I wish I could report that my anxiety level has moved down a notch since my first installment, but I’m starting to think that it’s asking too much of a writer to work on promoting her book by believing, or, if not believing, somehow pretending that making her book known is an integral part of publishing a book today, and not a unique, or at least, distinct form of torture. Everything seems to conspire against it. For instance, last week I received an email from a publicist offering the services of his firm, saying, among other things, that they have noticed that my book is being released soon, and that having reviewed the book description and my credentials they “believe there is some great work we can do on your behalf.” Now, of course I feel flattered, even though according to people in the know, any firm that solicits clients can’t be any good. Despite the warning, I’m tempted to find out what they would charge to remove this burden from my life. Tempted but also torn: even if I could afford their fees, which I doubt, should I spend more money on getting this book into the world? Truthfully, I’ve never added up the (oh, very small) sums I’ve spent along the way doing research on my own, hiring people to help me, traveling to various parts of the globe, having photographs taken (including my own, by the wonderful Marcia Ciriello) but while I could rationalize those expenses--I mean, I had to go to Eastern Europe didn’t I, if I was searching for my roots? -- paying someone to represent me in the literary marketplace, well, wasn’t that a luxury and an indulgence? Is this the equivalent of vanity publishing?
But I haven’t said anything yet about the book I have written, the story of how I pieced together a narrative of my family’s odyssey from a handful of objects I found in my father’s dresser drawer after his death. Here will be the test of whether I have mastered my elevator speech. Almost until my book went into production, its title was “How I Found My Family in a Drawer.” I loved that title, as did all my friends, because it was both funny and true. Until I did the research for the book, I knew almost nothing about my father’s side of the family. I had never met my father’s only sibling, an older brother; I had never met his son, my only cousin on my father’s side. I did not know I had a great-grandfather who had emigrated from Russia before my grandparents; I did not know that my paternal grandfather had a brother and sister, who also emigrated to America at the turn of the twentieth century and lived on the Lower East Side. As I saw it, I had almost quite literally found this family in a drawer—and most of its members, of course, were dead. But when it came time for the title to enter the catalogue, the editors at the Press were unanimous: I could not have that title. They thought it was too comical. After a large number of emails, we all agreed on the current title, What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past. And after a period of adjustment, I came to feel that while the humor was lost, the title was equally true. If it hadn’t been for all the things saved by those who came before me—photographs, letters, cemetery receipts, locks of hair—I would never have been able to reconstruct this lost history.
Which brings me to the “elevator speech." A few short months ago, I had never heard of an elevator speech. In her Countdown column for She Writes, novelist Tayari Jones gave a great example of one for her new book Silver Sparrow, showing how she condensed the story of her new novel into a twenty-one second pitch. Compared to Tayari’s mantra, my sentence isn’t bad; as a summary it’s literally true, but it isn’t crisp and it doesn’t suggest anything about the feel of the book, or why anyone would want to read it. In the consultation with Lauren Cerand that I mentioned in my previous blog,, Lauren nailed the project for me: “I have found out where I came from by what they left behind,” as she put it with elegant economy. Maybe I could combine the two sentences. I’m not there yet, but I’m working on it.
Why should it be so difficult to say what one’s book is about? Don’t we know? Haven’t we spent years on it? Are we afraid to say what we know?
Meanwhile, two narratives of related interest suddenly appeared simultaneously in my summer hiatus (or maybe it’s a reprieve, before the axe of publication falls): “Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness,” a documentary film biography of the writer Sholem Aleichem (think “Fiddler on the Roof,” the musical derived from his short stories written in Yiddish and published from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries), and an article in Vogue magazine by Hadley Freeman titled “Picking up the Pieces.” The article describes the author’s reconstruction of her family’s lost history that sounds eerily similar to mine, not so much in the details, though, as in the project and its emotional implications: “For a family that never spoke about the past, we certainly hoarded it in secret.” Between an album of family photos and research of passenger records on the Internet, Hadley Freeman retrieves and reconnects with her grandmother’s life. Was this good or bad news for me? With all the differences that history makes---her family victims of the Holocaust, mine of an earlier generation, wounded by pogroms—there is a link between our stories: how do you remake family connections lost through trauma and misunderstanding, if only through writing after loss, belatedly? The friend who flagged the Vogue article for me, Vivian Liska (author most recently ofWhen Kafka Says We), thinks (against my fear that I’ve been scooped): “it’s good for your book, it’s in the air.” By that reckoning, also in the air, the biography of Sholem Aleichem, the writer who has through brilliant fiction documented the lives of Russian Jews who suffered under the Czars, emigrated, and reinvented themselves as Jewish Americans, aka New York Jews, also brings grist to my mill (terrible cliché, given my name). When I watched the movie, transfixed, I had the sensation of watching the guesses I made from my family research be validated by archival images and expert documentation.
Can we be original if we are also in…vogue (forgive the pun)?
But that is not all. Even closer to home, last week, I listened to a message on my answering machine from a person with my family (my father’s) name, Kipnis. Unaware of my book’s imminent publication, the man who turned out to be my second cousin (our grandfathers were brothers) finally answered a letter I had written to him five years earlier! It turned out that he knew even less than I knew about our family—why did they not want to tell us what happened? —but he was eager to know what I had learned.
Is it only my family who didn’t tell? Or is not knowing the pattern for immigrant generations?
Maybe, I start to think, these are good omens for the reception of my book, a sign that my quest is in the air.