On Historical Fiction, Epic Fantasy, and Knowing Your Stuff

I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing this month. Partly because it’s Nanowrimo season, partly because I’m always thinking about my writing. But maybe this month I’m thinking a little more.

For most of my life I have been captivated by stories of the fantastic. Though my taste skewed more to the fantasy side of things, SciFi crept in there too – as it has been known to do (and vice verse with SciFi readers and fantasy,) but for some reason when I studied  writing in University I took only classes in Non-Fiction and Poetry. I even declared a triple major: Non-Fiction Writing, Poetry, and History. And I thought that was my triumvirate.

I never took a class in fiction.

Fiction scared me. Fiction was MAKING STUFF UP.

Of course, that’s part of what I was doing in poetry, and in non-fiction writing, and even in history, because telling it like you see it – any take we have on the world – is inevitably a fiction of sorts. But even though I loved fantasy with all my heart, I didn’t think I could write it.

I knew I had a way with words. And I had interesting things to say, but I felt dwarfed by the greats, and I looked around me and thought, the world is far too interesting to make stuff up, I can just describe what I see. And I did so, but in poetry and prose. No dragons or monsters, no golems or dybbuks, no fairies or wizards or trolls or witches.

For ten years I wrote non-fiction. For ten years I was a pen for hire. And it took me ten years to realize that was all I was. And I say this with the greatest respect for journalists and non-fiction writers out there. Literary journalism and literary non-fiction will always have a very special place in my heart, for it’s what I strove to write for years. But slowly I began to realize that fiction is just non-fiction in another guise. And I realized that speculative fiction encompasses much more than just fantasy.

And so without even one fiction workshop under my belt I set out to write a novel. There was a tingling of magical realism in there but no more than that, I couldn’t allow myself that. And then I wrote another novel which could have been and may still end up being completely speculative, but I still wrote in some psychology, some window to explain the unexplainable.

At the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton two weeks ago I attended a panel about historical fiction and epic fantasy. Two of the women on the panel had PhDs in history. (I was particularly impressed by Helen Marshall who won the “Best Newcomer” award)  And as I listened to everyone talk about all the research that informs their work I realized that what separates historical fiction from epic fantasy is but a hairs breath. That the same work that goes into one is needed for the other. And I had this epiphany moment that I realized: everything in my life has led me to this point.

I have a masters degree in history. I have a keen eye for narrative description and observation. I have lyric language from poetry. I CAN write the stories that I grew up loving. I just have to make that leap of faith.

The difference between the true and the fantastic – between science fiction and science fact, between history and myth and fantasy and reality, is really just a hairs breath. And I have everything I need to take the plunge.

I’ve been working on a series of linked short stories about the city of Safed (also called Tzfat or Tsfat) and I’ve been writing stories set in that mystical city – almost every one so far could have been a dream or a vision: Kissing the Messiah (in which a young woman has sexual encounters with Elijah the Prophet), The 614th Prophet (in which a wannabe vegetarian prophet tries to sacrifice a goat, and succeeds but not in way that you’d expect), The Ari (forthcoming from The Rampallian, which tells a tale of the ghost lion of Safed), and a few more as-yet unpublished ones. But last night I wrote about zombies.

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Mickey Hart in Jerusalem and the Things You Miss as an Expat

So I haven’t blogged in a while which all sort of boils down to one major thing: life. To say that I’ve been crazy busy is an understatement. I’ve been approving the final proofs of my cookbook: Eating the Bible (available here!) and coming out in November, I spent quite a few weeks editing my novel: Master of the Miracles, before it went out on submission with my new agent, Josh Getzler. A co-worker decided to come back from maternity leave, but in a different capacity, and I’ve taken on all her clients. In short, total madness. And I’ve also been reading non-stop. Queries, submissions, manuscripts, books in Hebrew and English, and I’ve been busy trying to get my author-clients published (but August has been a very quiet month on that front…)

But today I had to blog to talk about something unrelated to books or publishing.

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Last night we went to hear Mickey Hart play at the Hebrew University Amphitheater in Jerusalem. Now, I bought tickets to this MONTHS ago, the second I heard it announced, and I’d been looking forward to it all summer. But what I experienced last night was beyond words.

I’m a huge fan of the Grateful Dead. I have been since my sister first introduced me to the band when I was 12. But I’m part of a generation that never got to see Jerry Garcia live. I remember the day he died, I was 16 and working at a science summer camp and I hadn’t gotten the chance to see a concert live yet. It’s one of my greatest regrets in life.

Last night Mickey Hart came to Jerusalem. And I saw his band live, and the second song they played was Chinacat Sunflower – my favorite song. I cried when the song played, not just because it caught me so unexpectedly – the second song of the night – and bam! My favorite song. But because for me, to hear Mickey Hart play in Jerusalem, the city of my heart, and to be standing there, outdoors, overlooking the Judean Desert and hearing my favorite song – LIVE, was more than I could hold inside.

mickey hart 2

Now I know I’m totally fan-girling, which is not something I normally do about something other than books, but I need to explain something deeper and bigger. When you move to Israel (or any other country other than your birth-place,) you give up a hell of a lot. You also gain a lot, which is, I suppose, why we make the move to begin with. But, sometimes you really really miss the things you give up. And while they may not life-or-death types of things, and while intellectually you know that what you gained is way more important than what you gave up, you still miss those things tremendously. Examples:

What I miss: Old Navy (places where jeans cost less than $50, especially for kids, and jeans the actually fit, that are good quality and that are sized for all types of people and kids, specifically, where I can buy “curvy” jeans for me, and “husky” jeans for my 11-year-old and often for only $12), Target (I don’t think that needs elaboration…LOL), American Grocery Stores (that carry all sorts of products I miss, most specifically Crispix Cereal, but also Stonyfield Farms yogurt and a whole bunch of other things I won’t get into right now…), free, beautiful beaches, hotels that charge per room and not per child, cheap vacation options, camping spots with grass, water-front property, affordable cars and real-estate, large bookstores and bookstore cafes, and the list goes on…

What I’ve gained: the history of my people with every step that I walk, archaeology everywhere I go, the ability to bring the Bible to life for my kids with every breath we take, holy sites and cities that are part of my heritage, freedom from certain Western conventions about cleanliness (read: Purell obsessions – no offense to anyone intended) and allergies, basically, my kids get really dirty here and sometimes do non-hygienic things and they live to tell the tale. The freedom to wear flip-flops to synagogue, which really means, a very relaxed attitude to Judaism and religion, as in, it’s just a part of everything we do and so my kids just feel “normal” here, with no need or fear to hide their kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit. Grocery stores where we can buy anything and everything in the entire store (as in EVERYTHING is kosher!), and we can eat in almost every restaurant in Jerusalem. So eating and ordering out is not something special that we do only from certain places, it’s just a normal part of life. The fact that my kids are fluent in Hebrew and English. The fact that there school textbooks teach them this history and geography of this land first – that geology is first about the rocks of the land of Israel. That my kids are growing up surrounded by a very diverse population base and they think that’s normal (their classes are a mix of Russian, Ethiopian, French, Hispanic, Yemenite, Morroccan and “white” or “Ashkenazi” kids). The incredible plethora of different types of cuisine and the world of Middle Eastern flavors that my kids are growing up with…and so much more.

Anyway. I think you get the point.

And then. Mickey Hart shows up. And, all I can say is that it’s a blessing. I feel blessed. The concert was incredible. And I was grateful that unlike some other musicians who have decided not to come here – from political pressure and perhaps other reasons, Mickey Hart came. And his message was simple: governments come and go, but music stays the same. Music unites. Music transcends boundaries. And I’m not going to get political and talk about why some musicians come and others don’t. All I can say is: when you come, you become a blessing to us.

I had tears in my eyes the whole night. Because sometimes you miss things, and sometimes you think about going back, and other times you don’t miss anything at all, but sometimes…when the things that you give up come to you, you feel like the luckiest person in the whole wide world.

mickey hart

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The Book Deluge That is Literary Agenting and Bulk Book Blogging

I have always read a ton. And when I mean a ton, I really mean A TON. As a reader, I would read. As a writer, I would read. As a bookstore employee, I would read. In university, I read a ton. As a mom, I still read. But nothing prepared me for the reading I would do as a foreign rights and literary agent.

Another thing, I ALWAYS finish books. I mean, ALWAYS. I think I could count on one hand the books that I didn’t finish…up until I started working in publishing. And now in addition to the never-ending stacks of books by my bed (and in the kitchen, and living room, and bathroom, and stairwell, and hallway) – having nothing to do with the bookcases in the bedroom, (and living room and kitchen and stairwell, and hallway and kids bedrooms…) now I am faced with SERIOUS MORAL DILEMMAS.

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Do I read:

1. A book whose foreign rights I am trying to sell (pitches with a personal recommendation ALWAYS get more requests – and I can be pretty convincing!)

2. A book in Hebrew or English by an author I might take on as a client

3. A book that might be a good comparison title to one of the books I am trying to sell for one of my clients

4. A book that I often see quoted or mentioned as a comparison title and it would be a really good idea to know what everyone is talking about

5. A book that will help me in my own research for my own writing projects

6. A book for my book club

7. A book that I simply just want to read because I love the author or it sounds great (even if…gasp! I don’t hold the foreign rights to the book and I can’t sell it which would mean that this is just pleasure reading…pure and simple.)

And of course, as you can imagine – category #7 is often what gets shunted to the side in favor of all the other books I could and SHOULD be reading.

Sigh.

Sometimes I look at all the books all around me and all the books and manuscripts on my kindle and I get paralyzed by it ALL.

ImageAnd never before have I had so many books surrounding me that are either face-down, or bookmarked somewhere in the middle – meaning I started it but…I didn’t finish. For the first time in my life I am surrounded by books I have abandoned mid-read. And I think it means two things:

1. Sometimes I would rather get a taste of something so I can at least sound like I know what I am talking about – rather than not read the book at all.

2. A book has to really grab my attention and keep it, in order for me to keep reading.

So many books, so little time, so many authors and writers and words vying for attention…and inevitably…the best ones win. That doesn’t mean that the books I stopped in the middle aren’t amazing books…it just means that something happened mid-read, something dragged somewhere, it could have been a page, or a paragraph, or my mood at the moment, but SOMETHING caused me to put that book down and NOT PICK IT BACK UP AGAIN. The horror.

ImageI came back from the London Book Fair sick with mono and CMV. So I have spent quite a lot of time reading this last month. So I am going to do a bulk book blog and tell you about the books I LOVED – the ones I couldn’t put down and read in almost one sitting…and the books that are half-finished (which I have decided that I am determined to finish this weekend…hopefully…)

THE AMAZING ONES:

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The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell – this book tells the story of two typists in the 1920s – when touch typing gave women an opportunity to enter offices and work-places that were previously male-only establishments – set against the backdrop of prohibition and speakeasies. The novel tells a tale that is somewhat of a addictive psychological thriller, but also a fabulous history lesson. The characterization and descriptions wowed me, and I read it in one sitting.

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The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison – first of all, let me just say that when I first read the description of this book I was not interested in reading it AT ALL. But I should have known. It’s an Algonquin book, and as a publishing house, they have NEVER let me down yet. I was hooked from page one, and read it in one sitting. It’s a novel about fatherhood and about tragedy, and about caring for others, and it blew me away.

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The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett – I knew I was going to read this book the second I found out it was partly set in Hay-On-Wye – the UK’s infamous “town of books” where I once tried to spend a day or two, and ended up staying a week (and having to buy an extra bag to cart away all of my purchases.) This book falls on the familiar trope of the undiscovered secret manuscript of a long-dead author (Shakespeare in particular) – and I love those types of books, but the book is also so much more – the love story and the relationship of the main character with his dead wife is heart-wrenching, and tragic, but told so tenderly and well, that it almost overshadowed the actual plot of the novel. I read it in one sitting.

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The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick – there was so much to like about this novel, but more than anything I loved the point of view from which it was told – the somewhat unreliable narrator whose life has been turned upside down – but you are quite ready to see the world through his eyes and you want to believe everything he tells you. It was sad, but it was also glorious, and full of so many truths and much sadness, but also lots of hope – lots of silver linings. I read it in…guess what? One sitting.

THE HALF-FINISHED ONES (which I will finish this weekend!):

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The Innocents by Francesca Segal – this book got SO MUCH HYPE! It was nominated for so many awards, it actually won three awards (the Costa Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award and the Samy Rohr Prize) but….I’m stuck at page 122. I wanted to love this book so much…but I lost interest.

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The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand by Gregory Galloway – I heard so many amazing things about this book – everywhere I went people were mentioning it, talking about it, on twitter, facebook, in reviews…I stopped on page 68. There wasn’t enough to keep me riveted, even though I liked what I read.

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The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker – so this book doesn’t really count as one of the books I didn’t finish because it lost my interest – this books is in a different catagory – this is a book I am loving so much that I don’t want it to end and I am savoring it, I am actually choosing to read this book slowly, and in truth, in the way it’s written, it sort of lends itself to that – alternating perspectives – and so much beautiful description – the inner torment of the characters – the meshing of all their very different lives…I will finish this one this weekend too, but I will be sad when it’s done…one of the best books I’ve read all year, but just not a page-turner in that sense, it’s a book that needs to be savored and enjoyed, one delicious page at a time.

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The Middlesteins by Jamie Attenberg – (I actually finished this book this morning…) but again, a book that got so much hype I knew I HAD to read it. I LOVED the beginning, but Edie’s slow descent into her own world of food and self-loathing was difficult to read and I did feel that somewhere in the middle the power of description displayed in the beginning of the book was sort of lost. But…it picked up and I loved the end, and Attenberg’s powers are back in full force. I’m really not sure why I got stuck in the middle, but I’m glad I returned to it and finished.

Of course, there are other books that read and enjoyed, and other books and manuscripts that I am in the middle of too…but if I told you about those I would have to kill you. Sigh…the life of a literary agent. (Or should I say book-slave?)

Wish me luck this weekend! I have books to finish!

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Catching up on Poetry – NaPoWriMo after the London Book Fair

Once the London Book Fair was in full swing I did not have the space or time to keep writing. I have spent the weekend trying to catch up.

I really want to say how amazing the NaPoWriMo blog has been – not only in encouraging writers to keep writing poetry every day this month -  but in posting truly fabulous inspiration and challenges that have taken me out of my comfort zone and gotten me to try to ideas and styles that not only have I loved, but feel compelled to return to after this is all over. In the meantime, I keep following and enjoying the challenges – not all of them, but most!

Here is the poem inspired by Day 20 – the challenge was to use 5 random words from a list and make it into a poem – I didn’t use the entire list, but I used most of it – more than 15 words – which was even more of a challenge.

Words

The owl absconds with my pencil
she flies upwind, my afternoon’s
work squandered, so I pour tea
that smells of clove and cinnamon
it’s a miraculous elixir, amber as
it pours out from the thermos, under
the watchful eye of the thief, cyclops
who stole to build a nest in some willowy
tree. The afternoon is mercurial, the air
scented, more seaweed than gutter, it changes
quickly, wind gusts like artillery fire, salt tang
of the sea on my tongue, the curl of my toes
in response to a chill burst, it is ego, elusive
in its quest to commune, twice I have been
confounded by a ghost, an owl once stole
my wedge of cheese, but left the truffle.
It is why I am still svelte.

The second challenge that I took on was quite unusual but a lot of fun – the challenge was in making what I wrote make sense afterwards. This challenge had us take a poem in a foreign tongue that we don’t know at all and “translate” it as best we could. I chose a poem entitled Delphi IV by Jos De Haes from Belgium.

Delphi 4

I suppose that the lake was hidden
blood-red over the silver sheen
flowing salvation, marred beneath
the poor vole sad and missed.

Over the ribbon of the iceberg
the ripples of the slavering deep
this stream runs alcoholic mergers
shot with starlings that won’t waken.

So many shimmers in the stream
blood-wingers plant still birth
- and on the bluff all’s in a tomb
of once haunted mounds of silk.

Blink once in the splintering wood
your glow and prime are coming
die there panning for the goldpost
on which they wrote in blood your name.

O children, my puppies, my wonder
we die cold in the ocean seas
and waken with a blood curse, standing
the dagger is a sword of sound.

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The Tryst – Poetry Noir

I’m in London now for the London Book Fair. I am under no illusion that I will be able to write a poem a day, but I’m having fun with this as I go, and trying to squeeze in some time here and there.

This is poetry noir – another genre I have never attempted. Great challenge. I had enough fun with this to even return to it again some time. The poem isn’t perfect but it was fun to write.

The Tryst
By Rena Rossner

Her hand trembles, she stabs at her eye
with a mascara wand. The lover on her bed
watches and takes a drag of cigarette, the ashes

fall. The phone rings. They stare
at it, but don’t pick up. The sound
of breathing fills the room. She pours

a drink. Shoots it down fast. It’s all
been done. She lies back down. He reaches
for his gun. They kiss, the metal cold

and hard against her slip. His car is down
below, for getaways and midnight trysts, for
endless stakeouts. But here its a freefall,

her arms a secret scar. Light edges in
from streetlamps, the rumble of a distant car.
The sound of laughter is like thunder, rising from

the hotel bar. Her ears against his shadowed chest.
There is no time for love. The knock is soft at first,
then harder, like the beating of her heart.

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Cin-quain-on and a Goobye Poem

I’m still behind, doing the challenges now for days 5 and 6…

The first is a Cinquain – a structed metered poem that really appealed to me in a way that somehow Haiku’s don’t. It was stuctured enough but unstructured in the sense that it did not require rhyme which is perhaps why I enjoyed the form more – freedom within constriction and all that, as well as the serious challenge of putting the words together in a way that makes sense and follows a pattern – a great jigsaw puzzle, and I so do love a challenge.

The second is a goodbye poem – this one has a lot of meaning for me personally, but I like the concept of it’s ambiguity – a writer saying goodbye to his/her story – or is it something more? The intimacy of the relationship between the creator and the created…

Echo
By Rena Rossner

It’s now,
when day is done
that I can hear my voice
In silence thick as night I play
with words.

Story
By Rena Rossner

I make a study of your letters
the words you formed
that ran across the page
away from me
sometimes they form
a concrete poem
your face in the morning
over coffee
you were always
far away.

Remember me like a window
open or shut, translucent,
full of glass and sunshine
I never meant to be a cage
I am but another demon
from your past
a face you pass
you turn your head as you go -
Was that just? No. Move on.
Keep moving. But you recognize
the echo.

Do you feel it still?
As I do? A low grumbling
like thunder, hungry,
an itch that you can’t scratch
a lonely angel, trailing you
ghost-like, calm, you turn
again, you hear a song,
a tear comes out of nowhere
unbidden, it falls and wets
the page. There is no pain,
it’s compensation, a mark
of cain, a passage back
into the intimacy
of silence.

Perhaps you are as glad
to be rid of me
as one who finally snuffs
the buzzing of a fly.
I am danger, keeper,
watcher, lover
of all your stories
you loved me best.

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A Lie. New Poem From Day 2 of NaPoWriMo.

So it’s day two of National Poetry Writing Month or NaPoWriMo (yeah, I know it’s April 5th which means that it’s day 5, and this should be my 5th poem, but the second poetry prompt was write a lie, so I am going to pretend I’m actually keeping up with this!)

The prompt was to write a poem that’s a lie, or a poem about a lie, or a poem that tells a lie, and this was a very big challenge for me because I don’t do “cute” poems, my poems are usually muses or images or ideas, flitting things that come to me and then cross lines and somehow can only be expressed in poetry. I write about visions, dreams, odd juxtapositions of things, small objects, feelings, I don’t usually write “clever” or story poems. But that’s what I like about this challenge – it’s taking me out of my comfort zone.

So here is my attempt at a lie.

A Lie
By Rena Rossner

I rose to greet the dawn, some things stay true
the sun that rises, faithfully, the house
that never sleeps, though contents do.
I made a cup of coffee, silently, some
habits never die, and turned on the computer.
I didn’t intend to lie. The bounty of places,
names and dates, the possibilities, an open face,
a door, a chance to travel across lines. Caught
in the net, suspended there, I thought to spin
my tale, become un-trapped. It was a little lie,
my age, a different face, a new name for this thing
I call myself. It grew. Until I did not know who
lived inside my skin, and who had dared
to claim that she was me behind the screen.
I tried to take her down, to lose her cool,
but she had taken on an alias, her presence
known. She took my time, she wanted more,
she had the friends I never had, the views,
a platform on which to stand, and she was
young and she was free, and she was everything
that wasn’t me. I spent more time attempting
to be her, less time professing to be me, and then
one day I didn’t recognize myself, a husk
of flesh and bone, a fly, caught in a tangled web.
A lie.

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