Saturday, December 18, 2010


When I entered the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at age twenty (after two years of military service,) my new roommate’s boyfriend had a close friend, Amiram. Connected via our respective roommates, Amiram and I often hung out together. He was very intelligent, multi-faceted, and surprisingly erudite. He was interested in politics, philosophy and literature. He was not yet eighteen, yet was like no seventeen-year old I had ever met. However, I had a boyfriend since high school, who now lived across the street. With the age difference--I was over two years older than Amiram--no romantic relationship hung between us.

As Amiram was awaiting his Israel Defense Force service some months later, he registered for classes at the university, and we found ourselves engaged in long, thought-provoking conversations. He never seemed ill-at-ease in a university where the youngest male students were twenty-one, having finished a three-year service at the IDF. Soon, Amiram became the assistant editor of the school newspaper, and I even submitted to him the only Hebrew poem I had ever written (which he tactfully rejected.)

Some time in the second semester he was drafted; by then, my roommate was no longer dating his friend. In the coming years I happened to glimpse Amiram visiting the campus in his officer's uniform.

Years later, on one of my visits to Israel, I bumped into him at a country club. We were both married and had two children each. We chatted for a while, and I couldn’t help but notice his glass eye. “What happened?” I asked, and he mentioned that he’d lost an eye. I believed it must have happened during a military action, not uncommon in Israel….

In the late 80s, at an event, a friend pointed a woman to me. "This is Amiram Nir's widow. Did you ever meet him at the university?"

Shocked, I asked, "What happened?" and was saddened to learn that he had been killed in a small airplane crash somewhere in South America. Amiram’s was the second accident I’d heard of in which an Israeli was the victim of a plane crash in that continent. My friend had no further details, and I shared no mutual acquaintances with Amiram or his widow. But the tragedy of the untimely death of a highly talented man--and a young father--stayed with me.

When I began writing my 5th novel, Shadow Bride, I was plagued by questions that had simmered in me all those years. What if the plane had downed in the Amazon or such huge area where it couldn’t be found? What happened to the family in the aftermath of the dramatic death? What if Amiram had survived?

I wanted to write a domestic drama, to stay close to home, to focus on the lives of those left behind. Unlike the huge canvases that had been the backdrops for my previous novels—Russia after the fall of communism, the U.S. justice system, U.S-Sino relationship, Jerusalem and God—this story was to be confined to a small universe. Yet my imagination ran wild. My protagonist, Laurie, had been unaware that her young husband, Danny, had actually worked for the Mossad until his plane went down, leaving no traces. But wait. For plot reasons, Danny had to be a U.S. citizen, or at least work for the CIA. How could that be possible? Anyway, what would either country be doing in South America where my Danny had disappeared? And if this wasn’t complicated enough, Iranian neighbors were weaving their way into the fabric of the family….

What was I doing? Shadow Bride was supposed to be a small story about a family focused on itself and its complex dynamics after the loss of a central member. Domestic. Home. Family. “Stay small,” I told myself.

I am not an action-thriller writer. I do not read mysteries or spy novels. I write psychological dramas. I love literary nuances. I am interested in the human spirit as it arises above political systems, social pressures, economic catastrophes, or religious oppression. My interest in Danny’s background story was for plausibility sake; an author should know the characters’ circumstances, but most of the political/ military machinations were to remain out of sight, with an occasional detail just breaking through if absolutely necessary.

I got stuck. Not in a “writer’s block,” but in a “plot block.” Even if Danny’s clandestine activities were not the center of the story, a background covering Israel, Iran, U.S. and some South American nation had to be credible, but it made no sense. Yet, I was unable to back-paddle and get rid of this plot.

To learn something of South American nations, I cornered a friend at a party, an Israeli man whose cosmopolitan upbringing reminded me of my fictional Danny’s. As we chatted, I mentioned the problem I was having with this insane plot in which my protagonist’s husband had been involved before his death.

“Are you talking about Amiram Nir?” my friend asked me.

“What?” I felt the hairs stand on my arms. “Did you know him?”

My friend laughed. “Who hasn’t heard of the Iran-Contra affair? He was the key guy!”

Back home, my heart pounding at the enormity of what I was to uncover, I Googled Amiram. To my astonishment, the fictional plot I had woven fitted right into the outline of the Iran-Contra affair, a plot in which the US used Israel to sell arms to Iran and to siphon the profits to rebels in Nicaragua.

Most astonishing was the fact that the young Amiram I had known--and after whom I modeled the disappearance of my Danny--was the man who ran that operation. He was the point man of Oliver North. He was the guy dealing with both the Iranians and the Nicaraguans, getting his orders directly from both presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush!

It is believed that the CIA killed him.

I am spooked!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The fiction of executive women and sex?

Back in the stone-age days of the early 80s, I worked for Redbook magazine. With circulation of over 4 million each month, it was one of “The 7 Sisters” women’s magazines (e.g., Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal) that together reached 80% of all American women. These magazines told women what they needed at home, marriage, and motherhood, while supposedly reflecting their lives in all their nuances.

Then in 1985 I moved to Savvy Woman magazine as its publisher. Savvy Woman was the magazine for the new woman executive—a phenomenon seemingly yet unknown in Western history…. (The editorial content was supposed to ease the pain of shattering the glass ceiling with our own skulls.)
Common to both types of magazines was the fact that none recognized either late singlehood or divorce. Whether a homemaker or a CEO of a public company, there was an assumption of happiness within the context of a husband and children. If those were absent from the picture, no one in the editorial departments mentioned this absence or the painful process that must have led to this sorry state.

In conversations with the editors at Redbook, I was told that it would be “a kiss of death” for a magazine to touch the topic of divorce, let alone custody battles. And in Savvy Woman magazine, we actually published a study that proved that executive women found time to be sexually satisfied. Only a couple of years ago, Wendy Reid Crisp, the then-Editor-in-Chief (and still my friend), blogged about the fraudulant way this study had been obtained.

At least when you read a novel, you know it’s fiction.

But wait. That does not entirely hold true for my novels, as they are set in real-world settings and circumstances. Only the specific events and details relating to the protagonists are fictionalized. The emotions are real. The time, place and historical context are real. I am fascinated by the way the human spirit rises above the forces that shape our lives. And that is the basis of a good novel.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cougar Town

The little nerd said a bright "hello," and I turned my head away so quickly that my ponytail swatted me in the face. I walked faster so he wouldn't think I had paid attention. Better yet, he should know that I had noticed, but that I had purposely ignored him. I wouldn't speak to a boy who was a full year younger, still in fifth grade.

I scanned the street to see if anyone had detected this non-exchange. If misunderstood, my name would be intertwined with the twerpy Joshua's on the filthy wall outside the school bathroom, encircled by a red heart and pierced by an arrow.

To my horror, I heard a whistle and looked up to find Eddie on his second-floor balcony. He winked and puffed on a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, James Dean style. Since he'd grown a fuzz of a mustache—unaccompanied by any other physical changes—the diminutive Eddie has been swaggering and letting out little snickers of superiority. Well, for some of my friends any attention from an eighth grader was something to cherish. They'd giggle about it in our sleepovers, huddling under the blankets in the dark. But living across the street from Eddie, our verandahs facing each other, I knew him well. I've heard him scream when his father's belt met his bare behind, each whack burning my own. So who did he think he was, impressing with that macho act?

With my bad luck, the following week Joshua dared say hello to me again. I mean, I couldn't help but pass him on the street since he lived on my block, but you'd think he'd know his place. Instead, he grinned at me, as if his mother had told him that with those blue eyes he would break the girls' hearts. I decided that I would show him that no matter how many times he showed up as an unexpected sneeze, I had my reputation to uphold. I would never, ever, respond.

And I never, ever did. In time, the shrimpy Joshua grew taller and rather broad across the shoulders. I would spot him coming down from two blocks away and brace myself to show him that no matter what, a younger boy was beneath me. As a junior in high school, I wouldn't greet a sophomore and setting my self up for ridicule.

He did catch me off guard three years later. He must have enlisted in the navy, because the first time I saw him in white uniform with that cap covering all but wisps of blond hair, I was taken by surprise. And when he gave me that broad-grinned "hello" of his, I almost responded. Luckily, I caught myself in time. I snapped my head and walked away, grateful that my beehive hairdo wouldn't bounce with a life of its own. I did glance up, though, to check whether Eddie had observed me from his perch on the balcony. Thank God he wasn't there. Lately he had been busy at his father's garage, working on his stupid motorcycle that he'd then bring out for a noisy and smoky ride down the street. He seemed so pleased with himself, his laughter would turn into a crooked smirk that looked sexy only on James Dean. I hoped flies got into Eddie's mouth.

After college I did not return to live at home, and anyway, my parents had moved to a more modern section of town. I went on with the business of life: received my law degree and opened my own practice.

It was at a "coming-up-for-air" party that my associate dragged me to after work one evening where I noticed the familiar tall figure. Oh, God! The athletic shoulders in the unconstructed linen jacket were topped by chiseled cheeks, with that familiar permanent dimple on the left. His wide forehead was punctuated by gorgeous blue eyes below thick, light brown hair.

I poked my friend's ribs, jerking my eyes in a gesture for her to take a look at this testosterone-filled specimen.

"What do you know!" she breathed excitedly. "That's Josh. Just made partner at Folsom, Elsworth. Come meet him."

But of course I knew who he was—minus the credentials. Being older and wiser, I was ready to admit that a man who was a year younger could make a good prospect. Especially when he came packaged like this one.

"Joshua," she said, "meet Arielle."

"We've met." My sweet smile throbbed with a lifetime of apologies. I extended my hand.

"We have?" he asked, and the familiar smile of the nine-year-old nuisance melted my knees.

"We grew up on the same street," I replied, incredulous.

His dazzling blue eyes went over me with a glance that already contained a dismissal. "I don't remember," he said, his tone bored, and waved to someone above my head. "Enjoy the party." He turned and walked away.

My colleague touched my elbow. "Forget about him. I got this millionaire antique dealer for you to meet. He got his start fixing up old motorcycles and cars." She pointed to a man slouching against the door, his hair sleeked back James Dean style. "Come meet Eddie."


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Wholesale Chinese Babies?

The recent news released by the Xinhua Chinese government’s news agency about the rescue of kidnapped children is repeated on the average of once a year. The rescued children are either old enough to be forced into slave labor, or worse, as victims of organ harvesting. In other cases, infant girls are sold to bachelor groups as sexual slaves.

But most disturbing perhaps is a system that has created a lucrative market of selling babies for adoption. Infant boys fetch a high price, but girls, too, are not spared. Besides the profitable foreign adoption industry, baby girls can be sold domestically to Chinese families seeking to raise future brides for their only sons.

The December 2006 announcement by the government of the People’s Republic of China of its tighter guidelines for foreign adoption was explained as the diminishing supply of available babies. The Chinese claimed that they could no longer meet the growing demand from foreigners wishing to adopt.

This supposed shortage contrasted the same government’s documented huge surplus of baby girls. Even stories in the censored Chinese press revealed that hundreds of thousands of them were abandoned—if not aborted in uterus or killed shortly after birth.

UNICEF 2008 study reported 17,374,000 births in China. The one-child policy established in 1979 clashed with the Chinese centuries-old tradition of favoring boys, resulting in a skewed boy-girl ratio: The Chinese government 2008 report, supported by Western sources such as the recent British Medical Journal, established the boy-girl ratio at birth as 124:100 and even higher in some regions. This figure translates to 1.75 million girls “missing” from the ledger for 2008, but fails to include thousands of male and female fetuses aborted by official coercion or family choice. It also ignores infants of later birth order—third, fourth or fifth in their families—who perish in the first week of life, but whose numbers cancels boys’ and girls’ deaths as reported in the 2004 issue of International Family Planning Perspective.

The foreign adoption, begun after the huge outcry of the mid 90s’ exposure of mass infanticide in Chinese orphanages, reared the corruption’s ugly head. Corruption in China is so entrenched that jobs are often being purchased openly because of the unofficial side benefits. Between 1997 and 2006, the flow of over 100 million dollars paid directly to orphanage directors has made keeping the fresh supply of “suitable” babies a lucrative business. According to one report, only 10% of the money Western adoptive parents leave behind services the babies in the institutions from which these babies are adopted. When the $3,000 to $5,000 per child is paid in crisp $100 bills in a country where the average monthly wage is about $50, the incentive is clear. Directors of orphanages designated for foreign adoptions have been tempted to purchase babies for $150. In turn, the operators supplying them have been buying babies from desperate parents for as low as $8. Or, as it has been reported, they just kidnap them.

The government of the People’s Republic of China is interested in China’s image in the world, and from its perspective, the mass availability of its infants doesn't look good. Rather than deal with the hundreds of thousands of abandoned babies, it denies their existence, and hence, there is “a shortage.”

Cracking down on babies- and children-trafficking rings and rescue between three to sixty children in a sea of millions of them missing—and then releasing this information to the media—helps the People’s Republic of China “save face.”

My novel, CHINA DOLL, the riveting rescue of a Chinese baby, was the platform for my 2007 presentation at the U.N. about infanticide (Gendercide) in China.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Saving Rivka

At the Western Wall, circa 1870

Rivka was fourteen. A Jerusalem maiden, she was already married, building a home in God's Holy City according to the mitzvah to hasten the messiah’s arrival.

Alas, Rivka's young husband died, leaving her no longer a virgin but neither a mother.

Thankfully, to her rescue came the ancient law that would ensure saving her womb from this fate, a law that would help her bear children in her husband’s name.

No frozen sperms in a bank. Familiar only with the old-fashion route, the law simply required that Rivka's husband’s brother would impregnate her on his dead brother’s behalf, thus ensuring the closest proxy of the dead man’s seed. Yibum, the rabbis called this brilliant scheme, as thus saved, Rivka would not be deprived of the privilege to contribute her share to hastening the messiah’s arrival

But wait! There were problems: Rivka's brother-in-law was merely a boy of eight, and he lived in Russia, Yishmor Hashem.

Poor Rivka was condemned to a lifelong widowhood, except that another Jewish law, a more modern one, came to her rescue. This law demonstrated the sages’ enlightenment by undoing the archaic law of Yibum. According to this more progressive law, called Halitza, the deceased man’s brother may relinquish his sacred obligation to his brother’s memory—but not without a great shame.

Disdained at her brother-in-law’s refusal to impregnate her, Rivka must humiliate him publicly by removing one of his shoes and spitting in his face.

Armed with this practical solution to her plight, at age fourteen Rivka set out alone on the road to Russia, on foot and on horseback, through snow-capped mountains crawling with bandits.

It took her two years to make the trip there, and two more years to return to Jerusalem, a free woman.

The messiah, who’s forever tarried, waited until at age eighteen, Rivka was finally permitted to remarry and fulfill her duty to hasten his arrival.

Rivka was my grandmother’s grandmother. I learned from her determination and courage. I also took another lesson: I stopped worrying about the messiah’s comings and goings. Then, no longer burdened with carrying the weight of the world’s fate on my shoulders, I’ve become my own messiah.

# # #

Talia Carner's next heart-wrenching suspense, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, will be published by HarperCollins in June 2011. It is the story of a woman’s struggle for individuality against her society’s religious dictates.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Fly

The door is left ajar, and here comes a fly, buzzing in—not as a guest, but rather as a landlord.

The Fly is not the small kind, but rather large, black, and omnipresent. It circles around the room—once, twice, three times—assessing the territory it plans to squat, and in a flash, off it zooms away on its speeding wings through the corridor, winding its way through every bedroom, and stopping in mine. It flaps against the window, jerks to the ceiling, bounced from wall to wall like a Kadima ball.

There are a number of spots it could choose to settle in, perhaps the kitchen, where it could always find a puddle of apple juice that has dripped from a sippy-cup or a crumb of a Graham cracker forgotten by a three-year old.

But that is not the purpose of this uninvited visitor who, with neither manners not adherence to NY real-estate law, believes that ownership of a house is merely a matter of taking possession.

I refuse to relinquish my hold and move out. I don’t fail to notice that yet again, The Fly has arrived solo. It must be forever hovering at the front door waiting for the moment when I’d open it. How else can I describe The Fly’s entrance every time? And why always just one fly? If my house is such a great vacation spot, there should have been three of them, or five—

The Fly has been recognized in my household ever since my friend Lonnie became sick—and The Fly didn’t stop coming upon Lonnie’s death. Why is this unremarkable friend visiting again? Since I had never understood Lonnie when he was alive and I don’t expect to receive his messages from “the other side.” Although funny and witty, he was self-centered, lacked curiosity of the world or the generosity of heart. Even before his diagnosis I had suspected he was devoid of compassion. What does he want now?

I climb up the stairs to my attic office. I leave the door open, knowing that The Fly is seeking me out. Within seconds, it’s here, buzzing noisily, shooting from wall to wall in concentric circles meant to annoy me.

“OK. You’re making your point, except that I don’t get what it is,” I tell The Fly, then settle at my desk.

But The Fly is not one to be so ignored. It doesn’t stop its loud circling, finally pulling me away from my computer. I turn on the iPod, and Verdi’s notes spill into the room. I begin to sway, gathering energy, arch, kick a bit, and then practice the range of my old ballet pirouettes.

Landing in a grande-jetté, I glance at The Fly. Quiet at last, it perches on the edge of my desk, clapping silently by rubbing its front legs and watching me with its one thousand eyes.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Truth is a must in fiction

Real life happens, and, paradoxically, that is what fiction is about.

Back in the stone-age days of the early 80s, I worked for Redbook magazine, which taught young married women how to manage the physicality of home and family, while supposedly reflecting their lives in all their nuances.

In 1985 I moved to Savvy Woman magazine as its publisher. Savvy was the magazine for the woman executive—a new phenomenon for those females “allowed” to play with the big boys in their sandbox.

Common to both types of magazines was the fact that none recognized the anguish of women who had failed to find a mate, or had coupled with the wrong man in a marriage that was ending in divorce. Nor was the word “custody” ever mentioned. Whether a homemaker or a CEO of a public company, there was an assumption of happiness within the context of a husband and children.

Redbook editors had told me that it would be “a kiss of death” for a magazine to touch the topic of divorce, let alone abuse, court, or lawyers. And in Savvy Woman magazine, we published a study proving how sexually satisfied executive women were. Only a couple of years ago, the then-Editor-in-Chief (and still my friend), Wendy Reid Crisp, described the fraudulent way in which this study had been obtained. Executive women were shattering the glass ceiling with their heads. They were lonely and had little sex.

We trusted magazines. Women’s magazines were our friends, our companions. I loved their feel, their fresh smell of ink (before perfume samples had ruined it.) It was disappointing to read the blasting indictment by the former the Editor-in-Chief of Ladies’ home Journal for over 20 years, Myrna Blyth, of women’s magazines and their exploitation of women’s insecurities and dreams….

Novels capture you in quite the opposite way. You approach a novel for the entertainment value, for the intellectual stimulation. You know it’s fiction, and you hope it would be good. Yet, as the story is artistically woven with universal emotions under the pressure cooker of seemingly real-life crises, you are carried into that world with all its trials and tribulations. You care. You are inspired and encouraged.

Because when you embark upon a journey with the protagonist, you discover or redefine truths along with her. Truth is a must in fiction. Only the specific details and personal events relating to the protagonist are fictionalized. The emotions must be real. The way information is being doled out must be sincere.

And if divorce or custody or death happen in fiction, it is because real life is filled with roads of no returns. As Nola, the protagonist of CHINA DOLL discovers, the most common denominator of people are the emotions of separations and losses.

And that emotional truth is the basis of a good novel.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The secret revealed: Writers Can Coook Too!

When do you know you’ve arrived as an author? When you’re invited to contribute a recipe. But even as I basked in the pleasure of being asked, I did not anticipate finding myself in such a respectable company. The Brandeis National Committee (an organization that fund-raises specifically for Brandies University libraries) has had a great relationship with authors, which the Phoenix Chapter smartly converted into a cookbook. When they asked me to contribute a recipe, I did not have to search far for the only recipe I've ever invented, a dessert titled, "Moses' Land of Milk and Honey." And then the book arrived. “Writers Can Cook Too!” presents an extraordinary list of literary luminaries who've contributed to this delightfully tasteful collection: Just some of the A to C names are dazzling: Jeffry Archer, David Baldacci, Nevada Barr, Elizabeth Berg, Lawrence Block, Barbara Tyler Bradford, Sandra Brown, Harlan Coben, Gay Courter and Clive Cussler (and the humble,moi, Talia Carner, among these C names, with my recipe on p. 147….) You’ll find dozens more of America’s best-selling authors and their favorite recipes--all the way to Z--in this little-known treasure. The only problem? You must have a secret password to get this book--the e-mail address of the editor. Only she can sell you a copy! So here is that second secret: Write to Merrill Kalman at Enjoy happy and blissful cooking! [Note: All proceeds from the sale of this cookbook will benefit the libraries at Brandeis University. For those who know me, I must clarify that this is separate from HBI, the Brandeis institute on whose board I sit, and which researches Jewish women’s lives past, present and future( Hadassah-Brandeis Institute )] Talia Carner Author, Puppet Child & China Doll --and upcoming in 2011, JERUSALEM MAIDEN