Today, Norm Goldman, Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is honored to have as our guest, Neal Karlen author of several books including Shanda: The Marketing and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew and his latest tome, The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mash of Languages Saved the Jews.
Neal is also a regular contributor to the New York Times as well as other publications. Good day Neal and thanks for participating in our interview.
Thanks Norm, it’s a pleasure and an honor.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
First, as a child, I got started in reading. I wasn’t a geek, I played sports, went to Hebrew School, got into trouble—but come night, after dinner, I’d close the door to my room and just READ. Everything. From the stupidest who-dunnit (I love good who-dunits) to the classics to that week’s “Sporting News” to Joseph Heller (not that I knew what anyone of them were really about. They were all just different worlds, I could tell, worlds I could never dream of.
Once in awhile I’d open my door, and my father and I would read with me this children’s encyclopedia; we started at aardvark and just read, alternating entries. I think we ended up getting to G. This is how my father learned Yiddish from my grandfather, reading from the Forverts, the Forwand. He was a peasant immigrant who never learned English, and my father learned Yiddish before English.
I feel so sorry for kids today…I also teach college writing sometimes, and the idea of locking yourself away to read for 4 hours and pleasure and for karmic transportation to other worlds and subcultures that were not weren’t, personally, say, my particular suburb.
I guess it was all a hobby, I figured, at 13 I knew I was expected—and wanted to—to follow my father’s footsteps into medicine.
Thirteen was also my Bar Mitzvah age…..and you get some gifts. Bar Mitzvahs were nearly as grandiose and grotesque as they are now. There was no party, and I pulled in about $275, a hefty sum to be sure at the time.
Well of course I had to write thank you notes for this rich payday, checks for $5. The natural way of writing thank you notes by 13-year olds is to write the same thing over and over….”Dear [fill in the name], thank you for the [fill in the gift.] It means a lot to me. Love, Putz”
I tried the thank you note template, but got bored halfway through my second thank you card. So I started goofing around, making each card written differently and particular to the person I was sending it to you. I asked my Uncle Jack in Winnipeg if he was such a famous and well-regarded dentist in Winnipeg, he couldn’t have sent more than a 10 dollar gift certificate—in Canadian money.
I thanked my late Aunt Helen, a nurse in Chicago and mom of three of my first cousins, for her present—but asked when I was going to be invited from Minneapolis to Chitown to see Wrigley Field (Aunt Helen was a big Cubbies fan when it hurt to be a Cubbies fan.”
She called me on the phone, and told me to forget about what all the other relatives were talking about….me going to medical school, law school, or something secure….and instead be a writer.
So I did. It saved my life. I’d never known anyone who actually wrote for a living, so I kept just writing through college, assuming I’d be a real job person as soon as I graduated.
I don’t know what keeps me going Norm—I just finished a book, and feel like I’m not keeping going. Like I’m written out and have nothing to say and it’s narcissistic for me to keep inflicting my take on life on strangers. This happens after every book…. and then goes away, and you can’t NOT write.
What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
Probably the nine thousand insecurities and anxieties that go with the job.
The fear that you’ve just spend 3 years in a little room typing draft after draft, and still not being sure, and often with good reason, that what you’ve written is even semi-decent.
The fear you’re destroying your “real life”…. you have to carve out huge blocks of time for yourself and let your life go for awhile, to the detriment of one’s relationship. I think I lost one marriage and the last person I was with to that not-uncommon syndrome.
And money, always money. Unless you’re of independent means, which a huge number of writers are (I’m not) you worry about money. If your advance will hold it. The Visa bill.
What are the preponderant influences on your writing?
It changes day-by-day, week-by-week, depending on who the last good writer I read was—Marya Hornbacher or Dostoevsky, or both. Not that I’m trying to ape anyone’s style—for better AND worse I have the voice I have. But to learn how they tell a good story; how they make you care. That could be Plutarch or Stephen Crane or Emily Bronte or Joan Didion or Raymond Chandler or David Gates or Faulkner, depending on the day.
My favorite quote in the world is Faulkner’s line in “Requiem for a Nun”—“The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.”
Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre owe something to readers, if not, why not, if so, why and what would that be?
I think they do. Fewer and fewer people are reading books—and you owe it to them to be interesting, which is such a terrible word—be it for fans of Harrold Robbins or Henry Miller. To make it sound real, so so so real, and not a hack job pounded out as part of an author’s shtick (calling Ernest Hemingway, Garrison Keillor). And you in one your storytelling—not pedantically—showing how maybe there are alternatives to Harold Robbins. At least his fans are reading—something. I’m not a snob…. I just finished a 500 page biography of Vince Lombardi.
What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing? What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers?
I hate to lapse into creative writing MFA—talk (esp. since I don’t have a creative writing MFA), but having that VOICE, sometimes bombastic and over the top, sometimes soft and oblique, so you can barely understand the writing.
It CONNECTS to the hoped for reader, even if they have no experience or prior knowledge of the world, or people, you’re portraying.
That there be a POINT, even if it’s no point, to the story. People don’t have time in their lives anymore to read lousy writing.
Was the process of writing Shanda: The Marketing and Breaking of a Self-Loathing Jew different than The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mash of Languages Saved the Jews? If so, please elaborate.
Very much so. Shanda was a memoir, where I basically ripped my guts out and spilled them on the page as I told the story of my reclamation of my Jewish heritage. Not that I’d truly lost my heritage—you can never really do that—but to trace my history from yeshiva bocher, to almost-rabbi, to disbelieving and hateful Uncle Tom Jew, was so painful (in remembrance of what happened) and personal (why am I telling strangers what’s truly and deeply in MY heart?) that mere modesty and humility (one of the lessons I learned through the book) seemed to preclude it’s publication.
There’s that feeling you get everytime you get your first box of your new books from the publisher. With Shanda, which is a Yiddish term for “disgrace,” I felt truly nauseous, seeing the cover that Simon and Schuster had come up with. I’d seen it before, and given it my full approval, and it certainly sold books—but to see the back of someone’s head wearing a yarmulke with a pig on it, behind which lay the actual book—hit me in the gut.
I am a very private person—and to see all those feelings, not always so nice, mortified me a bit. What had I done? The book sold well, but only now can I look at it, say “that’s true,” open the book and read selections, and be proud of it.
Curiously, The Story of Yiddish proved almost as difficult to write. I was looking forward to writing a book where the word “I” never appeared—but it just wasn’t possible. I had grown up with Yiddish, and though the word “I” rarely appears, my feelings of “who am I to pass judgement and gauge the history of this wonderful language?” dogged me.
I wasn’t happy with the first six drafts of the book—it was only after the seventh (and final) draft was done did I say to myself, “this is what I wanted. For better AND worse, this is what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it.
It was a long process of a few years, during which I wondered why I hadn’t gone to law school or taken some easier path through life—but now I’m proud of the book, no matter how it fares in the marketplace.
Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Oy, Norm, I’d love to tell you a few different of my ideas, and see what you think. But I’m SO frightened of the “kenna hora”—the Yiddish fear of the “evil eye”—that I’m afraid the mere mention of them will somehow sabotage them. My agent especially likes a few of them, but I keep remembering the advice Henny Youngman gave me in Yiddish about “the business” (my very first book was co-writing his autobiography).
It was “nem di gelt,” which literally means “take the money.” It’s actually used by show people of all denominations to mean “get the money”—i.e. don’t believe what everybody tells you what they’re going to do for you—“nem di gelt.”
Though I’m not into this for the money—and I don’t have a trust fund, but rather a need to just write—I truly am afraid to mention my ideas, not because they’re so valuable, but because they’re still a little unformed. I need to get those ideas down on paper, maybe 15 or 20 pages, and see if it (or they) make any sense to proceed, and see if anybody (namely my beloved agent and the editors she thinks are appropriate and who I trust)—to see if they make sense.
At the same time, not one book proposal I’ve ever written (and been accepted and I’ve managed to “nem di gelt” has ended up resembling anything akin to what and how the book turned out. That’s the beauty part—to see what happens on the page, year after year, as your characters and story morph. Fear, of course, is also an intrinsic part of the process—what if I’m spending 16 hours a day writing in a little room, and wasting my time trying to put meaning to clichés, and life into the characters (and I don’t mean fictionally….real people have to turn into the three dimensional characters, honestly rendered, as much as any novel or short story.)
Where can our readers find out more about you?
I have a website; nealkarlen.com or google me, I guess. Those places have most of the clean and dirty laundry, including reviews, I have to hide (as well as the hundreds of articles I’ve written as an associate editor at Newsweek, contributing editor for Rolling Stone, the 70 stories or so I’ve written for The New York Times, and my six previous books.
My ex-wife might have a few different ideas; but I think we’re cool (alas, no children, but I’ve still got time, yes Norm?) I actually wrote an article for The New York Times Sunday Magazine about my marriage: it appeared in 1994, under the title “Terminal Kitsch”, about why one shouldn’t go to Las Vegas for one’s honeymoon. I made myself out to be the unknowing chump of the situation, which I was, so it didn’t sound bitter (said my friends!) Norm:
Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
Boy, as they say in Yiddish (and I guess, now, every language) I feel like I’ve already given you way more of the whole megillah than you might be interested in.
Yet honestly, I am so flattered and honored to be asked about my process (and lack thereof!) that it makes me feel great that anybody truly cares, never mind the reviewers/friends/peers/myself/family members think.
You spend years on these books, and you wonder if you’re just sending them out into a vacuum. It’s no secret that people just don’t read anymore—and it’s a mechaye (Yiddish for “a true glowing pleasure” to find that people actually spend hours of their harried days to read what you think. That’s what makes it all worthwhile…especially when you find you’ve been able to touch some people somehow. Norm:
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Thanks Norm, I really appreciate you providing the forum and thoughtful questions!
The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews
Click Here To Purchase The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews Author: Neal KarlenISBN: 978-0-06-083711-2Publisher: William Morrow (An Imprint of Harper-Collins) Neal Karlen points out in The Story of Yiddish: How a Mish-Mosh of Languages Saved the Jews that for hundreds of years mavens have considered Yiddish to have as many linguistic meanings as the word oy. It has been considered a jar
The Ransom of the Jews: The Story of the Extraordinary Secret Bargain Between Romania and Israel
Author: Radu IoanidPublisher: Ivan R. DeeISBN: 1566635624 The following review was contributed by: NORM GOLDMAN: Editor of Bookpleasures &CLICK TO VIEW Norm Goldman's Reviews Between 1948 until 1989, the State of Israel had clandestinely engaged in one of the longest and most expensive ransom pacts in history, wherein Romania permitted most its 370,000 Jews, who had survived the Holocaust, to immigrate to Israel in exchange for hard currency and various other considerations.Born...
A Conversation With Diane Diekman Author of Live Fast Love Hard: The Faron Young Story
Click Here To Purchase Live Fast Love Hard The Faron Young Story Today, Norm Goldman Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com is excited to have as our guest Diane Diekman author of Live Fast Love Hard: The Faron Young Story. Diane is also the author A Farm in the Hidewood: My South Dakota Home and Navy Greenshirt: A Leader Made, Not Born. Diane Jean Diekman grew up on a South Dakota farm. Diane is also a retired U.S. Navy captain and for five years she wrote a newspaper column of...
Why The Jews Rejected Jesus
Author: David KlinghofferISBN: 0385510217 The following review was contributed by: NORM GOLDMAN: Editor of Bookpleasures &CLICK TO VIEW Norm Goldman's ReviewsGiven the sharp differences of opinions pertaining to the interpretations of the Old and New Testaments, there are bound to be strong reactions from some readers of the Jewish and Christian faiths to David Klinghoffer’s Why The Jews Rejected Jesus.After all, as Klinghoffer states, the disputation has been going on for centuries,...
Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews
Author: David Pryce-JonesISBN: 1594031517Having authored nine novels and twelve books of non-fiction, David Pryce-Jones has now turned his attention to France’s dealings with Arabs and Jews with his Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews. This book actually started out as an essay Pryce-Jones contributed to the French magazine Commentaire in May 2005 which has now given rise to this revised and extended version.Pryce-Jones has selected much of his material from culling the archives of the...