The ProsenPeople

Lost Stories

Tuesday, April 09, 2013 | Permalink

Jennifer Gilmore's newest novel, The Mothers, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The Mothers is my third novel but it’s the first novel I’ve written that tracks so closely with my own life. I had to make a leap as a novelist to write in the first person, to examine a single woman’s inner life, as opposed to the bigger sweep of the multi-generational novels, Golden Country and Something Red, that were written with an eye toward history and the way it affects families.

This book is all about families really, or about a couple who wants to make one desperately. If my other books deal with what happens to families over time, this character—Jesse Weintraub—is most concerned about time stopping. About the story, as it were, ending with her.

I, like Jesse, struggled for a long time to make my family (even though I do believe that it’s not just children that make a family…). And like her, my spouse and I were involved in a terribly long and particularly harsh adoption process that has only ended a few weeks ago. My most private concerns, a sadness I could only tell myself, were the same concerns I am interested in as a writer. These were in part involving what gets passed down through the generations. The history of our families, the voices of my grandparents and what they went through. What if it all that stopped with me?

What if all the stories just stopped with me? All those voices? At the bottom of it, this is what Jesse feels deeply. She wants to see a new generation grow. She gets a little despairing, she acts a little wild, but at the bottom of it, she wants to pass on all of it, the good, the bad, the painful, the joyous, so the cycle will keep going, so everyone’s story, including hers, gets told.

Read more about Jennifer Gilmore here.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Asaf Schurr

Monday, April 08, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the past month, we've introduced you to to Stuart Nadler, Shani Boianjiu, Ben Lerner, and Francesca Segal. Today we introduce you to Sami Rohr Prize finalist Asaf Schurr, author of the metafictional novel Motti, which was translated into English by Todd Hasak-Lowy. Haaretz wrote of Motti: "Those who don't read Asaf Schurr’s new book are simply losing out." We agree. Below, Asaf writes about writing a book as it needs to be written, the importance of music while he writes, and some of his favorite books:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Getting yourself to actually do it. Then, making sure you don't write the same book over and over again. Then, overcoming the urge to take the easiest and fastest way out. Then, wrapping it up and getting your personality back in one piece.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Books.

Who is your intended audience?

People who can read. And are actually willing. Maybe a better answer would be "People who are willing to make the effort to read kindly and frankly."

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes.

What are you reading now?

Noga Albalach's The Push (the first book by a young and talented Hebrew author, to the best of my knowledge not yet translated to other languages), Saramago's Cain (despite my ambivalence), Robert Crease's The Great Equations. And I've got a new Hebrew translation of Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge waiting for me.

Top 5 Favorite Books

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I'm not certain there actually was a moment of such an explicit decision. Though publishing a second book must have given me a clue.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Being adored for the right reasons, by the right people (and for whatever reasons by all the rest). More specifically and perhaps frankly, it's writing a book as it needs to be written, making it take the form it actually needs and being the object it actually aims to be - as opposed to writing something in order just to please myself or others. Being able to do that without being idiosyncratic is definitely a success (also, not starving).

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Finding the right music is very important. (For a while it was A Whisper in the Noise. Lately, it's mostly Joanna Newsom.) I'm rather reluctant to talk about the rest, which by itself is probably part of the answer.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

At the risk of sounding terribly pretentious, I wish to make people better, myself included. Not to educate, but to somehow get us back to something that's linguistically, emotionally and ethically fundamental and important. Staring each other in the true face, so to speak.

Asaf Schurr was born in Jerusalem in 1976 and has a BA in philosophy and theater from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At present he is a translator and writes literary reviews for the Hebrew press. Schurr has received the Bernstein Prize (2007), the Minister of Culture Prize (2007) for Amram, and the Prime Minister's Prize for Motti (2008).

A Kvetchy Correspondence

Monday, April 08, 2013 | Permalink


Between February 15, 2013 and March 10, 2013, Allison Amend and Austin Ratner, two members of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize "class," discussed literary fiction in society, their JBC Network tours, and the publication of their new novels—Allison's new novel, A Nearly Perfect Copy, will be published this week, and Austin's new novel, In the Land of the Living, was published last month. Read their redacted kvetchy correspondence below:

 

Dear Austin,

 So great to be having an email conversation with you. Having won the Sami Rohr Prize, you are official a Really Big Deal. My first question: How does it feel to be a Really Big Deal?

 Allison

 

Ha! I wish I did feel that way. There are so many anxieties surrounding the publication of a book. What if no one likes it? What if I should have written a different book in a different way? What if it is in fact a great book but the robots are about to take over? What if the robots find it boring?

Anyway, this leads me to a question for you: There are so many challenges that lie in the way of creating a book—no amount of whining can ever really tell the tale of how hard it is—and yet when the victory comes and the author copies arrive, I can barely enjoy it. Can you? If so, how?

 

Dear Austin,

I worry a bit more about the zombie apocalypse rather than the robot revolution, but that's just my meshugas...

I believe we cannot enjoy the moment for two reasons. One, we are writers, and so are a particularly navel-gazing bunch. When we look up from the navel, we worry that even though our books are doing well, they could have done better…

I don't have children, but I imagine publishing must be like sending your child to kindergarten. You're proud, and yes, she is ready to go out on her own, but what if someone throws sand at her on the playground?

Two, we are Jewish, and I was raised by my grandmother to believe that if anything good happens and you enjoy it, you're just begging for Almighty to cut you down to size.

And speaking of being Jewish, did you go to a lot of JBC Network events, and, if so, do you have favorite moments (change the names/locations to protect the innocent)?

Allison

 

The JBC Network is a magnificent resource to Jewish writers. Of course, some of the events go better than others. Here is one particularly memorable story that sticks in my mind:

[The following correspondence has been partially redacted.]

The ****** event was ******. I was picked up at the airport by ************************. They asked ******************************* ****************** like, "************************************ *************************?" I explained about ***************** *************************. They seemed ********* and *** that the **************************************. ********, they explained, *** ***********************. ******************************************** ************************. (This is really true; it turned out that ******************************************************************* **************.) When we got to the ************ ***—this is also true—exactly *** *********************, and I think he was demented and had been looking for the toilet. So I ********* ************************************************************: the *********** JCC coordinator (who ***************************** *** *************** to ***** ************ and *************, she ******** *********************************); ******************************** *********************** *************************** fell asleep.

Meanwhile, I am about to move out of my apartment, which is the one quiet place I've ever lived in in NYC. (The irony being that my extremely loud children live inside it with me.) Proust supposedly lined his office walls with cork. Any trouble with noise? Any solutions?

Austin

 

[The following correspondence has been partially redacted.]

Network memories... At one event the woman who picked me up *****************. We had to go around and pick up everyone who couldn't drive anymore. Then we went to the kosher deli and she put the rolls in her purse.

I also remember a ******** woman who claimed that the demise of Judaism was being effected by my generation marrying outside the faith. I pointed out I wasn't married—to a Jew or a gentile—but if she knew anyone she should let me know.

As to noise, I'm not terribly sensitive, but there's noise, and then there's the noise of little children wanting to play with you, which, along with waterboarding and sleep deprivation, has been declared a torture method by our government.

I have belonged to writing spaces for years, mostly to get out of the house so I have to get dressed in the morning and converse with other humans. For a long time I belonged to the Writers Room in New York. Then I needed to look at different walls, so I joined Paragraph on 14th street. I love having an "office" to go to, and meeting in the kitchen to talk about writing. I've met lots of people who have introduced me to others in the community, and now I never stand awkwardly at a party again! And there's free coffee.

Ok, on a different topic, did you take time off of writing to promote/finish up In the Land of the Living? How do you juggle different projects in different phases? I’m trying to write something new, but I'm having trouble concentrating in anticipation of the book’s release.

 

I guess… there's a pleasing rhythm to your work as a writer if you have the good fortune to publish more than one book: you take a break from the creative work on the next book to do a little bit of work promoting the last one or earning some money. Even non-writing activities can be a welcome relief, since doing nothing but open yourself to the muses can be a kind of torture in its unadulterated form.

Let's pretend we had a genie in a bottle and could make a wish. Given the many difficulties of writing and publishing fiction, what one thing would you change about the way society treats writers of literary fiction?

 

Let's see... what I would like most from literary publishing would be to 1. earn a living wage from writing novels and 2. be paid a true advance like writers used to be paid. I get to live in New York, and I love to teach, but sometimes writing necessarily takes a secondary role to more pressing duties…there's often just not a lot of creative energy left over.

If you could wave your magic wand, what would you wish for?

 

I think I would cast a spell on myself that made it impossible for me to lose perspective when I hit all the little bumps and snags along the way in the writing life. Call it the bird's-eye view spell: avitus oculus visum. Serenity now.

Another question: how do you like giving elevator pitches about your book? You know, when people say what is it "about." What is your book about? And what would your elevator pitch be if you already knew you were speaking to your ideal reader?

 

I know all about the elevator pitch from some time I spent in LA, where you should always have a log line to your movie ready in case you get into an elevator with Steven Spielberg. (It just occurred to me that his last name is SPIELberg. Awesome.) I do try to have a 10-word answer prepared and a 75-word answer, just in case.

10-word: It's about art forgery and the impossibility of duplication or replication. (ok, it's 11 words)

75 word: It's the story of a woman who is the director of 18th-19th Century prints and drawings at a prestigious auction house in New York who is grieving her dead son. The other protagonist is a frustrated Spanish artist living in Paris who turns to forging artwork stolen by the Nazis during World War Two for recognition and money. Eventually their stories converge, and the book asks questions about authenticity and replication of the irreplaceable. (That's 76 words).

I have to resist the 1000 word answer, which is what I'd really like to give, to gift the reader all the nuances I've crammed into those 300 pages, but no one really wants to listen to that: It's about love! And death! And science! And art! And marriage! And being an artist! And growing older! And raising children! And living in Paris! And New York! And art stolen by Nazis! And the insufficiency of reparations!

The only question I hate getting, though, is "What kind of writing do you do?" I usually answer: "Literary fiction." When the person stares at me blankly I add: "You know, stuff they read in college or in Oprah's Book Club. Stuff no one buys."

Wait, there's a question I hate more: "How many pages is your book?" If I answer that, what will that tell you? I know it's just a question people ask when they don't know anything about writing and want to express polite interest.

I'm thrilled when someone wants to know that I do… and I'll happily give that 1000 word explanation to whomever is interested.

Your elevator pitch?

 

Your book sounds great to me. I love your idea of "replication of the irreplaceable."

My book is about loss in early, early childhood and how it projects itself throughout the rest of a person's life. The theme is played out across two generations of a Jewish family from Cleveland, Ohio.

 

Sounds like an important theme you’re exploring—I can’t wait to read it. Maybe I could even have a copy signed by the author?

This has been so much fun corresponding with you. I’m glad the JBC introduced us!

 

Likewise! Now, to the bar!

Read more about Allison Amend here and read more about Austin Ratner here.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Monday, April 08, 2013 | Permalink
Click below for Holocaust Remembrance Day reading:

A Question for You

Monday, April 08, 2013 | Permalink
Boaz Yakin has been blogging here all week for JBC and MJL. Editor's Note: The views expressed by Visiting Scribes are their own.

Hey, I have a question for you: How important is it for you to identify as a Jew? As a liberal or conservative one? As a Zionist or anti-Zionist? As religious or secular? How important to you is your tribal identification? How much room does it inhabit in your psyche? How much power does it hold in those parts of your mind that employ language and structure and iconography to help you situate yourself in the moment and provide you with a map, a compass, a barometer, so that you might feel you know who and where you are at any given point in time? Do you question it much, or do you simply accept it as a useful base from which to operate? And speaking of usefulness, how’s it working for you? Is it helping you? Bolstering your strength, both inner and outer, aiding you in achieving warmth and intimacy and connection in your personal relationships, allowing you to live your life as fully as possible? Or is it hurting you? Giving you something easy and pre-fabricated to fall back on and identify with rather than making an effort to expand yourself outward, limiting your relationships, circumscribing your life? Is it just a useful or unuseful label to stick on yourself, or is it much more than a label, an entire ecosystem of biology and behavior both born and bred that comprises what makes you you as truly as the particular composition of atoms into molecules into cells etc etc etc that define your shape, as mutable and impermanent as that might be? Is it a comfortable niche to sit it, because niches are comfortable, even when they might subject you to all manner of torture and affliction, because despite all that, nothing is less comfortable than standing in the middle of a vast nothingness with no landmarks or architecture to give you a sense of place or belonging?

I'm asking you this—but it's actually a question that, on the occasion that I think of myself as a Jew, which occurs often enough, I tend to ask myself. And I can’t say I’ve come up with any kind of definitive answer for it, or believe that I ever will.

Boaz Yakin is a screenwriter and film director based in New York City. Yakin studied filmmaking at New York City College and New York University.

A Love/Hate Relationship

Sunday, April 07, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Boaz Yakin wrote about his father's stories growing up in British Mandate Palestine and empathy and conflict. He has been blogging here all week for JBC and MJL. Editor's Note: The views expressed by Visiting Scribes are their own.

How weird is it that here in America the very people who used to hate on the Jews something fierce now love us the way PETA loves animals? And that even more than Jews in general, they love them some Israel? How fast did it go from you can’t get into the country club—or in my case, heading home from school past the tough goy boys on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (it was the 70’s, there were still tough goys out there) and having a rock whipped at me along with an accompanying snort of “Jewboy” if I had somehow forgotten to take off my yarmulka—to turning on the news every day to the spectacle of some good ol’ boy politician on his knees desperately fellating anything circumcised that might fall within his purview? It’s been a strange confluence of events and ideology and who knows what else. Like, what exactly was it?

First the Christian Millennialists can’t get over the fact that there are Jews running the show in Judea again, which means the battle of Armageddon is approaching, and their Boy (ours originally, but whatever) will soon be riding down from the clouds with a flaming sword in his mouth and all that special effects meshugas that they can hardly wait for for a single minute longer. It also means as a result of those hopes that they are even more opposed to a two-state solution in Israel, or Judea, or Palestine, or whatever you want to call it, than the most rabid Zionist, as it runs contrary to Biblical prophecy and will cock-block the whole thing. Meanwhile the Cold War ends, and we get dragged into the Gulf War by our fearless leaders, and the Twin Towers are destroyed, and more war in the Middle East and a new awareness amongst our generally myopic populace of Islam spreading like a thought-virus all over the world, and—BANG—Muslims, who since the rise of the Israeli State tend to hate Jews almost as much (but not quite as much) as the Christians used to, are suddenly Public Enemy Number One; so it follows that the Jews they hated must now be America’s new best Pals. And let’s not forget all the old Yids who have been migrating to the Deep Southern state of Florida for the warmth and the waters, and now find themselves in the enviable position of being able to swing a national election this way or that…

So, the attitude shift kind of makes sense when you break it down, connect the dots and all that, but to a Jew with some years on him and some sense of history it still feels weird, is all I can say. And so many Jews both in America and Israel are like—whatever—I don’t give a shit why they’re kissing my ass all day all of a sudden, I just know it feels good, better than, say, being shoved into a ghetto or fleeing a pogrom or a Holocaust or whatever other fun we’ve been subjected to for the last 2000 years, so don’t ask too many questions, lean back and enjoy the lap dance. And I understand that sentiment well, and sympathize with it—I mean, we live in the moment, not in "history"—and the moment feels nice.

But for those inclined to think about the future, whatever that means, you know, the kind of people who worry about a rainy day coming, what they’re leaving their kids and all that kind of thing, it might be a good idea to remember that Jesus ain’t never coming back, ever, and that at some point our new pals are going to start getting antsy about it, and then the term “fair weather friend” will take on a whole new meaning. Or not. Who knows? Certainly not me.

Boaz Yakin is a screenwriter and film director based in New York City. Yakin studied filmmaking at New York City College and New York University.

New Reviews

Friday, April 05, 2013 | Permalink

This week's reviews:



 

Book Cover of the Week: A Guide to Being Born

Thursday, April 04, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBC Network author Ramona Ausubel, whose debut novel No One is Here Except All of Us was one of my favorite book's of 2012, has a new book coming out next month from Riverhead! A Guide to Being Born is a collection of stories "that uses the world of the imagination to explore the heart of the human condition." To hold you over until May: 

Single Sentence Animation


View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

Beyond Words

Thursday, April 04, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, Boaz Yakin wrote about empathy and conflict. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. Editor's Note: The views expressed by Visiting Scribes are their own.

I grew up listening to stories about those days, and that place— Jerusalem.

In New York City, in our Upper West Side apartment, my little brother and I watched my father act out the events and characters of his youth in British Mandate Palestine. He was a pantomime by trade and a teacher of physical acting, and when he told a story he didn’t just relate it with words— he performed it with every muscle in his face, with every physical gesture in his vast repertoire. And even then, though I thrilled and laughed at his exploits, I suspected that perhaps there was something exaggerated, slightly of the grotesque, in his portrayals of the multifarious denizens of that remote, ancient city; a city on the one hand so tiny and provincial, on the other so vast and timeless and redolent of eternity. A city against whose harsh, stony face the human dramas enacted by my father stood out in sharp, colorful relief, like a commedia dell’arte performance. Tragic, hilarious, and surely daubed with a huge dollop of fancy.

Then my parents would pack up for the summer and we would fly to spend several months with my father’s family in Israel… Get in the taxi from Tel Aviv and make the hour and half drive up to Jerusalem… Arrive at the corner of Jaffa Street across from the shouk, where my uncle lives with his huge family in the house that my great grandfather built over half a century before, in the precincts of what was then British Jerusalem… Get out of the cab, and breathe the suddenly dry, elevated air… Take in the sunlight glowing pink on the stone buildings, the strange, grotesque faces and postures of the city’s colorful, multifarious denizens… and then… realize, once again… that it was all true.

The truth of my father’s every gesture, every exaggeration, every outright lie, was borne out by the details of the real city I found myself in. And when I wrote this story I tried to put myself in my father’s shoes, as he told stories to my brother and me in our little apartment in New York City— mimicking voices, adopting postures, prancing, slouching and posing. Recreating what was into what is.
 

Boaz Yakin is a screenwriter and film director based in New York City. Yakin studied filmmaking at New York City College and New York University.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Francesca Segal

Wednesday, April 03, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Last week, Ben Lerner expressed his desire for readers to be active participants in the construction of what a poem or novel means. Today we hear from Sami Rohr Prize finalist Francesca Segal, author of the 2012 National Jewish Book Award winning novel The Innocents. The National Jewish Book Award judges wrote:

Edith Wharton’s novels were at once penetrating sociology and bestselling stories, and so it’s no accident that Francesca Segal’s The Innocents, modeled on Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, can dissect a community’s behaviors and beliefs nimbly while telling a charming page-turning tale. Set among traditional but not exactly Orthodox Jewish Londoners, and peppered with precise details of the way some of us live now, the novel sets up a romantic triangle—a good girl, a good boy who wants to be bad, and a "bad"girl, tinged with scandal—demonstrating that the old tension between community and individual that engendered modern Jewish literature over a century ago is still alive and well, at least in certain neighborhoods. What power do our communities possess to keep the young in the fold, and at what price do they wield it? Segal manages to expose a signal truth of contemporary Jewish life with warmth and wit.

Below, Francesca Segal writes about her need for peace and quiet and her desire to keep learning:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

The lack of immediate feedback can be hard – one has to sit on the impulse to show one’s work too early. It’s vital to have the space and quiet in order to be creative, and I’m a firm believer in finishing a complete first draft before letting anyone else near it, but it can be hard if you need a little reassurance.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Reading fiction. There are so many writers who have altered my perspective, subtle shifts that have stayed with me, and to whom I owe whatever wisdom I possess.

Who is your intended audience?

I don’t write with an audience in mind – if I allowed myself to imagine that anyone would read what I write, I would be too self-conscious to produce anything. I have to believe it will go no further than my own desk, and with that comes a little liberation.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I’m at the beginning of the next novel. It’s exciting and (extremely) nerve-wracking.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjui, and The Free World by David Bezmozgis. I like to have a few on the go at once.

Top 5 Favorite Books

This is almost impossible so I've stayed relatively contemporary but –

When did you decide to be a writer?

I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything else.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

All I’ve ever wanted is the opportunity to keep writing, to keep learning, to keep getting better. Success for me is the chance to publish my second book, and then hopefully a third and forth. It’s such an unstable job –my definition of success is to earn the trust of a readership in the hopes that they will stay with you.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

All I really need is peace and quiet – although that’s sometimes quite a tall order. I used to write in cafes when I needed to get out of my apartment, until I read a wonderful interview with Etgar Keret, who I admire hugely, saying that he thinks we become more self-conscious in social spaces and that it makes writers more self-conscious in their prose. I believe that. So now I just battle the cabin fever at home. That, and a great deal of caffeine.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I hope that it prompts readers to ask questions – about community, about family, about marriage. And I don’t think it’s trivializing to say that books should give pleasure, so I do hope that readers enjoy the novel, and that it feels emotionally honest.

Francesca Segal was born in London in 1980. Brought up between the UK and America, she studied at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, before becoming a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in Granta, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Financial Times, and Vogue UK and US, amongst many others. She has been a features writer at Tatler, and for three years wrote the Debut Fiction column in the Observer.