Thursday, July 23, 2009

Author Interview with Zoë Klein - DRAWING IN THE DUST

I recently read and reviewed DRAWING IN THE DUST by Zoë Klein. Hers is a beautiful book full of mystery, suspense, a bit of the paranormal and of course a lovely touch of romance. I was so thrilled after finishing the book that I immediately emailed Klein and asked her if she would mind submitting to an interview. Being the fabulous lady that she is, she agreed!

If you have not yet read DRAWING IN THE DUST, feel free to check out my review. It is a wonderful story of love and hope that I still have sitting on my bedside table so I can reread again. I just can't seem to get enough of the story.

Let's all put our hands together and welcome author Zoë Klein to the stage as she discusses what it's like to be a writer and what went in to the making of DRAWING IN THE DUST.

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What was your inspiration for writing DRAWING IN THE DUST?

There are a number of things that inspired me to write Drawing in the Dust, layers of inspirations, and I'll share them, starting with the most sunlit to the darkest. First, studying the prophets in Seminary, I fell in love with Jeremiah most of all, his terror, his misery, his courage and his hope. I wanted to reach back in time and embrace him. I wanted to give to him the way his words had given to me. I was a student rabbi when I started writing about Jeremiah and Anatiya, and I continued developing their journey together after I became ordained.

In a way, I also wanted to adhere myself to such a towering figure, in part to learn as a kind of distant disciple, but also, perhaps more deeply, to be protected. That is the darker inspiration. Like the human skull sitting on the classic poet's desk, I was inspired by my own fear of mortality. Maybe by imagining adhering to a prophet, I might imagine myself saved from that abyss somehow. As a rabbi I move through the scattered sheaves and sacred moments of people's lives, searching for the redemptive golden thread that gives everything meaning and brings it all together. The protagonist Page digs through scattered shards, bits of broken bone, tunneling through tombs, looking for something alive, looking for wholeness. She dances with time -- in fact the book opens with Page at a dance across from a clock. I identify with her desire to prove that there is more, or die trying, and like her, I also suspect that the answer, the golden thread, might be love.

It's amazing how much that puts the book into perspective. Did you have to do any additional research for the writing of your book? How did this impact the story?

I did a lot of research for this book, rummaging through piles of books and articles. I do believe that sometimes too much research makes it impossible to finish a story. Because the very nature of research is that every bit of new information leads to a myriad more questions, the very act of research can intimidate you until you've lost all your wits. There were times when I had to put the books aside and get lost in the verisimilitude of the story. Once the manuscript's first draft was complete, I did interview some Israeli archaeologists to check a number of things. One funny story is that when I was in a period of writing where I had stopped researching, I gave Page dental tools and paintbrushes to help her with the fine work of excavating. I said to one archaeologist, "So, in my book, my character uses dental tools and paintbrushes in her excavation. I am sure there are other tools you use with specific names..." He said sheepishly, "Well, in fact, we actually do use dental tools and paintbrushes."

The research really shows through in the authentic feel of the story.

DRAWING IN THE DUST was a truly beautiful read. It is also very complex. Did you come across any snags or roadblocks when writing it?

Thank you! My favorite books are ones where you get the sense that the author has a magical word-loom and is weaving concepts in and out, blending threads to create this tapestry. It is hard to do, and the biggest challenge honestly is that I wrote this story of many years. At one point it was over 600 pages long. It is hard to weave and weave and weave and still remember what was so fresh and urgent in your heart two years ago while blending it with what is fresh and urgent today.

I absolutely love Page and Anatiya. What was the inspiration that went into creating their characters?

It is interesting to me that most people, when they imagine a pious, God-fearing woman, imagine someone very modest, soft-spoken and dutiful. However, women rarely make it into the Bible unless they use a little sass. Eve’s desire for wisdom causes her to transgress. Sarah, afraid people might kill her husband Abraham in order to take her, pretends she is single and even allows herself to be married off to two different kings. Yael seduced Sisera before driving a tent peg through his head. Look at the only women outside of Mary mentioned in the Gospel’s genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, and Bathsheba. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law. Ruth snuck to a sleeping land-owner, Boaz, in the middle of the night and lay at his feet. Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the wall of Jericho. Bathsheba slept with King David while her husband Uriah was at war. Biblical women were very strong, and they used what little power they had to influence history and protect their families’ futures, and that power was primarily sexuality. I wanted to recast what it means to be a God-fearing, God-wrestling woman and to lift the sanitizing veil and let the raw faces with flushed cheeks of Page and her ancient soul-sister Anatiya shine.

What is your favorite aspect of DRAWING IN THE DUST?

This is a hard question! There is a paragraph at the end of chapter 28 where Page is picking up fragments of ash which is significant to me. My favorite aspect...I love the passion between Jeremiah and Anatiya. That probably is my favorite part. Writing the verses of her scroll was the most meditative and seductive part of the process for me. I also love Page's slow uncovering of Mortichai, in all of his ill-fitted layers. Another favorite aspect...I guess I designed the book with the intention that the reader could be somewhat of an archaeologist him/herself, and there would be places where the reader could dig deeper is desired, and discover more. That, ultimately, I believe, is my most favorite aspect.

Response to DRAWING IN THE DUST has been filtering in. How are readers responding to the story?

I've been a pulpit rabbi for over ten years now, and I've developed a little private theory. It used to be that when I delivered a sermon and someone said to me afterwards, "I felt as if you wrote that for me..." I nod nod and say thank you. Now, if someone says that, I believe them. What I mean is, I used to believe that the author, or orator, comes first with a message, and the reader or listener receives it after. Now, I have a private theory that it is actually the unspoken question or desire of the reader which comes first, which creates an inkling in the atmosphere, and the story is then born out of that. So, to answer your question, readers have been responding with such beauty and intimate emotion, and I am awed to get to know, through these responses, the people out of whose unspoken questions this story was born.

Can you tell us a little bit about your journey on the road to publication?

I would never have believed it, but the hard work really does begin with climbing that road to publication. The first copy of the the hardcover I gave away was to the guy who works at the local mail-house, who tolerated me laying out endless copies of manuscripts on his counter with queries to agents. I am so fortunate to have found my agent Mollie Glick. She has a laser sharp eye for editing, whipping unruly text into competitive shape. She also has a therapist's touch, however, in soothing the jangled nerves of any author weathering rejections and massive cuts.

What I would add is that at first I believed that good writing should stand for itself. And, in a way, it really should. There is masterful writing, there are brilliant stories, that are never brought to light. But today a writer also needs to make a case for him or herself. Acquire blurbs from other writers. Find readers to advise you on how your book reads. I know every agent says "send me three chapters" or the first hundred pages, but I didn't buy it. I wrote the entire book before contacting any agent, and sent the whole darn thing. Get in magazines. Work on yourself and your own relationships as well as your book.

Why did you decide to become an author?

When I learned that this book was to be published, I felt as if a door I had been knocking on since I was a child had at last opened to me. I've always wanted to be a writer. My parents taught me that a writer writes, that's what a writer does, and I write. I've always written. As a rabbi, I write messages to share. For me, writing is a form of prayer. I don't think I ever decided to be a writer. I picked up a crayon and on big lined paper, I started to write. (I remember one of my first stories as a was about a creature called a Giringo, which had the torso and legs of a giraffe and the neck and head of a flamingo. The Giringos lived on clouds and would collect all the minutes and hours we waste on earth. Every wasted moment would float up to their world, and they'd polish and treasure them like gems, until people on earth ultimately ran out of time. All seemed lost, but the Giringos had collected so much, their cloud world got too heavy, and time rained back down. It is funny to think of it now, the themes are all the same as Drawing in the Dust.)

That's lovely!

What is your writing routine like? Do you do anything special to warm up, cool down or keep the story going?

I am not the type that can write a little each night, or for an hour here or there. I need a work-day to write. I need to be able to stare at the computer screen between each sentence as if in a trance. When my husband and I had one computer between us, when it was my turn to use it, he would watch me staring at the computer, my fingers hovering over the keys absolutely still. He would say, "Can't I use the computer? You're not doing anything!" And I would snap, "This is how I write! I have to incubate a lot!"

Because I serve a congregation full time, I can't take long stretches often to write. My day off is Monday, so for many years I would write on Mondays all day. All week, I interact will people and gather words, concepts, stories, and when Monday rolls around my cup spilleth over.

When I write, I can only maintain the self-discipline if I put myself in a very corporate mindset. I actually have a terribly mean imaginary boss who often stands behind me looking over my shoulder and yelling at me. I don’t know what he looks like – I imagine him kind of wiry – but I know his voice well. “I’m not paying you to sit here making up names!” “I’m not paying you to sit here eating pretzels and grapes staring at a blank screen!” Of course, he’s not paying me at all, but his prodding helps me push forward.

For me, it is important to have the entire book well-outlined from the start, with dates alongside each section which serve as deadlines. These deadlines are never ever met until months later (something which doesn’t make my wiry boss happy!), but I think they help keep me in that business mindset which keeps me focused. It is also a lot more believable and manageable to say to yourself, “I am going to write a scene” than to say “I am writing a novel.” I like having the whole book outlined because then you can plant allusions in the beginning which can carry through to the end. The end of the book is written in my mind long before it is reached because I have been working toward it deliberately from the beginning.

Our readers always like to know, what kind of books do you read or what authors do you like to read?

I tend to admire books based on how much I admire the person who recommended them to me. This morning I finished A Thousand Splendid Suns, and I know I won't stop thinking about that for a long long while. I recently read Nathan Englander’s collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and found it haunting and exquisite. I love Mary Doria Russell’s writing. My Milan Kundera books are covered in my highlighting and scribbles. As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg was a great influence to me as well. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work endlessly astounds, especially The Sabbath. I find irrational joy in Billy Collin’s poem Undressing Emily. I love KC Cole’s book The Hole in the Universe, which is actually a non-fiction physics book for laypeople, and it explores, basically, the mathematical concept of nothing. It has a permanent place on my bedside table and I draw strange comfort from this elegant biography of the zero. I think I have been most inspired, however, by the often anonymous language I find in prayer books. I used to read them cover to cover like novels. And the book that taught me the most and without which I would be lost would have to be The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky which is really a masterful treasury of ancient stories and teachings from which I could derive nourishment for a hundred lifetimes.

What are your goals now that DRAWING IN THE DUST is completed?

Drawing in the Dust has occupied such a large portion of my mind and spirit for so long, I look forward to discovering what things might come in to fill that new space. I do have another book which I wrote for young adults which I am currently editing, and I hope to publish, and I'm beginning to outline another novel, an adventure which I am excited about. In my rabbi-world, I am setting up a mentorship program between my congregation and an inner-city school, and a big goal of mine is to get a hundred mentors for a hundred students to commit to four years of mentorship. That is, right now, my biggest goal!

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A huge "thank you" needs to go out to Zoë for the amazing out of work she put in to answering our questions. This was a fantastic interview!

Don't forget, you can learn more about author Zoë Klein at her website, or on her blog.


Diane said...

Great interview. I have this book and am looking forward to reading and reviewing it.

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bridgiebee said...

I just finished this book, and loved it. You will want to savor every word. I am now regreting that I have to give it back to the library, and will definitely buy me own copy. This is a book you keep and read over and over.

ElkeE said...

I was reading toward the end of the book on a plane and I was so upset when they told us to turn off electronics( kindle edition). I couldn't wait to find out what happened and sat down with my kindle while waiting for the luggage. Throughout the whole book I was continually swept in, needing to know more. I love archeology and I felt I was in this dig. I picked this book for our Hadassah book group, I am excited to discuss it with the ladies. My only comment is I wish it had illustrations. They would be gorgeous.