ONE GOOD SCENE: A Next Level Workshop

THE WORKSHOP: I’m pleased to announced that the next session of my fiction-writing course, One Good Scene, has been scheduled to begin on October 15, 2020, and is now open for registration. It is an intensive 7-week online workshop that includes weekly lectures, writing assignments, peer critiques given and received, and detailed feedback from me on every assignment.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:  One Good Scene is based on two premises.

First: that a story or novel is composed of a series of scenes strung together with narrative, the way beads are strung on a chain.

Second:  that all the skills needed to write a story or novel come into play in the composition of a single scene.

A writer who can produce one shapely, tense, fully-realized scene after another can write a publishable story. By focusing on the very achievable goal of crafting one good scene, writers hone the very skills needed to write a novel or memoir. For more details about the course, see the description on my website. Here’s some feedback from writers who’ve taken the course, including  some who’ve gone on to publish.

WHO IT’S FOR:  This workshop is open to fiction and memoir writers of all genres and levels of experience, from beginners who want to build on a solid foundation to published writers intent on honing their craft. As in all the “Next Level” workshops, my goal is to help writers reach the next level, whatever that is for each individual. I do this, in part, by keeping the classes very small, to allow for close attention to each participant.

Many of the unpublished writers who’ve taken my Next Level courses have gone on to sell their work and build writing careers; but instant publication is not something any writing teacher can promise. What I do promise is that if you do the work, you will emerge from this workshop a better writer than you came in. If that is your goal, you’ve come to the right place.

ABOUT ME: I don’t just talk the talk; I’ve walked the walk, as a writer who also worked extensively in the publishing industry. My 8 novels were published in the U.S.  by Viking, Doubleday, Morrow, Simon & Schuster, as well as publishers in England, Japan, France, Italy, Israel, Holland and other countries. I coauthored two nonfiction books that were published by Crown Books and Harcourt Brace. Before I gave it up to focus on writing, I had a successful 20-year career in publishing, first as an editor, then as head of my own literary agency.

I began teaching fiction writing at SUNY Farmingdale and Hofstra University. After initiating Hofstra’s online program with a course on self-editing, I founded my own online school, Nextlevelworkshop.com, where I work with writers come from all over the world.

My career has allowed me to see publishing from just about every angle. Now I bring all that practical expertise into the classroom, along with a strong focus on craft.

TUITION AND REGISTRATION: If you have questions or would like to enroll in the course, please email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com. If you are interested but not quite sure, I invite you to take advantage of my special get-acquainted offer while it’s available. You can get feedback on your work and at the same gauge the likelihood that you will profit from this workshop. Tuition is $395, which include a registration fee. There is a 15% discount for returning students. Please note the money-back guarantee: if you start the course and decide that it’s not right for you, you can withdraw, and I will refund your tuition.

Please don’t send money before you hear back from me. Spots are limited, and will be filled first come first served.


REVISING FICTION Workshop

Ladies and Gentlemen, an announcement: The next online “Revising Fiction” workshop has been scheduled to begin in January 2020 (date TBA) and is now open for registration. This workshop is for writers with a complete draft of a novel or a body of short stories, who want to work on bringing their fiction to the next level.

writing class

I’ll tell you more about the workshop in a minute, but first, a digression. At a party not long ago, I overheard two aspiring writers talking about difficulty of selling their work. “It’s all about who you know,” one said. “You can’t even get an agent unless you have got an in.”

“Totally,” replied the other. “They don’t even read the stuff that comes in over the transom. It’s a fixed game.”

I envisioned that scene in a Harry Potter movie in which Harry and Ron are whispering during Professor Snape’s class: not a smart move, when that character is portrayed by the inimitable Alan Rickman. He positions himself behind them, rolls up his sleeves, and in one swift motion bangs their heads together.

I myself refrained, with some difficulty. I’ve heard this claim so often, and it is so untrue and counterproductive. New writers get published all the time. Over the years, I’ve seen many of my writing students sell books that they labored over, sometimes for years; none of them had contacts in the industry. I’ve been in the writing/publishing business for over 40 years now, including 12 years as a literary agent. A lot has changed, but one thing hasn’t. While many factors are involved in an agent or publisher’s decision to take a chance on a writer, great writing trumps them all.

slam dunk

It’s hard; why wouldn’t it be? Getting published by one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes. In addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. A very few actually do; they have that level of talent and ability. But most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into publication.

Consider another comparison. Getting published commercially is to writers what a gallery show is to painters. Aspiring painters study their art. Writers? Not so much.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to deal with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable: the almost-but-not-quite books. Editors don’t want to invest the time, or don’t have it to invest. Agents who give notes and ask for revisions have filled in the gap to some extent, but writers are still expected to learn the craft on their own dime. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pin it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’d like to believe that all writers understand the importance of editing. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But it’s easier said than done.  Part of the difficulty for writers lies in getting the necessary feedback in order to raise their level of play. Another part lies in the fact that writers are often too close to their work to see it objectively.

That’s why “Revising Fiction” was the first workshop I created, with the intention of addressing both those problems. To succeed in this market—no, more than that, to succeed in their art—writers need to edit their work. This does not take the place of having one’s work edited by a professional editor, whether supplied by a publisher who buys the book or hired by a writer prior to self-publishing. That’s essential, because we only see what we see; it takes an outsider to point out what we don’t see. But revision, or self-editing, comes before that; it’s the final step in the actual writing of the book.

You can read more about “Revising Fiction” here, along with some testimonials from writers who’ve taken the workshop. Participants emerge with a much improved draft, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer, and it’s open to published as well as aspiring writers. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 12 to 18 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work. If this sounds useful, and you have a finished draft, I’d be happy to hear from you. Applicants should include the first 5 pages of their mss. The workshop is limited to a handful of writers, because I spend a ton of time working with each; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot; but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me.


BREAKING INTO PRINT: The Art of Writing an Irresistible Query

I’m delighted to announce the inauguration of a new Next Level online workshop, entitled “BREAKING INTO PRINT: The Art of Writing an Irresistible Query.”

The Course

          You’ve written a novel or memoir, edited it, polished it till it shines, maybe shown it to a beta reader or two. Now you’re ready for the next step: finding a publisher. For writers who aspire to traditional publication by a major publishing house, that path typically begins with the search for a literary agent. Those who prefer small publishers may be able to submit to them directly. Either way, the first essential task is to persuade those gatekeepers to read your manuscript.

You do that by crafting an irresistible submission package, consisting of a query letter, synopsis, and the opening pages of your work. Agents receive hundreds of submissions each year and typically take on fewer than a dozen new clients. Time is the agent’s capital. They can’t read even a fraction of the manuscripts they’re pitched, so how do you persuade them to invest time on yours?

 “Breaking into Print” is designed to help you do just that. This intensive three-week workshop will help writers edit their existing drafts into compelling, professional submission packages that stand out from the crowd and avoid the mistakes that sink the vast majority of submissions. A strong submission package will entice agents and editors to read. After that, it’s up to the book to sell itself, which is as it should be.

I was a literary agent for 14 years. Before that, I was an editor at one of the largest NYC publishers. [bio] During these years, I read more queries than I can possibly count, and I can tell you that people who read submissions for a living become, of necessity, very quick at sorting the wheat from the chaff. The three components of the submission package are designed to reveal essential faults in the work, so agents can quickly weed out work that is unlikely to prove publishable. A poorly worded query letter, riddled with grammatical errors, guarantees a manuscript of the same quality, and no one has time for that. Synopses can reveal problems including an incoherent plot, lack of a central, vital challenge for the protagonist, low stakes, problematic pacing and structural issues. Opening pages reveal how well the writer writes and how skillfully he/she commands the reader’s attention, essential factors in an agent or publisher’s decision.

If any of the three components is weak, the submission is likely to be rejected out of hand, and the book will never get a chance to make its case. Sometimes the rejected work really isn’t salable; most of what agents see is not. Other times it might be, but the submission package has failed to do it justice. Either way, the result is the same.

Gatekeepers use the query letter, synopsis, and opening pages to weed out unlikely prospects, but for skilled, savvy writers, those same elements provide a great opportunity to show what they can do.

The Goal

The goal of “Breaking Into Print” is to help participants to present their work in the best possible light, by strengthening each element of the query and avoiding the mistakes that trip up most aspiring writers. Demanding as they are, agents and publishers want to find writing they love; it’s what they live for. If your novel or memoir is ready for its close-up, this course will help you put together a compelling, professional submission package to showcase its strengths. If the work is not yet where it needs to be, if it has significant weaknesses, the course may reveal that. While that can be an upsetting realization, it allows the writer to address problem areas before sending the manuscript out to fend for itself.

How It Works

Over the course of three weeklong sessions, participants will submit their query letters, synopses and opening pages for critique by me and their fellow writers. There will be time to submit and get feedback on revised query letters, if desired. Each session will be accompanied by a lecture and discussion on various aspects of the agent/publisher search. Topics will include:

– – Query letter: elements and tone

– – Query letter fails: amateurish mistakes and ways to avoid them.

– – Demystifying the submission process through an insider’s view

– – How to synopsize a full-length work in three or four pages .

– – How to format like a professional.

– – How to think like a literary agent

– – How to put together a smart submission list

– – How (and how long) to persevere when rejected

– – How to recognize and avoid publishing scams

– – How to stay sane while submitting

Requirements

          1. A complete or nearly complete draft of a novel or memoir.

          2. A draft query letter.

          3. A draft synopsis.

          4. Enough time to read the lectures, participate in discussions, critique each other’s work, and edit your own: estimated 6 to 10 hours per week for three weeks.

Who Can Benefit

– – As-yet-unpublished novelists and memoirists

 – – Experienced writers in search of new representation

– – Previously self-published writers seeking traditional publication

Whether you are preparing to submit for the first time, or you’ve been submitting with disappointing results, this workshop will help you put your book’s best foot forward.

Dates and Tuition

          “Breaking Into Print” will begin on November 14, 2019. The duration is three weeks, but a few days will be added on to allow for a Thanksgiving break.  Tuition will be $175. For the 11/19 pilot course only, there will be a discounted tuition of $145.

          Class size is strictly limited, and admission will be first come first served, provided applicants meet the requirements listed above. For more information or to apply for the workshop, contact Barbara at Next.Level.Workshop@gmail.com

SCAM ALERT

This one has nothing to do with writing. The intended targets are anyone over 60 or so. Got another call just this morning. Here’s how it went.

Scammer on phone: Hi Grandma.

Me: Are you in jail in Mexico?

Him: What?

Me: Did you break your other leg?

Him: Huh?

Me: Can I wire you money?

Him: You fucking with me? I’m gonna come over there and–

Dog, on command: Frenzied barking

Me: We’re waiting.

A PLEA AND AN OFFER

I don’t use this blog for political messaging. That’s not what it’s about. But trump’s policy of tearing families apart, his state-mandated child abuse, is not a political issue but a humanity issue. As a Jew whose extended family perished in the Holocaust, I can’t turn away, and I can’t be silent. Dehumanizing refugees and asylum seekers, calling them an “infestation,” tearing infants and children away from their parents and interning them in concentration camps: these are deeply unAmerican crimes against humanity.

After Hitler, we all said “Never again.” And yet here we are.

The outcry against these crimes has forced trump to back down partially, but approximately 2300 stolen children are still dispersed all over the country with no assurance they’ll ever see their parents again. They are being traumatized now, even as you read this. We must ensure that every one of those children is returned to their parents; or we are complicit in an historic crime.

Time nailed it.

We are not helpless.  There are things we can do.

Here are some of the organizations doing everything they can to help these children and their parents.

RAICES

ACTBLUE

ACLU

THE FLORENCE PROJECT

ASYLUM SEEKERS ADVOCACY PROJECT

I’m doing my part as well. Most of this blog’s readers are writers. If you donate $50 or more to any of these organizations, I will do a free read for you: a professional, detailed critique of the opening 3000 words of your novel, memoir, or short story.

I have no idea how many writers will take me up on this, and there’s a limit to how many of these time-consuming crits I can do, so the the sooner you make your donation, the better. Email a copy of the receipt to Barbararogan@msn.com, and you’ll hear from me.

 

 

THE MOST DANGEROUS FICTION

This weekend I returned to my alma mater, St. John’s College, to participate in a fundraiser for its Caritas Society, which provides St. John’s students with supplemental financial aid when needed. St. John’s College, for those not familiar with it, is the third oldest college in the U.S. , so old that four of its founders signed the Declaration of Independence.  There are almost no electives in the college; all students follow “the Program,” a rigorous, interdisciplinary curriculum based on the most important books and ideas of Western civilization.

It was a wonderful visit that reminded me of four very fruitful years spent in an intellectual incubator.  I was one of three writers in a very well-attended “Meet the Author” panel;  and as the only fiction writer of the three, I felt I had to Represent.  The speech was a bit cheeky—dissing Plato at a school where he’s as revered as he is in St. John’s is a bit like volunteering for the dunking booth in a carnival. But it went over well, and you’ll be happy to know I emerged unscathed. As the speech has a good deal to say about the nature of fiction, deception, and self-deception, I thought I’d share it here.

 

THE MOST DANGEROUS FICTION

 

It’s a great honor and pleasure to be back at St. John’s, my alma mater. No writer could have wished for a better education than I received here. I draw on what I learned from the Great Books every day of my working life. As for the other parts of the program, the math tutorials on Einstein have also stayed with me, enriching my nightmares for decades. I was not the greatest student ever seen in these halls;  I was always more comfortable writing than speaking. But I am proud to say that I was Miss Sophrosyne of 1973. (The picture below shows me getting ready for my inaugural parade through Santa Fe.)  Sophrosyne is a Greek word meaning, roughly, “moderation in all things.” And of course moderation is still my middle name.

On my horse in Santa Fe

For someone who came to the College already determined to become a writer, the prospect of spending four years reading the best books ever written sounded like Nirvana. It was a great shock, therefore, to discover in my freshman year that according to Plato, poets and playwrights would be banished from the ideal Republic.

Historians and mathematicians? Come on in! Philosophers? Pull up a chair! Storytellers…not so much.

It was like being back in high school, except in high school, I was one of the cool kids.

PlatoI tried not to take the exclusion personally. Nevertheless, I was mortified and mystified. I couldn’t conceive of a society without storytellers, and with good reason, since no such society has ever existed. Storytelling is a universal and timeless human mechanism that enables us to make sense of the world and orient ourselves within it. Think of the superstitions and religions that have arisen in every culture, and of the cave drawings that predated those cultures. What were they if not story illustrations? Besides, it would never work. If you were to banish all the bakers from the Republic, other people would learn to bake. If you eliminated carpenters, others would take up the trade. And if you banish storytellers, whose work is no less essential, new ones would undoubtedly arise in their stead. So why would Plato propose such a thing?

I pored over the text of the Republic in search of his reasoning. Poetry, he wrote, “incites the passions instead of the faculties of reason.” Through the skillful use of rhetoric, the poet or storyteller assumes an authority he does not rightfully possess. For these reasons, Plato argued, fiction is both powerful and dangerous.

Now this was not so bad. I could live with being powerful and dangerous; it certainly beats weak and innocuous. But I still wondered why storytelling should be singled out as pernicious. Because it was never fully resolved, that coupling of fiction and danger stayed with me; and many years later I explored it in a book aptly entitled A DANGEROUS FICTION.

Not that I planned any such exploration going in, nor the title, for that matter. My original intentions for this book were twofold. First, I wanted to write a mystery set in the upper echelons of New York publishing, populated by characters as clever and witty as their real-life counterparts. As a former literary agent, I’d known that world very well and looked forward to revisiting it. My second intention was to experiment with a certain narrative device that required a first-person narrator, something I’d never done before. I can’t say much more about that without spoiling some surprises.

But you never know for sure where a novel is going to lead you; at least, I don’t. I share Joan Didion’s affliction. “Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind,” she wrote, “there would have been no reason to write.” This particular book led me back to that old conjunction of fiction and danger.

A DANGEROUS FICTION is a mystery told from the perspective of literary agent Jo Donovan, a young, self-made woman from Appalachia who has risen into the highest circles of the New York literary world. As the novel begins, Jo is being stalked and harassed by a disgruntled writer whose novel she rejected. At the same time, she’s trying to fend off a biographer who’s writing a book about her late husband, the famous novelist, Hugo Donovan. Things get worse, as they tend to do in novels. Stalking escalates to murder, and the biographer’s digging threatens Jo’s carefully constructed life. Gradually it becomes clear that the solution lies buried in the outtakes of Jo’s redacted memories. The most dangerous fictions, Jo learns, are the ones we tell ourselves.

And here I think I stumbled, as fiction writers do, onto a small kernel of truth.

Stories are not quiescent things. They have real-world consequences. They affect our actions. A powerful story is like the dybbuk of Jewish folklore, capable of possessing its host.Dybbuk

The act of writing a novel tends to focus writers’ attention on whatever issues they’re wrestling with in the book. During the two years it took to write A DANGEROUS FICTION, I kept noticing incidents that seemed inexplicable on the surface but made sense — at least, a perverted sort of sense — when you factored in the dybbuk.

I’ll share one such incident, culled from the news. You may have read about it. A young woman was in a car crash. She got out of the car, bloody and disoriented, and wandered a few blocks from the scene. It was 4:30 in the morning when she knocked on the door of a suburban house, apparently to ask for help. The homeowner—a 50-something maintenance man with no criminal record– grabbed his shotgun, opened the door, and wordlessly shot her in the face.

When I first read that story, I couldn’t understand it. Why would anyone do that? We are socialized, even hardwired, to help other people in trouble. I read additional reports, trying to make sense of the story. The setting was a suburban, working-class community close to Detroit. The homeowner was white, the young woman black. The man’s car had been vandalized and a neighbor’s house robbed in the weeks before the shooting. As these details came into focus, I began to imagine a man hunkered down in a changing neighborhood, a changing world; a man who sees himself as the lone, endangered holdout against an encroaching hostile tide of Others. It’s an archetypal hero theme, endlessly reiterated in stories and films from Shane to classic war films to the recent spate of zombie stories.

When a story reflects a person’s perceived circumstances, it can slip inside him and become his story. Once it takes hold, other stories adhere to it like barnacles to a rock. Confirmation bias ensures that of the innumerable stories we read and hear each day, the ones that stick are the ones that confirm our predetermined take on the world. For the Detroit man, I imagined those included news reports and fictionalized scenes of home invasions, push-in robberies, and the use of female decoys. So when that knock came on his door, it came as something expected and prepared for. It came with a sense of inevitability. He knew what he had to do because he’d read this story before. It didn’t matter that the invader was an injured girl. He had no doubt that the moment he let her in, her confederates would jump out of the bushes and overpower him. His only hope, he thought, was a preemptive attack.

The most dangerous fictions are the ones we tell ourselves.

Was Plato right to banish storytellers? Of course not.  It’s true that where there is power, there must be responsibility. I believe that writers need to think carefully about the stories they tell and readers about the stories they absorb. Teaching this critical mindset, by the way, is one of the things St. John’s does so well. As Jo learns in A DANGEROUS FICTION, it’s important to keep a solid yellow line between fiction and reality, fairy tales and life.

Oliver TwistBut live without stories altogether? Impossible. I do realize, by the way, that taking on Plato at St. John’s of all places is rather like volunteering for the dunking booth in a carnival; so let me quickly volunteer someone else instead: Dylan Thomas. “A good poem,” he wrote, “helps to change the shape of the universe, helps to extend everyone’s knowledge of himself and the world around him.” The same can be said of good fiction. Stories, artfully told, are stealth weapons; they have the unique ability to slip inside readers and change them from within. In places where freedom of expression is repressed, fiction has been the vehicle for inspiration and liberation. UNCLE TOM’S CABIN contributed materially to the end of slavery, and OLIVER TWIST to the end of workhouses, to name just two examples. Fiction is also, by its nature, a vehicle for exploration and the creation of empathy. Although it takes a different path, good fiction aspires to truth no less than philosophy; and that, I suspect, was Plato’s greatest objection to it. Even peddlers of the truth fear competition.

Speaking of competition, I would like to take this opportunity to propose my own ideal Republic, the Republic of Writers. I’m not quite sure yet where this Republic will be located. A corner of Belize would be ideal, that country permitting, but other venues are under consideration. As for the laws and customs that will govern such a Republic, I will have to group-source that project; the task is too large for one writer’s brain. But I do have a few ideas. The national currency will be chocolate. One of society’s time-honored traditions will be that upon finishing final edits, writers will send every writer they know a box of said currency. The borders of the Republic will be patrolled by literary agents; and the firing squads, should they be required, will be composed of critics. All weapons must be imaginary, but there are no limits on those. The national drink will be champagne, and the national dish, naturally, will be a chicken in every plot.

Republic Of Writers

 

Writers are known to live in their own worlds, so giving them a country of their own seems a modest enough proposal. Indeed, as they have created so many worlds for the benefit of others, it is the least society can do to repay them. The location of this Republic will require consideration. A corner of Belize would be ideal, that country permitting, but other venues may be proposed.

As for the laws and mores that will govern such a Republic, I will have to group-source that project; the concept is too large for one writer’s brain. But here, in no particular order, are a few opening suggestions:

1. Official currency: ChocolateChocolate

2. Time-honored tradition: Upon finishing final edits, writers send every writer they know a box of said currency.

3. Safety: Crossing guards at all intersections for writers lost in thought or reading as they walk. (Foreign crossing guards, naturally. Natives would be useless.)

4. Border patrol: Literary agents.

5. Firing squads: Critics.

6. Gun laws: Imaginary weapons only, but no limit on those.

7. Sustenance: A chicken in every plot.

Your proposals, please.

 

Delighted to inform you all that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback: perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can. You can read the opening here.

Location, Location, Location

 

The three most important things about property, agents will tell you, are location, location, and location. It occurred to me recently, for reasons I’ll get into in a moment, that this adage applies not only to real estate, but also to not-so-real estate: the settings of novels.

A few weeks ago, I was in Israel. I’d lived in Tel Aviv for twelve years, and had been back many times since, but this time we were there for the happiest of reasons: the marriage of our son. As the family was going over en masse, I had arranged for the rental of a large Tel Aviv apartment that, coincidentally, was five doors down from the house in which my husband and I lived when aforesaid son was born. It seemed an auspicious location, so I was disappointed to hear from the landlord, a week before our arrival, that the building was undergoing a major renovation with all the attendant noise and dust. He offered us an alternative: an apartment on tiny Byron Street—two doors down from my husband’s childhood home. Which just goes to show what Tel Aviv is like. Though it’s grown tremendously in the nearly thirty years since we left, at heart it retains its villagy feel. Every place evokes other places, other times; and people know each other. Instead of seven degrees of separation, it’s two or three, tops.

On the last night of our stay, we went out for a final stroll down Dizengoff. Most of the shops had changed hands since we’d lived there, but the mix of cafés, boutiques, bookstores, galleries, tourist shops and juice bars seemed roughly the same. I’d bought my wedding dress off the rack in one of those boutiques, gone now, and celebrated with a torte at Café  Royal,  the best pastry shop on Dizengoff, and  a haven for Tel Aviv’s “Yekkes”—German Jews. Just remembering that cake made my mouth water, but the Royal was gone, too, as was its grungy nemesis across the street, Café Kassit.

Grungy it may have been, but Kassit was the social nexus of Tel Aviv’s cultural and intellectual worlds, the café where all the writers, artists, publishers, playwrights and poets sat. In Steimatzky’s bookstore,  a few stores down, a person  could peruse new releases in the Hebrew literature section, then walk down to Kassit and find half the authors sitting there. If a missile had struck the cafe on a Friday afternoon, Israeli culture would have been pulverized.

But intellectuals weren’t the café’s only patrons.  Kassit had started as a workers’ lunch stand when Dizengoff was just being built, and you didn’t need a college degree to drink there. Politically it canted hard left and secular, but in that it was a microcosm of Tel Aviv as a whole. Where you sat was who you were, and bad behavior abounded. Sitting in Kassit on successive Friday afternoons, you could track as if by stop gap photography the progress of liaisons and feuds, flirtations and rivalries.

In those days I was a literary agent by day, writer by night. I worked too hard and made too little to spend much time in cafés, but when I did meet friends or clients outside, there was never a question about where. My second novel was conceived in Kassit, and set there.

I called it  “Café Nevo,” but any Tel Avivan would have recognized Kassit, home to a disparate set of lost souls whose lives converged within it. Café Nevo was both a haven and, like its Biblical namesake Mount Nevo, a vantage point onto the unattainable. Madeleine L’Engle called the book a fugue; which (leaving aside the wonder of Madeleine L’Engle calling it anything at all) struck me a smart and accurate analogy for the novel’s structure. My café was modeled on Kassit, not the thing itself, which could not have been encompassed in a novel; but it was also a tribute to an institution I’d thought would last forever. But Kassit was gone, long gone. It existed only in the memories of its patrons…and, in a way, between the pages of my novel, where its fractious customers are forever presided over the café’s  tyrannical waiter and secret owner, Emmanuel Yehoshua Sternholz.

I thought about this, as we strolled along Dizengoff on that Saturday night. The city was coming to life all around us, rousing from its long Shabbat nap. Stores were opening, cafés spilling out onto the pavement.  Bicycles darted between pedestrians, scooters between cars. It was time to eat. Between Frishman and Gordon, we stopped at a café and took an outdoor table. Inside, the restaurant looked shiny and metallic, with sleek European design.  The place felt familiar, though I was certain I’d never been here before.

My husband looked up and down the street. Then he beckoned the waitress, young enough to be our grandchild. “Wasn’t this Café Kassit?”

She looked blank. “Before my time, if it was. I’ll ask.” She was back in a moment with the answer. “It was Kassit, a long time ago. There’ve been two different owners since.”

We looked at each other. “Like homing pigeons,” my husband said.

 

Cafe Nevo was published in 1987 by Atheneum and reprinted a year later by Plume Books. I’m delighted to announce that it will soon be reissued as an ebook and in a new paperback edition. In the meantime, used copies are readily available through Abebooks.

Home Again

Just wanted to let you all know that I’m back from my trip, which turned out to be a tour of riot zones, starting with  Athens, which is undergoing tremendous turmoil. From our hotel, you could see the people massing for a march on Syntagma Square to protest the latest austerity measure imposed by the EU as a condition for a fiscal bailout. They have fierce demos in Greece, on both sides, with firebombs, molotov cocktails, fire hoses and police beatings. While we were there, a general strike closed everything down: all transportation, pharmacies, tourist sites, even traffic control in the airport.  So much for our plan to tour the islands; but there was plenty to do in Athens, including the newly opened, world-class Acropolis Museum. Then we went on to Barcelona, where I’m told that the unemployment rate  for people under 35 is an unbelievable 50%! Who wouldn’t riot? But the demonstrations we saw there were subdued and focused mainly on the rash of evictions that has resulted (naturally) from the general unemployment.

But our trip started in Israel, where we went for the wedding of our  son, Jonathan, and his lovely  bride, Ayana.  No riots there…but now, two weeks later, the country is being bombarded by missiles from Gaza: over 800 in the past month.  Apart from the personal anxiety for our family, this development leaves long-time leftists like me speechless. For years I advocated withdrawing from the Occupied Territories.  In 2005, Israel finally withdrew from Gaza unilaterally, dismantling Jewish  settlements and returning all the land to the Palestinians…and this is the result.  It’s hugely disheartening that Israel actually shows more concern for the lives of Palestinians than Hamas does. Every missile they launch just shores up support for the hardliners in Israel, and leaves the peace camp with nothing at all to say.

I’ll return to regularly scheduled programming very soon–just wanted to say hi, I’m back, and to share these thoughts.

A Former Slave Writes to his Old Master

I came across this wonderful, authentic letter from a former slave named Jourdan Anderson to his old master, Col. Anderson of Tennessee. After the civil war,  Jourdan moved to Ohio with his wife, also a former slave, and found work there. The Colonel  wrote to his former property,  inviting him to come back to work on the plantation, this time as a free man. Below  is Jourdan Anderson’s perfect reply.  Keep reading till the end—it gets better and better.

This letter comes from the Project Gutenberg eBook.  I found it on the Letters of Note website, which will include it in an upcoming book of notable letters. That site’s log line is “Correspondence Worth of a Wider Audience.” I think this letter is worthy of the widest possible audience, and I hope you’ll pass it on.

 

LETTER FROM A FREEDMAN TO HIS OLD MASTER.

[Written just as he dictated it.]

Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865.

To my old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee.

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the[266] folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq.,[267] Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,
Jourdon Anderson.