Uncategorized, Until Our Last Breath

“Begin again, Ernest. And this time, concentrate.”

When his good friend Gertrude Stein finished reading an early draft of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, she handed it to him, saying “Begin again, Ernest. And this time, concentrate.”

Susan Vreeland shared this story during her speech for the San Diego Book Awards earlier this month, and I’ve been mulling it over since then. I suspect that what Stein was reacting to was a falling away from the truth in her friend’s novel.

“Truth in fiction?” you might be asking.  Consider this beautiful passage from Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. “When I was started on a new story and I could not get going, I would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame and watch the sputter of blue that they made. I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.”

I must admit, I find Hemingway difficult to enjoy. I don’t use his writing as a model because that would be untrue to my own voice, but I love his acknowledgment of the need to be true when I write.  Facts are part of this, of course. It’s important not to write anything contrary to what we know the truth to be, but facts don’t convey much in and of themselves. It’s the meaning constructed from them that matters. That is the core of the writer’s craft, whether in fiction or narrative non-fiction, of which Until Our Last Breath is an example.   

Where does truth come from? Author Henry James offered excellent advice to new writers when he said, “try to be a person upon whom nothing is lost.” In writing about Jews trapped in the ghetto in Vilna or engaging in acts of sabotage as partisans, I didn’t get all my facts from books. I don’t think the book would have been published if I had.  I gathered from my own experience and occasionally from literature (in particular the Bible) the images and sensations that I hope make the book come alive for readers.  Going out without a winter coat on the first warm day in spring, the feel and sound of snow crunching underfoot, the rustle of bodies in a crowded room, the softness of another person’s lips, the sweet ache of first love.  I am my source for these, for they are things I know.

It takes far more concentration, I’ve found, to write “true sentences” with these kinds of facts than with the ones from books.  Susan Vreeland offered as a  blessing for writers this verse from Psalm 19: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight.”  One doesn’t need to believe in God, or anyone outside the self as the judge of one’s work, to know what this means.  As a writer,  I have to be real before my books can be.


A page from A Moveable Feast
A page from A Moveable Feast
Uncategorized, Until Our Last Breath

“Encouraging the Imagination to Come Alive”

I had the great privilege of listening to Susan Vreeland speak at the San Diego Book Awards on May 16, 2009. Since that evening was rather full of distractions (Until Our Last Breath and The Four Seasons both won in their categories and The Four Seasons won the Theodor Geisel Award for book of the year), it’s taken until now to come down out of the clouds and give a serious thought to what Susan had to say.

Susan Vreeland
Susan Vreeland



How wonderful it was to hear a career teacher and novelist bring those two professions together into a powerful statement about teachable moments, and the imperative for serious writers to offer such moments in our work. It’s not enough for non-fiction writers to convey facts.  We have to convey meaning, or better yet, allow readers to find it for themselves. It’s not enough for fiction writers to create characters and plunk them down into a place and time.  If there’s no wisdom to be gained by what happens to them, why bother?

“Writers are “practitioners developing …the compassion born of imagining the lives of others, fictional or real,” she said.  It is both our charge and our honor to encourage the imagination to come alive, for it is with the ability to imagine the lives of others that we move in the direction of real humanity.  “Where there is no imagination, there is no human connection.[…] Where there is no connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, lovingkindness, human understanding, peace–they all shrivel.” 

Shriveled hearts, we all know, are capable of great harm. But as Susan pointed out,  “each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another is a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race.” Forget about writing books that are no more than shallow diversions, she says.   Go for “themes that matter–issues of faith, morality, mortality, humanity, artful living, literature that explores the ways that Love can make a difference in this world.”

I’m thinking now about UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and how well Susan’s words reflect what I was trying to accomplish as I wrote it. 

I would not have been interested in becoming its author at all if the themes she spoke of were not so readily apparent in the story of the Vilna Ghetto.  Amazingly, not a single ghetto resident died of hunger or in an epidemic, despite the horrific conditions.  Why?  Because the community vowed it would not happen.  Mortality statistics in the ghetto for those who were not victims of organized murder were actually lower than in the rest of Vilna in the same period, and only slightly higher than the city’s annual mortality rate in the years before the occupation.  The Jews were in it together, and everyone’s health and safety mattered. They weren’t going to help the Nazis do the job.

That’s the kind of thing I wanted to write about. The themes of community and commitment were found not just there, but everywhere in the story I was privileged to tell, and I think that’s what brought UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH  recognition not just from the San Diego Book Awards, but recently from the Christopher’s as well. The Christopher Medal goes to books and other media that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” If the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto and the partisan camps in the Rudnicki Forest did not affirm those values, I could not have written a book that did. 

There’s more from Vreeland’s speech I want to write about.  Look for another post to my diary in a few days.  For now, if you want to read her speech in its entirety, here’s the link.


“Hesitant bursts, with long silences in between”

How lucky could a writer be to have a partner whose idea of a good summer read is the fiftieth anniversary edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style?

Just this morning he read to me from the foreword by Roger Angell, E.B. White’s stepson. Angell describes White typing his weekly New Yorker column as sounding like “hesitant bursts, with long silences in between.”  I can’t imagine a better description of what it is like to write, or a better statement than the one White frequently made about the result:  “I wish it were better.”

Actually “Strunk and White,” all the identification this slim volume needs, has its origins ninety years ago, when E.B. White took a course from Professor Will Strunk at Cornell University. One of the required texts was a roughly fifty page, self-published text by Strunk, presumably designed to help students write papers that would not be quite so painful to read. Almost forty years later, in 1957, White dusted off this little treasure, and with minimal updating, launched it into the realm of the true classics.

The fiftieth anniversary edition contains all Strunk’s original, pithy advice, plus an essay by White, who is perhaps best known as the author of Charlotte’s Web. “The  preceding chapters contain instructions drawn from established English usage,” White explains.  “This one contains advice drawn from a writer’s experience with writing,”  and is meant as “mere gentle reminders [of] what most of us know and at times forget.”

So here, dear readers (and writers), are a few of my favorites:

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.  The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.” So true! It is with these that we build a strong text, relying on modifiers only when the situation cries out for more than powerful, well chosen nouns and verbs can provide.

“Do not dress up words by putting ‘-ly’ on them, as though putting a hat on a horse.” I’ve made a point in my recent work of trying to avoid all use of “-ly,” unless to do so creates worse difficulties in producing crisp, succinct writing. This always has to be the ultimate goal, but it’s better to show what a sly smile looks like, than say “she smiled slyly.”

And my favorite, though most painful of them all: Revise and rewrite.  Remember it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery. This is a common occurence in all writing, and among the best writers.” I’m in good company, apparently, because I think I spent more time revising Until Our Last  Breath than I did writing the original manuscript.  It’s no fun, and as I near the end of the first draft of my new novel, The Laws of Motion, I know much of the heavy lifting still lies ahead.  Everyone who’s ever written a book, or even a page, knows to expect to mess with it over and over again, and perhaps to end up throwing it away altogether.

Our first drafts are the pass in which all the potential of the material cries out and it’s our job to impose discipline on it.  Sometimes we don’t want to do that, and I think  we shouldn’t  worry about it too early in the process. Often it’s easier for others to assess a new work as a whole, and the person we become by writing it (yes we do grow and change!) frequently delivers some good messages about how it could be improved.

In the end, the taskmaster for all writers is the same one E.B. White listened to, the one that says “make it better.”  And every writer knows that such a taskmaster is never silenced just because a work has an ISBN number and a cover around it.  I wonder whether Strunk or White ever winced at their own published  writing.  I know I sometimes do at mine.



The Four Seasons, Until Our Last Breath

Grand Prize Winner at the San Diego Book Awards!

Last Saturday evening, UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH won best biography, and THE FOUR SEASONS won best historical fiction at the 2009 San Diego Bookcatnhat2 Awards.  But there’s more!  THE FOUR SEASONS won the Theodor S. Geisel Award for book of the year!  To be recognized for my writing with three awards at this event, and earlier this year at the Christopher Awards in New York, is so far beyond anything I’ve experienced as a writer that I’m still pinching myself.

Here’s a link to the San Diego Union-Tribune article, “Top honor to ‘Seasons’ at S.D. book awards” and the San Diego Book Awards site

with my sister (and my toughest critic) at the San Diego Book Awards
with my sister (and my toughest critic) at the San Diego Book Awards



Here I am with my sister Lynn celebrating the San Diego Book Awards wins, and later, with the  honorary hat!

Better than trophy, that hat of a cat!
Better than trophy, that hat of a cat!

Two Prophets, Two Novels

1I’ve been writing short reviews for the Historical Novel Society Magazine for several years now, but it was exciting to see my first full-length book review published in San Diego Jewish World.  It’s about a recently released novel,  THE SHALOM INDIA HOUSING SOCIETY, by Esther David, which has as one of its main characters a very amusing prophet Elijah.

Next up, a review for Jewish Book World of  DRAWING IN THE DUST, by Zoe Klein, a rabbi in Los Angeles.  Her novel, like Michener’s THE SOURCE, juxtaposes a plot involving a present-day archeological dig with another story about the subject of the dig, the prophet Jeremiah.  This will be my first review for Jewish Book World, the most important source for information about books of Jewish interest.  They’ve asked me to be a contributor and I’m honored to be part of what is sometimes described as the Publishers Weekly for Judaica.

The Four Seasons, Until Our Last Breath

San Diego Book Award Finalist–Twice!

I received word this morning that both UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH and THE FOUR SEASONS  are finalists for

With Sarah Landis, my editor for THE FOUR SEASONS.  Thanks, Sarah, for your great work!
With Sarah Landis, my editor for THE FOUR SEASONS. Thanks, Sarah, for your great work!

 2009 San Diego Book  Awards.  I’ve been told that being a finalist in two categories in one year is a rare accomplishment, and I am deeply honored to have my writing acknowledged in this way.