The ProsenPeople

What You Lose Writing a Novel

Tuesday, September 10, 2013 | Permalink

This week, Michael Lavigne, the author of The Wanting and the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award novel Not Meblogs for The Postscript on the difficulty of editing and what he lost along the way. 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. 

To "host" Michael at your next book club meeting, request him through JBC Live Chat

Dear Book Clubs!

One of the hardest things about writing a novel is how much you lose – in pages, that is.  In the case of The Wanting, well over two hundred went by the wayside.  Some things had to go because they slowed the reader too much, others because they took journeys through time that got overly complex, and others because the book simply refused to go in that direction.  

For instance, at one point, Roman’s desert odyssey took him to an abandoned village where he experienced a religious epiphany in a sand quarry – a 20 page adventure that ended up as four sentences in the finished work: I sang to the bright sky as to a child, as I used to do to Anyusha, every night in fact; long after she had fallen asleep, I would steal into her room, lean over her bed, place my lips beside her ear, and -- not sing, because I can’t sing – but whisper my incantation, Papa will always take care of you.  Papa is your best friend.  Papa will never leave you.  Anyusha will never be alone again.  A version, by the way, of something I used to say to my own son, Sam.  Other losses:  The tale of beating up Dima Chernapolsk once ran many pages and involved Roman’s friend Fima, who also was a far more developed character.  Collette’s history was at one time fleshed out by at least thirty more pages – actually in a very early draft, more than one hundred additional pages were dedicated to her, including an elaborate description of her grandfather’s life and his house in Paris and the entire story of her father’s tribulations in the days just before and after her birth.  But the lost words I regret most were to be found in a fairytale, now condensed to a single paragraph and utterly changed, that I invented for Roman’s drunken dream when he fell asleep watching Good Night Children (a real show, by the way, that three-year-old Sam loved during our Moscow stay).  

My fairytale was called  The Story of Prince Oleg And Young Ekim Efiv, and it ran nine pages before Roman was awakened mid-dream  by his very annoyed mother.  I even sketched the conclusion of the story which I intended to introduce later in the book.  When we were living in the Soviet Union, I read dozens of these tales to Sam or saw animated versions of them on television, so it didn’t take much for me to jump into the role of Russian storyteller.  In my draft, the evil witch Baba Yaga grants a barren queen two children, on the promise she will give one of them up to the witch.  When the day of reckoning comes, the queen hides one of her sons in the forest, trying to fool the witch into believing she gave birth to but a single child – but the furious witch steals that one anyway.  When the queen goes to find her hidden baby, it too is gone, leaving her childless.  Unknown to her, the boy was found and nurtured by an old peasant woman and her husband.  They name him Efim Efiv and he grows strong and happy in their village home.  Eventually, though, he must leave this little paradise and find his way in the world – to confront the witch and his lost brother (Prince Oleg, now a wicked sorcerer), save (and lose) (and save) the woman of his dreams with the help of an enchanted bear, carp, and falcon, all tropes in Russian fairy tales, and finally reclaim his rightful place as prince – which he never quite does since the tale was constructed as a reflection of Roman’s unconscious and his true feelings about Collette. 

What a joy this was to write -- and so painful to lose.  But cutting it was the right thing to do.  First drafts are an explosion of story.  Real writing, though, is in the editing.  So the question is, would any of these lost sections have deepened your understanding of the book, or is it enough that I, the writer, know them as back-story?  My knowledge of all this unreported history gives my characters a reality, a grounding, that surely is felt by readers.   In writing, as in life, loss deepens in unseen ways our journey toward truth.    

To read more from Michael, see his posts for The Visiting Scribe here. 

In a Class by Themselves: A Jewish Fiction Reading List

Friday, February 15, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Michael Lavigne wrote about writing the "Radical Other" and wondered if a writer can take the ego out of writing.He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A couple of years ago I decided to lead a group of adult learners in a class on Jewish fiction. The reason was that I wanted to share a few books I loved, and I also wanted an excuse to read some I’d never got around to. It was an amazing experience, both as a teacher and as a reader.

Re-reading some favorites – like Bruno Schulz, Primo Levi and Meir Shalev – only served to deepen my attachment to them. But the writers I’d wanted to get to know – like Clarice Lispector and Joseph Roth – were a revelation. Two or three really stand out in that category. Lispector for certain – nothing in literature is quite like her, and I urge you to read through twice before you judge. But it was Roman Gary who won my heart with his incomparable character Momo – the little Arab kid adopted by the Jewish Rosa – in a work that is simply perfection, there is no other word for it. As for sheer greatness, it has to be Yaakov Shabtai, whose Past Continuous is not only a virtuosic masterpiece, but deeply moving; also truly great is S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday, which is remarkable for its breadth, its unflinching eye, and the beauty of its prose even in translation. Each one of the works I taught has a special place in my heart, and I believe you will also find them gratifying to read or re-read. Bruno Schultz is fundamental – in a class by himself. Dovid Bergelson’s short stories, only recently translated from the Yiddish, and are a mad joy. David Grossman needs no introduction, except I strongly recommend reading Schultz first.

One note. Late in the course, I included Paul Celan, the poet, whose work is soul-wrenching and beyond beautiful. Obviously he is not writing fiction, but I can think of nothing that reflects the transformative nature of the Jewish literary experience better. I recommend the German/English side-by-side edition by Michael Hamburger.

And if you ever want to chat about any of these, I’d be delighted.

Dovid Bergelson, The Shadows of Berlin

Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

David Grossman, See Under: Love

Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939

Meir Shalev, The Pigeon and the Boy

Clarice Lispector, Hour of the Star

Roman Gary, The Life Before You (Madame Rosa)

Arnon Grunberg, Phantom Pain

Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases

Der Nister, The Family Mashber*

Yaakov Shabtai, Past Continuous

Moacyr Scliar, The Centaur in the Garden

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

Italo Svevo, Zeno's Conscience

S.Y Agnon, Only Yesterday

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Sayed Kashua, Dancing Arabs *

Orly Castel-Bloom, Human Parts

Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories

Paul Celan, Poems of Paul Celan

*Sessions on these two works were led by Igael Gurin-Malous.

Michael Lavigne's first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, The Wanting, will be published by Schocken Books on February 26th. Visit Michael on Facebook and visit his official website here.

I Am Writer. Are You Chopped Liver?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael Lavigne wrote about writing the "Radical Other ."He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Is it possible to take the ego out of writing?

I ask this question because I ask myself why I write, and why so many people write, and why writing has quite literally taken over our society – you cannot blink without someone Tweeting, Tumbling, Facebooking, blogging, Yelping, product rating, movie reviewing, book eviscerating. Just think about the last time you wanted to buy a toaster. You went on Amazon or some other site, and there, for each of the two hundred different toasters were two hundred individual comments, some many paragraphs long, by people apparently passionate enough about their toasters to write about them, and people, like me, stupid enough to read them and have them sway my judgment. (In the end, and based on countless reviews, I ended up with a toaster I hate – Calphalon 4-slot model 1779207, two stars at most!)

But were these people passionate about their toasters or simply passionate about the fact that someone might read their opinions? Are we Tweeting to say something important or to simply assert our existence?

We all know the answer. But what about those of us who write fiction – what’s in it for us?

If I were to sit down and write without ego, that would mean first, that I don’t care about publication, and second, that I care only for the text itself and not how it reflects on me. I might wish someone to read it, but I wouldn't write it with any reader in mind. In a sense, I would be daring someone to read it: this is what it is, take it or leave it – not only do I not care about your opinion, but you should in fact have no opinion.


(Of course, I actually do hope you have an opinion of my new novel, The Wanting — 4 stars would be nice).

And yet there are moments in writing when the ego does flee. I began The Wanting by writing a story within a story within a story – it wasn't a conscious decision, it just happened that one story would suggest another, time would shift back and forth, and the whole thing felt like an onion unraveling and re-raveling – and I loved it. I wrote fairy tales and back-stories and short stories and fantastical voyages of the mind. In one case I had someone remembering a scene from childhood in which he was remembering something from earlier childhood in which he was remembering something from even earlier childhood. It was wonderful.

And then I gave it to an editor.

Her response was succinct: “Huh?” To which she added, “Can’t follow it. Too many digressions. Where’s the plot? By the time I got back to the action I’d forgotten where I was.”

I should have screamed, “So what?” That is what the real writer would do.

But what I actually did was edit the book.

Built up the plot, cut back on the complications (“self indulgences” are what writing instructors call them), and in general began taking my audience seriously.

You might say that this is the act of someone without a lot of self-regard – to place the reader first is an act of submission. But that is not so. Publication, successful publication in which you reach a large, intelligent readership and having a meaningful affect on that readership – these are worthy outcomes, yes, but they are also certainly the goals of ego.

I’m not saying anything’s wrong with that. We can only communicate using language people can understand.

But isn't something lost? Something pure and powerful and difficult and terrifying?

I honestly do think my book is better for all the rewriting and rethinking and re-imagining that happened after that first (600 page!) draft. Much better.

And it’s still not a simple read – at least I hope not.

But oh how I miss sharing with you the story about Ekim Efiv and the Bird Sorcerer, the tale of How X Escaped the Gulag and Ended Up in Our Backyard, and the memory within the memory within the memory that stood time on its head for a few dozen pages of my life.

Although who knows, maybe I’ll post them on Facebook.

Michael Lavigne's first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, The Wanting, will be published by Schocken Books on February 26th. Visit Michael on Facebook and visit his official website here.

Writing the Radical Other

Monday, February 11, 2013 | Permalink

Michael Lavigne's first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, The Wanting, will be published by Schocken Books on February 26th. Visit Michael on Facebook and visit his official website here. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my first novel, I wrote from the point of view of a Nazi. In my new novel, The Wanting, I’ve taken on the persona of a suicide bomber from a village outside of Bethlehem. And while this character, Amir, is only one of three distinct voices in the book, his was the most painful to write and the most difficult to come to terms with. On the one hand, he murders scores of people – unconscionable and terrifying. On the other, he is also a person, not a monster. It is that person within him I was trying to access in my writing – but did I succeed? And should I have even tried?

My friend and fellow writer Jonathan Rosen (Joy Comes in the Morning, The Life of the Skies) has some doubts on this score. He wondered if I had created a moral equivalency between the victim (in this case the Russian Jewish immigrant, Roman Guttman) and the victimizer (Amir). I hope Jonathan won’t mind if I quote from his email:

“…my fear [is] that Jewish imaginative sympathy sometimes runs the risk of secretly being narcissism disguised as empathy, as we project the better angels of our nature outward in the name of human understanding and then have a dialogue with ourselves. German Jews did it with Germans, as Gershom Scholem argued so persuasively about Buber — I and Thou is sometimes Me and Me.”

This, of course, begs the question of fiction writing in general – but without addressing that (and Jonathan himself told me he genuinely thinks writers should be free to attempt anything and everything) I have to admit his misgivings give me pause. What is it we do when we write about the radical other, especially when this other has declared itself our mortal enemy and feels empowered to use any means, no matter how repugnant, to achieve its aim. Is it merely an exercise in vanity, a sort of hope against hope – wishing away the truth of the barbarity which confronts us?

I struggled with this from the onset. Just doing the research was painful in the extreme. Like poking at a sore, I had to read page after page of vitriol aimed at Jews and Israelis. The writings and rantings of mullahs and radical Islamists throughout the Muslim world frightened me, and our history reminds me it is wise to be frightened. My conversations with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs were of course less rife, but an underlying fury was never very far from the surface. I did not feel safe. Add to that the painful and inevitable realization of our own (my own) responsibility for the suffering and thwarted ambition of Palestinian people, and you can see how complex things became for me. Fear and guilt. Never a good place to write from.

So it’s not surprising that my first characterizations of Amir were flat and lifeless: in turns he was demonic, hate-crazed, and otherworldly – a kind of poet of cruelty – in others he was comic and buffoonish, a mindless machine of vengeance. I was stuck, and it was not until my Israeli reader, Michal Evron Yaniv, said, quite simply, “Just make him a person,” that I was reminded that my task as a novelist is to render all my characters with empathy – an empathy that extends throughout this awful symphony of life. And I fully admit that in the end I did perversely fall in love with Amir, because I came to see that he, too, is a victim – not so much of the Israeli occupation as of his own limited experience and the agenda of powerful forces far beyond his control or ability to understand.

I believe I’ve created a vital and living character who demands our attention and rewards our reading in a book I hope papers over nothing while attending to the thing that matters most: the human spirit.

But should there be limits to a writer’s empathy?

I welcome your comments.

Check back all week for more posts by Michael Lavigne.

Michael Lavigne's New Book

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Congrats are in order for 2007 Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award recipient Michael Lavigne (Not Me), who has a new book coming out! The book was acquired by Deborah Garrison and will be published by Schocken Books. A short description (with the book's working title, Korban--we'll update you when we have the final title and publication date!) can be found below. It's nice having things like this to look forward to...

Set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, KORBAN is the story of a father and daughter torn apart by ideology and sectarian violence as well as the terrible secrets of family history. The father, a Soviet immigrant in Israel, is injured in a suicide bombing — this event shatters not only his body, but his soul, and he is compelled to relive and come to terms with his past in Moscow, as well as try to heal his daughter who has been damaged by that secret past -- and, at the same time it is his desperate search to find some shred of common ground with, and empathy for, the young man who blew himself up. 

Told in three voices, one of which is an irrepressible thirteen year old and another a disembodied shahid, it’s a tale replete with talking animals, fairy tales, roaming spirits, visionary revelation and a meditation on the yearning for home and the power of love to destroy — and to heal.