Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Nina Sankovitch

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When Nina Sankovitch lost her older sister Anne-Marie to cancer, her life went into a tailspin. The mother of four boys, ages 15, 13, 10, and 7, Sankovitch plowed full speed ahead, filling her life with constant activity and interaction in an attempt to escape her sorrow and figure out how to continue living.

Three years later, Sankovitch's grief and pain were as acute as ever. That's when she turned to books. Already an avid reader, she committed to reading a book a day for a year, hoping to find the solace and answers she was looking for through the written word. She also reviewed each book, posting her thoughts on her blog readallday. Sankovitch recounts her experience in the recently published Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading.

Literary Mama Profiles Editor Lisa Moskowitz Sadikman interviewed Sankovitch about how she managed to read a book a day, how reading informed her motherhood and the connective power of books.

LMS: What was your life like before you started your year of reading? Describe your life from the time Anne-Marie passed away until you decided to read a book a day.

NS: After my sister died, I went through a period of frenetic activity; it was my way of answering the question of "how to live," a question many of us ask ourselves after someone we love dies. I signed up for all sorts of volunteer activities, everything from coaching my youngest son's soccer team to leading the school's arts education program. I started a website to encourage the recycling of books, I took on new exercise classes, I scheduled appointments with every kind of doctor to ensure my own health (and the health of my children).

I was on a treadmill of activity that I set to a faster and faster pace, but I will still waking up in the middle of the night crying. My husband told me that I should listen to my tears and find a way to live that would bring me some peace. So I turned to books, trusted companions my whole life. I decided to use my website as a place to write about every book I read, in the hope that I could share with others the joy of reading, and encourage others to read for escape, pleasure, wisdom, and comfort. Our children are told in school how important it is to read every day and yet as adults we forget how important it is for us also, to create time and space to read. I was going to make time in my year of reading, not only for myself but also for everyone in my family, and anyone who participated in my experience.
LMS: With such a full family life, how did you give yourself permission to read every day?

NS: I dropped out of most of my activities, leaving only a few commitments in place. I also asked my children to choose which extracurricular activities they wanted to continue with and which ones they wanted to leave behind. Our year became a home-based year of being together after school, the kids often playing or reading beside me. I never felt as if I was absent due to my reading commitment; in fact, we were together more than ever, sharing space and ideas and company.

LMS: You write: "By giving it the name of work, I sanctified it." Did you feel this endeavor needed to be work in order to be seen as valuable or sacred? Was this for yourself or for others?

NS: Too often a mother who is home with her children full-time is seen as indulging herself if she does something for herself, such as going to the gym or joining a creative writing or ceramics class. What is forgotten in the condemnation of the mother is that it is in our commitments to our interests that we fully realize ourselves, and in such commitment and realization we become happier and more energetic, and ultimately better parents and spouses. By calling what I did "work," I sought to remove myself from the threat of condemnation but I should have just done what I did, and let others judge how they would. The people who mattered, my family and friends, quickly saw that my year of reading was restoring me, body and soul.

LMS: You mention that your husband and four boys were very supportive of your reading. What kind of discussions did you have with your kids around the importance of this project? How did they respond?

NS: My husband and children understood right away that this year of reading was very important to me and they supported me from the start. We all thought it would just sort of work out, with everyone pitching in as needed. But within a few weeks I realized we needed a schedule of who set the table when, who cleaned up after dinner, who did the vacuuming and helped with the laundry. By writing everything down, we all knew what was expected and things went pretty smoothly. Many aspects of that schedule are still in place today -- and my kids will make fine husbands one day!

LMS: Were there times during the year when you felt like you just couldn't keep up with the reading and your family life? Other than the every other week housekeeping, did you have outside help at all?

NS: I had no outside help but I had my four kids and my husband. My parents also helped out, happy to spend time with the kids playing games, going to museums, and baking cookies for the holidays. On those days when I had too much to do and had to make a choice between cooking dinner and reading, the choice was easy: order pizza. We had no trouble ignoring the dust bunnies or finding clean shirts in the stacks of laid out (but not folded!) laundry.

The pace of our lives slowed down during my year of reading, because we had un-committed ourselves from many activities outside the home and in that slower pace, we found the time for things that mattered, like reading and being together every night for dinner, whether it was pizza or chicken parm prepared by my husband.

LMS: When did you know you were going to write a book about this experience?

NS: Not until the final month of my reading, when the New York Times ran a piece about my project of reading a book a day. A number of publishers contacted me to write a book and with the help of my amazing agent, I was able to figure out how a book could be written -- the story I wanted to tell -- and then to find the right publisher. I realized that my book could be about my family and explain that turning to such intense reading, a book a day for one year, was the logical response for me, given my childhood, my parents, and my experiences. It is the story of a lifetime of reading, and the story of recovering from grief, with the help of books, and of my family.

LMS: Have there been other times in your life when you've turned to books for solace or answers?

NS: My whole life I have turned to books for solace and answers and guidance. But right after my sister died, I used books only for escape. I wasn't ready to listen to their wisdom, not right away. First I had to grieve in my own way, and then I was ready to read again for guidance -- and I found everything I needed in those books that I read during my year of reading a book a day.

LMS: You mention you chose the books you read by length and that you could not have read them previously. Were there any other criteria? Did you find yourself gravitating toward particular themes as the year progressed?

NS: I also could not read any author twice, which meant that I read 365 new books by 365 different authors. I read books by authors from all over the world, and from every genre. Most of my life, I had read novels and mysteries but suddenly I was reading every kind of book, from science fiction to philosophical essays, and from biography and memoir to history and humor. I mixed up my reading to keep myself fresh and lively; if I had read a novel with catharsis-rendering climaxes every day, I might have collapsed after just a few weeks. But by turning from tragedy to humor, mystery to history, I was able to read on, day after day, and with increasing joy and energy.

LMS: You started a blog to post reviews of the books you read. What kind of reactions have you received from your readers?

NS: Readers began to write to tell me of their own experiences of recovering from sorrow through reading books; in fact, I discovered that around the world, people of all ages and backgrounds were reading not only for pleasure (or for school!) but because of all the guidance and comfort that books offered to them. My year of reading was never a solitary experience -- I shared my reading with everyone and anyone who was interested, and they shared right back.

LMS: What did books offer you that interacting with people didn't or couldn't during that year?

NS: Books allowed me to interact with people in a more meaningful way. Conversations began with "what did you read today?" and quickly veered into wide-ranging chats covering all sorts of topics. When you talk about books, you can talk about anything at all. Books can be both the screen and the open door, a way to broach taboo subjects or sensitive issues and then really explore what things mean to the two people conversing. I was able to approach questions of death, sorrow, grief, and how to live a good life through my reading, and then share those discussions with others.

LMS: How have the lessons you've learned from your year of reading influenced how you see your life now? The lives of your children?

NS: The lessons I learned, including the importance of memory and remembrance, of kindness and forbearance, and of connection with others, are ones I try to exercise every day. In terms of day to day living, we all learned the value of doing a few things with commitment and joy, rather than doing many things with a sense of drudgery. My kids are focused in terms of their interests but also able to take time to just have fun, hang out with me, and show up for dinner -- and they are always hoping for pizza!

LMS: What, if anything, did you learn about mothering from your reading?

NS: There is no set course for achievement or self-fulfillment; every person has their own schedule, their own interests, and their own way of getting things done. What I want most for my children is that they feel the safety and security within our family to be who they are, and the bravery to go out into the world and be what they want to be with exactly who they are. I want them to understand what I learned so fully in my year of reading: that we live in cycles of joy and sorrow, and that we can allow joy to prevail by remembering past moments of happiness and looking forward to new discoveries, at any age.

LMS: How has your life changed since since you completed your year of reading? You mention in the book that finishing that year was both an end and a beginning. Is it what you expected?

NS: My year of reading was an end to my despair and the beginning of recovered joy. It was a year of focus and commitment, and of being very much at home, with my family. The year I then spent writing my book was also a year of focus and commitment. By writing the book, I was able to understand even more of what I had gained during my year of reading, all the lessons I learned and all of the family history I discovered through conversations with my parents. In writing the book, I grieved again for my sister but I was also able to celebrate her -- and now that the book is out in the world, I hear from people who tell me they feel as if they know me, and know Anne-Marie and that they will never forget her -- and I feel so grateful.

LMS: Do you miss reading a book every day? How often do you read now?

NS: Sometimes I miss the single-mindedness of that year -- every day I knew what I had to do! But I am very happy to just read every day, a little bit or a lot, whatever I have time for. Even just ten minutes of reading is restorative for me, and can bring such joy.

LMS: What's next for you?

NS: I am writing a book on letters, and their unique qualities as vehicles of connection and communication. I have nothing against digital communication, but the handwritten, stamp-adorned medium is an endangered species that I want to celebrate before its demise -- and in doing so, perhaps head off its extinction! The book will be published by Simon & Schuster.


Lisa Sadikman is a writer, aspiring surfer, and mom to three daughters. Her essays on motherhood, raising girls, and midlife have appeared on Brain, Child, Motherwell, Mamalode, Scary Mommy, HuffPost Parents, Kveller, and others. She is a former profiles editor for Literary Mama.


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