Susan Signe Morrison
The interior title page of Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature and Growing Up in Wartime America shows your mother's name as author and yours as editor, but her name alone appears on the book's cover. Why did you make this decision?
This actually was a decision of the publisher in conjunction with the designer. There simply wasn't enough room on the cover to include my name and role as editor. That appears on the first page of the book as you open it, though, on the title page: "Edited by Susan Signe Morrison." The cover is simple and dramatic, and that meant including just my mom's name.
In January, 1942 at 19, Joan writes that she intends for her journals to be read by others. Does she keep that wish through her life?
She never showed me the journals during her lifetime. But she always told my brothers and me that they existed. They were in a filing cabinet blocked by all sorts of books and stuff that only got moved after she and my dad died within two months of each other. They were there, just as she had said. But I did find a note to my dad, Bob Morrison, written in the past two decades in her poetry notebook:
"Bob darling, If you ever read these poems, remember I was a silly adolescent girl and made most of it up. I was changed by the time I met you."
Joan died before this book came out. Did she know that you planned to edit the journals for publication? If so, what was her reaction? Or perhaps she asked you?
She died before the journals were rediscovered. I think, though, that she did want to edit them for publication. She had rediscovered the short stories and poems she had written as a girl and young woman. She showed me the stories and asked me whether I thought they were worth trying to publish. I said, "Definitely!" She died two years later—but I'm editing them now.
The book, thanks to your editing, is fascinating reading. You keep three themes: a young girl's growing-up, that girl's love of literature and determination to be a writer, and her anticipation of—and then the actuality of—World War II. Given the overwhelming abundance of material you had to work with, how did you decide what to include and to exclude?
This was very hard. I'd say that the published volume includes about two-fifths of the actual material in her diaries. There were various themes I knew I wanted to include: anything political and related to war; anything romantic (pre-dating my dad!), and anything having to do with literature and poetry (I teach literature).
Then I noticed a number of other themes: nature (she was a nature-study camp counselor as a teenager); religion and God; and what I'd loosely call "meaning of life" questions that a teenager would naturally have. I also included passages I thought were, to put it quite simply, beautifully written.
How did you manage to work this enormous project into your professional and personal life?
I was already scheduled for a sabbatical in the fall when my mom and dad died the spring before. While I was grieving, I was living in London, England for a year on sabbatical with my husband and two children. I had the time to read the journals several times, transcribe, and then edit them. The manuscript was accepted for publication a year after I started working on them.
Did you find any surprises about your mother as a young girl? Some things you did not know?
Well, she "necked" with a lot of boys! And it was wonderful to see the same sense of humor she had as an adult in her younger self.
Did your mother continue her journals as an adult?
No, she didn't. She always told us she wrote her last entry the night before she got married. And she got married when she was 20 years old in 1943.
I so admire your mother for keeping these early journals. How did she preserve them through the years?
That's a great question. In fact, three of the six original (as I deduce) journals exist and three are missing. It's a miracle that they exist at all, since my parents moved many times during the war. I can only assume her parents kept them for her until she settled down after the war in New York City. The first journal is missing, the one from the first year of the war in Europe, and the last where my dad meets and courts her. But I say that we should be thrilled to have what exist and not lament what's missing.
Tell us a bit about what happened to young Joan. Did she go on live the life she dreamed of?
She did! She married my dad, who became a best-selling author himself. He was an Organic Chemistry professor at NYU and co-wrote what became the standard textbook in the field. So he retired at the age of 50 to produce new editions of what we always called "the book." Joan (my mom) and he were married almost 67 years and died two months apart. Joan wrote two books: She was the co-author of American Mosaic: The Immigrant Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (1980), named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Dramatic readings from the book have been performed on Ellis Island, at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, and in an "In Performance at the White House" program broadcast nationally on PBS. Her second book, From Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (1987), became the basis for a popular course on the 1960's at the New School for Social Research in New York City.
In the acknowledgements, you quote your mother speaking of your immediate family as the "Morrison Writing Factory." Your father also wrote. What was it like to grow up in a "writing factory"?
It was great! My dad retired early, so he no longer commuted to NYC from our home in Morristown, New Jersey. So as long as I can remember, my dad was always home in his study in the attic. He'd come down for lunch and go for a walk every day at noontime and my mom and I or just I would often join him. And my mom wrote freelance articles for The New York Times or the local paper, so she was always around. Spending time with your children is so important. I was privileged to have had my folks always be around when I was growing up.
At that time, did you want to be a writer as an adult?
Oh, absolutely! That's what I knew! In high school, two friends of mine and I wrote a play and won a playwriting award—and we performed the play. I also made up stories and little plays with my stuffed animals and dolls. So I have always been creating stories.
Did you keep journals as a girl and young woman as your mother did?
Yes. I started when I was about 15 and have ever since. I write every night. I always say it's cheaper than a therapist!
Any chance you will adapt your journals into a memoir? Or maybe write a memoir from scratch? I, for one, would find an account of growing up with the fascinating Joan Wehlen Morrison fascinating. I hope I get to review it!
My family and I spent an earlier sabbatical in London, England during the academic year 2003-4, when our kids were 7 and 3. I would write my mom weekly emails about our adventures and the cultural differences—especially around the kids and school. I always made the emails funny. After a few months of writing these emails, my mom said that I should use them to write a memoir. I have a draft of this memoir—I hope it will be published one day AND that you will review it!