I also never intended to write for The New York Times. When I was 17, I was accepted to medical school. And my parents are still trying to figure out what went wrong.
After being a medical student, I was briefly a rabbinical student. I have also been a presidential campaign coordinator, an entertainment news show producer, an information technology consultant, a computer graphics artist, a book editor, a bookkeeper, a playwright, and an advertising copywriter along the way. In short, my career trajectory resembles the path of a drunken sailor—or perhaps a wandering Jew.
So it’s appropriate that my second novel, The Scenic Route, is about people taking the long way around. And I would argue that taking the long way is a Jewish tradition. After all, we spent forty years in the desert.
Traveling is a key part of the biblical narrative, central to canonical stories from Noah to Jonah to Joseph. However, travel is also unpredictable, and the patriarchs (and matriarchs) often end up in destinations far from where they had intended to be. (Joseph never planned to go to Egypt, and Jonah was dragged to Nineveh kicking and screaming.)
In The Scenic Route, life is what happens on the way to where you’re going. And I believe one could argue that’s also a message of the bible, as story after story illustrates people tackling unexpected challenges and changing the course of human history in the process.
Nowhere is this more true than in the momentous but little known verses about “the woman of Gibeah,” who wasn’t even from Gibeah, a town in ancient Israel inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin. The woman is the wife or concubine (the bible is unclear) of a Levite priest who is traveling from Bethlehem to a northern city.
The Levite and the woman stop for the night in Gibeah and are offered food and shelter in the home of an elderly man. But the home is besieged by townsmen angered by the presence of the foreigner in their midst, and demand he be handed over to them. His host refuses, but instead offers the woman.
The next morning the Levite finds the ravaged woman on the doorstep and (for reasons that must have made more sense in biblical times), he carves her into 12 pieces, sending one piece to each tribe—as evidence of the wrong done to him.
The result is a war between the tribes, which ends with the near-decimation of the tribe of Benjamin. And it is largely because of that devastating civil war that the twelve tribes decide they need a king, which leads to the anointment of the first king of Israel, King Saul, who, for the sake of reconciliation, was chosen from the tribe of Benjamin.
Everything that follows: the kingdom of David and Solomon, the rise and fall of the two temples, and all of Judeo-Christian history. It is all the aftermath of a war, a rape, and a travel story that goes terribly wrong.
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I look for locations for my stories on CyberRentals and HomeAway. I find the houses described on these websites far more interesting than anything that my imagination can supply.
For my latest novel, The Scent of Pine, I needed a cabin in Maine, where my two main characters would have a torrid, three-day-long affair. I wanted it to be small, deep in the woods, preferably close to the lake. So I typed in: “Maine” “Acadia region” “Waterfront” “Sleeps two people.” The search returned several houses and I picked the perfect one. It was a tiny cabin—just one room. On a lake. Far away from everything. With no electricity or running water. No internet. No shower. No heat. I spent months reading the description of the house, staring at the photos provided by the owner, imagining my character occupying that space.
If I were to create a cabin from my imagination, I would’ve never thought of one without a shower or toilet. But this detail made the situation all the more intimate and romantic. My characters have to run out and plunge into the cold lake instead of banal showering. They warm themselves by the little woodstove. They cook their food at a campfire. The campfire inspires them to share stirring and bizarre stories from their past. The absence of phone connection allows them to feel free. The absence of internet makes them truly concentrate on each other. The strangeness and intimacy of the entire setting makes them fall in love.
I owe half of my plot to that house.
I think I’ll visit it one day.
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Sometimes, standing in line for airport security toward the beginning of my book tour, I felt I knew what my ancestors experienced on Ellis Island — you know, minus the fumigations and crushing anxieties about how they would ever make it in this country. (I use the term ‘ancestors’ loosely here.) Excepting a supply of what I’d like to think of as shrewdly dispersed contact lenses, I had not packed well.
I’ve always thought of my profession as nothing like my father’s. Throughout much of my childhood, he earned his living as a traveling diamond merchant. Last summer, though, as I began touring for my first book, Precious Objects, my job began to resemble his just a little bit more.
When I was young, my family ascribed a sense of solemnity to travel. Baggage claim was something grave and sobering. The women would step aside and wait for my father and grandfather to push through the throngs and tug at our suitcases, sometimes faltering and being pulled along the conveyer belt for one terrifying moment before they got the better of gravity and lifted the mammoth thing from the belt. I watched as they threw their weight into it, like a sport.
Our job (my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my sisters’, and mine) was to try and spot our bags, which we did by looking for black, nondescript suitcases with ribbons my grandmother had tied around the handle, as had every other traveler. Our other job (my mother’s, my sisters’ and mine) was to prevent my four-foot ten-inch grandmother from crossing the line from waiters to luggers to try and help with the heavy lifting.
I myself am actually a relaxed traveler. Having spent a few years commuting for work and school, I’m used it. And now, after more than thirty events in about twenty cities, I’m even more used it. I’m so used to it that when I had a late-night layover in a time zone different from both my departure and arrival cities, which coincided with a run of three different events in three different states, I didn’t tell everyone about it. Only the lady at the boarding counter. She clearly cared a lot.
Since that first tour stop, I’ve also managed to pick up on a host of traveling tricks—for example, that the C-line on Southwest is something like the lowest level of the Titanic. (This is actually not true; the C-line has landed me in a seat between two of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and who were more than generous vis-à-vis armrests.)
I learned that when you travel a lot your hair smells like a different flower in every city,
owing to the array of hotel bath products.
I learned that after a full week of consecutive travel, I do not look like my author photo.
I learned that no one does not have an iPad.
But most importantly, I learned that everywhere, in every city, there are readers.
Passionate, enthusiastic, razor-sharp readers. I feel hugely grateful to the Jewish Book Council and to everyone who’s been having me over at their community centers, book stores, libraries, and clubs for allowing me to meet an incredible and eclectic sample of bibliophiles. This is amazingly heartening for a writer, and not just because it implies the possibility of an audience, but much more so, because writers love readers. Writers are readers.
My favorite thing to think about every time I get on a plane is that all over the country, there are millions of people who read in between job shifts, who get together to talk about books; people who can’t help themselves, people don’t want to help themselves. And I love them for it.
My fascination with New Mexico began in 2007, when I moved to Albuquerque sight unseen to write my first novel, The Fallback Plan. The state is nicknamed “The Land of Enchantment,” and that’s one of the reasons I moved there, from the less exotic “Land of Lincoln.” In general, I found the people there to be very open to talking about unsolved mysteries—ghosts and disappearances, aliens and conspiracies. A neighbor told me that the Sandia Mountains were partly “fake,” built by the government to hide missiles near the air force base. Another said he’d seen la llorona in the shallow waters of the Rio Grande.
So I don’t generally associate the American Southwest with the Jewish Diaspora, but I do associate it with ghosts. And last spring, I went back to the Southwest on a kind of working vacation, to soak in some sunshine and work on a new book project, which is partly set there. I took a tour in Santa Fe and learned about one of the city’s most famous ghosts, a German Jew named Julia Staab, who died in 1896 and now haunts La Posada Hotel.
This painting hangs in her room at the hotel. It is assumed to be Julia, but
could be one of her descendants, as it wasn’t painted until 1939.
Julia was the wife of Abraham Staab, who emigrated at age 15 to escape military conscription and life in the ghettos, later becoming a wealthy merchant who made his fortune as a contractor for the U.S. army. Because of the lack of eligible (Jewish) wives in the area, he returned to Germany and convinced Julia Schuster, age 16, to marry him. As the story goes, Julia was reluctant to agree to a life in the Wild West, but eventually consented.
At first, the couple lived on Burro Alley in Santa Fe. I took this picture there in 2008.
By most accounts, Julia was sickly, and suffered from depression. She was also famously beautiful. Abraham built her a mansion north of the Plaza, in the French Second Empire-style, which stood in stark contrast to the adobe homes surrounding it. The third floor was devoted to a ballroom, where they hosted the best parties in Santa Fe.
Staab mansion in the 1880s
Julia had seven children, some miscarriages and at least one stillborn, who is buried in the family plot. They say that after the death of her youngest, she was so grief-stricken she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, and after two days of this she looked in the mirror and her hair had turned from black to white.
There were no more parties. Julia would not leave the house. In town, Abraham made excuses for his wife’s notable absence. Rumors circulated that she had gone mad.
No official mention is made of Julia until years later, when a brief notice of her death at age fifty-two appears in the local paper. No cause is stated.
The mansion is now a resort hotel: La Posada. Guests who have stayed in Julia’s suite have reported that the bathtub will fill with water on its own. (One rumor of her death is that she drowned there.) In the restrooms on the first floor, her face has appeared in the mirror. A hotel bartender has reported glasses flying off the shelves.
I am drawn to Julia’s story for a number of reasons. First, her history is in some ways a composite of my own ancestors’, half of whom are German Jews who became merchants in the U.S. in the nineteenth century, and half of whom are Scotch-Irish pioneers who became homesteaders on the Kansas plains. I sympathize with her displacement, imagining what it must have been like to arrive in arid New Mexico for the first time, an experience I also had as a young adult. If anything, Jewish history is one of exile, and the Staabs’ story is a fascinating tale of Jews carving a new life in the American Southwest. Finally, Julia’s story is so poignant to me because even now she is in exile, unable to return “home.”
But only if you believe in ghosts.
For more information on the Staab family, there is an interesting (and brief) memoir in the archives of the Center for Jewish history, accessible here.
When I walked down the airplane gangplank for the first time in Ben Gurion airport, I immediately noticed the baggage handlers unloading our plane. I was told they were “gruzinim”, or Georgian Jews. I had thought Israel would be filled with people who looked like my neighbors, my temple congregation, or even me. But they were totally different. I didn’t realize what an amazing variety of Jews and cultures had come from every corner of the world to make up the population of Israel.
I lived in Jerusalem and worked for the Israeli Broadcasting Authority doing illustrating and drawing animation for children’s programming. If I needed models for my work, all I had to do was to step out into the street and walk in any direction.
In the alley in Nachalot, where I lived, in a 17th century Turkish domed apartment, I befriended a Yemenite scribe, Ovadia, who had a tiny one room studio, just off the local well. There he copied the torah on vellum with quill pen and India ink. At times he would be dressed in black pants and white shirt and at other times in a flowing robe and pants. He had different hats, headdresses and turbans that he would change several times a day. It seemed to depend on who was visiting him. He made the best coffee in a small finjan on an electric grill next to his drawing table.
There were others who lived in the neighborhood from Morocco, Bukhara, India, Persia, Turkey and every European country. I’m always trying to fit them into my work. Here is a good example of the Jewish cultural types from my book, The Joyous Haggadah. Ovadia is first on the left.
This is a composite from kibbutz families I’ve known.
For a long time, I didn’t want to add historical context to the memoir, because I thought it would turn into a history book. But I kept thinking of a favorite professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, who published memoir and narrative nonfiction books, one of them a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. He encouraged writers to set stories in context, but I resisted until a scholarly travel writer shared his opinion that the Gulf War was a “piss in the bucket” and that Saddam Hussein never had chemical weapons.
I knew then that I had to explain the larger narrative of history and the slim slice that I’d witnessed. I had published op-eds and travel essays about my adventures in South America and Israel during the first intifada and the Gulf War in the Stamford Advocate, my hometown newspaper in Connecticut. So I already knew that moment of history intimately. But I went on a rigorous fact-finding mission, reading dozens of books and articles and documents, fleshing out context spanning World War II through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was hard reading. Memories bubbling up in uncomfortable ways. But it was necessary for the book and, ultimately, healing for me, as I wrestled with the ghosts of my past.
I thought I was done with the book by the time I found my new agent. She told me that she didn’t want a little book deal. She wanted a Big Book Deal. So she made me write rewrite the synopsis, hoping that I could capture the essence of my story and style in 15-20 pages. I’d send her a new draft of the synopsis every few months, wait for her comments, then go back to the drawing board. She wanted more reflection. Dig, really dig.
After a year and a half of this, I asked if I was the slowest writer she’d ever worked with. She told me that she’d made an award-winning journalist work on a proposal for four years before she sold the book. I had done two Ironman triathlons, but somehow this seemed far more demanding of my endurance. And my mother’s. She asked if she could try to submit the book to independent and university presses. I wrote to the agent who said she hoped I’d find a home for the book. My mother became my agent.
She is a techie who could have been a cyber-detective, because she can dig up about anything on the internet. She put together a list of presses that publish memoir and mailed the proposal, using only a short synopsis similar to the one that appears on the published book instead of the opus I’d worked on for so long. Within three weeks, the editor-in-chief at the University of Nebraska Press read the proposal and asked for the whole memoir. She wrote a few weeks later to say that she enjoyed the book and wanted to send it out for peer review.
Both reviews asked for more reflection. I wrote a long response about how too much reflection could slow the pace and darken the tone. My editor suggested that I write a short letter, explaining how I could deepen the narrative. You want to make sure it comes through to the reader, she said. So I wrote a brief note about how I could revise the book. The editorial board approved it unanimously. I was encouraged. And terrified.
By now, I knew what the story meant, but how could I force the reader to agree, after hearing so many takes on the root of our troubles, and how could I do it without making it a heart-wrenching tale? It was delicate work, inserting a line here and a paragraph there, adding a chapter toward the beginning and expanding another at the end. The revisions were a success. The press officially accepted the book for publication, and later selected it as a promotional giveaway at BookExpo America this spring.
Black Elephants, already a bestselling title for my publisher, came out in October through the paperback imprint, Bison Books. Kirkus Reviews said it is “poetic,” “filled with idealism and adventure,” “a memorable read.” The Christian Science Monitor ran a reader recommendation in its print edition, calling the memoir “moving and thought-provoking.” Poets & Writers selected it as a New and Noteworthy Book. I signed books at my launch party at Idlewild Books and more after a talk the New York University Bookstore. Then I visited the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia to talk about Black Elephants with the Women of the World Book Club. A psychologist, who spent 18 months in Iraq helping soldiers, identified with my experiences and endorsed my approach to healing. Write, Pray, Swim, Bike, Run.