Ear­li­er this week, Sami Rohr Prize win­ner Austin Rat­ner dis­cussed the land of the liv­ing ver­sus the land of The Princess Bride.” He has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Some aca­d­e­mics have observed that young Jew­ish writ­ers do not mine their per­son­al lives for mate­r­i­al in the same way that Jew­ish writ­ers did a gen­er­a­tion ago. In my own case, this is and isn’t true. My first nov­el, The Jump Artist, was based on some­one else’s life and took place in lands and days dis­parate from my own. My sec­ond nov­el, In the Land of the Liv­ing, which is being released by Lit­tle Brown this week, draws on my own per­son­al expe­ri­ences and on events in the his­to­ry of my own fam­i­ly. It’s first and fore­most about loss at a ten­der age, and find­ing your way out from under the pall of grief, back to the land of the liv­ing, and to all that makes life worth liv­ing. (Why am I not on Oprah’s book list?)

If a book gets its license to exist from a fresh or unique sub­ject, then my book’s claim would lie in its man­ner of depict­ing ear­ly child­hood. Most nov­els do not incor­po­rate ear­ly child­hood into their sto­ry­lines or into their char­ac­ters at all, except in metaphor­i­cal ways. Mary Shel­ley and Toni Mor­ri­son are two writ­ers who invent­ed rather inge­nious nov­el­is­tic con­trap­tions to rep­re­sent ear­ly child­hood: Shel­ley did it by writ­ing of a human man made from scratch and edu­cat­ed (and abused) like a child, Mor­ri­son by turn­ing a dead child into an adult ghost in Beloved. In his auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el Child­hood, Boy­hood, Youth, Tol­stoy wrote about his mother’s death, which hap­pened when he was two, but he revised his age to some­thing like eight to make the scenes more artis­ti­cal­ly man­age­able. James Joyce writes direct­ly of ear­ly child­hood in A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man, but he does so impres­sion­is­ti­cal­ly and does not draw any firm con­nec­tions between those open­ing ear­ly child­hood scenes and lat­er ones. I have tak­en a dif­fer­ent approach by depict­ing ear­ly child­hood expe­ri­ences direct­ly and car­ry­ing through their impli­ca­tions in every oth­er scene of the book.

Hav­ing said that, there is some­thing sus­pi­cious to me in the notion that a nov­el needs unique­ness” in order to be valu­able. Unique­ness” sounds a lot like com­pet­i­tive advan­tage” — a phrase from the world of com­merce, not lit­er­a­ture. A writer sets out to por­tray what is true to him or her, and also, usu­al­ly, what is beau­ti­ful. New styles, new philoso­phies, new insights into char­ac­ter, for­ays into unknown sub­ject mat­ter — these things come about auto­mat­i­cal­ly when new voic­es do a good job exam­in­ing the same old world on a cut­ting edge that is pro­vid­ed to them by time itself: anoth­er day.

Austin Rat­ner’s new nov­el, In the Land of the Liv­ing, is now available. 

Austin Rat­ner is author of the nov­els In the Land of the Liv­ing and The Jump Artist, win­ner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, and the non-fic­tion book The Psychoanalyst’s Aver­sion to Proof. He is an M.D., stud­ied at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, and he teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Sack­ett Street Writ­ers’ Work­shop in New York.