The ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Elisa Albert

Thursday, February 05, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Our third installment of “Words from our Finalists”…Elisa Albert

Elisa…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Elisa

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

The wide-open possibilities, I suppose. When you’re not bound to facts, the “what-really-happened”, those endless open roads can be daunting. How to make the right choices for your characters? How to be true to life while making the whole thing up?

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I fell in love with books as a kid and always felt driven to express myself in such a way as to honor what I found in my favorite writing. Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Be a Writer” (from Self Help, 1984, click to read) struck me like a bolt of lightening in high school. And I have an extremely dog-eared copy of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff; I must’ve torn through that thing a hundred times.

Who is your intended audience?

I actually try to avoid thinking about audience altogether; it can hobble me in a lot of ways. The real or imagined expectations of real or imagined readers (your mom, your mom’s friends, your friends’ moms, your teachers, your friends, your enemies, the lady at the drugstore, that guy who wronged you a decade ago,ad nauseum) seem to serve only as a limiting, censuring force, and to write fiction I believe one needs to be free of all that.

Do you think your work speaks predominantly to your generation? Future generations? Or, older generations?

My work transcends time and generation, speaking to the core of universal human experience. Okay, no, sorry. I really couldn’t say, but I do feel fairly rooted in this present moment, both as a reader and as a writer. Who knows how that might translate over time?

Who is the reader over your shoulder?

Some conglomeration of the teachers I’ve been so blessed to have (Binnie Kirshenbaum, Jayne Anne Phillips, Stephen McCauley, and David Gates, especially), and some best version of myself — a reader who is sympathetic, empathetic, aware, well-versed, and capable of holding two opposing ideas in her head at the same time. Basically, a presence I adore and trust, and with which I don’t feel the least bit self-conscious or afraid.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Well! I just finished an opus: his name is Miller David Schwarzschild and he’s nine days old as of this writing. Next up, I’m editing an anthology of original personal essays by literary authors on sibling relationships, under contract to Free Press. Working title is Freud’s Blind Spot, and contributors include Erica Jong, Julie Orringer, Peter Orner, and Joanna Hershon. I’m also taking notes for a new novel about travel (the notion of the wandering Jew looms large), playing with a couple short stories, and writing two essays for upcoming anthologies, one on my feminist “click” moment and one on sex.

What are you reading now?

I finished Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland recently and was utterly charmed, moved, and delighted by it. An absolutely elegant and perfectly wrought book. So very deserving of its reception.

Very different, but no less excellent, is Gilad Elbom’sScream Queens of the Dead Sea, which I found at Dove and Hudson, Albany’s wonderful used bookstore, and picked up on a whim. A wacky, wild, very funny and perverse ride through a few days in the life of an Israeli metalhead working at the local mental institution.

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

I don’t think I decided to be a writer so much as decided that my attempts to be anything else were just not going to cut it. I did decide to go to grad school while temping at a really depressing little literary agency, though, and taking that step was a big commitment, in my mind, to giving the writing a serious go.

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

A steady and constant writing life is the ultimate goal for me. Pushing forward and quite simply doing the work, day in and day out. It’s a huge challenge for me: I tend, quite honestly, toward rather dramatic bursts of productivity book-ended by periods of creative despondency and self-loathing. I feel like I’ve conquered the world and the worst in myself when I can just do the work, do the work, do the work, and let the chips fall where they may.

Also, lately, I very much aspire to breastfeed and nap at the same time.

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

I circle around it pretty elaborately: a walk to the store, a cup of tea and a snack, the window shades just so, the soundtrack extensively mulled, the laundry done, the house clean. (See also, above: creative despondency.) Then, when there’s nothing else to be done, when I have no choice but to face whatever I’m trying to write, I write. And if it goes poorly, at least I have the solace of some nice music in a clean house.

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

I suppose the answer depends on the reader. On the broadest level, and at its best, fiction can do miraculous things: show us bits and pieces of ourselves in stories with which we might not otherwise immediately identify, expand our capacity for real-life empathy by forcing us to empathize with characters we’ll never actually meet, and make us think about how vastly different perspectives on the world can form a really vibrant, if challenging, harmony.

You can read more about Elisa Albert by visiting her website here.

Waltz with Bashir: The Book

Monday, February 02, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Created simultaneously with the Award winning film, Waltz With Bashir: A Lebanon War Story (Ari Folman and David Polonsky), the graphic novel, will be published by Metropolitan Books on February 17th. The novel, and film, depict Folman’s exploration of war, repression, and remembrance in connection to the 1982 war in Lebanon. Drawing on the stories of other soldiers and his own returning fragments of memory, Folman pieces together the war and his place in it.

In the interview accompanying the press release for the book, David Polonsky answers how the experience of reading the book is different from seeing the movie:

David Polonsky: The role of the viewer changes in an interesting way. In the cinema, as a filmmaker, you own the audience, but with a book it’s completely reversed. You’re at the mercy of the reader, who can close the book at any moment. To say it differently, the book puts the story into the reader’s hands while in the movie theater the viewer is in the hands of the storyteller. So the job of keeping the reader’s attention is more of a challenge. Also, I’d say that in the graphic novel the story is tighter, we were able to present the historical facts more clearly, and the panels, without the special effects of the movie process, are more detailed and refined.

And the audience’s relationship to it is different. The pace of the book allows for a better grasp of the nuances and a more reliable transfer of information. Reading a graphic novel, you’re not in danger of losing track of the story and you have time to pause over the panels and take in details that otherwise fly by. Another thing is that in the book the drawings are able to stand as art in their own right, and you see how much of the story the carry. Both the illustrations and the reader’s mind get to play a larger role.

And…a preview of the book:

Image used courtesy of Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company and authors Ari Folman and David Polonsky

And…here’s the trailer for the movie:

Check out PW for more information about the book.

For a longer excerpt, click here.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Anne Landsman

Monday, February 02, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Second up in “Words from our Finalists”…Anne Landsman

Anne…meet our Readers

Readers…meet Anne

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

There is no blueprint for writing fiction, no map, no recipe. The fiction writer stumbles upon his or her story the way an archeologist rubs the dirt off an important historical find. There’s a huge amount of luck involved, lots of calculated guesswork and many hours of looking and thinking. What guides you through the process is curiosity about human beings and their vagaries, and a deep-seated fascination for the way people live their lives.

Who or what has been inspiration for writing fiction?

As far back as I can remember, books were a big part of my life. I remember how much I loved looking at picture books, and the way I would examine and inhabit the images that ran alongside the narrative. As I learned to read, the images diminished and disappeared, and then magically re-appeared within the body of the text, in the writer’s descriptions. For most of my childhood, I lived within the pages of novels. When I was immersed in reading a book, I felt wedded to the characters I was reading about, and sometimes found it hard to accept that other readers had other sorts of relationships with these characters, or saw them in a different light. Even though I grew up in a small South African town, I had a visceral connection with contemporary American Jewish books as my mother fed me a constant diet of Potok, Uris, Malamud and Wouk. New York City neighborhoods glittered in my imagination. I wondered what a frappe was, and what an egg cream tasted like, and one hot summer as I lay indoors reading, reading, reading, I believed that I was Marjorie Morningstar. I loved the tactile nature of books, their smell, the feel of their pages, the illustrations on the cover. I think I began writing fiction as a way to recapture that magic, but from the inside out. I moved from being a dinner-guest to the host at the feast that is the novel.

Who is your intended audience?

I like to think that all kinds of people would be drawn to my work as we all live in families of one kind or another, we all experience the pain of a losing a loved one, the joy of seeing a new life come into the world, as well as all the twists and turns in between. I’m intrigued by family ties, how they get stretched, expanded, broken, renewed by circumstance, history, geography. These are universal concerns, not limited to one particular audience. And being a Jewish writer is such a gift because we straddle several traditions, cultures, histories, giving us access to such a wealth of ideas. I’m a South African, Lithuanian, American Jew who grew up speaking fluent Afrikaans (as my second language), loved Shakespeare, Bronte and Dickens, and went to cheder three times a week. All of these strands influence who I am, and how I write, and they connect with people all over the globe.

Do you think your work speaks predominantly to your generation? Future generations? Or, older generations?

Although both my novels deal with the past, they have contemporary narrators who reflect on both the past and the present, with an eye on what lies ahead. Since one of my main interests as a writer is the workings of memory, and how our lives are built on the complex interface between what we’ve lived through, and what we hope for, I feel that I can speak to future generations as well as older generations as we all find themselves in exactly the same predicament. No one escapes the beginning of life, or the end. And we all have dreams, disappointments and desires along the way.

Who is the reader over your shoulder?

For better or worse, the reader over my shoulder is me, and I tend to be very hard on myself. I’m quick to judge, and this gets in my way. The best advice I could give to an aspiring writer is get out of your own way, immerse yourself fully in your story and, mostly importantly, keep writing.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes. It’s set in the past but this time I’m trying something different. Instead of doing tons and tons of research before writing, I’m doing the research as I go along. I recently wrote a post-it with the phrase “drive-by research” to explain the process to myself. Also, I’m not going for historical accuracy as it has a fairy tale aspect to it, a kind of magic. The language has taken on a life of its own, which is is thrilling but also terrifying. I never quite know if it’s going to keep on coming, or dry up!

What are you reading now?

I just finished the The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, which was begun in 1690, and is the diary of a 44 year-old German Jewish widow and mother of fourteen children. She chronicles her family’s story so that her children will know their own past. She shows a remarkable business sense, a sharp eye for detail and a deep sense of piety. (And this might give you a clue to the time period my next novel is set in…)

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

I’m not sure I ever consciously decided to become a writer. Very early on – I was perhaps six or seven – I remember trying to draw a horse at school. I was happy with how the head turned out but then really struggled with the body and legs. So I drew a giant bag that covered the misshapen body and left just the horse’s head sticking out. I have a blurry memory of the teacher standing behind me, and me telling a story, or thinking about telling the story of how the horse got into the bag. I remember feeling a rush of excitement as I realized all the different possibilities. What was a picture had turned into a narrative.

Later, I was a girl scout in the only girl scout troop in Worcester, the small South African town where I was born and raised. Seamlessly, automatically, I became the troop scribe, and had a badge with a quill on it to prove it. Writing stories always came naturally to me, and I excelled at writing “compositions” at school, which were short stories in miniature. There were no creative writing programs in South Africa and it didn’t occur to me at that time in my life that I could ever write a novel. I left South Africa during the dark days of apartheid and moved to the U.S. where I went to film school and explored the idea of becoming a director or a screenwriter. For several years after graduating, I worked on a screenwriting project about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright but eventually came back to where I started – spinning a story out of an unusual situation that I had imagined all by myself. I finished my first novel when I was pregnant with my first child, and when it was published, I was pregnant with my second. Motherhood – although sometimes lengthening the writing process – has forced me to take myself seriously, fully inhabit my own skin. Writing has become who I am and how I live in the world. Words are my fins, my wings, my shell.

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

I don’t think it’s possible to define success as a writer, or to ever achieve it, because as you approach what you think it is, it morphs into something else. It’s the ever-receding goal. Once you conquer one peak, you find out that there are many others just behind it. Perhaps it’s better to try to be successful as a human being, knowing yourself and your limitations, as well as your strengths.

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

I write at the Writers Room, a not-for-profit writers’ workspace in downtown Manhattan. I work at whatever desk is available – and this changes from day to day – so there are no permanent talismans or objects on my desk. My talisman is the silent company of others, and the noiseless hum of their concentration. It’s like being in the ocean with a group of surfers, riding the swells and waiting for the next big wave.

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

My novel, The Rowing Lesson, is Betsy Klein’s bed-side elegy for her dying father, Harry. It’s her attempt to capture the essence of who he was, before she loses him forever. I think most of us are fascinated by who our parents really were. We get snippets of them. And I think we want more, because we can understand ourselves better when we understand them better. And that’s what’s at the heart of Betsy’s journey. It’s her attempt to see her father clearly, so she can come to terms with him. She summons him up and tries to understand him and when she does, she is finally able to understand herself.

One of the best compliments a reader ever gave me was that he told me that he was in the middle of reading my book when he got a call from his mother to say that his father was dying. During the difficult days that followed, as he flew from the U.K. to South Africa to be with his father, he kept reading The Rowing Lesson. He said it became the companion to his grief.

Along with the enormous lesson that’s learned when a parent dies, the novel celebrates and underscores the sanctity of life, and what it was like to come of age in World War II era-South Africa, and be part of the vibrant and unique Jewish community there.

You can read more about Anne Landsman by visiting her website here.

Interview with Danny Levine, owner of J. Levine Books & Judaica

Friday, January 30, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Just came across this interesting interview with Danny Levine, owner of J. Levine Books & Judaica. 

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Anya Ulinich

Friday, January 30, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the next week, we’ll be posting “Words from our Finalists,” so you can get to know the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize finalists a little better.

First up…Anya Ulinich

Anya…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Anya

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

Various forms of guilt. There are days when I spend an hour writing and five hours biting my knuckles, and then feel guilty because I’ve wasted a day. On those days, I wish I had an office to go to, and a set of clearly defined tasks. Or, the guilt about writing being inherently self-indulgent – I begin to wonder, what is my fiction doing for “the People”? What right do I have to sit in this world full of suffering and write literature? Then I feel guilty about feeling guilty because what does this line of thinking say about me as an artist? (Though I use a photo of Henry Roth for my Facebook profile, I do hope to be more productive in my middle years than he was.) See, I excel at guilt.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Grace Paley, Alice Munro.

Who is your intended audience?

People over the age of 14.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I’m working on my second novel.

What are you reading now?

Alice Mattison, The Book Borrower

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

I never decided to be a writer. When I began to write, I thought of myself as a painter. This was about eight years ago. I had just moved to Brooklyn from California, where I had gone to art school. I had come to New York to pursue an art career, but I actually didn’t know how to go about it. Nobody teaches you these things in graduate school. I kept sending slides of my paintings along with my artist’s statement to various galleries and residencies, and collecting rejection letters. I lived in a small apartment with my husband and my two-year-old daughter. Oil paint and turpentine are toxic, and the work is hard to put away because it’s slow to dry, so I found it difficult to go on painting while also taking care of my daughter. By the end of my first year in Brooklyn I pretty much gave up on painting, except for when I tried to make some money doing commissioned portraits. I didn’t know anyone in the city, and my daughter was a very shy kid who abhorred the playground and preferred that I read to her for hours at a time. Pretty soon I began to feel as if I was overdosing on Doctor Seuss and Dora the Explorer and entering a kind of premature dementia – I could almost sense my brain cells atrophying. So I began to leave the apartment every night, go to a coffee shop, and write. Writing felt great because it kept my brain alive. During daytime, as I re-read Red Fish Blue Fish for the trillionth time, I thought about my characters, and what they would do that night. It could have been painting instead of writing, I suppose, but one can hardly drag all the painting equipment to a cafe, and I had no other place to escape to. I decided that I was a writer after I finished Petropolis, and liked the result.

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

As the bear goes over the mountain, all he can see is another mountain.

One kind of a mountaintop is a good sentence, or a finished paragraph, a finished story. Reaching these is absolutely satisfying.

Career mountaintops are many, and they’re not nearly as clearly satisfying as the writing mountaintops. When I found out that Petropolis was going to be published, I was elated. For me, it wasn’t just about the money, or the prestige of officially becoming a “novelist.” I was mostly happy that having a book contract gave me a professional identity. I had my first kid right after college, and then went directly to graduate school. I always worked when I was in college, and in grad school I had a fellowship, but after getting my MFA and moving to Brooklyn, I found myself as a stay-at home mom with no marketable skills (the kind of jobs I could get would barely cover the cost of childcare). Then I had another daughter. I was raised by a mother and a grandmother who were both successful professionals, and my state in life worried me a lot. Unlike women who have their kids later in life, after establishing a career, I worried about reentering the world of adults – would it even take me back? Writing was an act of faith, and I had huge confidence in the writing itself (if I didn’t think what I was doing was any good, I wouldn’t have been able to keep writing) – but I’ve never even taken a writing class, so technically my writing was a dilettante’s hobby. I was aware of being a stereotype – a Brooklyn mom working on a novel in a coffee house, with the baby asleep in a stroller. When my second child started preschool, I decided to go back to City College for nursing, and then my agent sold Petropolis. It was an amazing feeling, such a vote of confidence – to be paid for creative work, to be a professional writer.

But once I got used to the fact that I was a writer, I saw new mountaintops ahead, an endless procession:

How will the book do?
How will it be reviewed?
Will anyone pay attention?
Will it win any awards?

Worrying about these publishing mountaintops turned out to be incredibly distracting. I engaged in all manner of unhealthy behaviors, from obsessively checking my Amazon rank to Googling myself. Worrying about my newly-found career proved paralyzing – I kept over-thinking my writing, wondering what must I do for my second book to be successful, to at least live up to the first one. And how long did I have to write it, and what if no one wants to publish it?

This stuff has absolutely nothing to do with the writing process. When I write, I live inside the world that is my novel, among the characters. The vividness of that world is the ultimate success. Once the world you make gets packaged into a book, other types of successes (awards, foreign translations, good reviews) follow. While they’re pleasant, they’re not up to me – I do my best to keep this in mind.

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

I have to leave my apartment. I have to be away from the Legos that need putting away, and the laundry that needs doing, and the bathtub that hasn’t been washed. Housework is my ultimate form of procrastination – it’s probably true for most people with flexible jobs, because housework doesn’t feel like procrastination but like something that “has to be done.” I’m terrible at housework, too, and every task takes me forever. So I still write in coffee houses. Being out in public keeps me upright and working. And I drink ridiculous amounts of coffee.

**all artwork from this post can be found on Anya’s website here.

Stay tuned for more “Words from our Finalists.”

Looking Ahead...

Friday, January 30, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Happy Friday! As we work our way through another wintery week, we thought we’d cheer you up with goodies to look forward to this Spring (reviews of these titles can be found in the Spring and Summer issues of Jewish Book World):

The Kindly Ones (Jonathan Littell) March
The Believers (Zoe Heller) March
Good Book (David Plotz) March
The Murmuring Deep (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg) March
Laish (Aharon Appelfeld) March
American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Josh Lambert) March
The Act of Love (Howard Jacobson) March
Jewish Choices, Jewish Voices: Power (Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman) March
All Other Nights (Dara Horn) April
Rhyming Life & Death (Amos Oz) April
Amos Oz Reader (Amos Oz) April
A Fortunate Age (Joanna Smith Rakoff) April
The Scenic Route (Binnie Kirshenbaum) May

Soon…very soon…

2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fiction Finalists Announced!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fiction finalists have just been announced!

Congratulations to:

Elisa Albert for The Book of Dahlia (Free Press)

Sana Krasikov for One More Year (Spiegel & Grau)

Anne Landsman for The Rowing Lesson (Soho Press)

Dalia Sofer for The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco)

Anya Ulinich for Petropolis (Viking Penguin)

Coming soon…words from our finalists…

Stay Tuned...

Monday, January 26, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Stay tuned for the announcement of the 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Finalists in Fiction.

The 2008 Prize was awarded to Lucette Lagnado for her non-fiction work The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. The 2007 Prize was awarded to Tamar Yellin for her fiction work The Genizah at the House of Shepher. For more information about the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, please click here.

In Case You Missed It…

Monday, January 26, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In case you missed it, Peter Manseau, the 2008 National Jewish Book Award Winner for Fiction (Songs for the Butcher’s Daughter), was a guest-blogger on last week. His posts include “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (regarding his National Jewish Book Award win), “How a Priest’s Kid Won a Jewish Book Award,” “Life as a Non-Jewish Jewish Novelist,” “Missionary Yiddish,” and “Why Fact Needs Fiction.” Be sure to check it out here.

Experience the Russian Jewish Theater…Right From Your Own Home

Friday, January 23, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yale University Press and the Jewish Museum really are a great team. Their most recent collaboration, which came out in October, Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, is a wonderful snapshot of the Jewish role in theater and art in Russia in the early 20th century. This coffee-table size book has a beautiful assortment of images from the period that accompany essays by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, Zvi Gitelman, Vladislav Ivanov, Jeffrey Veidlinger, and Benjamin Harshav. Yale UP‘s website sheds some more light:

Spanning such topics as Jewish culture and history in the Soviet Union, the volume includes stunning reproductions of Chagall’s celebrated theater murals; fascinating archival materials such as posters, prints, and playbills; designs for costumes and sets; and many other breathtaking works.

For those in the New York area, the Jewish Museum has their exhibit of the same title up until March 22nd. More information about the exhibit can be found by visiting the Jewish Museum’s website.

Images above, in order from top to bottom:

Natan Altman, Poster for Jewish Luck, 1925. Collection of Merrill C. Berman, New York. Art © Estate of Natan Altman/RAO, Moscow/VAGA, New York.

Ignatii Nivinsky, Gypsy woman (Costume design for The Golem), 1925, paper, lead pencil, watercolor. Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (Moscow).

Marc Chagall, Dance, 1920, tempera, gouache, and opaque white on canvas. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.