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Interview: David Bezmozgis

Tuesday, April 25, 2017 | Permalink

with Ranen Omer-Sherman

Photo: David Franco

With the American debut of Natasha, a Canadian film based on the short story by National Jewish Book Award winner David Bezmozgis, in select theaters this week, Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to discuss the story, the film, and David Bezmozgis’s career and writing at large.

Ranen Omer-Sherman: Your short story “Natasha” contrasts a young Canadian’s stoner, suburban life with the tough exigencies of his newly arrived female relative’s earlier adolescence in Russia. What were some of the most significant challenges you encountered in trying to capture the story’s essence on film?

David Bezmozgis: To be honest, the most significant challenges were practical not creative—although the creative ones weren’t insignificant. Perhaps my primary motivation for turning "Natasha" into a film was to render a faithful account of contemporary North American Russian Jewish immigrant life on the screen. I’d seen it done in Israeli cinema, but never North American. To do it, the film needed to be mostly in Russian and cast with real Russian-speaking actors. Raising the money for such a film and finding the right actors was hard. There were just enough quality Russian-speaking actors in Canada—most of them trained in the former Soviet Union and Israel—to make the filming possible.

ROS: You vividly evoke the sharp generational contrasts dependant on when individuals emigrated from Latvia and Moscow. Are those differences still strongly felt?

DB: The film was shot in 2014, before the most heated debates about refugees and immigrants, but one aspect that rarely gets spoken about even now is the difference within immigrant communities. Most of these differences have to do with class—which today is about money—but some has to do with psychology. And so part of what accounts for the conflict in Natasha is the disparity between older and newer immigrants. It’s a distinction that diminishes over time, but in the film, we see it when it’s most acute.

ROS: After immersing yourself in shooting Natasha for many months, have your feelings about your vocation as an artist changed in any way? Do you feel a greater affinity with cinematic expression than fiction now? In your self-reflective article, “Origin, Story” you candidly describe your unease about the future of literature. Do you worry about the fate of the novel?

DB: I worry about the fate of literature and cinema pretty much equally. I’d worry less if there was some other form emerging that did what great books and films do—which is allow a reader or viewer to feel a sense of communion with another human consciousness. That kind of art is usually the product of a single authorial voice. An author. A film director. I don’t know if the readership or viewership is shrinking, only that there seems to be less money for people to write books and make movies whose objective is not primarily commercial.

ROS: Why did you choose to update “Natasha” (originally set in the 1980s) to the age of social media? Was that primarily a pragmatic choice, given the production costs of getting historical details right?

DB: I updated it for both practical and creative reasons. My previous film, Victoria Day, was set in the 1980s and I was well acquainted with the hassles of making a period picture—even one set in the recent past. I asked myself if the Natasha story was particular to the 1980s or if these characters and situations remained plausible today. I concluded they did. Once I decided that, I was glad for the cinematic and narrative opportunities that texting and the Internet provided. The way we communicate and the way we access pornography is very different today compared to the early 1990s.

However, very soon, my film will be dated. Canada is legalizing marijuana. So Mark’s sideline, biking around the northern Toronto suburbs delivering weed, is soon to be redundant.

ROS: What was it like to cast the film—to bring Mark, Natasha, and others to life?

DB: Like everyone, I had an image in my mind how the various characters should look. Once casting starts, however, you discover just how plastic that image is. A great actor will revise your sense of how a character can look—up to a point. Certainly with Mark and Natasha, the actors had to be able to credibly pass for teenagers.

As for Alex Ozerov (who plays Mark), I was aware of him from smaller roles in independent Canadian films. Once I saw his work and met him, he was the only actor I considered for the role. Natasha was the first film in which he played the lead and assumed the challenge of carrying a picture. I think he’s exceptional. And thanks in part to his role on The Americans, many other people are now discovering what a great talent he is.

ROS: The film’s final frame shows Mark gazing from the outside of his home through the window, occupying Natasha’s former position in their relationship. That profoundly evocative image is faithful to the story, but did you have any doubts about whether that choice would succeed as well as it did cinematically?

DB: I always imagined the film would end in the same way as the story. Even in the story, it is an imagistic ending. The film, however, doesn’t grant the viewer the benefit of Mark’s interior monologue, but I think what he feels is implicit in his action and informed by the audience’s experience of everything they’ve just seen. The ending is supposed allow the viewer space to infer the meaning. For viewers who like to be granted that kind of space—and I am one—I think it is satisfying. For viewers who want more explicit emotional instruction, it can be frustrating—though even most of these people, after asking for my interpretation, intuit more or less the correct meaning on their own.

ROS: Although you have written two more recent novels (The Free World and The Betrayers), not so long ago you described the stories gathered in your first book Natasha as “constituting the core of my imaginative life.” Could you say a little about why you still feel so deeply connected to those earlier works?

DB: That line from my journals refers to the curious little anecdotes and personal stories I’ve heard from my family and other Russian immigrants. That entry referred to my mother receiving the gift of a thermos from her friend, Anya. My mother and Anya are both widows and live in the same condominium building. Other Russian-Jewish widows also live in this building. My mother has known some of them for decades. They go for walks together. They meet for coffee. They know one another’s children and grandchildren. When my mother demurred about accepting the gift-thermos, Anya said: “What, I can’t even give you a thermos?” Much of my artistic sensibility can be derived from this exchange.

ROS: You have written movingly on the personal and professional impact of the great American writer Leonard Michaels (1933-2003), especially on what he taught you about embracing the inescapably personal nature of writing, not evading it. Can you say more about his influence?

DB: I recognized in Leonard Michaels a kindred spirit. His writing seemed like a more erudite and better-realized version of what I wanted to do. His sensibility had also been sufficiently informed by the class of gift-thermos stories. He’d found a means to transmute the humor and the pain of those stories though a highly condensed prose style. It set the standard to which I aspired. It still does.

ROS: There is a moment in “Minyan” when the narrator describes Shabbat morning services in an old shul: “Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.” Is that just the narrator, or does that affinity for Jewish historic consciousness rather than traditional practice speak for you as well?

DB: Is it possible to write that line and not share the sentiment?

Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville. His latest book is Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature & Film.

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Interview: Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly

Wednesday, February 08, 2017 | Permalink

with Teri Markson

Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly’s new book The Inquisitor’s Tale recently won The Sydney Taylor Award in the Older Readers Category and was named a National Jewish Book Award Finalist for Children’s Literature and a Newbery Honor Book. Jewish Book Council talked to the writer-illustrator team to discuss the book and their approaches to creating compelling literature for young Jewish readers.

Teri Markson: In addition to receiving many starred reviews and accolades, The Inquisitor’s Tale has won the Sydney Taylor Book Award in the Older Readers category and was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award. Yet the book isn’t singularly focused on the Jewish character or Judaism itself. How do you account for the reaction from the Jewish community?

Adam Gidwitz: This has been one of the most satisfying elements of the recognition The Inquisitor's Tale has received. It's always a dangerous proposition to try to explain why someone likes your work, but I think the overwhelmingly positive reaction from the Jewish community derives from at least two sources:

So much of the children's literature featuring Jewish characters that receives national attention concerns the Holocaust. But Jewish history is so much richer than that! Jews have been writing and learning and praying and inventing for, by our count, over five millennia. I think people are appreciating a rich and detailed account of a period other than the Holocaust—an account that describes a very different kind of persecution of Jews; and also features and celebrates one of the great accomplishments of Jewish culture: the Talmud.

Secondly, in all literature—and especially literature for children—bad guys are usually stereotypically bad, and good guys are perfectly good. This is exaggerated in cases of persecution, such as the persecution of Jews. In The Inquisitor's Tale, I tried to depict the Jewish community with some complexity—we're definitely not all sages and saints—and, more crucially, I tried to portray the persecutor, King Louis IX, with realistic complexity. Louis was so beloved that he was sainted, and has a major American city named after him. Having read a number of sources on him, including critical sources, I understand why: he was in many ways a wonderful king and a wonderful man. But he was also viciously anti-Jewish. How could he be both? He said he hated the Jews, and supposedly claimed he would happily see a Jew stabbed in the stomach, yet he largely prohibited violence against them in his kingdom, unlike other monarchs of his time. Humans are complex, and my goal was to depict them in all their complex glory. Why would this appeal to Jewish community? You know what they say: two Jews, three opinions? We revel in complexity.

TM: One of the protagonists in the book, William, is biracial, of both African and European descent. How likely would it have been for that to have happened in the Middle Ages?

AG: It was certainly rare to see someone with brown skin in Northern France in the thirteenth century, mixed race or not. But there was a great deal of cultural interaction, in all senses, along the cultural borders of Europe: in the Middle East, along the edges of the Byzantine Empire, and in Spain. My character William is based in part on Guilhem d'Orange, a ninth-century Paul Bunyan-type figure who fought to take Spain from its Muslim rulers. I certainly didn't like the idea of a religious warrior as the star of my book—it would defeat the whole intent of the story—so I thought that it would be interesting to focus on one of the little-talked-about (and, frankly, ironic) products of this religious war: a child of both sides.

TM: Many of the details in your book are based on your extensive research into the history and lore of the Middle Ages. What do you find most compelling about this era?

AG: The Middle Ages is a remarkably surprising period. I think most of us think of that time as boring and homogenous, constricted and made ignorant by faith. But in reality this couldn't be farther from the truth! It was an age of invention, of great philosophy and architecture, a time of cultural collision and collaboration. Also, they told amazing stories, like ones about holy dogs, and dragons with deadly flatulence. How can you not find that compelling?

TM: What kind of response have you received from children and teens who have read the book? Do you think they’re more focused on the history or the humor?

AG: Mostly, young people are focused on the adventure. The most compelling aspect of any novel is suspense—be it a romance, a comedy, a horror, what have you. Suspense is the engine that drives a novel. There are certain adult novels that eschew suspense, but those seem to lack an engine altogether, and mostly ramble randomly down the side of a steep hill. The suspense of The Inquisitor's Tale comes in the form of adventure. But humor is important, too, and the big questions that I pose, about history, philosophy, and cultural difference, make the novel something that, I hope, young people will return to.

TM: One of my favorite moments in the book is when Marmeluc questions Jacob about what makes him a Jew. There are many instances where you have the children grapple with some complex religious ideas, including the death of Jacob’s parents in light of God’s plan. How did you decide what was appropriate for kids?

AG: I didn't. I have a rule for my books: they have to have happy endings, and nothing sexual. Other than that, I think kids can handle most anything. (Okay, I exclude gratuitous torture, too. Mostly.) I taught elementary and high school for a combined eight years, and one thing I learned is that kids love hard questions. Hard questions motivate them and inspire them—not hard like tedious; hard as in challenging the way they've always seen the world. Each and every kid’s job is to grow, and nothing helps a kid grow like questions that make them reconsider what they always believed. Also farting dragons. That helps a kid grow, too.

TM: Whose decision was it to present the illustrations in the style of an illustrated manuscript? Did you consider starting the chapters with large ornate letters like in some old manuscripts? What other decisions did you make concerning the style?

Hatem Aly: The style or form of the book was decided early on. The idea was inspired by illuminated manuscripts, with marginalia specifically in mind. I had thought of starting each chapter’s first letter with a small illuminated character; then it was suggested to work on the “C’s in each “Chapter,” which was the best (and most sensible) way to use this technique for the book! The one decision that I obliged myself to do was inking the illustrations traditionally, using a metal nib or a “plume” like in the medieval times, to keep the artwork authentic to the time period—and have fun with the rest.

TM: Was the use of color considered at any point?

HA: For the interiors there was no intention to use color. However, now that I see it, I think the current form works best with the nature of the book and leaves space for imagination.

TM: Can you tell us something about the processes you used in illustrating the book?

As I read the book the first time, I started sketching characters while doing some research on the time period in which the story takes place, paying closer attention to the visual aspects of people, places, and books. I made batches of sketches and discussed it with the editorial team, then I revised the sketches with their feedback and new research and started inking and finalizing. I must thank Adam Gidwitz for his expertise on many things I would not have known—like what some current locations or buildings looked like several centuries ago or how monks, peasants, or regular merchants dressed in medieval times.

TM: Most illustrated manuscripts are quite formal, but your style is very fluid—which works wonderfully with the humor in the book. What were you trying to achieve with your illustrations?

HA: Sometimes limitations are a great door to creativity. I used the formal tradition of illuminated manuscripts and the restrictive area of illustrative marginalia as an anchor that kept me in the right direction; within those strictures I allowed any ideas to flow freely, knowing that at the end it would be contained in the proper form. You could say it’s like singing a folklore poem in your own melody but staying truthful to the lyrics. And that works beautifully if you think the text is fantastic. In brief, I wanted the artwork to be both fun and passionate, like the story and characters of The Inquisitor’s Tale.

Teri Markson has been a children’s librarian for over 18 years. She is currently the acting senior librarian at the Valley Plaza Branch Library in North Hollywood, CA.

View Hatem Aly's early sketches for The Inquisitor's Tale:

(Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge images and enter the slideshow.)


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Interview: Chanan Tigay

Tuesday, December 06, 2016 | Permalink

with Daniel Estrin

For Jewish Book Month, Jewish Book Council spoke with Chanan Tigay about his debut book, The Lost Book of Moses: The Hunt for the World's Oldest Bible, about the author’s quest to find a lost biblical manuscript, and to solve the historical riddle of its alleged forger, nineteenth-century Jerusalem antiquities dealer Moses Wilhelm Shapira.

Daniel Estrin: Your book seeks to solve a real-life mystery of a lost ancient manuscript. How did you come across this story?

Chanan Tigay: I first heard of Moses Wilhelm Shapira from my father, a Bible scholar and rabbi who spent 15 years writing a commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy for the Jewish Publication Society. We were sitting around the Shabbat table one Friday night. I’m a journalist, and I started talking about some articles I had recently written—they had discovered Noah’s Ark again, which seems to happen at least annually. It was a team of Chinese Evangelicals this time, and they had come out with the news that they discovered wooden beams that had been a portion of Noah’s Ark on top of Mount Ararat in Turkey. It became a big story in the news, as it tends to be, and then within days, of course, a guy who had been a part of the expedition came forward and admitted that it was all a hoax. I was telling my family about some articles I had written about all this, and the interviews I was doing. When I was finished, my dad said, “Hey, speaking of Biblical hoaxes, there was this guy named Shapira who in 1883 showed up at the doorstep of the British Museum claiming to have the oldest copy of a portion of the Bible in the world.” And then he went on to tell the story in fairly light detail, because he knew the general outlines but he was not an expert on the case. Like many bible scholars, he knew the contours of the story—which immediately attracted me.

DE: That led to a four-year quest to solve the case. At what point did you decide to write a book about it?

CT: Initially, I was just interested in it the way I might be interested in astronomy. I didn’t necessarily think I was going to write about it. But being a journalist and a writer, there’s always that spark when you hear something interesting that gets you thinking, “Hey, that sounds like a good story.” And the more I dug, the more I realized this story had endless, unexpected twists and turns. At that point, I realized I could write something about this, but the initial thought was that it would be an article about the case. Very gradually, I came to the idea that it might actually be a book. I think that happened when I came to the realization that I wanted to hunt down Shapira’s missing Deuteronomy manuscript. At that point, it sort of solidified itself as an idea for a book.

DE: What has been the prevailing wisdom about Shapira's scrolls and why did you doubt it?

The prevailing wisdom pretty much until today had been that Shapira himself had forged the manuscript of Deuteronomy—a very odd manuscript, I should add, with many, many variant readings from the traditional text of Deuteronomy, including a shuffling of the Ten Commandments, and the addition of a new commandment. The idea was that Shapira had forged this manuscript; that he tried to sell it to the British Museum; that he had been caught; that, humiliated over having been caught, he had killed himself; and then, once that happened, that the manuscript had made its way to Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s auctioned it off: it was purchased by a British book dealer named Bernard Quarich, and Quarich, it was believed, sold the manuscript to an English-Australian nobleman named Sir Charles Nicholson. Nicholson lived in Australia, but at the end of his life lived in the north of London. His large estate burned down in 1899, and, the thinking went, the great likelihood was that Shapira’s manuscripts went up in flames along with the rest of Nicholson’s home.

The more research I did, the more it seemed to me that this theory was, at best, unlikely—or that I could think of other possibilities of what had happened to Shapira’s scrolls that were at least as likely if not more so.

DE: There are other detectives out there who have been on this hunt, too. You mention a particularly dedicated one, an Israeli documentary filmmaker named Yoram Sabo. Why did you think you could find answers when others hadn't?

CT: Initially, I didn’t. When I first met Yoram Sabo and he put out the faint possibility that he and I might work together, my instinct was to go for it. Because I felt like he had a 30-year head start on me, and there was no way I was ever going to catch up to him, that’s just seemed impossible. This guy was the Shapiramaniac as far as I could tell. He’d been searching for three decades at that point and so I didn’t think I was likely to be the one to find it. So I wanted to work with him. And ultimately that didn’t work out, so I was left with two possibilities: one was to quit, and the other was to say, hey, if he hasn’t found it in 30 years, maybe he’s not going to find it, and maybe what I need to do is start looking for different approaches, different angles from which to search, angles no one else has tried before.

DE: You traveled to seven countries, across four continents over the course of four years. Sometimes you wondered whether a trip was a "colossal waste." You mention "grasping at straws," and a "series of extreme long shots." Trip after trip, and archive after archive, led to a lot of dead ends. I found myself wondering: did you ever lose faith that you would find anything?

CT: I did, for sure. Here’s the thing: you’re right in saying it was dead end after dead end. But the other side of that was, each one of those dead ends taught me something new. Even if it was a tiny little new fact, often times it gave me some new insight, some new avenue that I thought I could follow up, that maybe then would hold out the hope of making a great discovery in the end. And so, even though stop after stop I didn’t find what I was looking for—and yes, that was extremely frustrating, because I wanted to find it, because I was spending time and money trying to find it, and because I had a publishing house waiting for this book that wanted me to find it, so there was a lot of stress and a lot of weight on my shoulders—I was always learning something new and potentially important.

Continue Reading »

Daniel Estrin is an American journalist in Jerusalem. He has reported on archaeology for The Associated Press, NPR and The New Republic.

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Interview: Anna Solomon

Thursday, September 22, 2016 | Permalink

with Sophie Siegel

Image: Beowulf Sheehan

Anna Solomon’s latest novel, Leaving Lucy Pear, delves into relations between rich and poor, Jewish and Irish in Prohibition-era New England, around the story of a baby abandoned in a pear orchard. Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to discuss her current and previous books this summer.

Sophie Siegal: Your first novel The Little Bride was very successful, however, its content is very different from that of Leaving Lucy Pear. How did you come to think of the idea behind each novel, and how did your writing process differ between the two books?

Anna Solomon: I generally write pretty linearly and work my way to the end. The biggest difference between these two books is that the point of view for The Little Bride is a very close third-person, somewhat claustrophobic, which fits the subject matter of the book. In Leaving Lucy Pear I jumped to an omniscient narrator who can really go anywhere she wants, and kind of plays God. That was a great joy and also a challenge and probably the big leap that I made in the book, which required a lot of revision and also a lot of studying of other texts.

Each novel started in somewhat different ways. For The Little Bride, my ideas started to form when I was on this website on Jewish woman pioneers, which that set me off on this path. For Leaving Lucy Pear, it was also a little piece of history, which I came across in a book called The Saga of Cape Ann. Cape Ann is the place where I grew up, north of Boston, and the book is about a wealthy Bostonian summering on Kaden and suffering from a nervous disorder. The protagonist is aggravated by a screeching whistle buoy that had been put in to keep fisherman and sailors from crashing into shore, and she does what I guess any well-connected person would do: she called the Navy and demanded they take out the whistle buoy, which they did, and by the next summer when she was feeling much better. But I was left with a question of what happens when the whistle buoy is out there, and what are the consequences for which this woman is responsible?

SS: The cover of the novel is beautiful; I hear there is a great story behind it…

AS: I feel so lucky for the cover. It is taken from a painting by a British artist named Laura Knight, who was quite controversial in her time. She was one of the first, if not the first, female painter to make a painting of herself that shows herself painting a nude model. This was a real challenge to restrictions on women painters at the time—they were supposed to work from casts, not nudes—and while it brought Knight a lot of flak it also made her a pioneer in the broader movement for women's rights. I was really excited that the artist who had made the painting ended up on the cover because her story felt really in-tune with the women in my book—and myself, as well: Knight was pushing the boundaries of what a woman painter could do in her time.

Initially I saw only the front cover for the book, and it took me a while to notice that there were these boots lying on the rocks. I became fascinated with whose boots they were; there was this mystery to the image that made me even more in love with it. When they finally sent me the whole jacket and it wraps around to the book, you can actually see the woman who belongs to those boots on the back cover, looking out at the viewer. The image just grew and grew for me in terms of its meanings and the layers. I feel like the women in the painting are ultimately the same as the main characters of my novel, Bea—and at other times Emma—and Lucy Pear.

SS: The descriptions of the time period are so vivid. What kinds of historical research did you do to begin your writing?

AS: I started in the way that I think a lot of people do, which is a lot of history books and newspapers. I spent a lot of time on the microfilm in my hometown public library, looking back at old issues of the Boston Daily Times, looking at advertising, photographs, and still film, but I always find that talking with people is the most pleasurable way to get information. I spoke with one woman who had been alive during that time—she has since passed away—who talked about things like how the granite dust felt on her bare feet as she walked through the woods. I talked to someone else who was a grandson of a bootlegger and he remembered his grandfather talking about how they would blast out the walls of the courts to make these panes where they would hide all the booze.

SS: Each character in the novel faces distinct forms of gender oppression and societal expectations that affect their lives. As a Jewish woman, mother, and daughter, how do you deal with society’s expectations of you? Do you see parts of yourself in each character, and which character do you identify with most?

AS: I do see parts of myself in each character—the Jewish ones and the non-Jewish ones: Bea grew up in this fiercely assimilationist family, as my own mother did; Emma, who has more children than she probably wants; and even Susannah Stanton, who is unable to have children. What drives each of these women is an exaggeration of feelings that I have had myself, feelings I have had at times of being overwhelmed in the transition to motherhood and my selfhood being threatened, and feelings of fear that I wasn’t going to be able to have children.

One of the biggest challenges of becoming a mother, and a Jewish mother now, is that in some ways we have more choices than we have ever had. I could go and do anything, which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be hard, but the options are there for me and yet… I grew up in this very feminist family; I went to a very feminist camp; I am teaching my children, both my boy and my girl, to be feminists, while at the same time I have made a marriage in which I am the one who does all of the menu-making and the cooking. What I observe in the world around me is that women constantly feel judged by somebody for the way they are balancing their work, parenting, and partnerships, and often that person is themselves. In my fiction, I seek to observe and to empathize in a way that allows my readers to not only understand the choices my characters make but respect them for those choices.

SS: Each of the characters faces life-altering decisions—most significantly abandoning one’s child, and deciding to raise an orphan as one’s own. Can you tell me any difficult decisions that you had to make as a writer while writing Leaving Lucy Pear? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

AS: In earlier versions of the novel, I had even points of view I really wanted to dive into, including those of the crazy woman who lives up the hill from the Murphy family, and Caleb Stanton. I had so many pages of scenes that I loved and my readers also said they loved, but did not belong there. I agree with them, but those moments are hard and making that final decision and saying goodbye are hard, even when it is the right one.

My advice is that you have to keep reading and reading and reading, even as you start to write. It’s important to really see yourself as a student of the books that you read, without being afraid to stray in terms of form with those books; I wrote a lot of poetry before I ever turned to fiction and it definitely informed the way I hear language and the way I write. The biggest thing is really to work to surround yourself with a community of writers and to do that by forming a writing group where you live or finding writer workshops. The relationships that you make in those places are critical to keeping going and continuing to write through rejection and through drafts that don’t work. Having people cheering you on and people that will read for you is so important.

SS: What can we look forward to next?

AS: I am working on a new book, which I am not really able to talk about yet. It involves the Book of Esther and 1970s feminism and Brooklyn life.

Sophie Siegel is a student at Emory University interested in Holocaust Studies and Film. She worked with the Jewish Book Council as a 2016 summer intern.

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Interview: Idra Novey

Friday, September 16, 2016 | Permalink

with Michelle Zaurov

Idra Novey is a poet, translator, and newly-minted fiction writer. Her first novel, Ways to Disappear, addresses the power and powerlessness of parents, children, writers, and their translators, brought to light when an internationally acclaimed Jewish Brazilian writer vanishes into the branches of an almond tree. Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to find out more.

Michelle Zaurov: I understand that Ways to Disappear is your first novel. Before writing fiction, you were primarily a poet?

Idra Novey: I’ve always written a mix of genres. I went to graduate school for poetry because it wasn’t possible to apply in more than one genre, or in both writing and translation. To be both a writer and a translator is more common in other countries than in the United States, but I encourage all my writing students to try translation. Working in multiple languages can push a writer in more surprising directions. That was certainly true for me writing in one language while translating from another.

MZ: And what language do you speak at home?

IM: Only Spanish. My husband grew up in a large Sephardic family in Chile and we lived in Valparaiso, Chile for several years together before moving to New York. We speak only Spanish with our children, so while I was translating for Clarice Lispector, I was working in Portuguese, living in Spanish, and writing a novel in English.

MZ: There was a part of the novel that really stuck out to me in the beginning where Raquel first expressed insecurity concerning the relationship with her mother, Beatriz: “She had no patience for the illusion that you could know someone because you knew her novels. What about knowing what a writer has never written down—wasn't that the real knowledge of who she was?” What are you trying to relay about the relationship between a person’s identity and their own written words?

IM: One of the things I most wanted to explore in the novel is what happens, over time, to the partial versions we know of each other. What any of us says on social media, or tells at family events, or at work, are never more than slivers. In the novel, I wanted to explore how a mother and her grown children come to see more than slivers of each other, and what sort of emergency would bring them to a fuller view of each other’s lives. The same happens in the novel with Emma, the translator, who confuses her knowledge of her author’s work with knowledge of her author’s life.

MZ: In the novel, Emma escapes from her dull life in Pittsburgh through her translations of Beatriz’s writing. Did you feel that way with authors you've translated?

IM: I have found translation to be an exhilarating escape and form of adventure, but I also have experienced the opposite, and found translating drew me deeper into where I was in my own life. That especially happened with Clarice Lispector, who died long before I translated her novel, so I only knew her through her work but I found a book of letters that she exchanged with another Brazilian writer, Fernando Sabino, while she was living in Washington, D.C. The letters are about raising her young sons and trying to write; I read them while I was raising my sons and trying to write. The parallels between her letters and my life led me both deeper into her work and into my own.

MZ: Identity seems to play a big role in the novel. I saw that coming up a lot with Miles telling Emma, “This isn’t who you are, this isn’t your life.” It seems that every character has an element of you.

IM: I think that is often the case with a writer and her characters. If you haven’t experienced the emotions you’re describing, you won’t be able to convey them with authority. You don't have to have experienced that emotion in the same situation as the character experiences it, but you do need to have a deep understanding of the feeling you’re describing. I identified with Beatriz’s younger son, Marcus, having grown up the younger sibling. As a younger sibling, you don’t take the lead and it shapes your personality, and if there’s an absent parent, it’s usually the older sibling who assumes more responsibility, as Raquel does in the novel. Marcus, as the younger sibling, is allowed to continue being a child. He continues to be the younger less responsible sibling into his thirties, when his mother disappears.

MZ: Why did you decide to make the Yagoda family Jewish?

IM: The writer who was the inspiration for the author in the novel was Clarice Lispector, who was Jewish. I’m Jewish as well and have come to know a number of really fascinating Brazilian and Chilean Jewish families, whose stories and personalities informed the book. Like Lispector, my invented author Beatriz Yagoda is an immigrant to Brazil who arrived as a child. Lispector came as a two-month-old baby. The Brazilian media always made a point of identifying her as from the Ukraine, but in many instances I think that was a euphemism for identifying her as Jewish, as “other”.

MZ: Speaking of cultural divides, I noticed that a part of Raquel’s hostility towards Emma was because she was American. When you lived in Chile and Brazil, did you witness that kind of treatment to foreigners?

IM: Oh, absolutely. Everywhere I’ve lived or traveled in Latin America, there’s been a palpable hostility from all the American military interventions and the devastation they have created, and also hostility resulting from the overwhelming presence of American companies and products.

That hostility was something I wanted to explore in the novel, too, even if it’s often presented in the book in a comical way.

MZ: Despite the gravity of the situation, you managed to deliver a lot of the story lightheartedly. Humor was really well woven into the violence and magnitude of certain conflicts.

IM: Thank you! I really enjoyed working on the humorous sections of the book, and humor is subversive. When you're open to humor, you can actually go to a darker place than you could if you didn't incorporate it, because you can get away with more when you use humor. You can throw out things you probably couldn't throw out if you didn't embed it in a joke.

Continue reading »

Michelle Zaurov is a student at Binghamton University in New York, where she studies English and literature. She has worked as a journalist writing for the Home Reporter, a local Brooklyn publication.

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Interview: Michelle Adelman

Thursday, May 12, 2016 | Permalink

with Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Michelle Adelman's debut novel introduces a heroine whose failings, grief, and disability have become the background music of her life, but who nonetheless grows stronger because of her scars. Jewish Book Council chatted with the author about this unusual novel, Piece of Mind, its portrayal of the family dynamics in dealing with disability, and how Judaism emerged as a source of comfort to its protagonist, Lucy.

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone: Your background is in nonfiction and journalism. How did you become interested in writing fiction? And how did you use those skills when you wrote this novel?

Michelle Adelman: I started working in magazines, but after a couple of years I discovered that I wanted to write more creatively. I did an MFA in fiction and started to write short stories and then realized I wanted to write a novel.

The first elements of Piece of Mind came from my sister, who inspired Lucy. They were rooted in my observations, almost in an essayistic way. But I had to do a lot of research because as a family we never really talked about her traumatic brain injury. I enjoyed the research process, but also that I wasn't constricted to facts.

NLG: Did anything else help clarify how you wanted to tell this story?

MA: I started writing the book in third person. But when I switched to first person, a lot of my inadvertent judgement went away. It wasn't a conscious shift, but it granted the reader more empathy.

NLG: Lucy's condition is wrought by tragedy and accident. Why did you want to use more of the same to move the plot forward?

MA: I think I needed something to propel Lucy into the unfamiliar.

NLG: So it had to be something sudden.

MA: Yes, an accident was the only way I could conceive of it happening. It was the only way to push her past what she thinks she can do. And, it helped up the drama.

NLG: Can you tell me about Lucy's relationship to her father? It's loving but it's definitely not healthy.

MA: I wanted the love and care to be there—the good intentions were important. But I also wanted to convey that almost delusional quality they're both living in. They've coexisted in the same way for so long that they've become codependent.

NLG: They don't seem totally happy, but they also don't seem like they want to change.

MA: Exactly. It's unclear if either of them knows there's an issue.

NLG: Why is Lucy's mom out of the picture, too? It's almost too much! Lucy's father keeps her alive, and loves her, but isn't totally practical. I felt more sad about Lucy's longing for her mother than I did about her father's death.

MA: I always had the mother out of the picture, because I think it's harder for fathers and daughters to relate and wanted to explore that dynamic. The importance of a mother figure grew as I was writing. Lucy is seeking that maternal relationship.

NLG: Why is Lucy so opposed to the idea of being “disabled”?

MA: It's part of the way she's lived with her dad for so long, to be conditioned to think that her greatest goal is to be “normal.” But her development in the book is to understand that no one is normal or perfect, and that it would be much better for her if she took the world on her own terms. That refusal is a fundamental piece of her character.

NLG: Something that I love about Lucy is her inability to function gracefully. By refusing or being unable to do basic tasks, she throws the farce of our habits into high relief. It's like she can't help but ask, “what's the point of doing it this way?”

MA: She's almost like a time traveler or someone from another planet!

NLG: The Judaism in Piece of Mind seems to come up more strongly after tragedy strikes and Lucy needs comforting.

MA: I realized that when these characters are dealing with tragedy and accidents, they would turn to religion to help explain what's happening. It made sense that Lucy would go back to her Jewishness to explain the bigger world around her. Her father's belief system plays a role in who he is and how he abided by tradition. It grounds their whole family.

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone is a dance artist, choreographer, curator, writer and editor living in NYC. Read her dance criticism at The Dance Enthusiast and peep her curation @thebunkerpresents.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Adam D. Mendelsohn

Friday, April 08, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Adam D. Mendelsohn and his book, The Rag Race: How Jews Sewed Their Way to Success in America and the British Empire, a vivid picture of how “rag picking” in nineteenth-century England and the United States served as the springboard for Jews to enter the middle and upper classes.

A warm congratulations to Adam and the other four finalists: Yehudah Mirsky, Aviya Kushner, Dan Ephron, and Lisa Moses Leff. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

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

Two things. Firstly, deciding on the right moment to switch my energies from research to writing. The temptation is so strong to keep on digging, to follow one more lead, to ferret out additional detail (pick your preferred metaphor!). I find that much of the excitement of any research project comes from this initial exploratory phase: the thrill of the chase. But at some point the hunt has to take second place to the business of writing. And secondly, I am unsettled by an awareness that any historical project is so much the product of happenstance—the survival of particular archival collections; an accumulation of authorial decisions, some made knowingly, others unwitting; the necessity of selection; the whims and interests of the writer.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

Many inspirations, but one is the sheer pleasure I get from reading books that teach me new things and force me to think in new ways. If I am able to produce work that gives similar pleasure to others, I’d be delighted. Mission accomplished.

Who is your intended audience?

This book was written with an academic audience in mind, but with the aim of making it accessible to as wide a readership as possible. I like to believe that the question I grapple with at the heart of my book—why have Jews prospered so dramatically in America— is one that Jews and others should be thinking about. If Jewish success is not solely the product of the particular cultural baggage carried by Jews to these shores, then the experience of Jews has enormous potential relevance to more recent immigrant groups.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Many projects large and small. I’m overseeing a study—the first of its kind—attempting to track the attitudes of black South Africans toward Jews. I’m annotating the candid travel diaries of a nineteenth-century Jamaican Jew. And I’m in the early stages of a project about a curious episode that took place in Ethiopia in 1868.

What are you reading now?

My reading is schizophrenic. If I’m lucky I get to read something more serious in-between recitations of Winnie the Witch and The Gruffalo to my kids. I have a guilt-inducing stack of New Yorkers sitting on my bedside table. I am a voracious reader of novels (most recently Julian Barne’s The Sense of an Ending and David Benioff’s City of Thieves). And I am busy with a brilliant new book about the concentration camp system called KL.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

Here are some that have influenced me:

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Replenishing the Earth by James Belich
Culture of the Jews by David Biale (and others)
The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi

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

I’ve always enjoyed words—as a teenager I’d peruse the dictionary for pleasure. But I only truly discovered the thrill of writing nonfiction as a university student. For me the pleasure comes both from the research and the puzzle-game of getting a sentence right.

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

Finding a fresh idea or novel perspective, and presenting it clearly and persuasively. Occasionally I’ll chance across something that is startlingly original, but is so obvious (in a good way) once it has been fleshed out.

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

Pajamas help. But otherwise all I need is a problem to solve, typically a sentence that needs puzzling over. Once I get stuck in, the text takes over.

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

I do not for one moment imagine that I’ve written the definitive book about the economic success of Jews in America. Instead I hope to trouble the waters a little, persuading readers to think again about what role culture has played in this process, and perhaps to reassess the conventional wisdom.

Adam Mendelsohn is Associate Professor of History and Director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, the only such center in Africa.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Yehudah Mirsky

Tuesday, April 05, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Yehudah Mirsky and his book Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution, a biography of the first chief rabbi of Jewish Palestine and founding theologian of religious Zionism that delves into the struggle of one of the most influential—and controversial—rabbis of the twentieth century to understand and shape his revolutionary times.

A warm congratulations to Yehudah and the other four finalists: Aviya Kushner, Dan Ephron, Lisa Moses Leff, and Adam D. Mendelsohn. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

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

I think that form and genre are deeply related to the substance of what we have to say. Some things are best said in a book-length essay, like this book I’ve written. Others are best said in fiction, or plays, or poems, or avowedly devotional texts, or, what can you do, in academic monographs with platoons of footnotes.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

Too many to name—but above all my father, Rabbi Professor David Mirsky, who passed away in 1982, when I was 21 years old, and still teaches me, every blessed day.

Who is your intended audience?

In this book I tried to cast a wide net, to write something of interest to interested readers—Jewish or not—and to committed Jews of all persuasions, to rabbis and educators, to scholars in fields ranging from history to theology to politics. That I could even think of trying that was because I was writing about an extraordinary figure who himself—in his life story and breadth and depth of his thought—speaks to that entire spectrum, and more.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, several things. I’m currently completing a scholarly volume (platoons of footnotes and all) on Rav Kook’s intellectual biography before his moving to the Land of Israel at age 38, in 1904. For all the vast scholarship on him (mainly in Hebrew), there’s still not much in the way of intellectual biography, especially not on this crucial, formative period of his life. I’m also translating volumes of Midrashim written and published in Hebrew by learned contemporary Israeli women, edited by my wife, Tamar Biala. These are very powerful texts that will be great to bring to English readers.

I’ve also begun some other projects. In recent years I’ve written a number of essays on the shape of modern Jewish history, in particular on the many answers given to what the great essayist Ahad Ha’Am characterized as “the problem of the Jews and the problem of Judaism,”—answers like ultra-Orthodoxy, Zionism, Jewish Socialism, Nationalism, Liberalism—and how those answers have regularly mixed, matched and pulled against each other. These stories both reflect and have played a role in larger dramas in world history, like the rise of the nation-state, and I’m hoping to pull those together. Another project I’m working on is rethinking the idea of human rights in order to save it. The colossal moral struggles of the twentieth century yielded, at least for a while, a unprecedented consensus among many—though of course not all—people that there are some things that states are simply not allowed to do to people. That is a precious commitment, won at terrible cost, and we need to find ways to reground it for the twenty-first century and beyond. I really want to write about that. And now and then I scratch at some more purely literary projects too.

What are you reading now?

Yeshayahu Halevi Horowitz, Sefer Shnei Luchot Ha-Berit
Yehoshua Fischel Schneerson, Chaim Gravitzer: Sippuro shel Nofel
Robert D. Kaplan, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey through Romania and Beyond
Steven Nadler, A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Modern Age

If you had to list your five favorite books…

That’s impossible to answer, like asking who’s your favorite child? I can mention a few of the books that have moved me deeply and in some ways changed or saved my life, though there are many more.

Chaim Grade, The Yeshiva
Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine
Czeslaw Milosz, Bells in Winter
Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man
Shakespeare, As You Like It
Zelda, Kol Ha-Shirim

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

I’ve loved words and the magic they bring for as long as I can remember. My father, of blessed memory, was a professor of literature, and came from a family of gentle storytellers. There was no point of decision to become a writer—but many points of mustering the self-confidence that I had something worth saying and knew how to say it. That’s a decision I need to make—as honestly as I can—every time I sit down to try and write.

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

I wish I knew, and I might be a bit more disciplined if I did. I read a lot, talk a lot, and I drink a lot of coffee. I try to write longhand when I can, for the sheer feel of moving pen along paper. I love working in cafés and libraries—though much of this book was written at our dining/living room table and in the basement clinic of an art therapist who let me use her workspace during off-hours. I almost always listen to music when I write. It’s like oxygen.

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

I’d like them to come away with a little more historical knowledge about how and why our world today has taken shape, and with some hopefully helpful perspectives on how to look at things. It’s my hope that the fusion of words and ideas that I offer them will open spaces in their own minds for further thinking and exploration on their own terms. And didactic as it sounds, I do hope that the things we read and write will help make us want to be kinder to one another in our own lives.

Yehudah Mirsky is an American-Israeli Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis. He studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva College and received rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem. He graduated from Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the law review, and completed his Ph.D. in Religion at Harvard. Yehudah served in the United States State Department's human rights bureau in the Clinton Administration, and was a Red Cross chaplain following the events of 9/11. He tweets @YehudahMirsky

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Aviya Kushner

Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Aviya Kushner and her book The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible, a memoir of rediscovering in translation the Bible she knew by heart in Hebrew.

A warm congratulations to Aviya and the other four finalists: Dan Ephron, Lisa Moses Leff, Adam D. Mendelsohn, and Yehudah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

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

Nonfiction demands an engagement with facts, and the challenge is to make information interesting. Sometimes the writer has to make the case that the seemingly arcane and nitty-gritty matters help us understand our world. The best nonfiction writing reframes reality and by providing essential context, makes the reader see the world we live in anew.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

I became interested in the possibilities of nonfiction while working as a journalist in Jerusalem. I interviewed the 14-year-old brother of two sisters who were killed in the Dolphinarium bombing, and I could not stop thinking about him—and how his life was forever changed. Most journalists quickly moved on to the next bombing, because the news cycle focuses on event, but I felt that what happened to the brother after this tragedy was an important subject, and that how people live after terror was something worth exploring too. I realized that the essay was a place to explore aftermath, to look at the deep roots of events and to consider their longstanding effects.

Who is your intended audience?

I think the Bible should interest everyone—religious and secular—because it has shaped Western culture and has had a major influence on law, literature, politics, and finance. The Bible matters whether you are Jewish or Christian or Muslim or neither, in part because it has meant something so different to each of these groups. So my intended audience is intelligent readers who want to understand how different readings of the Bible have made our world.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m deep in a new book that takes place in the twelfth century. It was also a time of religious violence, and I am interested in one particular thinker who crossed boundaries of faith and thought.

What are you reading now?

Right now I’m reading many books of contemporary global nonfiction, for a graduate course I am teaching. I recommend The Fault Line by Paolo Rumiz, which I recently taught for that class. I also loved a recent novel titled The Big Green Tent by Ludmilla Ulitskaya, as well as the masterful novel The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin.

Top five favorite books?

It’s hard to choose, but here are some books I love:

The Collected Poems by W. H. Auden
The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud
The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg
Open Closed Open by Yehuda Amichai
And of course, the Tanach, especially the Book of Isaiah.

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

We were reading a Faulkner story titled “Dry September”; I was eighteen and a college sophomore. I remember that every time I read that story I thought something else happened, and in class, there were several different readings presented. I remember thinking “I want to learn to do that” and “I will give it the best shot I have,” and I have never looked back. I loved the idea that a writer could make the reader question everything she believed, and that one story could be read in such wildly different ways. Faulkner made me see the power of rumor and accusation, and he made me ask myself what I really thought. I wanted to be able to do that.

What is the mountaintop for you? How do you define success?

All I ever wanted was to continue writing. Doing that is the only definition I have of success. Being able to write the books I want to write is the mountaintop; I want to work hard and to write something that will last. I love how James Baldwin phrased it: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” That’s all there is, to tell the truth and write well.

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

I often write my first and second drafts, by hand, in coffee shops.

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

I want readers to think about the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible, and to consider what happened as the Bible became both the best-selling and most translated book in human history. I hope readers will be inspired to read translations from different faiths and centuries, and to think about how language shapes how we read and what we believe.

Aviya Kushner teaches in the nonfiction writing program at Columbia College Chicago. She is also a contributing editor at A Public Space and a mentor for the National Yiddish Book Center.

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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Dan Ephron

Thursday, March 24, 2016 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging nonfiction authors named as finalists for the 2016 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Dan Ephron and his book, Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel, an account tracing the parallel stories of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his assassin, Yigal Amir, for the two years leading up to the brutal murder in 1995.

A warm congratulations to Dan and the other four finalists: Lisa Moses Leff, Aviya Kushner, Adam D. Mendelsohn, and Yehudah Mirsky. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home the $100,000 prize!

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

The “non” part of nonfiction, mainly: laying out the facts accurately and fairly without disrupting the narrative flow. It's tricky.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing nonfiction?

I was reading Erik Larson’s excellent In the Garden of Beasts while writing Killing a King. He’s great at not calling attention to his own writing. It allowed me to lose myself in the story.

Who is your intended audience?

My father-in-law was one of the readers I had mind. He reads a lot, mostly not about the Middle East. I wanted Killing a King to engage people who didn’t necessarily share my obsession with the region. But I also wanted readers familiar with the details of the Rabin assassination to be drawn in and understand something new.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m hunting for a new book idea. If you have one, please meet me at the bar in 10 minutes.

What are you reading now?

Alistair Horne’s A Savage War of Peace, about the Algerian battle for independence. The author toggles back and forth between narrative detail and historical sweep. It’s very effective.

If you had to list your top five favorite books…

I wouldn’t swear they’re my all-time favorites. But here are five good books I’ve read lately:
A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre
Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy
Manson by Jeff Guinn

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

I decided in college to be a journalist. The writerly ambitions came later.

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

I think of success as the privilege to write about things that interest me while not having to resort to living in my parents’ basement.

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

I have no routines or rituals, though I did have a daily word count I kept to while writing the book. Deadlines motivate me. Also, fear of failure.

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

The feeling that it ended too quickly.

Dan Ephron has served as the Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He now lives in New York City.

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