by Nora Shychuk
Catch up with the first half of Nora Shychuk’s conversation with Carol Hebald, author of A Warsaw Chronicle: ‘Writing in New York: Part I‘
Carol’s young life sounds like a novel in itself. Born and raised in New York City, Carol nurtured a lifelong passion for the arts and performance. Professionally, she started as an actress on and off Broadway, but her need to write was always there from the beginning. She was always a writer; it was the one thing that never wavered. Eventually, she quit acting and went to college.
She was in English 1 when her teacher noticed her gift for writing. “It was poetry that I went after first. I don’t know why. I loved reading, I loved writing. The fact that I could do it was such a great relief because I left acting and I was lost for a while. See, acting was marvelous for me but I couldn’t do it unless I was hired whereas as a writer I could write anytime, anywhere whether it got published or not. And I knew it would eventually.”
Our conversation shifted to New York City as a place, as an inspirational, larger-than-life refuge for writers and musicians and artists. I asked Carol, as a devoted New Yorker, if she had any advice for visitors of the city. If they only had one day to spend here, what should they do?
Without thinking, two places came immediately to her mind. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The New York City Public Library on 42nd Street, specifically the reading room. “It’s where everybody who has no peace at home goes. Everybody’s quiet in their own world sitting right next to each other, engrossed in writing or reading. It’s something to see.”
I shared my mutual love of The Met, citing it as a mecca for inspiration. The 19th-century European paintings, Rodin’s sculpture hall, and the period rooms knocked me out on my first visit. I told Carol you walk from room to room and it’s just one creative masterpiece after another. It’s inspiration in motion.
“When I go there, my mind churns,” I said. “People surrounded by art… They’re looking for something. To understand, to feel, to be taken away to another time, another place. My writing tends to be incredibly atmospheric and detailed, so being exposed to different eras and cultures really provide a fresh perspective.”
Carol nodded and asked if I’d like more coffee. When I declined, she looked around the room, at her writing desk and high, crowded bookshelves.
“But really I just need a quiet room anywhere to write,” she said. “I never write in public. I watch people who do and wonder how they concentrate.”
Preferring to write in private was yet another similarity we had. Like Carol, I write best at my desk, looking out at the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River. Across the river sits New Jersey. The view, the cool breeze, even the sporadic beep-beeps from cars below culminate in an almost dreamlike setting to write. New York City: right outside my window.
“Why do you think artists continue to flock here?” I asked next. “What is it about New York?”
Carol’s answer was at first practical. “Well, people think all the publishing houses are here and most of them are,” she said with a laugh. “But people want to go to a place where they’re going to learn the most, where they’re going to find the best theater, the best museums. It’s a great place to observe.”
That’s the thing about New York. It’s wild. Every kind of person is represented, walking to some meeting, some friend, some restaurant. It is a place of variety and stimulating diversity, where there is always a million-and-one things to do at any given time. Sit in Washington Square Park and watch the people go by. You won’t see such range anywhere else. And that energy? That New York City energy? That’s there, too. We have energy in spades.
But one thing Carol doesn’t involve herself in is the New York City literary “scene.” She joined groups and learned from them, but “had enough of them.” At some point, you have to take what you learn and run with it, she explained. She understands the practicality of networking and nurturing creative relationships, but it’s not something she feels she needs anymore. If she seeks out help for a section of writing or a new manuscript, it’s more about a simple assurance that the work is decent, not for any help in the overall project or completing it. The need to finish a project is up to you—the writer—and nobody else.
“I have a couple of writers and we do exchange manuscripts once in a while. It’s good to know that this excerpt works therefore I can submit it as a sample to a publisher, but that’s not helping me write the book. I didn’t show A Warsaw Chronicle to anybody but the editors and they did a fine job.”
And that’s a risk few writers would take, myself included. I have a network of writers and friends I’d feel the need to send work to before I made any type of move to get it published or “out” into the world. But Carol knew her story and what she needed to say.
“The character of Warsaw moved in on me so completely,” she said. “I couldn’t help but record what I saw and felt.” This usually came in the form of the blistering cold weather, the people, and the shops. She was putting in exposition unintentionally by simply describing what was around her while she was on her way somewhere. Anywhere. When martial law had been declared, she went outside and took it all in. She recreated that walk for her story.
And this walking, this paying attention—it became the story she had to tell. “[A Warsaw Chronicle] was about closeness and questions and my absolute ignorance about the importance of politics and who was who. The fact is that most people on a personal level didn’t give a damn as long as they made a living and loved who they loved and could be with them. I was so apolitical. I knew nothing about anybody [in that regard].”
But she knew about the human condition, about loneliness and pain, because she herself had felt it. It had become a cornerstone of her life, this need to understand and overcome. The characters themselves developed from that ache.
“Because I needed them,” she said, “they became real.”
We were alike in that way, too. I told her of my devotion to character. That some characters I had developed became more real to me than flesh-and-blood people in my life. Character-central stories moved us the most. We talked about books, about how a book with an almost complete absence of plot could still work if we cared about the characters. If they were true to us.
Carol opened up then about her favorite writers, about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Gogol, especially.
“And Emily Dickinson,” she said. “I don’t stop reading her.”
When I asked if poetry was her first love, she became wistful, contemplative. She sat back against the couch and sighed.
“At City College there was an opportunity to take both classes, [poetry and prose]. I took poetry and the poetry teacher said, ‘you’re a poet, don’t ever take fiction. You’re going to dilute your gift. Stick with one thing.’ But I was too curious. The idea of making up stories, I was doing it all my life. I was a terrible liar as a child, but people believed me.”
At this we laughed. I told her that I started writing as an escape. The town I grew up in was small and pretty dull. I needed to lie and tell stories to make things interesting. I shared my theory: all writers are liars. We have to be, to some extent. We have to lie to get to the heart of the matter. We have to stretch boundaries and make impossible things possible to learn how to tell the truth.
“That’s right,” she said. “With myself, with Karolina Heybald, I didn’t want to make myself a heroine. I hate when writers do that. I wanted to bring out her faults.”
She wanted to capture the volatile time in Poland and throw the reader into obscenely imperfect situations with imperfect characters.
“If I opened a book about an American exchange professor who came to Poland and had nothing to say but that she was wide-eyed and she was quickly disillusioned, I’d put the book down and say ‘so what?’” she said. “I wanted to start with what I remembered most vividly.”
And what was most vivid, looking back after all those years? The declaration of martial law. The cold, dark mornings. A neighbor knocking on her door, assuming she had loads of money because she was American. Later, that neighbor breaking in. She screamed. He asked her for two cigarettes.
“It was awful. Horrifying. He apologized and asked for forgiveness,” she remembered.
Her students were also hostile. They thought by nature, as an American, Carol was spoiled. But she never had a mother or father the way most of them did. Her relationship with the students in A Warsaw Chronicle and with Marek was a comfort; he was created out of a need. She wasn’t feeling any warmth or affection in Warsaw, out on the streets.
When I asked her how she felt, resoundingly, about Warsaw, she became quiet and looked down at her feet.
“I’ll never go back,” she said. “I’m glad it’s over. But whether I loved or hated it – and I probably felt both ways – it felt like a part of my heritage.”
I ended our interview by asking an expected and stereotypical question: what’s next?
“I’m really searching now because I don’t know. I was exhausted writing A Warsaw Chronicle. I can’t say that I’m still resting because it was published last March. That’s almost six months, isn’t it?” she asked, laughing. “But I’ve been writing poems. Not a book, just individual poems to see where it’ll lead. I am getting older. I don’t know that I’m going to write another book. I may. It may come to me, but right now it’s not there.”
It felt strangely proper to end the interview in such a way. We had shared such an intimate conversation. In retrospect, it functioned not as an interview, but as an easy admission between two friends. We shared stories of our childhood, our mutual love of writing, our pain from losing a parent at a young age. Often when I spoke to Carol, it was hard to stay on track, to follow the outline and order of the questions I had prepared. But that is in no way a criticism of Ms. Heybald, or even myself. I decided to let our chat take its natural course and progress easily and honestly. And I’m glad I did. This interview wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t a valuable contact for a struggling writer. It was the afternoon when I realized that I wasn’t alone, that in this loud and bustling city there is beauty around every corner—and sometimes it comes in the form of a person sitting across from you on a couch in the West Village.
After the question and answer block, Carol brought out an old photo album. It was full of dated photographs, newspaper write-ups, and playbills from her acting days. As we flipped through the pages, I was aware that I was being shown a whole life—an exciting life—filled with passion and feeling and art, but also one of hardship and struggle, of heartbreak and loneliness, which made all of her accomplishments all the more magical. Her life, as successful as it was, was never easy. There was unrelenting pain. I was sitting next to a woman who really did it all, but I mean that broadly. She was an actress, writer, teacher, and world traveler, but also a lifelong searcher. A woman who grappled with regret and missed opportunities and who, perhaps, was always a little bit lost.
But still, every day, Carol rises and she writes. At her desk, she sits and feels. She puts words on a page with the hope that an idea will rise, or a sentence will scrape away the gunk and mess of life and shine a spotlight on the truth. And that, more than anything else, makes her not only a writer, but a courageous artist.
After a time, she closed the book. We talked about the weather, about the fastest subway route to take to get back to the apartment I shared with my boyfriend.
“How long have the two of you been together?” she asked.
“Five years,” I said.
“Oh,” Carol replied, smiling. “Oh, to be young again.”
And then she asked me once more if I’d like a glass of wine. This time, I said yes.
Nora Shychuk has an M.A. in Creative Writing from University College Cork and a B.A. in Film Screenwriting and English from Jacksonville University. Her writing has appeared in The Lonely Crowd, The Quarryman Literary Journal, The Rose Magazine, and Pact Press’s Speak and Speak Again Anthology. In 2017 she was shortlisted for Cork, Ireland’s From The Well Short Story Competition and was also awarded one of two full Alumni Awards to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR) in April 2018. She lives in New York City.
Photographs by Nora Shychuk.
A Warsaw Chronicle is available now from Regal House Publishing.