How Much Self-Promotion Is Too Much?

JunkMail

 

OK, so as authors we are told constantly that we have to market our own books. The publishing industry, for better or worse, has largely washed its hands of promotion, except for the lucky and most commercial few. The rest of us are largely on our own.

Authors must have a website (check), keep a blog (check), have a Twitter account (yup), and a Facebook page (uh-huh), and use them regularly. Some writers have mailing lists, guest blog, write op eds and so on, all in service of selling more copies. It’s a big job and very time-consuming. If done well, it’s breathtaking to watch. If done clumsily, the result is painful to behold.

Promoting a finished book can take over your life to such an extent that there’s little room left to dream up, research, or write a new one. This seems problematic to me. After all, if we’re not writing, then what’s the point?

So, I’ve been wondering: how much flogging is too much?

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about increasingly as my inbox is clogged again and again by the newsletter (one I never subscribed to) of an author who has made it his full-time job to promote a newish book (actually, it’s over a year old). And each time the newsletter arrives, announcing a new lecture, reading, or reminding me what a good gift the book would make for whatever occasion, I find myself a little more irritated than the last. Annoying readers can’t be a good marketing strategy. The fact is, I own the book and I’ve read it, so why am I being bombarded with pitch after pitch? When is enough enough? And how can an author avoid going over the same old territory again and again?

As part of Canada Reads, Coach House Books posted what I think is good advice on how authors can use social media more effectively than the above-mentioned author has:

Just remember you’re a human being, not a marketing bot. Converse with other authors, express opinions on cultural (and other) issues, wish your mom a happy birthday—and if your book comes up now and then (a good review, a reading on the horizon), great. But remember that you’re a person first and an author promoting your book second.

Also important to remember: not only are you a human being, but so are your readers. Many of those readers are fellow authors, artists, and all-round smart people. They are not just buyers or cash cows or vehicles for gushing blurbs that pop up on Amazon. They are the reason you rewrite a sentence 12 times and the community for whom you stay in the library until closing. Talk to them. Listen to them. Don’t just bombard them with junk mail.

Now, off to work.

[Photo: lonely radio]

 

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Author Interview in Foreword Reviews this Week

Here’s an interview I did with ForeWord Reviews, a great publication that focuses on books published by independent presses. You can access the original here (scroll down to the bottom of the page):

Conversational interviews with great writers who have earned a review in ForeWord Reviews. Our editorial mission is to continuously increase attention to the versatile achievements of independent publishers and their authors for our readership.

Julija Šukys

Photo by Genevieve Goyette

This week we feature Julija Šukys, author of Epistolophilia.

978-0-8032-3632-5 / University of Nebraska Press / Biography / Softcover / $24.95 / 240pp

When did you start reading as a child?

I learned to read in Lithuanian Saturday school (Lithuanian was the language my family spoke at home). I must have been around five when, during a long car trip from Toronto to Ottawa to visit my maternal grandparents, I started deciphering billboards. By the time we’d arrived in Ottawa, I’d figured out how to transfer the skills I’d learned in one language to another, and could read my brother’s English-language books.

What were your favorite books when you were a child?

E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come immediately to mind. These are books that I read and reread.

What have you been reading, and what are you reading now?

I recently finished Mira Bartok’s memoir The Memory Palace, which I found really extraordinary. I’m now reading Nicholas Rinaldi’s novel The Jukebox Queen of Malta, which was recommended by the writer Louise DeSalvo. My husband, son, and I are nearing the end of an eight-month sabbatical on the island of Gozo, Malta’s sister island, so I’m trying to learn more about this weird and wonderful place before we head home to Montreal.

Who are your top five authors?

WG Sebald: To me, his books are a model of the possibilities of nonfiction. They’re smart, poetic, restrained, and melancholy.

Virginia Woolf: I (re)discovered her late in life, soon after the birth of my son, when I was really struggling to find a way back to my writing. She spoke to me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Marcel Proust: I read In Search of Lost Time as a graduate student, and the experience marked me profoundly. This is a book that doesn’t simply examine memory, but enacts and leads its reader through a process of forgetting and remembering.

Assia Djebar: I wrote my doctoral dissertation, in part, on Assia Djebar, an Algerian author who writes in French. Her writing about women warriors, invisible women, and the internal lives of women has strongly influenced me. Djebar, in a sense, gave me permission to do the kind of work I do now, writing unknown female life stories.

Louise DeSalvo: I discovered De Salvo’s work after the birth of my son when I was looking for models of women who were both mothers and writers. DeSalvo is a memoirist who mines her life relentlessly and seemingly fearlessly. She’s a model not only in her writing, but in the way she mentors and engages with other writers.

What book changed your life?

There are two. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and her collection Women and Writing, especially the essay “Professions for Women.” I read these at the age of thirty-six when my son was approaching his second birthday. My work on Epistolophilia had stalled, and I was exhausted. I was trying to create conditions that would make writing possible again, but I was struggling with some of the messages the outside world was sending me (that, for example, it was selfish of me to put my son in daycare so that I could write; or now that I’d had a baby, my life as a woman had finally begun, and I could stop pretending to be a writer).

I remember feeling stunned by how relevant Woolf’s words remained more than eighty years after she’d written them. What changed my life was her prescription (in “Professions for Women”) to kill the Angel in the House. Before reading this, I’d already begun the process of killing my own Angel, but Woolf solidified my resolve. There’s no doubt that she is in part responsible for the fact that I finished Epistolophilia and that I continue to write.

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Publishers Weekly gives Epistolophilia a Starred Review

10 seconds - a star is born by winterofdiscontent

Of the publishing industry’s four major trade (the other three include Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal) magazines, Adelle Waldman writes at Slate that “Publishers Weekly, or PW, is the biggie—it plays Coke to Kirkus‘ Pepsi.” A “‘starred’ review in PW still increases a book’s chance of getting media coverage and showing up in your neighborhood bookstore.” These also determine which books Amazon promotes. A starred review indicates a book of outstanding quality.

Imagine my pleasure when I came across this.

Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė

In this captivating and remarkable book, Šukys (Silence is Death: The Life and Work of Tahar Djaout) celebrates the life and letters of Ona Šimaitė, one of the lesser-known Righteous Among the Nations. In 1940 Šimaitė was a young librarian at Vilnius University, hired to head the catalogue department as the school converted from a Polish to a Lithuanian curriculum. The following year, when the Soviets sent 17,000 Lithuanians to Siberia and German bombs rained on the city, the librarian began to smuggle medicine, food, forged documents, clothes and correspondence into (and out of, in the case of letters) the Jewish ghetto. Three years later she was arrested by the Gestapo, brutally tortured, and shipped to Dachau, eventually landing in a prison camp in occupied France, the capital of which she would later call home. Šukys brings to life a solitary woman dedicated to saving the dispossessed and capturing her memories by producing an enormous amount of letters; Šimaitė wrote, on average, 60 letters a month after the war. Šukys draws liberally from thousands of pages of correspondence and numerous diaries to create a portrait of a deeply thoughtful woman trying to make sense of history and her own life by putting it all to paper. Also of Lithuanian descent, Šukys’s own meditations on the power of letters and writing make this a powerful testament to the confluence of history and individual lives and passions. B&W photos & maps. (Mar.)

[Photo: winterofdiscontent]

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Epistolophilia: A Few Thoughts on the Occasion of a Book’s Birth

The day before yesterday I received a note from my publisher saying that copies of my book had arrived in the warehouse, and that I could begin announcing its publication. Though my official date of publication is March 1, 2012, the baby’s come early. It’s a strange and great feeling to know that my book is now ready for readers.

The process of writing and shepherding Epistolophilia through the production process has been long and sometimes difficult. The germ of the book began sprouting some twelve years ago when I first came across a collection of letters archived in Vilnius. Their author, a woman named Ona Šimaitė, had saved the lives of hundreds of Vilna Ghetto children and adults, and then had been arrested, tortured, and deported by the Gestapo.

The title of my book, Epistolophilia, means “a love of letters,” “an affection for letter-writing,” or “a letter-writing sickness,” and it refers to Šimaitė’s life-long dedication to her correspondence. She wrote on average 60 letters per month (therefore between 35,000 and 50,000 letters over her adult life), and not always with joy. The letters weighed on her. She often resented them and blamed the time-consuming correspondence for her inability to complete the memoir that many of her friends and colleagues were after her to write.

But to me her letters were utterly compelling. From the fragments I read in that first archive twelve years ago, I could tell I loved this woman, and I wanted to know more. Eventually, I raised enough money through grants and fellowships to collect the rest of her life-writing corpus, scattered as it was to archives in Israel, America, and other Lithuanian institutions. In the end, I suppose, I developed my own case of epistolophilia.

Now that the book is officially out, I should perhaps celebrate. But I’ve been here before, and I know that this is simply another beginning. Just as a manuscript has to be tended and cared for, so does a newly published book. And switching from an introspective and solitary way of being (that writing necessitates) to a bold, confident, and even crassly self-promoting one (that a newly published book requires) can be hard. Really hard.

Writers have fragile egos and are easily wounded. I’m no exception.

Just yesterday I sent out an email announcement to friends, acquaintances and colleagues telling them of the book’s publication. I received many kind and celebratory responses. Some people reported buying the book, others had suggestions for reading venues, and even requests for interviews. But among the sixty or seventy congratulatory emails, there was a terse one, asking to be removed from my “mailing list.” It was from a woman I’ve known for a couple of years, and someone who I genuinely thought might be interested in at least knowing about the book. I was stung. I felt stupid. I obsessed for an hour or so. But then I shook it off and moved on.

The last time around, with the publication of my first book, I did virtually no publicity to support it. I was pregnant and my newborn son beat my book by about three weeks. By the time the second “baby” (the book) arrived, I had my hands full. That said, I’m not sure I understood the importance of promotion back then, and may not have proceeded differently under alternate circumstances.

But this time, I’ve vowed not to abandon my book to its own devices just when it needs me most. I’ve vowed to be brave, bold, and even crassly self-promoting when necessary. And I won’t let the odd terse email get me down. I owe at least that much to Ona Šimaitė.

So, in the spirit of supporting and nurturing my new baby, please note that you can buy the book hereEnter the code 6AS12 to receive a 20% discount. Of course, you can also purchase it through your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.

If you enjoy Epistolophilia, I hope you’ll spread the word.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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“If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead”: On Authors Praising Authors

Praise the Sun by Omar Eduardo

The title of this post comes from an essay by Levinovitz called I Greet You in the Middle of a Great Career: A Brief History of Blurbs. He quotes George Orwell, who was a strict enemy of blurbs, calling them “disgusting tripe.”

The article is an interesting history of praise of authors by authors. And Levinovitz does a good job cataloguing the sins that the publishing industry has committed (for centuries, it would seem) in the process: corruption, cronyism, hyperbole, and the practice on the part of some publishers to provide sample blurb templates.

As authors become better known, they inevitably find themselves overwhelmed by blurb requests. Often these come from publicists, but some come from authors themselves. Ignoring a publicist is one thing, but turning down a fellow writer can be awkward. Even more awkward is reading a colleague’s book to find that you can’t give it a a positive blurb. Many accomplished authors deal with this by having a no-blurb policy. Others, like Camille Paglia, have publicly called for an end to the practice all together.

In To Blurb or Not to Blurb, l Morris asks the question of whether or not blurbs sell books. The answer appears to be a qualified yes. Praise by an author you know and like may indeed get you to pick up a volume from a display table. That said, Morris also finds that a blurb by an author a reader distrusts or whose work she dislikes may be a turn off.

Last spring I got a note from my publisher that it was time to start seeking out pre-publication praise for Epistolophilia. I swallowed my pride and started to cast about for writers to contact. In some cases, I was met with silence. In others, I received kind notes that explained, with an apology, that the writer had a no-blurb policy. (One answer arrived long after the due date for jacket copy, and though I didn’t get a blurb, I did make a valuable and friendly new contact with whom I continue to correspond. So even this most humbling of processes can bring unexpected rewards.)

Getting turned down didn’t surprise me. Nor did the silences. What surprised me most was getting three sincerely positive blurbs for my book. One of them is from David Bezmozgis. His blurb for Epistolophilia: “An intelligent, humane, and noble book that rescues from obscurity an intelligent, humane, and noble woman. It stands as a testament to the power of reading, writing, compassion, and extraordinary courage.” Wow. That even impressed my publicist.

Is the process of blurbing cynical and corrupt? Sometimes, yes. But it is also a way for established writers to help unknown ones.

The first time this occurred to me was when I heard Stephen Elliott (The Adderall Diaries) talk at the AWP Conference last year. When Roddy Doyle blurbed his book (writing, “You don’t just read The Adderall Diaries; you fall right into them. You read as if you are a few words behind the writer, trying to catch up, to find out what happens, to yell at him that he’s doing a great job. And he is. It’s a brilliant book.”), he changed the game for Elliott. Far from a cynical move, such a blurb is a gift.

The same is true of Bezmozgis. He didn’t have to read my book, or even answer my email. He didn’t know me or owe me anything, and goodness knows, he has enough on his plate. But he read it, found it valuable, and said so. It was an act of generosity that I’ll never forget.

Perhaps one day I’ll get the chance to do the same for someone else.

Your thoughts on blurbs?

[Photo: Praise the Sun by Omar Eduardo]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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Workshop: How to Be Your Own Publicist (Canada)

RETRO POSTER - What's in Your Future? by Enokson

The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) is offering the Professional Development Workshop HOW TO BE YOUR OWN PUBLICIST in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary,Vancouver, and Victoria, in February and March of 2012. The workshops take place from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. For those who can’t attend in one of the participating cities, a 3-hour webinar will be offered, distilling the highlights of the workshop.

Authors Elizabeth Ruth and Ann Douglas will present on traditional but innovative book marketing strategies as well as new media opportunities for writers.  Kelly Duffin, Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, will update participants on the latest evolutions in the publishing landscape.

Whether you are an aspiring writer wanting to develop your audience before publication; an emerging writer who needs to stay visible; or long-published and looking for new tips and techniques, this full-day workshop is for you.

Participants will leave the workshop having gained the know-how and confidence to creatively promote their own future works, and an expanded, inspired sense of what it means to be a writer in the current publishing context.

The price of this symposium is $89.00 and covers costs, including lunch, $75 for members of The Writers’ Union of Canada. For registration information please go to www.writersunion.ca/registration.pdf.

[Photo: Enokson]

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If You Build It, They Will Come: On Blogging, Service and Platform-Building

Shoeless Joe Jackson by John McNab

I started my blog almost two years ago after attending a writers’ workshop on publishing in the digital age. There wasn’t much talk of e-books or self-publishing from the presenters. Instead, they hammered a single message into us all day: you, as writers, need an electronic presence . . . preferably a blog. It’s how you control the message of who you are and what you do. Your site is Google’s gateway to you and your work.

Like many writers, I long resisted self-promotion, finding the very idea distasteful and embarrassing. But I’d learned from the experience of publishing my first (mostly overlooked) book, Silence is Death (oh! the irony of that title in this context…), that if you don’t advocate for your own work, no one will. I knew that this time around, I had to swallow pride and do things differently. So, in preparation for the publication of my second book, Epistolophilia, I decided to take the workshop’s advice. I bought a domain name (my own name as well as my books’ titles), and started a blog.

Despite my initial reticence, blogging quickly brought unexpected rewards. From the very beginning, I enjoyed the discipline regular posting required, and the way the site grew slowly, like a garden or a manuscript. I’m obsessed with archives, so I love the way blogs are keepers of their own histories. Finally, I have been delighted by the community-building opportunities that a blog creates.

A long time ago, I sat on an academic board that organized a biannual conference whose participants’ median age was going up and up. Board members worried constantly about the organization’s impending death and wondered how to attract younger attendees. “Offer them something,” I suggested. “An opportunity to win a book prize or a shot at a fellowship. Offer them something, and they will come.” So, that’s what we did. Once the association started a modest fellowship program and book prize, youthful scholars began returning to the association (and the financial investment quickly paid for itself).

The same principle works for a blog: offer something, and readers will come.

Blogs need not be navel-gazing, self-aggrandizing, or mean-spirited. When setting up the parameters of my blog, I asked myself how I could serve fellow writers. I decided on a ratio of 1:2. For every post about myself or my work, I featured at least 2 items about someone or something else: a review of a book or essay; a funding announcement or call for submissions; an author interview with a fellow writer of creative nonfiction.

By shining the spotlight (small as mine may be) on another writer, or by giving her a platform to talk about her work, I not only gain traffic on the blog (for every other writer brings friends and fans with her), I also gain insight, contacts, friends, knowledge and the occasional free book.

The more I extend myself to other writers, the more they reach back.

Writers are also readers. We are each other’s colleagues, but also each other’s audiences. Serving writers means reaching readers.

Be brave, be bold, and build. Then open yourself up to others and share.

[Photo: Shoeless Joe Jackson, by John McNab]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

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A Call for Beauty in E-Books

Illuminated Manuscript Koran, The right side of a double-page illumination, Walters Art Museum MS. W.575, fol. 2b by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts

A few weeks ago, I finished editing the proofs of my new book Epistolophilia. It was a great feeling to see the text typeset, designed, and looking official (and beautiful). This, in combination with some back and forth about cover design a month or so ago has got me thinking about how books look. And whether or not, as e-books gain traction, we may be hearing the death knell of book design as a profession.

My new e-reader is what sparked all this. Not long ago, for the first time ever, I paid good money for two electronic books. The transaction was fast, easy, and the product light-weight. But there was one real drawback for me: design.

There is none.

Instead of a carefully chosen font and luxurious white space around images to rest a reader’s eyes, the text pours into the page haphazardly. Large spaces gape between words without rhyme or reason, and endnotes (of which I am not an enemy, and yes, I realize this makes me a minority) are rendered basically unusable.

For some reason, the electronic jumble of text bothers me less when I’m reading books from Project Gutenberg (like Middlemarch). These are free, and no one is making any money off them (I don’t think…), so I don’t expect a paid designer to be in the mix.

But electronic books that cost about as much as a paper copies? These too should come in contact with the hand of a designer before they reach my screen.

A friend and I disagree on this point. He claims that all I have to do is play with the text on my e-reader: I can manipulate both font style and size myself!

And he says this like it’s a good thing.

But I don’t buy it. It feels like a con. It feels like work that the publisher should have paid for. It feels like a designer out of a job. And it feels like disrespect for both reader and writer.

And so, here’s my new call: a bit of beauty in the e-book business please!

Thoughts?

[Photo: Illuminated Manuscript Koran, The right side of a double-page illumination, Walters Art Museum MS. W.575, fol. 2b, by Walters Art Museum]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part I)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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In this revelatory biography, Beth Kaplan sets out to explore the true character and creative achievements of her great-grandfather Jacob Gordin, playwright extraordinaire and icon of the Yiddish stage.

Born of an Anglican mother and a Jewish father who disdained religion, Kaplan knew little of her Judaic roots and less about her famed great-grandfather until beginning her research, more than twenty years ago. Shedding new light on Gordin and his world, Kaplan describes the commune he founded and led in Russia, his meteoric rise among Jewish New York’s literati, the birth of such masterworks as Mirele Efros and The Jewish King Lear, and his seething feud with Abraham Cahan, powerful editor of the Daily Forward. Writing in a graceful and engaging style, she recaptures the Golden Age and colourful actors of Yiddish Theater from 1891 to 1910. Most significantly she discovers the emotional truth about the man himself, a tireless reformer who left a vital legacy to the theater and Jewish life worldwide.

Beth Kaplan is a writer and actress in Canada. She has taught memoir writing at Ryerson University for sixteen years and at the University of Toronto for five. Her essays have appeared in the Globe and Mail and other newspapers and magazines. Visit Beth Kaplan’s website at www.BethKaplan.ca.

Julija Šukys: In your bio in the opening pages of the book, we read that you spent twenty years raising children and writing this book – “they both left home together.” My writing became entangled with and inextricable from my private life once my son was born four years ago. In light of the connection you draw between your kids and the process of writing, I’m interested to know more about the relation between them.

Beth Kaplan: I had my first child in Vancouver when I was nearly 31. I’d been working as an actress in Vancouver for eight years; when I got pregnant, I left the stage and registered to take an MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. So it was as if pregnancy gave me permission to finally sit down and write.

And then the birth of my daughter took that permission away – or at least, made the process difficult. I adored being a mother and didn’t know how to focus on anything else. I’d take the baby to a YMCA daycare for a few hours every few days, so that I could write – but often instead I’d grocery shop or sleep or read the newspaper, things I couldn’t do when she was around. And I felt alone. Almost none of my friends in the theatre or at UBC had kids, and I didn’t know, or even know of, any mother writers.

Someone said once that of the 3 things of vital importance to a married woman – husband, children, work – she could only successfully have two of the three. I thought about Virginia Woolf with husband and work, Margaret Laurence with children and work, L. M. Montgomery with all 3 and a wretched life. There were very few examples of a writer with all 3 successfully. Later I discovered Carol Shields as one very good example, and there are now lots. But around me in the eighties, there were few.

I wrestled with that constantly. I managed to finish the degree long-distance – we moved to Ottawa for my husband’s work in 1983 where I had my son, and then to Toronto in 1985, where I finished my thesis on my great-grandfather and decided to keep going with research and to write a book. When my kids were 6 and 9, my husband and I separated, he moved shortly after that to the States, and so I was a single mother with financial support from him but 100% custody of two difficult children and an old, disintegrating house, in a city where I had no work connections and no family.

The result – the book wasn’t published until 2007. I don’t blame that solely on being a single mother. I also completely lost confidence in myself, was isolated with no support group, had no idea what I was doing – in academic research, there are methods, I just didn’t know what they were. I compared the book to an octopus with its tentacles around my neck – the minute I pried one away, another had me in its grip. And that’s just the writing, let alone getting the thing published. It’s a miracle it ever appeared, in fact.

So this is a very long answer to your question, which is – that I came too late to understand something I call beneficial selfishness. I think writers, artists, have to be selfish sometimes, even with their children. That is, not selfish to the point that their needs are neglected. But selfish in asking them to recognize that their mother has important work that requires something of them. Writing is so invisible. If I were playing the cello or painting, they could hear or see that. But they could see nothing of my work. That was hard for me too, as most of the time, I didn’t believe either, with very little published, that I was a writer.

What helped was writing essays for the CBC and newspapers and for “Facts and Arguments” in the Globe and Mail – I published a lot of short term things that got me out there, got my name in print and showed the world, and me, that I was a writer. Incidentally, many of my essays were about my kids. They grew up being chronicled on the back page of the Globe – always with veto power, of course. But they liked it.

25 years later, I’m still in the same house; the kids live on the other side of town and their rooms here are rented out to help pay the mortgage. I teach but have lots of time, lots of quiet for writing, which is heaven. Except that my daughter has just told me she’s pregnant. Omigod, I’m going to be a grandmother. I can’t wait. But this time, I’ll be able to cuddle and hug and read stories, and then give the baby back and get on with my work.

The fact is that unless you have a spouse who can take over, which I did not, young kids do and must come first, especially when they’re very young (and again when they’re teens but that’s another story.) But that doesn’t mean shelving the work. It means being creative with finding time, and it means taking it and yourself seriously enough to be selfish, sometimes. Otherwise, the work is constantly last, and the book takes 25 years to emerge.

Finding the Jewish Shakespeare constitutes a kind of textual archaeology. It tells the story of your great-grandfather, Jacob Gordin, a Yiddish playwright once compared to Shakespeare and Ibsen, now largely relegated to oblivion. Tell me about the impetus to embark on such a journey, and the research path down which it took you.

I needed to choose a thesis subject for my MFA, and it was my husband who said, You have a great man in your family, write about him. Once he’d said it, of course, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. Because there was the mystery I’d grown up with – why did my father and other relatives have such disdain for a man who’d been in his time so revered? So I blithely began, without realizing that almost all my research materials were in New York City– this was 1982, the Dark Ages before Google, so research meant writing letters, making phone calls, and getting on airplanes. The first time I flew from Vancouver to New York for research in 1983, the thrill of arriving at the YIVO Center for Jewish Research on 5th Avenue, asking for their materials about Gordin, and watching the cart rumble up to my desk with all those file boxes. Then opening them eagerly, and finding that nearly everything was in Yiddish or in archaic Russian – the next tiny hurdle, as I spoke and read neither.

I was lucky enough to find a woman who translated from the Yiddish for me for 25 years. So it’s really our book, Sarah Torchinsky’s and mine.

I wrote lots of letters of enquiry, discovered family members to interview – several of them just in time, as they were extremely old already when I found them – and read everything I could find on or around the subject. I didn’t start using a computer for writing until 1987 or so. And Google, of course, much after that. It seems unbelievable now, how much time research took. And several people have pointed out that in the Internet age, we lose the thrill of hunting and holding the actual artifacts and books.

As I read your book, I found myself continually pondering questions of language. Interestingly, Jacob Gordin’s strongest language, and the language he appears to have loved best, was Russian. Yet, he wrote his plays in Yiddish, a language that always represented a bit of a struggle to him. It’s not the language he used in private: with his wife he spoke Russian, and to his children, English (a language it appears he never mastered). Why, once he had gained some success, do you believe that Gordin never made the switch to Russian? Why did he continue to write in Yiddish, despite the limited audiences, the community politics that you describe, and despite the fact that it was not the language in which he planned his plays?

Gordin didn’t switch to Russian because nobody on the Lower East Side ever wanted to hear Russian again; he would have had no audience at all. Yiddish was the language of mothers, of home, hence not only of the theatres but of the burgeoning Yiddish newspapers. Russian was the tongue of the oppressor, the Cossack enemy, there was no place for it amongst the Jews in America. But Gordin always dreamed of going back to Russia one day. Before he died, he knew that his plays were touring Russia – one of his sisters, who still lived there, wrote to him from her town in Ukraine of her pride in going to the theatre to see two of her brother’s plays. But she saw them in Yiddish, not in Russian. There were Yiddish theatres and troupes performing Gordin’s plays in South America and in Eastern Europe – in fact, all over the world.

This is Part I of a two-part interview. Click here to read Part II.

[Images: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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CNF Conversations: An Interview with Beth Kaplan (Part II)

Beth Kaplan, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare: The Life and Legacy of Jacob Gordin. Syracuse University Press, 2007 (Paperback 2012).

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This is Part II of a two-part interview with Beth Kaplan about her book, Finding the Jewish Shakespeare. Click here to read Part I.

Julija Šukys: My second question about language is about your relationship to the various tongues at work in this book. What is your relationship to Yiddish and Russian, the languages of your ancestor? Given the decline of Yiddish since World War II, there’s a real sense of loss that surrounds that language these days. Does this sense of loss come into play in your relationship to Gordin’s texts and history at all?

Beth Kaplan: Well, this is a very profound question because it also goes to the heart of my hybrid status – as a half-Jew delving into this very Jewish story. Several people, hearing of my work, told me I should learn Yiddish first. A Yiddish academic, who continued to be extraordinarily unhelpful, told me when I called to introduce myself at the beginning that writing a book about Gordin without speaking Yiddish was like writing about Moliere without learning French. As if my family connection were meaningless.

I had no interest in learning Yiddish, though I did take a term of Yiddish classes through the Toronto school board, where my suspicions were confirmed – the class was filled with people wanting to reconnect with memories of their childhoods, especially of their grandparents. I had no such desire. In fact, my grandmother, Gordin’s daughter, spoke no Yiddish and had no interest in it. That’s the irony at the core of all this, as you noted – Gordin, revered as a Yiddish playwright, spoke Russian or English at home and hadn’t much respect for the language of his great success. I did take Russian lessons, incidentally, which interested me much more because it’s the language of a country I could actually go and visit.

So it was thanks to my dear Sarah Torchinsky that the Yiddish documents revealed their secrets to me. My father, whose relationship with his own Jewishness was conflicted, as I point out in the book, loved Yiddish phrases and expressions and used them often, but he would have been horrified at the thought of actually learning to speak the language. Intellectuals like him thought of Yiddish, not as a vibrant language in its own right, but as a kind of hybrid, debased German.

I respect and admire those trying to keep Yiddish alive, especially the amazing Aaron Lansky of the National Yiddish Book Centre in Amherst. Right now, I am corresponding with a woman living in rural Texas, who speaks Yiddish in complete isolation and is translating one of Gordin’s plays. But the future of the Yiddish language is simply not my cause.

Although your portrait of Gordin is nuanced (you don’t hold him up as the best playwright who ever lived, nor do you sugarcoat difficult aspects of his personality like his ego), the book nevertheless reads as a project of rehabilitation. Gordin’s legacy has suffered terribly from a vicious campaign waged by the New York Yiddish literary critic, Abraham Cahan. Talk a little bit about the conflict between Gordin and Cahan. How much did you know about it when you began researching? What, in your opinion, lay at the heart of Cahan’s fervour in destroying his rival so thoroughly?

Abraham Cahan was a critic at the Jewish Daily Forward. The more I learned about his vindictive personality and especially his campaign against my ancestor, the more I felt that if nothing else, this book would defend Gordin and expose what he endured. I learned that Cahan pursued several other vicious vendettas, one against the writer Sholem Asch even more single-mindedly destructive than the one against Gordin.

I posit in my book that there was something about Gordin’s largesse, huge family (eleven children) and enormous popularity that goaded Cahan, who was the opposite in nature, an anti-social man with very few friends, no children and an unhappy marriage, who lived not in a home but in a hotel. So the surface of their battle may have been political – they disagreed vehemently on how Jews should be helped to adapt to their new land – but I think with a burning personal base.

When I found some of Cahan’s articles against Gordin and had them translated by Sarah, they broke my heart – they were so petty and cruel. Not without an occasional point, certainly – but far, far beyond the boundaries of criticism. They attacked everything about Gordin with a kind of nasty glee with made me, literally, feel ill.

You describe finding a number of Cahan’s assessments of Gordin’s work almost verbatim in current descriptions of his work, namely that his plays have little literary merit. To me (and I think to you), it is this question of tainted legacy (that of Gordin as a hack, and even, as you describe, of a plagiarist) that is the greatest tragedy of this story. What does Gordin’s story tell us about the capricious nature of literary legacy, or of how writers are made and destroyed?

I made a lot of the tragedy of Gordin’s humiliation by Cahan, because I did come to feel that Cahan had left an accusatory legacy of plagiarism that my father absorbed. But in the end, I have to point out that many people did remember and respect Gordin – that Cahan’s campaign wasn’t completely successful. After all, a quarter of a million people, apparently, packed the streets the day of his funeral. I think that Gordin was more a newspaperman or a teacher than a playwright, in that he was so didactic, always preaching his message. But an elderly Yiddish actor I spoke with from Britain told me his plays were spectacular vehicles for actors. I had to keep in mind how much the theatre itself has changed; that many of the most successful playwrights of a particular time vanish pretty quickly. Our list of great playwrights of other times is much smaller than the list simply of great writers; it’s hard to write a play that is relevant to its time but will also endure. Gordin was a marvel for his time and place, bringing theatre with dignity and finesse to a people who’d had no theatre at all only decades before and who only knew a kind of vaudeville of melodramas and operettas. He accomplished a great deal, but he was no Ibsen.

Most of my own contact with the Yiddish literary scene has been through my research on Vilna. I was amazed to learn of the vibrant Yiddish scene that Gordin was a part of New York at the turn of the century. Do you see echoes of that theatrical and, in some ways, revolutionary world? Or is it really gone for good?

I describe in the book the scene in the 1800s in New York, when factions supporting rival actors playing Macbeth began to fight each other in the streets, resulting in a number of deaths. If only audiences cared so much today about the theatre! But today when people are sitting at home in front of a thousand different screens, we can’t reproduce that time, when sitting in a theatre meant so much, gave people a taste of home, let them hear their past, their homeland… It was an incredibly vibrant time, when New York was flooded with immigrants, desperate to learn and prosper. In a startlingly short time, many of them did.

This is a book not only about your great-grandfather, but also about your extended family, and about you. It’s about your hybrid identity (half-gentile, half-Jewish). It’s about the family silence surrounding the one great, but somehow shameful family member. It’s about the discovery of roots, and the drawing of a line back to the other writer in the clan. How important to this story is the fact that you are Gordin’s great-granddaughter? Talk a little about the decision to write a book that was a work of creative nonfiction, infused with the writerly gaze and experience, rather than a “straight” biography.

I had a big technical problem writing the book, which was never really resolved – that it was, in fact, two books. The first was the scholarly Gordin biography that was needed because there wasn’t one – detailing the history of the man and his plays. The other book, the one that really interested me, was the family story and my connection to him and to his life. I got trapped in the biography, loaded down with facts and names and dates, and then did my best to bring life to all that with the personal stories.

The problem was that the resulting manuscript was too weighty and scholarly for the mainstream publishers, where my New York agent first sent the book, and too personal and informal for the university presses, which wanted a dry biography with footnotes and no personal material. Footnotes! I’d been doing research for over 20 years, most of them as a single mother in chaos, I had paper stuffed into boxes all over my house with no idea where I’d found this quote or that bit of play, and no desire to spend years digging it all back up. I said no footnotes, which meant most university presses were not interested.

Luckily, Syracuse was happy to take the manuscript and turned out a beautiful book, though I had to cut some of the personal stuff. If I had to do it again, I might try to actually do two books – one for the university Yiddish departments, with just cold facts, and another with far fewer facts but more heart and soul about the family.

A wealthy friend of mine, after reading the book, said, “Too much detail. Why didn’t you turn it into fiction? That would have been more fun and would have sold much better.” That may be true. But I have not the remotest interest in taking a fabulously interesting true story and fictionalizing it, inventing characters and situations when I’d hunted for decades to uncover the real ones. My friend Wayson Choy has written two novels and two memoirs; I admire that kind of ambidextrousness, switching between fiction and faction. I have no interest in even trying. Give me a true story, any day.

[Image: Courtesy of Beth Kaplan]

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