The ProsenPeople

Time. Space. Create.

Thursday, March 30, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julia Dahl wrote about her early exposure to the American justice system. With the release of her new crime novel, Conviction, Julia is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In early 2011, I applied for a month-long residency at the Vermont Studio Center, but didn’t get in.

I’d been working on a novel for more than three years, while I worked five days a week at the New York Post, then The Crime Report, cobbling together a living with occasional fellowships and a couple big magazine features I’m really proud of. I’d written and shopped another novel about seven years earlier and gotten lots of polite declines. One agent took the time to chat with me on the phone. She told me the writing was “very strong” but that she didn’t “know how to sell it.”

This new novel, though—I had a feeling I could sell it. But first I had to finish, and I simply wasn’t getting it done with a few hours here and there. I needed a chunk of time. I needed, I decided, a residency.

So, I wasn’t going to Vermont. Maybe I could go somewhere else. One night, sitting on my couch, probably watching Bravo, I Googled “writers residency east coast.” A few results down I saw a link to the Martha’s Vineyard Writer’s Residency. I filled out the application that night, cut and pasted 10 pages from my novel-in-progress, and paid the $10 fee.

A California native, I knew nothing about Martha’s Vineyard (did the Kennedy’s live there?) and I think I initially confused it with Cape Cod. But it didn’t matter. It was $200 a week (you bought your own food)—far less than what Vermont charged. I could afford it, I had a flexible job situation, and I was childfree.

A week or so later I got an email: I was in.

Getting there was a bit of a crucible. I boarded a bus in the bowels of Port Authority and four hours later transferred to another bus in Providence. An hour after that I transferred to another bus in a city called Byrne, Massachusetts, then finally pulled my rollerboard suitcase up the ramp of the ferry to the island, trading a cramped bus for the wild Atlantic salt wind whipping my hair into tangles I’d have to shower and condition out.

I showed up to the Point Way Inn late at night, so the other writers were already in bed. I crept up a staircase to Room 6, and turned on the light. Imagine the best B&B you’ve ever been to: cheery, spare, immaculate. I had a four-poster bed, a bathtub, and a little wicker desk that sat at a window overlooking the courtyard. For two weeks, this place was home.

I went with a clear goal: 60 pages. It was, at the time, ambitious—I’d worked almost three years to get 100 pages—but if all I had was time and I was losing money, essentially, by being there, I had to make it worthwhile. And guess what? I did it. Easily. I woke when I wanted (usually late). I ate when I wanted (usually alone, although sometimes with the other residents). I walked the streets and imagined the lives of the people who owned the stunning, but somehow not entirely ostentatious clapboard houses. I biked to the beach and sat with a notebook, scribbling dialogue and scene ideas and character notes, then sat at the bar by the Edgartown docks, slurping oysters from the same beach I’d just left.

I didn’t finish the book there, but I got close. That December, I bailed on Christmas with my in-laws and finished it alone over the New Year. I got an agent in July and sold it in a two-book deal the next February.

Over the next three years, I went back three more times. I started my second and third novels there. I encountered all kinds of people on the island: I humored a white-haired part-time resident who complained over martinis that “those people” at Occupy Wall Street shouldn’t be protesting the banks, they should be protesting Obama; I embarrassed a bartender by recognizing her from a painfully lowbrow reality show; I drank with Twyla Tharp’s sister, and I was constantly asked if I was related to Arlene Dahl, a beloved resident of the island. (I’m not.)

Over the years, the residency morphed into the Noepe Center for the Arts, and hosted artists of all kinds, including Junot Diaz, Charles Blow, and Billy Collins. It was a community center. A culinary center. An incubator and a sanctuary.

What was so wonderful about the Martha’s Vineyard residency was that it was utterly unscheduled. Justen Ahren, the local poet who created the program, held fast to the motto of the residency: Time. Space. Create. There were no command performances. He and his charming, generous wife and children came to the inn for occasional dinners and informal readings, but if you were on a roll in your room, no one felt slighted if you stayed holed up. A father and landscape architect, Justen knows intimately how precious writing time is. All he wanted was for you to be productive in whatever way you measured productivity.

For me, the goal was always pages, but some people explored the island, using the time to clear their heads. Some people got drunk every night. Some people dove into the community, creating connections that led to jobs and even permanent homes. One woman stayed in her room so entirely I didn’t even meet her until more than a week into my stay. (I imagined a whole narrative about her being murdered and no one knowing until she started to smell. What do you want from me, I’m a mystery novelist!)

I started my latest novel, Conviction, in Room 6 less than a month after finding out I was pregnant. It was a strange few weeks. I knew my life was going to change, but I didn’t know how. I also knew that it would likely be a very long time before I could come back to the Point Way Inn. Mothers of babies don’t just take two weeks off. I didn’t produce quite as many pages this time, and each walk I took, each time I sat on the dock and watched the little ferry scoot to Chappaqua, was tinged with sadness.

In November 2015, I gave birth to a beautiful, rambunctious little boy. Those first six months were so all-consuming I couldn’t imagine ever being able to extricate myself for another residency, but this February, when my boy turned 15 months, my husband and I decided we could each handle single parenthood for a week: I got a week on the Vineyard and he got a 7-day motorcycle trip.

I emailed Justen and set it up. It felt like a weight lifted. I’d written significant portions of all three of my books in Edgartown and I felt like I needed Room 6. Knowing that I’d have it, even six months away, steadied me.

And then, about two weeks later, I got an email from Justen telling me that the woman who owned the inn where the residency was housed had sold the property, and the whole decade-long experiment was over.

I’m not going to lie: I’m still in denial. I can’t imagine never biking to Katama again. I can’t imagine not sitting around the inn’s big dining table with my fellow authors (too many to name, and many you’ve heard of), drinking wine and eating local mussels and chatting about the writing life and its thrills and miseries.

But mostly, I can’t imagine never sitting at that wicker desk again, with a mug of coffee, a half-eaten plate of fruit and cheese, maybe a beer, my mind entirely on my work for as long as I want. Justen has said he will try to find another space for the residency, but for now, I’m grieving, and searching for another way to find that time and space to create.

Julia Dahl is the author of the Rebekah Roberts novels, the latest of which, Conviction, comes out this week. Julia writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com.

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How Does the "Justice System" Work for You?

Monday, March 27, 2017 | Permalink

Julia Dahl is the author of the Rebekah Roberts novels, the latest of which, Conviction, comes out this week. Julia is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

It probably won't surprise you to learn that I've never been arrested. It probably won't even surprise you to learn that for the first two decades of my life I'd never known anyone who'd been arrested, either. Likely, you can same the same thing. But not having to personally contend with the justice system doesn't mean I've been an angel. It just means I've been lucky—or, maybe more accurately, privileged.

In high school, I had friends who sold drugs. One guy I hung out with carried a wooden box with mushrooms and pot and coke in it almost everywhere he went—including school— in a duffle bag. And during my senior year, I got caught smoking pot with some friends in a hotel room in Bakersfield while we were in town for a debate tournament (no, I’m not kidding). We got suspended, but, as far as I know, no one even considered calling the police.

Was it because it was 1994? Was it because most of us were good kids otherwise? Was it because we were white? Some combination? I won’t ever know. What I do know is that I was—we were—very lucky. But I barely felt lucky. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to be afraid of the justice system. Obviously, the police were to be avoided when smoking pot, but otherwise they were your friends. The courts, the prisons—they were distant entities, but generally, if you had asked back then, I would have said they kept the “bad guys” away.

And the “bad guys” I had knowledge of were undoubtedly bad. My freshman year in high school, a wealthy local family was murdered in their home. Mom, dad, sister all shot to death over Easter weekend. Turns out, the college-age son, Dana Ewell, hired a classmate to murder them, apparently, for the family’s $8 million fortune.

It took police a while to flip the gunman, as I remember, and before the son was arrested he came to see my dad, who was a local estate attorney, to inquire about representation. My dad and his firm didn’t take him on, and a few years later, when the Ewell murders came up in conversation, my dad got quiet. Without revealing anything about what was said, he told us that when Dana Ewell came to see him, he immediately became frightened.

“It was like cold walked into the room,” said my dad. “He had shark eyes—dead and black.”

With Dana Ewell, “the system” had done its job and justice, as far as that goes, was served. I figured pretty much everyone in prison was probably like Dana: dangerous and unfit to live among us. At the very least they were guilty.

It didn’t occur to me that “the system” might not work as well for everyone until I met Tyeisha Martin in 2004. Tyeisha was 19 years old and had lived her whole life in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. When the hurricane came she lost her home and was separated from her child. I met her at a church in Henry County, Georgia, where I was living at the time. She and several hundred “refugees” had been bused there and were awaiting federal assistance to get in touch with family and find new places to live.

Long story short, my editor at Seventeen magazine knew I was in the South and asked me to find a teenager who’d survived the hurricane to profile for the next issue. I found Tyeisha. After a couple days together, I dropped her off at the bus station in Atlanta in August, and the next March her sister, Quiana, called to tell me Tyeisha had been murdered. Shot and left in a ditch in Fort Bend County. Her daughter, Quiana said, might have seen it.

Twelve years later, there is no justice for Tyeisha and her family, and the only real attention the case got was because of my Seventeen article. Quiana and I communicate occasionally. She sends me pictures of Daniesha before a school dance, or at birthdays; I sent her a picture when I gave birth to my son.

Tyeisha’s death invited me to look under the hood of the justice system, and what I found there was often disquieting. Suddenly I learned things like the fact that if you are murdered in this country there is good chance that whoever killed you will never see the inside of a prison cell. One-third of homicide cases are never cleared—and even “clearance” doesn’t mean someone gets convicted and incarcerated. Clearance means an arrest, or the suspect is identified but unable to be arrested for some reason.

And it’s not just homicide. Look too close at the way sexual assault is investigated and prosecuted (or, more often, not investigated or prosecuted) and you’ll see a system that too often intimidates and traumatizes victims while letting evidence languish and perpetrators reoffend. Look at who gets convicted of low-level drug crimes, and at how youthful mistakes can burden certain segments of our society and leave others (like mine) unscathed.

All this was in my head when I started writing my latest novel, Conviction. Every few weeks, it seemed, I was reading about (mostly) black men being exonerated after serving decades in prison for crimes we now know they did not commit. Can you even imagine? What more egregious miscarriage of justice than you imprison the wrong person for a murder? And what sort of machinations could create such a circumstance? I decided I needed to try to imagine it.

Julia Dahl writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com.

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Julia Dahl's Reading List for Writing an Ultra-Orthodox Mystery Novel

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 | Permalink

This week, Julia Dahl—the author of Invisible City, available in paperback today blogs for The Postscript on her recommended reads for exploring the world of her novel.

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

As a Reform Jew growing up in Fresno, Calif., I had no exposure to the world of the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox. It wasn’t until moving to New York City in 1999 that I even realized so-called “black hat” Jews existed in the United States. I was fascinated by the idea that the men and women I saw on the subway wearing peyos and sheitels were Jewish, like me, and yet so unlike me. That fascination turned to curiosityand when writers get curious, we write.

But before I began writing, I began reading. Below are recommendations for books, articles and radio reports that helped me research my first novel, Invisible City, and its upcoming sequel, Run You Down. I hope they deepen your enjoyment of my books, spur discussion, and contribute to better understanding your fellow Jews.

The first book I read about this community was Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella Winston, an intrepid, award-winning journalist and sociologist. The book tells the stories of several men and women trying to leave their cloistered world. It is full of funny, strange, and heartbreaking details about people living inside America’s great melting pot and struggling to understand the non-Jewish world around them.

I also recommend the novel, Hush. Originally published under the pen name Eishes Chayil (which translates to a Woman of Valor), the author was later revealed to be a woman from Brooklyn named Judy Brown. Brown based the book on her childhood in Borough Park and the death of a close friend.

Last year, The New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv investigated the aftermath of an ugly sexual abuse trial in Borough Park—and the injustice that befell the man who pushed for a conviction.

The New York Times recently published two interesting articles about the haredi. The first is a profile of a sex therapist who counsels ultra-Orthodox women (one telling quote: “We have an intake form to fill out, and they get to ‘orgasm’ and go to the receptionist and ask, ‘What is this?'”); the second focuses on haredi men who make their living begging in Lakewood, New Jersey.

This investigation into substandard education at some Brooklyn yeshivas by Sonja Sharp of DNA Info tackles the thorny issue of how the state regulates—or fails to regulate—religious education.

As more haredi move from liberal, diverse New York City to the rural and suburban counties outside the city, the tension created by their large families, private yeshivas, and apparent lack of interest in forming meaningful connection with their new neighbors, is causing great distress. New York Magazine’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells reports.

A compliment to Wallace-Wells’s reporting is this 2014 episode from public radio’s This American Life, which focuses on the battle between the haredim and their neighbors over control of the East Ramapo School District.

I recommend two articles related to the issue of parents leaving the ultra-Orthodox and subsequently losing custody of (and connection with) their children. This 2008 New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson and this essay by Shulem Deen in Tablet. Deen is the editor of Unpious.com and the author of the must-read upcoming memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (out March 23 from Greywolf Press).

I also recommend reading almost anything by Frimet Goldberger, a writer who frequently contributes to the Jewish Daily Forward. Goldberger was raised in the strict Satmar Hasidic community of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, N.Y., and she writes about her attempts to live a more modern – but still Jewish – life. The columns on learning to drive and the anniversary of the last time she shaved her head are particularly interesting.

Finally, I recommend this report from WNYC’s Arun Venugopal, which reveals an interesting upside to life in a homogeneous community like Borough Park: an honor system that allows financially strapped members of the community to bring home groceries without having to pay immediately.

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“Are You Jewish?”

Friday, May 09, 2014 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Julia Dahl wrote about when inspiration finds you in unexpected places and explained why she writes about crime. Her debut novel, Invisible City (Minotaur Books), is now available. She has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

Yes. But it’s complicated.

My mother is Jewish, which, as my grandmother used to tell me, means that the Nazis would have come for me, too. My dad, on the other hand, is Christian. And not just a Christmas Christian, he is a church-going Christian; a Christian who left his career as a lawyer to be ordained when he was 55. A Christian who wears a cross around his neck. My sister and I grew up “both.”

Let me explain.

My mother is a proud Jew, from a family of Southern Jews for whom Judaism was their primary identity. My grandparents went to temple almost every Friday night of their lives. My grandmother used to tell me that that’s what their group would do as teens in the 1930s in Nashville: temple, then out for a movie. My great-grandfather was a prominent Zionist. He ate with Golda Meir and gave jobs to hundreds of European refugees at his hosiery mill during World War II.

Then, in 1972, my mom married my dad, and my great-grandfather sat shiva for her. She had grown up in his home and she never saw him again. The wedding was small; immediate family were the only ones on either side who showed up. Everyone else was too angry and anxious. Neither is converting? What will the kids be? Confused!

But guess what? We weren’t confused. The message my parents sent my sister and I was about faith in God, about love and kindness and about the power of tradition. Although the rest was important to them – my dad takes communion every week, and my mother never misses her parents’ yahrzeits – the differences, from a child’s perspective at least, were basically unimportant. Was Jesus the messiah? That was the divergence as I saw it. But why focus on that one thing when pretty much everything else seemed essentially the same? Love God, love your fellow man. Seek justice, be honest, do good.

As a child and adolescent, it was relatively easy to move between the two faiths, and I found myself taking on the role of contrarian. I never felt more Jewish than with Christian friends. When people asked me what religion I was I’d say both, although the idea was always for me to choose once I “grew up.” For my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a gold necklace with two pendants on it: a Star of David and a simple cross. They said I could wear them however I wanted to and I chose to wear them together, but it didn’t sit well with people. Everyone seemed offended, or confused. I stopped wearing the necklace at all after a few months.

As the years went by, I came to understand that I didn’t need to mark myself. I went to Hebrew summer school as a child and Sunday school at my dad’s church as an adolescent. My sister had a bat mitzvah, but I did not. Sometimes we accompanied my grandparents to Friday services. The whole family celebrated the High Holy Days, Passover, Easter, Christmas and Hanukkah.

As an adult, I have always identified as Jewish. As my grandmother said, “We need more good Jews.” And, how can I say it, I feel Jewish. You can choose Christianity, but Judaism chooses you, and that means something to me.

Being a Jew, for me, now, is about claiming the joys and burdens of a tribe of people I respect. Even growing up in the 1980s, the Holocaust was very present in my home. My grandmother told me stories about her cousins, European Jews who were barely observant, who considered themselves Frenchmen or Germans, but who were forced to announce themselves as Jews and be killed for it. Would you stand up and announce yourself? was the implicit question. And the answer, for me, was always yes.

Julia Dahl writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com. She was born and raised in Fresno, Calif. and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. Read more about her here.

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The Previous Tenant

Wednesday, May 07, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Julia Dahl explained why she writes about crime. Her debut novel, Invisible City (Minotaur Books), is now available. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

In October 2007, my husband and I were looking for an apartment in Brooklyn. We’d seen too many to count and none worth the price, so when a one-bedroom just off Prospect Park popped up for $1200 we jumped. On the way to the appointment, the broker gave us the news: The man who lived in the apartment until last month had committed suicide there.

We took it anyway and when I went to sign the lease at the landlord’s office in Borough Park, I could tell he was pleased to have unloaded the apartment.

“He was a very sick man,” said the landlord. “He stopped taking his medication. His family was devastated.”

After about a week, the woman in the apartment next door came to introduce herself. I asked if she knew the man who’d lived here and she said yes.

“His name was David,” she said. “He was a teacher. And he was really nice.”

I told her what the landlord said about him, and she had a different story.

“He was Hasidic,” she said. “And he was gay. His family abandoned him.”

Then she peered into the apartment and said: “They did a good job of cleaning it up.”

The first piece of mail addressed to him arrived about a month later. It was a post card from Spain. Judging by the handwriting, the note was from a woman. More letters arrived over the next few months: a flyer with a photograph of a man in lipstick advertising a performance in the Greenwich Village; something official from the Teacher’s Retirement System; a check-up reminder from the local hospital.

I didn’t open any of the letters, but I kept all the mail in a folder in my desk. As a reform Jew who grew up in Central California, I had only recently realized that communities of ultra-Orthodox even existed in the U.S., and, I have to admit, the people who lived in this world fascinated me. I saw them on the train, dressed in clothing that seemed from another time; clothing that separated them, that screamed, I am Jewish.

I started to read about their community, and the more I read, the more I wanted to know David. I listened for him, but never saw signs of a ghost. For a while I toyed with the idea of tracking down his family and bringing them the thick folder of mail. But I realized that that would be an exercise in selfishness. If they hadn’t wanted to hear from him, they certainly wouldn’t want to hear from me.

So, because I could only imagine him, I did what writers do when we get curious: I started to write about him. Well, not him exactly (although you’ll find a reference to him in my novel, Invisible City), but the world he came from.

And I still have his unopened mail.

Julia Dahl writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com. She was born and raised in Fresno, Calif. and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. Read more about her here.

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Why I Write About Crime

Monday, May 05, 2014 | Permalink

Julia Dahl writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com. She was born and raised in Fresno, Calif. and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. Her debut novel, Invisible City (Minotaur Books), will be published on May 6th. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For the past 10 years I have devoted my professional life – and my imagination – to things most people would rather not think about. I have written about teenagers stabbing their parents to death; about rapists gone unpunished; about the high rate of suicide among police officers and soldiers; about mass shootings and children gone missing and bodies unidentified for years.

Sometimes, people ask me why this is the path – or in journalism-speak, the “beat” – I’ve chosen. Usually, I shrug and smile and say something to end the conversation: “I guess I must be missing a chip.”

But the truth is more complicated.

As Jews, we learn about evil early. The Holocaust is personal. We hear the stories and we know that if we had been born just a little earlier, in the place where our grandparents lived, we too would have been the victims of this great crime. And as a potential victim, I couldn’t help but think: who are the people who did this? Why? What did it feel like to be pushed onto a train at gunpoint? How did all those Nazi officers, born human just like me, turn into killing machines? We’ll never really know, I suppose, but as I grew up, they were questions that gnawed at me.

And then, my freshman year in college I took a course called “Suffering and Salvation.” The primary focus of the semester was to examine this question: How can God exist, and be both good and all-powerful, with so much evil in the world? We read St. Augustine and the Book of Job; Letters from a Birmingham Jail, Albert Camus, William Styron and Elie Wiesel.

One day in class, the professor screened a series of films depicting the death camps. I’d never seen such graphic images: naked, skeletal bodies being carted on wheelbarrows to mass graves. Piles of people in shower rooms built for murder. It was harrowing, but the professor challenged us not to look away. If they had to endure it, she said, the least you can do is bear witness.

As a crime reporter, I bear witness to a lot of evil. And not just the things that are easy to point to and call evil. I see evil in the system that imprisons and executes innocent people too poor to afford decent counsel; evil in the teenagers locked in solitary confinement; evil in the thousands of rape kits languishing in police storage across the country; evil in the hate-filled man who takes a gun to Jewish institutions and guns down three people.

Crime is what we call the evil we do to each other. This evil must be witnessed, and it must be chronicled. We must be made to see the ugliness in ourselves. As John Steinbeck so perfectly put it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: "The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement."

Read more about Julia Dahl here.

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