Monday, April 30, 2018


The interesting thing about being a writer is how close it is to drug addiction.  Did I just say that?  Forget it.  I didn't mean it. Look what I've started.  I see that look in your eye.  You're thinking I need a stint in writers' rehab.  It was a slip of the id.  I've read too many Anne Tyler novels and it's addled my brain.  

Millions of books have been written by perfectly normal people.  Were they all addicts? Of course not.  I don't know what came over me when you asked me why I write and I gave you that silly, unfounded analogy to drug addiction.  Of course, it isn't an addiction.  
Do I look like a falling down, spaced-out junkie? My hands don't shake when blank paper and a pen or pencil get too close.  Being in a room with a computer doesn't make my heart race.  I don't get the sweats when my Amazon ranking goes below a hundred thousand.  And believe me, I don't care how many books I sell or if anyone ever reads anything I've written.  It's the act of writing that intrigues me. Period.  End of sentence.

So you won't let me take back what I said about writing being close to a drug addiction?  Well, I don't need your permission.  I take it back.  Writing is a noble calling, one that I humbly and modestly and self-deprecatingly engage in occasionally, and that's all it is.  No addiction about it.  

What did you just ask me?  Are you talking about whether I have to, need to, must write every day and if I don't I have to be hospitalized?  Of course not.  And the rumor that I tried to spike Don DeLillo's drink when he and I were clients of the same literary agent is patently, absurdly false.  And it wasn't cyanide.  Where would I get cyanide?  And as far as comparing myself to other writers, I hardly ever read a book that I haven't written.  And I don't pay attention to who got the latest literary award.  Oh, I might glance at the list if I have nothing better to do.  I certainly don't look at Amazon rankings for anyone's books but my own.  As for feeling a little sick in the morning when I have to wait too long for my computer to boot up, the doctor says I should eat breakfast, that writing all day on an empty stomach aggravates my ulcer.  Know what I think?  I think there's something about the smell of computer paper in the morning that makes my ulcer act up.  I wonder if there's a nonallergenic computer paper available.

You really believed what I said about excessive writing being similar to drug addiction?  You're still stuck on that?  Well, ignore what I said at the beginning of this post.  It's not true.  Not even fuckingly, remotely, crazily true.  I just needed something to say when you asked me about what it was like to be a writer, and now you think you know something about me just because I was trying to be clever.  Haven't you ever tried to be clever and it backfired?  How about a joke?  Do you know when someone is trying to make a joke?  You don't?  And shut up about your Aunt Marilyn and her addiction to her typewriter.  I'm nothing like your Aunt Marilyn.  

So I write a few books here and there.  Maybe I don't eat or sleep or socialize, but it's a small price to pay for the elusive words that I manage to capture and put on paper every day, and if you persist in calling me a victim of writingism, as if it were a disease, go ahead, but that isn't me.  And, smarty pants, where did you find the made-up, idiotic word writingism, anyway?  I looked in the dictionary.  There's no such word.  

You're saying my writing is a compulsion and compulsion is part of addiction?  I don't buy it.  Isn't compulsion when you get carried away by an impulse and act on it even when you know that doing so will be harmful to you?  I don't see a trace of compulsion in me or in my writing.  Okay, okay, so I like to write more than I like to do anything else.  Is it a crime that I feel better when I'm writing than when I don't?  

You just asked if I read reviews.  No, I don't.  Not all of them, anyway.   Positive ones, of course.  Negative ones make my ulcer squeal.   

 And now that you have a slim, itty, bitty snippet of personal information about me, you think you know everything.  Well, you don't.  You don't know that I can certainly live a contented life without writing another thing as long as I live.  You don't know that I could be perfectly happy without putting one, single solitary word on paper.  You don't know that I could quit writing entirely if I wanted to, if I felt like it, if I really, truly tried.  And quit staring at me with that pitying look on your face.  I have a perfectly contented, happy life.  And I don't care if you believe me or not.  

Did you just say you think I need an intervention?  Ho, ho, ho, that's a laugh.  You're the one who needs an intervention to suck all the crazy ideas you have about writers and the writing life sucked out of your brain.

You want to give me your Aunt Marilyn's psychiatrist's phone number?  Are you serious?  Haven't you been listening to a word I've said?  I've written a whole post on what a writer is and you still don't understand one thing about it.  Where do you think all those burning shards of wisdom we writers put between covers come from?  How would you know anything about the stomachache I get when I stare at a blank page or the feeling of euphoria that comes over me when I print out a chapter of my new book.  How would you know about the all-night writing binge, or about waking up at four in the morning with an idea so gorgeously inventive and clever you nearly break a leg running up the stairs to your writing cubby to memorialize it, or the feverish waking dreams of words and sentences and paragraphs that turn you momentarily deaf and blind to the world around you?  

You're sorry?  You beg my forgiveness?  Well, that's better.  Want some advice?  Until you become a writer and can experience what I experience, and know what I know, keep your cockamamy ideas and your interventions and your Aunt Marilyns to yourself.  I'm a writer.  I write.  And if I suffer from writingism, I can handle it on my own.  

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Ruminations on the Life of an Elderly Aunt

Aunt Amy was my father's younger sister.  She was sophisticated and aloof, and, although slightly pinched-face, was good-looking in her elegant jewelry and designer clothes.  We were never close.  She was from the rich side of the family.  I was from the working-class side.  She lived in Encino, I lived in Huntington Beach.  We rarely saw each other.

 She called me after the 1975 earthquake.  She was in her sixties then.  

"I'm homeless," she said.  "My apartment was squashed and I might have to live in my car."

"Come here," I said.

"I'm fine," she said and hung up.

She called me a few years later.  Twenty, to be exact.  

"I fell and broke my wrist, but I can still play the piano," she said and hung up.

  Her only daughter had died by then and she had no grandchildren.  She was obviously reaching out to me.

I invited her to a 4th of July party at my house.
She didn't show.    

I called her that night to ask what had happened.     

"I got lost," she said.  "I had to keep stopping to ask directions, so I turned around and went home."

"I think it would be good if you moved closer to me," I said.  "I have a friend who lives in Leisure World in Irvine.  You can buy your own apartment, and you'll be only fifteen minutes away from me." 

She surprised me by taking my advice.

I helped her move into a large condo in Leisure World.  It had a bucolic view of the Irvine hills.  There was a nurse on duty in the building and breakfast and lunch were available in the dining room.  I took her shopping once a week, and Duke and I had dinner with her several times a month.

She had been an avid bridge player.  I arranged for her to join a bridge club.

"No one will play with her," the organizer of the club told me.  "She can't remember the cards.  She insults the other players."

She wanted a computer.  "Everyone has a computer," she said.  "A person is left out if they don't have a computer."

Duke got her one, and showed her how to use it.  She couldn't remember what he told her.  There were endless calls to Duke complaining that the computer was broken, it was no good, it didn't work.

She couldn't hear the telephone ring.  Duke bought her an answering machine.  She couldn't remember how to play back her phone messages.

I called a registry and hired a caregiver to be with her during the day.  No one lasted more than a week. As each one departed, she would curse them and try to bar the door.

She lived in her condo in Leisure World for thirteen years.  She didn't lose reality all at once.  It happened a bit at a time.  It was like the sun going down.  Inexorable.  Unstoppable.

I found a board and care home for her near where I live.  I would take her for a walk in the afternoon, and afterward she would sit in a chair and sleep until dinnertime.  She lost her contankerousness.  She turned sweet.  She let me kiss her.  She smiled at me.  She said she was going to vote for Obama.

We had a small party for her on her hundredth birthday.  She didn't recognize anyone, but she seemed happy.  She held the greeting card from President Obama in her hand until it was frosting-spotted and creased.

She died six months later.  She went peacefully.  No arguments.  No curses.  No deathbed scenes.  She just left.  

 I had always thought someone else would end up with Aunt Amy's care.  Her daughter probably, or my mother.  But they were both gone.  I could say my connection to this difficult, enraging, and sometimes endearing woman was a fated, better-late-than-never, gentle twining of two hearts.  Maybe it was, but it was also a valuable pull-the-mask-away peek into a future that awaits us all.   

Saturday, April 14, 2018

How Long Does it Take to Write a Book?

Sometimes I’m asked how long it takes to write a book.  I usually reply that there’s no good estimate.  When that doesn’t satisfy, I joke that it’s like a pregnancy, no less than eight months, no more than nine.  I don’t mention “Lilli Chernofsky", the novel that took me 26 years to complete.   

In 1990 a convention of Old China Hands, Jewish refugees from Hitler who had survived the Shanghai ghetto, was held in a hotel in Anaheim, California.  I lived nearby, so out of curiosity I attended one of the public events.  It was a raucous, joyously emotional gathering, lots of tears and laughter and reminiscences.  The personal stories were overwhelming.  I was hooked.  Over the following months I met and interviewed twelve survivors and taped their stories of escape from Europe and the life-altering drama of existence in the Shanghai ghetto.  Among the people I interviewed was a man in his late seventies who was living in a condo in Leisure World in Orange County; he had been a classical violinist in Europe and ended up leading a jazz band in Shanghai.   Another one was an insurance executive I interviewed in his office in Los Angeles; he had spent his youth in Shanghai and was curious as to why anyone would want to know anything about it.  Another was a woman in her sixties who agreed to meet me at a cafĂ© in the Northridge Mall; she told me about a childhood in Shanghai that still caused her nightmares.  Another was an elderly woman and her daughter who met me for lunch in Marina del Rey and after a slow, awkward beginning, told me about their escape from Hitler and what their lives had been like in Shanghai.  There were more interviews.  Even a letter from a man in Australia.  I soon had a drawer full of interview tapes.    

I knew several things about the book before I started:  it would be a novel; it would hew close to the information I had gleaned from survivors; it would be about how people survive calamitous events and whether they survive honorably or by betraying others; it would be an adult novel that could also be read by teenage readers, for at the novel’s heart would be the young Lilli Chernofsky and her stunning metamorphosis  from sheltered seventeen-year-old to complex heroine. 

By 1997 the novel (then titled “Escape to Shanghai”) was finished.  I gave it to my agent.  She didn’t want to represent a book about Jews or the Holocaust or World War II.  I changed agents.  Several tried to find a publisher for the book, but with no success.

I contacted Spielberg’s Shoah Project and asked if they would like to add the taped interviews to their collection.  They said they only used interviews for the Shoah Project that they themselves conducted. 

Being a fiction writer means being philosophical about the fate of one's work.  Although attachment might not diminish, reality must be served.  So I put the books and tapes in the drawer and began writing a book about Texas.  

In 2006 "The Texicans" was published by Soho Press.  After that there were a few false starts on other books, but always in the back of my mind was the unpublished novel about the Shanghai Jews.  It nagged at me that I had made a promise to the survivors I interviewed that I would write a book based on their experiences and when the going got rocky I had given up.  So I pulled the manuscript out of the drawer. and began to revise.  

I don't know what changed.  My fortunes, possibly.  The zeitgeist, maybe.  But in 2016 I sold "Lilli Chernofsky" to Brick Mantel Books.  It was published in January of 2018 and will be featured on the Jewish Book Council's list of recommended books.  

So writers everywhere:  Open the drawer, dust off the bedraggled manuscript, look at it with a gimlet eye, make revisions -- slash-and-burn revisions, if necessary -- and then humbly, proudly and determinedly take it to market.