Writing and reading – the two are intertwined. Like the old song, popular when I was young – “Love and marriage.... You can’t have one without the other.” And in those days, I believe it was actually true.
Writers don’t write just for themselves. If they didn’t believe they had a message to share, they wouldn’t bother. They would keep a diary, and that would be it.
You don’t usually write to make a lot of money either – you won’t, unless you’re a J.K. Rowling or a John Grisham. Sometimes you’re lucky, and you write a best-seller or have one of your books made into a movie, and that gives you a wonderful feeling of being up with the stars; but it doesn’t happen to everyone, and it doesn’t happen often.
Having been writing for 81 years (my first poem was published in a children’s paper when I was seven), I’ve run the whole gamut of experiences. On the whole, it’s been a long love affair with my readers, but there have been other responses that were hard to handle.
After my latest novel (No. 14), Searching for Sarah, came out, I was lucky enough to have it beautifully reviewed by The Jerusalem Post’s Liat Collins. The first phone call I got on that Friday morning was from a lady who phoned me and gushed: “I was delighted to read that you’ve published another novel. I thought you were dead years ago!” I was tempted to reply in the same vein as Mark Twain – the rumors of my death have been grossly exaggerated.
I managed to laugh that one off, but another phone call I had no idea how to handle.
My first novel was The Pomegranate Pendant (now a movie titled The Golden Pomegranate). It was really the idea of Mr. Yaakov Feldheim, the publisher mostly of Torah literature. His late wonderful senior editor Marsi Tabak contacted me and told me that she had an assignment for me. I was writing for another magazine she once edited in the States, so she approached me when she made aliyah. Our conversation went something like this:
“Mr. Feldheim has decided he’d like to publish some fiction. He’d like a historical novel for adults, set in Jerusalem more than a century ago, with the first aliyah from Yemen. It would be good if you could make the heroine a silversmith.”
“But I don’t know anything about Yemenites – I haven’t even spoken to one. And I don’t know anything about being a silversmith. And my grasp on history isn’t that wonderful. It’s kind of you to offer it to me, Marsi, but I don’t think I could do it.”
“That’s a pity. He was going to offer you a generous advance.”
A three seconds’ pause.
“You know what, Marsi? I think I could do it!”
Then followed six months of serious research. I went every day to the Israel Museum’s ethnography department to study Yemenite jewelry. I ate lunch in a restaurant in Jerusalem called The Yemenite Step and wrote down everything on the menu. So much so, that a worried waiter came over and asked me if I was from the Health Department. When I reassured him and told him why I was interested, he sat down and explained all the different items on the menu to me. My lovely late friend, ethnic jeweler Sarah Einstein, showed me how jewelry was made. I listened to Yemenite music. I asked everyone who knew a Yemenite to introduce me. And so The Pomegranate Pendant was born.
Not only did it win the Shabazi Prize for Literature in 2014, Robert Bleiweiss – whom I met by chance at a Jewish writers’ convention – loved the book, wrote the script, invested in it and made it into a movie, directed by Dan Turgeman, which they called The Golden Pomegranate.
But the phone call that put me in such an embarrassing position, I still don’t know how it could have been handled. A lady called me, very excited. “We’ve just finished reading your book. My mother knew Mazal ben-Yehiya (my fictional heroine) and, in fact, lived next door to her. They were great friends. She remembers all the incidents you described (again, all fiction). Please, could you put me in touch with some of her family – my mother wants to visit them.” I can’t remember what I said – I know it took me a few days to get over it.
Some remarks you have to laugh off. “Heard you’d written another book. I’ve often thought of writing one, but I simply don’t have the time” (as though that’s all it takes, and I’m too busy to waste it, as you do – unspoken but implied).
IN THE past, when I was younger and more energetic, I did some book tours in the US and the UK, and met face-to-face with readers, whose comments and feedback were invaluable. The publishers of my novel Esther (HCI Books in Florida) were wonderfully generous to me. They had a stretch limo waiting for me at every airport and booked me into five-star hotels at their expense, although I visited 10 cities in two weeks, and only knew where I was if I looked at the schedule – it’s Tuesday, so I must be in Chicago.
Esther was the favorite of all my books, as a lot of it was autobiographical, and much of it based on diaries I kept when I did a brief stint in Lebanon as a correspondent during Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982. I wrote the whole novel in three months. It never became a best-seller like The Pomegranate Pendant, but it is still my most-loved book.
Many of my readers have become dear friends, and I still cherish their kind words even today. I probably never would have finished Searching for Sarah, if not for the encouragement of one of my Israeli grandchildren, Naomi Lavi. She understands English, but doesn’t read it so well, so when I visited every week, she would ask me to read her the next chapter. That gave me the impetus to write at least one chapter a week, and provided a wonderful bonding as we sat together in her garden, with her querying: “What’s going to happen next, Savta?” Her brother, musician David Lavi, also helped me with suggestions when I got stuck in the plot.
My long career has taught me one thing. When you enjoy a book, an article, a poem, try to contact the writer and express your appreciation. This is a writer’s greatest reward – not money, not publication – but knowing you have somehow touched someone. For, like “Love and marriage,” you can’t have one without the other!
The writer is an Australian-born author of 14 books. Her latest novel is Searching for Sarah. firstname.lastname@example.org
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