Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Novelist's Hopes

Today I received a request from Chicken Soup for Writers to submit an inspirational, motivational story. Examining some of my old essays about my hopes and aspirations earlier on in my writing career, I came across the piece below. I wrote it in 1999 upon completing PUPPET CHILD and typing the magic words, "THE END."  To my consternation, I realized that my life as an author was just beginning:

Copyright 1999 © Talia Carner

You've cut your wrists and bled all over the keyboard--for five years.
You’ve revised/overhauled the story thirty times. Edited eighty times.
You've sent hundreds of queries to agents.
Clumps of hair are missing from your scalp as rejections pour in. 
The noose of a rope is dangling from the ceiling just in case.
An agent working out of his jail cell (see ACLU v. Justice Department) agrees to represent you.
Your agent locates a Christian publisher in Pittsburgh, specializing in His Word, who says he'll read your manuscript.
The Christian publisher will reconsider your book if you make the protagonist go to church on Sunday and restore her virginity.
You do all that and then some.
You spend $42 at Kinko for each copy and $26 for mailing, round trip (they insist you include a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope.)
Two years go by. Your agent retired on royalties she’d made from other authors.
After sending fifty queries, you manage to get a new agent. You opt for a young, hungry one.
Twenty publishers later ($68 x 20=$1,360 in printing and mailing), your book is sold.
You frame the $1,000 check. (You can afford not to cash it; soon, you'll be a millionaire many times over.)
You accost that famous author at her locker room in the health club (you threaten to yank that towel away) and get a blurb for the back cover of your book.
You throw a party, and buy a gold pair of shoes to go with the champagne.
You purchase 300 copies (the publisher gives you a discount) to mail to reviewers and policy-makers.
You open a web site for all your future fans.

Your local book store buys two copies. Ditto the book store in your mother's town.
Your book is on the shelf! Hurray!
Then you discover it has the expiration date of YOGURT!

Whatever made me think books were forever?

P.S. The heart-wrenching suspense PUPPET CHILD was published in 2002. In the ten years that have passed, I learned that a well-written book that tells a story never told before can make it a decade past the three-week bookstore shelf-life. In fact, PUPPET CHILD was selected in "The Top Ten Best First Novels 2002" ( and then launched a law that became the platform for two State Senatorial candidates. While I’ve published two novels since, PUPPET CHILD is still selling every week—mostly in digital format—and readers have a great reading experience!
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Author Talia Carner’s latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN—inspired by her grandmother’s untapped artistic genius—is the story of a young woman’s struggle between passion and faith. .

Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Heart Father

Yitzhak Yoffe & Talia
[Note: Today, St Patrick's Day, is actually the 21st anniversary of my father's passing. As I light the "yortzeit" candle, I share with you our story.]

          My friend blew out the candles on her birthday cake. She was about to blow the ninth, the good luck one for next year, when someone tapped my shoulder and said that my mother was outside. I wanted to see the last candle blown out, because not blowing the good-luck one was bad luck, but I rushed out. My mother must have found a ride to the village outside Tel-Aviv where, since the divorce last year, I lived with a family that wasn't mine.
          It was a warm Saturday morning, one of those winter days when the woolen plaid pants and bright red sweater—my party outfit until I would outgrow all possible alterations—itched. But in winter you wore wool or caught pneumonia.
          In the bright sun, my mother stood next to a black Rover and a hatted man. She wore a flowing new skirt and was laughing, not like before, when my father had made her cry a lot. I hated him because he beat me if I forgot to brush my teeth. It was so much better not to be frightened any more.
          I buried my face in my mother’s skirt. Everything about her smelled like warm flowers.
          Frogs croaked in the scattered puddles and water holes. If we weren't dressed in our Sabbath best my mother would have suggested we chase the frogs or count their babies.
          I lifted my head. The man with the hat looked at me with interest. His smile created twin crescent-shaped creases that reached his gray eyes. He handed me a wooden box and I thanked him politely. My mother was shopping for a new husband, and I wanted him to know that the deal included a good kid.
          His smile widened. He had the largest, kindest eyes.
          "Open it." He pointed to the box.
          It was filled with an assortment of pencils, coloring pens, an eraser and a pencil-sharpener—each tucked in its own little pocket. No one in school owned a collection like this. And it wasn't even my birthday!
          I hated hugging people. I had to pretend to like hugging my birth father, a man I addressed only by his first name. Yet, wrapping my arms around this stranger's waist was easy. I breathed his lemon after-shave mingled with the smell of mothball in his tweed jacket.
          When I pulled away, he continued to examine my face. "I told your mother I must meet you."
          She giggled. "He had me climb up to the attic to bring down the photo albums."
          I no longer wanted to go back to the birthday party. I sat on the car hood and was careful not to swing my legs and chip the paint. I must have been difficult to talk to because in those post-divorce months I stuttered. I also wet my bed and had low grades in school.
          From across the field, the muffled hum of cars and trucks on the Tel-Aviv-Haifa Road reached us. It did not drown the calm, rich voice of this man who addressed me as though I were an adult. We started talking, and it was years before we stopped. He knew a lot of interesting things, like how Coca Cola was concocted by a pharmacist, and how a pearl was created inside an oyster. And I had lots of questions to ask.
          How could my mother resist this man's proposal of marriage? This forty-year-old bachelor must have fallen in love with her, but I was certain he wanted me for a daughter. He was a genie who popped into my life to save me.
          It was common knowledge that genies masked themselves as ordinary humans, so it was no surprise that mine was disguised as a Dad. But he was the real thing, I was certain, with baby blue chiffon dress and a magic wand with sparkling stars twittering around its top. It was all a matter of catching my genie at a moment she'd be dropping her guard. So I began spying on my new father during my weekend visits in their new home. I peeked at him in his sleep, spied on him when he got the morning paper, watched him while he sorted his stamp collection, and stood riveted while he clipped his toenails. All I caught was an ordinary man with eyes bathed in love.
          I wanted to come home. Permanently, not wait until the end of the school year.
          "Only four months," my mother said. "By then, your room will be ready."
          After the tenant evacuated the extra bedroom in my new father’s apartment, it was painted in every shade of pastel. The historical Tel-Aviv building was located on a divided, wide boulevard, shaded by huge sycamore trees bent with age and disease and flanked by two thoroughfares in which five bus lines made noise and puffed clouds of gray gas. The place looked cheerless and dark in the unrelenting rain the first time I went to visit. But I didn't care. It was home and that was where I wished to be. Summer was too far away.
          One day after school, instead of taking the bus back to the family that gave me food and shelter, I climbed onto the bus heading in the other direction. I had saved my allowance to pay for the ticket. It did not occur to me to be afraid; I was going to see my new father at his law office.
          Tel-Aviv central station was a ten-block area crammed with shops, warehouses and small factories. The streets teemed with buses, vendors' carts, beggars and shoppers—many people to ask for directions. I began to walk. I did not get lost, and some hours after I had left school, my father's secretary showed me in.
          I fell into his arms. "I want to stay with you," I sobbed.
          He did not scold me. Nor did he tell me that the police had been searching for me. Not until years later did he reveal that he had sat at his desk, staring at the phone, waiting for news of me.
          Instead, he took my hand. "Let's go home. Don't you want to see Mommy?"
          "She'll send me back. Will you talk to her?"
          He nodded. We became one front.
          One evening, several months after I had moved in, I hung about in the living room, observing my father on a ladder as he changed light bulbs in the chandelier. It was a chance to peek under the hem of his gabardine pants. Maybe this time I'd see the genie’s ballerina legs.
          I gathered the courage to say the magic word. "May I call you 'Daddy’?” I finally blurted.
          "Of course." From his height, his face lit up with an inner glow. "You're my daughter, aren't you?"
          "Abba." I rolled the word off my tongue. "Daddy." Then I skipped around his ladder, letting this sweet word scatter all around us, like marbles. "Abba. Abba. Abba." A genie could be anything she wanted to be. Even a Daddy.
          We developed little rituals, ours alone. In the mornings we walked together—I to my new school and he to his office. When we parted in the corner closest to school, I kissed him good-bye, hoping other kids would notice. In the evenings, he tucked me in bed and sat down for our "Question Corner." I loved listening to his rich, educated language when he told me how, as a child in Leningrad, his mother had bought him one section of an orange for his birthday. I loved hearing how his two older sisters got rid of their pestering baby brother by kissing him until he escaped. Were there families where people kissed instead of yelled?
          I stopped stuttering and I no longer wet my bed. Even though the city school was more demanding than the rural one I had left, I soon climbed close to the top of my class. My father rarely praised my high grades—he had expected nothing less, and soon, neither did I.
          My sister—his first natural child—was born when I was fourteen. He must have been delighted, but by then I was oblivious to my home life. Boys, the telephone, and Elvis Presley vied for my attention. Yet, my father and I continued our "Question Corner" with talks about distant planets or the unique pregnancy of the male seahorse.
          That was the time he showed me his poetry notebooks—two full volumes he had written when he had been young. The poems, in his small, neat handwriting, were beautiful, and he let me keep the notebooks for a while.
          I was sixteen when he tried to adopt me, but my birth father whom I rarely saw, refused to sign the papers.
          "Bureaucracy," my heart father said. "It doesn't matter."
          "It matters to me." Forever I cringe when asked for my maiden name. I lie.
          It’s decades later. My sister hands me a piece of paper. Section, lot, aisle, row, and finally, a grave number.
          The marble slab squeezed between thousands of similar impersonal ones, represents the small, unimportant life people live—except when they figure as large as my father had in mine. I am about to place the flowers on the white stone, when I know that this is not the place to mourn him.
          I drive to the prosperous suburb, once a village, where decades ago I left a classmate’s birthday party. The eight-lane highway has long claimed the field where I once sat on the hood of the Rover.
          It is here, in the second lane of the highway, at the spot where my little legs in itchy wool pants tried not to swing while talking to the hatted man with kind, gray eyes, that I raise my arm to spread the flowers. With trucks and cars speeding by, the grave for my memories of my father, for our shared life, lies under the asphalt.
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Author Talia Carner’s latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN— inspired by her grandmother’s untapped artistic genius—is the story of a young woman’s struggle between passion and faith. .

Monday, March 5, 2012

"Unorthodox," a memoir by Deborah Feldman

An examination of an insular world is best described by an insider--especially one who's never felt she belonged in this world, yet was pinned to its dogmas and unbending religious fanaticism.

Deborah Feldman's difficult upbringing was clouded and severely compromised by the absence of her parents: Her borderline mentally disabled father had been matched to marry an impoverished yet intelligent teenager from a distant community, who took off shortly after Deborah was born to fend for herself and to get education and a life. As a result, the young Deborah was abandoned into the care of her grandparents, loving but bound to austerity both by religious norms and personal histories as Holocaust survivors.

What should have amazed me (but didn't) when reading Deborah Feldman's "Unorthodox," was how little had changed in that world set in Brooklyn, NY, from 100 years ago in a similar ultra-Orthodox society in Jerusalem, yet how much had.... In my research into the lives of women in Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman Empire rule of the Holy Land, I found women living in a highly restrictive Jewish religious society marked on the outside by its adherence to exaggerately modest clothing (and head-shaving for married women,) and subject to decrees, rules, male-dominant religious hierarchy and strict social expectations that forced the public into every private domain. Then and now, every transgression was watched closely by others, and manifestations of individuality cut at the bud. The difference was that in Jerusalem of the time, women suffered the lack of personal freedoms underpinned by shortages, plagues and pestilence with more stoic acceptance--even spiritual exuberance--because they had a mission: suffering and "building a home" in the holy city helped hasten the messiah's arrival and thus bring salvation to world Jewry. Not so in Feldman's milieu in the Satmar community in Brooklyn, just within sight of the Manhattan skyline. There was no apparent spiritual foundation to justify the imposition of extreme strict norms of conduct and of education that was no more than indoctrination to further stave off outside influences. At least it was not apparent to Feldman, nor instilled in girls and women relegated to the back of the synagogue and (then and now) excluded from active participation in religious services.

A free spirit, open-minded, intelligent Deborah suffered both from low social standing as a result of her dubious parentage and from emotional detachment that often accompanies parentless children. In the close-knit society of a few city blocks, she forever felt as an outcast. Her grandparents fed her well and clothed her in hand-me downs from her cousins, and loved her in their own distracted ways. And unlike the ceaseless labor often imposed on girls in large Satmar families, the grandparents made little physical demands of Deborah: her help in her grandmother's housecleaning and long days in the kitchen seemed more voluntary rather than forced. Society's total control came into young Deborah's life in the form of an aunt who made all important life decisions for her, control that baffled the young Deborah, yet was understandable in the absence of parents, the aunt's qualifications as the principal of the local girls' school, and the need to help the grandparents handle the unexpected gift of raising a grandchild long after their own children had left home. The glaring problem in this aunt-niece relationship was the fact that the aunt never became a parent figure, and the short time little Deborah had lived in her home among her cousins was a miserable experience for the girl. While the aunt didn't seem resentful of the added responsibility, the young Deborah hated the woman's ever-present authority that made no allowance for the girl's wants and individuality.

I had learned in my research that in old Jerusalem, where there was no running water, sanitation or electricity, girls were kept illiterate, which further isolated the already insular Jewish females so they could be married off soon after puberty. In the Satmar community one-hundred years later, though, all girls were educated--albeit in truncated programs that shunned English and offered a stilted religious world view via distorted facts (e.g., the Satmar believe that Jews should not create their own state until the messiah's arrival, and therefore object to Israel's existence.) Luckily for Deborah, there were public libraries available, and when she dared explore the world beyond her street, it was only a few subway stops from Manhattan.

Those freedoms took enormous courage, yet were available within a stone-throw away. If we stop to consider hundreds of million of women living today in Muslim societies that oppress and subjugate them in the name of religion, the hopelessness of their situations is evident as schools, accessible public libraries, piped music at discount clothing stores, subways where women need not be chaperoned by men, and colleges that offer scholarships are simply not available.

Once married at seventeen, Ms. Feldman learned to drive, owned a car, and in time, was able to enroll in college. As horrifically we view the notion of being married off as a teenager to a man she had met only once pre-engagement, and stepping into a marriage that turned out to be doomed by incompatibility, at the beginning the new bride embraced it all. She loved her new status, the adulation she was receiving during the engagement period, and the shower of new clothes, household gifts and furniture when her parsimonious grandfather's purse suddenly opened. Most importantly, marriage offered Deborah the chance to move away with her husband to a suburb where other young Orthodox families breathed a more relaxed atmosphere and Deborah enjoyed the loosening of the community's tight hold on her soul. When she decided to enroll in college, the question of child care of her baby never seems to come up as a problem.

At the end, it seemed that Deborah was never truly religious. She never fully bought into the doctrine and practices embraced by many other Satmars. Eventually, she found her comfort zone in secular Jewish living. This is not a fact her former community seems willing to accept as glimpsed by the vicious attacks on her. It is sad--and expected--that the one who self-expelled from the bonds of fanaticism would be considered a traitor by those who had shown her little compassion when she was living in their midst. There is never room for individual wants or personal freedoms within a fundamentalist religious society that reveres itself exactly for being what it is.

Author Talia Carner's latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN, is set in the ultra-Orthodox community of Jerusalem at the end of the Ottoman Empire rule of the Holy Land.