The ProsenPeople

Younger Than That Now

Thursday, June 20, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Kathy Ebel wrote about her German-Jewish family and Nice Jewish Girl protagonists from New York City. Her first novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Memorial Day, 2007. I’ve drifted away from a Santa Monica beach party to gaze out at the Pacific Ocean, plus my navel, when an unfamiliar woman approaches. We chat a bit—she’s a literary agent based in New York, the sister of the hostess—and then she asks the dreaded question. “So…what are you working on these days?” I pause to consider before answering. You know when people say to cute, charismatic single women, “You’re so fabulous—I just can’t believe you’re single!” and they want to punch them in the face and then kill themselves? This was a work version of that.

You see, I’ve been living in Los Angeles for seven years, having left my native New York City to seek my fortune as a screenwriter with a soap opera credit and a fresh pile of TV spec scripts in my kit bag, but the steady ascent I’ve pictured, and that I’ve seen other people achieve, hasn’t happened. I’ve been working so damn hard for so long and I feel like I’m nowhere, other than crushed. How could that be, when I’ve done everything I’ve seen other people doing—and what my various agents have told me to do?

I mean: I got a driver’s license at age 30 in order to drive cross-country in a U-Haul piled with whatever possessions my husband and I didn’t sell when we left Brooklyn. I sat in a rented house in the Hollywood Dell with a vintage metal desk and a pristine view of a walled garden that gave me a squirrely Barton Fink feeling, and I cranked out material and rolled calls. I got a job on a show—the researcher on Law&Order:SVU in its first season—and I wrote two freelance episodes…but I wasn’t put on staff. I re-wrote a teen comedy feature for Paramount…but my broadly comic take was poorly received. I sold a TV dramedy pilot, a high school musical…but the executives involved walked away when I’d banked they’d burst into song. Eventually, motivated by the stretches of unemployment between these gigs, I developed a freelance sideline, writing copy for entertainment-based ad campaigns. And then, just weeks before the beach party at which I’m now a wallflower, a literary manager who’s read what I thought were my best scripts delivers a disturbing critique. “Your work is solid,” she says. “It’s well written and it proves you can do it. But I can’t do anything with it, because it’s generic. I would be interested in working with you, but first I’d need to see material that only you could write. Write some new stuff this summer and send it over after Labor Day.” Generic? New stuff? Sounds like me? Fecch.

Beach Party Book Agent is staring at me. I repeat her question. “What am I working on these days?” Then: “I actually have no idea.” She kindly offers to read anything I write, if I’d ever care to send it along. I thank her politely and turn back to my doubtful view of the horizon. Whatever the fuck that would be, I think to myself.Then I kick some sand.

A few weeks later, when I sit down at my desk, I’m surprised by what comes out. Not a TV pilot in the vein of somebody else’s hit cable series, or a high-concept romantic comedy involving an action sequence and a makeover montage to which Reese Witherspoon may want to attach. It’s a short story, with a title inspired by Morrissey (Hold On To Your Friends) and a main character named Claudia Silver, in which Claudia is visited by the ghost of an estranged friendship. I haven’t written one of these puppies in close to 15 years.

Back then, at Barnard College, I pursued a double major in English literature and creative writing. My tumultuous upbringing, marked by most of the foibles of the 1970’s along the sex, drugs, and divorce axis, drove me not just to succeed, but to survive. I dreamed of becoming a novelist, but, as I neared graduation, my dream seemed ever more unlikely and irresponsible. How dare I think I could possibly make a living doing what I love? So, following the lead of college friends who headed for film or drama schools or straight to Hollywood, I told myself I would achieve a lucrative screenwriting career. Someday, around the age of (gasp) 40, having acquired a hefty pile of credits, cash, and prizes, and achieving the security I had never known, I would reward myself by allowing myself to write novels. Having honed this world view as an insecure 19-year-old, I lugged it with me for the next two decades.

Labor Day, 2007. The summer has passed, and I’ve written three stories, all about the same character: Claudia Silver, a 24-year-old maybe not-so-Nice Jewish Girl from Brooklyn prone to personal drama. The manager who judged my scripts “generic” months before calls me a few weeks later. “These are great!” she exclaims. “You need a literary agent.” I remember the conversation I’d had at the beach party months before. When I tell the manager about it, she’s silent for a beat. Then, somewhat astounded, she reveals that the woman I’d met is a hugely respected heavy-hitter in the book business, known for her taste and influence. “She may not respond,” the manager warns, “but you should go for it.”

I send Big Deal Beach Party Book Agent my stories, and she gives me the greatest compliment of my entire career. “You,” she says, “are hot shit.” She tells me that what I must do next is write a novel, and if I do, she will sell it. It takes me yet another year and half to turn the ship around. In that time, as fate has it, I finally land a staff writer position, on the CBS cop show Cold Case, where I work hard and make great friends, but am not very good at my job. In the writers’ room, while everybody else is hotly debating the placement of DNA evidence, all I can think is: “The victim’s in a Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress, with a navy and red geometric print.” When I’m not asked back to the show, I’m finally ready to stop trying so hard.

I part ways with my TV agents and sign with Big Deal Beach Party Book Agent. I land a day job in entertainment advertising, begin a 40-hour corporate work week, and start rising at 4AM in order to write Claudia Silver to the Rescue. I liberally apply my TV experience to my fiction writing. I structure the tangled web of my book’s heavily populated plot as a detailed outline, from which I write closely. I end every section of the story with an “act out”—wanting my audience to come back after the commercial break. I “cast” my ensemble of characters with the perfect actors for the parts and block the scenes in my mind, and I select design elements with maniacal exactitude and endlessly move them around. As I write, I also find inspiration in shows that I experience as novels unspooling on the screen: The Sopranos, The Wire, and the one I can’t live without, Mad Men.

As for the backwards world view I’d been carrying on my back for two decades, the one that said I must delay what I love to write until I’ve earned the right? I finally put it down. Man, was it heavy. What am I working on these days? My next novel.

It’s about a television show.

Kathy Ebel, a first-generation American, was born in Manhattan. Her blog, Fatherland: There’s No Place Like Home, or How and Why a Nice Jewish Girl Asked Germany to Take Her Back, chronicles her quest to have her German citizenship restored. Kathy considers Brooklyn her hometown and currently lives with her family in Los Angeles. Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is her first novel.

When You’re A Jet You Stay A Jet

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Kathy Ebel wrote about Nice Jewish Girl protagonists from New York City. Her first novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“Ashkenazi.” “Sephardic.” As a kid, wandering around the kiddish reception at our shul collecting cellophane ruffle-topped toothpicks in a plastic cup, I heard these terms bandied far above my head by adults and had no idea what they meant. Were these languages? Politicians? Street gangs, like in West Side Story? As a first-generation American and the daughter of German-Jewish refugees, I was pretty sure these mysterious terms didn’t have anything to do with me. We were Jews who kept kosher and went to shul, but we didn’t eat or do the things that seemed officially Jewy, like, Fiddler on the Roof-Jewy. My single mother didn’t bake kugel, or encircle the flames of the Shabbat candles with her hands when she made her brachot, or bobby pin a white nylon doily to the back of her head for services (nor would she have dreamed of wearing a kippah like some of her friends from her Consciousness Raising group). My mother used no Yiddishims in her speech, other than “shul” and “schlep” and, while cursing other drivers, “schmuck.” I wasn’t sent to Jewish sleepaway camp to meet my future spouse or bridesmaids or employers. And on Christmas Day, we did not go to the movies or eat Chinese food.

What I did know, always, was that we were German, from old families. We ate our pizza with a knife and fork. We liked marzipan, in whimsical shapes like fried eggs and, yes, piglets. We wore pinky rings stamped with a family crest based on the corporate logo of my industrialist ancestors’ metals business. We kept glass bottles of 4711 eau de cologne in the bathroom. Phrases like “yeah” and “okay” were frowned upon.

Somehow, I had always known the name of the enormous limestone home my paternal grandfather owned in Antwerp, where his own business was based: it was “the Rue Rembrandt,” where my grandparents lived as newlyweds among my grandmother’s extended family, several of whom, so deeply ensconced in their enclosed world of privilege, fatefully delayed their own departures from Europe and were murdered during the Shoah. As a little kid in the 1970’s, I had no real idea what this all meant, but a deeper idea was communicated. We were not entirely American, not entirely home, and needed to keep our ties to the past alive, because that’s where our impeccable pedigree – and our ghosts – were housed.

My beloved grandmother, whom we all called Moumie, was a woman of great style, in the tradition of a certain kind of tailored European lady. She had returned to Europe after the War. She wore shirtwaist dresses and low-heeled pumps, with a well-tied silk scarf and a leather purse held in the crook of her arm. She had a knack for arranging flowers, wrapping gifts, dashing off delightful note cards, and hosting simple, elegant afternoon teas. She lived in The Hague, and came to visit once a year, at Pesach. One afternoon, it occurred to me that she might possess the answer to the question burning in my mind.

“Moumie,” I asked her. “What’s the difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic?”

“Ah,” she replied, with a sage nod, as though she had been waiting for this one. Her expression, as it often did, drifted into an elegant reverie. “In the Rue Rembrandt, our housekeeper was Ashkenazi.”

Many years later, when crafting the character of Claudia Silver in my debut novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue, I dug in to my experiences of class, race and history. The perceptions and inner life of the character of Edith Mendelssohn, Claudia’s indomitable mother, are shaped by her refugee experiences and the grip of memory. Claudia, meanwhile, is coming of age in a housing project neighborhood in Brooklyn on the cusp of gentrification in the late 1980’s. Claudia is tuned in to the tension and the cross-pollination that rising property values in her neighborhood bring. And she is simultaneously imprinted by a tragic family history from which she is one generation removed. Claudia’s responsibility, like it or not – and mine – is to stay engaged with that history. When it comes to the recent disasters of our civilization – American slavery and the Holocaust among them – one generation removed is not much time at all.

Many years after my Grandmother didn’t explain what Ashkenazi meant, I laughingly re-told this story to my friend Dov during a kiddish lunch at IKAR, our Los Angeles shul. He’s Israeli.

“Ah-ha!” he exclaimed. “So you’re a Yekke!”

“A Yekke? What’s that?” I asked, never having heard that one before.

“A snob,” he replied.

Kathy Ebel, a first-generation American, was born in Manhattan. Her blog, Fatherland: There’s No Place Like Home, or How and Why a Nice Jewish Girl Asked Germany to Take Her Back, chronicles her quest to have her German citizenship restored. Kathy considers Brooklyn her hometown and currently lives with her family in Los Angeles. Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is her first novel.

Nice Jewish Girls Finish Whole

Monday, June 17, 2013 | Permalink
Kathy Ebel, a first-generation American, was born in Manhattan. Her blog, Fatherland: There’s No Place Like Home, or How and Why a Nice Jewish Girl Asked Germany to Take Her Back, chronicles her quest to have her German citizenship restored. Kathy considers Brooklyn her hometown and currently lives with her family in Los Angeles. Claudia Silver to the Rescue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is her first novel. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I think of Claudia Silver, the eponymous heroine of my debut novel, Claudia Silver to the Rescue, as one in an anxious, spirited line of Nice Jewish Girl protagonists from New York City. This lineage starts with Lily Bart, Edith Wharton’s A-list flibbertigibbet in The House of Mirth, then moves on to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (who put up with that scoundrel Noel Airman’s hijinks for about 100 riveting pages too long), Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine (if only 30 had been the new 20 in 1972), Erica Jong’s Isadora Wing, and Melissa Bank’s Jane Rosenal. Yes, I know that Lily Bart wasn’t Jewish. But if only she’d married Simon Rosedale! (Sob! Gnashing of teeth! She could’ve given him a make-under!)

Claudia Silver possesses some key traits that connect her to her literary sisters. She’s got a loud speaking voice and wobbly self-worth, she finds comfort in self-destructive habits and relationships, and she’s paralyzed by her own ambivalence. She’s helpful and selfish, fierce and vulnerable. She’s got a keen sense of class and caste, ranking herself ruthlessly in any given social situation. She knows how to dance, and how to accessorize. But unlike Lily and Marjorie, whom I adore, but let’s face it, whether it’s in the back of a hat shop or lower Westchester, they both die from denial, Claudia wakes up. And she does so along a particularly Jewish continuum.

It’s when Claudia hears her ill-fated soon-to-be-paramour, Paul Tate, recite the shehecheyanu prayer as grace over an assimilated Christmas dinner, that her interest in him shifts, fatefully. Once Claudia’s actions cause a multi-family train-wreck, she becomes aware that she has one chance to make it right – and that’s to undertake “teshuvah” – the humble pursuit of repentance. Now, I don’t know how the Rambam or Rav Kook or even my own Los Angeles rabbi, Sharon Brous, would define teshuvah. (Personally, I plucked my definition from the low hanging branch on the tree of knowledge known as Wikipedia.) But Claudia acknowledges her profound misdeed with humility, fesses up, will remember this one for the rest of her life, and even though there’s no sequel in the works, I promise you, dear reader, that she will refrain from committing this one in the future. In fact, once Claudia Silver accounts for her actions, she’s propelled forward to growth and emotional maturity. She marches straight into a possibly dangerous social event and yanks her younger sister free of it, apologizes sincerely to the Nice Jewish Boy Who Was There All Along and gets her love life on track, and even reunites with mother despite a dug-in estrangement. And none of this could have happened if Claudia hadn’t made the worst mistake of her life.

It’s my firm belief and my personal experience that patterns run through families faster than we can usually stop them, which is why we need both spiritual practice and literature – so that a wisdom greater than our own can escort us, lovingly, to awareness and eventually, to change. And it’s my opinion that Lily and Marjorie made huge freakin’ mistakes. Do I need to tell you that if Marjorie Morningstar had understood what Wally Wronken truly had to offer, she might’ve been at the TONY Awards last week in Calvin Klein? Possibly with Calvin Klein? Given her lineage, Claudia was powerfully teed up to repeat history. But having read her Wharton and her Wouk, she, through me, made a different choice. And as a result, the biggest mistake Claudia Silver ever made is the best thing that ever happened to her.

Find out more about Kathy Ebel and Claudia Silver to the Rescue here.