Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Interview With Memoir Author Keith Alexander

Keith L. T. Alexander, author of the recently published Forgery-of-the-Month Club (January 2013), is an African-American who grew up not only with a white and Jewish, single mother, but in one of the most racially segregated cities in the 1960s.  Unable to make ends meet, his mother Anita became an artist.  But Anita was no ordinary artists; she was a con-artist.

She ripped off marijuana from university plants, ran a 20-year bicycle theft ring, and effectively executed mail fraud.  With a compulsion for things both intellectual and illegal, "Anita the Burglar" became a Picasso forger.
Today, her son tells the entire story.  What was it like to be raised by a criminal (and an absent, wealthy attorney father) in 1960s Chicago?  What is art forgery all about and how has the practice evolved?  And most importantly, what lessons came from this unbelievable upbringing?  The author completed this interview with BookMarketingBuzzBlog:  

1.      What inspired you to write your new book “Forgery of the Month Club? Several things inspired me to begin writing the book.  I began writing it in July 1998 just after earning my MBA.  I had spent the prior two years doing financial analysis and otherwise thinking and behaving solely as a business man.  As an artist, the prospect of getting a job doing that did not appeal to me.  Many people in my life who knew my mother or knew of her suggested I write a book about her exploits. The book began as a tribute and eulogy for her that could be read before she dies (BTW, she is still alive).  Growing up at her side, she was larger than life; incredibly intelligent and at times, inspiring.  I loved being involved in some of her wacky schemes, like building the Castle and designing The Fat Pigeon, and became fascinated that she chose the life that she did. I wanted to see if I could pinpoint where she veered away from her middle class life, to embrace a life of crime.

My training is in printmaking and sculpture, so I approached writing with apprehension, doubt, confusion and fear, unaware of how writing changes one, especially over 14 years.  In a conversation with the philosopher and artist Allan Kaprow, he told me: “If you want to change something, pay close attention to it.” As I spoke with people in mom’s life and did more research for the book, it became a process for me to untangle my memories, feelings, dreams and yearnings I had as a child.  As an adult, my life had veered away from what I wanted it to be.  Writing the book became a process of personal growth and maturing. 

2.      2. What was it like knowing your mom was arrested and seeing to make a living illegally? To my knowledge, mom was arrested three times.  The first time for the marijuana, was before I was born. That was shocking, because the police actually thought mom was a threat simply because she had in her possession two bags of dried plants.  The second time, Lin was ten and I was 8.  Mom was in the basement of a nearby apartment building rummaging through lockers, when the police surprised her. We woke up that morning with a phone call from Dan, the owner of the nearby coffee house, who told Lin that we were going with Penny and Tovia, a couple of his kids, to the Art Institute of Chicago for the day.  It felt odd that we had not seen mom before we began our day, but I thought nothing more of it.  In the evening mom greeted us at home, as though nothing had happened.  It wasn’t until three or four years later that I learned that our trip to the Art Institute was to keep us occupied while Dan and his wife got mom’s bail money together.  I’m glad I didn’t know about it then. 

When mom was arrested in the 1980’s, it was for cutting off the electricity in the apartment of squatters.  I was in my twenties.  When I saw the police turn her around and handcuff her, it was shocking.  By then, however, I had bought into what had become our nefarious lifestyle and told myself what I wanted to hear: “Everyone in the neighborhood gets arrested. Mom will know what to do.”  I never saw mom steal a bicycle, or scrape gold from the Hamilton statue, so it was easy for me to have an image of her as benign.  When she and I strolled the aisles of a local supermarket, and I saw her tuck a pound of butter in her coat pocket, I thought it was bold.  I was in my twenties, and since I could also be arrested I thought it was reckless of her as well, and I left the store immediately, quite shaken.

3.      3. Your dad was absent while growing up and your mom was a criminal.  How did you turn out to be normal despite the odds? I have felt alienated my adult life.  I am still astonished that given how many illegal situations I was involved in that I am not dead or in prison.   Forgiving my mother and father for what I perceived as their shortcomings as parents, was central to regaining my moral footing.  Becoming a father of a child who had serious health issues from birth was sobering, as was resuscitating her when she stopped breathing.  She will need me her entire life, and having an itinerant father myself impressed upon me how crucial it is for children to have love, affection, stability and access to both parents.  I also credit my grandmother Teresa Cherness, who always encouraged me to go to school and graduate.  She loved graduations, and always came to them from Los Angeles.  Her visits were always filled with love, affection, positivity and presents.  She was a proud Jew who aside from accepting my sister and I as her blood kin,  exemplified a love of books, a love of learning, the importance of giving to ones’ community, of being a leader, of expressing ones talents, of producing in ones’ chosen field and the importance of family. 

4.      4. You grew up in the 1960s and 1970s as a black, Jewish child of mixed-race parents. How did you develop a strong sense of positive identity amidst conflicting cultural cues? Everyone we socialized with was white, including the adults I was closest to, such as my mother, the gay crowd, and my grandmother.  Unlike many African-American children, Lin and I never got The Talk about racism, rather mom always repeated that we were Jews, and in the cultural elite. As a teen when I hung out with friends of mine who were white, occasionally they said the N-word.  It was always painful to hear that, even though they quickly said: “Sorry, Keith.  You’re different.”  I was rejected by white girls on whom I had a crush, and I was discriminated against by members of the Boy Scouts of America when working towards my Eagle Scout award.  There were other times when with acquaintances who assumed I was not a Jew, would freely express their anti-semitism.  There were moments in the Jewish community when I was discriminated against that were equally painful. 

However, the consistent sense of identity and acceptance I felt was in the Jewish community.  In Hebrew school, I felt loved by my teachers and my rabbi, Rabbi Louis H. Binstock.  We learned about Tikkun Olam, fixing the world; we learned about Tzedakah, the doing of good deeds; and we learned about Torah and B’etzalim Elohim -- the idea that we are all made in God’s image. 

5.      5. You published your book as a kindle e-book exclusive. Why did you choose such a format? There were several moments during the past 14 years when I felt like the manuscript was as far as I could take it and got many rejections.  That was frustrating and demoralizing.  When I began to re-work the manuscript two years ago while recovering from my recent divorce, the publishing industry had changed fundamentally, and e-book self-publishing was no longer seen as on the margins of publishing, but rather a viable way to distribute ones book without the old barriers to entry like an agent or a publisher.   

6.      6.What were the challenges and rewards of writing your memoir? For a number of years one of the primary challenges was what structure would be most effective and appropriate for the story. One of my earliest drafts attempted a structure that was modeled on the way we remember.  At one moment we remember something from last night, other moments we remember something from four months ago, at other moments we remember something from twenty years ago.  For me that draft was the most satisfying and honest in terms of memory, but did not work for a larger audience.

After doing years of writing and research I had to decide what to include or exclude.  I discovered that my Great great grandfather was a slave in Natchez, Mississippi who joined the Union Army, fought in skirmishes and is mentioned in official dispatches of the Civil War. After the war he collected a modest pension. His mother Charlotte was the daughter of a Cherokee and African-American union who, while working in the ‘Big House’ on a Virginia plantation, struck the lady of the house, and in all likelihood, walked from Virginia to Natchez where she was bought by the Catholic church. I had an uncle, Edward Smyth Jones who, in the early 1900’s had already been a published Poet and longed to attend Harvard University.  One day in Illinois, he began walking to Harvard, and eventually arrived in Harvard yard.   My mother’s father Arnold Israel designed an experimental airplane in the 1920’s in Minneapolis for industrialist Rufus Rand.  Eventually my grandfather decided to become an Aeronautical Engineer and when offered a position at Wright Airfield in Dayton, Ohio moved there.  He spent his wartime duties examining wreckage from enemy airplanes and deducing the quality of engineering and of raw materials available to the Axis powers. In my judgment, to include these wonderful stories would have distracted from the redemptive theme of Forgery of the Month Club

Discovering emotions I had hidden away for years and owning them was challenging, as was creating the confidence and belief that someone would be interested in reading the book.  I struggled with the belief that as an artist, my media was not writing, yet I felt compelled to tell these stories. It was a struggle to forgive my father. As an adolescent, it seemed natural for me to hate him, yet during the years of writing this book, I began to see that my anger was a choice I made, that it took a lot of energy, and served nothing and no one.  What I needed from him was from the heart and eyes of a child, while he saw his world through the eyes of an adult.  He was a complicated man. It took much longer for me to forgive my mother, since I had been her collaborator as a teen ager and as a young adult.  In that role, I felt powerful at her side, while feeling great unease enabling her.  It was challenging for me to reshape myself emotionally in a way that did not include breaking the law. Once I began I felt emotional integrity return to my life.

Rewards: The book manuscript became a document for me to map out my past in a way that would be empowering for me to move into the next stage of my life.  Writing this book clarified for me much of the past in such a way that I am able to make decisions about my future that are based on what I am committed to, like raising an empowered, creative healthy daughter and living a life that will inspire her.  I also think it is a collection of stories that are unusual and hopefully entertaining.

7.      7. What are the five take-away lessons you want to leave readers? I cannot underestimate the importance of learning how your mind works, intellectually and emotionally.  So much of what we do on a moment to moment basis is based on something we felt in our childhood -- whether a response to such feelings, or a reaction against them -- yet we are still, years later, responding to those feelings we created as children, rather than responding to what we want in our lives as adults.

The secret to being a good father is to be around and available to your child not simply for the recitals, and soccer games, but as important, for the unplanned, spontaneous moments that are opportunities to show love to your child.  One minute you and your child may be lazing around the house doing something mindless, but the next minute you can be having an unexpectedly great conversation with your kid.  Those unexpected moments strung together over a week, a month, a year, throughout the upbringing of a child, are part of what makes up the spine of a child’s self-confidence, and ultimately what influences their future.

Forgery of the Month Club is a story of redemption.  It confronts emotional dishonesty, a search for connection and the righting of a life headed for self-destruction. If one is truly committed to having and living a life of fulfillment, and has the stomach for the honest self-inquiry, such a life is attainable.

Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. Keith Alexander is a client of Media Connect. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This blog is copyrighted material by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2013 ©

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