Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Max Eisen shares the hardest thing about being a writer

The RBC Taylor Prize finalist answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Max Eisen is the author of By Chance Alone: A Remarkable True Story of Courage and Survival at Auschwitz. (Nick Iwanyshyn)

In By Chance Alone, Holocaust survivor Max Eisen relives his traumatic memories of 1944, when he and his family were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. An injury would put Eisen in the hospital where, after surgery, he was put to work, and random acts of kindness saved his life. The moving memoir was a finalist for the 2017 RBC Taylor Prize.

By Chance Alone won Canada Reads 2019, defended by Ziya Tong. The debates, which took place March 25 to 28, 2019, are available to watch online — on CBC Books and Gem — or to listen to as a podcast.

Below, Eisen answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A. 

1. Sharon Butala asks, "What is the main question that you wish somebody would ask you, although nobody ever has?"

Can mankind learn from the abuses of history or are we destined to repeat the same bad behaviour time and time again?

2. Shyam Selvadurai asks, "What is the hardest thing about being a writer?"

The hardest for me is to focus the mind and day after day, to have the discipline to put pencil to paper until all the right words emerge.

3. Erin Mouré asks, "Do you like winter?"

The winter season has a unique beauty when we're describing snow covered landscapes. I have always enjoyed outdoor winter activities and the recreation opportunities Mother Nature provides.

4. Alison Pick asks, "How would you most like to be remembered?"

I would like to be remembered as one who opened peoples' minds to social and political realities and made a difference in the lives of young people.

5. Lynn Coady asks, "Is there a poet, philosopher, musician, painter or any other type of artist who has inspired your work in a concrete way at some point or another? If so, who?"

Ernest Hemingway inspired me greatly in my early years in Canada. His books For Whom the Bell Tolls and, especially, The Old Man and the Sea. The Old Man and the Sea chronicled a man's dogged determination and perseverance to surmount overwhelming odds. I was also an avid listener to Saturday afternoons at the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts from New York. Opera has always inspired my imagination and touched my emotions.

6. Tomson Highway asks, "What keeps you going — first as a writer, and second as a human being?"

I lived through a traumatic and cruel period of history. There are important lessons to be learned and personal accounts to be recorded. I am inspired by the need to document my story so others may learn from the past. On a personal level, I have a highly developed sense of observation of the world around me, which constantly inspires and motivates me to take action.

7. Saleema Nawaz asks, "What's the best response you've ever had from a reader?"

"Having read your story, having heard you speak, it is with a silent sense of relief for me to realize that now you too have become the patriarch of today's Eisen family, with all the joys this must bring to you and your loved ones."

8. Jonathan Auxier asks, "What book in your home library holds the greatest sentimental value?"

I have a large book collection, but one in particular stands out for me — The Diary of Petr Ginz. It was written by a 15-year-old boy of exceptional intellect, of Czech origin like myself. He was interred in the Nazi Terezin concentration camp. Despite the grim and hopeless days there, he conjures up images of freedom and joy in the hope of keeping his soul alive. He perished, but his book is a light that inspires me whenever I feel the need for an emotional lift.