The Whole Megillah Announces Writing Chai!

Writing Chai is a new, eighteen-month program of prompts from The Whole Megillah. Each month (on the 18th) members of the Writing Chai community will receive a prompt and have access to a private Facebook page to post their writing, their questions, and their reflections. Members can respond to the prompts through fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or some hybrid. The most important factor is that we write. The first prompt becomes available on Wednesday, September 18, 2019.

Special Bonus! For eighteen days beginning December 18, 2019, members will receive a prompt a day.

Membership: The cost of membership for the entire program is $18, payable through PayPal to barbarakrasner(at)yahoo(dot)com–using Friends–or by check. Contact me privately at barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)net for the address. Please contact me either through email or comments to let me know of your interest in membership.

Why Prompts? As a certified facilitator and long-time practitioner of the Amherst Writers & Artists method, I’ve learned the importance of responding to prompts with fresh ideas. My writing, through prompts, tends to be more organic and surprising, in good ways.

We hope you seriously consider this offer to write and share. Join Writing Chai!

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. No sooner did I send my work out do I begin to receive rejections. Form email rejections. Did they even read my work? Oy.
  2. I signed up for a free online course with the esteemed emerita Harvard professor. Dr. Ruth Wisse. The subject: Tevye the Dairyman!
  3. I will announce Writing Chai on Sunday. Stay tuned!

Happy writing!

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Author’s Notebook | The Challah Girl by Bracha K. Sharp

The Challah Girl by Bracha K. Sharp, illustrated by Anita Tung, Mosaica Press, 2019

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What inspired you to write this story?
Bracha K. Sharp (BKS): At first, it was actually more of a case regarding who inspired me! It seems funny to think of it now, but while I was working at a previous job, one of my supervisors there said something in passing that really inspired me to write this story.
I was working at a small Judaica shop and one of the most popular food items that we sold were challahs. One afternoon, after I had sold a large amount of them, my supervisor happened to come by and said, “Oh, you’re such a challah girl!” As soon as she said that, Divine Inspiration hit me and I immediately thought of a former college class that I had taken not too long before, on the psychology of fairy tales and their meanings. That class was called “Literature of the Self” and until my classmates and I took it, we didn’t actually know that we would be discussing and reading fairy tales!

Taking the class had a huge impact on me, in terms of the way that I viewed that particular genre of children’s literature afterwards, since it is often relegated to the sidelines. I had mainly associated fairy tales as a former childhood reading experience, so it became of significant interest to me to try to understand their deeper meanings and the psychological landscapes that they evoked. Because they still had a resonance and an influence throughout the history of literature and had a broader cultural impact than I had realized, I was inspired to write my Senior Thesis on ballets based on fairy tales. Afterwards, I had wanted to write something in the realm of fairy tales, ever since, but until the moment that the idea for The Challah Girl came together, I had not really pursued it. As well, the professor who taught the class was someone with whom I was and still am in contact with. Since I had taken many classes from him before, I was inspired to write a story that would take the literary knowledge that he had given to us and then make it my own. So all of it really came together for me in that moment!

Author Bracha K. Sharp

TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
BKS: Understanding, knowing about, and using all of that prior knowledge—and then “forgetting” about half of it! When I set out to write the manuscript, it came together almost immediately for me and the story was typed out, as if completed. However, in order to get a deeper sense of the plot line, the various character ambitions and the overall journey to the palace that Zlatah Leah would be undertaking, I reread all of my notes, textbooks, and fairy tale editions from that course and I elected to read through various sources regarding Jewish fairy tales and legends. I also ordered more books on the topic and found out more about Jewish folklore and fables, which turned out to be both fascinating and exciting. The greatest challenge for me was pretty much in devouring all of that knowledge and then not including it in the text! It certainly made the manuscript tighter and the flow much better, but getting rid of some of what I had thought was essential, at first, was very hard.

To that end, sometimes Zlatah Leah and the others would lead me down paths that I had never thought of before and, after a while, I had to surrender to the process of her voice telling me her story and what she wanted me to do. While the characters and story were of course a part of me, sometimes my characters knew more about where the plot was heading than I did! And sometimes, they made me wait to find out what was going to happen next. I would have to wait for their inner motives to appear, which could take a long while. Not an easy task to learn to do so, while the juices were still flowing!
My other big challenge was in making my fairy tale unique to this genre, while also imparting a Jewish take that built on what had gone before. I didn’t want my story to be cliche or a repetition of what everyone had already read, so I was invested in making it not merely an outgrowth of the familiar, but also a story that drew on deeper layers of plot and character development. While I wanted readers to associate it with one of the “classic” fairy tales, in that it had a pull towards the familiar and the comforting, I was also very involved in making it a Jewish plot, with Jewish values. Thus, the story could be read both as a universal tale that featured good values, but it could also be read on a more Jewish-centric level, where the importance of these cultural values are brought to the fore. In that vein, the co-challenge was to avoid as much didacticism and moralizing as possible, while still maintaining the integrity of my message.

TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction?
BKS: The voice of Zlatah Leah was strong throughout the writing process and never really left. She knew what she wanted to do and she lead the way. I was extremely happy because, almost immediately, the first and last lines of the book came to me and the basic plot did, too. The middle part of the story took some time to logistically come together, but because I essentially had a beginning and an ending, already, it was much easier to figure out what Zlatah Leah’s journey would be comprised of and how that might turn out. I was also able to take the premise of often-violent or extreme fairy tale stories and instead give Zlatah Leah a tight-knit and supportive family and community, which allowed her story’s tension to come from more of an inner place of personal growth, rather than from a more outward and sinister manifestation, which would drive her from home.

The collaborative process between the publishing house, my illustrator and me was also rewarding. Everyone was so diligent in turning out a good product and I was able to have a lot of input throughout the writing and illustrating process, so that although we were working from three different places, it all came together. Even though it took a little bit longer because of the time differences, it actually resulted in a more fully-thought out and beautifully realized book than I ever could have anticipated. The kindness and support from everyone involved—even outside of the publishing world–also reinforced the beautiful values that I strove to portray in my book!

TWM: Who inspires you?
BKS: Too many people, books, and things to list!

However, I will say that when I went to a Highlights Foundation Conference on writing Jewish-themed children’s books, you and the other teachers really inspired me to keep on writing—and finishing!—my various manuscripts. I have also been inspired by the Gotham Writer’s Workshops since I was a teenager and I recently had the privilege of joining the author Ruchama King Feuerman‘s writing group for some time, too. That was a very valuable experience and I received a lot of help on my latest manuscript. The SCBWI and the SSCBWI groups are also a source of inspiration and support and I have gained a lot from having that sense of community, which is invaluable. Even if one doesn’t know the members, personally, it adds so much to a writer’s toolkit to be able to have that sense of similar purpose and camaraderie!

In terms of The Challah Girl, I was inspired, in part, by a lesser-known variant of the “Cinderella” tale-type, called “Donkeyskin” and by the bravery and resourcefulness of the Russian heroine in “Vasilisa the Beautiful/Brave.” I took the donkey element from the first story and gave Zlatah Leah an actual “animal helper” to guide her to the palace. Her tears were inspired by the Brothers Grimm “Cinderella” tale, but unlike the tears in that story or the signature ring from “Donkeyskin,” they instead became the outer manifestation of her inner prayers, which led her to help heal the prince. And I made sure to ask that her hair color would be somewhat blonde or golden, just like Vasilisa’s, so that not only would she stand out in a good way, but it would also draw attention to her second name, Leah, which was inspired by Leah, our Foremother, whose prayers were so deep and full of meaning. In purposefully getting away from the usual violence and scariness of the tales, I was inspired to find another way to convey the heroine’s depth and strength of character.

As always, poetry continues to inspire me, particularly the work of Mary Oliver, Dickinson, Frost, and Billy Collins. I love everything from Shakespeare to the Modernist poets, authors, and artists and I’m big on the “Classics.” I’ve recently been re-reading Faulkner and Thomas C. Foster’s books on reading and interpreting literature. And my professor also introduced us to Kate Atkinson’s books and I have loved to read her, ever since. The way that she is simultaneously herself, but also inhabits all of her varied characters and their worlds is astounding and her wordplay and ingenuity is magnificent.

And finding the good things in one’s community and life is inspiring. While seemingly trite and not always immediately easy to do, it can add to one’s sense of wonder and purpose. That gratitude can translate positively over into a person’s writing and spread joy.

TWM: Please tell us about your submission process. How did this get to Mosaica Press?
BKS: Another case of Divine Intervention!

When my family and I were on a past trip to Israel, we hired a tour guide who also happened to be one of the heads of Mosaica Press. I told him about a children’s picture book manuscript that I had completed and he asked to see it. After the trip, I sent it along to him and the next thing I knew, he said that he and the rest of the team would be happy to accept it for publication. However, I decided that I still wanted to work on that manuscript, for a bit, and around that time, I also got the inspiration for The Challah Girl. Because it was a little while after my first manuscript was accepted, I sent out The Challah Girl to him, as well, and they loved it even more than the first one! Since it was more fully formed, I accepted and we began to work on the editorial, art, and design processes, which would all later form into what is now the finished product. Every time that I think of the miraculous nature of the acceptance of my manuscript, it gives me pause and makes me smile!

TWM: What’s next for you?
BKS: Right now, I’m continuing to work on a picture book manuscript that I started to go over in Ruchama King Feuerman’s writing group, centered on a little boy whose community is unable to find the moon when it is time for the monthly Kiddush Levanah (“Sanctification of the Moon”) ceremony to occur. Usually, little boys—and sometimes little girls—and their stories come to me, so it was quite a big departure for the older Zlatah Leah to come knocking! I’m interested to see how getting into the mindset of a younger character, once again, will go. And I always have poems and, to a lesser extent, short stories and other forms of writing, coming to me and waiting to be explored—so I, myself, am always interested to see what’s next!

For more about Bracha and The Challah Girl, see Bracha’s website>>>

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. I said I would and I did: I sent some of my poetry out into the world over the Labor Day weekend. I’d still like to send out more.
  2. I sent a new YA historical novel to my agent. Well, it’s not really new. Newly revised, let’s say.
  3. More to come about Writing Chai…stay tuned!

Happy writing!

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. I’m dedicating Labor Day to send some poetry out into the world. I wanted to use part of the weekend to revise a novella, but given other commitments, that’s just not going to happen.
  2. My Yiddish class is giving me great insights into Yiddish culture, which I’m sure I’ll find useful in my creative writing.
  3. I’m presenting today at Mercer County Community College in New Jersey on “Incorporating the Holocaust into the English Classroom.” If anyone is interested in a copy of the presentation, please let me know.

Have a great holiday weekend. Happy writing!

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Mid-Week Notes

Three quick things:

  1. Stay tuned for the September 18 launch of a new writing program from The Whole Megillah. It’s called Writing Chai, an eighteen-month program of writing prompts and sharing with an intense eighteen days of prompts starting December 18, all for $18.
  2. Thanks to The Book of Jeremiah, I’ve pulled out an abandoned manuscript from 2011. I had kept it on a flash drive and when the drive burned out, IT folks told me the files were not retrievable. But in 2019, they were!
  3. I also found inspiration from reading the latest issue of Poets & Writers. In particular, I saw the names of people I know winning awards, and I’ve been lax in sending out submissions. My plan for Labor Day weekend is submit, submit, submit!

That’s it for this week. Happy writing!

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Author’s Notebook | The Book of Jeremiah by Julie Zuckerman

Zuckerman, Julie. The Book of Jeremiah: A Novel in Stories. Winston-Salem, NC: Press 53, 2019. 190 pp., $17.95.

The Whole Megillah (TWM): What motivated this collection of linked short stories?
Julie Zuckerman (JZ): The Book of Jeremiah started with one story – “MixMaster” – which ended up being the final story in the collection. I wrote it in response to a writing prompt: write a story about someone who is definitely not you, who does something you’re somewhat interested in (i.e., a career, a hobby, etc.). I wrote about an 82-year-old man who takes up baking as a way to get closer to his wife. Definitely not me, but I do know a thing or two about baking. As soon as I finished writing the story, I was taken with Jeremiah’s character, and I knew I wanted to write an entire book about him. I’d recently read Olive Kitteridge and my goal was to write an entire collection in which each story reveals more about Jeremiah’s character, much in the same way that Elizabeth Strout accomplishes with Olive. I wanted each story to stand on its own, but also together to be more than the sum of its parts.

Julie Zuckerman

TWM: What was your greatest challenge?
JZ: My greatest challenge was ensuring that the stakes were high enough for every character, in every story. There’s no life-or-death drama in any of the stories – the characters don’t directly face war, murder or rape, accidents or natural disaster – and it was sometimes a struggle to make the characters’ dilemma feel like an existential crisis to them. Eight of the 13 stories are told from Jeremiah’s point of view, but the other five are told from the points of view of various family members: his mother, brother, wife, son, daughter. This is a loving family, but there are dozens of occasions on which Jeremiah exasperates them, or vice versa; they’re often wringing their hands, unsure of what to do with him or how to handle certain situations. I had to make those conflicts feel almost life-or-death to them.

TWM:  Your greatest satisfaction?
JZ: The first story in the collection, “A Strong Hand and an Outstretched Arm,” is told from Jeremiah’s mother’s point of view. Rikki is a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, trying to cope with her American children and in particular, a mischievous, somewhat rebellious Jeremiah. I wrote the first draft of the story in 2011. I thought it was finished, many times over. I workshopped it with my local group, my online group, I submitted it to all my favorite literary journals, getting some decent feedback but nevertheless rejections. I must have done 10 different major revisions of the story. Finally, in early 2015, something clicked into place about the ending, and I completely rewrote the last third of the story. My takeaway from this is that sometimes you just need to sit with a story for a long time. Overall, that story was submitted to over 100 different journals before it found a home, but I believed in my characters and it was very gratifying when I finally got it right. This story, by the way, is the one that convinced Press 53 Editor and Publisher Kevin Morgan Watson to keep reading and ultimately select The Book of Jeremiah for publication.

TWM: How did you decide on the arrangement of the individual stories?
JZ: The book jumps backwards and forwards in time. I played around with the structure a lot. According to my spreadsheet, I had six different potential orders! The initial idea was to structure the book in reverse chronological order, but that didn’t work for a variety of reasons. I made notecards with themes, characters, and so on. In 2015, I attended a writer’s conference at the Vermont College of Fine Arts; my workshop leader, Ellen Lesser, helped me strategize about the structure by thinking of the book in thirds. Ultimately, I had to balance each third with stories that take place with the younger, the middle-aged, and the older Jeremiah, as well as with the five stories told from the points of view of other characters.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, I’d read an excellent essay by David Jauss, “Stacking Stones,” (which appears in his craft book Alone with All That Can Happen). He talks about the need for common threads to string one story after the next. A phrase or an interesting word might appear at the end of one story, and then be repeated (or inversed) at the beginning of the next. Or it might be a theme or a character, or some other common thread. For example, I have one story told from Jeremiah’s son’s point of view, and we understand they don’t have an easy relationship. In the story that follows, Molly, Jeremiah’s wife, is pregnant with their son; Jeremiah is starting a new position as an academic but he’s feeling a bit unsure of his choice, wondering if he’ll ever belong at this fictional university. Immediately afterwards, there’s a story 40 years in the future, where we see Jeremiah as a semi-retired professor at that same university. Once I began thinking of the book in thirds, it wasn’t hard to find the threads between the individual stories.

TWM: Did you write this during your MFA program? In what ways did workshop and your advisers help?
JZ: I don’t have an MFA. I started creative writing about 11 years ago, when I was already well into my career, with a full-time job and three small children (plus one more that arrived a year later). I found a local writing workshop in Jerusalem, and later moved to a more advanced fiction class with Evan Fallenberg (translator, author of three novels, and a teacher in several MFA programs). Evan’s guidance and support were crucial to my development as a writer; he encouraged me to keep pushing, keep revising, keep submitting. Later, I formed a local writing group with some of the people in that class. We met every other week, about a 45-minute drive from my house, but I attended religiously. I’ve also taken several online classes, through One Story, Grub Street, Kathy Fish, Catapult and others. I’ve made great writing friends from all over the world, and in addition to my local writing workshop, I’ve been part of an online group. Their feedback has been instrumental in polishing my stories and making sure they feel believable.

TWM: Can you talk about any research you conducted for this novel of stories? Academic life? Political scene? What made you place Jeremiah in these worlds? Was any of this based on your own family’s story?
JZ: As the stories take place between the Depression and the modern era, particularly for the stories that occur earlier than the 1980s, I conducted a good deal of research. In one story, “Signals,” Jeremiah is a US solider in World War II; he is part of the Signal Corps, and the other character in that story is a combat nurse. I read accounts of what Signal Corps soldiers did in France and Belgium after D-Day and accounts of what combat nurses would have experienced during the Battle of the Bulge, and so on. For “Tough Day for LBJ,” a story that takes place during Freedom Summer, I delved into the archives of The New York Times, government documents, and academic journals. I read the eulogies given for the slain civil rights workers and interviewed my uncle who – unbeknownst to me when I wrote the first draft of that story – had volunteered in Mississippi that summer and was there the day the bodies were found.

I’ve always loved history, particularly modern American history (my mother was a high school history teacher), and I wanted to ground Jeremiah in what was happening around him. He himself is a political science professor, and at one point works in Washington for several administrations. Although the book as primarily focused on Jeremiah and his family, I couldn’t not write about these events and their effects on the Gerstler family. My own degrees are in this field as well (a BA in political science and an MA in international relations), and I loved going down the research “rabbit hole.” I’m sure I spent tens of hours reading press briefings about incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 (which led to an escalation of US troops in Southeast Asia). I consider the research one of the most fun parts of writing. In fact, I made a page on my website called Fun Stuff, with links to the research, inspiration from family, and even a few recipes.

I took many tidbits from family lore or history and wove them into my characters or plots. Like Jeremiah, my maternal grandfather was a soldier in the Signal Corps in World War II. One of my cousins and great-uncles served as gun-runners for the Haganah in the late 1940s, so this inspired me to research the American Jews who helped with this aspect of the founding of the State of Israel. The research led me to a fascinating figure who inspired one of the characters in my story “Clandestiny.” There are also dozens of examples of things that happen in Jeremiah’s family that I took straight from my own family. In the first story, Jeremiah’s father Abe owns a liquor store and stays very late each day. Although the Gerstlers are traditional Jews, the family waits for Abe to close his store and thus only begin their Passover seders at 11 pm. That’s taken directly from my paternal grandfather and the way my family held seders when I was a kid.

TWM: Who inspires you?
JZ: Writers, for one. I am full of admiration for writers who have done their research and weave it seamlessly into the writing so that it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. I want to be completely invested in the characters, including those whose lives and circumstances are vastly different than my own. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers and Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink come to mind, both of which I recently finished. Philip Roth’s books always have me thinking, and Amos Oz crafted beautiful sentences. The world lost two great Jewish writers in the last year or two, but it’s a gift that we can continue to read their words.

I’m also inspired by activists and doers. In the United States, I’m inspired by the people leading the fight for tighter gun control and against family separations at the border. In Israel, Women Wage Peace is a coalition of women from every political stripe that strives to get politicians to the negotiating table.

TWM: What’s next for you?
JZ: I have the first draft of a novel that is set right in the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s tough going, though; I put it aside back in January when the promotional efforts for The Book of Jeremiah got underway. I’d like to get through at least another full revision and then decide what I want to do with it. In the meantime, I’ve written a few essays and flash fiction pieces because I hate not writing. My new mantra, which I have taped up in front of my desk: “If you don’t write today, it’s your own damn fault!”

For more about Julie Zuckerman and The Book of Jeremiah, please visit her website.

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