Beginning a Literary Career

shlepping-the-exileAlthough St. Martin’s Press would probably prefer me not to mention it, Shlepping the Exile, which comes out next week and would seem to be my newest book, is really my oldest; the first version was published in Canada–with fewer pages and many more typos–in 1993. I can understand why a publisher might not want to call attention to a new book’s having been available as an import for twenty years; what scares me is having a book begun before the writer was thirty judged as the work of a man about to turn sixty. People might read a young man’s book as an old man’s–and in this kind of novel, it makes a difference. If I were starting it today, I’d write from the narrator’s parents’ point of view.

But I started it in 1983, after being invited to take part in a storytelling show called A Night in Odessa. Ninety percent of what I knew about Odessa, I knew from Isaac Babel, and Babel, I was told, was already covered; the other storyteller on the show had called dibs. What they wanted from me was forty-five minutes of material “in Babel’s spirit,” but not necessarily his neighborhood. They were more interested in psychic than physical ambiance–and in something new, if at all possible.

“So you want, like, original material?” Forty-five minutes of it, breezy and slightly transgressive.

Had my parents’ English been better, Breezy-and-Slightly-Transgressive might well have replaced Yisruel as my middle name, but even for the breeziest, forty-five minutes of new material isn’t something you leave to chance, especially when there’s nowhere to run it in front of an audience before the show goes up. I decided to write the whole thing down, contrary to my usual practice, if only to have a map of where I was going and how to get there.

I came up with an early version of what eventually became the first forty pages of Shlepping, a faux-autobiographical piece about a teenage boy ten years my senior living in circumstances similar to my own, but in the mid-50s, when I was a toddler, not a teen. I gave the other storyteller a copy–a carbon fresh from my typewriter–and he called me that night to tell me that he wouldn’t cross the threshold of any building where such filth was being presented, let alone allow it on the same stage with him. “I threw it in the garbage and took the bag outside. It offends me as a man, as a Jew, and as a human being.”

“And how do you tell the difference?”

The other storyteller hung up.

Much to my chagrin, management took his side. “It’s a bit strong, Michael.”

“Jewish gangsters killing people are less offensive than frustrated teens and lusty old men?”

“Can’t you just give us a folktale or something? Something a little more heartwarming ?”

I guess they’d forgotten about breezy and transgressive. I sat down and wrote the silliest fake folktale I could come up with–”They want folktales, I’ll give them flanken folktales”–about a potato kugel that talks. It, too, became part of Shlepping the Exile and has been anthologized a number of times.

I guess that’s what they mean by “having to eat humble pie.”

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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Posted on February 10, 2014

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