As a glutton for torture (and as a recent parent, which is kind of the same thing), I’ve been taking advantage of early mornings. My kids wake up at 6:30 or so, and I leave for the day-job at 8:00ish — so if I’ve ever dreamed of getting anything done before I leave (ha ha, I said dreamed), I’d better be doing it early.
I often get asked what my best writing times are. Usually I go on for hours — I’m either the best or worst interview you’ve had, if, you know, you’re an interviewer — but that question is simple. Late at night or early in the morning. Partly, it’s because no one else is around to distract you. Partly, I think, it’s that those are the times that are closest to sleep, when your mind is most open and your memories are all jumbled up and free-associating and fictionalizing themselves. Those are the times I started writing Automatic. It’s a book where a lot of things blend together, the people I grew up with and growing up Jewish and working-class and my best friend dying and the music that we were listening to as it was all happening.
Those times are when our inhibitions are at their lowest, too. When you can sort of force yourself to write about all those things that you wouldn’t write about otherwise, unless you were drunk or feeling really intense.
Earliness is in our genes. Abraham was an early riser. He used to pray at the moment the sun rises, and there’s still a tradition that, at the moment the sun clears the horizon, the gates of Heaven are open to any prayer sent their way. One of my favorite bits of Jewish historical apocrypha is this: The first minyan of the morning used to be called the “thieves’ minyan,” since they had to be out early to lie in wait for unsuspecting travelers to pass…and even if you were going to be a thief, you still had to pray.
I remember reading that both Michael Chabon and Salman Rushdie work from 10-3. (I also remember thinking, when I read that, really? They’re both amazing writers, and both masters of the craft, but in my too-hardcore-fanboy estimation, both have gotten a little soft and overconfident with their storytelling. The Chabon who wrote the breathtaking, pulse-stopping first scene of Wonder Boys, I don’t think that could ever have happened at 10:30, between cups of coffee. Same with the page-long description of Saleem Sinai’s nose in Midnight’s Children–which, by the way, I strongly feel should be a mission statement for Jewish writers. Or Jews in general.)
I’m probably venting. Also, I have the luxury of having a day-job and a job writing. Normally, it’s an insane balancing act. But it’s that same stress that keeps my passion intact, I hope. The same way TV shows inevitably go downhill once the two forbidden characters consummate their untouchable lust for each other (Moonlighting, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), great writers always seem to write their greatest books before they get discovered.* I’m not claiming to be a great writer (although I think I’m a pretty good one). But I hope that, relative to the stories I’ve written before, I still have some of my best stuff yet to be written.
*–Or, admittedly, maybe we just claim those books as great, and when they try something else, we inevitably have to compare it, to the new work’s detriment. But all love has to spring from somewhere.
Here’s the thing about being both an author and a blogger: It makes you impatient. When I write a rant or draw a cartoon, I scan it in, click a few buttons, and — zoomba! — the world gets it. Or, you know, anyone who happens to be looking at my Twitter page at that moment. When I write a book, I send it to my agent, the editor, the publisher, the copy editor, and then, three years later, you can walk to a bookstore and pick it up.
I’m sure there’s some Jewish lesson I should be able to glean from this. Like, how Jerusalem wasn’t burned in a day or how over a thousand years passed between the time the Gemara was written and the time it was printed up in its first printed version, the Vilna Shas, the kind that we read today, with all the wacky columns and stuff.
Except, not really. Because the Talmud is called the oral Torah, and the essence of a story is in the telling, not when it’s written down and printed with a day-glo green cover and sent to a bookstore. There’s something about the immediacy of storytelling that the three-year publishing process, which is standard for the industry, has missed out on. And, weirdly, I think the Internet is bringing it back.
So, partly because I’m a naturally impatient person — and also partly because it’s 15,000 words, which is a weird length that’s way too long for a short story and way too short for a novel — I put out this new book, Automatic, and I did it myself.
I didn’t just write it in a day. I spent most of a year editing it. I’d probably still be editing it, except that it’s sort of about the band R.E.M. (it’s also sort of about my best friend dying) — and, one day a few weeks ago, R.E.M. broke up. It’s now or never, I told myself. In the space of half an hour, I’d signed up for a Kindle author account. And then I hit send, just like sending an email — and, zoomba. I’d published a book.
Amazon is sort of a double-edged sword — yes, it’s crazy that they own half the universe, but it’s an author’s dream because THEY ACTUALLY SELL BOOKS. People who never go to bookstores, people like most of my family, will click on Amazon and buy a book in a second. (I also put it on Smashwords as a pdf — also $2 — if you don’t have a Kindle.)
But I’m old-fashioned. I don’t own a Kindle and I don’t like reading long things online. Plus, I’m a design slut. I like things that look cool, and books that open like toys, and books that smell like books. So I designed a non-Kindle edition that does all the things ebooks will never do — it has hand lettering and easy-on-the-eyes layouts, and layouts on the page that (hopefully) make you feel like you’re luxuriating in something, not just squeezing the words out of a mass-market paperback. (But, I promise, no annoyingly coy stuff or Fun Fonts). I also made a die-cut front cover, because, dammit, books are meant to be touched.
I showed it to my friend/icon/if-I-wasn’t-a-Hasidic-Jew-I’d-say-“idol” Richard Nash, who said, “Oh, it’s a zine!” And I thought, Oh, yeah — that’s it exactly. Fifteen years after being a teenage zine-maker, using a copy machine at my summer job, I’ve reverted to being exactly where I started. It isn’t glamorous, but hopefully, the product is. And there are worse things in the world.
I know self-publishing is still a dirty word — it’s like Amanda Hocking said, authors shouldn’t have time to do all the stuff involved with publishing; we’re too busy being authors. And I’ve been really fortunate to have people like Scholastic and Soft Skull to take the foot-dragging stuff out of my hands for my big projects. But it’s also nice to finger this little handmade thing in my hand and say, dammit, this is mine.
One of my main goals in writing The Inquisitor’s Apprentice was to bring the Lower East Side to life for my own kids and make it a place they’d want to visit and learn more about. And what brings the past to life better than food, music, and theater?
Of course there’s a plethora of great books about every aspect of life on the Lower East Side. But here — as cultural comfort food for the soul — are my favorite books about food, klezmer, and Yiddish theater.
The best book bar none about food on the Lower East Side is Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. Ziegleman turns bare bones menus into a comprehensive account of how immigrant families worked, shopped, ate, and lived on the Lower East Side. Her portraits of the five
families are sensitive, beautifully written, and at times deeply moving. And the book is packed to the gills with gems of forgotten culinary history. Such as the fact that shmaltz was mostly made with goose fat until the 1930s, when Jewish gangsters began to run illegal chicken farming operations near the East River. Who knew?
There are a number of excellent books about Klezmer, but my favorite is David Saposnik’s Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. As someone who grew up in folksinging circles where people bragged about having known Bobby Zimmerman ‘back when’ or made out in the back seat of a car with Pete Seeger (true story, seriously), I really enjoyed the way Saposnik blends the history of klezmer with a firsthand account of the Klezmer revival and its ties to the larger folk music scene.
Stefan Kanfer’s Stardust Lost: the Triumph, Tragedy and Meshugas of the Yiddish Theater in America might just be my favorite nonfiction book of the last decade. There is a charm to this book which is difficult to describe. Sure, Kanfer has great material to work with: the glamour of Thomashevsky, the star power of David Kessler, the terrible irony of Yiddish theater reaching its apex as an art form just as the gates to Ellis Island were slamming shut.
But Kanfer brings a light touch to his material, and a prose style that combines humor and tragedy almost as deftly as the great artists he writes about. Stardust Lost is one of the very few nonfiction books that I’ve actually reread just for the sheer fun of it.
Nahma Sandrow’s much heftier Vagabond Stars: a World History of Yiddish Theater is less of an introduction to Yiddish theater than a sumptuous banquet for those who already know and love it. She chronicles major and minor figures, covering material that might only get a cursory mention in more general histories. Her writing is scholarly yet highly readable. And the book is a treasury of delicious stories about the flamboyant lives and scandalous loves of Yiddish theater’s famous and not-so-famous. If there are any Yiddish theater fans on your Hanukkah list, this is a book they’ll want to curl up with on a cold winter evening.