Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

In our pre­vi­ous posts, we met Mat­ti Fried­man, who imag­ined his future grand­daugh­ter, and Sarah Bunin Benor, who iden­ti­fied the place where she changed her career. Today we hear from Marni Davis, author of Jews and Booze: Becom­ing Amer­i­can in the Age of Pro­hi­bi­tion, which was pub­lished by NYU Press last year.

The title has been praised across var­i­ous media out­lets. In JBC’s review of the title, Edward Shapiro wrote that the book is engross­ing and well writ­ten,” Pub­lish­er’s Week­ly said Jews and Booze is a provoca­tive study of Jews’ com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship to alco­hol and Pro­hi­bi­tion in Amer­i­can his­to­ry,” and The New York Times Book Review called the book “…thought­ful, instruc­tive and often insight­ful.” For any­one inter­est­ed in Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, this is a worth­while addi­tion to your collection!

Below, Marni Davis dis­cuss­es archival research, her junior year of high school, and her writ­ing goals:

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing non-fiction?

Archival research is great fun, but there’s noth­ing hard­er than know­ing when to stop research­ing. I always sus­pect that if I look in just one more file box or micro­film reel, or if I pur­sue just one more his­tor­i­cal fig­ure into the cen­sus­es and city direc­to­ries, or if I fol­low that one last hunch I will stum­ble upon the evi­dence that will tell my sto­ry for me. But even­tu­al­ly one must take off the intre­pid detec­tive hat and put on the writer hat. At which point one faces the blank page — and that’s the oth­er chal­leng­ing part. 

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing non-fiction?

I’m always inspired and excit­ed when I’m in an eth­ni­cal­ly diverse space. Immi­grant neigh­bor­hoods where peo­ple from all over the world live and work next to each oth­er stim­u­late my imag­i­na­tion, as do ceme­ter­ies where tomb­stones declare het­ero­ge­neous nation­al ori­gins. Man­i­fes­ta­tions of cul­tur­al plu­ral­ism fill my heart with glad­ness and ani­mate my work.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

Does any­one answer this ques­tion with an answer oth­er than every­one?” I think that all writ­ers want to be read by as many read­ers as pos­si­ble. We want our ideas out in the world. When I wrote Jews and Booze, I knew I had two audi­ences I want­ed to please most: my fel­low aca­d­e­m­ic his­to­ri­ans; and a gen­er­al audi­ence of read­ers inter­est­ed in Jew­ish sub­jects. Still, I am espe­cial­ly delight­ed when some­one who fits into nei­ther of those cat­e­gories has read my book. So I guess every­one” is my final answer.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I’m at the begin­ning stages of my new project, which will be an exam­i­na­tion of the expe­ri­ences of and atti­tudes toward immi­grants in the Amer­i­can South in the decades between the Civ­il War and the Great Depres­sion. This project will include Jew­ish immi­grants, but it will not focus on them exclu­sive­ly; rather, I intend to put Jews into their broad­er region­al con­text by com­par­ing their expe­ri­ences to those of oth­er eth­nic and racial groups in the New South.”

What are you read­ing now?

I have two books going at the moment: Col­lege: What it Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Del­ban­co, and The Wordy Ship­mates by Sarah Vow­ell. Both are fun and thought-pro­vok­ing, but nei­ther is an I can’t put it down” kind of book. The last one of those I read was The Brief Won­drous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, which utter­ly knocked my socks off.

Five books you love to recommend

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I hes­i­tate to give any one his­tor­i­cal event too much causal pow­er! But I do remem­ber an espe­cial­ly mean­ing­ful moment, from my junior year of high school. My favorite his­to­ry teacher was a cur­mud­geon­ly dude, painful­ly hard to impress, and I des­per­ate­ly want­ed him to think I was smart. I wrote a research paper for his class — I think the top­ic was the Tran­scen­den­tal­ists of Brook Farm. When he returned it, he’d writ­ten on the cov­er page: You have a tal­ent for writ­ing papers.” I sup­pose I’ve been at it ever since.

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define success?

That’s a dif­fi­cult ques­tion to answer. Per­haps there isn’t any one great moun­tain that defines suc­cess for me. Rather, it’s a series of hills, some steep­er than oth­ers: hav­ing a pro­duc­tive writ­ing ses­sion is one; teach­ing a fun and live­ly class is anoth­er. Pret­ty mod­est, as aspi­ra­tions go. 

How do you write — what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

My writ­ing goal is real­ly straight­for­ward: 250 words a day. I strive for the slow-and-steady method. I don’t always suc­ceed, but that’s always my intent. I don’t have any tal­is­mans or rit­u­als, but maybe the dogs snor­ing in their beds in my office would count as props. When writ­ing gets dif­fi­cult, they’re a most com­fort­ing presence.

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

First, I want them to chuck­le at the title. Then, I want them to be sur­prised that there’s so much more to the sto­ry than they’d thought when they chuck­led at the title. Final­ly, I want them to get to the end of the book and real­ize that it made them think about Amer­i­can Jew­ish his­to­ry in ways that were new to them.

Marni Davis is assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Geor­gia State Uni­ver­si­ty in Atlanta, where she stud­ies and teach­es Amer­i­can his­to­ry, Jew­ish his­to­ry, and the his­to­ry of eth­nic­i­ty and immi­gra­tion in the Unit­ed States. Her first book, Jews and Booze: Becom­ing Amer­i­can in the Age of Pro­hi­bi­tion, was pub­lished by New York Uni­ver­si­ty Press in 2012. Davis received her Ph.D from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty in 2006, and taught there for a year before join­ing the fac­ul­ty at Geor­gia State. She has been the recip­i­ent of schol­ar­ly awards from the Nation­al Foun­da­tion for Jew­ish Cul­ture, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Archives, and the Fein­stein Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry. Jews and Booze received an hon­or­able men­tion for the 2012 Jor­dan Schnitzer Book Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion for Jew­ish Studies.

Orig­i­nal­ly from Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia, Nao­mi is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from Emory Uni­ver­si­ty with degrees in Eng­lish and Art His­to­ry and, in addi­tion, stud­ied at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don. Pri­or to her role as exec­u­tive direc­tor, Nao­mi served as the found­ing edi­tor of the JBC web­site and blog and man­ag­ing edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World. In addi­tion, she has over­seen JBC’s dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives, and also devel­oped the JBC’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series and Unpack­ing the Book: Jew­ish Writ­ers in Conversation.