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Client Exit Interview: Assembling the Elephant

Michael Barrie was already an accomplished writer when he began researching some old family letters. His recently completed book, How We Got Here: The Barrie Family in America, spans centuries and continents to tell the complex story of his forebears. It’s by turns moving and hilarious, certainly one of the biggest and most exciting projects we’ve published.

Here’s Mike’s take on that experience, with bonus advice for prospective family historians:

SS: Your book is a sprawling, multigenerational epic. How and when did you decide to start working on it?

MB: It began with a cache of letters that my sister had. They were in Yiddish and addressed to my grandfather, who died in 1968. When we had them translated, they turned out to have been written by my great-grandfather from Ukraine in the 1930s.

SS: What were the biggest problems you faced in creating this book?

MB: I didn’t set out to write a book. I planned only a timeline of the family’s history from our arrival in America in the early 1900s, in order to give those letters some context. But when I discovered autobiographical writings from my father and uncle, letters they’d written during World War II, and photographs going back to the 1920s, a book began to take shape.

SS: You’re essentially creating the “authorized” version of your family’s history. Is that exhilarating or burdensome?

MB: Every family member in my generation knew a little about our origins, but not much. It was like the blind men all touching a different part of the elephant. So I tried to assemble the elephant from as many sources as possible. I realized that if I didn’t get it down on paper now, it would never happen. I suspected the book would become the “official” version, and I wanted to get it right, but since there was no competing version, I didn’t feel too much pressure. The toughest part was profiling my parents’ generation, as that had the greatest potential for offending offspring.

SS: Any advice for someone considering a similar project?

MB: First: Who are you writing this book for? I imagined my reader to be a curious 12-year-old granddaughter, as yet unborn. I wrote it conversationally, mostly in simple declarative sentences. I tried to explain terms we take for granted: What is steerage? What is a tenement? I rarely spent more than a paragraph on a digression or historical event. The book isn’t meant for scholars.

Second: Avoid platitudes. When questioning people about their parents and grandparents, I tried, not always successfully, to leave out “They adored their children and grandchildren,” or that they were “a good person, inside and out.” Try to use specific incidents and telling anecdotes. Let the dead speak, if you have anything from them in writing.

Third: If you have a choice, go for the offbeat or interesting photo that has some visual context rather than a posed shot. An imperfect photo that humanizes the subject is preferable, in my mind, to a perfect but cliched image.

SS: How did writing this book feel different than other writing gigs?

MB: I’ve written for TV and film, comedy material, but never anything like this. I’m used to working under a severe deadline, but for this project I had as much time as I needed. Turns out I needed about two and half years. For someone who loves to procrastinate, it was perfect.

A longtime writer for Johnny Carson and David Letterman (and who, with characteristic self-effacement, mentions that he co-wrote several films, “one of which made money and the other of which won a Writers Guild Award”), Michael Barrie lives with his family in Los Angeles.

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