Understatement alert: NYU is a big, big place. Think of the dozens of people you might nod hello to on a typical day—in the dining hall, at the library, between buildings, or behind a particular desk. How many do you know by name? What do you know about their lives?
By day they are office administrators or landscapers, technology specialists or event managers; by night they’re parents and poets, activists and athletes—and so much more. They’re the dedicated staffers who keep this place running, and in this series NYU Stories will go behind-the-scenes at their day jobs—and also reveal how they let off steam after work. (We’re coming for you, dude in the Bon Jovi cover band!) Look for a new and often surprising interview every other week or so. You might just see a familiar face.
Name: Shelley Ettinger
Title: administrative aide for the post-doctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis
At NYU since: 1983, with some years away in the ’90s, and then again since 1998
Moonlights as: A writer of fiction and poetry, including the recently published first novel Vera’s Will.
When did you move to New York?
In November of 1982, when I was 28. My people were New York and New Jersey Jews before they ended up in Detroit, so it felt like I was coming home. And once I got here, I felt like I fit in much better than I ever did in Detroit. I'm a fast walker, kind of a loudmouth—all of it. I love taking people to walk around the remnants of the real old Lower East Side—Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery, Russ & Daughters, stuff like that.
What do you like best about working at NYU?
My experience has been that it's informal—it doesn’t have a Wall Street kind of feel, and in my department the people just couldn’t be nicer. They’ve very flexible and kind in every way.
What are you passionate about, outside work?
I've been kind of a left activist pretty much since I was 19 or 20. I went to school at the University of Michigan and I got there in 1972. The ’60s were over but the war was still on—we were in Vietnam. The gay movement was just kind of starting up, so I became active there. Over the years I’ve also done a lot of labor union work, in including with the clerical union. I’ve done anti-racist work, and solidarity work with Palestine, which used to be a lot harder to do than it is now.
Do you still feel a connection to Detroit?
I haven't been to Detroit in years, but yes, I feel a deep tug of home-connection to it still, even though by this point I've lived more of my life here in New York. The destruction of Detroit hurts my heart and fills me with rage. I think of Detroit as Exhibit A in the case against capitalism: the town whose people the auto industry exploited and then abandoned. I consider the most recent blows against the workers, poor, and retirees to be a racist attack by the banks.
I do still have some family and friends there, and I'm working now on planning an April or May book trip to Detroit and Ann Arbor where, if all works out, I'll do several readings and an interview or two.
When did you start writing?
I only started writing creatively—fiction and poetry—15 years ago when I was in my mid 40s already, though I’d written other things before as an activist. I guess I’m different from people who wrote their whole lives.
Where did the idea for Vera’s Will come from?
I actually had a crazy epiphany that will sound like something out of a movie—but it really happened. It was 1999, and I was riding home to Queens from work one day on the number 7 train. I glanced up and saw my reflection in the window of the train and suddenly noticed how much I looked like my grandmother. For some reason, I found this haunting, and I started thinking about her and how sad what little I knew of her story was. And by that point there wasn't anybody left alive who knew [more]. So I was filled with this desire to try to imagine what her story might have been.
How would you describe the book?
I have two answers. When people ask me about the plot, I say it’s a book about a woman, Vera, who loses custody of her children in the 1920s because she’s a lesbian, and about the repercussions for her family in future generations. If I want to step back and think thematically about what I hope people will get from it, I say it’s a book about oppression, the toll oppression takes, and the way to fight for liberation.
I also should say that if this novel works, I really want it to stand as proof that there can be such a thing as political fiction that is quality fiction.
How did you decide on the structure for the novel, which interweaves Vera’s story with that of her granddaughter, Randy, many years later?
It took a lot of work. I always felt that structure was my weak point, and I think it's what I worked on the most during the revision process—picking up chapters and moving them around. There are a couple I'm still not convinced are in the right place! But it’s gratifying to hear readers make connections between the two stories, which are meant to comment on and build on each other. The Randy character is so important because I didn't want to write a novel that was just a throwback about the sad, terrible life of some lesbian. I hope it's balanced by showing hope and forward motion and change.
What do you think that Vera would make of the world today, and how things have changed for the LGBTQ community?
It’s hard to say! She comes from this lefty Jewish immigrant family, but Vera herself never goes in that direction—she doesn’t have an especially strong political conscience or anything. She just wants to have a good life, but things get in the way. One of the last scenes in the book takes place about a month before the Stonewall rebellion. I'm hoping most readers will know notice that, but of course Vera doesn’t know. She doesn't know that in a month, there's going to be this huge thing that's going to happen that will lead toward everything beginning to change. A lot of times she has contradictory thoughts—one moment she wants to resist, and the next she thinks “I can’t, what’s the point.” I think that's real, because we're not all heroes and we're not all in the fight. A lot of us are conflicted, and we want to rise to the challenge but we can't. So her granddaughter will.
Is there another novel in the works?
Yes, and I don’t know if I should talk about it, but I will! It came out of my thinking about Kitty Genovese. She was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens, supposedly—though now there's controversy over whether any of this is true—while an apartment building filled with people stood at 43 windows, watched and did nothing as she screamed and cried for help. In 2004 I read a New York Times article about the anniversary of the murder, where it came out that she was a lesbian, which her family had hushed up. The Times interviewed her lover, who was quoted saying, “We were lovers together.” Something about that sentence got to me. I tried for years to write a poem about it, and I couldn't get it right. And then an idea came to me for a novel—not so much about her and the murder, but about the aftermath.