I’ve been tagged in The Next Big Thing, a game of literary blog tag where writers answer ten questions about their work in progress, and then get five more writers to do the same.
Thanks so much to Ayelet Tsabari—whose book of short stories, The Best Place on Earth (HarperCollins 2013), I seriously can’t wait to read—for tagging me!
And now to answer ten questions about my novel…
What is the working title of your book?
The working title is The Mystics of Mile End.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The novel takes place in my hometown of Montreal, where I was always fascinated by Mile End, an awesomely weird neighborhood with two very different populations: Hasidim and hipsters. Because of its strange mash-up of Orthodox Jews and cynical, academically oriented youth, the place struck me as a readymade metaphor for the battle between religion and secularity. That setting suggested characters, and those characters suggested this book.
I should also say that, because I grew up very immersed in the Jewish textual tradition—especially that body of mystical literature known as kabbalah—I’ve always wanted to write a book that reflects that interest. Sure enough, every member of the fictional family in my novel is dangerously obsessed with a certain kabbalistic idea, which Jewish folklore warns is likely to drive you insane.
What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a book of literary fiction.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Oh gosh, this is hard. I’d be tempted to cast Paul Gross (Slings & Arrows dreamboat) as David, the family patriarch. For the daughter, Samara, I’d choose Gaby Hoffman (am I the only one who was totally obsessed with her as a 12-year-old watching Now and Then?) and for the son, Lev, I’d choose Thomas Horn (from Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). I’d also want Marina Hands (of Barbarian Invasions fame) to play David’s grad student girlfriend Valerie; in fact, I’m pretty sure I had her in mind when writing that character. As for old man Glassman, I have no idea—octogenarian Auschwitz survivors aren’t exactly a dime a dozen in Hollywood these days.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When a dysfunctional family grows obsessed with a dangerous mystical idea—the kabbalistic Tree of Life—an aging neighbor is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to pull them back from the brink of madness.
And here’s the somewhat longer synopsis:
The day David Epstein, a Montreal professor of Jewish mysticism, is diagnosed with an unusual heart murmur, his world is turned upside down. Convinced his heart is whispering to him in human language, he pushes his body to the limit to hear the divine secrets buried in the tissue. But when his frenzied attempt to ascend the Tree of Life leads to tragedy, his daughter Samara believes it is up to her to finish what he started. Her precocious younger brother, Lev, documents her increasingly strange behavior while embarking on a lone quest for spiritual fulfillment. It falls to next-door neighbor and Holocaust survivor Chaim Glassman to shatter the silence that divides the members of the Epstein family. But will he break through to them in time?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’ll be sending out queries to agents and publishers in the new year.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Tricky question. I began writing this book a few months into my MFA in Creative Writing at UBC, and by the end of the second year, I had a finished draft. But I wasn’t happy with it—not by a long shot. It had some serious structural problems that made me want to, well, bash my head against a wall.
Then something weird happened: One summer morning, I went for a run along Spanish Banks, where I saw an old Jewish man running opposite me. He bore all the markers of Orthodoxy—white shirt, black pants, yarmulke, fringes flying out behind him as he ran—not something you see in Vancouver every day. The sight of him racing so frantically stopped me dead in my tracks. Suddenly the whole novel rearranged itself in my head. Glassman—the old Holocaust survivor who appeared only briefly in the first draft—needed to play a much bigger role, I realized. He needed his own section. And that frantic racing—that need to push your body to its limits in order to achieve some esoteric purpose only you understand—that needed to be in the book, too. It was the perfect mechanism for David to use in his desperate attempt to ascend the Tree of Life.
I wrote the new draft—what I’m tempted to call the ‘real’ first draft, though of course that’s cheating—over the summer months that followed. The rest was editing.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss and The Bee Season by Myla Goldberg. In each of these novels, a Jewish American family wrestles with a dangerous mystical idea—an idea so obsessive that it drives them apart and almost drives them insane. The characters in these books suffer from the same fatal flaws that plague my lonely, too-intelligent narrators: the tendency to stay silent just when they should be speaking up, and the tendency to see signs and symbols in everything.
Also, the moments of magical realism in my book totally owe themselves to Jonathan Safran Foer and Etgar Keret, both of whom I love and whose work inflects my own. Plus, there are two scenes in the book that are very clearly inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Growing up, I knew a lot of kids who were secretly very interested in religion. Their parents had run away from religion and embraced secularity, and they were rejecting secularity and flirting with religion. That sneaky way these kids went about engaging in that flirtation is partly what inspired the characters of Samara and Lev, who—when they’re not too busy mixing Kraft Dinner with M&M’s, or topping pizza with gummy bears—observe the Sabbath and keep kosher in secret.
Full disclosure: I was one of these kids.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Two years ago, I created a list of words that don’t exist but should. They formed the backbone of a short story I wrote, “Words I Wish I Had,” which will be published in the spring or summer issue of Prairie Fire. They also feature prominently in this novel. Here are some of the experiences that my characters—all terrible communicators—wish they had words for:
The crisp, supernatural light of autumn. Homesickness caused by an uncertainty of where home really is. The secret look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start. The itchiness that overcomes the upper lip just before taking a sip of whiskey. That split-second period—which seems to expand into an hour—between knocking over a piece of glassware and seeing it strike the ground. The pleasure of plunging your finger into oozing wax that is not hot enough to seriously burn but causes a gasp and then dries on your fingertip. The sensation of being slightly choked by a turtleneck. The feeling of longing you get upon realizing that something you once had is lost and can never be had again.
And, in a similar vein, here’s a novel excerpt in which David realizes just how bad he’s become at communicating with his kids:
Dinner that night was a somber affair. Samara and Lev chopped vegetables for a salad, handed each other ingredients for the pasta they were cooking, and later, when dinner was served, passed each other dishes without recourse to words. I saw, for the first time, that their bodies spoke the secret language of ballet dancers and synchronized swimmers and Trappist monks; they moved together in a practiced state of unfocused attention that allowed each person to anticipate—perfectly, beautifully, with divinatory clarity—the needs of the other party. Even before she knew she wanted the mashed potatoes, he was passing them. Before he could point at the jug of lemonade, it was halfway to his hand. But how long had they been speaking this esoteric family language? When had they learned to communicate in code? I tried, and failed, to parse the syntax of their silence. And so they ate and I ate and they spoke their comfortable creole while my paternal pidgin, with its reduced vocabulary and limited grammatical structure, flopped and flapped its way across the table, a series of unfunny jokes and halfhearted anecdotes and lame questions which they, perhaps as a courtesy to me, interpreted as rhetorical.
And now, find out what these five fabulous writers are working on…