Today, Joseph Valentinetti, one of Bookpleasures' reviewers talks with Elliot Rais, author of the memoir Stealing The Borders.  Rais has a moving tale to tell of a young boy who escaped war-torn Europe and a displaced persons camp in Germany to become a successful entrepreneur, inventor, professor, and engineer, despite being illiterate until the age of 16. Kirkus Reviews has this to say: “If Rais’ autobiography were adapted for film, Woody Allen would be perfect for the starring role.  Like the filmmaker, Rais transforms actual life experiences into poignant comic vignettes that touch on everyday absurdities.”

Joseph:

Welcome Elliot. Tell us, what's  the one thing other people always seem to get wrong about you?

Elliot:

Nothing! They seem to get it just right. It’s true! I really am that nice a person.                   

Joseph:

If you could change one thing about the world what would it be?

Elliot:

Getting rid of wars might be nice. (Is that too much to ask for?)

Joseph:

Your book has an interesting title, Stealing The Borders, can you explain?

 Elliot:

The name Stealing The Borders wasn’t my first choice. I thought “A Cut Below” was a better fit in many ways. The leading and formative story is about a circumcision, so immediately we have the pun. But more so, many of the stories deal with perceptions of self-evaluation in which I elude to the metaphorical cut below.

Days before the publication of the first edition, the publisher called me in panic and implored me to come up with a new name. Just at that time a news story broke about a certain Lorena Bobbit, who castrated her husband. My publisher was concerned that readers would mistakenly think that my book was about that story. That could result in many returns, which of course is a publisher’s worst nightmare.

Stealing the Borders is an expression that means escaping or sneaking from one country into another. Today, as a documented US citizen; traveling from one country to another means simply getting a passport. (… and of course taking off my shoes at the airport). But I was born into different circumstances. It was never just traveling, it was always escaping.

Joseph:

It's a memoir, correct?  What are some of your most poignant memories?

Elliot:

At the age of five, the escape from Russia involved many days of living and riding in a cattle car train.  During one of the stops in the middle of a forest, I almost missed jumping back on the train in time and became separated from my family.

The obvious emotion was separation anxiety. Infants and toddlers will cry at separation, it’s a reflex; their whole biology involuntarily informs them that they are safer with parents. But, it’s doubtful that they have “thoughts” about it. I was already five years old, war hardened and understood death was not a video game (even before video games existed). This wasn’t a case of mommy stepping out for a carton of milk, leaving me momentarily feeling vulnerable. I understood that if that train pulls out of the desolate forest without me, I was certain to be reduced to animal feed.

The event was of great significance for me, for I learned that even with the best intentions of people who love and wish to protect me—it’s possible to find myself physically abandoned (or later, as an adult metaphorically abandoned). As a consequence, I strove hard to become fiercely self-reliant.

Joseph:

Who is the audience for this book?

Elliot:

This question reminds me of a show I once saw with Charlie Rose interviewing an inventor of a device that squeezed a tea bag. When Mr. Rose (bravely) asked him “who needs this device”, the inventor (seeming astonished at the question) quickly and resolutely responded “Everybody!” and went on to demonstrate how without the benefit of that device one had to tediously wrap the tea bag string around the tea bag to extract some of the flavor.

It’s fully understandable the inventor would feel that the world could not go on without the benefit of his creation. I tend to think that writers may also have a tendency to suffer from the same delusion.

That having been said, I receive extraordinary interest from places and people that I never would have guessed would relate to this book. My guess was that the book would have appeal only to people of similar culture. Yet, it seems to transcend time and culture. It’s not so much about the staging of the events, but rather the feelings and emotions of the experience that people relate to. The book appeals to thinking people of all kinds. It’s a story about growth and development, about challenges, about making lemonade out of lemons, about what the sheer force of determination can achieve. Needless to say, it’s of interest to students, scholars and anyone interested in the history of that era. Personally I think its appeal is its entertainment value, the witty and sometimes comical antics in a most unlikely setting during one of the darkest times in history. It is described as a “fun read”. (Who would have thought that history could be fun?)

Joseph:

What benefits can a reader get from your work?


Elliot:

The reader runs the risk of gaining an interesting perspective as well as being highly entertained.

Joseph:

What surprising things did you learn while writing this book?

Elliot:

I learned that writing the book was the easy part and that no matter how much readers and critics love the book (and they do), I still need to disseminate the information, or put more crudely, “toot my own horn”, and I hate that part. (Would any of you care to do that for me?)

Joseph:

If you have a career outside of writing how does it fit into your life as a writer?

Elliot:

As an entrepreneur and inventor I get to see and explore many ideas and objects. That serves to broaden my world views and provides material to write about.

Joseph:

You were illiterate until the age of 16.  How did you learn to read, go on to college and become a very successful entrepreneur, inventor, professor, and engineer?

Elliot:

To survive my youth, I had to learn to be resourceful and relentlessly perseverant. That was an upside to my experience. As for the rest of it, how I did it all, well, it took me 300 pages to reveal that, so I’m not sure I can describe it in one short paragraph. Besides, if I give that away, will anyone still be motivated to purchase my book?

Joseph:

Do you have a philosophy of writing?

Elliot:

Don’t just write. Live and experience life – then the words will flow out of you.

Remember, above all, your book has to be entertaining. The biggest sin is to be boring.

Joseph:

Thanks Elliot.

 
Follow Here To Purchase Stealing The Borders: A Warm, Witty & Outrageous Autobiography, 2nd Edition