Ear­li­er this week, Leah Kamin­sky con­sid­ered the pow­er of inan­i­mate objects and speak­ing to ghosts in con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture—as in her own nov­el, The Wait­ing Room. Leah has been guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I hate wait­ing. I’m that per­son at check­out in the super­mar­ket who hops from line to line impa­tient­ly, emerg­ing at the oth­er end even­tu­al­ly, hav­ing tak­en twice as long to get through. If my den­tist is run­ning more than fif­teen min­utes late, I pace around glow­er­ing at the poor recep­tion­ist, silent­ly furi­ous that no one called me to say he was behind sched­ule. I get annoyed if my flight has been delayed, resort­ing to Twit­ter to vent my frus­tra­tion against the air­line. I can nev­er under­stand how the peo­ple around me appear so calm, loung­ing around on chairs, deeply engrossed in read­ing a book, or phleg­mat­i­cal­ly play­ing Can­dy Crush on their phone. If the post­pone­ment of grat­i­fi­ca­tion is a sign of matu­ri­ty, then when it comes to wait­ing I am that tod­dler in the aisle hav­ing a melt­down. Not only do I hate hav­ing my time sucked from me, but the demor­al­iz­ing uncer­tain­ty of not know­ing how long I will need to wait has me on shpilkes.

How iron­ic then that some­one as impa­tient as I should take ten (make that thir­ty) years to write her debut nov­el. I have imbued my main char­ac­ter, Dina, with my own traits of wait­ing-angst. She is an ex-pat who vis­its Israel on a whim: As soon as she set foot in Ben Guri­on air­port for the first time, she felt odd­ly enfold­ed in famil­iar­i­ty… the line inside pass­port con­trol remind­ed her of a crowd of Mel­bourne Jews wait­ing for bagels at Glicks Bak­ery on Carlisle Street every Sun­day morn­ing; not real­ly a line, more a schmear of gener­ic impa­tience.” She fan­ta­sizes about hav­ing plas­tic strap-on elbows to push her way through the strange­ly endear­ing orga­nized chaos.” She falls in love, and ends up staying.

The Wait­ing Room resist­ed being cor­ralled inside the con­fines of a book jack­et for a very long time. The idea for the nov­el came to me soon after my moth­er died. I want­ed to write about her extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ences as a sur­vivor of Bergen-Belsen. She was twen­ty-one years old when she was lib­er­at­ed, the sole sur­vivor of her entire fam­i­ly. Arriv­ing in Aus­tralia as a refugee, she went on to rebuild her life, work­ing, mar­ry­ing, and rais­ing a fam­i­ly, wrap­ping us all in a pro­tec­tive shield of love. Yet when I start­ed writ­ing about her after her death, much to my shame, I could only remem­ber snip­pets of her sto­ries. I had been a reluc­tant lis­ten­er as a teenag­er, run­ning from her haunt­ed past.

It took almost twen­ty years before I had the courage to tack­le the book again. I was already a doc­tor; I had met my hus­band and moved to Israel, where we were bring­ing up three young chil­dren. As I strug­gled to adjust to my new home, a new lan­guage, and the demands of day-to-day life, the only writ­ing I man­aged was scrib­bling notes in a jour­nal. Many of these obser­va­tions would become the bedrock from which my nov­el sprout­ed — still inspired by my mother’s sto­ry, but also by my new expe­ri­ences as an immigrant.

After a few years I had a pile of scenes, but no over­ar­ch­ing nar­ra­tive or struc­ture to pin them on. Being such an impa­tient per­son, I began to feel very frus­trat­ed. I met the won­der­ful author David Gross­man after read­ing his pow­er­ful nov­el See Under: Love. I shared my angst about the book with him. He explained that when he sets out to write a nov­el he knows almost noth­ing about it and it is only in the final stages that the sto­ry starts to con­geal. I need the sto­ry to sur­prise me, betray me, take me to places I’m afraid to go usu­al­ly,” he said. In his expe­ri­ence, a nov­el-in-progress often behaves like a cun­ning car­pet-mer­chant: It unrolls and unfolds dozens of col­or­ful car­pets, and I’m tempt­ed very easily.”

Grossman’s process intrigued me. At the time, though, I did not real­ize that I am also the sort of writer who needs to write in order to find out what I am writ­ing, so The Wait­ing Room limped along at a painstak­ing­ly slow pace. 

Writ­ing is like dri­ving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your head­lights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” E.L. Doc­torow once wrote. I per­se­vered in my writ­ing, try­ing out var­i­ous struc­tures, but was still total­ly lost in the nar­ra­tive woods. The sto­ry spanned three con­ti­nents, three eras, and had a dozen char­ac­ters. Just as I was ready to give up, a friend encour­aged me to apply for an MFA at the Ver­mont Col­lege of Fine Arts. I was paired with an advi­sor in the sec­ond half of the pro­gram, Clint McCown, who was a bril­liant, soft­ly spo­ken South­ern writer. He accu­rate­ly diag­nosed me of a fear of fin­ish­ing” — this nov­el had been with me for so many years that I almost didn’t want to let go of it. McCown soon became the per­fect anti­dote to my angst-rid­den, impa­tient inner crit­ic, and I start­ed to find my writ­ing mojo again. He encour­aged me to devel­op the ghost­ly pres­ence of my protagonist’s moth­er, who even­tu­al­ly grew into a major char­ac­ter in the nov­el. From there, it didn’t take long then to tame the man­u­script into the shape of a nov­el. After anoth­er year of care­ful edit­ing, under the guid­ance of my Amer­i­can agent Todd Shus­ter, I final­ly felt ready to show it to pub­lish­ers. Then, with­in a cou­ple of weeks, after all those years as a work-in-progress, The Wait­ing Room final­ly found a home. The wait was final­ly over. 

Leah Kamin­sky is a physi­cian and author, whose books include We’re All Going to Die, Writer MD, and Crack­ing the Code. She is the poet­ry edi­tor for the Med­ical Jour­nal of Australia.

Relat­ed Content: