Post­ed by Nao­mi Firestone-Teeter

Sec­ond up in Words from our Finalists”…Anne Landsman

Anne…meet our Readers

Readers…meet Anne

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.