W hen dining with Lore Segal, it might be wise to watch your words. The Austrian-born writer subscribes to Nora Ephron’s adage that everything is copy. That’s especially true for her encounters with her circle of close female friends, which over the years have been rendered into fiction via her Ladies Lunch series.
The stories, most originally published in The New Yorker, are wry appraisals on ageing and how this shifts our relationships.
Mostly they feature a version of Segal, today a sprightly 94-year-old living on the Upper West Side, more than eight decades after she fled to Britain on the Kindertransport. These, plus three other essays, form part of a Ladies Lunch collection published in the UK this month.
They are built on a real lunch, one that has been meeting for the last 20 years. “These stories come from picking up on some theme or story or something that has happened,” explains Segal, who is well known for her novels and short stories in the US and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. “The characters are real, but the characters’ names are not [those of] my real friends.”
Does knowing conversations will be given a second hearing make her friends watch their words? No, says Segal, when we Zoom, sitting at a busy desk with photographs and books everywhere.
“They’ve been very kind, I think they’ve been amused. If they’ve been irritated, they haven’t told me.” In any case, “they’re not in any danger. What they say may give rise to an idea in my head but by the time it turns into a story it’s not connected with anything that has happened.”
Segal arrived in New York in 1951, having spent the war in a series of foster homes, studying her eccentric English hosts (some Jews, others Christians keen to convert her) with the same curiosity a botanist might have for exotic plants. Remarkably, she was reunited with her parents early in the war, after English authorities helped them secure domestic servant visas.
Their visa status meant the family could not live together, and her father was then interned on the Isle of Man.
He died soon after, but after Segal graduated from the University of London, she and her mother headed across the Atlantic to be reunited with her uncle.
They were marooned for three years in the Dominican Republic awaiting visas. That period was the only one in her life when Segal hardly wrote; frustrated to have her life on hold.
“I was cross that I was there, I wanted to be back in England, with the result that I did not act like a future writer and look around to see what was interesting,” she says. “It’s the only time I have failed to make use of what was happening. I didn’t know if I was going to be there for the rest of my life.”
Finally they reached Manhattan, where she has lived near-constantly since, next to the Hudson. In 1961 she married editor David Segal; they had two children before his death nine years later.
She looks back fondly on her time in Britain: “It was an immensely generous motion on the part of Britain to take in some 9,000 children from Hitler’s Europe.” Today, she prefers British films and is a devotee of The Great British Bake Off.
Segal documented this period in her novel Other People’s Houses, republished here in 2018. It is a vivid account of a ten-year-old being transplanted from a loving, middle-class family and only partially understanding why. Though it mirrors her story, Segal is clear the book is a version of her experience, rather than an autobiography.
“My instinct is not for history or journalism but fiction, and my subject is my life — what I have known and what I’ve seen,” she says. “I’m not married to the facts, I’m married to what I think they mean and what I can tell about them.”
Of course, playing “fast and loose with facts” as she calls it, has its downsides when some perniciously use fiction to question what happened in the Holocaust. “It is a real problem,” concedes Segal.
“I have often thought that that is not very helpful when we want to insist that the thing happened really happened, because we do misremember. But that doesn’t give people the option of not believing these things occurred. It’s just memory is a lot more complicated than what we realise.”
Her family was relatively secular — her time in an Orthodox Jewish family as recounted in Other People’s Houses is eyebrow-raising — and she says she is not good at being religious. But she is captivated by biblical stories. “The literature of the bible is the most fascinating literature of all,” she says.
And asked to describe herself, Segal says she is “an Austrian Jew educated in England living in America”. “It isn’t one or the other.”
One of the stories in the collection involves a group of elderly Jewish survivors attending a workshop with a younger generation of Austrians. It’s based on a real experience, although in her case the workshop was with Germans.
Segal went unwillingly, mostly because she assumed she would write about it. It is the closest she has come, she says in her still-strong Austrian accent, to trying “to understand my own relations with the people, with what happened, and with the people who did what happened.”
She is remarkably dispassionate about being a Kindertransport refugee — perhaps because she was reunited with her parents — although it has clearly provided artistic fodder. Writing was in her DNA.
“If there had been no Hitler, I would have been an Austrian writer instead of an American writer, and of course I would have Austrian experiences and invented other truths, other things to write about.”
To Segal, “anything that happens, small and large, even falling down in front of your house, is something to write about”. But the Ladies Lunch stories are far from lightweight; in one, for example, two old friends consider why they lost their prior closeness. It is borne of a real relationship; fictionalising it offered Segal the chance “of evaluating and investigating” what transpired.
“Writing is my kind of therapy, it’s trying to understand,” she says. “It’s two things, it’s understanding what is happening and it’s celebrating it.”
These days, the Ladies Lunches take place on Zoom; a shift that started during the pandemic but has stuck, given its convenience. “For some of us it’s easier to stay home than to cross six blocks.”
The get-togethers have also been renamed tea and tipple. “We start with a cup of tea and then later we have a drink.” Her tipple of choice? “It used to be martinis, now it’s a glass of wine.”
Still today, Segal is at her desk every morning. “I have my coffee and toast and then I sit at my computer, and do what I’ve always done, stay there for some five or six hours,” she says.
“I don’t guarantee anything happens, I may have just changed a period to a comma or a comma to a period, but that’s what I do. I don’t know how I’d get through the day without writing.”
‘Ladies’ Lunch’ and other stories by Lore Segal is published this week by Sort of Books. Segal will be at an event run by Bookshop.org on March 14 at 7pm