Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Peripatetic Author: Janice Eidus

Do you know about Janice Eidus? You should – and if you don’t, here’s your chance to read about her. Janice has just published a new novel, The Last Jewish Virgin (Red Hen Press). What follows is a guest biographical Profile written by Janice, covering her early years in the Bronx, her literary influences, her themes, and what she's reading now.

Although my Jewish atheist parents prided themselves on their rationality and secular beliefs, ours was nevertheless an irrational, volatile, secretive, and at times quite violent household. From a very young age, writing provided me with escape, not only from my unhappy family, but also from the Bronx public schools I attended in which indifferent, unprepared teachers did their best to stifle students' creativity and originality.

As an emotionally and intellectually hungry kid, my childhood reading and writing was all over the map. Louisa May Alcott showed me how to look deeply at the inner lives of female characters. I adored Noel Coward, who lived in a sophisticated, glamorous world so unlike mine, and I was influenced by him to write short, witty plays with dark undertones.

The Beats taught me how to rant and opine, and dig the rhythm of language, and I wrote free-form poems, emulating in particular Ginsberg's Kaddish and Howl. I felt I knew Ginsberg, the archetypal Jewish outsider from a dysfunctional family.

Patrick Dennis (author of Auntie Mame and Genius, among other books) inspired me to write manic-edged fiction featuring grande dames who were nothing like the often bedraggled, mah-jongg playing Bronx moms I knew.

Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Sinclair Lewis -- my parents' literary idols, and also major influences on me -- integrated their fiercely progressive values into compelling and imaginative -- sometimes risk-taking and innovative -- stories about decent, hard-working people, and I tried to do the same. (I still try to do this; if I have one concrete, unchanging goal as an author, this is it.)

My youthful writings, diverse as they were, reflected the writer I became -- a writer who prefers not to feel bound to one style or theme or message, a writer compelled to keep seeking new challenges, to try to "make it new."

So I wrote and wrote and wrote throughout my childhood and adolescence, never thinking much about getting published or earning money from my writing. Such goals seemed entirely unlikely from my vantage point as a kid in a Bronx housing project. I couldn't imagine becoming a "success" by any mainstream standards. I had a ferocious "me" versus "them" mentality, with them being anyone in authority. My rebellious, anti-authority streak influenced all aspects of my life -- creative, emotional, physical. (Of course, nowadays, as a mom and writer, I've become "one of them" myself, as Joyce Carol Oates says.)

Wild child or not, my drive and passion for writing didn't go away, and eventually I realized I wanted to be a "real" writer who reached readers beyond my own circle of rebellious, like-minded friends. So I applied to and was accepted by the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. It was there that I began calling myself a writer. For the first time, I was socializing with others also new to the writing world and forming writing identities. For the first time, I learned about literary magazines, literary agents, and prizes. I began submitting my work, and sometimes -- miraculously, it seemed to me then and seems to me still -- getting published.

Certain obsessions have always fed my work: a desire for social justice; the tragi-comic complexity of love in its many forms, including familial, romantic, and amongst friends; and the intersection and collision of classic myth and popular culture. I also love writing about the places I've lived: Manhattan, upstate New York, the Virgin Islands, the Midwest, California, Brooklyn, Mexico … I love traveling to new places, meeting new people, trying to make sense of cultures and customs that are at first unfamiliar. I'm drawn to understand that which feels different to me, and my reading choices reflect this: I read across landscapes, genres, gender, etc. And I'm always urging my writing students to do the same, to routinely expand their reading choices to include the works of writers much older and much younger than they are, writers of other races and religions, of the opposite gender, living in other parts of the world, writing in styles and with messages to impart that seem wholly unlike their own, although reading carefully and deeply will often reveal unexpected commonalities.

My two most recent novels are The War of the Rosens and The Last Jewish Virgin. The War of the Rosens is realistic, rooted in the autobiographical truth of my life, although not literally autobiographical. It takes place in a Bronx housing project and "stars" a left wing, Jewish family much like my own. It's told from multiple points of view: the Rosen father, mother, 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old daughter. While writing The War of the Rosens, I found that I needed to become each of my characters so that I could inhabit and express each character's particular voice and worldview. I also had to find a way to learn to love them all, as well as to forgive their imperfections, foibles, weaknesses, and even their cruelty.

My new novel, The Last Jewish Virgin (which I call my "Feminist Fashionista Jewish Vampire Novel") is rooted in contemporary New York City. It plays with reality and myth, and my intention is to subvert, honor, and tweak the traditions and tropes of the vampire myth, which I've long been fascinated by. The main character in The Last Jewish Virgin is Lilith Zeremba, a young woman determined to become a mega-successful fashion designer. Completely dismissive of love, lust, romance, and sex, she feels they all must wait until her career goal is met. Despite herself, she finds her true love in a totally unexpected way, replete with vampires, the supernatural, feminism, and a seriously funny exploration of contemporary Judaism.

I feel especially close right now to those two novels, as well as to the other writing I've done since becoming an adoptive mother of my beautiful daughter from Guatemala. Much of my recent work explores mother/daughter relationships, and the nature of adoptive, transracial families. (This includes my essay, "The Color of Cinnamon," which appears in Editions Bibliotekos' Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration.) Motherhood -- the complexity and the generosity of spirit it requires -- has helped me as a writer to merge the fiercely progressive and earnest side of myself with the playful, risk-taking side.

I wish I had a regular schedule, but mine is erratic: days devoted entirely to family, or doctors, or errands … or the business side of writing, or teaching … But throughout I burn with the desire to write. By nature, I'm very peripatetic, and so I love to write in cafes, hotel bars, diners, etc. I love being out in the world while at the same time feeling entirely alone and connected to my own work.

I used to do much of my best writing away from home at artists colonies such as Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I'm forever indebted to those colonies for providing me with the time and space to separate from the "real world," and to write uninterrupted and (almost) stress free.

In the writing I love to read most, I feel the author's passion -- for character, place, message … I love to see unbridled passion balanced by attention to detail; imagination balanced by keen logic; an original way of saying a universal and great truth. None of these are easy to do, and yet there are always new writers who figure out ways to "make it new."

I recently read a short story collection called Simpaticas: San Miguel Stories by Elva Treviño Hart, a child of migrant Mexican farm workers who's now a fiction writer and memoirist. I very much admire the way she tackles major issues of race and class in a deceptively simple style that's not simple at all. The stories all take place in the town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I own a home and live part time. It's a place I love deeply -- it's imbued with a complicated history and a thriving contemporary cultural scene. Not to mention that it's in the mountains and has spring-like weather all year round. While in San Miguel, I love writing the old-fashioned way, with notepad and pen, in the large, sunny sala of my house, while my husband takes long walks on the sun-splashed cobblestone streets, and my daughter attends a bilingual school where she sings songs about Tia Monica and learns to make tortillas from scratch.

At the moment, I’m reading Model Home, a novel by Eric Puchner, that takes place in the 80's and is set in the affluent world of Southern California, not so very far away geographically from San Miguel, and yet worlds away. It portrays one family's rude awakening from the American Dream. It reminds me a lot of Neal LaBute's dark, compelling film, The Joneses, in which characters played by Demi Moore and David Duchovny are nearly destroyed by their own materialism and greed.

I also recently finished A&R by Bill Flanagan, a novel about the music business. It's the third novel of Flanagan's I've read this year, so I guess I qualify as a bona-fide fan. I enjoy his wit, keen eye, and cynical-yet-ultimately-sweet insider's view of the world of pop culture, which he knows inside-out as someone who's been a top dog at both MTV and VH-1.

I've read some other wonderful books this year, including Bettina Aptheker's brave memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought For Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel, an amazingly honest and insightful tale of growing up during the 60's in a family that was considered U.S. Communist Party "royalty."

Finally, inspired by The Last Jewish Virgin, I've been revisting lots of my most beloved vampire literature, including Bram Stoker's Dracula, a tale that for me never grows old. I've also reread Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla, written in 1872, an extremely sensual tale of an irresistible lesbian vampire. And Keats' Lamia, about another vampire enchantress, this one heterosexual. And The Vampire Tapestry by Suzy McKee Charnas, a terrific reinvention of the vampire genre about an intellectual anthropology professor/vampire seeking to understand his own nature.

And films, too -- Frank Langella in John Badham's sensual and intelligent Dracula … And The Hunger, a film in the tradition of Carmilla, with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. And Near Dark, the best (perhaps the only!) vampire/Western horror film ever made. And The Lost Boys, the teen comedy/horror film that speaks as much to adults as teens.

As for outsider Jewish vampires pre-dating mine in The Last Jewish Virgin, there's Roman Polanski's comic The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck. Whatever Roman Polanski and I may not have in common, and clearly there's a lot we don't share, we apparently both take pleasure in creating fictional Jewish vampires.

Currently, I'm working on a number of things: a young adult novel that I like to describe as "Romeo and Juliet in Brooklyn -- with a Jewish twist," and an anthology related to living with and healing from illness, and stories and essays as they come to me, all surely drawn from one or another of the obsessions I harbor so lovingly.
* * *
Copyright©2010 by Janice Eidus