Could you describe the writing process?
is a very passive; things come through me, not from me.
But you do come through in your writing. It is uniquely yours. How is that?
Well, for example, in The Hope Merchant I wrote a section that is anti-GMO. I
am not militantly anti-GMO but I am certainly not a pro-GMO kind of person. I
am not republican. So one of the reasons I am against the whole university
process and learning to be a writer is that a major part of the writing process
is turning yourself into a proper vessel for the story to fill. If you live in
a closet in the suburbs and never go out, then I think, I mean I could be
wrong, but the only thing you can truly write about is closets in suburbs. If
you only prepare yourself to be a vessel for stories about closets in suburbs
then those are the stories that are going to come to you. You have to live it.
You have to be willing to put your life on the line in order to open your soul
for new realities to come into existence. That is why the stories that come to
you will be uniquely yours.
So, Eliyahu, how do you prepare your vessel?
A lot of it is a life process, definitely. I still remember speaking to Donna
Insilaco twenty-five years ago when I was a cook in Manhattan. I said that I
wanted to be a writer so I could go and living an interesting life. She said,
“No, it works the other way around. First you live an interesting life and then
you write about it.” I’ve definitely been lost in the forest a lot of years,
failing at a lot of things. But through those failures, I’ve lived it,
experiencing. Failure is still contact. It’s real and valid. It’s not a closed
door. It’s an open door to a different reality, a different reality from people
who are successful, in some ways more valid. Not all stories are about heroes
that conquer. How boring would that be if those were the only stories we had? I’ve
lived it and that is already a preparation. On a daily basis, I have my writing
rituals. I think artists are very religious, or superstitious might be a
different way to put it. First I play one game of solitaire. Losing is a sign
from the gods that I need to get writing right away because winning takes more
time. Then I check my email. Then I yell at myself for wasting time. Then I
stare at the page, feeling awful because nothing is coming, and I’m not really
a writer so who am I trying to kid. Next thing I do is realize that three hours
have gone and I cry because what came out onto the page is so wonderful.
Question: So when you come up with a story idea, is it
something from your past or does it suddenly hit you? How does that process
Well, it’s an actual process. Usually I get an image, a picture, a quick burst
of a scene. And for that picture to exist, there has to be a certain reality; a
past that is a believable and logical sequence of events that bring that
picture into existence, then the picture itself, the fulcrum point in time, and
then the future that is derived out from that picture point in time. So, for
example, in Riding the Backroads Home, for some reason I suddenly saw this
image of a girl sitting at a booth in a diner, talking to an old Charedi man,
who I knew was her father, and it was clear that they weren’t in the same
reality anymore. I mean, Charedi men don’t do the bacon and eggs scene very
well. And, in the picture, I was sitting
in the next booth over, back to back with the girl, listening in on her
conversation. I don’t know where that image came from but it was the same time
I was writing Sihara. I guess I’m fascinated by religion. God is everywhere but
with religion you have an inside and an outside, and even when you are inside
there is a dynamic, circles within circles. In theory, there is no inside and
outside; we are all god’s little children. Free choice makes all this possible
and it is essential to religion. I choose to do good. But it is problematic to
the concept of God. How can we have free choice and coexist with an infinite,
all-encompassing, all-knowing god? Philosophers think they are so clever by
asking can god create a stone that he can’t lift. Well, can god lift a stone of
any size if he is part of the stone as well as the one lifting? Can I lift a
stone that contains an infinite god? My p;roblem is that once I start believing
in God, I stop believing in me. And once I stop believing in god, I feel like
I’m getting the sense there are a lot of contradictions you are trying to deal
with. In the writing process, how do you pull it all together? You have your
own life experiences, you’ve got your philosophies, you’ve got the message that
you want to set forth, and you’ve got that inspiration that comes through you.
How do you pull them all together?
First and foremost I think it is being true to the reality of the image, the
story. That comes first. The story is not an extension of me. It has its own
life. I have to be true to that. A biker has a bike. A biker talks a certain
way. As soon as the story is twisted to fit some outside purpose, it rings
false and dies a little bit. Sometimes I blow it, I’m not one hundred percent,
but that is what I’m shooting for. Sometimes the miss comes from something
inside of me. I’m not the perfect vessel. I’m too different than my characters.
I’m an outsider to the reality of the story. I don’t use foul language anymore
but the character does. I end up wioth fake sounding dialog because of that.
The story has a life of its own, an integrity and solidity that I have to be
true to. How much of me is in the process? There certainly is a certain level
but this is exactly where I have to do an awful lot of screening. I have to
take away any expectations about where I want the story to go or think the story
should go. Like when you raise kids. Do your best but mostly you do your best
to let it be free. Sometimes it’s easier. With Hope Merchant, I was a dairy
farmer. I know about dairy farming. So I had a certain reality that coincides
with the story’s reality, especially when it came to the relationship with the
There was something in The Hope Merchant where you probably had to do some
research, about the indigenous character, the Inuit character. How did you
prepare yourself to relate to that?
I kind of fudged that. I did a little research for that but not really enough.
And I think it’s okay to fudge it. I had a little message to bring, not a big
message. If it offends anyone, I apologize. It wasn’t about them, per se, it
was more about the story. I didn’t prepare myself for writing an informative
piece. There are things I’ll do a little bit of research for but I’m not really
into that. For so many people today, the word research is synonymous with
Google. If I really wanted to do a research piece, I don’t feel it would be
complete if I never actually speak with the subject or personally experience it
in some way. But up until now, research hasn’t really been an essential part of
my writing process. I feel it, though. My content editors will usually catch me
and make me do a little Google work. I like that because it stops me from
relying too much on clichés and it can even pull the plot in new directions. It
always helps. Like when my editor said that it wasn’t enough to say that Jack,
the lawyer in The Hope Merchant, was a dirty lawyer. It kind of stymied me. But
then I thought about him ending up on a dairy farm and I got the whole idea for
Bo-plus and Creves corporation. By the way, Creves is the town where Monsanto’s
headquarters are located. I think it added a new dimension to the story and
even added a few sections of plot. But I feel my lack of research. Sometimes
I’ll look at my own writing and say, “That’s a little shallow.” I can feel that
there isn’t enough research. It lacks the 3d feel that having that reality
inside of you gives it. I am in awe of writers who can do that, do research for
That could be your next step, a new way of being true to the story.
Maybe. I haven’t felt the need to do that yet. Maybe it’s an inherent laziness
or fear of unfamiliar waters. Maybe it’s just that this is the kind of writing
I do. At the risk of sounding snotty or obnoxious, maybe I haven’t felt the
need to do that yet because I’ve led a very varied life. It gives me a pretty
rich palette to work with without having to leave my chair. I own that. It’s
different than a writer who sits in his apartment in the upper west side and
does a lot of research to write about a different culture or location, in a way
I have a problem with that. He hasn’t really put himself on the line. He’s done
the mental homework but he hasn’t really put his butt in the saddle.
You make fiction sound like journalism. Is the personal element really that
important to the process?
One hundred percent. It’s interesting you put it that way. I usually don’t like
writers who come from the established community of writing professionals.
Journalists are the exception. I don’t
really care for writers who learned in university. It’s this instant karma
shortcut that universities are trying to make a buck off of. They say, “Come
here, pay us, sit in a nice air-conditioned room, and in four years you will be
a writer.” I don’t like that. The writers I love are not from the established
writing community. Steinbeck and Hemingway, for example, were not at all like
that. Just because you wrote a thesis paper on Hemingway doesn’t mean you are
equipped to write about war or running with the bulls in Pamplona. I have a
theory that I’d love to research. I think that almost anyone who gets an
advanced degree in creative writing will get published, and since the
publishing company has invested in them, they will get sold because the
publisher will invest in marketing. But the books that are still being read
years later are almost exclusively from writers who came from the outside. When
I first came to Israel, I wrote a novel based on what I experienced in the
after-hours surreality of Manhattan. I was there during the crack wars of the
1980’s. I have the manuscript but when I think about working on it, editing it
and polishing it up, I get scared. It would be like going back and reliving it.
It was a slice of hell and I am very reluctant to put myself through it again.
That’s a very strong critique of the publishing industry.
Yes, and I think they deserve it. The big publishers are responsible for their
own demise. When I first started submitting my novels, I thought the publishers
were interested in finding good material and selling it to the public. I now
believe that what they have been doing is finding out what they can sell,
finding material that fits their comfort zone, and making sure that their
system is so overwhelming that something better that the public may want, can’t
compete. The internet has destroyed that business model for them. Marketing
used to be pushing something in people’s faces until they bought it.
Advertising used to tell me what to want. Marketing is now a process of
attracting. The public knows what they want and they have the tools to filter
out the pushy marketing and find exactly what they are looking for. The same
thing already happened years ago in the music industry. It is shocking that big
publishers didn’t see it coming. I think it’s because the mechanisms got so
enormous that they just couldn’t change. Now, anyone with a PC can home-record
their music or publish their own book. The smaller publishers can change and
adapt and since they don’t have to support an obese infrastructure, they can
make a nice living as long as they can connect with their specific slice of the
public. Also, the industry is populated by employees. Even CEO’s have become
employees since their bonuses are given with no regard to their achievements.
Employees don’t care as much about succeeding as they do about not being caught
failing. It is much safer to have a big pile of rejections than to put your
chips down on a manuscript and maybe have it fail. They are playing it safe; signing
celebrities and grad students the profs have said could write. The problem is
that few celebrities can write and few grad students have anything worthwhile
to say that anyone except their professor wants to hear. I am disappointed that
bookstores are closing down. I would like to see them return and I think they
will. I think they became slaves to the publishers and too wrapped up in that
system. That system stopped serving the public and at the first real threat,
collapsed. People who read love bookstores. I hope that one day a new
business model for bookstores will
emerge that is independent of the major publishers. Maybe Indie publishers can
each open a bookstore. That would be cool.
Question: Who are some of your heroes writers?
Response: Oh gosh! Barbara Kingsolver is definitely one. If
I could use prose like she uses prose, I would be so pleased.