About three years ago, I gave a presentation on publishing short stories at a conference run by the Jewish Book Council here in New York City. Among the attendees was Racelle Rosett, who impressed me immediately as someone who knew quite a lot about writing short stories and who also shared my interest in writing about Jewish experience. We have stayed in touch since that conference. I’ve been delighted to see Racelle’s stories in print and online, and I’ve recommended them to friends and family. Now, I’m thrilled to introduce Racelle here on the occasion of the publication of her debut story collection, MOVING WATERS.
Racelle Rosett is the winner of both the MOMENT Magazine-Karma Foundation Prize for Jewish short fiction and the LILITH Fiction Prize. Her work has also appeared in TIKKUN, PLOUGHSHARES, NEW VILNA REVIEW, JewishFiction.net, SANTA MONICA REVIEW, and ZEEK. As a television writer, she won the WGA award for THIRTYSOMETHING. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.
Please welcome Racelle Rosett!
ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): Racelle, congratulations on the publication of MOVING WATERS. Your background includes a successful career writing for television. How has that background infused your work as a writer of short fiction?
RACELLE ROSETT (RR): I love writing television (this year I wrote both a sitcom script and the narration for a documentary,) but these particular stories wanted to be a book. The scale of these stories allowed me to be inside the characters – to track their emotional journey in a way that let me really explore their voice and point of view. The center of the book looks at the way ritual is transformative and in some cases that occurs in a very small movement. The short story form made it possible to be with the characters in the quietest internal moments, things as quiet and private as prayer.
ED: Several of the stories in this book have been published in magazines and journals. Some of them have won awards run by those publications. Please tell us how you decided to enter those contests, and what benefits you found from those experiences.
RR: It was important to me to get the stories out in a timely way, and so I submitted them as they were written. MOMENT and LILITH were places that valued the tradition of the Jewish short story at a time when it needed protection. The MOMENT prize gave me the opportunity to do a reading at the beautiful Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and to engage with readers directly, which I love. Also, the title story “Moving Waters” was published by the SANTA MONICA REVIEW, which helped me affirm that the stories had reach beyond the Jewish audience. It was very gratifying and encouraging, and along the way I met wonderful editors, writers, and visual artists, and also had the pleasure of having the individual stories illustrated.
ED: Together, the stories in MOVING WATERS depict lives and experiences among a community of Reform Jews in Los Angeles. In fact, several of the stories have titles (“Shomer,” “Chavurah,” T’shuva,” etc.) that may not be familiar to readers who aren’t familiar with Jewish rituals and customs (confession: this [Reform] Jewish reader had to look up a title or two herself!). What do you hope the readers less familiar with Judaism–and with Reform Judaism, in particular–may take away from your book?
RR: Years ago I suffered a personal loss and the wife of one on my husband’s friends came to pay a shiva call. She didn’t know me, but she made the following offer. She said, “I walk by your house everyday and if you want to you can walk with me. You don’t have to *talk* to me. We can just walk.” The woman was not Jewish, but she was enacting the purest expression of paying a shiva call, which is the idea of being physically present for another person, but also respecting where they are in the moment of grief. Her gesture connected me to and deepened my understanding of my own ritual. That’s the takeaway. These rituals I describe are Jewish but they are born out of a human need to care for each other and to transform loss.
ED: Your work is especially rich in sensory detail. I notice especially an attention to olfactory detail: “the fragrance of sage that transported her to the hills around Jerusalem,” “Ayelet not abiding the rule against perfume and smelling something like warm sheets and a sugar cookie.” Does this attentiveness come to you naturally? Any tips or advice for those of us (ahem) who aren’t always quite so skilled in our own writing?
RR: Thank you. The truth is for me those details are the most evocative in my own experience (I’m pretty sure I chose my son’s day school because it smelled like my day school). When I’m working I am striving for a quality of attention. If I accomplish it then I’m in the space that I’m describing and those images and those connections are there for me. But it takes a kind of slowing down that isn’t so much natural as habituated. This may be informed by the need to map gesture and timing (literally beat by beat) in script writing. So if I put it in the form of advice, I would say to really slow down and see where you are– really walk around in the scene–before you start writing.
ED: Please tell us a bit about this book’s journey to publication.
RR: This book was part of a deal with Writers House (my agency) and Perseus in which Writers House curates books by its authors for Argo Navis (imprint of Perseus) for epub and original paperback. It is actually ideal for this kind of niche collection because I can connect directly with a reader who loves Jewish short stories. A reader who searches [for] Jewish ritual, spirituality, mikvah or even Zabars will find this book. A reader of Etgar Keret or Shalom Auslander will have the book suggested to them.
ED: Anything else you’d like us to know?
RR: I’m enormously grateful to be in a conversation with the reader. To me the writing isn’t done until that happens. My real pleasure in it—once I’ve left my room—is “putting the baby on the bus” and letting the work travel into the world. I’m so looking forward to the Jewish author tour because my collection is so much about the ways our rituals make sense (even now, even in Los Angeles) and how they connect us to each other as Jews no matter where we live.
ED: Thank you so much, Racelle, and here’s to the success of MOVING WATERS.
(A version of this Q&A appeared in the August 2012 issue of The Practicing Writer.)