June 12, 2014 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Essayist, playwright, author of a well-received book on mothering and winner of the Lord Bullock Prize for Fiction, Sonia Taitz is nothing if not nimble as a writer. Although she trained as a lawyer—at Yale no less—the pursuit of a legal career held little appeal for her and she soon returned to her first loves, reading and writing. Mothering Heights: Reclaiming Parenthood from the Experts, is both political satire and heartfelt memoir about the changing role of mothers. The Watchmaker’s Daughter is another sort of memoir, detailing her “binocular” life as the American child of European, Yiddish-speaking concentration camp survivors. Taitz’s novels include In the King’s Arms, a coming-of-age story that has been called a cross between Evelyn Waugh and Philip Roth. And in her forthcoming novel Down Under she takes on Mel Gibson, reinventing the famously anti-Semitic movie star’s past to include an early, pre-fame romance with a Jewish girl. Fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough asks Taitz some questions about her wide-ranging literary output and the scarred but heroic parents who shaped her life.
YZM: What inspired you to make the leap from lawyer to writer?
My adventures in law originated in the mind of my father. A Holocaust survivor whose own education had stopped at age 13, he was determined that I have a careerwhich put me in “a place of importance” in society. He felt that with a law degree I would be armed—at least verbally—if danger reared its head again. Somehow, he equated me with Queen Esther—able to eloquently step into the corridors of power and avert imminent disaster. Because I was good in school (in my case, yeshiva through 12th grade), and because the Torah we analyzed prepared me well for verbal debate, I thought my father’s vision suited me.
But from the time I started college, more creative instincts began to take me over. I didn’t want to win arguments or massage facts; I wanted to weave spells with words, to compose in utter freedom. I didn’t want to be cunningly adversarial, but creative and connective. It didn’t hurt that my mother was a concert pianist (providing Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu as theme song to my childhood) or that my father wrote poetry in Dachau. Transcendence was as much my legacy as Talmud, or torts.
May 6, 2014 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Jill Smolowe, a journalist and memoirist, had her own annus horribilis, only hers lasted a year and a half. In that short span of time, she endured the deaths of her beloved husband, Joe, her mother-in-law, and her own mother and sister. Smolowe kept waiting to fall apart in the wake of such loss, and yet she didn’t. Some untapped reserve of strength and resilience kept her going, and able to find meaning and even joy again. In this interview, she shares her hard-won wisdom about grieving with Lilith fiction editor Yona Zeldis McDonough.
YZM: What made you decide to write and publish your book Four Funerals and a Wedding?
JS: Like so many Americans, I had a set idea that grief involves specific stages. Yet I went through no denial, anger, bargaining or depression. Instead, as I lost my husband, sister, mother, and mother-in-law over a period of 17 months, my focus was on putting one foot in front of the other and figuring out how to reconnect with the joy in life. The more friends told me I was “amazing,” the more I wondered if there was something wrong or abnormal about my sorrow. Then I came across the work of George Bonanno, one of the country’s leading bereavement researchers. That’s when I learned that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five-stage cycle of grief has long since been discredited. (She intended her cycle to apply to the dying, not the bereaved.) Research from the last 20 years identifies three distinct groups: those who are overwhelmed by grief upwards of 18 months; those who recover within 18 months; and those who return to normal functioning within six months, and even within days. This last group is labeled “resilient” and–surprise, surprise–these people constitute a majority of the bereft. My book aims both to put a face on this group and to challenge misconceptions and assumptions about grief.
April 7, 2014 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
A Jewish woman collaborates on a book with a Muslim man? Sounds like the start of a joke—except that it’s anything but. When writer and teacher Susan Shapiro was forced to undergo physical therapy for an injured back, she met a young therapist whose personal story soon had her riveted. She drew it out of him, page by page, and the result, The Bosnia List, just published in March by Penguin. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Shapiro about this highly unlikely pairing and the unexpected insights it yielded.
YZM: What initially drew you toward Kenan Trebincevic?
SS: I tore two ligaments in my lower back and Kenan was my physical therapist.
One day, he told me to do leg lifts and went to help another patient. As a journalism teacher I always carry a stack of student papers. The exercises were boring so I took out papers to grade. Kenan got annoyed I wasn’t paying attention to the workout. He looked over at the essays and asked sarcastically “What I did on my summer vacation?” in his Eastern European accent. I said, “Actually, my first assignment is to write three pages on your most humiliating secret.”
He laughed and said, “You Americans. Why would anyone do that?”
I said, “It’s healing.” And I added also that my students want to get published in the New York Times and write books. That night he emailed to see if I was okay, which I thought was very menschy. I sent him a poignant piece my student Danielle Gelfand published in the New York Times about how she and her mother, a Holocaust survivor, eat bacon cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur, as a way to cope with her father’s suicide on that day 17 years earlier. I think that piece inspired Kenan.
February 20, 2014 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Print is dead, or so the pundits have been telling us. And yet, in this electronic age when reading matter has been whittled down to fit on a smart phone, along comes Fig Tree Books, a brand new print publisher whose focus is the Jewish American experience. A blend of original titles and revered classics, Fig Tree is the brainchild of Fredric Price, a drug developer, and it will be launching in early 2015. Lilith’s fiction editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, talks to Fig Tree senior editor Michelle Caplan about Fig Tree’s goals, ambitions and how this “nimble” imprint plans to take advantage of “the new normal.”
YZM: Can you talk about the decision to start a new publishing company at a time whenever everyone is bemoaning the decline of print in general and books in particular?
MC: My publisher, Fredric Price, has had a successful entrepreneurial career developing drugs for rare diseases. While he has no professional background in publishing, he is an avid reader and has established two longstanding groups that read and discuss Jewish books and essays. He decided to focus his efforts toward creating the new home for the best fiction of the American Jewish experience. All of the changes that have occurred in publishing in the last several years create a window of opportunity for a small, focused, nimble imprint like Fig Tree Books. We can take advantage of the new normal because we do not have a pre-existing structure, organization or operating method that is struggling to adapt to the new publishing environment. Fred feels that the publishing industry is ripe for the same type of approach that he used when developing, marketing and selling “orphan” drugs. Rather than following the industry in trying to develop blockbuster drugs for highly visible illnesses like hypertension, he built very successful businesses by focusing on drugs for small populations. While Jews represent a small fraction of the American population, we are a significant percentage of the purchasers of literary fiction.
YZM: What drew you to this editorial position at Fig Tree?
MC: Fred has responded to the need for a publisher to champion emerging and unique voices and created a place where writers about the American Jewish experience can launch their work into the world with visible celebration and support. I have spent most of my career as a freelance editor, consultant and ghostwriter of fiction, creative non-fiction and film scripts. I’ve mentored both aspiring and established writers and I believe Fig Tree will be the home of American Jewish fiction writing for the 21st century. We will have a combination of original works plus what we call re-released classics, books that were previously published and are now out of print but are relevant and exciting to readers today.
YZM: What is the significance of the name Fig Tree?
MC: Our name is inspired by a letter from George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, in which he says “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” We feel that this event in American history captures the spirit of our democracy in which Jews and other previously religiously persecuted groups have flourished. The wisdom of our first president set the stage for a milieu of tolerance and acceptance, enabling Jews to thrive, and we could think of no better metaphor for the beneficence of the Jewish Experience in America.
YZM: Will there be any particular emphasis on writing by Jewish American women?
MC: We are interested in publishing novels of excellence that deal with the American Jewish experience and are agnostic as to an author’s gender, age, race and even religion. It is a rich mosaic that can be approached by anyone with a gift for writing and a topic that appeals both to Jews and others. We certainly do hope to attract beautifully written books by women writers. Our editorial staff is comprised of women with a keen eye for quality writing.
February 4, 2014 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Linda Yellin is a funny lady. To wit, her new novel, What Nora Knew,“ is crammed with snappy one-liners, snarky apercus and a whole lot of good-humored sass. Whether intentionally or not, Yellin has joined ranks with Ephron in turning out a particular kind of humor, one that is specific—if not unique to—Jewish women. She talks to Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about concealed vibrators, the enduring appeal of rom-coms and the nuances that separate the funny girls from the boys:
Yona Zeldis McDonough: You have a background in advertising; how did you transition to writing fiction?
Linda Yellin: I’m sure there are people who’d say advertising is fiction, but that theory aside, my first novel was ninety percent true. So it was only sorta-fiction. I changed all the main players’ names to keep my relatives from getting mad at me. I didn’t want to get un-invited to the family seders.
The next book, The Last Blind Date, was a memoir, so that was technically non-fiction. But I guess none of my cousins got offended because they’re still speaking to me. What Nora Knew is a novel, although Nora Ephron and her movies and insights are real, so I guess I’m still transitioning into writing fiction.
YZM: Your protagonist, journalist Molly Hallberg, has had some pretty entertaining assignments: learning to dance like a Rockette and sneaking vibrators through security scanners. Any of these drawn from real life experiences?
LY: Absolutely. Molly and I have a lot in common. Most of her assignments are ones I’ve done for MORE magazine. Including one where she spends a day wearing kegel underpants. (One-inch silicone plug in the crotch…you can figure out the rest.)
The vibrators was my favorite assignment. There were three of them – all “disguised” like cosmetics: a lipstick; a mascara; and a blusher brush. I stood in line at the Family Court building in New York thinking: it’ll be really great for the story if I get busted for doing this. (Security guard: “Would the owner of the vibrating mascara please step out of line?”) But all along I was praying that I’d pass through. When it got down to story-versus-mortification, I was more afraid of mortification. Molly Hallberg’s braver than me.
YZM: What Nora Knew is an homage not only to Nora Ephron but to the whole Hollywood tradition of romantic movies. Can you say more about that?
LY: There are certain constructs and expectations in romantic movies. We probably know from the get-go who the heroine will end up with, but if you care about the characters, you want to travel along with them and root for their success. Whether it’s Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, or Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal, or Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper – romantic comedies are journeys with happy endings, and who doesn’t love that? And who doesn’t love Nora Ephron’s romantic comedies?
YZM: Do you consider Ephron a quintessentially Jewish humorist and if so, why?
LY: Her humor is quintessentially relatable, so it also covers Christianity, Buddhism, Atheism; you name it. But there is a wry, sardonic point-of-view in all of Nora Ephron’s writing that certainly feels Jewish. An oy-vey-can-you-believe-this quality. It’s the same one I grew up with while my aunts and uncles and cousins were debating life over corned beef and smoked fish.
YZM: How would you describe the differences between male and female humorists?
LY: Subject matter. Our humor leans toward relationships and emotion. Guys tend to vamp more on guy-stuff. Sex, sports, things that explode. Don’t hold me to this opinion, though. For sure, there’s a PhD candidate out there whose doctoral thesis would totally disagree.
YZM: What, in the end, did Nora know?
LY: Plenty. That’s why it was so much fun to write this novel.
July 18, 2012 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
In addition to being the author of three novels and the former editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine, Sally Koslow has earned her chops as a crackerjack reporter. In her newest book, Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest, she draws on that background and comes up with a penetrating analysis of today’s boomer parents and their frequently failed-to-launch offspring. She talked to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the need to establish boundaries, the Jewish tradition of über-parenting and how 34 has become the new 24 for a whole generation of young people.
How did the idea for this book come about?
Eleven years ago my oldest son moved from New York City to San Francisco after college graduation and two years later returned to Manhattan to start a new job. The plan was for him to live with us until he found his own apartment. When 9/11 happened a week later, however, his new job evaporated. He began collecting unemployment and seemed in no hurry to job-hunt. After ten months, my husband and I found out that our son had, in fact, been offered a job that he was thinking of declining—it wasn’t, in his eyes, perfect. After receiving a significant shove, he accepted the offer and moved to an apartment in Brooklyn with members of a band called, fittingly, The Oddjobs. Cut to three years ago. Having a young adult child return to the womb became something I noticed all around me. I also observed growing numbers of college grads in a state of constant improvisation, often shackled to their parents by cell phone and/or purse strings in a three-legged raise toward an undecided destination. Since I myself had been 24, or even 34, something new and interesting was clearly afoot. As a journalist, I decided to explore it and my research become Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest.
July 3, 2012 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Dawn Raffel is a brilliant miniaturist. From her exquisitely crafted short stories (In the Year of Long Division, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe) to her slender but ice-pick sharp novel (Carrying the Body), her canvas may be restricted but it is never slight; Raffel finds big meaning in the seemingly small, be it word, gesture or in, the case of her newest book, object. That book, fittingly called The Secret Life of Objects, is a collection of prose poems/love songs/tributes to the stuff—a mug, a pair of lamps, a sewing box, a ring—that make up the warp and woof of her daily life. Raffel answered questions posed by Lilith’s fiction editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, about the genesis of her newest collection, where she finds inspiration and the surprises that she uncovered when she was willing to probe just a little bit deeper.
Did you know you were writing a book from the outset?
The whole thing happened very fast. One morning I was drinking coffee from the mug I always take from my cupboard, even though I have a dozen other mugs. I go straight to that one because I took it from my mother’s house after she died, and for me it contains not only coffee but also a whole story about my mother and my aunt. Then I realized that I have a house full of objects like this—things that have a secret personal value that far transcends their surface worth. I wrote them all down very quickly, resisting the urge to over-analyze; it felt like creating a watercolor where you don’t want to muddy things with too much revision. When I was done I saw that what I had written was a book and that it told a life story.
How did you go about organizing these pieces?
I wrote these in the exact order you see them in the finished book, which was intuitive. At one point, an editor asked me to organize the book chronologically, ordering the objects by when I received them. For me, that effort fell flat, I think because so many of the objects are saturated with stories from multiple generations, and in part because memory and feeling simply aren’t linear.
May 2, 2012 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Well, Barbie’s gone and done it again. Yes, the petite, plastic plaything has proved, once more, that she’s hardly a retrograde relic. Far from it. Barbie’s on the cutting edge—where, as a matter of fact, she has been since her inception in 1959.
Coming this summer, Mattel will bring out the Barbie Photo Fashion, a brand-new doll with an LCD implanted in her impressively toned tummy. A lens in her back allows her user—almost always a girl—to take pictures with the doll. In a word: Brilliant. Instead of the bimbo blonde who passively receives the male gaze, this new Barbie channels and harnesses nascent female power, by encouraging play of an entirely new kind. Yet again, Barbie has become a vessel and conduit, tapping into the inchoate desires of girls, and giving those desires a comprehensible form of expression in the world.
But to those of us who have known and loved her over the past five plus decades (and I count myself at the top of this list), there is nothing fundamentally surprising about this news. Barbie has always been a secret agent, a force for subversion and empowerment masquerading as a harmless, leggy pin up.
April 30, 2012 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Debra Spark is a bit of a fabulist—her stories skirt the tantalizing territory between what’s real and what’s imagined. In this new collection, The Pretty Girl, Spark’s imagination creates a group of stories that are wholly off beat. She talks to Lilith’s fiction editor, Yona Zeldis McDonough, about where she gets her inspiration, her attraction to the visual arts and her fascination—and occasional frustration—with toy theaters:
In your linked short stories you create radically different characters, settings and even time periods in each of your stories. Can you say more about this decision?
I wrote these stories over a very long period of time, so that may be part of the answer. I actually think of the stories as connected, despite the variety, since many of them circle around the theme of art and deception.
You have written both novels and stories; do you have a preferred form?
I think I like novels better, since with a novel you only have to think up a new idea every few years, but with stories you have to do it ever few months!
The freshness and originality of your dialogue is really notable. Do you have any interest in writing a play or any other dramatic form?
Thank you. I love the theater, and I would love to write a play at some point, but I just don’t think I have the skills. I frequently go to the theater here in Portland, Maine, and whenever I do, I am newly amazed. Often when I know a play’s conceit in advance, I try to imagine how things will unfold, before I actually see the play. Invariably, what is to come is far richer than what I am able to imagine.
March 1, 2012 by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Renowned throughout Venice for her gift at coaxing reluctant babies from the their mothers’ wombs, Hannah Levi, a Jewish midwife, is much in demand. But when she receives a summons from a wealthy Gentile count to attend his wife, she is torn about what to do. Does she defy Papal edict that forbids Jews from rendering medical treatment to Gentiles? Or does she try to alleviate the suffering of this unknown woman, and in so doing, earn the money to pay her husband’s ransom? These are the questions raised by “The Midwife of Venice,” the first novel by former lawyer Roberta Rich. Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough had some questions of her own, and she sat down with author Rich to find out more about birthing practices in the 16th century, the transition from lawyer to novelist and what life was like in the Jewish ghetto of Venice.
What was the inspiration for this novel?
I have a very visual imagination. When I was in the museum in the Venetian Ghetto, I saw two things which ignited some images. The first was a shadai, or good luck amulet. I thought of the high infant mortality rate in those times, not just in the ghetto, of course, but all over 16th century Europe and had the idea for a shadai in the shape of a baby’s hand to hang over the cribs for protection. I also saw a pair of silver spoons resting in the glass display case. These crossed spoons became the inspiration for my heroine midwife to design forceps.
How did you conduct your research for it?
Fortunately, I love to read and do research although I must confess I am not a student of history and never took a history course beyond high school. However, there are a number of fascinating books written about Venice and the history of the Venetian ghetto. I was interested to learn that the ghetto was not only a place to sequester Jews, but it was also a relatively safe haven. In a scene from The Midwife of Venice, Hannah and her sister, Jessica, who has converted to Christianity and becomes a courtesan, accuses Hannah of being a ‘little ghetto mouse’, afraid of life. Hannah responds that the same gates that keep them in the ghetto, keep them safe. In fact, the Venetian government, the Council of Ten was protective of the Jews, valued them for their mercantile connections to the Levant (the Middle East) and for the high taxes and levies they were forced to pay for the ‘privilege’ of living in the ghetto.