The ProsenPeople

Tightening the Narrative

Thursday, May 21, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Letty Cottin Pogrebin ​shared three passage​s​ that didn't make it into her just-published novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate​. She also explained why she chose to excise each scene—one because of a chronological error that affected the action, ​one involving tropical fish​ ​that ultimately struck the author as implausible, and one because ​she ​​felt it was more polemical than literary. T​oday, ​she offers the fourth and final installment in her Jewish Book Council Visiting Scribe series​ that pulls back the curtain on a writer's self-editing process.​

In this final installment of Stuff Left Out of my novel, I’ll share a scene that was cut simply to speed up the pace and tighten the narrative. Though ultimately dropped, I liked what it revealed about the relationship between Zach, the protagonist of Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, and Cleo, the African-American woman he loves. This action takes place in the Eighties at Zach’s Harvard Law School reunion.

About half his classmates had come back to Cambridge for the weekend and Cleo got along well with all of them until Saturday night when, at the alumni dinner, she ended up at a long table seated between Archie Minton and Matt Bradley, Zach's former schoolmates but not men he'd considered friends. He sat diagonally across from Cleo, close enough to hear Archie, obviously in his cups, propose a toast to Nelson Mandela.

Cleo gave the man a quizzical look but raised her glass. “Sure, Archie, I’ll drink to Madiba anytime,” she said, using Mandela’s clan name, a sign of respect.

They clinked glasses. “He’s your people’s last chance, wouldn’t you say?” Archie asked, slurring his consonants.

Cleo turned to stone. “What people would you be referring to?”

“Africans. Can’t handle independence, any of ‘em.”

“Excuse me?” Cleo shot Zach a fierce frown.

He shrugged, as if to say, what a jerk, though his first impulse was to jump in and defend her. However, remembering how annoyed she was after he intervened on her behalf during a dustup at a meeting of the Black-Jewish Coalition, he made himself hold back and just kept his eyes on her glaring face while Archie jabbered on about the abysmal failure of African leaders, the corruption and mass murders in Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola, Rwanda, and Burundi, and how much better off black people were under white colonial rule.

When she finally spoke, Cleo, didn’t so much increase the volume of her voice as whittle its round edges to a point. “Are you suggesting that corruption and genocide are African inventions? If so, I have two words for you: Hitler. Stalin.

Archie Minton, momentarily stifled, picked up his stirrer and started playing tic-tac-toe on the tablecloth. The other man, Matt Bradley, was quick to dive into the breach. “Yeah, but for every Hitler, we had a Roosevelt, for every Stalin a Churchill, for every dictator, a Lincoln. Who’s your Lincoln, Cleo?”

Lincoln is my Lincoln, you asshole!”

“Don’t raise your voice at me, sister.” Matt shot his cuffs out of his sleeves as if raring for a fight. “I’ll have you know my people fought the Civil War to free your people. I have ancestors who gave their lives for the Union.”

Cleo threw her napkin at Matt. “I won’t be spoken to as if I’m an ungrateful slave!” Grabbing her purse, and without a backwards glance, she stormed out of the banquet hall. Zach ran after her but she wouldn’t let him touch her and he couldn’t get a word out of her until they reached their hotel room where she immediately began flinging her clothes into her suitcase.

“I can’t believe you let those racist boors humiliate me. How could you sit there like it wasn’t happening? Why didn’t you rescue me?”

“Wait a minute, Cleo. You were pissed when I intervened at the Black-Jewish Coalition. You’ve had far bigger boors on your talk show and you dispatched them like Wonder Woman. I thought you wanted to handle them yourself."

“You have no idea what I want, Zach!”

She flew back to New York that night on the last shuttle. Zach, having committed to speak on a civil rights panel at lunch the next day, wasn’t able to leave until Sunday afternoon. In the cab to the city from LaGuardia, he had the driver make two stops on the East Side so he could buy a bunch of African daisies and a bottle of South African wine before continuing cross-town to Cleo’s place.

“I’ve heard your continent produces lousy leaders, but great chardonnay,” Zach teased, when she opened the door. He bowed deeply. “You were right about last night, Sweetheart. Please forgive me.” He ducked into her tiny kitchen and brought out a corkscrew and a couple of wine glasses.

“If I’d been the only Jew at a table full of black people and a couple of jerks started browbeating me about Israel, I’m sure you would have rescued me.”

Cleo arranged the daisies in a vase, accepted the glass of wine, and eked out a grin. “Really? What makes you so sure?”

All this week, I’ve pulled back the curtain on one writer’s process of pruning a work of fiction into shape. I hope you’ve been sufficiently intrigued by the scenes I left out of the novel to want to read the finished book and see what I left in.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books. Read more about her here. Or meet her at the CUNY Graduate Center, Fifth Avenue & 34th Street, NYC, Monday June 1st from 6:30-8:30 when​ she will be in conversation with Marcia Gillespie, the ​legendary former editor-in-chief of Essence and Ms. ​Letty & Marcia will be ​talking​ about the power of legacy, race, gender, feminism, the impact of inherited trauma, and other issues that play out among the characters in Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. RSVP for the event here.

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On Writing about Black-Jewish Relations in a Novel

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 | Permalink
​​On Monday and Tuesday this week, Letty Cottin Pogrebin ​shared two passage​s​ that didn't make it into her just-published novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate​. She also explained why she chose to excise each scene—one because of a chronological error that affected the action, ​and one involving tropical fish​ ​that ultimately struck the author as implausible. T​oday, ​she offers the third installment in her Jewish Book Council Visiting Scribe series​ that pulls back the curtain on a writer's self-editing process.​

In ​order to understand my decision in context, you need to know that in ​my new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, Zach Levy, an ACLU lawyer and the son of Holocaust survivors, is on a mission to fulfill his promise to his dying mother that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children. However things get complicated when​ one day, at the founding conference of the Black-Jewish Coalition of New York, Zach meets and falls in love with Cleo Scott, an African-American talk show host. As the old saying goes, “Man plans, God laughs.”

The relationship between Zach and Cleo unspools in the foreground of the larger relationship between the black and Jewish communities in New York. Rising tensions reached a boiling point during the 1984 Presidential campaign after Jesse Jackson famously called the city “Hymietown,” and a Jewish businessman retaliated with a full-page ad in The Times that excoriated the black Democratic candidate and insisted “a Jew would have to be crazy to vote for Jackson.”

Having lived through that volatile period and participated in two different black-Jewish dialogue groups (one of which met monthly for ten years), I have strong opinions on the subject of black-Jewish relations, not all of which surfaced in my final manuscript. For instance, this passage:

Zach could well understand why “Hymietown” might offend Jewish ears; surely blacks would be similarly affronted if a white candidate called the city “Coontown.” But unlike many of his fellow Jews, he did not believe Jackson’s use of the term proved the candidate an irredeemable anti-Semite. By the same token, unlike many black people, Zach did not think Jews were purposely magnifying the incident in order to turn off liberal voters and bring down America’s first politically viable black presidential hopeful.

As he waited for the meeting of the Black-Jewish Coalition to begin, he thought about the disparate impact of various​ stereotypes. Clearly, neither “Hymie” nor “Coon” flatters the group it purports to describe. But stereotypes like, “Jews are smart” or “Jewish men make the best husbands,” never spawned a Jewish protest. Nor did assertions such as, “Blacks are better athletes” or “Blacks are great dancers” upset most African-Americans. So when people said they hate stereotypes, Zach knew that what they really meant was they hate negative stereotypes. Generalizations that cast their own group in a positive light were perfectly acceptable.

“Jews are clannish” could go either way. Negative: Jews stick to their own kind and care only about themselves. Positive: Jews support and defend each other, especially when they’re under attack.

That explained why so many Jewish VIPs had given up a beautiful spring afternoon to come to today’s meeting. Rather than Jackson’s jibe registering simply as a negative stereotype, it seemed to mark a profound and disturbing shift in the two groups’ relationship. Some Jews felt the “Hymietown” incident was a measure of black-Jewish alienation, a symbol of the irreparable tear in the two groups’ historic bonds, and a sign that the once-dependable solidarity of the Civil Rights era was a thing of the past. A new poll that showed increasing anti-Semitism among younger African-Americans, and virulent hostility from the black minister Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam added to many ​Jews'​​ discomfort. They felt under attack and vulnerable; they wanted reassurance from their African-American counterparts that the old alliance was intact.

Why did I jettison that passage? Because it was polemical, more op-ed than ​literary prose. I also thought Zach’s assumptions about his fellow Jews’ motivations for attending the meeting were presumptuous. So out it went.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books. Read more about her here. And if you're in NYC, you can meet the author and hear her speak about her book tonight, May 20th at 7 PM at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (81-82 St) in Manhattan.

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The Tropical Fish That Didn't Make the Cut

Tuesday, May 19, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote about a passage that didn't make it into her just-published novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. She will be sharing deleted scenes from the novel all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Yesterday’s post—the first in my mini-series on Stuff Left Out—described a passage I deleted from the original manuscript of my new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, after a copy editor discovered a serious chronological error. Today, I’m going to share with you a scene that was cut for a different reason.

The excised passage, reprinted below, opened with ten-year-old Zach Levy and his mother, Rivka, arriving at the dentist’s office for his annual checkup. (You need to know that Rivka, a profoundly traumatized Holocaust survivor, was a renowned pediatrician in Krakow before the war.)

His mother took the only empty chair in the waiting room and idly thumbed through a copy of Woman’s Day while Zach, transfixed, planted himself before the broad, brightly-lit aquarium, gazing at the skittering rainbow-colored fish.

A blue and yellow striped loner glided across the tank’s glass wall. “That’s a Pomacanthis imperator,” Rivka said, suddenly materializing at Zach’s side. “The pretty red fish are Betta splendens. And that one”—she pointed to a silver creature with a long speckled tail—is a Poecilia reticulatus.”

Zach stared at his mother in disbelief. “Since when do you know so much about tropical fish?”

“I had an aquarium once.” Her voice was one tone above a whisper, her glance hooked to the silvery fish.

“You did?”

“Yes. In my waiting room. A doctor’s office can be frightening to children. Fish calms their anxiety.”

Amazed to actually be exchanging this many words with his dour and taciturn mother, Zach tried to keep the conversation going. “Which one’s your favorite, Mama?”

“The Carassius auratus,” Rivka replied, softly, nodding at a plain white fish with a huge red knob sticking up from its head.

The boy frowned at the disfigured specimen but feigned enthusiasm. “"That’s mine, too, Mama. It’s so…so unusual!” In truth, the electric blue fish was his favorite.

A few months later, when Rivka was troubled by an impacted wisdom tooth, they returned to the dentist’s office only to find on a ledge beside the aquarium a tower of plastic containers and a mesh net. Taped to the glass tank was a note in block letters: MOVING TO NEW OFFICE ON FRIDAY. HELP YOURSELF. ONE FISH PER PATIENT.

Zach grabbed the net. “I’ll get the blue one!” he exclaimed before he could censor himself.

Rivka shook her head.

He corrected himself. “Sorry, Mama. I’ll get the white one.” He corrected himself, thinking, if she likes it, I’ll learn to like it, but as he dipped the net into the luminous water, Rivka grabbed his arm.

“No fish,” she said, firmly. "Jews don’t need pets. It’s hard enough for us to take care of ourselves.”

He begged her to reconsider but once she’d made up her mind, he knew there was no arguing with Rivka. They left the dentist’s office empty-handed.

I wrote that scene to underscore the distance between young Zach and his refugee mother. Also to remind the reader that Rivka, a broken casualty of Nazi brutality, once had a medical practice and, witness her knowledge of fish species, other scientific interests; she wasn’t always the semi-comatose woman we meet in this book.

However, on second and third reading, the scene rang false. Rivka may have been my invention but as I wrote her into being, she made it clear to me that she was not the sort of woman who, merely at the sight of an aquarium, would emerge from the chrysalis of her anguish reciting the Latin names of tropical fish.

Which is why the scene in the dentist’s waiting room ended up on the cutting room floor.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books. Read more about her here. And if you're in NYC, you can meet the author and hear her speak about her book on Wednesday, May 20th at 7 PM at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (81-82 St) in Manhattan.

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A Glimpse Into the Editing Process: What Didn't Make it Into the Book

Monday, May 18, 2015 | Permalink

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, is the author of eleven books, most recently the just-published Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. Throughout the next week, she will be sharing passages that didn't make it into the final version of her new novel and explain the decision behind each cut. These posts are a part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Because people often ask writers, “What did you leave out of your book and why?” I decided to review the original manuscript of my new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, to see what ended up on the cutting room floor.

You won’t find in the book, published this week by The Feminist Press, any of the passages I’m going to share with you in this and upcoming blog posts, but the backstory behind each cut may provide a unique glimpse into the editing process.

To understand the action behind the following passage from the original manuscript, you only need know that Zach, the son of Holocaust survivors, long ago promised his mother that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children. Despite a fervent search for his bashert (fated Jewish mate), he falls in love with an African-American activist and talk show host named Cleo who appears in this scene. The other character, M.J., is Zach’s neighbor and close friend.

In June 1976, as his birthday approached, Zach became fixated on the number thirty-six.

“You didn’t freak out over thirty-five, why this?” M. J. asked after Zach blew out his candles.

“It’s a big Jewish number,” Zach explained. “Mystics believe there are thirty-six righteous Jews on the planet at any moment in time and it’s only because of them and their acts of decency that our world is spared from destruction. They're called lamed vavniks because the number thirty-six, in Hebrew, is lamed vav. Only God knows who they are.”

“But they know,” Cleo ventured.

“Nope. And they don’t know who each other is, either.”

M. J. grinned. “It’s like a secret society where the members don’t realize they’ve been tapped and nobody knows the handshake.”

“Kind of. The thing is, each of us is supposed to behave in the world as if we’re one of them.”

“Leave it to the Jews to get folks competing to be virtuous,” Cleo said.

“You think you might be one of them?” M. J. asked.

“The thirty-six?” Zach chuckled as he plucked out all thirty-six candles and began to cut the cake. “Not a chance.”

For me, this deletion was painful. The Talmudic concept of the lamed vav tzadikim (36 righteous ones), or nistarim (concealed ones), occupies true North on my moral compass. I love the notion that even the remote possibility of the welfare of the world resting on our deeds can lead us to greater acts of righteousness.

Why was the passage dropped? Some might infer that my publisher ruled a gratuitous detour into Jewish mysticism too “inside baseball” for the general reader. In fact, it was cut after an eagle-eyed copy editor, having graphed each of my characters’ timelines, year by year, discovered that Zach would actually be turning 35 at that point in the novel, not 36. The error was mine. And the number couldn’t simply be changed to 36 because Zach’s age had to correspond to the age of another key character in the book. Short of my rewriting several entire chapters to justify his celebrating his 36th birthday, the lamed vavnik detour had to go.

And so it did.

Read more about Letty Cottin Pogrebin here. And if you're in NYC, you can meet the author and hear her speak about her book on Wednesday, May 20th at 7 PM at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (81-82 St) in Manhattan.

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