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.
I still don’t know how the subject of Israel came up. I was at a party, in line at the bar, when the man in front of me turned and said, “You know, I have a solution to that whole problem in the Middle East.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, nor did I know which problem he was referring to, until he gave me a wary look and said, “Are you Jewish?”
“I am,” I said. Clearly this man doesn’t know Jews, I thought.
“I am, too,” said the bartender, “so be careful what you say.”
The man appeared a little abashed, a little excited. Two Jews!
“Well,” he said, “I’ve been listening to all the news about the violence and bombings and everything, and I was hearing something on the radio about how in the Great Plains they’re losing population every day, all the young people are leaving, and I thought: why don’t they just move Israel to the Dakotas?”
The bartender smiled. I smiled. I was in shock. Not just because the proposal was so offensive, or because this man had the gall to share it with us, but because something similar to it had been proposed 130 years ago, by Jews in Odessa. As pogroms intensified, many Eastern European Jews were heading east, to Palestine. But this Odessa group – Am Olam, they called themselves, meaning Eternal People – decided that Jews should head to America’s West, and become farmers. From 1880 to 1920, Jewish agricultural colonies were founded across this country, in Oregon, Louisiana, Colorado and New Jersey – and, yes, in North and South Dakota.
And, I’d written a novel about it.
I mentioned this last part nonchalantly. I didn’t get into politics or history or point out to him his obvious ignorance about “the situation” in Israel. I just took my beer and walked away. But I have to admit: this man got me thinking. What if the Am Olam farmers in America had succeeded? (Most wound up back in cities and towns.) What if there was a veritable Jewish state smack in the middle of our country and Jews there played every role, as we do in Israel? Farmer, mechanic, electrician, plumber, cook, rancher. Imagine. I was reminded of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon – a similarly wild vision, of Jews taking refuge in Alaska. What if such a thing had come to pass in the lower 48? It’s not a proposal, but a re-envisioning, an expansion of my sometimes narrow assumptions about what Jews can be and do and mean in America today. This expansion has led me to question, and search. And guess what I found? There are Jewish kids learning to farm right now, in 2011, at the Jewish Farm School in upstate New York.