Tuesday, May 10, 2011

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, family, kitchen, marriage, and children. The editorial content supposedly reflected the nuances of women’s lives and covered relationship topics such as friendships or loss of loved ones. Sometimes their articles even touched job-loss or difficult in-laws, but “problems” were usually sugar-coated and often had the unreal feel of Hallmark Cards.

In 1985 I moved to Savvy Woman magazine as its publisher. Savvy was the magazine for the women executives—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.

I always worked in the business side of magazines, never the editorial. But I asked questions. 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 in spite of their busy lives. Only a few 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—and how she had been pressured by the magazine’s management to publish it. Executive women were shattering the glass ceiling with their heads. The truth was that they were lonely, unhappy, and had little sex.

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

In the 1990s, I left the business world to become a full-time fiction writer. I had always been an avid reader of novels—a slow reader, I must say, as I mouthed the music of sentences and heard in my head the rhythm of paragraphs, waiting for that wonderful concert of senses in the form of a story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, sometimes for year!

Novels capture you in quite the opposite way than magazines do. Rather than seeking information and “how-to” guidance, you approach a novel for the entertainment value, for the intellectual stimulation. You know it is fiction, it is not real, and you hope it would give you an emotional thrill. A good story is artistically woven with universal emotions under the pressure-cooker of seemingly real-life crises, and it carries you into this fictional world with all its trials and tribulations. Suddenly you care. At the end, you are inspired and encouraged, because when you embark upon a journey with the protagonist, you ride along the twists-and-turns in a condensed real-life manner, and you discover or redefine truths along with her.

Truth is a must in fiction. Only the characters 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 death, or betrayal, or misery, or custody battle, or social injustice happen in fiction, it is because real life is filled with roads of no returns. As Nola, the protagonist of one of my novels, CHINA DOLL, discovered: the most common denominator of people are the emotions of separations and losses.

And that emotional truth is the basis of a good novel.
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Author Talia Carner's new novel is JERUSALEM MAIDEN (HarperCollins, June 2011.) It depicts the struggle of a young woman between her passion for art and her society's religious dictates. Please check www.TaliaCarner.com .

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Saving Rivka

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. She was doomed to never contribute her share to hastening the messiah’s arrival through the good dead of procreation in Jerusalem.

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 hasten 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, the grandmother of Esther, my own grandmother who inspired the protagonist in my upcoming novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN. The novel fictionalizes an alternate life for a woman wishing to break away from the religious confinements of her society in order to fulfill her passion for art.

My grandmother passed on to me Rivka’s determination and courage. But 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.

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Talia Carner’s next heart-wrenching novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, will be published by HarperCollins on May 31st, 2011. It is the story of a woman’s struggle for individuality against her society’s religious dictates. http://www.taliacarner.com/

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Shall I ever write a negative book review?

Benjamin D’Israeli said, “When I want to read a good book, I write one.” But even D’Israeli, I am sure, also read books written by others—and enjoyed them.

As an author, I am often asked for recommendations of books I’ve read and enjoyed. I am also asked to read works-in-progress. Unfortunately, I do more of the latter than the former, but I enjoy both processes.

Reviewing published books is different from reviewing unpublished manuscripts. When I review a writing buddy's work-in-progress (or even when she believes it is all done,) I can offer constructive suggestions which she may or may not follow, but there is still time for corrections before the manuscript gets into the hands of an agent, publisher--and finally a reader. The critiquing—a constructive process that is not criticizing—is challenging as I am inserting myself into the creative thinking of the development of characterization and plot, or the use of language and voice. I can advise about setting and pace, or dialogue vs. exposition.

In reviewing published books, my perspective is different: It is too late to change the book, while my readers look to me for recommendations of books I appreciate. They've enjoyed reading mine and hope to have that emotional high we all get when we are carried away by a great read. Therefore, I must offer them my honest opinion.

That said, I rarely read anything I don't like. Why should I? I drop the book after 2-50 pages and therefore would not write a review. However, there have been times when I was coaxed into reading on in the context of a book group or was pressed by a friend to read a particular bestseller. In one case, my original reluctance proved wrong as the book improved greatly. In other cases though, I gained enough familiarity with the work to explain what I perceived to be objective flaws. In these cases, each of the authors was extremely successful, so my less-than-top starry review could not adversely affect his career.

That leaves a gray area in between: When I am asked to review a published book of an unknown author. If the book has problems, I may just find an excuse not to write a review. Recently, after reading 50 pages, I wrote back to the publicist and explained the reasons I would not endorse the book, but I volunteered to read the author’s next manuscript in order to help her avoid some serious lapses.

In one case, an author I knew failed to get enough reviews. I read the whole book, found it wanting, but nevertheless was pressured to give it 5 stars. For a few weeks I flinched each time I thought about my false endorsement. Finally, I went back and changed my rating to 4 stars, but was still unhappy because I had not express in writing where the book fell short. After some time, I just deleted the review and promised myself I would not go this route again.

And then there is the real pleasure, when I read a book that is great. What a wonderful honor it is to be the one to "discover" that author! And that’s also when I enjoy sharing my finds with other book lovers.

Here is the link to my Amazon Listmanias:

And here is the link to my book reviews (I am backed up, but will add more soon):

Have a good reading experience!