What Matters Most 
Q. Was there a specific event or person that inspired you to write What Matters Most?

A. I was describing the scene of my father's funeral—a terrible moment in my own life—to a friend and I started to laugh. It struck me how people behave in comic ways even during the most traumatic times. I wanted to reimagine the scene with fictitious characters. Thus, the idea for the novel was born.


Q. One of the themes of this novel is keeping secrets within a family. What drew you to this topic?

A. Discovering secrets struck me as a good frame for a story about psychological growth. It lent itself to character development and dramatic tension. In the novel I'm working on now, family secrets also play a major role in the plot. I guess this particular theme fascinates me.


Q. The story is seen primarily through Georgie's eyes even though the novel is written in the third person. How "autobiographical" is you novel?

A. I think most fiction writers blend their own emotional responses to the world with those they've observed in other people along with descriptions and circumstances they've experienced, all of which they inject into imaginary events and characters. For example, Georgie's sensibility is much like mine, as is her sense of humor. I lost my father to cancer several years ago, although not to lymphoma. I have two sons, so I drew upon life experience in my portrayal of Jesse. And my background is Russian Jewish. But the plot and situations are fictional, and the characters are either composites of people I know or imaginary.


Q. What was the hardest fictional situation to imagine?

A. Well, one of them was being a single mother. Georgie has it pretty good in terms of her relationship with her ex-husband, Lucas, and the fact that he is wealthy and financially generous. It was a stretch for me because my husband divides most of the childrearing and/or chores with me and we are not affluent like Lucas Carter.


Q. You changed the voice and the sequence of events in the middle of the book? Why?

A. I played around with this section a lot. In early drafts, sections of Estelle's past appeared throughout the novel but, ultimately, this structure didn't work because it gave away too much of the plot. I felt a lot of empathy for the young Estelle and became very interested in the history of women in medicine in the United States. I've read some great books about the subject.


Q. What writers influence or inspire you the most?

A. As a child, the greatest influence on me was Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time because it inspired me to write fiction. When I was ten years old I wrote a hundred fifty page novel about time travel; I wrote every day at sleepaway camp during rest time. In high school and college, the writers I read most voraciously were James Joyce, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and Jane Austen. More recently, I read and adored A. S. Byatt's Possession and Edith Wharton's House of Mirth. I often return to the poetry of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and two of my teachers from my graduate school days, Galway Kinnell and Philip Schultz, for inspiration. I admire so many contemporary writers, including Michael Cunningham, Rachel Cusk, Kathryn Harrison, Scott Spencer, Elinor Lipman, Elizabeth Strout, Andrew Sean Greer, Nancy Reisman, and the nonfiction of Lauren Slater, Bonnie Friedman, and Anne Lamott.


Q. In general, what motivates you to write a novel and what do you find to be the hardest challenge?

A. Character and theme come to me first. In What Matters Most, I wanted to write about loss and its aftermath, the changes in my protagonist's life after her father—upon whom she relies for emotional support—dies. Plot is always the hardest thing for me to sustain. Gradually, I've learned to think more in terms of plot and not just to "superimpose" it upon the characters.


Q. is there any kind of novel you'd like to attempt that you haven't yet?

A. I'm considering writing a historical novel, one that takes place in the late nineteenth century and deals with themes that interest me—women's burgeoning role in the field of medicine, the mistreatment of woman by society and the medical community, Freud and the dawn of psychoanalysis—but I find the prospect daunting. I wrote one chapter of this novel to which I may someday return, but I found myself bogged down with details like Victorian clothing, plumbing, and the exact routes of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad! I have literally hundreds of pages of research that I amassed from the Internet or various books. It was exhausting. While I enjoy research, I think I might torture myself over these kinds of specifics. I so admire Tracey Chevalier for what she accomplished in both Girl with the Pearl Earring and especially The Lady and the Unicorn (which I loved).


Q. What are you working on now?

A. I don't like to give too much away out of some silly notion that it will jinx the writing. But, suffice it to say, it's a novel about two sisters who are very close—one of whom struggled with mental illness and has suddenly chosen to become public with her condition in a manner that offends her loved ones and discloses shocking secrets about her past.
Redeeming Eve 


Comic Novel Smacks of Autobiography: Doth the Author Protest Too Much?


By Susan Shapiro

Eve Sterling, the 30 year-old heroine of the comic new novel Redeeming Eve (Permanent Press), is a neurotic Jewish New Yorker with a chaotic life who is obsessed with 18th century literature. She's envious of her friends' love lives and writes a thesis titled Emma's Entitlement: Jane Austen's Feminist Role Models. She dreams of escaping the stressful demands of academia, marriage and motherhood. Mostly she wants to escape her overbearing Jewish mother, Maxie Sterling, a television social worker who has taken maternal intrusiveness to a new level by discussing her daughter's fertility on her nationally syndicated television show, Mornings with Maxie.

Over a recent cup of coffee in Greenwich Village, Nicole Bokat, the pretty and witty author whose funny first novel was published last month, insisted that
Redeeming Eve is pure fiction. Never mind that Ms. Bokat, 41, is a self-admitted neurotic Jewish New Yorker with a chaotic life who has a doctorate in literature and loves Jane Austen. Never mind that her own mother, Mona, recently had her paged at the radiologist's office as she was getting a mammogram and calls her up to impart such advice as "It's un-American that your kids don't ride bikes." Or that Ms. Bokat gave birth to her second child at Long Island Jewish Hospital, where her mother is a neonatal social worker.


"My mother had just won some big fight with her supervisor at work. All these people kept coming into my room to congratulate her," Ms. Bokat said, laughing. "I didn't know them. I'd just given birth. I was on morphine." So what did her mother think of her fictional debut? "She was insulted. She said, 'You didn't put your brother in the book.' I said, 'Mom, it's fiction.' She said, 'I just hope your in-laws never see it." (In the book, Eve's in-laws think being good Jews means "pulling out the electric Menorah once a year and cleaning your mink for the high holidays." Eve's mother-in-law, Norma, is described as looking like a cross between "Morticia" from
The Addams Family and Jo Anne Worley from Laugh In.) Ms. Bokat, whose family name was originally "Bakatursky," grew up the oldest of three children in a Reform family in Great Neck. Like Eve's father, Ms. Bokat's father (the late Peter Bokat) was a psychiatrist. Following in his footsteps, Ms. Bokat's younger sister is a psychiatric resident at Beth Israel. Her brother is a sports writer. Ms. Bokat was a good student who remembers hiding in her room, reading. She always wanted to be a writer. After majoring in English at Barnard, she completed her master's degree and doctorate at New York University in 1992. She admired such British and Irish authors as Austen, Edna O'Brien and Virginia Woolf, admitting that she was attracted to "the Protestant restraint, the graceful and cerebral female characters who were not victims." Her thesis, on "the more neurotic" Margaret Drabble, was published under the title The Novels of Margaret Drabble: ‘This Freudian Family Nexus.’ Yet Ms. Bokat is also a fan of such Jewish authors as Alice Hoffman and Lynn Sharon Schwartz. As in Austen's work, Ms. Bokat grapples with struggles between the sexes and classes. In Redeeming Eve, Eve pines for her old boyfriend Graham, a rich WASP professor who idolized the big Johns: Updike and Cheever. Yet she winds up falling for a sweet, poor Jewish photographer named Hart Goodman. Donning a Yiddish accent, Hart jokes, "I'm just a merchant class Jew from the wrong side of Delancey Street. You smarty pants Jews—with your big degrees and fancy addresses—always making us feel like real Yids." By marrying Hart, Eve winds up coming to terms with her roots. Ms. Bokat admitted that, in real life, she once dated a rich WASP professor who idolized Updike and Cheever. Twelve years ago she married the sweet and Jewish Jay Lindell, a communications executive at Ernst & Young. They live with their two sons, 10 year-old Noah and 6 year-old Spencer, in Montclair, N.J. She has published essays in such women's journals as On the Issues, Iris, Troika and Z Magazine. She currently teaches writing at NYU and at The New School. Juggling work, marriage and motherhood has been difficult, she said, adding that she writes at night and when her children are in school. "I've never made much money as a writer or an academic," she said, although she's hopeful that a new novel she has started, about two emotionally entwined sisters, will be her commercial breakthrough. Though Eve hates therapy, Ms. Bokat confessed to being in therapy "endlessly…dealing with mostly first daughter stuff—wanting desperately to please my parents, being overly critical of myself, not thinking I've achieved enough." She said that several of the dynamic women characters in Redeeming Eve are based on actual family members and that she is proud she had such strong female role models. Her great aunt, Stella Koenig, a fundraiser, published a nonfiction book. Her father's mother, Helen Bokat, had a master's degree in teaching from Columbia. Her maternal grandmother, Bracha Skulnick, a singer in the Yiddish theater who spoke Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and English, participated in the Workmen's Circle "Weekly Forum" sponsored by the Yiddish Forward, and recorded an album of Yiddish songs. At the end of Redeeming Eve, realizing how much her mother loves her, Eve forgives Maxie for her eccentricities. These days Ms. Bokat also seems to feel liberated from mother/daughter struggles. "My mother worries more than I do, but she had kids much sooner than I did, in her early 20s. And I have sons, which might be easier." She said she is grateful that her mother always told her she could be anything in life that she wanted. "I remember when I was a cheerleader at Great Neck North High School—I didn't yet realize cheerleading wasn't a feminist thing to do—and some girl made fun of me. My mother said, 'They're just jealous because you're prettier and smarter." Added Ms. Bokat half seriously: "She was rooting for me so much it made me nervous."