget those things, and bury them deep in the vaults of memory. For memoir writers, though, such material becomes the basis for the story. As I write my own memoir, I see that in many situations I was neither a kind or wise person. I think, “Dear Lord, the protagonist in this story was a jerk. Do I really want to portray myself that way?”

Your memoir portrays edgy moments that you might not be particularly proud of, and yet there they are in plain sight, and you are the one who shared them. How did you feel when you saw your flaws first showing up on the page? Were you horrified? Did you learn things about yourself?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I have never been particularly concerned with hiding flaws.  I think flaws make people more interesting and because I look for humor in just about every situation, flaws can be especially funny. As far as learning things about myself, I think I learn more in reflection than I do in the moment.  I’m usually just trying to figure out how to deal with a situation when I’m in it and then later — sometimes even months or years later, I’ll look back and think how differently I’d handle that situation now, or how valuable that lesson was and I didn’t even realize it at the time. When I’m learning things about myself after the fact, it seems like useful information to be incorporated rather than a revelation.

Jerry Waxler: Tell me about the reasoning that ran through your mind as you decided to reveal moments that most people would try to hide into public stories.

Lisa Fineberg Cook: When I wrote JAP, my husband gave me great advice, which was to choose my audience and write solely for that person (or people depending) and not to concern myself with trying to write universally.  So when I sat down and started writing, I wrote as though I was having a series of anecdotal conversations with my girlfriends. I could imagine us at a bar, having cocktails while I regaled them with amusing stories about my plight in Japan. When we talk to friends, in a relaxed atmosphere, we are much less inclined to edit ourselves down to a superficial exterior that looks good and is in control.  Besides which, revealing moments are funny.

Jerry Waxler: While writing the book, how much did you discover about yourself or about the experiences during that period of your life by seeing yourself emerge on the pages of the book?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: What’s true is that I actually wrote the book using another name for both myself and my husband.  I wanted distance from myself and to be as objective as possible — I didn’t want to protect my image in any way because that would have ruined the story for me — so I began to think of the character as someone else entirely and then when it was sent to the publisher they told me I had to change back all the names to mine and my husband’s actual names.  That was weird because I really had begun to think of this person as a third person.

I think what’s important to remember too is that I was crafting a story, not documenting my autobiography.  I purposely edited my character to a fit the story the way I wanted it.  It is me but  not completely me and I certainly played up the Jappiness for humor and consistency.  Nora Ephron has a great line which is ‘memoirs are novels that your agent tells you will sell better as a memoir.’ (I’m paraphrasing slightly but that’s the gist of it).  I wanted the book to be entertaining more than anything else and I made stylistic choices about my character that were suited to this story in order to keep it funny.

Jerry Waxler: How much about the book did you understand before you started, and how much was revealed during the writing?

Lisa Fineberg Cook: I had never written a book before and I really wanted to know what it felt like to finish it.  I continued to envision myself writing the last sentence and then the words ‘The End’ and emailing the final manuscript to my agent and the dedication and so on and so forth…

I think of the writing process now much the same way I do about raising a child.  I knew I wanted to be a mother absolutely but when the time actually comes, you know less than nothing about being the parent of an infant.  So basically you just show up and hope you’re getting it right most of the time.  By the time your infant is a toddler, you know what its like to have an infant. When your toddler is in preschool, you know what its like to have a toddler and so on…

How I relate that to writing this book and any subsequent projects I’m working on, is that I knew I wanted to write this book and I figured if I showed up every day to work on it, it would turn into something which would eventually resemble a book. I sort of learned about this whole process after each stage had been completed and by the time I was holding an advanced copy in my hands, I took about two minutes to say ‘wow, this is so cool,’ and then it was on to the next project because there is still so much I don’t understand yet and I can’t wait to find out.

Lisa Fineberg Cook’s Home Page

Amazon Link to “Japan Took the JAP Out of Me”

Click here to read part 2, in which Lisa Fineberg Cook continues to offer observations about writing the memoir.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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