Quill & Quire Article - Dave Margoshes
In Praise of My Father
For poet and fiction writer Dave Margoshes, writing a tribute to his father's memory involved blending literary and literal truths
My father was a storyteller. His preferred venue was sitting at the kitchen table in his undershirt after dinner, with a glass of cheap port or sherry, an ever-present cigarette burning in an ashtray. His audience was usually just me, a wide-eyed ki who had his own interest in stories.
This persisted through most of my childhood and, afte I went off to university, whenever I'd be home for holidays, and into my adult years as well, when I'd return for avisit. His starting point would usually be the events of the day, but would then spin off into recollections of events or people. As a journalist with a long career in New York City's Lower East Side, where he had covered the labour beat for the Yiddish daily Der Tag (The Day), he'd been involved with plenty of the former and knew plenty of the latter.
Over the years, I heard many of these stories numerous times, and some of them lodged themselves in my head - though, I'm sorry to say, many others are lost to me forever. As a fiction writer, I guess it was inevitable that some of them would work their way into my imagination. Writers are scavengers, magpies, We cannibalize our own lives and the lives of people around us. Many of my short stories have their origins in anecdotes "borrowed" from friends or family for my own ends.
Most serious fiction writers employ technique to garb our fabrications in an illusion of truth. That's exactly how my new book, A Book of Great Worth, came to be. These are linked stories about a character I call "my father," based loosely on my own father, which build emotionally to form, I hope, a compelling portrait of a fundamentally decent man in morally perplexing situations. The collection amounts to a kind of love letter to my father. It's also a love letter to the Jewish immigrant world he inhabited during the period between the two world wars.
(By the way, the book is not as audaciously titled as you might think. It refers to a hand-written book in an unidentified language, a "book of great worth," my father buys in a used bookstore in the title story.)
I've been working on these stories for about 30 years - the first one, dated 1982 in my notebook, was published the following year in the Vancouver literary magazine Prism International. Many have appeared in magazines, several in previous short story collections. I had no intention of doing a series, but I liked that first story a lot - it was "The False Moustache" - and wondered if I could use the character in other situations. The story had begun with a spark of truth - a tale my father, who had died a couple of years earlier, had told me many times about a foolish man he'd once known. I realized I had a number of such yarns from my father rattling around in my head, and I soon wrote several more of 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. There's also an element of truth. for example, the title story opens with the 1937 crash of the Hindenburg dirigible in New Jersey, an event my father covered. It then veers off into the territory of my imagination.
A Book of Great Worth is a work of fiction, but 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 tales). Mostly, though, they take place before my birth. This inevitably raises questions in the minds of some readers: is this truth or fiction, and how does the narrator - the off-stage "song" telling stories about "my father" - know about 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.
Most importantly, I tried to honour my father. The best way to do that, I knew, was to get it right.