The ProsenPeople

What Does It Really Take to Write a Dissertation?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Beth Kissileff mused on the final Biblical commandment—to write. With the release of her novel Questioning Return, Beth is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When I finished writing my dissertation, I decided that I would get down to writing what I really wanted to write: a novel. I had the discipline of being able to sit and write; at least in those pre-Internet days, I was pretty good at not getting distracted. While paying for child care, I had to use my time productively, since I hated thinking of spending money to do chores and errands I could do when my daughter was home. I knew I had the focus and the ideas to write a novel, since I’d already completed a longer piece of writing. All I had to do was put my behind in a chair, turn my computer on, and sit for long enough to type it all out.

The topic of my novel was obvious to me: since I had just finished writing a dissertation, naturally I wanted to write about someone writing her dissertation, the process of writing it, how it interacted with the other things happening in her life. I didn’t need to write the actual dissertation itself, though the topic would certainly be part of the story. With what personal meaning did she imbue this material of academic study, why it was something she personally needed to do? I would be getting at the subterranean channels of emotion that ran beneath the ostensibly objective words in a dissertation, which was what I was after all along. My character would learn that she wanted to write about Jews who become more religious in Israel because the topic of Judaism actually held meaning for her, beyond this work as her entrée into the profession.

People in graduate school tend to define themselves by the nature of their fields, what they find important in a sub-field, who their mentors are and working scholars they most admire. My character needed to come to the point of realizing that her dissertation and professional life do not define every aspect of herself, that she needs—and wants—to develop as a human being, not just a future academic.

The difference between a novel and a dissertation is not just in the reading and research that go into each text. For a novel, I did read many books on topics related to religious returnees; Jerusalem and its history, architecture, and archaeology; American religious studies; and anthropological fieldwork and interviewing techniques. I think the difference lies in the value placed on emotions , exposing and expressing them in a novel, bringing points of tension between characters and resolving them or not. A dissertation needs to have a speaking self that appears without expressing bias; a novel needs a character shot through with passion and fervency so the reader keeps wanting to know more.

What was going on in my life in the months when I started writing was that after being four months pregnant with my second child, when we went for the 16-week appointment, there was no heartbeat. My pregnant-appearing belly was not holding a live baby but a corpse that would never be introduced to the world.

Was I responsible for my unborn child’s death? Had I done something, like drinking too much coffee, that was harmful to my baby, even endangered it? These are the questions I needed to explore, for myself, what kind of mother and professional I was going to be, how I could continue in the face of sadness and grief. My character faces a death that she may or may not have responsibility for at the midpoint of my novel. Letting her grapple with these questions was a way of struggling with my own dilemmas, which are the type that are not ever wholly resolved , just coped with. In fact the process I thought would be so simple of writing a novel over a summer turned into a process of many years. But the thought and struggle that informed my writing complicated my character and matured her, just as I too managed my own life.

Beth Kissileff is a writer and journalist with a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught in various fields of English and Jewish Studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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It's No Accident the Final Commandment Is to Write

Sunday, October 23, 2016 | Permalink

Beth Kissileff is the author of Reading Genesis and a new novel, Questioning Return. She is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


It is no accident that the last Commandment in the Torah involves writing. This is the very last thing enjoined on Jews, just as our book of instruction is ending.

As a writer, I feel particularly poised to discuss why this is so important, why this directive to write is what should remain with us as we end the reading of the Torah each year. Of course, the command is not to write just anything; the command is that each Jew should write a book of the Torah for themselves. I want to say a bit about both this writing and the obligation for each Israelite to write a Torah, to explain what the act of writing can do both for us collectively and as individuals.

According to a medieval comependium of what the 613 Commandments are, the verse that compels Jews to each write their own copy of the Torah reads: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it in to the children of Israel”(Deuteronomy 31:19). This copying over is something each Jew must do. In the Talmud, Rabbah states, “Even if one's parents have left him a Torah scroll, it is proper that he should write one of his own”(Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21b).

A few chapters earlier in Deuteronomy, there is an injunction on a king not to have an “upraised” or “haughty heart”(Deut 17:20). The antidote to this arrogance? For the king himself to take the text of this Torah and copy one for himself, to immerse himself in this text, to understand it, to make it a living thing for himself by giving it another life in his own writing. Copying over this book—making his own copy and not relying on one made by his forefathers, as the Babylonian Talmud dictates in Sanhedrin 21b—will enable the king to connect with teachings that will effect his life and behavior.

It is the process of writing, in reliving and experiencing the ideas and feeling in the text, that will itself give the king the emotional state he needs to serve his people and to govern. The juxtaposition of these texts teaches that the best king is one who can achieve a state of empathy in both his subjects and himself; the laws they contain teach that writing itself, the actual physical process of taking a pen and copying over a text, has value.

The verse about each person writing a Torah for themself calls the Torah a shira, a song or poem (Deut 31:19). To me as a writer, this is very important, because poetry—as well as prose—can get at and express emotions that cannot otherwise be explored directly. When there is an important event or commemoration, we often wish to turn to a poet to express it, just as the Torah itself does in Exodus 15 with the Song at the Sea or in Deuteronomy 32, the final blessings of Moses to the people.

In a way, by asking us not to tread the paths walked by others, the Torah declares that the life of each individual be a personal Torah scroll. For myself, writing allows me to live my life more fully by accessing, working out, and thinking through emotions that will enable me to live my life well and have empathy for others. Both the king copying over the text of the Torah and the individual Jew replicating the text of her ancestors in her own hand as a modern writer are participating in the act of creating our own songs of instruction for ourselves and others as our ideas go out into the world.

After all, the Torah itself instructs us that we must write something new, recopy the text ourselves in every generation in order to be faithful to its message. Happy Simchat Torah!

Beth Kissileff is s a writer and journalist with a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania. She has taught in various fields of English and Jewish Studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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Writing from Elsewhere

Friday, March 04, 2016 | Permalink

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis: Beginnings, a collection of essays on the Hebrew Bible by experts in range of non-rabbinic fields. Beth is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

“Your ideas come too much from elsewhere,” was one of the comments I received on a paper about Deuteronomy in graduate school, attendant to a disappointing grade.

I was writing about the Bible’s first murder mystery. Deuteronomy 21:1-9 talks about a corpse found by itself in a field, no trace to identify the slayer. Forensics in the ancient world not being quite what they are today, the best solution was in a ritual to expiate those in the adjacent towns from any guilt they might bear in the case. After all, if a body is found in your town, you may not have accompanied the person properly or given sufficient food or water to the traveler. In my mind the ritual was more of a social form, to encourage the group to work together and perhaps promote future safety of those journeying in its environs. I did a great deal of careful research and had proof to back up my claims, yet my teacher remained unconvinced of my interpretation.

After a while, though, I realized my Bible professor was doing me a favor in stating the obvious. Yes, my interest in the text was mainly in how it interacted with ideas swirling around and through it, ideas from elsewhere. So I didn’t do my dissertation on the Bible itself, but on its translations and their effect on Renaissance English literature, to see the sacred text in the vernacular setting of yet another language.

But even though my degree wasn’t in Bible, it was still my text as a Jew, something I continued to read, write, and think about, and to see as a powerful source for creating meaning, a way to integrate into the Jewish conversation of the ages. I couldn’t publish on the subject as an expert in the field, for I am not, but was looking for a way to make this text that I loved so much meaningful to a larger swath of readers than just those who can read scholarly work.

I wondered what would happen if I took people who had expertise from elsewhere, plenty of it, and asked them to use that knowledge and apply it to the text. What if a linguist wrote on the Tower of Babel? Or a lawyer on contracts in Genesis? A political scientist on leadership and group cohesion? A scientist who studies eating behavior on Adam, Eve and the consumption of the fruit? An ethicist on the nature of forgiveness?

I did just this in editing my anthology Reading Genesis: Beginnings. Like myself, none of the writers are Bible scholars, but mixing things up and bringing in ideas from elsewhere gives new modern meaning to the text. I have enjoyed the process of editing the essays and compiling the volume, finding an outlet for my desire to see the text from a different perspective—and giving others a chance to do so, too.

I don’t know whether my professor would approve of a discussion of the text without scholarly apparatus (of a background in ancient Near Eastern, knowledge of philology of antiquated languages, and a complete sense of the textual variants among ancient editions and translations). But, in an odd coincidence, I just interviewed his son, a journalist, whose book I am reviewing.

When I tell the professor’s son about my volume and how in a roundabout way I got the idea from his father, he tells me excitedly how he remembers as a kid overhearing his father on the phone in his study, asking questions of farmers and butchers and craftspeople. My professor was interested in details from outside the text, wanting to know how farmers did things, what implements they used, to learn from them and get details so that he could get the textual realia right.

So maybe then this sense of elsewhere I’d thought my professor was saying was negative wasn’t at all, but a necessary part of the toolkit of the scholar. I am just deploying the tools in a different way than I would have in graduate school as the editor of my own anthology.

Beth Kissileff is an author and journalist, and frequent reviewer for the Jewish Book Council.

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Bringing Bling to the Bible

Wednesday, March 02, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Beth Kissileff shared the experiences and conversations that inspired Reading Genesis, a collection of essays on the Hebrew Bible by experts in range of non-rabbinic fields. Beth is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Allow me to set evening scene: an up-and-coming neighborhood of Tel Aviv, inside an art gallery. An exhibit of jewelry, modish and elaborate made from of stones and leather, precious metals and gems. A talk by a leading Israeli fashion designer in a courtyard decorated with lights and hanging lanterns; an open bar and savory Mediterranean appetizers and desserts beckon. The high-heeled fashion crowd listens raptly as the winners of the jewelry competition are announced.

This is not what you think. This is a jewelry exhibition organized by 929, a website devoted to getting Israelis from all backgrounds to read just one of the Hebrew Bible’s 929 chapters a day, five days a week, to complete the cycle of reading in a little over three years, culminating in July 2018. Not only is the project commissioning jewelry inspired by the designs for the tabernacle and other decorative items in Exodus, but a different popular songwriter has been invited to write a song for each book. Artists have created animated movies and murals on themes around the stories from the Hebrew Bible at such venues as the First Train Station in Jerusalem and the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. The project is permeating Jewish Israeli culture with its religious heritage in a way that does not seem possible in the Diaspora.

929’s cultural network and access is proof that there is a unique liveliness and connection to Torah in Israel. Still, I’ve long wanted to import from Israel that holistic excitement around the ancient text. I want to contribute to the idea of the Bible as a text ready and willing to be possessed and interpreted by all, even those in the English-speaking world.

I don’t have the budget to start a jewelry design competition, but I did bring together writers from different perspectives to use their own expertise to say something about the Bible in my anthology Reading Genesis. In addition to the contributing anthropologists, historians, critics, psychologists, sexologists, culinary historians, and others, I asked two poets for pieces on the language and flavor of Genesis. Alicia Ostriker tackled the stories of Sarah and Hagar and the value of imagination in exploring the text:

To reimagine biblical stories is to discover more profoundly what a sacred text is capable of meaning. We dive into the text, we enter it, we find meaning like a deep-sea diver finding pearls. At the same time, the text dives into us, headlamp shining, illuminating the lives we are living.

Jacqueline Osherow added that “reading the Bible that turned me into a poet” since “it always seems to me, no matter what I’m trying to say, that the Bible has already put it perfectly.”

I asked two novelists, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Dara Horn, to discuss different characters from a writer’s perspective. Goldstein forges a unique explanation of what motivated Lot’s wife, her own combination of reason and human desire causing her to ask, “Voyeurism or skepticism, nostalgia or bravado: who was Lot’s wife and what had moved her to look back and risk all?”

Three law professors, including Alan Dershowitz, wrote on different aspects of code and statute in the prose. Geoffrey Miller elucidated some of the more perplexing aspects of how contracts operate in Genesis including what he calls the ‘”first blessing rule,” in light of the ways law operated in the ancient world.

I’m not asking anyone to take on the commitment of reading all 929 chapters of the Bible, only to engage with essays about the first 50. I do think that readers will come away with a fresh and lively sense of what the text can mean in the modern world, worth all the gems and pearls collected in Tel Aviv.

Beth Kissileff is an author and journalist, and frequent reviewer for the Jewish Book Council.

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In the Beginning, Dr. Ruth Read Genesis

Monday, February 29, 2016 | Permalink

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis: Beginnings, a collection of essays on the Hebrew Bible by experts in range of non-rabbinic fields. Beth is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

In summer 2007, I went to the Chautauqua Institution, an education center with lectures themed by week, and heard Dr. Ruth Westheimer give a lecture on human sexuality rife with references to Judaism and her Jewish upbringing. She spoke on a Friday, announcing to the crowd that she would be at the Shabbat service by the lake that night. Guess what? That evening’s Sabbath worship attendance broke records as many flocked to see the esteemed doctor.

Could that warmth and enthusiasm for a subject so easily conveyed by Dr. Ruth be transmitted in other ways? It occurred to me as my friend Ron, a political scientist, and I discussed the talk he gave over Rosh Hashanah at his synagogue. After delivering what I call a “Parsha report” on the story of the Binding of Isaac, listing familiar exegeses on each verse, he veered into new territory: a personal counter-theory, based on his political science methodology, that Abraham actually resisted God’s command using the weapons of the weak—since mortals are, after all, weaker than the Divine. When Ron told me that this idea was one twelfth of his book on Genesis, I paused. Wait, I thought, this could be my book!

What if I asked Jewish academics to say something about Genesis backed up by their professional knowledge? I had just learned something about political science and its methodology from Ron, and of course about both the Bible and human sexuality from Dr. Ruth. There must be more people out there to learn from.

So I reached out to everyone I could think of, soliciting suggestions, responding to leads about who might be interested. The Hebrew Bible, I pitched, has all the elements of a human story: family dysfunction, sex, violence, love, hate, anger, jealousy, a dollop of poetry, some profound moral instruction, and even a chance to catch a break one day in seven—surely all the drama and excitement of any modern storyline or reality TV show can be found in Scripture!

“Would you give your child a book whose heroes cheat, lie, steal, murder—and get away with it?” Alan Dershowitz opens his contribution to the project that became Reading Genesis: Beginnings. “Chances are you have. The book, of course, is Genesis.”

Dershowitz is one of many insightful contributors to the collection. Novelist Dara Horn writes of the “possibilities that time gives us to alter our lives” because “Jacob demonstrates that one can be confronted with the same situation twice and respond, the second time, as a different person.” Food writer Joan Nathan tells readers of eating in ancient Israel, sharing some of the realities behind the porridge Jacob served to Esau and bread in antiquity. Lesser-known names contributed equally astute perspectives on the Bible’s earliest stories: a psychologist who studies facial recognition writes about why Joseph’s brothers can’t recognize him; an ethicist writes on imperfect forgiveness and a historian on why the Cain and Abel story models so much about the most intense conflicts being those within a family; a poet writes on the face of the other and the relationship between Sarah and Hagar.

And as for Dr. Ruth? “Maybe I didn’t hear the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ when I was growing up, but come to think of it, I did hear a lot of prayers for shalom bayit (peace in the home). These concepts allow us to teach men and women that peace in the home is inseparable from good sex,” she writes of Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for Man to be alone.”

You may be surprised at how fascinating the Bible can be and what you can learn from modern writers on the ancient text.

Beth Kissileff is an author and journalist, and frequent reviewer for the Jewish Book Council.

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Interview: Steve Stern

Tuesday, August 04, 2015 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff


Award-winning author Steve Stern’s eleventh work of fiction, The Pinch: A History/A Novel, was published in June 2016 by Graywolf Press. Jewish Book Council sat down with the prolific author to discuss the role of Jewish history and Yiddish folktales in his writing, race in the South, and the power of comical writing and its significance.

Beth Kissileff: I love when authors take characters and ideas from their other books and continue to use them in different ways in newer books. The Shpinkers appear in other works of yours, and you have written about tightrope walkers in the past, too. What does it mean to you to write this way?

Steve Stern: You make me sound very ecological, recycling characters in order to create a kind of sustainable fiction. The truth is, I’ve been mining the old North Memphis neighborhood of the Pinch for stories for about three decades now, and it’s only natural that some of the narratives dovetail, causing characters who appear in one story to reappear in another. It is, after all, a finite neighborhood, though the stories are infinite; so while I might introduce new characters to the mix, they’re bound to rub shoulders with the veteran populace, and the friction of their shoulder-rubbing can be radically transformative for both old and new residents of the neighborhood.

BK: Can you talk about the interplay of history and fiction in your writing?

SS: The Pinch ends with the Angel of History: Walter Benjamin’s concept inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus in which the angel looks toward the past while being driven ever forward, perhaps catastrophically, in its flight. If you’re looking backward—toward a mythic past, toward the paradise you knew before the Angel of Forgetfulness tweaked you under the nose at birth—then history is something you blindly collide with. I suppose that’s as good a characterization of the attitude in which I write as any: history always manifests itself as an inescapable intrusion, the nightmare from which Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus was trying to awake. In their sleepwalking, my characters often try to sustain themselves on dreams, and since the dreams are frequently nourished by ancient mythologies, they may assume their own palpable reality. What happens when that reality, in which magic is a natural component, encounters the harsh truths of history is a constant theme in the stories I imagine. Though to be honest, the angel at the end of The Pinch evokes not so much Benjamin’s Angel of History as the one with the flaming sword who prohibits Adam and Eve from returning to the Garden.

BK: One of the many lovely things in the book is the honest appraisal of race relations. Can you say something about the role of race in the novel, and the particular one of Jews and blacks in the South?

SS: In my hometown of Memphis, a predominantly black city, there was an interesting symbiosis between African-Americans and Jews. Beale Street, which was the black Main Street of the South for decades, had at one end a cluster of Jewish pawnshops and discount stores. Where blacks were barred from shopping at the white-owned businesses, they were welcomed by the Jews. I won’t pretend this was without its mercenary motive, but still: Schwab’s Emporium featured hoodoo love potions and pomades; Novak’s Pawn accepted toothpicks and thimbles from the gamblers and high-rollers, confident of a considerable return on their investment. The black heritage of Memphis, the city’s richest cultural heritage, had from its early inception a lively Jewish element, and it was through an interest in that hybrid circumstance that I, somewhat ironically, came to know something about the local Jewish history. I guess that, growing up in the South, I always conceived parallels between the black and the Jewish experience, and I’ve been drawn back repeatedly to that perception since I began to write. In The Pinch, I wanted to address the city’s pivotal (even terminal?) historic moment, the garbage strike that preceded the assassination of Martin Luther King. There seemed to me a kind of inevitability in the fact that the so-called urban renewal that destroyed North Main Street coincided with the murder of Dr. King. My dream district evaporated forever with the death of the century's greatest dreamer.

BK: Can you talk a bit about your sources—folklore, midrash, Yiddish words? How did you do the research for the many worlds this book contains?

SS: I’m never really aware of research per se, since the place where I spend most of my time is in a literary latitude (my room) defined by the kinds of texts you mention. The Book is of course the Torah, whose narrative begins in timelessness before entering history. The vast literature that Torah has generated—midrash, aggadah, folklore, legend, and so much of Yiddish fiction—partakes of both worlds; these are tales that exist comfortably in both a mythic and historic dimension. Characters, such as the folk persona of the prophet Elijah, commute between these worlds with relative ease; creatures such as golems and assorted monsters, the Leviathan and the giant Ziz bird, phenomena such as dybbuks, wandering souls, hidden saints, and all the fabulous demonic and angelic denizens of Kabbalah, can enter the familiar world without substantially altering its fabric. Rabbis and fools can stumble into sitra achra, the malevolent Other Side, and return to their study house unscathed. For centuries the two worlds cohabited more or less peacefully in the Jewish universe. But in our epoch there was a rupture—i.e. a Holocaust—which separated us from the timeless realm and marooned us here under the unforgiving dominion of history. I believe, however, that stories can still retain an echo of the original source, and that the echo can sometimes toll louder than the tale at hand; that the music of that tolling can endow our historical moment with a measure of eternity. I believe a writer, according to his or her means, ought to aspire to capture that music in his or her stories.

BK: In your book, we watch a character write and control the faces of others. Can you talk about the power of writing and its effect on your own life?

SS: I gave The Pinch two endings—one a speculative conclusion in which the book that the character Muni has written plays a crucial part in the revitalization of the lost neighborhood. In the second ending—spoiler alert—Muni’s book is destroyed, and Lenny, my feckless semi-hero, who’s been living both inside and outside of Muni’s chronicle, is set free, though his emancipation is an ambiguous affair. This is what I love most about fiction: that you can have it both ways. You can rectify and redeem botched lives, dissolve the claustrophobia of routine with mad invention, realize the impossible despite the hegemony of the literal; and you can do it all without subverting the accepted wisdom. But I’m not entirely a fool; I know that there’s such a thing as normative reality and that in most lives it trumps whatever the imagination can conceive. There’s a Kafka parable that says we are free and secure citizens of the world, for we’re fettered to a chain long enough to give us the freedom of all earthly space; that we’re free and secure citizens of heaven as well, since we’re also fettered by a similarly long heavenly chain. But if we head for earth, the heavenly collar throttles us, and likewise the earthly collar if we head for heaven. Yet, says Kafka, all the possibilities are ours. Stories are perhaps an effort to break those chains, and if they ultimately fail to do so, well, the energy and passion expended in the attempt allows us to feel, if only vicariously, intensely alive.

BK: Can you talk about the sense of creation and transmission in writing, and what you hope to hand over to readers?

SS: A writer’s characters embody his obsessions, and many of mine are possessed by stories, both their own and those of others, which they’re as driven as the Ancient Mariner to exorcise themselves of. That’s certainly the case with my character Muni Pinsker. George Steiner once said of the Jews that the Book is their homeland, which is a literal truth for me, though the book in question—apostate that I am—is usually the one I’m writing, and home paradoxically the place I hope the writing will take me to. It’s less a straight-ahead voyage, however, than the efforts of a desperate survivor of shipwreck to reach dry land, my desk the lifebuoy I cling to like Ishmael (another mariner) hanging onto Queequeg’s casket. That’s the only way I know to stay afloat. A career sadsack, I nevertheless like to think that I’m essentially a comic writer. Sure, I’ve got my sober and somber themes, which I return to again and again, hammer and tongs. But in the end, though reviewers might beg to differ, my intention is to entertain. I have a religious faith in the power of laughter to clarify a spiritual vision. The old proverb says that aggadah, the narrative imagination, has a laughing face. That’s the compass by which (straddling the casket) I try to navigate my stories.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2014) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under review for publication and she is writing a second novel and volume of short stories. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.

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Interview: Jay Neugeboren

Tuesday, June 18, 2013 | Permalink

by Beth Kissileff

I recently had an opportunity to speak with veteran author Jay Neugeboren by phone for Jewish Book Council. This was appropriate because the ability “to conjure up the seen from the unseen” is the premise of his newest book, The American Sun and Wind Moving Picture Company, about a family making motion pictures in the years from 1915 to 1930; a proffered Skype interview wouldn’t have worked as well for a discussion of the work of this author who was a child and teen radio actor at the New York Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, in the Brooklyn of his youth. As in this newest novel, Neugeboren’s twentieth book, the author’s voice and storytelling ability carried our conversation. This is an abridged account of our discussion.

Beth Kissileff: Where do your stories come from?

Jay Neugeboren: The answer is—who knows? No particular source. That’s a question I am always asking. The stories always seem to be there waiting for me, though sometimes shrouded in mist and fog.

I grew up in Brooklyn during and after World War II, so some things are set in that milieu, and sometimes things that have actually happened in my life become transformed into fiction. But beyond that, I have no answer. Just as Irving Berlin made up new songs, and always seemed to have a new melody waiting, so with ideas and notions that are there for me, and eventually they become stories. They are not full-blown at first, but I know enough to begin, and find out the rest while I write. For me, part of the process lies in solving mysteries—in unlayering what is at first unknown to me.

In order to know about the lives of my characters and their ancestors, I had to create them.

In the early days of film—what we call silent films—they worked without scripts. There is a wonderful childlike wonder to that for me—a sense of 'let’s pretend.' As in 'I’m a mother, you’re a father, I have a dog—or a barn—so let’s make a movie.'

BK: How much research did you do for this book? There is such a wealth of detail in the novel about so many aspects of the early movie making process and I wonder how much of it is based in fact.

JN: I did not know a lot about the silent film era, and UMass-Amherst [where Neugeboren taught for many years] has an extensive library on film. I spent six to eight months watching movies and reading, lots. I read Anita Loos, biographies of D.W. Griffith and Buster Keaton, the 1001 Nights, Kevin Brownell (a film critic). I did my homework. I was fascinated by the technical aspects [of how films were made], and in the novel, for example, I make use of the fact that they edited films in the camera, cranking backwards and filming a scene again.

Like the proverbial hem of the skirt, I hope all my research doesn’t show. I try to let the research—the detail—serve the story.

BK: Since you are so fascinated by the movie-making process why did you write this as a novel, not a screenplay, since you have written screenplays too?

JN: The novel is my first love. I’ve written screenplays on occasion, mainly to get my kids through college, but things come to me in their particular forms or genres. This story said: “I am a novel.”

A novel, for me, relies on my imagination to inspire your (the reader’s) imagination. It is not all there for you. My novels or my stories come to me visually. I use words—what else?—to translate the novel I see inside my head into words that I hope will create a movie inside your head. A movie can evoke feelings, thoughts, it is all there and happening, there is no control over the images when you are watching a movie. You are transported for three hours to a world where you see real people. In a novel it is private—there’s only you, and words on pages. The landscape is in your mind and in your feelings. I hope this novel does for others what stories and novels did for me when I was a boy—I hope, that is, it will allow you to become lost in a world totally unlike the actual world we live in.

I work hard to make the words evoke particular images, thoughts, feelings, the mystery of relationships.

The American & Wind Moving Picture Company is made up of six sections—six separate films, six woodcuts—and I tried to pare everything down to essentials, to carve a book with words, and then to compress, compress, compress—so that the effect is stark, and the scenes are as vivid as dreams.

BK: What would you do if you weren’t a writer?

JN: I grew up at Shaare Torah synagogue in Brooklyn and I would run the Saturday morning services when I was in college. One day the rabbi, Joseph Miller, called me in. He asked me to consider the rabbinate, and said that he would see that I would be supported financially. I thought about it, but I wanted to be a writer. Being a pulpit rabbi and a writer is rough, though it can be done. My rabbi from Northampton [Massachusetts, where Neugeboren is a past president of Congregation B’nai Israel], Phil Graubart, is a marvelous writer.

I didn’t feel a calling for it—it should be a calling, really—the way writing is for me. The rabbinate should be a calling, and not simply a way to earn a living.

BK: What helped you write this book?

JN: Joey’s voice. Once I found that, I was home free.

BK: What do you take pride in as a writer?

JN: As a writer I am proud that if you took my last four books, and they didn’t have my name on them, I don’t think readers would know they were by the same author. The same with this novel. I think what I am making is an object that has a life and identity of its own, apart from me.

There is nothing wrong with a writer who has a distinct style in book after book, but I am not interested in repeating myself.

BK: Why do you write?

JN: I remain curious about all the lives I can’t have—and about the lives of others, real and imagined, past and present, and how people came to be who they are . . . and who they might yet be. I am enchanted by the landscape of possibility.

Read more about Jay Neugeboren here. 

Beth Kissileff is the editor of Reading Genesis (Continuum Books, 2013) an anthology of academic writing about Genesis. Her novel Questioning Return is under consideration for publication and she is working on a second novel and volume of short stories.