Tag Archives: writing

Blog Hop: What Do I Write and Why?

Helen Maryles Shankman, author of one of my favorite books I read this year: The Color of Light, a sweeping and romantic Jewish vampire novel about the Wissotzky Tea family and some incredible art and the Holocaust, graciously tagged me to come along on this blog hop. Be sure to visit her blog at helenmarylesshankman.com!


What am I working on:
Well, my novel MASTER OF THE MIRACLES is out on submission with my agent (the fabulous Josh Getzler) and in the meantime, I’ve been writing a series of linked short stories about the mystical city of Safed – they all have elements of magical realism and Jewish fantasy in them, and hopefully it will all come together in a collection at some point. (Here are some examples: Kissing the Messiah, The 614th Prophet, The Ari) my more recent ones include a story (forthcoming in an anthology) about the 12 dancing princesses retold as a zombie story, (oh, and the princesses are yeshiva students.) I recently wrote one about a little girl named Malka who raises a dybbuk army.

I’m also working on a Middle Grade Science Fiction story that is sort of like: The Truman Show meets The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds mixed with a little bit of Walk Two Moons.

Then there’s the BIG SECRET YA FANTASY SERIES PROJECT (in which I’m struggling with voice in a big way so I’ve put it aside for now) but it involves the retelling of some of my favorite stories, and that is all I’m going to say about that.

And a crazy post-apocalyptic vampires vs werewolves novel set in the Holy Land which I’m calling Jim Butcher meets The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but it remains to be seen if I can pull it off.

I also really want to write a magical realism series of Urban Fantasy Cozy Mysteries set in Jerusalem’s shuk with a coffee-ground reader who runs a café, but that’s only in planning stages for now.

Here and there I write poems too.

I like to keep busy.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This is why Helen Maryles Shankman and I are friends because she said: “I wish I belonged to a genre! I seem to hopscotch around Horror, Jewish Fiction, Magical Realism, Paranormal Romance, and Literary Fiction.” I guess the only one of those that doesn’t apply to me is Horror. Yes: Fantasy, Jewish Fiction, Literary Fiction, Urban Fantasy, Paranomal Romance, Biblical Fiction, Upmarket Women’s Fiction, Magical Realism and SciFi, and also Young Adult and Middle Grade Fiction.

My work is different than others because I feel I bring a really authentic voice to my work that’s not just Jewish, but part-Israeli, steeped in a deep familiarity with biblical sources and a knowledge of Jewish tradition across the spectrum of Jewish observance. I’m also a poet (and I think the best novelists were poets first,) and you can see that in my work. I love language, especially lyrical language, and that’s reflected in the way I write.

Why do I write what I write?

Well, MASTER OF THE MIRACLES is a novel that I’d been taking notes about for the past 15 years. It’s the story of Bruriah, but set in both the present day and the Mishnaic Era, but it also explores the idea of Jewish stigmata – it’s part historical fiction, part literary fiction, and part fantasy, and its a super-feminist novel – and that’s almost all you need to know about me.

I don’t think I can run from how Jewish I am so I don’t try to. Almost all my fiction is Jewish fiction. I’ve also written a biblical cookbook called EATING THE BIBLE, which speaks to my love of food and my love of the rich heritage of Jewish texts (and food!) that I grew up on. I think that all my work involves women who break stereotypes – religious, Jewish, societal and otherwise – which also probably says a lot about me.

How does my writing process work?
When I’m seriously working on a project I have to do it the Nanowrimo Way: 1000 words a day. More than that is a miracle. I force myself not to write less than 500 words a day at the bare minimum – but that only happens in spurts of 2-3 months at a time and then I need a break. I’m also a mom to 5 kids so…yeah. It’s not really possible in the long-term. I always write at night. Late at night. I’m a night owl. I need my house to be asleep and quiet and then I slink into my bedroom and crawl under the covers, prop my laptop on my lap, and enter my writing “cave.”  Sometimes I lock myself in. With coffee.

On to the tagging!

I want to tag two of my clients (since I am both an agent and an author) – I am so proud of them and so in love with what they write. I’ll add their blog posts when they get around to them:

LEAH SCHEIER, is the author of THE SECRET LETTERS (Disney-Hyperion, 2012) and now, YOUR VOICE IS ALL I HEAR is forthcoming from Sourcebooks Fire in Spring 2015. Her website is: http://www.leahscheier.com

RACHEL MARKS is the author of DARKNESS BRUTAL, the first book in a YA Urban Fantasy Series. Watch this space for news!! She’s also an incredibly artist. Her website is: http://www.rachelannemarks.com

And one more who is not a client but is a dear friend: Kristin Gleeson. Not only has she published two books in the past year, but they are in two different genres! Literary Fiction: Selkie Dreams, and Non-Fiction Biography: Anahareo: Wilderness Spirit. Read more about her and her works in progress here:  http://www.kristingleeson.com/blog


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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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Napowrimo Day 1 (two days late)

So I finally got around to doing poetry prompt one from Napowrimo (National Poetry Writing Month) – a challenge during which I am supposed to write a poem a day for 30 days.

The first challenge (via the NaPoWriMo blog) is to take the first line of a well-known poem and make it your own.

This is the line I chose: Slowly, silently, now the moon

There is something ethereal about it. And sitting here in my comfy chair, large sliding glass doors to my left that lead out onto the balcony, I can feel the moon’s presence over my shoulder as it slowly, silently takes a peek at what I’m writing.

The original poem is called “Silver” by Walter de la Mare


By Walter de la Mare

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in silver feathered sleep
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.

And this is my feeble attempt:

Different Flame

By Rena Rossner

Slowly, silently, now the moon
a spot of bother in the night
half past shoulder, quarter-
sized, appears. The balcony
is fraught with hassled light,
worried moths, long-legged things,
attracted by the glow, the hum, the other-
worldly radiance, my hands,
illuminated, insectile, tap
dance across the keys, my lap-
top, shaded in blue, in black on white,
in words fleshed out, fragile as wings,
dead things, insect markings
on the screen, flattened,
here be bug things. Moths
to a different flame.


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Q&A with “The Qualities of Wood” author, Mary Vensel White

Mary Vensel White’s debut novel The Qualities of Wood is part of a very exciting venture by HarperCollins into a digital-first imprint in conjunction with the HarperCollins slushpile website Authonomy. Mary’s book came out on January 31st at a special introductory rate, leading as an e-book and will eventually have a print run as well. Not only is the cover of this book visually stunning, but the book itself deals very much with the idea of art and visual perception – both in the way that it is written – so very lush with detail, and in the way that the characters grapple with their life circumstances. Things are not always what they seem in this stunning world that Mary’s created….or are they? Read this wonderfully rich debut novel to find out.

Mary – you have written a novel that is rich in atmospheric detail. Did you grow up in similar surroundings or have a country house somewhere in the woods?
In short, no! I grew up in the high desert of California. Sagebrush, Joshua trees, lots of dirt. A very sparse landscape. We used to travel to West Virginia to visit my grandparents in the summer, and the difference in scenery was always stunning to me. There were hills and lush trees and grass everywhere. I dreamed of living somewhere green. Many people find the desert quite beautiful, but I think part of us always aspires to something different than what we know.

I find that every writer has a starting point. Something that inspired them to write that first word. What inspired you to commit your first word to the page of this novel?
The initial inspiration was just that—the setting, the countryside. I had just moved to Chicago, my first experience in an urban surround, and as much as I loved the city, I sometimes craved open land and nature. The first image became the first scene of the book, Vivian’s small airplane touching down amidst fields of green.

I was bothered by Vivian’s relationship with her husband Nowell. I think that author-spouse relationship is inherently problematic, but in their relationship it feels like something more. As a writer, I sympathized with Nowell, as a woman, he infuriated me. Was that your intention?
I would rather write a character that inspires a reaction, even if it’s fury! Married couples start out as two individuals but soon, they play off each other and their paths become tangled with the other’s, as it should be. The novel takes place after they’ve been at it for some time, this fusing of paths, and it’s hard to say what the nature of their relationship was in the beginning. But it has veered and they must decide the path for the future. I wouldn’t say I wanted Nowell to be infuriating, but I’m glad he inspired feeling. In the end, I wanted characters that were flawed and multi-layered, as people are.

One of the other major issues in the novel that Vivian grapples with is finding her place within the creative spectrum – figuring out what is “special” about her. I personally think that everyone has a creative space inside of them, much like Dot says, but Vivian seems content for much of the novel to just “be average.” What are your thoughts on this?
For me, the specialness or purpose in life is related to happiness. Because all human wants and needs are basically in service to a pursuit of happiness—the quest for knowledge, engaging in relationships, and creating art, we do all of this to find happiness. For some people, simply taking care of a family makes them happy and they don’t want much else. Others need to travel or learn; artists need to create. Vivian grew up in the shadow of two people who were very fulfilled in their pursuits, and Nowell has been distracted working on his writing. She has no idea what she might like to do, where she wants her life to go. This is a basic part of growing up, I think, and just being human.

There is so much art in your novel. Not just in the way that you paint pictures for us with your words, but also all of the paintings that keep popping up in Vivian’s mind. Do you yourself have a background in Art History?
I have a meager background, which consists of several courses in college, but I do consider myself a visually-influenced writer. Colors, layout, impressions of things—these are all important to me when considering how to “paint” a story on the page. And I’ve always felt that different art forms only enrich each other.

Well. Enough about the novel. Tell me something about you. I’m always interested in hearing about what books and authors inspired someone as I often find new reads that way myself! What books would you say had a significant impact on your life and work?
I’ve always been a huge reader. As a child, I loved the author Ruth Chew. She wrote what we’d call fantasy now, stories about kids coming into contact with some sort of supernatural force. A lot of them had witches. Through these stories, I learned that books can really do just about anything you want them to. Little Women was a lesson in characterization and structure, and as a young adult, Lolita just blew my mind. I read it every few years and it still has that effect. It’s not really a matter of the subject matter, although it is shocking, but it’s more the style of it, the verve, the voice. Life-changing, that book. Also a work of history called Imagined Communities, the basic premise of which is that nations were formed, in part, because people started to imagine themselves as a community. This is a very simplified statement of the book, but this idea—that our very history could be altered by our thoughts (again a simplification of my thinking)—this had a huge impact on my writing and still does. Lastly, The Qualities of Wood was very influenced by Winesburg, Ohio, a novel that employs a direct, simple style to relay universal truths and longings.

Do you write like Nowell? Secreted behind a sheet-curtain? What is your writing space like?
Well, I’m writing this as three men are sawing and hammering in our bathroom about ten feet away. I have four children. If I expected seclusion or quiet to write, I would probably never write a thing. I have an open desk, crowded with papers and empty mugs, with photos of my kids and husband all around, school calendars, coupons, etc., etc. I use two monitors for one computer and usually have a second computer on too. This speaks mostly to my organization and the fact that I have things on both hard drives and am always going back and forth to see where something is. My oldest son says “Why do you have so many computer screens? You don’t have that much to do.” Kids always keep it real.

I’ve read a few chapters of another novel of yours, “Fortress For One,” is that your next project? Or is there something else in the pipeline?
I finished the second half of Fortress in November of last year. I’m letting it stew for a while but am just about ready to dive back into it. I wrote notes on that book for over ten years, so once I sat down to write, it felt fully formed in some ways. I’m also working on a collection of interrelated stories, an experimental sort of project called Human Stories. The idea is that all stories are based on certain archetypal outlines (i.e. Boy Meets Girl, Boy Grows Up, etc.), but in modern times, these archetypes can be upended. I began the first story after reading the collected stories of Lydia Davis, who really is an innovator of form, a maverick. Oh, and I’ve got an idea for another novel brewing…

You can buy Mary’s debut novel here or here
And visit Mary’s website or blog to find out more.

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John Connolly on Melancholy and Being a Writer

“I’m probably melancholic by nature, but that’s true of most writers, in part because we spend so much time living in our own heads, and mining that life for our work.” – John Connolly

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On Walter Benjamin and changing the format of my blog…

Though I still do continue to read a book a day, I’ve found that for the most part, blogging about a book a day is tedious and time-consuming. I’ve also started working on a new novel (you can check it out and read the first few chapters on Authonomy – here) which is the main reason that I don’t have the time to blog every day.

I will continue to read and post reviews about the books that I am moved to review (or requested to review!) and I also want to start a running list of favorite quotes. Walter Benjamin has long held a hug fascination for me as a writer/philosopher/artist and tragic figure. Just to give you an idea about how awesome he is, here are some quotes:

“The only way of knowing a person is to love them without hope.”
— Walter Benjamin

“Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”
— Walter Benjamin

“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.”
— Walter Benjamin

He worked for 14 years on an encyclopaedic project called “Arcades” where his intention was to combine the architecture of the “Arcade” with a literary montage of quotations that he organized on hundreds if not thousands of index cards. There is more information about this project here.

I have been collecting favorite quotations for many years myself and would like to have a place to share them with you. Someday perhaps I would like to attempt an “Arcades”-type project myself – I think this is especially relevant in today’s world and to the “Twitter Generation” where our communication with each other and perhaps with ourselves as well is measured by character. Kind of like a quotation.

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May 19 – The Bird Sisters by Rebecca Rasmussen

Though I have to say that I thought this book would be more about birds than it was (and I was looking forward to reading about various species of birds and how the sisters in the book took care of them and treated them), The Bird Sisters truly impressed me. Not just because the writing was breathtaking in many places, but also because the book was not what I expected at all. In the end, I think, it was the idea of a bird – caged vs free – that was more important than the story of the actual birds themselves. The cages we create for ourselves. Often these are cages of our own making. The concept of what it means to “fly free” and how there can be many interpretations of what that means – allowing yourself to be free – giving others the opportunity for freedom – even at the expense of your own – and how that can be a form of freedom for yourself too…

As a writer myself, I am spellbound by books that are written in such a different voice than I could ever write – it totally amazes me and makes me feel smaller and more insignificant as a writer because I feel sometimes like, “Wow. I could never write this.” And that humbles me. In a good way. I sometimes have a hard time reading books that sound too much like my own voice or books whose characters and voice I identify with too much or wish that I could sound like – sometimes that just makes me depressed because I either feel like, “I could do that! Why am I not published yet.” Or alternatively, “Wow. I could never do that but I wish I could.” But with The Bird Sisters I didn’t feel that way at all. I was just wowed by the writer. Wowed by the story. It’s a story I could never have told in a voice I could never master and that was its charm and beauty.

One thing that bothered me a little bit – but I always feel this way in books that I read that don’t necessarily have “happy” endings – was that I wished I could have changed the ending. Perhaps widowhood/spinsterhood suited the sisters. Like I said above, perhaps for them – their choice was “freedom” – but the choices that they made could also be interpreted as creating “a cage of one’s own.” I was bothered by the ending, I wanted a different life for them – but I guess if the novel hadn’t bothered me so much it wouldn’t have stayed with me as much as it did – and that is what we want from good literature – to be challenged, to be bothered, to think.

I’ve been participating in a book club discussion of this book over at TNBBC on Goodreads. Check out TNBBC’s blog for more book giveaways and discussions. Thanks so much to Rebecca Rasmussen for participating in a discussion of the book – she has been busy traveling the country promoting her book and you can find out all about her and her book at http://www.thebirdsisters.com/.

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