Five Years of One Story

One Story is another gem of a journal that I discovered, happily, when it was still in its infancy. Somewhere along the way I allowed my subscription to lapse, but I’ve recently rectified that situation. And I keep submitting my work, too, still hoping to see one of my stories published there someday (I’ve received some very encouraging rejection notes). This week One Story celebrates its fifth birthday, and editor Hannah Tinti has posted a lovely summary of its history on the journal’s blog. Happy Birthday, One Story!

Recent Reads: The Cincinnati Review, Winter 2007

Thought I’d post again about some of the excellent work I’ve been reading via the literary journals I picked up at the recent AWP conference in Atlanta. Today’s selection is the Winter 2007 issue of The Cincinnati Review, a beautiful publication I’d love to see my own work in someday (believe me, I’ve tried). In the meantime, I’m happy enough that the new issue includes Susan Perabo’s extraordinary short story, “The Payoff.” And I’m happy to be able to point you to an excerpt online. Click here to get to the journal; then click “issues.” If you click on Susan’s name within the Winter 2007 listing (make sure pop-ups are enabled), you’ll get the excerpt.

I’ve been lucky enough to be in a classroom under Susan’s direction, and even luckier that I believe I may call her a friend. But even without that bias, I’d recommend her work wholeheartedly. I first read her story collection, Who I Was Supposed to Be, about six years ago, and I’m still in awe of the ease (she makes it look easy, anyway) and skill with which Susan creates a true range of vivid characters and stories. (This particularly impresses me because I’ve often felt a little “caught” in work of my own that might most charitably be called slightly repetitive.) Fiction writers have a lot to learn from Susan’s prose, and all readers will find plenty to enjoy.

(For more on this issue of The Cincinnati Review [and Susan’s story in particular], see the review at NewPages.com)

Sami Rohr Prize Update

I am delighted to offer an update on the Sami Rohr Prize, a new award I mentioned here in January. Here’s the text of the press release I received yesterday. Special congratulations to Tamar Yellin and Amir Gutfreund, whose fiction I have already reviewed (and admire). I’ll look forward to reading more of their work, as well as that of the third honoree, Michael Lavigne.

WRITER TAMAR YELLIN WINS $100,000 IN JEWISH BOOK COUNCIL’S INAUGURAL SAMI ROHR PRIZE FOR JEWISH LITERATURE

Winner and Two Runners Up Hail From Three Countries

New York, NY (March 21, 2007) –The Jewish Book Council, administrator of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish literature, announced today that Tamar Yellin of England, author of The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press), is the first recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, the largest-ever Jewish literary prize given, and one of the largest literary prizes in the nation.

The two runner-up awardees, who will receive the Choice Award and will each receive $7,500, are Amir Gutfreund, author of Our Holocaust (Toby Press, translated by Jessica Cohen), from Israel, and Michael Lavigne, author of Not Me (Random House), from San Francisco. All three winning authors will be celebrated at a gala event to be held May 21 in Manhattan.

“This was a tremendously difficult and rewarding process as all five finalists were extraordinarily talented, each with a compelling story to tell, and the talent to tell it well,” said Geri Gindea, director of the program, which operates as a department of the Jewish Book Council. In making the selections, the judges considered the book, the author and the writing’s contribution to Jewish literature.

Reflecting on the choice of Tamar Yellin, Rebecca Goldstein, novelist, professor of philosophy, a Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute and one of the competition’s five judges, said, “Yellin combines formidable Jewish scholarship with soaring lyricism. And, if scholarship and lyricism aren’t enough, she also displays a wonderfully quirky sense of humor. This is a writer who can do it all, bring history lovingly into the present and conjure an art of beauty and light out of the ardors of scholarship.”

In addition to Goldstein, the judges, whose names were undisclosed until today, are Jeremy Dauber, associate professor of Yiddish language, literature & culture at Columbia University; Daisy Maryles, executive editor, Publishers Weekly; Jonathan Rosen, novelist and editorial director, Nextbook; and Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University.

The Prize was established by Sami Rohr’s children and grandchildren to celebrate Mr. Rohr’s 80th birthday–and to honor his lifelong love of Jewish writing. The annual award will recognize the unique role of contemporary writers in the transmission and examination of Jewish values, and is intended to encourage and promote outstanding writing of Jewish interest.

Each year, a prize of $100,000 will be presented to an emerging writer whose work, of exceptional literary merit, stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern.

In order to fully nurture quality Jewish writing, the Rohr family will also establish—in conjunction with the Sami Rohr Prize—the Sami Rohr Jewish Literary Institute, a forum devoted to the continuity of Jewish literature. The Institute, also run under the auspices of the Jewish Book Council, will convene a biennial gathering, creating an environment in which established and emerging writers can meet and exchange ideas and perspectives.

“Writers often express the desire to connect and share experiences with other writers and the Institute will be an ideal forum for that purpose,” Gindea said. “Through the Institute, we hope to create a literary community that will further inspire emerging writers to continue creating Jewish literature.”

Each year, an independent panel of judges will convene to select the winner of the Prize and two Institute Fellows. Fiction and non-fiction books will be considered in alternating years.

About Sami Rohr
After spending his early years in Europe after World War II, Sami Rohr moved to Bogota, Colombia, where he became a leading real estate developer for more than 30 years. He continues to be very active in various business endeavors internationally. His philanthropic commitment to Jewish education and community building throughout the world is renowned.

From My Bookshelf: Current Reads

I am loving my proximity to my branch of the New York Public Library. I can order books online and have them delivered (relatively quickly) right to that branch, where I can easily pick them up after work.

Right now I have two books checked out. The one I’m currently reading, The Stories of Mary Gordon, is as wonderful as I expected. (And yes, I requested the book before author Gordon won this year’s plum $20,000 Story Prize at the end of February.)

In one review of this collection, Linda Busby Parker noted: “If there are Southern writers, Western writers, even Midwestern writers, there are also writers of the Northeast–big-city writers–and Gordon’s fiction fits comfortably there. Her settings are most often New England, or various places in New York, but her characters are equally comfortable in European cities. These rich locations lend a cosmopolitan, heady air to Gordon’s work.” I read those lines and I thought, “Yes! That’s one of the reasons I’ve so connected with Gordon’s work!” (Let’s just say that once upon a time I felt very much in the minority as a “Northeastern” fiction writer [with a particular love for Europe] among my fellow MFA students, who were mostly Southerners.)

For Parker’s full review, click here.

And click here for a more recent New York Times profile of Gordon, “Where Piety Meets Creativity, in Longhand.” (Free registration required.)

AWP Reportage: Research and the Novel

(Third and last in a series of posts detailing panels I attended–and in which I took relatively decent notes–at last week’s AWP conference in Atlanta. Click here for the previous post.)

By Friday afternoon at 4:30 I was already pretty wiped out, but since historical fiction has long been one of my major writerly interests I rallied for a session titled “What Really Happened: Research and the Novel.” This is another case where the panelist list also really drew me in. Since reading Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neil I’ve become a Cronin fan, and I was eager to hear what he had to say.

Unfortunately, one of Cronin’s fellow panelists was unable to attend (Julianna Baggott’s doctor proscribed travel to AWP so late in pregnancy). But I did also enjoy hearing from the rest of the crew–Tom Franklin, Jennifer Vanderbes, and Mark Winegardner, and I hope to read their work soon.

Here’s the panel description as printed in the AWP conference program:

Research manhandles plot and character while enriching setting, voice, and authenticity. Writers who have published novels set decades before their own births reveal the role of research in the creation of their fiction, sharing opinions on the perils of fact-cramming. They discuss what to look for and how to look for it, negotiating between historic fact and story-truth, portraying historic figures in fiction, approximating what can’t be looked up, what’s better made-up, and everybody’s favorite: what really happened.

To be honest, I can’t remember (and unfortunately the notes I thought were so promising don’t throw adequate light here) if they really did cover every aspect of that ambitious list. But here’s what stood out for me from the discussion:

Vanderbes warned against “the danger of treating the time period as a subject.” The time period is not your subject in historical fiction–the story is. This reminded me of something I once heard Allen Ballard say when presenting his historical novel, to the effect that such a work “has to fly as fiction first.” One must always resist the temptation to stuff in all those delightful “true” facts that may be historically fascinating but not necessarily relevant in storytelling’s service.

And yet sometimes those historical “facts,” in the form of story-enriching details, are irresistible. Franklin (whose humor really charmed me) told us how much a Sears Roebuck catalog from the time helped him in writing a novel set in Alabama during the 1890s, Hell at the Beach (click here for an interview in which Franklin addresses the work of creating that atmosphere).

When it comes to other facts–whether it rained on a certain day of a certain month in a certain year, for example–Cronin argued that a writer should not be “tyrannized by the facts.” Winegardner disagreed, leading to an interesting exchange. (I was reminded of a related essay on the topic by Thomas Mallon in his nonfiction collection, In Fact, which of course I’d love to read again right now but left stored in Massachusetts.)

Well into the session, Vanderbes raised one of the most intriguing (and, to my mind, most challenging) aspects of writing outside one’s own time: keeping characters within their own contemporary moral frameworks. Attitudes about social and cultural issues–race, gender, etc., in particular–have by no means remained constant over time. Here I thought immediately about a superb new novel I recently had the pleasure to read. Written by my friend Natalie Wexler, it’s set in the early national period of the United States and titled A More Obedient Wife: A Novel of the Early Supreme Court.

One of this novel’s strengths is its author’s careful control of her chief protagonist’s mindset (that character is a “real” North Carolina woman, Hannah Iredell). Reading the novel, I imagined how challenging it must have been for Natalie to put herself in Hannah Iredell’s frame of reference, which could also very well render the slaveholding Hannah considerably less likeable to readers in 2007. (Look for much more about Natalie’s new book in an author interview forthcoming in the April issue of the “Practicing Writer” newsletter.)

OK, now I’ll return to the panel account with a final, side note: I’ve long had an interest in how work/worklife is depicted in fiction, I was intrigued when that topic emerged in the discussion, perhaps more related to the topic of “research” in fiction than to researching historical novels more specifically. Vanderbes alluded to remarks from the late Frederick Busch to the effect that he could not start a work until he knew what his character’s job was. Cronin shared tales of adding texture to his fiction through talking to people from various fields.

So it was a lively discussion. After it ended I introduced myself to Cronin and told him how much I’d enjoyed Mary and O’Neil. That’s the kind of opportunity I love–the chance to tell an author in person how much his/her work impressed me–and of course it’s something AWP always affords, many times over.