The Whole Megillah (TWM): What catalyzed your foray into fiction?
Ruth Tenzer Feldman (RTF): Catalyzed. What an excellent word, Barbara! There are several reasons why I decided to write fiction, including a growing urge to step over the boundary line of truth, but “catalyzed” brings to mind chemistry. “Catalyst” can also mean a person or thing that precipitates an event, and the biblical character Serakh was the catalyst that precipitated my shift to fiction. I wanted to write a story about a woman whose name was mentioned in two census counts but whose biography was virtually blank. There was, shall we say, chemistry between us. Years later Blue Thread came into the world.
TWM: What strengths as a nonfiction writer do you think serve you well in fiction?
RTF: Nonfiction writing, particularly writing history and biography, has honed my research skills, which is an important part of historical fiction. Writing nonfiction also helped me to focus on aspects of time and place that might engage a reader who could have been assigned to read one of my books and, frankly, could have cared less about the topic. How many middle school kids have a passion for Calvin Coolidge? I think color is key.
TWM: Do you have a different writing process for fiction vs. nonfiction?
RTF: Good question. Now that I think about it, yes, my writing process is somewhat different between the two. When I’m writing nonfiction, I structure my day to include both research and writing. I write best in the morning, but can also pound out paragraphs later on in the day. I have a fairly firm idea of what I’m going to accomplish. And the revision process is relatively straightforward.
Writing fiction requires me to be more flexible. Sometimes the characters and I don’t agree on where the narrative should be going. My writing day usually starts the night before, when I set my mind to work on what’s next in a plot line or how a character would react to a certain situation. When I wake up in the early morning, I “listen” for the answer—and I usually get one! A scene might unfold in a way I hadn’t planned. Also the revision process can be painful, especially when I decide to get rid of an extraneous character.
Making the BIC-MIG commitment is vital whether I’m writing fiction or nonfiction. Butt in chair, mind in gear.
RTF: I queried several publishers and was fortunate enough to find two publishers who were eager for Blue Thread. Both, I think, would have been good choices. I opted for a publisher with whom I’d have a more personal, hands-on experience, mostly because Ooligan Press is here in Portland.
TWM: Your author’s note tells readers how the idea for Blue Thread came to you. Is there anything you’d want to add to that?
RTF: When I was a biology student, I experimented with planaria—flatworms that regenerate parts. Blue Thread reminds me of those flatworms, because it is now a fully regenerated stub of a manuscript that started out to be quite a different story. For the details, readers might be interested in “Separated at Birth” on the Blue Thread blog.
TWM: The religious differences between Julius and his brother cause a lot of tension in the book. How did you come up with that?
RTF: I grew up within Reform Judaism, dated a boy with an Orthodox background, admired an uncle who founded a Reconstructionist congregation, and married a man who was raised in the Conservative tradition. So it was natural to explore the potential divisiveness engendered by variations of perspective and practice within “organized” religion.
TWM: What insights, if any, did you gain into Jewish life as a result of writing this book?
RTF: While doing research for Blue Thread, I learned a lot about Rabbi Stephen J. Wise, the National Council of Jewish Women, the role of Jews in establishing settlement houses (particularly Neighborhood House in Portland), the Bialystok pogrom of 1906—a notebook full of facts. All useful information. And I did have an “aha! moment” about Jewish communities in the Pacific Northwest. Growing up in the New York region, I was familiar with the story of immigrant Jews finding their place in an already established society. But those Jews who went west in the 1850s and 1860s were pioneers. They started communities on an equal footing with pioneers of other backgrounds. They had a different relationship with their non-Jewish neighbors.
TWM: You mentioned you were working on a sequel. Anything you can share with us?
RTF: What if the Miriam of Blue Thread has a granddaughter who had inherited her name and her prayer shawl? What if Serakh travels to Berkeley, California, in 1964 and to Paris in 1099? I have to get back to butt in chair, mind in gear. Thanks for the interview.