Death Val­ley Nation­al Park, Cal­i­for­nia, Jubilee Pass Road

In the ear­ly 2000’s, I began dip­ping my toe into the waters of fic­tion-writ­ing by tak­ing some cre­ative writ­ing class­es at UCLA Exten­sion. One evening, my writ­ing teacher took me aside.

Stephanie,” he said. We read­ers are real­ly stu­pid. You have to make your writ­ing more accessible.”

The writ­ing teacher who gave me this advice was Tod Gold­berg, the now-famous crime nov­el­ist. And what he was try­ing to tell me, in a very kind way, was that I was writ­ing fic­tion like a pro­fes­sor. Which was a fair observation.

Because I was a pro­fes­sor. When I took my first class with Tod, I had been a suc­cess­ful Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture schol­ar at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side, for fif­teen years. I had already pub­lished three schol­ar­ly books and more than twen­ty arti­cles on a wide vari­ety of top­ics, rang­ing from satire in South Park, to the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of trau­ma in the plays of Friedrich Schiller. I wrote about Octavia But­ler and Jean Cocteau, about the Jew­ish Aus­tri­an poet Gertrud Kol­mar, and the Jew­ish Amer­i­can play­wright Wendy Wasserstein.

I am proud of my schol­ar­ship, but it nev­er exact­ly nour­ished me as a writer. As I researched and com­posed this aca­d­e­m­ic work, I also wrote cre­ative­ly. As time went on, I felt myself want­i­ng to pub­lish my own lit­er­ary cre­ations; I was attract­ed first to poet­ry, then to prose, and then— inex­orably — to the nov­el. I want­ed to make a big fic­tion­al sto­ry.

This tran­si­tion from aca­d­e­m­ic to cre­ative writ­ing wasn’t easy for me. Part of my prob­lem was that I have been and con­tin­ue to be a gen­uine admir­er of dif­fi­cult” writ­ers, whom I tried to emu­late in my ear­ly days of fic­tion writ­ing. I love the work of fem­i­nist the­o­rist Hélène Cixous, who expert­ly merges the cre­ative with the crit­i­cal. I am also a big fan of Mar­cel Proust, who is not known for pithi­ness, or an atten­tion to what we might call plot.” Nov­el­ists Berna­dine Evaris­to and Mohsin Hamid are also big favorites. How­ev­er, I even­tu­al­ly real­ized that I don’t do my best writ­ing, when I try to write like them.

What to do? How could I use all the authors and ideas that I had stud­ied and loved, as well as my inter­est in research, but not come across like a char­ac­ter in a Don DeLil­lo nov­el? In oth­er words, to mis­quote one of my boss­es at the now defunct J. Chuck­les Stores, how could I learn to write like a reg­u­lar person?

I had the aca­d­e­m­ic joy of delv­ing into diver­gent research areas for this book: kab­bal­ah, indoor plumb­ing, Jew­ish sum­mer camps, and the work of the direc­tor Guiller­mo del Toro.

The process of learn­ing to write like a reg­u­lar per­son has tak­en me a while, but I think I come pret­ty close in my new nov­el Pre­tend Plumber. I had the aca­d­e­m­ic joy of delv­ing into diver­gent research areas for this book: kab­bal­ah, indoor plumb­ing, Jew­ish sum­mer camps, and the work of the direc­tor Guiller­mo del Toro. But the book works, not thanks to research, but thanks to Tod, and to two oth­er Jew­ish cre­ative writ­ing teach­ers: the Los Ange­les novelist/​short sto­ry writer Aimee Ben­der, and Seat­tle area novelist/​memoirist Kath­leen Alcalá.

Aimee re-intro­duced me to the fairy-tale, and point­ed out how the use of mag­ic in a fairy-tale is both won­drous and mat­ter of fact (her own writ­ing often adapts that tone). Equal­ly impor­tant, the fairy-tale pro­pos­es a clear plot struc­ture. Next Aimee intro­duced me to mag­i­cal real­ism — a modal­i­ty where just a few impos­si­ble things inter­vene on the world as we know it. I fell in love with this approach because I could use my imme­di­ate sur­round­ings and obser­va­tions, inter­ject a few unre­al items/​people, and then let the sto­ry unfold. Accord­ing­ly, Pre­tend Plumber is a mag­i­cal real­ist sto­ry that fol­lows the tra­jec­to­ry of a long fairy tale (the struc­ture is influ­enced by one of the Oz nov­els, The Mar­velous Land of Oz).

Kath­leen taught me how to refine my mag­i­cal real­ism process, by allow­ing polit­i­cal con­cerns to infil­trate char­ac­ters’ behav­iors in small, telling ways. Kath­leen also has a fond­ness for eccen­tric char­ac­ters, who dis­play unex­pect­ed areas of knowl­edge and exper­tise. From her I learned to sneak in some pro­fes­sor-ness” into unusu­al side-char­ac­ters. Final­ly, she is a genius at rep­re­sent­ing Jew­ish spir­i­tu­al­i­ty through rit­u­als that seem unim­por­tant to the out­sider. Her use of a sur­rep­ti­tious Shab­bat in one of her nov­els gave me insight as to how to approach a cru­cial rit­u­al in Pre­tend Plumber.

Let me return to Tod Gold­berg, whose crime fic­tion is both lit­er­ary and lucid. It is also real­ly fun­ny, even and espe­cial­ly when it’s dark. Tod writes about bad peo­ple who do bad things. But we like them, and even root for them, because they are hilar­i­ous. Thanks to Tod, I have real­ized that being fun­ny is key to get­ting read­ers to come along on a ride that is going to get uncom­fort­able and/​or strange. If you can get your read­ers to relax into a com­ic jour­ney, then they’re with you no mat­ter what happens.

Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, Pre­tend Plumber is my fun­ni­est book. It’s also my first book that explores Jew­ish iden­ti­ties, and what our oblig­a­tions might be as Amer­i­can Jews in the twen­ty-first Cen­tu­ry. There are seri­ous top­ics invoked in the sto­ry. But my nar­ra­tor, Saras­sine Anfang, keeps it light; she is a sassy, almost four­teen-year-old, queer-curi­ous Jew­ish Los Angeli­na, who won­ders why no adult in her wealthy fam­i­ly seems to be able to make a phone call and get some­one to come over and fix the plumb­ing at their house. Saras­sine takes mat­ters into her own hands, with sur­pris­ing and some­times mag­i­cal results. I loved writ­ing this char­ac­ter and this book.

Clar­i­ty + mag­ic + fairy-tale + pol­i­tics + rit­u­al + com­e­dy can equal a pret­ty good sto­ry. I am grate­ful to these won­der­ful writ­ers who helped me stop writ­ing like a pro­fes­sor and start writ­ing – hope­ful­ly – like a (some­what) reg­u­lar per­son. As for real plumb­ing, I’ll leave that to the professionals.