Welcome to the concluding segment of our interview with Kelly Hartog, founding editor of Scribblers on the Roof, an online forum for Jewish fiction and poetry. The first, second, and third parts appeared earlier this week.
Erika Dreifus (ED): Please tell us about your own background as a writer and editor.
Kelly Hartog (KH): I actually started out in the theatre. However, a great deal of my drama school training included writing scripts and creating characters from scratch. So I guess I started writing fiction, plotting storylines and getting into a character’s head by default.
I first realized I actually had fiction-writing chops after I spent two weeks unemployed and sat in my dressing gown for the entire two weeks back in Australia, and knocked out a 5,000 word story on a beat up old typewriter for a Mills and Boon (the Commonwealth equivalent of a Harlequin Romance) short story competition. I came in 10th out of over 100,000 entrants, and was utterly gob smacked (mostly because I hadn’t included one heaving bosom or ripped bodice in my entire story).
When I moved to Israel in 1993, I spent most of my time working as a reporter and editor at The Jerusalem Post, and not writing much fiction at all. But I also had a stint as the associate editor at ARIEL, the Arts and Letters magazine of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, where I had the privilege of reading and editing some brilliant poetry and short stories under the expert tutelage of Asher Weill. I moved to Los Angeles in 2004 and began juggling the fiction with the faction, as I like to call it.
Still working in journalism, I credit my return to fiction to two extraordinary people in the US. The first is the incomparable Rachel Resnick (writer of Go West Young F*cked Up Chick and her recent memoir Love Junkie), who dragged a novel out of me in 12 weeks through a mediabistro course in 2004. It’s still not published. It came close but a wonderful agent said while she loved my writing, it was hard to sell being set in Israel.
The second is the ridiculously brilliant and talented Rick Chess, the head of both Creative Writing and Jewish Studies (isn’t that just a dream job?) at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. I met him while I was the actor in residence at the BCI program at Brandeis Bardin in Simi Valley in the summer of 2004. He was the writer in residence, and he let me take one of his classes. His ability to have you tap into your Jewish background to create compelling fiction and poetry is unparalleled. He’s a wonderful poet in his own right, too, and has published three books (is this an unfair plug?). I actually credit part of the inspiration for Scribblers on the Roof to him. (ED adds: I’ve never worked with Rachel Resnick, but Rick Chess was a member of my MFA thesis committee, and if Kelly is president of the Rick Chess fan club, I claim the vice-presidency. Which means that plugging Rick’s books seems very fair to me!)
ED: What are some of your favorite literary works (books, stories, poems, etc.) with Jewish themes?
KH: This is an unfair question. There are so many I don’t know where to start. So I’ll pick a few but please know this list is by no means exhaustive. For starters, have I mentioned Rick Chess? All three of his poetry books are amazing – Chair in the Desert, Tekiah, and Third Temple. Two of my favorite poems of his though have to be “Leviticus for Daughters” (Chair in the Desert) and “Third Temple” (from Third Temple).
I love Etgar Keret’s short story collection, The Bus Driver who wanted to be God and other stories; anything by Ephraim Kishon, one of the few writers who can make me laugh out loud; and any poetry by Agi Mishol. Okay I’m getting stuck in the Israeli groove now, right? Sana Krasikov’s short stories: One More Year. That woman is brilliant, no? No wonder she won this year’s Sami Rohr Prize. I adore Aimee Bender’s flights of fancy, and my shelf still has its original dog-eared copy of the Diary of Anne Frank, which I’ve had since I was a teenager. I believe she would have been a literary giant had she lived.
ED: Thank you so much for sharing your vision with us, Kelly.