Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
Second up in “Words from our Finalists”…Anne Landsman
Anne…meet our Readers
What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?
There is no blueprint for writing fiction, no map, no recipe. The fiction writer stumbles upon his or her story the way an archeologist rubs the dirt off an important historical find. There’s a huge amount of luck involved, lots of calculated guesswork and many hours of looking and thinking. What guides you through the process is curiosity about human beings and their vagaries, and a deep-seated fascination for the way people live their lives.
Who or what has been inspiration for writing fiction?
As far back as I can remember, books were a big part of my life. I remember how much I loved looking at picture books, and the way I would examine and inhabit the images that ran alongside the narrative. As I learned to read, the images diminished and disappeared, and then magically re-appeared within the body of the text, in the writer’s descriptions. For most of my childhood, I lived within the pages of novels. When I was immersed in reading a book, I felt wedded to the characters I was reading about, and sometimes found it hard to accept that other readers had other sorts of relationships with these characters, or saw them in a different light. Even though I grew up in a small South African town, I had a visceral connection with contemporary American Jewish books as my mother fed me a constant diet of Potok, Uris, Malamud and Wouk. New York City neighborhoods glittered in my imagination. I wondered what a frappé was, and what an egg cream tasted like, and one hot summer as I lay indoors reading, reading, reading, I believed that I was Marjorie Morningstar. I loved the tactile nature of books, their smell, the feel of their pages, the illustrations on the cover. I think I began writing fiction as a way to recapture that magic, but from the inside out. I moved from being a dinner-guest to the host at the feast that is the novel.
Who is your intended audience?
I like to think that all kinds of people would be drawn to my work as we all live in families of one kind or another, we all experience the pain of a losing a loved one, the joy of seeing a new life come into the world, as well as all the twists and turns in between. I’m intrigued by family ties, how they get stretched, expanded, broken, renewed by circumstance, history, geography. These are universal concerns, not limited to one particular audience. And being a Jewish writer is such a gift because we straddle several traditions, cultures, histories, giving us access to such a wealth of ideas. I’m a South African, Lithuanian, American Jew who grew up speaking fluent Afrikaans (as my second language), loved Shakespeare, Bronte and Dickens, and went to cheder three times a week. All of these strands influence who I am, and how I write, and they connect with people all over the globe.
Do you think your work speaks predominantly to your generation? Future generations? Or, older generations?
Although both my novels deal with the past, they have contemporary narrators who reflect on both the past and the present, with an eye on what lies ahead. Since one of my main interests as a writer is the workings of memory, and how our lives are built on the complex interface between what we’ve lived through, and what we hope for, I feel that I can speak to future generations as well as older generations as we all find themselves in exactly the same predicament. No one escapes the beginning of life, or the end. And we all have dreams, disappointments and desires along the way.
Who is the reader over your shoulder?
For better or worse, the reader over my shoulder is me, and I tend to be very hard on myself. I’m quick to judge, and this gets in my way. The best advice I could give to an aspiring writer is get out of your own way, immerse yourself fully in your story and, mostly importantly, keep writing.
Are you working on anything new right now?
Yes. It’s set in the past but this time I’m trying something different. Instead of doing tons and tons of research before writing, I’m doing the research as I go along. I recently wrote a post-it with the phrase “drive-by research” to explain the process to myself. Also, I’m not going for historical accuracy as it has a fairy tale aspect to it, a kind of magic. The language has taken on a life of its own, which is is thrilling but also terrifying. I never quite know if it’s going to keep on coming, or dry up!
What are you reading now?
I just finished the The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln, which was begun in 1690, and is the diary of a 44 year-old German Jewish widow and mother of fourteen children. She chronicles her family’s story so that her children will know their own past. She shows a remarkable business sense, a sharp eye for detail and a deep sense of piety. (And this might give you a clue to the time period my next novel is set in…)
When did you decide to become a writer? Where were you?
I’m not sure I ever consciously decided to become a writer. Very early on – I was perhaps six or seven – I remember trying to draw a horse at school. I was happy with how the head turned out but then really struggled with the body and legs. So I drew a giant bag that covered the misshapen body and left just the horse’s head sticking out. I have a blurry memory of the teacher standing behind me, and me telling a story, or thinking about telling the story of how the horse got into the bag. I remember feeling a rush of excitement as I realized all the different possibilities. What was a picture had turned into a narrative.
Later, I was a girl scout in the only girl scout troop in Worcester, the small South African town where I was born and raised. Seamlessly, automatically, I became the troop scribe, and had a badge with a quill on it to prove it. Writing stories always came naturally to me, and I excelled at writing “compositions” at school, which were short stories in miniature. There were no creative writing programs in South Africa and it didn’t occur to me at that time in my life that I could ever write a novel. I left South Africa during the dark days of apartheid and moved to the U.S. where I went to film school and explored the idea of becoming a director or a screenwriter. For several years after graduating, I worked on a screenwriting project about the life of Frank Lloyd Wright but eventually came back to where I started – spinning a story out of an unusual situation that I had imagined all by myself. I finished my first novel when I was pregnant with my first child, and when it was published, I was pregnant with my second. Motherhood – although sometimes lengthening the writing process – has forced me to take myself seriously, fully inhabit my own skin. Writing has become who I am and how I live in the world. Words are my fins, my wings, my shell.
What is the mountaintop for you – how do you define success?
I don’t think it’s possible to define success as a writer, or to ever achieve it, because as you approach what you think it is, it morphs into something else. It’s the ever-receding goal. Once you conquer one peak, you find out that there are many others just behind it. Perhaps it’s better to try to be successful as a human being, knowing yourself and your limitations, as well as your strengths.
How do you write – and what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?
I write at the Writers Room, a not-for-profit writers’ workspace in downtown Manhattan. I work at whatever desk is available – and this changes from day to day – so there are no permanent talismans or objects on my desk. My talisman is the silent company of others, and the noiseless hum of their concentration. It’s like being in the ocean with a group of surfers, riding the swells and waiting for the next big wave.
What do you want readers to get out of your book?
My novel, The Rowing Lesson, is Betsy Klein’s bed-side elegy for her dying father, Harry. It’s her attempt to capture the essence of who he was, before she loses him forever. I think most of us are fascinated by who our parents really were. We get snippets of them. And I think we want more, because we can understand ourselves better when we understand them better. And that’s what’s at the heart of Betsy’s journey. It’s her attempt to see her father clearly, so she can come to terms with him. She summons him up and tries to understand him and when she does, she is finally able to understand herself.
One of the best compliments a reader ever gave me was that he told me that he was in the middle of reading my book when he got a call from his mother to say that his father was dying. During the difficult days that followed, as he flew from the U.K. to South Africa to be with his father, he kept reading The Rowing Lesson. He said it became the companion to his grief.
Along with the enormous lesson that’s learned when a parent dies, the novel celebrates and underscores the sanctity of life, and what it was like to come of age in World War II era-South Africa, and be part of the vibrant and unique Jewish community there.
You can read more about Anne Landsman by visiting her website here.
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.