Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Architect of a Good Story - Tim Nees

WHEN WE started Bibliotekos one of our friends said that we are crazy; maybe we are, starting a very small literary press these days. But the process of calling for writing, receiving and vetting creative work, and best of all, communicating with and getting to know the writers has been a rewarding experience. We've published two stories by Tim Nees ("Cartography" in Pain and Memory and "Blue Painted Field" in Common Boundary), and, as with all of the writers but one, we did not know anything about him previously. We have since learned that Tim, in addition to being quite attentive to the form as well as to the content of his work, is, no surprise (though it was to us), an accomplished architect. His characters are real enough that we've talked about them after reading his stories. Read more about Tim Nees and his story about becoming a writer, in his own words, right here. You won't be disappointed.

It sounds strange, being called a writer. It’s a concept I’m still getting comfortable with. In 2008 I was a finalist for a sonnet competition. I went to the prize-giving ceremony and there was a nametag waiting for me at the door. It read: Tim Nees Writer. It was the first time I’d seen those words placed together. Although I’m well known in New Zealand for other professional achievements [click to see Tim’s architectural work], I’m not known as a ‘writer’. I kept the nametag and peek at it from time to time to remind myself that yes, I am a writer. Other people have said I am.

I started writing at high school, like many teenagers. Mainly poetry. I was encouraged by two excellent English teachers, friends, and slightly older poets now well known in New Zealand who recited poems at rock concerts and handed out free broadsheets. Then, my friends and I published our own creative writing magazine, Blueprint, but also I submitted work to ‘real’ literary journals some of which, to my amazement, actually published a couple of poems. At university I continued writing but when I made the decision to switch to a Degree in Architecture, writing got shut away in the bottom drawer. Establishing a family, a successful business, and a second career as an art gallery director meant that drawer remained shut for many years.

In 2007 I was prompted to open it and start writing again, writing fiction as well as poetry. I completed a number of part-time creative writing courses, entered some competitions and published a few pieces and now, after three years of writing regularly, I don’t wince when I am described as a writer.

I’m not sure what inspired me to re-open the drawer. Perhaps it was a feeling niggling away inside reminding me I used to write, that I could write well, that I should try again; writing is part of my creativity, part of the jigsaw puzzle that is me, and can complement my other creative practices and not compete with them. It was a time of change in my life, which gave me the opportunity to use the extra time I had in new ways. But once I started, I discovered I really enjoyed the writing process, sitting in front of the computer, letting my mind work its way into different worlds and personalities.

It has never been difficult finding things to write about. Ideas come from everywhere, from observations, interactions, from reading and from movies, from going to an art gallery and thinking about a painting or video piece and the infinite number of social circumstances that may have occurred to enable that work of art to exist, and how that work now affects other people and the stories they take from it. Anything can be stimulating. Stories come from observing people reacting with people, and things, in time now and time past, in reality and memory and fantasy, so that if a diagram were drawn between all these interactions back and forth, even if only two agents were involved it would very quickly become a dense web of possibility. Imagine the interactions of a dozen players and the scenarios would quickly spiral into a mind-boggling mess. A writer’s most difficult task is to decide, choose and edit, to shape possibility, to make something understandable (but not necessarily evident), to make something readable. To know what to conceal and what to reveal. Editing is where the hard work gets done, not coming up with the ideas.

Obviously a writer needs to be able to judge a good idea from a poor one to invest the time in writing, even if it is only a kernel that imparts the feeling ‘I can do something with this’. Then I write and explore and hope it develops into something I can work with or, if momentum fails to build, put it aside and start afresh. The only way I can be sure a story is a good one is if I enjoy reading it, and still enjoy reading it even after the fifth re-write. Then I give it to my partner to read, assimilate her feedback, then let others read it and take heed of their comments. I belong to two writers groups and other viewpoints and understandings (or misunderstandings) can be enlightening. Not that I always agree, of course. My own judgment shapes the final draft.

It is easier to appreciate the skill and craft in other writers’ work, and I read a lot. What I expect most is for the writing to carry me from start to finish and to keep me thinking or smiling or worrying after the last page. It is not ‘the story’, ‘the plot’, ‘the structure’, ‘the characters’, ‘the setting’; it is the writing. It is all of those things set in the writing. Sometimes the writing, the writer’s style, is more or less visible, more or less audible, but it is still there word by word and can either provide the greatest pleasures, the profoundest insights, or the most insufferable irritations. Not that a story need provide insight or expound themes with a capital T. But I hope a story might provoke a genuine reaction from readers; that’s goal enough. And that they may enjoy the language in the process.

Language is what sets a story apart from reality. A story is an imagined or reported series of events presented in words, a constructed convention distanced from reality or concrete experience by the history of words. A story is an elaborate artifice. Elements found in my stories may be based on my experience, or my knowledge, or on hearsay or research, but they are only fragments scattered through the whole. Writers write about what they don’t know as well as what they know. Invention, and convincing invention, is the challenge and the reward. Reportage wouldn’t hold my interest for long. One of the greatest challenges of invention is to construct another person, a character, to sit inside their head and see what they do, to predict what they think, what they say, what they don’t say. I suspect this is achieved more through empathy than insight. And acting. Convincing acting. In my story ‘Cartography’ for instance, I had to imagine myself as two quite different female characters, two distinct voices, and how they might interact with each other.

The act of writing fiction is, therefore, all engrossing and whatever current work is in the document file is the one I favor most. I haven’t had time to reassess earlier work, or rate one against the other. Perhaps the ones that have been published should rate higher, but then those editors haven’t read all my other stuff, maybe I should send all my stories in for assessment. But no, I want to finish the one I’m working on; it’s going well, it might be the breakthrough piece to inspire a publisher to invite me to assemble my first collection. Vanity, the driver.

So perhaps vanity, the promise of pleasure and an overactive mind encourage me to sit down and write. I fit it in where I can, around my other personal and professional commitments. I don’t have a schedule, but a mobile MacBook helps. I’m currently in Europe sharing my partner’s sabbatical leave and in three months I’ve written only a few poems. Starting a story seems impossible, too many distractions and fresh experiences to assimilate. But I’ve been reading, and re-reading, some novels, which is unusual for me. John Banville, Paul Auster, Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo. The DeLillo is wonderful, his short novel The Body Artist extraordinarily beautiful to read. So much of his characters' lives inferred within so few pages with nothing really being revealed, precisely.

When I get back home I’m looking forward to reading and writing, but on what project I haven’t decided. Mostly I want to see my kids, go back to work and earn some money. I have an 80-page novella that needs a lot of re-writing, a dozen short stories that could be brought together with some shaping, but probably a new idea will pop into my head demanding to be written down. I’d like to get something substantial published within the next five years, and continue to publish shorter pieces and poetry two or three times a year. My real goal is to keep the drawer open, to continue writing, so I can confidently call myself a writer.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Common Boundary - Daily sPress Notice

Dorothee Lang, a writer and editor based in Germany, has posted a nice notice about Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration on her most interesting small press blog, Daily sPress.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Writing in Hebrew, Dreaming in Hungarian: Duality as Destiny - Rivka Keren

When we decided to venture into the realm of book publishing, we were alone; now, we are fortunate to count among our friends thirty-three extraordinary individuals – writers of exceptional merit whose work is good - worth reading and thinking about. In fact, we find ourselves talking about the characters of these writers, especially Rivka's characters. Rivka Keren is one of those authors, and we asked her to write a profile about herself so that we could all get to know her a little better – where she came from as a person and a writer, and where she is headed. Among other things in this profile, Rivka comments on the contributions she made to Pain and Memory ("Aisha" and "Kiribiri") and Common Boundary ("Islamorada" and "They Set Sail in Springtime"). Note: the profile and associated images are the copyrighted work of Rivka Keren and cannot be used without her express, written permission: first painting is entitled Girl with Owls; second is entitled Via Dlororosa; third is entitled Painter and His Family Arrive at Jerusalem. We are sure you will enjoy Rivka’s story of herself as much as we have.

“I am a Hungarian born Israeli writer, currently residing in the United States” – people raise an eyebrow when they hear that. This is over the top for them. For me, this is simply an inevitable way of existence. Hungarian is my native language. Hebrew is my adopted native language in which I write. English is a huge bonus. Hence, my life-long duality is being Hungarian and Israeli at the same time, which is a source of constant tension and spiritual wealth.

My world has been always divided. I was torn between two identities, two beloved languages, two landscapes, two different sets of memories. Writing in Hebrew and still dreaming in Hungarian became an unequivocal reality. “Am I different?” This question couldn’t be answered easily. Naturally, like many other immigrants, I was living in both worlds. Additional pain came from my desperate attachment to the subtleties of the Hungarian language and the fact that I was cut off, at the age of ten, from the literature I adored, before being able to read in my new language.

Identity, duality, memory, belonging, moral conflicts and dilemmas, as well as the puzzle of human nature, became the main issues of my writing. I was born into a complicated, intensive reality and felt an obligation to commemorate it.

In one of my first memories I am about five and I am alone in the Greatwood (Nagyerdő) at the outskirts of my hometown Debrecen. Mom and Dad are out of sight. The bush seems dangerous and threatening, the nearby lake murky and bottomless. I feel abandoned, terrified, yet curious and high-spirited; an inspirational moment. At home, I make a series of drawings about a little girl standing on a bench, surrounded by huge trees and flowers while her parents are moving away from her. This is my first story in pictures and many others will follow it because painting would become an essential part of my life. Many years later, I am embedding this scene as a dream into one of my novels, and paint it once again.

Thus, a sense of loneliness and insecurity mark my early life. I witness a silent agony at home. I hear whispers about the horrors of the Holocaust, the death of my baby brother from starvation in the Ghetto, the miraculous survival of my father who returned from the camps thin as skeleton and all the relatives who perished. When I enter school, my “otherness” becomes obvious; I am a Jew in an intolerant communist society, bullied and looked upon as part of an undesired, inferior minority. I experience open anti-Semitism on a daily basis.

It is no wonder that I find solace in painting and literature. I spend a lot of time daydreaming, making up stories and reading obsessively; my first favorites are Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, The Jungle Book and all the novels of Jules Verne available in Hungarian. Since my Dad is also fond of Verne, we share long talks about the wonderful adventures and discoveries in the golden titled books of the French writer. We live in a cage, and we are eager to fly away.

When I am seven, I know exactly what I want; to be a writer, to have a sibling and to immigrate to Israel where, hopefully, I will be accepted and loved. By the time we leave Hungary and embark the ship in Genoa, I am crazy with joy; my suitcase is full of stories and sketchbooks, I have a sweet little brother and I am on my way to the Promised Land.

The following years are a mixture of financial and existential struggle, assimilation, anxiety, hard work and self fulfillment. The Mighty Duality enters my life. We live in a tiny apartment, have almost no money, yet feel free and believe in a better future. At home, I speak only Hungarian, but slowly I work myself through the many layers of Hebrew and sleep with the dictionary under my pillow, until I am comfortable enough to start writing. Since I set up a very high standard regarding the literary use of the language, I start publishing for children and adolescents when I am twenty, and write my first novel for adults only at the age of thirty-nine. The Taste of Honey (or “Bitter Honey”), Mortal Love and Anatomy of a Revenge are all set against the black hole of the Holocaust, examining the moral choices and integrity of the protagonists in radical circumstances. Texts in my native language and the landscapes of Europe become organic components of the novels. There are plenty of raw emotions, hidden, personal aspects, some torturous and heartbreaking, some funny and magical. The last book I am working on is always my favorite. It has to be an object of dedication and love to keep the fire alive.

Soon I find out that writing is a demanding, mysterious process. No instant reinforcement, no sharing. It is a lonesome affair and it teaches me so much about myself – mostly my need for discipline and concentration, the ultimate self-demand to dive into the souls of the characters, be Them as long as needed, and then be able to emerge and let go. Also, I learn how much I cherish inspiration and how depressing a long silent period can be. The most surprising thing I discover is the flexibility of my memory – the way I store, adjust, repress, reinvent, twist and alter certain characters and events only to be able to write about them with a fearless, open mind. In my case, the story has to be a blend of personal and collective memories, real-life experiences, dreams and imagination, combined with endless subconscious material and put into words in the manner an alchemist might prepare his secret concoction.

The story “Aisha”, for instance, is inspired by a Bedouin woman I met while working as a clinical psychologist at a gynecological ward in a big hospital. “Kiribiri” was born out of a tiny newspaper article about an old woman being abandoned by her relatives at the airport – this sad story made me ponder deeply about old age, belonging, human relations and the unknown dimensions of life and death. “Islamorada” is based on two separate events; witnessing a failed landing of Cuban immigrants on my way to Key West, and an incredible story from an old Cuban man about his relative, a former opera singer and famous Lector of the tobacco factories at Tampa, who fancied mostly Cervantes. (You can read “Islamorada” now, published recently online in Words Without Borders.) “They Set Sail in Springtime,” a self-contained chapter from Mortal Love, is a story inside a story, studded with many well concealed autobiographical details, as it is throughout the whole novel and my other books. Am I there? Of course. Me, my family, and people I knew or imagined, dead and alive, we are all there in a giant group portrait, reshaped, rebuilt, as a genuine example of metamorphosis. All in all, my motto as an author is simple: “Write only what is interesting, compelling, essential to you. If you are indifferent and bored, the reader will probably react the same way.”

There are some authors that had a great influence on me and had shown me the nature of thorough observation. These exceptional thinkers and writers taught me to be sharp and attentive, yet humble while facing the unknown. Based on my interest in the riddles of the human psyche and moral dilemmas, I have my favorites: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Jensen, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Melville, Proust, Babits, Thomas Mann, Neruda, Wilder, Kafka, Camus, to mention only a few. Remembrance of Things Past of Proust, The Magic Mountain and Death in Venice of Mann and The Stranger and The Plague of Camus are my lighthouses. Also, I was captivated by the stream of consciousness in the works of Faulkner and Joyce as well as the magical realism and the reoccurring theme of solitude in the novels of Márquez. And I love Scandinavian literature. All those lonely, snowy winters, the endless dark evenings and coffees and merciless insights! They probably remind me of my distant childhood.

Usually, authors can’t read while writing, but I have the privilege of multiple choices, so when I write Hebrew I still can read Hungarian and English. My forthcoming novel, Outrage, is about Mari, a young Yugoslavian woman of Hungarian origin. She is a victim of the atrocities of the recent Balkan war, trying to find new love while fighting uncertainty, betrayal, lies and family secrets. Through her story and the research done for the novel, I became very involved in the history of the Balkan States. So, right now I am reading in English the breathtaking, monumental, 1150 pages long masterpiece of Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, capturing her journeys through Yugoslavia on the eve of WWII. The second book I am reading on and off is The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century. Imagine being on the remotest roads of the East in the Middle Ages for thirty years! In addition, I am rereading the last, utopist novel of Mihály Babits, Elza the Pilot, which I am planning to translate from Hungarian to Hebrew.

The new novel I am working on now, goes back and forth between the present and Rome of the first century. It is a metaphysical story, involving enigmatic powers, visions, past life memories and journeys to enchanting places. I made several trips to Italy, accompanied by the Letters of Pliny the Younger, to explore all the sites I am writing about.

My working habits are usually the same; from morning till noon and from five to midnight. Sometimes, I work all night long and whenever possible, I write in bed, while sipping Turkish coffee. It is not very respectful, but so comforting. Fortunately, the Muse is still on my side and I am full of excitement and positive energies. After all, who knows how many ancient spirits are carefully watching the developing story. I must stay the course!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Whitman's Brooklyn Eagle

Brooklyn Daily Eagle picks up press release for Common Boundary. Fitting, given that Walt Whitman anticipated America's immigrants in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." Read here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

New Book - Immigration Stories

We are pleased to announce the publication of our second book, Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration. There are twenty-nine works (from nineteen contributors) that treat the theme of immigration (including international adoption) with candor, humor, and insight. Without question, this is a book that will touch you in many ways as it hits home for virtually all of us, whoever we are, wherever we are.

The original idea for an immigration anthology goes back to (at least) 2003, mostly because of our connection to the international adoption community. But we did not want to do an adoption book. At that time, we envisioned getting together college students from eastern Europe – Russia, Baltic states, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Ukraine, Balkans, etc. In fact, we did get together many such students, and they were all interested in sharing their experiences of coming to America to study (while using the perspective of their home countries to create such narrations). We had several meetings and many discussions, and we contacted a university press which seemed interested in the concept; but the project never got off the ground.

So, we came back to the idea – and it seemed timely. Important, however, is that when you read these stories you will experience what we did as we vetted submissions: rather than creating a timely book our authors have given us stories that are timeless. We really did seek to make a book that would last, that would stand the test of time, that would be an anthology but would read cumulatively as a whole, and our authors – all of us together – have succeeded in reaching our goal.

Just take for instance, the work by Rivka Keren, “They Set Sail in Springtime,” or Ruth Sabath Rosenthal’s, “Into the Light: Safe Haven 1944,” or John Guzlowski’s, “Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald” – all so-called immigration stories of another generation that have transcended time by touching on war, identity, and home. These stories might be timely because of what you read in the newspaper today, but these stories are timeless since they continually intrigue us, constantly pull us back to take another look at origins and major questions. In another instance, read Nahid Rachlin’s “What We Call Home,” a subtle and masterfully-told story of a mother’s difficult decision, after she had come to America to be with her son and daughter, to return to Iran and be with her sister. Ruth Knafo Setton’s “Living Between Question Marks” is one of the most lyrical, honest, and yet metaphorical pieces, touching on past and present, here and there, self and other.

Many of the pieces, of course, deal with language. To that end, we’ve included some excellent poetry by Roy Jacobstein and Muriel Nelson, who in some poems capture the essence of crossing over (figuratively, birthing) – coming into which world, whose world? Even some of the prose pieces are close to poetic, such as the play extract (a monologue) by Cassandra Lewis or the very creative dictionary entry, “Fig,” that weaves into it a personal narrative, by Eva Konstantopoulos.

The volume is not without humor – seriously. Dagmara J. Kurcz has fun with “Cheekago”; George Rabasa tackles issues of the immigrant fitting in with “The Unmasking of El Santo” (a diminutive superhero) and “La Santa Papa” (a giant potato); Mitch Levenberg, in his inimitable style conjures both the wit of Woody Allen and absurdity of Franz Kafka simultaneously in “The Plain Brown Envelopes.”

There are some pieces closer to creative non-fiction, memoirs, that candidly explore what it means to be an immigrant – those for instance by Omer Hadžiselimović, M. Neelika Jayawardane, Azarin A. Sadegh, and Rewa Zeinati. These stories in particular, timely since they are personal narratives of people among us, address in a big way the questions of immigration in terms of national identity. These are the immigrant stories of today – but not the ones you see on national television. The personal reflection by Janice Eidus is particularly special, since it addresses not only the theme of immigration but the sub-topic in which we were interested, international adoption and how the child and parents’ lives both become part of the immigrant experience.

The collection begins with “How He Made It Across,” by Patty Somlo – a classic tale (a mini epic) of odyssey, and ends with “Blue Painted Field” by Tim Nees – a somewhat abstract story if read on its own but one that aptly concludes (in fact finishes) the book by bringing together all of the operative metaphors about immigration – loneliness, alienation, self-questioning, doubt, and uncertainty about the past and future.
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From the Foreword by Jason Dubow, MFA: “. . . this book is really an anthology of anthologies: a collection of stories in which the old inextricably blends with the new, in which the tensions between what has been lost and what can be gained are grappled with (but, inevitably, not resolved), and in which the human capacity to imagine a future and make it real (more or less) is explored from a variety of different perspectives. Here’s the essential question: now that I am no longer there but here, Who am I? The answers, the stories – various, contingent, authentic – have made me, in a Whitman-esque sense, ‘larger,’ and they will you too. And so, when you’re done reading, ask yourself: Who now am I?”
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From the Preface by Publisher Fredericka A. Jacks: “Common Boundary includes many varieties of immigration stories. A culture is a country’s language, its customs, and the collective thinking or attitude of the people . . . The shifting attitude . . . experienced over . . . English acquisition . . . represents a paradox: on the one hand, there is an attempt to accommodate someone from another country; on the other hand, the immigrant person is always perceived as something foreign. There’s a common boundary – being part of and yet being apart from others.”

♦ ≈ ~ ≈ ~ ≈ ~ ≈ ~ ≈ ~ ≈ ♦
Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration consists of twenty-nine creative works by nineteen authors on the theme of immigration – what it means to be an immigrant – with candor, humor, and insight. Edited by Scholar, Professor, and Pushcart Prize nominee, Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D.

Some Honors and Awards Won by these Authors Include: O. Henry Prize, Bennet Cerf Award, PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award, James Wright Poetry Prize, Pushcart Prize Nominations, NEA Grants and Fellowships, New Millenium Writings.

Contributors: Janice Eidus, Omer Hadžiselimović, John Guzlowski, Roy Jacobstein, M. Neelika Jayawardane, Rivka Keren, Eva Konstantopoulos, Dagmara J. Kurcz, Mitch Levenberg, Cassandra Lewis, Tim Nees, Muriel Nelson, George Rabasa, Nahid Rachlin, Ruth Sabath Rosenthal, Azarin A. Sadegh, Ruth Knafo Setton, Patty Somlo, Rewa Zeinati.

Available immediately via Amazon.com. By late July ask your Bookseller, or shop Barnes & Noble online (or other online retailers). [COMMON BOUNDARY: Stories of Immigration. 198 pages; paperback; ISBN: 978-0982481936; $15.95US]

Healing Muse

The Healing Muse, a literary journal publised yearly from the Center for Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical Center, has a guest blog by the editor of Pain and Memory. If you are interested, read the blog entry here.