Former Ashevillean Miranda Richmond Mouillot (now based in France) published her memoir, A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France, earlier this year. Her book tour brings her to Asheville on Sunday, Aug. 9, for an author event at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. Mouillot will read from and discuss her book at 5 p.m.
This story was originally published on February 25, 2015
“I had to teach myself how to write a book,” says author Miranda Richmond Mouillot. “It took me 10 years, and it was a lot of sitting alone in a room, thinking and reading.” But Mouillot, who grew up in Asheville and now lives in the south of France, was not completely isolated as she worked on A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France. She was joined in the process — albeit often reluctantly — by her maternal grandparents.
It’s the story of Anna Münster and Armand Jacoubovitch that Mouillot recounts (or, rather, unearths); the book’s title references how the couple survived the Holocaust only to sever all ties with each other shortly after the end of World War II. Mouillot also weaves her own story into the text, telling how her grandparents — though not in communication with each other — led her to a house they’d purchased in a small village in France. While living in the historic but crumbling property, the writer met the man who would become her husband and learned some poignant lessons from her family’s past.
“A lot of what I was grappling with in the book is the daunting realization that life is always very complex,” she says. “I talk about fairy tales so much because we need a simplified answer. We need the carrying case that a story is.” To reduce the material of an entire life down to a few salient details allows us to pass it along to the next generation, Mouillot explains.
But for Anna and Armand — she a doctor and he an interpreter — that account was complicated by the Holocaust that robbed them of their careers, their homes and their family members. The couple traveled through France, risking imprisonment and deportation. Their daring escape to Switzerland, through snowy mountains, aided by friends and strangers, reads like an action-film plot — “Their separation from the group had been another terrible miracle,” Mouillot writes of one harrowing adventure. And while both were formidable characters, unable or unwilling to provide straight answers to Mouillot’s queries, the writer believes her grandparents were ultimately relieved to have their stories recorded.
Although Armand was suffering from senility by the time Mouillot completed a draft of the book, when she showed him a galley with photos, “It was miraculous. There were maybe two or three minutes of lucidity where he came back into himself,” she says. “He said, ‘Who did this?’ and I said, ‘I did. I wrote down your story.’ He said, ‘That’s good.’” Armand passed away on the day A Fifty-Year Silence was released.
While sussing out a tome’s worth of details about one’s family members is uncommon, Mouillot points out that “the historical upheaval of genocide imposed a sense that I was required to learn the history. At the same time, it so marked my own life experience that I had to [learn about it] to exorcise it,” she says. “It’s in these big historical moments that we get pushed back toward certain people and feel a need to tell their stories.”
In the book she writes, “I was convinced it was possible for me to reach into the past and feel the contours of my grandmother’s experiences.”
In many ways, Anna — warm, forthright and endlessly fascinating — is the hero of A Fifty-Year Silence. Mouillot includes sections of her grandmother’s memoirs among her own prose. “Overall, she figured out ways to carry [her difficult memories], partly through writing,” the author says of Anna.
Composition has buoyed Mouillot’s life, too: She describes her early forays into A Fifty-Year Silence — for which she was named a Young Writers of Jewish Themes finalist — as “a Cinderella-esque experience.” She’s currently planning for workshops as part of her book tour, a translation of The Kites by French writer Romain Gary and a proposal for a book about a female philosopher during the Enlightenment. Mouillot hopes to visit Asheville later this year.
Learn more about A Fifty Year Silence at wordsfrommiranda.com/book_fifty-year.html