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New Reviews July 14 2017

Friday, July 14, 2017 | Permalink

An Inside Look at an Early Draft of Bed-Stuy Is Burning

Thursday, July 13, 2017 | Permalink

Brian Platzer, author of Bed-Stuy Is Burning, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

Bed-Stuy Is Burning is a novel about a fictional race riot in contemporary Bedford Stuyvesant, one of the most historically volatile neighborhoods in New York City. The novel initially focuses on Aaron, a disgraced rabbi turned Wall Street banker; Amelia, his journalist girlfriend; and Simon, their infant son. The infusion of upwardly mobile professionals—like Aaron and Amelia—into Bed-Stuy’s historic brownstones belies the tension simmering on the streets below. After a cop shoots a boy in a nearby park, conflict escalates to rioting—with Aaron and Amelia at its center.

Below is an early-draft excerpt from when the novel was written in alternating first-person voices. Here, Amelia is more blunt and callow than she becomes in later drafts. In this passage, she thinks about her infant son and the actor Adam Driver.

I didn’t want my Simon to suddenly die, but if he did, I wanted it to be Aaron’s fault. I could survive Simon suffocating, and I could forgive Aaron if he accidentally suffocated Simon, but I didn’t know if Aaron could forgive me.

When a couple gets engaged, they’re repeatedly asked a series of questions: How did he do it? Did she know it was coming? Did she cry? Can I see the diamond?

The questions allow friends and family to share in the couple’s joy, to feel part of their love. The answers matter less than the conversational enthusiasm they enable. When a couple has a child, they’re asked questions that play a similar a role: what was the birth weigh? How long was the labor? Who do you think he looks like? Do you love him so much? More than you ever loved anything?

It was hard to say I loved Simon before he knew I existed. Before he knew that I was different from the wall and my boyfriend and himself. I’m not sure non-reciprocal love exists. I cried when I leaned around and saw his little head sticking out of my body. I knew he was inside me and I felt him there for months, but when I saw the baby who would be my son for the rest of my life, it was the most powerfully emotional moment of my life.

But it wasn’t exactly love.

It was pride, for one—a kind of pride that makes me wonder if adopting is more significantly different from giving birth than I would have thought. I’m proud that my body—with its bad eyes and thin hair and lactose intolerance and basal cell carcinomas—could make a new body inside it. I’m proud that I made a thing as fat and short and perfect as Simon. But my guess is that the pride fades away and what’s left is the other most powerful emotion I feel, that of protection.

My son turned one a few weeks ago, and I’ve just now stopped waking up every night to hover over his crib to make sure he is breathing.

But if he does die, I don’t want it to be my responsibility. I want it to be Aaron’s. But it won’t be. It will be mine. I know that. Somehow I know.

I couldn’t sleep so I thought about what would happen if Simon were to die, and I thought about my boyfriend sleeping next to me, and I thought about my interview with Adam Driver, who played Adam, Lena Dunham’s boyfriend, on Girls and now is in the Star Wars movies. I interviewed him that day and I liked him. He had many of the same mannerisms as his character on Girls, and he even had a background that I imagined his character shared—like his father in real life was a preacher, and he joined the military after 9/11—but he also had this unassuming, almost apologetic smile that he fell back into all the time in real life that the director or editor or someone on Girls must have worked hard to remove all traces of, because in real life he has an athletic boyishness that balanced his self-seriousness. That’s what I’m going to write about. His boyishness.

Adam Driver is married, but the whole time I was with him I knew that if I was feeling better about my body and I wasn’t breastfeeding and I was feeling sexual again and not just a mother and I wasn’t attached to Aaron because of Simon and Aaron wasn’t such a great guy and it wouldn’t hurt him so much if he found out and if it wouldn’t ruin Simon’s life, I’d really want to sleep with Adam Driver. And not just as a physical thing. I’d want to sleep with him as a life-experience thing. Almost as if I were doing it for Simon. For Simon’s future. In the same way I think it’s good for him to live in Bedford Stuyvesant and grow up in such a diverse neighborhood, I think it’d be good for him for his mother to be intimate with Adam Driver.

Brian Platzer has an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and a BA from Columbia University. His writing has appeared often in The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as in The New York Times, the New Republic, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Bed-Stuy, and teaches middle school English in Manhattan. Bed-Stuy Is Burning is his first book.

An Open Letter of Apology to Chad Harbach

Tuesday, July 11, 2017 | Permalink

Brian Platzer, author of Bed-Stuy Is Burning, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

Five years ago I wrote a series of intellectually insincere articles with the sole purpose of building a resume. I was a few years out of my MFA and beginning the search for an agent to represent my own fiction, and I wanted to boost my credentials above those of my peers who, like me, had academic accomplishments but few or no publications to their names.

I’d earned my MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, a wonderful program with brilliant teachers who focused on teaching craft over professional development. However, they always implied that the proper stepping-stones into publishing were literary journals. The idea was that we were workshopping our stories each week both to learn skills and to polish the stories themselves to the point where they’d be submittable to the journals we had lying around the department offices. But aside from very rare exceptions, we were all rejected. I certainly was, over and over again. Dozens, then hundreds, of times.

I was eager to believe my more sophisticated and cynical classmates when they told me that the world of literary journals was governed by nepotism. That until I had favors to trade I wouldn’t get published, and that most of these magazines had more people submitting to them than actual readers. The truth was I didn’t know if any of this was accurate. What I knew was, just as when I hadn’t been invited to the party in high school, I was happy to hear stories of how only scumbags had been there, anyway.

So upon graduation I figured the next best thing was to review books for reputable publications. I sent clippings from college everywhere, from the Times to Time Out New York to websites that covered my Brooklyn neighborhood, but, again, nobody responded.

I’d been querying agents at the time, and no one was responding those emails, either, so I was growing desperate. I selected a novel that was receiving a lot of attention—The Art of Fielding—and I wrote a reckless takedown. I emailed the review to a random editor at, who attached a click-bait headline that barely had to do with my piece—English teacher: I was wrong about “Hunger Games”—and published within 24 hours. My wife and I celebrated.

But the piece was really, really bad.

In it, I admit to urging a student to read The Art of Fielding before I’d read it, myself. I affect the tone of a moral librarian, instructing readers on what constituted more and less valuable literature. Try to make sense of this sentence: “If the literary establishment wants our teenagers to fall in love with literature, it must stop cynically writing and imprudently reviewing books like ‘The Art of Fielding’ as though they were examples of adult literary fiction.”

What did I mean by any of this? What was this “literary establishment” that was both “cynically writing” and “imprudently reviewing” books for “our” teenagers?

All that stands out to me now is my naked opportunism and, mostly, jealousy. Jealousy of Harbach’s success, of his having accomplished everything I wanted but that seemed so far from my grasp, and of the reviewers who were blessed to be reviewing for the Times or the New Yorker where they could think honestly and wisely about a work of art—and where they could build reputations with which to publish their own novels.

Harbach, of whom I’d always been a fan (I’d circulated his essay on the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry), had never made any of the claims that I was so vainly dispelling. He’d simply written an entertaining novel about baseball, academia, sex, love, and friendship.

Well, my strategy worked. With this piece, I was able to I publish elsewhere. I slowly built a resume.

Today, July 11th, is the publication date my debut novel. Not only do I shudder at the prospect of reciprocity—that someone will use the novel that I’ve spent years writing as a stack of papers to publicly set aflame in order to gather attention—but also, like a job applicant scanning through Facebook at pictures of him or herself making lascivious faces and drinking Jagerbombs in a skimpy bathing suit, I’m horrified not to be able to erase the wanton indiscretion of my needy and vulnerable years.

When I am at my most self-forgiving, I allow that these early essays were a means to an end. That what really mattered was my novel. I did what I had to, and people have done far worse. But I’m not sure. Why does a novel that a few thousand people will read matter so much more than essays that a few thousand people will read? The novel has more cultural cache, but that’s probably just among my friends who spent years earning their MFAs. I’ve worked harder on the novel, but that just means I should have worked harder on the essays. Nowhere did I, even for a moment, elevate any work of art—whether Harbach’s or my own—over my ego or ambition. And even after all this, even as I write these words, I can’t help but still hope that I’ll be noticed.

Brian Platzer has an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and a BA from Columbia University. His writing has appeared often in The New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, as well as in The New York Times, the New Republic, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and two young sons in Bed-Stuy, and teaches middle school English in Manhattan. Bed-Stuy Is Burning is his first book. Check back on Thursday to read more from Brian Platzer.

Itamar Rabinovich: A Profile of the Author of a New Rabin Biography

Monday, July 10, 2017 | Permalink

with Maron Waxman

Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to the United States and president of Tel Aviv University, has written several books on Middle Eastern affairs and is most recently the author of Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, a volume in the Yale University Press series Jewish Lives. He talked with me about the book and Prime Minister Rabin.

Although he thought he knew Yitzhak Rabin well and worked closely with him, Professor Itamar Rabinovich says he learned much more about him while writing this biography. The most notable revelation was Rabin’s family background and the big influence his mother had on him. Rosa Cohen—Red Rosa as a left-wing radical in Russia—was a strong-minded intriguing woman who became a Labor Zionist in Tel Aviv. Rabin also had a certain sovereignty; if he believed in something, did it. He was anti-political parties, and it took him a long time to join one.

Another notable point was how early in Rabin’s career his talent for military affairs came through. Rabin had an intuitive grasp of military thinking and the ability to impart it. He was a good instructor—according to one student, the best military instructor he ever had, including those at the preeminent French École de guerre. Yigal Alon identified Rabin’s skills early on and elevated Rabin quickly.

The War of Independence in 1948 was a painful experience for Rabin. He lost half his men in the fighting on the road to Jerusalem. Leadership had not prepared for war. Rabinovich recalls an evening in Jerusalem when Bill Clinton and Rabin stood on a balcony overlooking the city and Rabin recounted the details of the failed attack to save the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem. Almost forty years later it was still in his mind. He remembered it vividly.

After the War of Independence, Rabin stayed in the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) despite its hostility to the Palmach (an elite fighting force in the prestate underground army), which Rabin had joined in 1941, and rose to the top of the military pyramid as chief of staff of the IDF. After the victory in the Six-Day War, Rabin was a major national figure and had to plan his next step. He had no interest in business and wanted to stay in public life; Rabinovich says the only way for him to be part of public policy was to move into politics. But he needed to hone his skills, and Washington was the place to do it. He asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol for the ambassadorship to the United States, and Eshkol gave it to him.

In Washington, Rabin met Henry Kissinger, who in many respects became his mentor. He also had a good relationship with President Nixon. Despite what Americans may think of Nixon as president, Rabinovich notes that he was a great geopolitical thinker. He saw Israel through the lens of the Cold War and in a cold, calculated way considered Israel an asset. Rabin had treated Nixon well when he was a has-been, investing a whole day touring him in Israel, for which Nixon was grateful; the time spent laid the groundwork for their relationship. Rabin did the same for Jimmy Carter in 1973, when no one spent time with the governor of Georgia. But Rabin saw him as a stepping stone, although the time invested in Carter didn’t work out down the road. Rabin and Clinton clicked personally—a mutual love story—and had a close relationship. Clinton knew that what he saw with Rabin was what he would get; he knew where Rabin stood and what the situation was.

Rabinovich describes Rabin as a political dove and a military hawk. As early as 1963, Rabin had seen that Israel would not be able to keep up an arms race with the Arab and agreed to Israel’s nuclear project. But he saw the territory won in the Six-Day War as a bargaining chip to get recognition of Israel by the Arab states, not as an area for the settlers to move into, which Rabin strongly opposed. At this point the settlers were a minor movement that did not become a force until the mid-1970s. By the 1990s Rabin believed enough was enough. It was time to make peace. And it was a good moment—the United States was on an upswing after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, Russia was down after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rabin recognized the moment and grasped it. The center left saw opportunities to use its bargaining chips.

Of the tracks to peace that had been opened, Rabin preferred to work with Syria, an immediate neighbor, to counter the greater danger he saw in Iraq. Rabinovich, as chief negotiator with Syria, was in the middle of these events. He says the advantage of being a diplomat after being a professor of history was that he had a critical sense of what was happening. In August 1993, as negotiations with Syria were to begin, Rabin deposited with the U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher an oral offer that Israel would leave the Golan, but during his negotiations Christopher was to keep to himself until Syria agreed to a set of conditions. Rabinovich remarked to Dennis Ross, his US counterpart, that he could hear the wings of history in the room. Looking back, he says all three parties—Hafez al-Asad, the president of Syria; Israel; and the United States—made mistakes. Christopher put the offer on the table; even if Asad had been interested in making peace, he began negotiating, according to Rabinovich, like the victor, not the vanquished. The opportunity was missed. With the track to Syria closed, the Oslo process, begun in 1992, was the only game in town.

When we spoke, Rabinovich had just finished reviewing the play Oslo. He sees it as good theater but not a good rendition of reality. It places too much emphasis on the people in the negotiating room and not enough on the leaders. Rabin agreed to Oslo only because the deposit in Syria failed.

Of the relationship between Rabin and Shimon Peres and their relationship with the Israeli public, Rabinovich observes that although Rabin had a blunt manner, the Israeli public saw this bluntness as a sense of his directness. He was someone who spoke candidly, and he built credibility and authority. This was what allowed him to come back in 1992. Peres was a very gifted man, but he had a credibility problem with the public. Peres and Rabin did not like one another, but they complemented one another and when they collaborated, they were very powerful. When he was ambassador to the United State under Rabin and Peres was foreign minister, Rabinovich was in the middle, between them, and saw both sides. He did not play games. He avoided the familiar technique of going around the foreign minister by sending telegrams directly to the prime minister. Peres knew who Rabinovich was and knew he was loyal to Rabin. They developed a good relationship that endured.

The year 1995 was a bad time. The Israeli mind set was that, if there was an assassination attempt, it would be by an Arab. Security was planned to protect the prime minister from Arabs, not Jews; Jews do not kill Jews. After the assassination, Israel copied the US security model.

In answer to whether it was hard to go back over this material, Professor Rabinovich said this is life, and life goes on. He was invited to be president of Tel Aviv University and after that has continued serving in academic and public life.

Prior to starting work with Rabin, Rabinovich had a superficial social friendship with him. During nearly four years of work with him, he was Rabinovich’s leader, and the two also developed a close personal relationship. Rabin was an introverted man, but once you gained his confidence, he became accessible. He demanded loyalty but also gave it. It was a pleasure to work for a leader who was wise, experienced, open, and trustworthy. A word was a word. You always knew where you stood, and you also knew that you were part of a great historical moment.

Maron L. Waxman, retired editorial director, special projects, at the American Museum of Natural History, was also an editorial director at HarperCollins and Book-of-the-Month Club. She also leads editorial workshops.

New Reviews July 7 2017

Friday, July 07, 2017 | Permalink

Longing for New York

Wednesday, July 05, 2017 | Permalink

Hannah Lillith Assadi, author of Sonora: A Novel, is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

My father’s family lived in Safed, Palestine for over four centuries, overlooking the lake where Jesus was said to have walked on water. In April 1948, when he was five years old, his family fled from Palestine on foot. Like so many families, they believed that they would return once the fighting had ended, but never did. They lived in refugee camps in Damascus, for a few years before going to Kuwait where my grandfather was hired as an engineer. At 17, my father went to Italy, and some years later moved to, and remained for 20 years in New York. He was a taxi driver when he met my mother in a Tribeca bar. After a life of abrupt departures, my father finally settled with my mother in Arizona in the early 1990s.

They were married in Andalusia, Alabama, perhaps the first marriage to lend weight to the town’s namesake, the region in Spain in which Jewish and Muslim coexistence flourished before the Inquisition. But this was only coincidence. They were married there because my mother grew up in a small town named Florala thirty minutes southeast of Andalusia. Hers was the only Jewish family in that town, their estrangement further intensified by her father’s vehement support of the Civil Rights movement, and on the eve of Trump’s presidency she told me for the first time that neighbors would steal into their yard in the middle of the night and poison their dogs. My mother sometimes says she believes her mother died of longing for her hometown of New York, that this was why she passed so young of complications related to Alzheimer’s. My mother and her siblings left early for boarding school, but my grandmother remained without many friends, tending mostly to her garden. My grandfather, on the other hand, played the piano on Sundays at the local Baptist church. My mother has not been to Florala since my grandfather passed away though it is in that town where a burial plot awaits she and my father. Where I too could go to rest, should I be inclined. My mother shudders when she speaks of that town, asking me if I think she has become just like her mother, living far from New York as she is now in Arizona, longing for New York still.

New York City, this great dream, smashing us together as we grip the poles of our ever stalled trains, managed to bring my mother and father together, two people of seeming incongruent faiths and backgrounds. But it also bankrupted them. Collections agents hounded my father, he believed, because he was a Palestinian. He was taken in for questioning after the NYPD found letters written in Arabic in the trunk of his cab. They were letters from a friend who had remained in Italy about a very dangerous thing: the end of a love affair. The Middle East would follow him everywhere, except, he thought, to the desert. The desert was cheap, expansive, entirely separate from the rest of the planet and its cursed politics.

Hannah Lillith Assadi received her MFA in fiction from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She was raised in Arizona by her Jewish mother and Palestinian father. She lives in Brooklyn. Sonora is her first novel.

New Reviews June 30, 2017

Thursday, June 29, 2017 | Permalink

The Importance of Intersectionality

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, has been guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

Many years ago, when we still lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, my older daughters had the privilege of attending Jackson Magnet—at the time, a K-6 school with a large population of students from Southeast Asia. I never ceased to be awed by the cultural richness of Jackson Magnet, so unlike the homogeneity of School 18, the neighborhood grammar school I attended as a child growing up in Troy, New York. My daughters had several Hmong friends there. Like the great-grandparents they never knew, these friends were immigrants who fled their homelands. Through them, my daughters caught a feel of their own history.

What’s more, Jackson Magnet inspired me to write an early chapter book series called The Jackson Friends. It centered on the friendship of three girls: Pa Lia, Howie, and Calliope. Pa Lia, as you might guess, is Hmong. Howie is African American. Calliope James, with freckles and a gap between her two front teeth, is a Northern European mix. Pa Lia, Howie, and Calliope sprang forth as characters directly from the world I observed at Jackson Magnet.

Here’s an interesting anecdote, and the reason I bring The Jackson Friends into this post. One summer, while I was working on the series, my youngest daughter Leila, who did not go to Jackson Magnet, attended a day camp held at St. Thomas University near our home back then.

“Mom, there’s a girl in my group who looks just like Howie,” she kept telling me. “You have to meet her.” One day, I did. Howie’s twin was Caucasian. What Leila saw was a kid like Howie, kind with a warm smile. This surprised and delighted me on many levels. Lelia was already so well-versed in religious intermarriage that when she met a Jewish kid at camp, she always asked “half or whole?” [I promise you she did not learn that from her parents.] Still, when she thought of Howie, she did not think about the color of her skin—half, whole, or any other percentage.

When I wrote A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, I thought a lot about Mrs. Goldman and Sophia. I wanted to explore their relationship and the love they had for each other. The details of their backgrounds were, at first, incidental to the larger story of their friendship just the way they were to Pa Lia’s, Howie’s and Calliope’s friendship in The Jackson Friends.

There are obvious signs of ethnicity throughout The Jackson Friends. Mrs. Goldman’s wool is scented with the smell of her chicken soup. Her speech is peppered with mitzvahs and keppies. Then there’s the scratchy hat that Sophia finds when she looks through the hall closet. It’s one that her abuela wore in Mexico. Aside from those mentions, the reader can visualize other differences through the tender images offered by Brian Karas, the book’s illustrator.

What does intersectionality like this mean for the Jewish community?

Well, I am merely a mother, and a children’s book writer, not a sociologist, a historian, or even a political commentator. So what I can tell you from my dusty corner of the universe is that for me, intersectionality means hope. For all of us. That’s why I find myself revisiting it in my stories. There is great hope when we see beyond race, gender, and age. There is great hope when we open up to each other’s worries and march for our collective justice.

In my heart, and in my book, A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, another great hope comes from the kindness of wool and two sticks. Sophia Hernandez struggles through knitting a hat because someone has a very cold keppie. Someone she loves. She and Mrs. Goldman are more than neighbors, their lives are intersected. It is that intersection which makes their story about knitting and love.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.

Sophia and Mrs. Goldman

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 | Permalink

Michelle Edwards, author of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, will be guest blogging this week for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

“Why did you make Sophia Latina?”

That’s a question I have been asked several times in interviews about Sophia Hernandez, the protagonist in my newest book, A Hat For Mrs. Goldman. At first, I was surprised by that question. I hadn’t thought about why I made Sophia Latina. I just thought of her that way. Why wouldn’t I? Why wouldn’t Sophia be Latina or Hmong or from the Congo like many of the students my husband now works with at our local high school? They are here. They live with us. Our lives intersect, and at that intersection is a story. Why wouldn’t Sophia be a character in my books?

Still, I know why I am asked that question. But equally important, I think, to having a diverse character, is the depiction. The roundness and believability of that character. If I had been asked about that, how I was able to make her universal in her needs and wants, I would have a very different answer. It turns out that although I have always been interested in creating books that show diversity, I didn’t always understand what that meant. Many years ago, when I was working on La Pa Lia’s First Day, the first book of my Jackson Friends series, I had a chance to read an early draft to a small group of St. Paul school kids. The kids were part of Meera’s class—my oldest daughter—and included her Hmong friend, Kabo. In the ways that we share our lives with our school buddies, Meera told Kabo that I was writing a book about a Hmong girl. At that time, there were no children’s books with Hmong characters. Before I met with the group, I knew Kabo was anxious for my story. I had not really understood until I saw her anticipation that I was about to disappoint her. As I read my draft, I realized I had created a flat, almost folktale character. How had I missed that? After, I would change Pa Lia, make her worthy like Kabo. When I wrote A Hat For Mrs. Goldman, I knew that Sophia was Latina. I didn’t worry about her worthiness because I had learned a great lesson from writing about Pa Lia. I knew I could get Sophia right if I listened to her story, and followed her emotionally.

Of course, Americans need diverse books. We need to read about Pa Lia’s first day of school worries and Sophia’s relationship with Mrs. Goldman. We need the everyday in our books to reflect our everyday world. That means we also need diverse books for our young Jewish readers. Our Jewish communities are diverse, and our world, our country, our towns, and the neighborhoods we live in are diverse. We need books that tell all our stories and show us how we all connect.

That’s why Sophia is Latina.

Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website. Check back tomorrow to read more from Michelle Edwards.

Interview: Annette Gendler

Tuesday, June 27, 2017 | Permalink

Annette Gendler’s memoir Jumping Over Shadows pulls readers into the drama of World War II with its family tale of an ill-fated marriage between a Jewish man, Guido, and his Christian wife, Resi; interwoven is the equally gripping contemporary love story of Gendler—Resi’s great-niece—her German Jewish boyfriend and eventual husband, and her conversion to Judaism. See the full review.

Amy Spungen: Annette, please tell us how you came up with the idea of your memoir Jumping Over Shadows. Was it something you toyed with writing about for years or did you seize upon the idea and go for it full steam ahead?

Annette Gendler: My first trip to my grandparents’ hometown in the Czech Republic in 2002 is the origin of the book. I felt so many undercurrents there that I had to write about because I write to understand. I knew that what had happened there in the ‘30s and ‘40s had profoundly affected my life, and while I knew most of the stories, I didn’t know them well enough to reconstruct the sequence of events. When I presented a collection of essays on the family’s past as my MFA thesis in 2007, one of my advisors remarked that the past was only interesting in terms of how it affected the present. That’s when I understood the full scope of the project, namely that I had to tell my own story in juxtaposition to the story of the past. It took me another five years, on and off, to write my own story and complete the story of the past.

AS: Was it daunting to consider how much research needed to be accomplished to flesh out your story? The amount of time and effort that must have gone into traveling to places like Reichenberg in order to conduct research and beautifully recreate them for your readers was impressive.

AG: Thank you but it was not daunting at all. I love that stuff! The beauty of this kind of family history memoir is that it is valuable in and of itself to my family and me; I did the research for myself and in return got a book out of it.

AS: Did telling your own story come more easily, given your proximity to the subject (being the subject, really), or did you find that writing the Annette–Harry Gendler story had its own challenges?

AG: Writing my own love story was the hardest thing about writing Jumping Over Shadows. Not so much in terms of conceiving of myself or Harry as characters—I’d done that before in shorter pieces of memoir and in personal essays—but how do you write your own love story without being soppy? Conveying the subtle feelings between two people was really hard. I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how I managed it, but whatever I did, it seems to have worked because so many readers see the book as a love story.

AS: The title of your memoir is both intriguing and evocative. It’s based on a specific observation by Harry’s father but seems to apply more broadly to the themes of the holocaust and forbidden love. Can you tell us why you chose "Jumping Over Shadows" as the title?

AG: Coming up with this title was truly a group project; it was not my working title. I wrote about how it all happened in How to Come Up with a Book Title, but briefly: My publisher didn’t like my working title and I wasn’t married to it, so the copy editor brainstormed a few titles and sent me a list. It so happened that I had just read an essay by Ann Patchett about how she came up with the title of her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. I used her focus group technique with my memoir students, and they argued for the title Jumping Over Shadows. When one of them pointed out that she felt it implied an active protagonist, I knew this was the right title. I love that it comes organically from the book, that it’s based on a German idiom and thus encapsulates the multicultural aspect of the book. I also appreciate that it can be interpreted so many different ways by the reader.

AS: Could you tell us a bit about your writing process? There are practically as many methods to writing a book as there are authors to write them, but it’s always interesting to see what works…or doesn’t!

AG: What works for one writer doesn’t work for another. Committing to writing early in the morning made a huge difference in my development as a writer. I churned out the first draft of Jumping Over Shadows during a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. While there, I employed Hemingway’s method of producing at least 500 words per day but also calling it a day when I’d reached a good point and when I knew where I’d continue the next day. However, big chunks of time entirely devoted to writing happen only rarely in my life, so the daily practice of putting pen to paper, even if it’s only to do my Morning Pages (I’m a firm believer in that practice) makes all the difference.

AS: Do you feel like you are done with the memoir form now or do you see writing another down the road? Please tell us about the writing projects are you working on now. When can readers expect to see something new from you?

AG: Memoir is my favorite genre but I don’t think I’ll write another book-length memoir myself; my life, thankfully, isn’t that dramatic but you never know, right? I do have a children’s book ready that is based on a true story that happened to my mother-in-law as a hidden child in France. I only have to find a publisher! I’ve done all the research for another children’s book that would also be historical fiction, and I have another adult story that I’d like to pursue that most likely will also turn into historical fiction, so that might just be my new genre.

AS: What would you advise someone preparing to delve into their family history in hopes of writing a memoir?

AG: Start small. Find one story, one occurrence that you find compelling, perhaps because it affected you personally (the past, after all, is only interesting in terms of how it affects the present!), and then work on shaping it into a story. Down the line, several small projects can turn into a book—that’s how it worked for me—but it is best to learn how to write by focusing on making a short piece work.

Amy Spungen, a freelance writer and editor, lives near Chicago in Highland Park, Illinois.