I’ve been working on a series of stories about the character I call “my father” – loosely based on my own father – for about 30 years. Over that time, many of them have been in magazines and several in previous short story collections. I had no intention of doing a series, but I liked that first story – it was “The False Moustache” – a lot and wondered if I could use the character in other situations. The story had begun with a spark of truth – a story my father had told many times about a foolish man he’d once known – and the spirit of my father, who had died a couple of years earlier. I had a number of such yarns from my father rattling around in my head and I soon wrote several more of my own “versions.” Gradually, over many years, I began to think I might have enough of these tales to eventually fill a book.
All of the stories begin, first of all, with the character of Morgenstern, “my father,” who is very much imbued with the persona and personality of my own father, and with a seed of truth. There really was a strike at The Day, the Yiddish newspaper where my father wrote for years, and he went to work in a silversmith shop, the situation that informs the story called “The Barking Dog.” And he really did work briefly as a tutor/farmhand, the hook that gets “The Farm Hand” going. As for the story “The Family Circle,” there really was a Margoshes family circle, spearheaded by my mother, but beyond that, all three stories are fiction, as are all in the series, though some are more “fictional” than others.
As I continued to return to these stories, in between other writing projects, a few constants began to become clear to me. The most important was that, while the tone of the stories varies considerably, from somber to comic, they’re similar thematically in that they all show different glimpses of a fundamentally decent man in morally perplexing situations.
All the stories in the series walk that precarious tightrope between memoir and fiction. Of course, they’re not true memoir – they’re about my father, not me, though sometimes I appear briefly, as a child, listening to my father’s tale. Sometimes I (the author) have myself (the character) ask a question or in some other way provide a foil for the character of my father. Mostly, though, the focus is on “my father,” often in time periods before my birth. The stories are written in a blend of first and third person – when the character of myself as a child is on stage, it’s first person; but when the focus is on “my father” alone, it’s third. This bumping together of forms and techniques inevitably raises a question or two in the minds of some readers: is this truth or fiction, and how does the narrator know these things?
I worked hard, with the stories’ structure and a sort of old-fashioned expository style, to make them feel like memoir – like truth – but, of course, most serious fiction writers do that all the time – we employ technique to garb our fabrications in an illusion of truth. We want the reader to buy into our fictions. I also worked hard to imbue these stories with a tension created by that unstated question of how the narrator came to know not just the stories, in their broad strokes, but the fine details. That is the question, isn’t it?
Most importantly, I tried to honour my father. The best way to do that, I knew, was to get it right.