Category Archives: My Writing
It almost always comes as a surprise to me, and I suspect this is true for most fiction writers, which of my stories — whether novels, novellas or short stories — are most read and best liked. Sometimes the reaction is downright incredible: a story I may have put into a drawer (actually onto a stack or into a box full of other stories) because I thought it had no chance of pleasing anyone, not even myself, eventually gets read and praised and very possibly published as well.
“Pigeons,” one of my latest short stories, turned out to be just such a surprise. I liked it well enough, but that was partly because I had been highly motivated to write it, so intrigued was I by an encounter someone had related to me that occurred in a drug store when she was looking for something to…enhance her motility. I had to write the story (actually to bring forth the story the anecdote kindled deep in my imagination, which developed in its own way independent of the anecdote I had been told) for my reasons I at best only dimly understand. Stories get told because they demand to be, something drives one to write them. Others lie fallow for years or forever because whatever it is that causes one to express them never reaches a point of combustion.
Had I not chanced upon a magazine that solicited material from older writers (55 and up), “Pigeons” might still be lying in a box unread. But the story seemed tailor-made for The Feathered Flounder (since defunct, I regret to report; and there’s a good true-life story there), and it was accepted within days instead of the usual weeks or months. More importantly, it was immediately popular and I was told by more than one person who had read other stories of mine that it was my best work.
I found readers’ reaction to the story gratifying, of course, but also perplexing. The story seemed to me similar to others I had written — similar in the sense that even I can see I handle certain themes one way and others in another way, and that sometimes I succeed in making a story engaging and satisfying and sometimes I don’t. But I could see no special virtue to anything about this one, and still can’t, at least beyond the satisfaction that I achieved what I “intended” — whatever that may have been — in its creation.
Look at Me Now, my novel published in 2007, had a very different fate, though it too started from an anecdote, a series of anecdotes actually, though I was cautious at first not to assume it would amount to anything longer than a single short story, which became two, then three, then clearly was turning into something that was going to stretch out much further, all told in the voice (it’s in diary form) of a woman in the process of leaving — escaping, really — her husband of twenty years.
I find first-person narratives the easiest and most enjoyable to write (as long as they are not autobiographical). They seem to be pre-written in my subconscious. All I need do is take dictation from that source with little active effort from my conscious mind. I write as much as I can on any given day for as long as I can — not all that much, really, and never enough to empty out my imagination, so that I can take up where I left off the next day — it’s amazing how easy it is to continue a story if I can recall what the next sentence is to be, and how difficult when I have to start without anything like that to prime the pump.
I tend to underestimate, though, what is involved in these relatively painless acts of creation. While the process energizes me in ways I still find surprising — increased confidence, a generally heightened sense of my environment, even increased libido — all that masks the drain I also experience. I sometimes think this is what a medium must feel like after a seance, assuming the medium is not a charlatan and actually does go into a trance, whatever the value of what s/he claims to communicate while in that trance. I also feel justified, made whole and unapologetic for my existence and for the life I have led — in a word, happy.
The initial reaction to Look at Me Now was encouraging. Two agents took it on, one saying the book had changed her life — which I took to mean she was undergoing some sort of marital crisis and was influenced by the way my character Deirdre dealt with hers. That reaction to the book was flattering, as well as frightening (I didn’t want to be responsible for the breakup of a marriage in real life, however indirectly; I knew someone who proposed to a woman because of some lines in a movie he had seen). But the agent’s reaction was also confusing because it seemed oddly unprofessional, like a doctor telling you about his youthful experience of STD, when all you wanted was some medication for a bladder infection.
But it wasn’t until later, after I had published the book with a writer’s collective, my two agents having failed to place the book, when I put the book up for review on LibraryThing, the online reader’s review site, that I got both positive and decidedly negative reactions that changed my entire mindset about the book and also divested me of what I will call my literary virginity.
Till then I naively believed that we all read the same book if the words are all the same, however much we may or may not like it. But the dozen or so members of LibraryThing who received review copies of Look at Me Now showed me otherwise, and since then I have been all too aware that once the creature of my imagination is let loose for anyone to handle or manhandle there is no telling what they will make of it. (One reviewer happened to share the name of a well-known British actress I like and had an address in London. I was hoping she really was that actress. I still don’t know if she is, but her review was long, thorough and devastatingly negative.) Between you and me and some sour grapes, I think the reviewers expected to receive finished copies of the book instead of the Advanced Review Copies I sent out — in some cases all the way to Australia. I had gotten more that 700 requests for a review copy, which LibraryThing whittled down to the twenty best matches.
There were many good reviews, at LibraryThing and elsewhere, but it was the negative ones that showed me how subjective we are in our reading and how much we read into as read. The less sophisticated readers (unlike my possible famous actress) simply wrote things like, “The narrator reminds me of my sister-in-law, whom I hate.” But all of the negative reviewers displayed real animus, an emotional reaction they sometimes explained like the woman with the detestable sister-in-law but usually did not, leaving me to wonder what could make someone so angry about a novel which they, after all, had got for free and only needed to write a few sentences about for their trouble — or do nothing at all, as some of those who received free review copies chose to do.
I didn’t want to consider the possibility that any of the reviewers, who were almost all women, resented the fact that the author is a man. I write mostly in the voice of or about women. I won’t pretend to know why. I do it well, or not, but I don’t think I need apologize for trying. I don’t believe I portray women condescendingly or otherwise in a chauvinistic way. And none of the reviewers suggested as much. But I do know some women, like some men, resent authors pretending to understand what goes on in the heads of the opposite sex. By that standard, I suppose I should never try to write about anyone but men who fall into the range of my own particular masculine background — an absurd suggestion, I would say.
But you can be the judge for yourself if you care to have a look at the excerpt from Look at Me Now on this blogsite. By way of pleading my own case, Look at Me Now is far and away my best-selling book, in its ebook form, though I have no idea in the great majority of the sales whether the experience of reading the novel was worth the .99 the readers paid for it or not. In a few cases they returned it for a refund, which makes the fact that so many others have kept and, hopefully, read it — having presumably sampled it enough before buying to realize it isn’t chick-lit or a “Woman’s Novel” — all the more enigmatic….
For them what cares, all my published work is available at Amazon – still the largest pool of potential readers despite their increasingly autocratic ways — Barnes & Noble and, most recently, Smashwords (.com), the latter being the new good guy on the block, at least for the present. Samples of each book are available at each of those venues. The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories is still currently free at Smashwords.com (available in eight different formats).
This blog was originally intended to keep readers posted on my books both published and in progress. But I have an ADD-class tendency to get distracted by other matters like politics, religion and life itself. Maybe not such a bad thing, but I realized today I haven’t posted an update on my writing activities for some time. Not that the world has ground to a halt on this account. On the other hand, there have been developments, and I would like to share then with you, perhaps over a series of blog entries if you can stand them.
Big Picture: I now have five novels and a short story collection in print or pixels or both, plus three science fiction novels. In addition to Billy Boy and Look at Me Now — both already written about in this blog (see the tabs at the top of this page) — there are also My Bess, Song of the Mockingbird and Father Walther’s Temptation plus The Jew’s Wife and Other Stories.
I’d like to discuss the short story collection first, because it encompasses just about all the subject matter I usually write about in both my short and longer fiction. The Jew’s Wife is titled after my most successful published story (“successful” meaning best-liked), partly for that reason and partly because it just struck me as a good title. The story itself, though still available online, was published in the most obscure of magazines, a publication that lasted, I think, just two issues, an irony that was not lost on me, of course.
By contrast, another story in the collection was broadcast on the BBC World Service and reached an audience of about 1 million listeners worldwide (out of a weekly listenership at the time of 34 million; the story was broadcast three times). It’s called “The World,” a woman’s retrospective of a failed marriage and her somewhat ungrateful son, both considered against the backdrop of a moment in her religious education that takes on an unintended meaning twenty-some years later.
Perhaps if I had submitted “The Jew’s Wife” to the BBC instead of “The World” I would have had an audience of 1 million for that story instead of its being virtually buried buried in the deep bowels of the Internet. Those two stories also represent opposite ends of whatever spectrum represents the range of my short stories (“The Jew’s Wife” is about a tobacco farmer, an immigrant who works for another immigrant, a Jew from the same part of the world as himself where their roles, the farmer realizes bitterly, would have been reversed).
My influences, as best I can tell, have been Anton Chekhov, Eudora Welty and a handful of other writers who principally or exclusively wrote short stories. This was because I never intended to write anything but short stories, considering novels a lesser art form, just as ballads are inferior to lyric poems. At one point I thought I would support my short story-writing by producing mass-market science fiction novels, which worked for a while, a very short while, then failed when my publisher was sold to an owner who stopped publishing sf altogether and I wasn’t able to connect with another.
Meanwhile, my head down over my last and well out of the mainstream of the literary influences of the day, I missed the postmodern movement and all the other lit-fads entirely, having opted many years earlier not to get a Masters of Fine Arts, though I was accepted at the University of Iowa back when that program was one of the few offering an MFA and was full of people who went on to have big careers. I didn’t believe there was anything to be gained for a writer in an academic setting. In fact, I was a bit ashamed of myself for not dropping out of college once I had made my mind up to spend the rest of my life writing fiction.
I was wrong about one aspect of that decision. Had I obtained a masters degree from Iowa I would have graduated armed with a Rolodex full of invaluable professional contacts, much like someone graduating from Harvard law or business schools. I never did learn the business of writing as opposed to the craft. And writing is like every other activity people engage in. It ain’t just about talent. It’s not even principally about talent. But I underestimated how much business savvy a writer, or any artist, needs to develop if he or she is to succeed in the sense most people understand the word “success.”
Still, I like to think my ignorance also saved me from the contagion of those literary fetishes, mostly cooked up in universities, as well as from the opinions of other people generally. I might have been as susceptible as so many American writers have who soared for a while and then self-destructed or ended up trying to please the professors and their acolytes in the upscale review venues rather than what used to be called the “common reader.”
Lack of success is painful, even debilitating, but it can also be liberating if you don’t let it cause you to eat your heart out. I have written the stories and, I confess, eventually the novels, I wanted to write in the way I wanted to write them. That’s cold consolation some days, but I think it amounts to something more than self-delusion, much as I still wished I had learned how to play the game of writing better.
But, as usual, I’ve gotten sidetracked from my original purpose in writing this blog entry. Lest I risk losing you entirely (I assume I haven’t if you’ve read this far), let me stop here and continue in a few days with more talk about my newer titles along with, no doubt, more deviations despite the best, or at least, entirely innocent, of intentions.
For them what cares, all my published work is available at Amazon — still the largest pool of potential readers despite their increasingly autocratic ways — Barnes & Noble and, most recently, Smashwords (.com), the latter being the new good guy on the block, at least for the present. Samples of each book are available at each of those venues. The Jew’s Wife & Other Stories is currently free at Smashwords.com (available in eight different formats).
Till next time, happy reading.
This is a story of mine that was broadcast on the BBC World Service in 1996. Back then they had a program to which anyone could submit a short story (by mail) which, if accepted, was broadcast three times over the course of a week. At that time the World Service’s weekly English audience was 30 million. Three broadcasts of the same story reached a large number of people, perhaps as many as a million.
I mention this because I figure the broadcast of “Logging On” as well as another story of mine broadcast a year or so later, “The World,” was and probably will remain the high-water mark in terms of numbers for the audience of anything I have published or will publish, not to mention the prestige of having one’s work accepted and used by an organization like the BBC. Not that numbers mean anything in themselves. There is only one reader, and that happens to be you at the moment.
The story was read — dramatized, really — by Don Fellows, an unknown to me at the time but someone I have since discovered was an accomplished and well-known actor (you’ve probably seen him in any number of movies or in a Masterpiece Theater production), American but having spent most of his working life in Britain. He makes the story into something better than it is, as any good actor can (I’m opposed to fiction being read by professional actors for that reason; a good actor can make the telephone directory sound like Shakespeare). But I like to think there’s enough to the story to merit consideration on its own.
Now for the interesting stuff.
The story is of course fiction, a product of my imagination. But there are elements to it that are derived from real events. One of these is the account given by the American student of her trip to Poland and the Nazi death camps. That’s an account, virtually verbatim, that was based on an actual description I read by someone I knew who had made just such a trip. Its inclusion in my story resulted in a complaint to the BBC from the Polish consulate in the UK.
There were also other letters as a result of the BBC’s broadcasts of this story, each of them positive and, judging solely on the basis of the writers’ names (not a good way of judging anything, I admit) from Jewish listeners.
It’s a long time since this story was aired (I got up at, I think, 4:00 a.m. to tape-record the first broadcast [via shortwave radio] — 9:00 a.m. GMT). It’s not the same story I would write now, human personality being, like the river of the Greek proverb, not being something you can step into twice without its having become something different from what it was. But the story is still recognizably my own, and it seems to have largely survived the passage of time.
The version of the Internet portrayed in the story now seems, to say the least, quaint. The Net may have been more advanced at the time this story was broadcast than when the story itself was written, but only by a few years. No texting, no smart phones, no email as we know it today. Finding a weather report for Tasmania available online directly from the other side of the world seemed miracle enough. Messaging with a stranger in Berlin while sitting in your bedroom in Brooklyn seemed like the stuff of science fiction. What hasn’t changed is human nature, and if a work of fiction succeeds it’s because it’s captured some aspect of that alternately admirable or discouraging constant.
My new novel, Song of the Mockingbird, is now available as an ebook at Amazon.com. Soon it will also be available for Nook and at Smashwords for all other platforms. It will be out in paperback via my publisher Savvy Press early next year.
You can read the first three chapters here.
From the “dust jacket”:
“SONG OF THE MOCKINGBIRD is the story of a mature woman’s self-discovery. Five years widowed but still bound to the man to whom she was married for thirty years, Doris gradually comes to discover her life not only is not over but is just beginning in a way she had never imagined possible. In the process, she also discovers a good deal about her marriage that contradicts the ideal image of it she has nurtured all her adult life.
Meanwhile, her daughter’s own marriage is breaking up. After her father’s death Evelyn willingly took over his role as her mother’s guardian. Strong-willed by nature, she is nevertheless at a loss when she is no longer able to control her husband’s will. Alone with a small child, she comes to discover that the mother she has treated almost as a second child is a source of strength where she had least expected one.
Doris’s odyssey includes close friendships with two women who despise each other, a love affair which awakens her to a sense of her own sexuality she had never thought possible, and a new relationship with the daughter she has previously seen as merely a female clone of her late husband.”
This is one of my longer (78,000 words) novels. Usually I write that many words and then cut about 20,000. This time, even after the edit, the book is still hefty by my standards. That’s partly because I follow two story lines instead of one–the mother’s as well as the daughter’s–intimately connected, as you can see from the synopsis, but each treated fully as its own narrative. I typically don’t concentrate on more than one main character, but this time the material and my state of mind (on which I’ll elaborate shortly) were such that I felt like taking a shot at a more traditional novel form. It doesn’t quite match the four or five plot lines of a Dickens or Trollope, but following two characters in detail rather than one meant for me keeping a couple more balls up in the air than I typically do.
Now, to my state of mind while writing this book…
I think of this book as my “second symphony,” not because it was the second novel I wrote–I had written several before it–but because I wrote it in the kind of mood that I hear in Brahms’s second symphony and Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto.
Brahms labored long and hard on his first symphony, always hearing Beethoven’s 9th thundering behind him. When that first symphony, a great masterpiece in its own right, was finally out of the way, he seemed to revel in the sheer joy of creative freedom evident in his second. It seems to sing for the pure pleasure of singing. It’s as if it was written while the composer was on a well-deserved vacation, which he may well have been.
I hear a similar delight in Tchaikovsky’s second piano concerto, the one so rarely performed, though his first is a war-horse of every symphonic orchestra, or used to be. In this case it’s not so much a question of Tchaikovsky’s getting out from under the deep shadow of the greatness that preceded him as his finally finding full confidence in his own massive talent and allowing himself to enjoy it.
I remember writing some chapters of Song of the Mockingbird in Prospect Park seated at one of the deserted picnic benches near the children’s playground. It was autumn, this time of year, chilly but sunny and pleasant to be out of doors. I too was in a relaxed, happy frame of mind, as sure of my story-telling abilities as I am ever likely to be and delighting in the pure pleasure of recording each new line of narrative or dialogue in longhand on yellow legal-size paper. Something must have happened to give me that wonderful mental freedom and creative confidence–it may have been the period when I had an agent enthusiastically shopping around the novel I had completed before this one. I don’t really recall. What I do remember is the sense of working at the very top of my abilities and enjoying every minute of it.
Which is not to say this book is the best thing I have written, or to make any judgment of what I did or did not achieve with it. I can’t make that call, and in any case authors always think their last book, in my case My Bess (which also has a middle-aged woman as the main character, come to think of it), though my readers seem to prefer Look at Me Now, if sales are any indication. After a book is done, the author is just another reader, after all. What’s special to me about Song of the Mockingbird, though (all an author’s works are special to her/him in some sense, just as, to restate the cliche, each child is special to a parent), is that sense I had for the first time of being up to the challenge of writing a “real,” i.e. old-fashioned, multi-plot narrative like the Big Boys and Girls did back when the novel was the world’s greatest and most popular art form. That and the way the writing flowed as easily as the pencil did across the lined yellow paper as autumn leaves fluttered to the ground around me.