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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.

National Poetry Month

Wednesday, April 03, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Celebrate National Poetry Month with some recommended reading from Jewish Book Council and poetry-related blog posts from past Visiting Scribes:


Empathy and Conflict

Wednesday, April 03, 2013 | Permalink

Boaz Yakin's most recent graphic novel, Jerusalem: A Family Portrait, illustrated by Nick Bertozzi, will be published later this month. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Editor's Note: The views expressed by Visiting Scribes are their own.

It seems to me that it’s hard for a feeling, empathetic person to know where to place himself in the midst of conflict. Since most people possess some degree of feeling and empathy, in order to live with themselves they don’t necessarily divorce themselves from these senses as they make decisions as to how and where to direct them. These decisions are determined by a host of factors—different in each individual and situation.

The bravest among us, of whom there are few, courageously allow their empathetic sense to extend outward in a manner that generously encompasses a wide variety of people, perspectives and feelings that might be in violent, seemingly intractable opposition to one another— and even more courageously allow their practical behavior and decisions to be strongly influenced by that understanding. The least brave, who number many, allow their empathy to encompass their family, their friends, their tribe— however far they choose to extend the net— and then shut themselves off to everyone and everything else in order to justify behavior that is born of the most primitive fears, anger, and desires. The rest of us, well, we live somewhere in the middle, constantly extending and withdrawing our empathy and understanding like a snail poking its antennae out of its shell as we try to balance our desire for openness, brotherhood and freedom with our anxieties, anger and fears.

Jerusalem, a graphic novel I wrote, inspired by the multitude of myths, stories, diatribes and musings I have been exposed to throughout my life by family, friends, enemies, and teachers, is an attempt to explore this struggle in others and within myself.

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.

Jews and Baseball

Saturday, March 30, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 2013 Major League Baseball season begins tomorrow! 

Browse our site for a range of books that focus on Jews and baseball:

JBC Bookshelf: Baseball Edition

Reading List: Jews and Baseball

New Reviews

Friday, March 29, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:



 

The Nuts and Bolts of Writing

Friday, March 29, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about learning to breathe and a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Quite recently, someone asked me about my “process.” This someone wasn’t asking about the creative parts—the meandering through the dark, schlepping a bag full of puzzle pieces and seeking out the elusive slots where they might fit—but quite literally about what I do during my waking hours, which hours those might be, and when and if I stop for snacks. She was asking about the nuts and bolts.

What I wanted to say is that I know nothing (and that of course I stop for snacks). I’m just winging it. I’m still waiting to be found out. Still, I wrote 336 pages that will be printed and bound and on (some) shelves in just a few weeks, which is something one teensy bit better than nothing.

1. Get dressed every day (except when you feel like the very heart of what you’re writing is delicately wound into the fiber of your socks and robe)

2. Stop and move for food (except when you must, just must, have your fingers centimeters from your computer at all times)

3. Exercise in any form: stand up, walk, run, go to a yoga class (except when all the jostling around risks dispersing your very precious thoughts, and then stay put, very very put)

4. Get by with a little help from your friends (except when talking to anyone at all about anything at all will sully everything, make you forget or derailed or soft or sleepy)

5. Find inspiration in art, music, literature (except when they might be toxic to your work and undo all your efforts to find voice)

There you have it. Fool’s gold.

In the end, I think, anything you can do is my actual answer.

Also: do the best you can, however you can, every day that you can. Take care of your body, your wrists, knees and eyes. Take care of your computer, and back up what matters. Take care of your bills because Verizon doesn’t care that you’re writing the Next Great American Novel. Take care of the people that love you. They will be there when you pick your head up, but only if you play your cards right.

The process is long, there is no end to it—at least, not really—so don’t be dramatic and pull eight all-nighters just to show us that you can. Or do, if you can. Do.

Win a signed copy of Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Ben Lerner

Thursday, March 28, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In our last two installments of "Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...", Stuart Nadler championed the short story and Shani Boianjiu shared her desire to write forever stories. Today we hear from Ben Lerner, author of the lyrical and thought-provoking debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station. With several awards, three collections of poetry, and a novel under his belt, JBC was thrilled to welcome Ben into the Sami Rohr Prize family. Read an interview with him over at The Believer and his short story "The Golden Vanity" in the The New Yorker. Below, find Ben Lerner on writing as time travel and writing that blurs fiction and reality:

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

I find all writing challenging. I sometimes think that a writer is a person who finds working with language more challenging than the average person does—that it’s less that the writer has a way with words than that the words have a way with the writer. One particular challenge that attends writing fiction: how to avoid reducing the messiness of lived experience to a tidy geometrical plot. I’m interested in fiction that acknowledges the irreducible complexity of reality, not fiction that cleans it up.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I’m particularly interested in writers and books that blur the boundary between fact and fiction in order to dramatize how inseparable they ultimately are in our lived experience. To choose just one recent inspiration: W.G. Sebald.

Who is your intended audience?

I’m really not sure. I certainly write with the writers I love and respect in mind as possible readers. But one of the most exciting things about writing is the possibility your work will find and connect with someone you could never imagine in advance. I also feel like writing is a kind of time travel—I sometimes feel like I’m addressing the dead, or some imagined future reader, or like I’m a medium through which voices from the past might pass. Maybe that sounds a little crazy or grand, but I believe the language speaks through us as much as we speak through it.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m working on a new novel and also on a book of poems. And one of the poems seems to be creeping into the novel.

What are you reading now?

At the moment I’m reading two brilliant books of literary criticism: Writing Against Time (Michael Clune) and Our Aesthetic Categories (Sianne Ngai). I’ve also just reread Keith Waldrop’s quiet masterpiece, his memoir, Light While There Is Light.

Top 5 Favorite Books

I have no idea how to choose! And my favorites are always shifting. Here are five books I love off the top of my head in no particular order: 

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

I think I was in Topeka, Kansas. But I don’t really remember a particular moment of decision. Language has always been primary in my experience and writing is a way of wrestling with it.

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

I think of writing as always involving failure. But I don’t mean that to be as depressing as it sounds—it’s the result of trying to do something impossible with language. So I guess success for me is writing something that manages to gesture beyond itself, to point towards what I can’t say.

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

Besides coffee, I have no reliable prop. One of the best and worst things about writing (at least for me) is that I always feel like I’m starting over. Having written a poem or novel doesn’t teach me how to write the next poem or novel. It’s always about what I can discover in the act of composition, so no amount of planning in advance really helps. This is probably one of the reasons so many writers go crazy.

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

I hope a reader will find that my narrator’s struggle to figure out the possibility of authentic experience in the arts and beyond captures something about our contemporary structures of feeling and thought. And I hope it’s more entertaining than that sounds. But ultimately I hope readers get something out of the book I didn’t know was there. I like to think the reader is an active participant in the construction of what a poem or novel means—not just a recipient of messages the author has consciously placed there.

Ben Lerner is the author of novel Leaving the Atocha Station and three books of poetry. Lerner has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College.

Learning to Breathe

Thursday, March 28, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I needed something. Everyone was dying. Or at least a lot of people were dying and it felt like everyone might, including me, die at the drop of a hat. I was having panic attacks on the subway. I was avoiding elevators and scaffolding and spinach and caffeine and planes and hospitals and graveyards.

I couldn’t breathe.

My parents are not religious. Someone told me to try yoga.

I was a gymnast for the great majority of my childhood. Yoga came easily. I breezed through the ranks.

I ended up in an Ashtanga class in Amagansett and had no idea what I was in for.

Ashtanga doesn’t bill itself as the “yoga of forced breathing,” but it might as well. It’s the same series, “system” of movements done (or supposed to be done) every morning, every day. It is strenuous and sequential and smart. At the core of it is the notion of synchronizing breath with movement. For every movement, a breath, which sounds nice enough but is challenging. Very. Because of the intensity of the poses, most people sweat. A lot. It’s different from Bikram in that the heat you create is from the inside out. It’s all you. Ujjayi breathing, or “victorious breath,” consists of steady inhales and exhales through the nose, equal in duration, accompanied by the “ocean sound” made by constricting the throat as one does to whisper. Ujjayi’s purpose: improve endurance, decrease distractions, release tension, warm the blood, which improves circulation and cleanses toxins and regulates heat. Too, and most importantly to me, Ujjayi calms the mind. Breath becomes a rhythm, a lullaby. In and out and in and out and in and out.

My first Ashtanga class nearly killed me—and got me completely hooked. My first Ashtanga teacher has been my only one really, or at least the only one that’s really mattered. She’s a die-hard. If she cannot hear your “ocean sound,” she says so. If she sees your mouth open, she says so. And if you cannot breathe, in and out and in and out and in and out, you cannot. You just cannot. It took me many months to get a place where I was comfortable with the poses, and then even longer to a place where the breath was as crucial as the positions. But eventually it was. So much so. In and out and in and out and in and out.

At first, I stopped thinking about dying because I was focused on the movements, on not messing up. After a while, I stopped thinking about dying because I was trying to do the movements better. When I became halfway decent, I stopped thinking because I was focused on the breath. On better breath.

I am aware that I said “better,” regarding yoga. Kill me. I am no longer afraid. On a plane, in turbulent moments, I practice Ujjayi. Elevators don’t paralyze me. Bring on the spinach. I am better.

In Ashtanga, I didn’t find God. I did, however, learn to breathe. I breathed like I meant it and then I breathed because I had to. You have to. In and out and in and out and in and out. And by breathing I realized that I wasn’t dead yet. Just the opposite. I was all breath.

Win a signed copy of Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

Precious Haroset

Monday, March 25, 2013 | Permalink

Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, will be published on April 16th. Win a signed copy here. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

I am bored to death, dying of starvation and on the brink of losing my mind at Passover dinner at my father’s sister’s house on Long Island. I’m four, maybe five. My mother has refilled my grape juice many more than four times but it’s not cutting it. She has a look on her face like she would have made a PB&J if she’d known what she was in for—what we were both in for—but she didn’t. There are many more relatives visiting from Israel than usual, which means, apparently, that there is no goofing around and no snacking. Who knew? We didn’t. I will die of starvation, I think to myself. They will find me in a puddle of grape juice with the yarmulke I’ve demanded to wear over my face, dead.

But I don’t die. Instead, I put my head into my mother’s lap and quickly fall into a deep sleep. Eventually, she nudges me awake. I sit up. Why am I awake? Same stuff, different blessing. But then I see. From across the table, my father is giving me the eye. I look around, everyone is engrossed in the text and so I slink under the table, lift up a bit of tablecloth to let in light. There are twenty sets of adult shoes and I have the urge to untie every one. But I’ve got bigger fish to fry. My father’s got a handful of romaine lettuce from who knows where and I snatch it up, scarf it down, barely chewing. I’m a rabbit on speed. I yank on his pant leg for more. What else you got? He lifts his index finger. One second. He can do better, I’m thinking. I know he can do better. I pray like they do in the movies. It’s Passover, after all. Moments later, the whitecap curl of a hardboiled egg has arrived. I’ve willed it here, I think. I should pray more often. I nearly skin my father’s fingers with my teeth. I wonder why I don’t eat eggs at every moment of every day. They are heaven. Nothing better. But I’m still hungry. I’m dying again. I wait. Is that it? I start untying my father’s shoes. He catches my drift. Another egg. Untying. Then another. Now, I’m over eggs. I never want to see an egg again.

Still, I wait.

Just before I lose hope, die not of starvation but egg overdose, my father’s palm is open and flat in front of me, as if revealing the tiniest baby bird. But it’s better than that. It’s a raft of matzo, a cluster of haroset balancing on top, shimmering and precious like something stolen from the Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Museum of Natural History. I treat it as he did, lift it from his hand into mine with care. Ever so gently. Little tiny nibbles. The sweetest. The most amazing. This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Why don’t I eat this every moment of every day? I savor it.

My father claps his hands without making a sound. Show’s over, folks, and just in time. I make my way back to my seat, my mother brushing a crumb off my bottom lip, the parsley is being passed around and I’m up. “No,” I say but my mother ignores me, puts a pile of it on my plate. “I’m full,” I begin to say but she covers my mouth with her hand, and smiles graciously at the crowd. “She’s starving,” she says and I know to nod.

Read more about Jessica Soffer here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

New Reviews

Friday, March 22, 2013 | Permalink

This week's reviews: