Monday, January 30, 2017

My First Time: Beth Kissileff

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Beth Kissileff, author of the novel Questioning Return and editor of the anthology Reading Genesis. She works as a journalist and her writing appears regularly in various publications such as Tablet, the Forward, New York Jewish Week, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post and Religion News Service. She has taught at Smith, Mount Holyoke, Carleton, the University of Minnesota and Shaw University and had writer’s residencies at the Corporation of Yaddo, the Ragdale Foundation, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. She is at work on a Reading Exodus anthology, a volume of short stories and a second novel.

The First Time I Stopped Being Jealous
of Other Writers

A friend of mine recently asked what has been the most exciting moment in having my novel published. I had to think. Was it opening the galleys from the publisher, or opening the final printed book with the thoughtful blurbs from five writers and scholars I admire and acknowledgements to my family? Reading from it in public for the first time at a synagogue I had gone to for the High Holidays as a child, and spent many hours curled up with a book on the roof as the grown ups prayed for a good and auspicious year, hoping maybe somewhere in the corner of my mind that one day I would be a writer too? It seems a remarkable coincidence that the same place now hosts a summer “Scribblers on the Roof” writing series and I am reading to an audience with my parents’ oldest friends, my daughter and some of her friends, my sister in law, a cousin, friends from graduate school and high school and Pittsburgh, really all parts of my life. My publisher telling me it was the best launch of a debut novel he has had?

No, the best moment of having a novel out was when two weeks before my publication date, I walked into Book Culture on 112th, between Broadway and Amsterdam in New York, my favorite place to browse, new academic and popular books, always get great ideas, smaller and more accessible than the labyrinthine Strand that I also love. Whenever I go into a book store, I do something superstitious, I check the shelves and see where my book would be placed, who are the authors I belong between alphabetically. I feel like if I imagine it enough, one day it will come into being, I don’t really know where or how I got this idea but it has been something I’ve been doing for the last few years, a way of proving to myself that one day my ideas will turn real, will be set between two covers of a book and laid out on a shelf for a random browser to pick up. And on this day, it happened. My book was right there on the shelf where I’d hoped it would be for so long! It was unexpected since it was before the official date for the book to go on sale.

I’ve wanted this for a long time, since I read books I admired, and thought that I wanted to write something like that one day. I knew I would eventually, but didn’t think it would take quite as long as it did. I wanted to be a writer in college and my twenties. In college, I took a writing course and hated the savagery with which other students were willing to critique both my stories and ideas and those of others. I didn’t want to go to an MFA program or take other writing courses. I wrote, but for myself, never tried to publish. I had a big old Victorian house with a porch and a large wide third-floor room, big enough to house all of the books my husband and I own, as well as our desks, with space left over. When I first saw the room I told myself that this would be where I would write my novel, the perfect space. I did spend time in that room writing, but I was also teaching full time some semesters and parenting young children. And unsure how or where to publish even when I had material worth sending.

And then, I moved to a new city when I was almost 40. Fortunately for me, there was a place in my new city called The Loft that offered writing courses. Finally, I had a place to go where people other than myself cared about writing and the kind of writing I did. For my 40th birthday, I created my very own writer’s retreat, going to the Andersen Center in Red Wing, Minnesota, for a few days by myself to write. It was a productive time. I know which pieces of my novel I wrote while there, can remember distinctly reading a Paris Review interview with a particular writer and basing an aspect of a scene on the ideas contained there. After that, I did finally start to submit my stories and in fall 2009, at age 41, my first fiction story was published. Shortly thereafter I applied to Yaddo; for my 42nd birthday, I was at the writer’s residency program.

Some of getting it together as a writer was finding places that would support my aspirations, both on my own and in a community of writers and artists. Not being afraid of getting critiques, of seeing how others react, having the thicker skin that one develops as one ages.

And I will confess something unpleasant, that until this book came out I had been jealous of those who did this thing earlier in their lives, those writers who were my chronological age and seemed to be doing much much better than I was, publishing with ease, making money, all while being married and having kids, even having other non-writing careers.

But different things happened to those I was jealous of earlier. One who started young and has continued to publish, but some of the work is growing thin; in fact, when I queried an editor I often do reviews for he declined to review her latest at all, dubbing it a “beach read.” Another who had what I am told was a six-figure advance on her first novel, has not been able to publish her second and isn’t writing much anymore. A third, who published young and seemingly with ease, has young children and a husband who must be overseas for work frequently, leaving her in charge of the bulk of their lives. She does still write, but seems overwhelmed. So none of them are the wild successes I once imagined them to be.

Six-figure advance writer had a fancy professional photo taken for her book jacket, complete with make-up session and hair being done; my author photo was done by my teen photography-loving daughter, after I had a haircut, no fancy styling. I thought having a make-up and photo session would make me feel I had arrived in some way. Yet, I am pleased to give my daughter an opportunity to do this work, to take a photo that will be seen by many. This writer is also now divorced and her ex married someone whose career is diametrically opposed to almost all of the values she espouses. Though she does still have lots of success, her life isn’t one I would take over for my own these days.

I once accosted Nathan Englander at the Hungarian Pastry Shop and asked him for writing advice. “Don’t publish till you are ready” were his words to me. I thought, sure, that’s easy for him to say when he received an unprecedentedly large amount of money for a volume of short stories printed before he turned 30. But now, at this distance, I actually think he was sincere, though the envy I felt at the time made me think it was a flippant remark. It did take him 10 years to publish his next book, so maybe there was a difficulty involved with the pressure of early success. One doesn’t know all the facts of the lives of others, rendering jealousy a pretty futile emotion to have.

Another writer I have spoken with, who started publishing with a volume of poetry at 21 and twenty-three years later has now published 11 books of prose and poetry, responded simply to my query about how he was able to be so prolific, “Some things are hard and some are easy.” Again, I assumed it was a facile statement, one made to ward off the envy of the unpublished. But I don’t think so now—he was sincerely saying, that’s how it is.

So what is different, now that a chapter of my novel is online and two interviews with me are up?  I am somehow, cleaved in two, a public persona of “writer” and the self who created my work. It is an odd feeling, a new role I need to perform. I’m happy to do it, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been waiting for this, but I’m also a bit nervous, exposed. People see sides of me and ask me personal things, hint that they may grasp aspects of me I am uncomfortable with. But my writing is alive, a living breathing thing that others can access, not a pile of marked-up manuscripts sitting forlornly in stacks under my bed, not knowing what their fate will be.

Most importantly, I am happy with what I’ve done, the book I’ve written, and I’m eager to go on writing and publishing, hoping I have productive years ahead to create the body of work I dream about without being concerned with the careers and successes of others.

Author photo by Yael Perlman

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