Mentors: Alison Leslie Gold

What Gold modeled for me was the idea that the writer delivers stories that the reader needs. The point is to do that job well.

By Rita WilliamsDecember 28, 2011

    Mentors: Alison Leslie Gold

    WHEN I FIRST HEARD OF Alison Leslie Gold in the late eighties, I had no idea what a visionary author she was, or how much she would teach me about the writing life. I knew only that the founder of the desert recovery house where I worked was hoping Gold would write about the place. I worked with many teenagers there whose stories needed telling, but the only thing these kids desired more than fame was secrecy. Had they spilled the whole truth, they might have attracted more interest from law enforcement than the reading public. (This reticence was shared by the staff as well.)

    Anyway, Gold was on to covering a story of considerably larger proportions: that of the crimes of the Nazis against Jewish refugees in Holland. I had not heard of Miep Gies, the woman who protected Anne Frank and her family until they were taken off to Bergen Belsen, but I know now that Miep's candor was the exact opposite of what Gold would have found had she come to the desert. Anne Frank Remembered, Miep's story, which Gold wrote with her, is a book which will, in all likelihood, sell forever. It's a testament to Gold's insight that she was able to see how badly we needed to hear from this quiet woman who protected Anne Frank's diary without reading it, hoping to return it to Anne when she came back. But this was not to be. Only her father, Otto Frank, survived, and when Miep turned over Anne's diary to him, he realized it had to be published.

    It may not seem a compliment that I cannot recall the first time I met Alison Gold, but that is one of the great guns in her arsenal. She's very attractive, with a mischievous smile and clear brown eyes, but she can present when she wants to like the dun colored peahen ignoring the flashy peacock. No designer bags, no implants, nothing shiny and red. Such a rarity in a loud town like L.A., where everybody is screaming to be seen. But Gold chooses to arrive quietly, because she is there to discover the story, not be it.

    Gold helped Miep relate the details of how she hid Anne Frank and six others for two years until their hiding place was betrayed. We catch a glimpse of this feisty kid from the perspective of a kind adult. Penned up in that tiny annex was a girl on the verge of adolescence. Miep Gies brought her a pair of red high heels. This story becomes all the more compelling because Anne is so normal. But it goes beyond simply sharing her short life.

    There is a kind of prescience in the text as if Miep is warning us that one day the meekest among us may be required to stand and deliver should this darkness come round again:

    I am afraid that if people feel that I am a very special person, a sort of heroine, they may doubt whether they will do the same as I once did. Not many consider themselves very talented or courageous and thus would refrain from helping endangered people. This is the reason that I want everyone to know that I am a very common and cautious woman and definitely not a genius or daredevil. I did help like so many others who ran the same or more risk than me. It was necessary so I helped.

    Anne Frank Remembered had become quite a sensation by the time that Gold and I became friends around 1990. I was trying to write, but having a hard time controlling my material. I'd produce in spasms, when inspiration presented itself, falling into self-loathing doldrums when it would peter out, and rarely would I send anything out.

    One day I was at Alison's house and asked her if she might take a look at some of my stuff. I was writing a novel at the time — not anything personal because I wasn't ready. The last thing I wanted was to divulge my history. When I lost my parents at the age of four, my aunt (who was to live long enough to become the last African-American widow of a Civil War soldier), became my guardian, but I considered it a matter for therapy, not literature. Alison suggested I take a longer view. About a week after this conversation, I learned that my aunt had been invited to participate in a military ceremony at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Intrigued, I called her up and she invited me to come along. Although I hadn't seen her for many years, I knew it was high time we make peace, as she was nearly 94 years old.

    Since the bones of a soldier had come above ground on the Gettysburg battlefield, the officials decided that he should be awarded an Arlington style burial. No one knew whether he had fought for the Union or the Confederacy, so a search began for representatives from both sides. By then all the remaining veterans of the battle itself had passed away. But when one last confederate, Alberta Martin, and one last union widow, my aunt Daisy Anderson, were located, plans for the ceremony expanded considerably. Union and Confederate re-enactors arrived in droves. Time Magazine, as well as the New York Times, sent reporters and photographers. Every branch of the military provided pall bearers. And finally, my aunt and I rode through Gettysburg in a horse drawn carriage accompanied by a Marine escort.

    What struck me most watching Alberta Martin and my aunt that day was how similar they were. Both were poor Southerners who had come of age in grinding poverty and each called her spouse "Mister." Both had married men who were five or six decades older. Each of them clearly still harbored that ancient anger that had ignited the Civil War to begin with. But there was one huge difference. Had this pivotal battle that turned the war in favor of the Union been lost, both my African-American aunt and I might very well be emptying Mrs. Martin's nightsoil that morning.

    By the time I saw Gold once more, my aunt had died. She said simply, "It's time to start. No one else knows this story from the inside like you do. You don't have to do it all at once — start thinking of writing as a marathon rather than a sprint."

    We spoke of many other things that day, but what struck me most was how very much like a marathoner she was. How calmly she went about her work. She dressed simply, no frivolous adornment or wasteful spending. She wrote in the morning — when it came easily as well as when it didn't — all the while quietly building her own distinguished career, telling other stories of the Holocaust, including The Devil's MistressFiet's Vase, and more recently, Lost and Found, part of the Cahiers Series.

    I considered how tenderly Gold must have coaxed that story out of Miep Gies, because she was coaching me in much the same way. I set to work simply at first, writing about how my aunt plucked a duck, how she laughed at the Texans she took hunting when she was a licensed guide. She had been so determined to sculpt me, and I had so rebelled at the idea of being anyone's inert clay. Her death had almost allowed me to finally meet her, on her own terms.

    Gold suggested I forward a couple of pieces to a friend of hers at O Magazine, something I never would have imagined was within my reach. Not only did they buy the piece promptly, but I got a new agent who set up a bidding auction for a book based on this material.

    What Gold modeled for me was the idea that the writer delivers stories that the reader needs. The point is to do that job well. Approached from that perspective, the terror that one's very identity is at stake dissipates. The acceptances aren't as exhilarating, but neither are the rejections so crushing. It becomes a simple matter of tackling the next sentence.

    LARB Contributor

    Rita Williams's work has appeared in Best Food Writing for 2007, Los Angeles Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, O at Home, Saveur, The Utne Reader and Fins and Feathers. She is currently teaching in the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. If the Creek Don't Rise is her first book.


    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!