Where the Past Isn’t Past

Jane Rotrosen Agency clients at HNS Conference
Jane Rotrosen Agency clients at HNS Conference

I’ve been attending the Historical Novel Society Conference in the Chicago area, and have been overwhelmed by the excitement of being around so many people who love, understand, honor, and practice the art of writing.  A number of clients of the Jane Rotrosen Agency were here, including Susan Holloway Scott and Karen Harper, as well as Sheramy Bundrick, a new client of my former agent, Barbara Braun.  Also here were Margaret George, whose novel on Helen of Troy was inspirational to me in writing Penelope’s Daughter, and Lauren Willig, whom I was able to thank for writing my favorite blurb for The Four Seasons.  I also connected up with Catherine Delors, whose fantastic book, Mistress of the Revolution, has been my latest Kindle read.

I spoke as part of two panels, both on various aspects of working with real life characters, and was pleased to see that my views about balancing fact and fiction were widely shared. It’s important not to take on the burden of the scholar, because we are story tellers first and foremeost. However,  readers trust us to be well-informed and not to mislead them about important facts of history and the personalities of different eras.  I was pleased that my sentiments that we should not defame the dead because they can’t defend themselves was well enough received to find its way into the evening keynote speaker’s remarks.

I never for a minute forget how fortunate I am to have found my way to the speakers’ side of the table.  Many, many people write well and work equally hard and have not had my good fortune.  Echoing Margaret George’s reminder in her keynote address,  not to get so lost in the past that we forget to live in the present, I found a lot of joy at this conference at the opportunity historical fiction provides to live squarely in both.

With Sheramy Bundrick at HNS
With Sheramy Bundrick at HNS
Enjoying a laugh at one of the panels at HNS 2009
Enjoying a laugh at one of the panels at HNS 2009

With Catherine delors, showing off her book on my Kindle


With Catherine Delors, showing off her book on my Kindle
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.




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.


From A (Ackerman) to Z (Zoo)

Today marks the publication of my fifth article for San Diego Jewish World  in the last few months.  This one is about Diane Ackerman’s recent “One Book, One San Diego” visit in connection with her wonderful book The Zookeeper’s Wife.  Here’s a link to the article, or you can go to my San Diego Jewish World author page for links to all my articles.

With Diane Ackerman at a reception in her honor at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center
With Diane Ackerman at a reception in her honor at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center
Uncategorized, Until Our Last Breath

The Christopher Connection

At the Christopher Awards with my medal for writing Until Our Last Breath"
At the Christopher Awards with my medal for writing Until Our Last Breath

I’m sitting in the departure lounge at JFK thinking how glad I am I came to New York to receive in person my Christopher medallion for UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH (that’s the award, pictured to the right).

I spent part of the morning of the awards ceremony with Sarah Landis, my Hyperion/VOICE editor, admiring the amazing view of the Empire State Building from Hyperion Books’ new digs in Lower Manhattan. It’s nice to see the publisher’s enthusiasm for THE FOUR SEASONS remains high, and that sales are holding steady.

Later I went uptown to see my agent, Meg Ruley. The Jane Rotrosen Agency’s digs are the opposite of the sleek, ultramodern Hyperion offices. Jane remodeled a multi-story townhome she bought many years ago (smart lady!) into a home for the agency, and a home it truly is. They’ve kept the cozy look, with a comfortable parlor filled with clients’ books, a backyard garden, and a creaky staircase with flowered wallpaper. The only thing that says not to expect a corseted matron to sweep in from an Edith Wharton or Henry James novel and ring the maid for tea is the posters of agency best-sellers covering the walls and stairwell. In every little cranny and back room of the house-turned-business, some of the nicest people in New York (including Meg herself) are hard at work helping their clients succeed. I am truly fortunate to be among them.

Meg and I went from there to the Whitney Museum to see the current exhibition featuring works by Jenny Holzer. Holzer is best known for scrolling neon marquees featuring her own aphorisms and quotations from others. The focus of this show was the occupation of Iraq, using statements from civilian and military officials, US soldiers, and Iraqis to portray the toll of war on human life and character. Since one is forced to read at the relentless pace of the marquees – slower than normal reading speed but too fast to absorb nuanced meanings – the overall effect is of being caught up in a wash of language that is both confrontational and elusive. It left me speechless, an amusing irony not just since Holzer’s foundation is words, but because as a writer I am not usually at a loss for them.

I walked back to my hotel through Central Park in springtime. The petting zoo was full of kids in winter coats they have not yet shed, but which now flop open with no more than a t-shirt underneath. For New Yorkers I imagine that’s as much a sign of spring as flowering trees and daffodils.

The Christopher Awards ceremony that evening touched me deeply. In the beautiful McGraw-Hill auditorium, I watched clips of the winning films and television specials with my companion for the evening, author Susanne Dunlap (LISZT’S KISS, EMILIE’S VOICE, THE MUSICIAN’S DAUGHTER). Michael Bart and his wife, Bonnie, were there as well, since we jointly received the award for UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH–Michael for his years of research and me for my writing. Congratulations to you again, Michael, and to Bonnie as well.

Afterwards, Susanne and I partied with Oscar the Grouch, who said he didn’t see why he had to leave his comfortable garbage can just because the Sesame Street Group received the lifetime achievement award that night. Muppeteer Carroll Spinney, who had Oscar on his arm, confided to me when his little green friend wasn’t listening that he doesn’t think Oscar is really all that grouchy, since he knows how much Carroll loves him.

Susanne and I stayed until the clean-up crew ripped out the tablecloth under our empty wine glasses (well, not exactly, but they looked like they might). By then the pianist was accompanying Carroll, who was singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” and “The Rainbow Connection” with Mousketeer-era people like me -all of us Sesame Streeters through our children and grandchildren.

With only about two dozen remaining guests, the room was quiet enough for a few last conversations, some of the best of the evening. I spent a little time with Father Dennis Cleary, the new director of The Christophers, which gave me the chance to tell him in person how thrilled I was that the themes I had tried to convey in UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH had been recognized by the awards committee. There’s a consistent message in all my novels as well as this book, that our decisions are what define us as people, and that principled choices enable us to become more than we might imagine possible.

I finished my stay in New York with a visit the following morning to the Frick Collection for what’s becoming a tradition for me and another author friend Stephanie Cowell (MARRYING MOZART and THE GREEN DRESS). We’ve been meeting at a different art museum each time I’m in New York, and we stroll around catching up with each other between stops to admire the paintings. Stephanie is a lifelong New Yorker, and she showed me a Rembrandt self-portrait, done in middle age, that has been a force in her life for many years – a heady blend of saint, sage, and bodhisattva, whose eyes hold her accountable for herself since her last visit.

As we left the museum, I was holding a rolled up poster of the Rembrandt, since I don’t think I’ll be at the Frick often enough for him to work that spiritual magic on me in person. After a quick stop at a deli, we took our lunch to Central Park and sat in the spring light talking about our books, both published and in progress, and about using our blessings well. The evening before, Father Cleary had ended by thanking the honorees for our creative expression, and offering a prayer that we all might continue to use our talents and skills to make future Christopher-worthy contributions as writers and filmmakers. I intend to do my best to live up to that challenge.

Time to board the plane for home. A very nice thought indeed.

Uncategorized, Until Our Last Breath

Spring Housekeeping

People tell me they love my website, created by Gabriel Porras and Patricia Maas at Blue Jay Tech, but there’s always room for improvement!  While they’re working hard behind the scenes on the technical requirements to improve access, add information, and make the site more fun to rummage around in, I am doing some updating of the text.  For those of you who check in regularly, watch for a lot of changes over the next few weeks.  For now, I’ll point you to the first substantial change, which is my rewritten Q&As on Until Our Last Breath.  Go to the bookshelf button to locate the book,  and click Q&As once you’re there.  Or you can cut to the chase, and use this link.