The Historical Me

(these blogs were first published in the Visiting Scribe series of the Jewish Book Council’s Prosen People.  bit.ly/1Kmyx0r and bit.ly/20f0Cjx)

 

Over the course of publication of four novels, I have become aware of a personal truth that eluded me in the previous thirty odd years of writing seven unpublished ones. Hold your breath. Here it comes.

I write historical fiction. That is, historical fiction is my métier. I am it and it is me.

When I look back on my writing career – battle-scarred veteran that I am – I can see that whenever I wrote novels of the present era or ventured into the more rarefied territory of allegory, there was something missing, at the very least from the marketing point of view. But there may have been deeper flaws than market. It may be that my sensibilities are most harmonious with cultural tropes gone by. It may be that my gut finds indigestible modernist poses, especially about things Jewish, the current antipathy towards all things Israeli, for example, or the general lack of respect for the pious life, one I fail at living but greatly admire. Or it may be something entirely different.

I have always been enchanted by the past. I grew up on a diet of music, books, and film from my parents and grandparents eras, their libraries and oral traditions. Long before I knew something of Rashi, my spiritual guides were Frank Capra, Verdi and Puccini, Dickens, the Brontes, Hugo, and Balzac. Enshrined in their work were icons of virtue, blessing, and tragedy: The Working Stiff, The Fallen Woman, The Mother, The Child, The Drunken Poet, The Kindly Grandfather, The Tortured One, and The Villain, who could take many forms including The Fat Cat, The Overseer, The Seducer, The Strong Arm. I also learned from the same sources that each of these icons could contain bits and pieces of its opposite, that nothing was as simple as it seemed in a manner very different from both melodrama and postmodern cynicism. There was always a universal humanity, classic set pieces of contradiction, in my childhood icons. They had resonance for me, even as a precocious child absorbing stories above her grade level. Sixty years later, I admit I still find them the truest models I know of real life.

But on whom were they modeled? One need look no further than the Tanakh to find the most glorious array of human archtypes ever gathered in one place. Take human frailty for example. Where in all of literature are there better examples than an angry Moses, a lustful David, a jealous Cain, a drunken Noah? I don’t think it’s an accident that before Dickens, before the Brontes, my first childhood books were picture books of Bible stories, stories and characters that consumed my imagination even then.

At present, we live in a world where the common wisdom has it that truth is elusive and personal, good is defined by political desires, evil judged nonexistent, at least in the traditional sense. No small wonder then that a writer of my proclivities needs to travel back in time to exercise her favored images of heroes and heroines, antagonists and forces of nature in which the Voice of God bellows warning into deaf, unwilling ears. Back then, I am home. My historical people can breathe, walk, love, sin, expiate, and sacrifice. In the present, they might only be objects of fun. But when they are set in the past, readers find resonance, recognition, and are moved.

Never Forget

In the cannon of Christian philosophy, it is clear that both Thomas Aquinas and Augustine described the Jews as “witnesses to history”. These men considered Jewish existence a vital part of God’s plan. They viewed Jews as eternal outliers, dispersed throughout the world, functioning as sacred historians, designed to suffer, digest, and report on the adventures and misadventures of both Christian and pagan narratives. As a Jew, a Jew who writes historical fiction, their thesis works for me. But there’s another, a more Jewish take on history and memory.

The public memory is exceedingly short. I’ve mentioned in the past on these very pages that it astonishes me that people are forgetful of history as recent as fifty years in the past, let alone one hundred. I’ve met Jewish and gentile individuals who are vigilant, intense on the issue of American racism who have never heard of the White Citizens Councils of the ‘50s. I’m talking about Southerners whose parents lived through the civil rights terror in ways Northerners could never imagine, even those brave souls who spent a few weeks of their summers as voter registration workers during their student years. Non-Jews especially are poorly informed of old world pogroms and of the pre-Nazi, millennia-long flight of stateless Jews murdered en masse or hounded from country to country by state sponsored anti-Semites.

In my most recent novel, An Undisturbed Peace, I emphasize a curious correspondence between the Jewish and Native American Experience, obvious to any who know and compare the history of both peoples. Unfortunately, the catalogue of events afflicting Native Americans before The Trail of Tears is as obscured in modern memory as the two thousand years of Jewish Exile and oppression before World War II. I’ve been told over and over by advance readers of the novel “I never knew about that” or “Surely, you made this part up” when all I’ve done is take fleshed out characters and plopped them into the seamy caldron of historical fact.

Many of my fellow authors have chosen the Holocaust as subject, in the honorable and necessary effort to make sure the world never forgets. I find I cannot go there. The idea intimidates. The Holocaust is a most holy literary ground and I fear I may be too profane an author to render it properly. I leave works on the Holocaust to those with a deep familial connection or some other hook embedded inside their souls that pulls them into that dark, horrific time. I respect any creative mind taking up the challenge.

For now, I prefer to never forget, to witness the forces that shaped the world that allowed the Holocaust to happen. Why was America so slow to enter World War II? People knew or at the very least strongly suspected what was happening to the Jews of Europe, no matter how they covered their tracks or rationalized later on. Was it a hardness of national heart fostered by a history of slavery, racial oppression, rapacious settlers, Native American land grab and death march? These things are also matters we must never forget. As Aquinas and Augustine knew, there were Jewish witnesses all along the way. I plan to do my part in delivering their reports.

 

Which Is To Be Master?

Humpty Dumpty

Apparently, I am the cleaning lady of writers.

I was asked recently to join a forum at Goodreads discussing the whys and wherefores, maybe even the hows of writing. I admire and respect the forum leader, author Sharman Russell who writes award-winning nature and citizen science non-fiction as well as gloriously imaginative historic fiction, so I joined the group out of amity, without knowing what I’d have to offer.

Soon others initiated a community dialogue. What struck me most about the commentaries was that there was an excitement, a palpable energy to what was being said about the act of writing. There was reverence, even love.

And then I entered the fray. Me, the killjoy. I told the others I don’t seem to have the excitement they have about writing. I don’t know when it was that it became less of a metaphysical or spiritual or even consciously self-expressive activity for me. I suffered more than three decades of rejection before enjoying a measure of success. (It’s all about luck. Out of seven rejected novels, only one was truly bad. The rest were pretty good!) Somewhere along the way, writing became an occupation I neither reveled in nor approached mystically.

Too much rejection will do that.

Once a dear friend of mine replied when I was complaining of working too hard, “But your writing is not your work! It’s your passion!” I was offended although because I love her, I kept my mouth shut. It may be that my characters are full of passion for persons and ideas, but the me who writes them regards them with a colder eye. I don’t think of my writing as a passion at all. Writing is simply what I do, what I can not help doing. A compulsion, if you will. Often as much curse as blessing.

As author Peter Riva said in the forum, the pleasure is in the work. I agree there. It’s my conviction though that’s only because our minds need something to do. Minds wither without work. Souls, if you want to go there, do too. Simple as that. After all, is writing any different from many kinds of labor? You get up in the morning, you do it, applying your best energies, and hope for the best. You change direction, consider market, reject market when you have to, embrace it whenever you can. Sometimes you burn out. All forms of work require a degree of creativity when done well.

I’ve never felt a character possess me, or step away from me, or motivate itself, although my mind sometimes surprises me with a direction I hadn’t consciously anticipated. I’ve never understood what authors mean when they speak of characters who take over their work. That pose resembles schizophrenia to me. Or at the very least, recalls Lewis Carroll. Remember this exchange?

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’                                                                                                                               ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

I prefer to be master.

Of all the arts, I find writing most like music. When I’m intensely focused on my words, it’s their rhythm that most enthralls me, I think. I’m told by a friend/reader who is a professional musician that my prose has a distinct cadence, something involving triads. I haven’t a clue what that means to my process, or even if it’s true, but ever since he said it, I try to chop up my internal series of threes, just to be ornery, I guess. They crop up often. And ornery or not, I let many go rather than butcher them.

So, perhaps being self contradictory here, I believe there is an unconscious element in writing, unconscious in the Jungian sense. It may be neurotic, I don’t know, but it’s part of the pleasure and part of the compulsion both. Regardless, it’s the conscious shaping of that element that makes the work sing. Otherwise, it’s cacophony. It’s vital that the creator never lose control of the work, or the sound is like an orchestra playing on its own without a conductor. Banal, unshaped, unruly, dull.

I don’t think about why I write anymore. Or even how. Like everybody else who gets up and goes to work, I have a job to do. I get up. I do it. It gets done. Sometimes it’s a pleasure. Sometimes it’s drudgery. It’s work.

And work is good. Work is healthy. It doesn’t have to be anything else

The Dreaded Writing Process Blog

I am ashamed. I am very ashamed. I made a promise I have not kept. I’m now eleven days late in keeping it. I’ve resolved to keep it now, right here, but if I’ve lost the faith of those to whom I promised, I shall have to bear it, bowing my neck under all that bloody shame.

What was it that led me down this rocky road of broken vows and regret? The dreaded Writing Process Blog. I’ve done the Writing Process Blog before. It’s the one where authors tag each other, one after another, like toes in a morgue gone frantic post disaster or plague. You promise an author friend to answer four easy-peasy questions and to tag three other authors who will also do the same. You figure when solicited “Hey! It’s a snap. It’s good publicity for whatever I’m working on or just completed. I can do that. I can knock it off in a half hour! People will notice and look forward to the fascinating project I’ve described while being wowed by my uniquely brilliant process technique. Plus, I know I can find a few suckers willing to be tagged without hardly breaking a sweat.” You probably like the author who’s asked if they can tag you, as I do Debra Ann Pawlak, Hollywood historian extraordinaire, (www.debraannpawlak.com). You don’t want to disappoint. First you do the simple part – press author friends into the act. Then the four questions sit on your desk. And sit. And sit.

They sit for every author for different reasons. Some are busy promoting a new book in a dozen spheres at once. Some are having trouble finding that third author who’s willing to put his/her head – or is it toe? – in this particular noose. Some are stumped by the fourth question – What is your writing process? because they aren’t really sure they have one. They just write. My excuse? I’ve been too obsessed with my novel-in-progress to devote even a fraction of my precious writing energy to anything else. I’m pretty far along and I just want it done. Every ounce of verbal energy I have goes into it. I hate being taken away from it. I’ve written a tiny fraction of emails than my ‘normal’ lately. I’m surprised my friends haven’t written to ask if everything’s ok. I’ve pretty much stopped posting on Facebook.

Lots of my nonverbal energy is going into the new novel, too. You should see my house. Bedlam! I’ve even come to resent my Sabbath a little, which is a great sin and adds to my shame, because the one thing I refuse to do on Shabbos is write and of course, on Shabbos, my idle thoughts always turn to the most startling, fantastic ideas for my new novel which torments me. I’m admitting this during Selichot, I’ll have you know. (Non Jews will just have to take on faith that this is really, really significant. If I try to get into explaining Selichot, this blog will turn into a book.) Shame always brings out ugly truths.

So before Rosh HaShanah gets underway, I’ve got to get this one under my belt. I’ve already apologized (sort of since I was never really wrong) to my brother and knelt at the clay feet of a friend. It’s all part of preparing for the holidays and ensuring that Ha-Shem enscribes me – and my new novel – for a good year coming up. Agggh. It always boils down to selfish ambition in the end, no?

But enough explication. Here are my answers to the four questions of the Writing Process Blog.

l. What are you working on? How to explain? It’s an historical novel but character driven more than history driven. Sort of. It’s focus is the Cherokee Nation in the years leading up to and including the Trail of Tears after the Indian Removal Act of 1830, one of the great racist or imperialist (are they the same?) sins of the USofA. My characters include a beautiful Cherokee woman who is beloved by both a newly immigrated Jewish peddler and a black slave, so of course it’s a triangulated love story as well. Its working title is 25 Lashes which was the punishment under an 1824 law for a Cherokee woman who marries a black slave. Catchy no?

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre? Ok, I’m not sure what its genre is. My ego tells me it’s literary and all literary novels are different or they wouldn’t be such. My publisher’s marketers will probably say its Historical, Jewish, African American, and Native American. All I can say about that is it certainly covers a lot of bases.

3. Why do you write what you do? Damned if I know. I just need to write. After 45 years, I don’t question it. It’s just what I do. As to 25 Lashes, my agent, the oh so delightfully brilliant Peter Riva, suggested the Trail of Tears as a subject to me after my last novel, Marching to Zion, about Deep South racism and antisemitism in the 1920s-1930s won his heart. He thought I could handle the subject with extraordinary sensitivity and drama. From his mouth to God’s ear.

4. What is your writing process? Oh my dear. I get up in the morning and sit down at the desk. I listen to the voice. I pound at the keyboard. That’s about it.

So now the dreaded blog is done. Hopefully sometime before I light my candles for Rosh HaShanah, Debra Ann Pawlak will forgive me for taking so long. All I’ve got left to do is tag my authors and here they are:

Susan Morse, http://www.susanmorse.me, bestselling author of The Habit and the recently released, The Dog Stays in the Picture: Lessons Learned from a Rescue Greyhound. Read her. She’s touching, funny, and informative all at once.

Sonia Taitz, http://www.soniataitz.com, author of bestselling The Watchmaker’s Daughter, In The King’s Arms, Mothering Heights, and the soon to be released, Down Under, a story of first love and second chances. One of the smartest women I know.

Susan Blumberg Kason, http://www.susanblumbergkason.com, debut author of the riveting memoir, Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong. Here’s one you should keep an eye on. The woman’s going places.

So take it away, ladies! The Writing Process Blog is your problem now!

The Gold in Them Thar Hills

Sequoyah,_Cherokee_inventor,_by_C_B__King,_1836

Sequoyah, Inventor of the Cherokee Alphabet

I’m working on a new novel. Until this week, I would have said I was half way through with it, that I’d be done by the end of the year. After all, I have on paper great characters, Jews, African Americans, Cherokees, and a fascinating plot rollicking along to conclusion. Then this week I went on a research trip and realized I have to step back.

My husband – my most passionate publicist (sorry Laura De Silva) who pumps me up to everyone he meets – keeps telling people my new novel’s about the Trail of Tears but it’s not really. Over the last few years while I’ve written about the Southern Jewish Experience and how it intersects with the African American Experience throughout the 20th century, I’ve realized that my work has come to focus in general on American Racism, the great original sin here in the home of the brave, land of the free. But I needed fresh inspiration and so I turned to the previous century for that most primal element of American Racism, it’s treatment towards the First Nations, specifically, the Cherokee Nation during the crucible years from 1828 to 1838 which started with the Georgia gold rush and culminated in the Indian Expulsion Act and the Trail of Tears.

I’d got 40,000 words plus in. Considering my usual novel length isn’t more than the low 80s, I figured I’d got half-way through. But then this week, we took a trip to the mountains of Cherokee, North Carolina, and well, it changed the game considerably. Here’s what happened.

There’s a plethora of resources on what happened during that dark decade that expelled what’s known as the five civilized nations of native Americans on what amounted to a forced death march to their new “homes” in the wild west. The history is not hard to follow, there’s tons of it on record, and I found it great material to incorporate into a fictional realm. But I suspected there was something missing. Beyond the straight history, there’s lack out there of primary sources and a logjam of revisionist romanticism of who and what the Cherokee really were. I was looking for the former and having a hard time finding it. Then I visited Cherokee, North Carolina, home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian there is a heart-wrenching experience. It begins with a video, brilliantly executed, retelling the creation epic of the Cherokee. There’s the water beetle and the water spider and the delivery by these most modest creatures of land and fire to humanity. By the time the story’s over and the narrator, a wise chief, tells you that these stories have been preserved by the Cherokee for hundreds of years despite the decimation of the people by whites and now, he is giving them to you, the audience, why you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved, even to tears. Then one walks the exhibits and they are stunning and moving and informative and the audience can only emerge humbled. You walk out of that place filled with respect and saddened at the sight of men in native dress on the tacky, commercial streets downtown posing for photos in front of “trading posts” with tourists for tips. Most importantly for me, I found in the museum library a primary source on Cherokee life during the era of my novel. The Payne Butrick Papers were compiled by a missionary in Cherokee country for the express purpose of identifying the Cherokee as one of the lost tribes of Jews. They record six volumes worth of Cherokee cultural history along with collected letters of Cherokee chiefs from that era. The Payne Butrick Papers were compiled between 1817 and the 1830s. Since most original Cherokee documents were lost or burned by settlers during the expulsion era, this is the best we’ve got. And I am delighted to have access to them. Since I’ve found them I’ve learned they’re essential reading for anyone studying Cherokee history. Why I couldn’t find them before underscores the abundance of fanciful books on Native Americans. For me the Payne Butrick papers were the needle in the haystack, the vein of gold hidden deep in the mountain cave.

If you are in Cherokee, NC, after the museum, you might attend an outdoor performance of Unto These Hills, an historic play performed by tribal members in an airy amphitheater worthy of Sparta. It is, let me warn you, not for the serious theater goer but perfect for the tourist who hasn’t studied Cherokee history. It’s interesting on one level, a hokey gloss on another, and ridiculous in part (Cherokees dancing at a hoe-down? Really?). Still worth going to. When we went, I was appalled at the steep stairs I had to climb up and down to my seat as I’m getting older and not too steady on my feet sometimes, especially when wearing wedgies. I cautioned said publicist husband to look out for me because if I fell down and toppled over a dozen other attendees, the injuries and lawsuits would be staggering. He said: “Well, maybe not, dear. We’re in a foreign country now. I don’t have a clue what Cherokee liability laws might be. . .”

And there you have it. Subtly, without your realizing it, when you enter Cherokee NC, you’ve entered a foreign country and the foreign country is on soil you consider American and yet it is and it’s not. Not at all. This is one of the most curious legacies of imperialism, no? And after you’ve absorbed all that, maybe you’ll recognize that that’s why that casino is down the street. And that’s why the police cars say “Cherokee Nation” on their sides.

And another thing. I didn’t see too many of them. Yet I was smack dab in the middle of Cherokee, North Carolina. What does that say? Where are they? Lost to history. Lost to decimation. Lost to genocide.

I have to add a different texture to my novel now. It might not be completed all so quickly. May the spirits of these beautiful people guide me. I mean them only glorification, compassion, truth. Amen.

What Exactly Is A Jewish Christmas?

I don’t know what my fellow Jews consider celebrating a Jewish Christmas, but I’m going traditional. The 3:45 showing of Hunger Games 2 followed by Chinese. Well, actually Asian Fusion and I’ll probably have the veggie sushi. Zen’s does sushi really, really well, after all. Not only that, we’ve found a friend who’s not Jewish to come with also. At first I thought, being of a certain age, Paul was a Christmas orphan. But he assures me not. He’s a Druid, claims he, and considering the magnificence of his garden, maybe he’s not even joking.

Christmas is a strange holiday for me. I grew up with it. I enjoyed it as a child, felt oppressed by it as an adult. When I became Jewish, nearly forty years ago, I thought I could be done with it once and for all, but it’s part of the culture. You can’t escape it. From the piped in carols at CVS that start before Thanksgiving to the parties and gift-giving orgies everyone around you delights in, it’s everywhere. So the wise thing is to adopt a ‘tude.

My husband long ago decided the Japanese ‘tude suited him. He celebrates whatever cultural elements of Christmas he can without doing damage to his identity. That means he loves singing carols, which he learned in school in the days before sensitivity to diversity. If he had a voice, I’m sure he’d be a member of some annual Halleluiah Chorus group a la our buds from Tokyo. When the season rolls around, never have I been so grateful that he’s tone deaf.

We don’t do a Hannukah Bush – that would be entirely too weird for us. In fact, we don’t give each other Hannukah presents, even when the holidays fall especially close to each other. I’m pretty vigilant at not confusing the holidays. Hannukah is Hannukah. That means menorahs and latkes. Christmas is Christmas. We all know what that means. In my house, the twain should not meet. But then my birthday is in early January, so I still get winter gifts and don’t feel like I missed out. Not sure if that accident of birth is cheating or not.

Anyway, when the Jewish Book Council asked me to blog three times this week, Christmas week, for their Visiting Scribes series, I thought, ok, I’d love it! But secretly, I worried the world was so busy no one would notice my blogs that particular week of crushing cultural solidarity. Then: all right. If that happened, I thought, it would be my willing neck in the diversity noose and maybe there’d be a blessing down the line.

Holy mackerel, though! My blog seems to have gained some traction! I wonder if it’s another cultural crossroads at work since the blog (and two more related blogs will follow) is entitled: Is your husband black? and concerns some curious questions I’ve had as an author who works in the field of race relations and the Deep South. Hmmm.  Read for yourself and let me know. . .if you don’t mind and Santa has given you a little leeway. . . http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/_blog/The_ProsenPeople/post/is-your-husband-black/