Between Feb­ru­ary 15, 2013 and March 10, 2013, Alli­son Amend and Austin Rat­ner, two mem­bers of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize class,” dis­cussed lit­er­ary fic­tion in soci­ety, their JBC Net­work tours, and the pub­li­ca­tion of their new nov­els — Allison’s new nov­el, A Near­ly Per­fect Copy, will be pub­lished this week, and Austin’s new nov­el, In the Land of the Liv­ing, was pub­lished last month. Read their redact­ed kvetchy cor­re­spon­dence below:

Dear Austin,

 So great to be hav­ing an email con­ver­sa­tion with you. Hav­ing won the Sami Rohr Prize, you are offi­cial a Real­ly Big Deal. My first ques­tion: How does it feel to be a Real­ly Big Deal?


Ha! I wish I did feel that way. There are so many anx­i­eties sur­round­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of a book. What if no one likes it? What if I should have writ­ten a dif­fer­ent book in a dif­fer­ent way? What if it is in fact a great book but the robots are about to take over? What if the robots find it boring? 

Any­way, this leads me to a ques­tion for you: There are so many chal­lenges that lie in the way of cre­at­ing a book — no amount of whin­ing can ever real­ly tell the tale of how hard it is — and yet when the vic­to­ry comes and the author copies arrive, I can bare­ly enjoy it. Can you? If so, how? 

Dear Austin,

I wor­ry a bit more about the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse rather than the robot rev­o­lu­tion, but that’s just my meshugas...

I believe we can­not enjoy the moment for two rea­sons. One, we are writ­ers, and so are a par­tic­u­lar­ly navel-gaz­ing bunch. When we look up from the navel, we wor­ry that even though our books are doing well, they could have done bet­ter…

I don’t have chil­dren, but I imag­ine pub­lish­ing must be like send­ing your child to kinder­garten. You’re proud, and yes, she is ready to go out on her own, but what if some­one throws sand at her on the playground?

Two, we are Jew­ish, and I was raised by my grand­moth­er to believe that if any­thing good hap­pens and you enjoy it, you’re just beg­ging for Almighty to cut you down to size.

And speak­ing of being Jew­ish, did you go to a lot of JBC Net­work events, and, if so, do you have favorite moments (change the names/​locations to pro­tect the innocent)?


The JBC Net­work is a mag­nif­i­cent resource to Jew­ish writ­ers. Of course, some of the events go bet­ter than oth­ers. Here is one par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable sto­ry that sticks in my mind:

[The fol­low­ing cor­re­spon­dence has been par­tial­ly redacted.]

The ****** event was ******. I was picked up at the air­port by ************************. They asked ******************************* ****************** like, “************************************ *************************?” I explained about ***************** *************************. They seemed ********* and *** that the **************************************. ********, they explained, *** ***********************. ******************************************** ************************. (This is real­ly true; it turned out that ******************************************************************* **************.) When we got to the ************ *** — this is also true — exact­ly *** *********************, and I think he was dement­ed and had been look­ing for the toi­let. So I ********* ************************************************************: the *********** JCC coor­di­na­tor (who ***************************** *** *************** to ***** ************ and *************, she ******** *********************************); ******************************** *********************** *************************** fell asleep.

Mean­while, I am about to move out of my apart­ment, which is the one qui­et place I’ve ever lived in in NYC. (The irony being that my extreme­ly loud chil­dren live inside it with me.) Proust sup­pos­ed­ly lined his office walls with cork. Any trou­ble with noise? Any solutions?


[The fol­low­ing cor­re­spon­dence has been par­tial­ly redacted.]

Net­work mem­o­ries… At one event the woman who picked me up *****************. We had to go around and pick up every­one who could­n’t dri­ve any­more. Then we went to the kosher deli and she put the rolls in her purse.

I also remem­ber a ******** woman who claimed that the demise of Judaism was being effect­ed by my gen­er­a­tion mar­ry­ing out­side the faith. I point­ed out I was­n’t mar­ried — to a Jew or a gen­tile — but if she knew any­one she should let me know.

As to noise, I’m not ter­ri­bly sen­si­tive, but there’s noise, and then there’s the noise of lit­tle chil­dren want­i­ng to play with you, which, along with water­board­ing and sleep depri­va­tion, has been declared a tor­ture method by our government. 

I have belonged to writ­ing spaces for years, most­ly to get out of the house so I have to get dressed in the morn­ing and con­verse with oth­er humans. For a long time I belonged to the Writ­ers Room in New York. Then I need­ed to look at dif­fer­ent walls, so I joined Para­graph on 14th street. I love hav­ing an office” to go to, and meet­ing in the kitchen to talk about writ­ing. I’ve met lots of peo­ple who have intro­duced me to oth­ers in the com­mu­ni­ty, and now I nev­er stand awk­ward­ly at a par­ty again! And there’s free coffee.

Ok, on a dif­fer­ent top­ic, did you take time off of writ­ing to promote/​finish up In the Land of the Liv­ing? How do you jug­gle dif­fer­ent projects in dif­fer­ent phas­es? I’m try­ing to write some­thing new, but I’m hav­ing trou­ble con­cen­trat­ing in antic­i­pa­tion of the book’s release. 

I guess… there’s a pleas­ing rhythm to your work as a writer if you have the good for­tune to pub­lish more than one book: you take a break from the cre­ative work on the next book to do a lit­tle bit of work pro­mot­ing the last one or earn­ing some mon­ey. Even non-writ­ing activ­i­ties can be a wel­come relief, since doing noth­ing but open your­self to the mus­es can be a kind of tor­ture in its unadul­ter­at­ed form.

Let’s pre­tend we had a genie in a bot­tle and could make a wish. Giv­en the many dif­fi­cul­ties of writ­ing and pub­lish­ing fic­tion, what one thing would you change about the way soci­ety treats writ­ers of lit­er­ary fiction?

Let’s see… what I would like most from lit­er­ary pub­lish­ing would be to 1. earn a liv­ing wage from writ­ing nov­els and 2. be paid a true advance like writ­ers used to be paid. I get to live in New York, and I love to teach, but some­times writ­ing nec­es­sar­i­ly takes a sec­ondary role to more press­ing duties…there’s often just not a lot of cre­ative ener­gy left over. 

If you could wave your mag­ic wand, what would you wish for? 

I think I would cast a spell on myself that made it impos­si­ble for me to lose per­spec­tive when I hit all the lit­tle bumps and snags along the way in the writ­ing life. Call it the bird’s-eye view spell: avi­tus ocu­lus visum. Seren­i­ty now.

Anoth­er ques­tion: how do you like giv­ing ele­va­tor pitch­es about your book? You know, when peo­ple say what is it about.” What is your book about? And what would your ele­va­tor pitch be if you already knew you were speak­ing to your ide­al reader?

I know all about the ele­va­tor pitch from some time I spent in LA, where you should always have a log line to your movie ready in case you get into an ele­va­tor with Steven Spiel­berg. (It just occurred to me that his last name is SPIEL­berg. Awe­some.) I do try to have a 10-word answer pre­pared and a 75-word answer, just in case. 

10-word: It’s about art forgery and the impos­si­bil­i­ty of dupli­ca­tion or repli­ca­tion. (ok, it’s 11 words)

75 word: It’s the sto­ry of a woman who is the direc­tor of 18th-19th Cen­tu­ry prints and draw­ings at a pres­ti­gious auc­tion house in New York who is griev­ing her dead son. The oth­er pro­tag­o­nist is a frus­trat­ed Span­ish artist liv­ing in Paris who turns to forg­ing art­work stolen by the Nazis dur­ing World War Two for recog­ni­tion and mon­ey. Even­tu­al­ly their sto­ries con­verge, and the book asks ques­tions about authen­tic­i­ty and repli­ca­tion of the irre­place­able. (That’s 76 words).

I have to resist the 1000 word answer, which is what I’d real­ly like to give, to gift the read­er all the nuances I’ve crammed into those 300 pages, but no one real­ly wants to lis­ten to that: It’s about love! And death! And sci­ence! And art! And mar­riage! And being an artist! And grow­ing old­er! And rais­ing chil­dren! And liv­ing in Paris! And New York! And art stolen by Nazis! And the insuf­fi­cien­cy of reparations!

The only ques­tion I hate get­ting, though, is What kind of writ­ing do you do?” I usu­al­ly answer: Lit­er­ary fic­tion.” When the per­son stares at me blankly I add: You know, stuff they read in col­lege or in Oprah’s Book Club. Stuff no one buys.”

Wait, there’s a ques­tion I hate more: How many pages is your book?” If I answer that, what will that tell you? I know it’s just a ques­tion peo­ple ask when they don’t know any­thing about writ­ing and want to express polite interest.

I’m thrilled when some­one wants to know that I do… and I’ll hap­pi­ly give that 1000 word expla­na­tion to whomev­er is interested. 

Your ele­va­tor pitch? 

Your book sounds great to me. I love your idea of repli­ca­tion of the irreplaceable.”

My book is about loss in ear­ly, ear­ly child­hood and how it projects itself through­out the rest of a per­son­’s life. The theme is played out across two gen­er­a­tions of a Jew­ish fam­i­ly from Cleve­land, Ohio. 

Sounds like an impor­tant theme you’re explor­ing — I can’t wait to read it. Maybe I could even have a copy signed by the author? 

This has been so much fun cor­re­spond­ing with you. I’m glad the JBC intro­duced us! 

Like­wise! Now, to the bar!

Read more about Alli­son Amend here and read more about Austin Rat­ner here.

Alli­son Amend, a grad­u­ate of the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, is the author of the Inde­pen­dent Pub­lish­er Book Award-win­ning short sto­ry col­lec­tion Things That Pass for Love and the nov­els Sta­tions West (a final­ist for the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture and the Okla­homa Book Award) and A Near­ly Per­fect Copy. She lives in New York City.

Austin Rat­ner is author of the nov­els In the Land of the Liv­ing and The Jump Artist, win­ner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture, and the non-fic­tion book The Psychoanalyst’s Aver­sion to Proof. He is an M.D., stud­ied at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop, and he teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the Sack­ett Street Writ­ers’ Work­shop in New York.