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.
Stephanie Barbé Hammer is a 7‑time Pushcart Prize nominee in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. She has published in the Bellevue Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Café Irreal. She is the author of two poetry collections, two novels, a novelette, and a how to write magical realism craft book.