Saturday, April 28, 2012

My Week So Far: What a Wonderful Beginning!

Oh what a wonderful week this is shaping up to be! But at first, it didn't seem so. The evening before my radio interview, I mentioned that for sure, the next morning will find me tongue-tied. In response, someone said, "Break a leg!"
I almost did. I twisted my ankle. It looks grotesquely swollen; which strangely enough, put my mind at ease. Nothing bad could happen from now on. I'm going to be articulate and calm during the interview.
Indeed, ever since the publication of my novel, every day brings with it a little surprise for me. Sometimes it is just the fact that some unknown reader out there has trusted my writing enough to buy the book. Sometimes it is the fact that a radio interview has been scheduled, and my calendar starts looking more and more like that of a 'real' author; or else, a review has been posted on the Amazon page of the book. 
This week, it is all of the above, and more!
  • My inteview with Cyrus Webb, the host of Conversations LIVE Radio has aired Monday morning. Cyrus is so engagingly warm and friendly, and he knows how to ask great questions, so I became quite talkative. You can listen to the conversation here.
  • My interview with the author and editor Dan O'Brien has been posted on his blog, Thoughts from the Dan O'Brien Project, just this morning! Dan really studied my work, both my writing and my art, and he came up with questions that made me think--unlike the stock questions in most blog interviews. You can find it here.
  • Two new readers' reviews, with glowing recommendations, have been posted on the Amazon page of my book, Apart from Love
The first new review says (by Miriam3):
 "Apart From Love is one of the best novels I have read lately. The story is set in a contemporary affluent neighborhoods of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California. It is a tale of a quasi love triangle within a Jewish family. The characters and their relationship are depicted with depth and with humor. The city and its scenery is portrayed realistically and beautifully. Do not miss the last chapter, which is supposetaly a technical appendix, but in fact, a part of the narrative. This chapter is hilarious."

And the second (by yanushka):
"Apart From Love is a feast for the armchair psychologist. It reveals insights that can both touch and frighten each of us. But most evident is how the perspectives of both Ben and Anita are so delicately and honestly revealed. There are no contrivances and, as such, we are exposed to the complications of Lenny's life and relationships. This is a thoroughly well-crafted novel."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ninth Review of Apart From Love

Having earned a Bachelors and Masters in mathematics from Cambridge University, England, Sheila Deeth, a reviewer for Amazon, Goodreads, Gather and other reading sites, enjoys reading, writing, drawing, and telling stories. Her own first novel, Divide by Zero, will be released This summer. Here is the conclusion of her review of my novel, Apart From Love

"Apart from Love has a feel of modern art, inviting readers in to enjoy, explore and eventually wrap themselves in the mystery of lives and loves drawn together and thrown apart. An intriguing tale, it’s not an easy read but it’s certainly an involving one that doesn’t necessarily go where the reader expects."

A Peek into My Studio

You may have heard that my book, Twisted, is a unique collection of dark tales. But it is a little known fact that it also includes a little surprise for the reader: hidden between these pages is my poem Dust, which can be seen as a dance duet between two characters, a man and a woman. The poem starts with him, saying:

From dust you gather me
I beg you on my knee 
Look away—imagine me
The way I used to be
Now shadows spread upon me
Stain by stain 
I shiver. Touch me, heal me
Make me whole again

And it ends with her, saying:

I will not let you blur
These traces in my mind
Of the way we were
Our limbs entwined
I miss you, still resist you, 
Forgive me, for I must
Gather you so gently
From the dust.

Writing this poem has inspired me to sculpt a pose for each verse. You can read the poem, view the sculptures, and even turn each one around, by going here

Now, many of you have asked me, How do you do that, how do you create your pieces, and cast them in bronze? So this time, I am going to give you a peek into my studio, at the moment the two dancers came alive. To imagine the finished piece, just remove the metal armature which holds them up while they are soft, remove the temporary clay support holding her foot, and remove the wires connecting the two figures to the armature, and then--yes! Then you can see how these dancers take flight!

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The Secret of Success

Everybody and their aunt have become writers in this day and age. By no means am I bemoaning this fact--I think it is wonderful that more of us are shaping our thoughts, which are often too nebulous and evasive, and committing them to paper (or to the computer screen, as the case may be.) But I think that all of us, professional and amateur writers alike, are seeking to find the secret of success. We do it because we want our voice heard, which is becoming increasingly difficult because of the ensuing cacophony...

So here is a great article, The 5 Habits of Successful Authors. It invites all of us to engage more fully in finding an audience for our musings.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Cyclical Process of Writing

In any task you undertake, you often hear the advice: start at the beginning, continue down the middle, and finish at the end. Writing is no different. Problem is, as you advance diligently down that path, you may find--to your surprise--that you are getting better, more proficient at your craft. Suddenly the opening of this chapter sounds so much catchier than the previous one; and the ending more powerful.

Which requires constant re-evaluation and reworking of previous chapters. So in my opinion, the process of writing is Cyclical. By the time I completed the last chapter of Apart From Love, I knew I had to discard--or at least, rewrite and restructure--the first chapter.

This, then, is the first page of the first chapter, in which Ben is about to return--reluctantly--to his childhood home, and to a contentious relationship with his father:

About a year ago I sifted through the contents of my suitcase, and was just about to discard a letter, which my father had written to me some time ago. Almost by accident my eye caught the line, I have no one to blame for all this but myself, which I had never noticed before, because it was written in an odd way, as if it were a secret code, almost: upside down, in the bottom margin of the page, with barely a space to allow any breathing. 
The words left some impression in my memory. I almost wished he were next to me, so I could not only listen to him, but also record his voice saying that. 
I imagined him back home, leaning over his desk, scrawling each letter with the finest of his pens with great care, as if focusing through a thick magnifying glass. The writing was truly minute, as if he had hated giving away even the slightest hint to a riddle I should have been able to solve on my own. I detested him for that. And so, thinking him unable to open his heart to me, I could never bring myself to write back. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake. 
Even so, I am only too happy to agree with him: the blame for what happened in our family is his. Entirely his. If not for his actions ten years ago, I would never have run away to Firenze, to Rome, to Tel Aviv. And if not for his actions a couple of weeks ago, this frantic call for me to come back and see him would never have been made. 
And so I find myself standing here, on the threshold of where I grew up, feeling utterly awkward. I knock, and a stranger opens the door. The first thing that comes to mind: what is she doing here? The second thing: she is young, much too young for him. The third: her hair. Red.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

The Texture of Language: He Said, She Said

In my book Apart From Love, you can identify a unique speech pattern in each one of the characters. Here is a fun exercise: lets take a single paragraph spoken by one character and--without changing its content--make it sound as if it came out of the mouth of another. All we are going to change here is the texture of language.
Ben has a refined speech pattern: one with well-formed grammar and an abundant vocabulary. Here he is at the first page of the book, thinking of his father:
I imagined him back home, leaning over his desk, scrawling each letter with the finest of his pens with great care, as if focusing through a thick magnifying glass. The writing was truly minute, as if he had hated giving away even the slightest hint to a riddle I should have been able to solve on my own. I detested him for that. And so, thinking him unable to open his heart to me, I could never bring myself to write back. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake.
In contrast to Ben, Anita speaks in slang. You would be hard-pressed to find a three-syllable word in anything she says. The lack of long words is compensated by descriptive sequence of short words (see the replacement for ‘magnifying glass’ below.) You can spot a liberal use of the dreaded double-negative, and of the word ‘like’. 

However, she is constantly learning, constantly adding words into her vocabulary by listening to Ben and his father, a would-be writer with whom she has had a ten years affair. By now Anita has built up a surprisingly rich vocabulary, and her descriptions are sensually pictorial--but alas, her grammar is atrocious. At this state she reminds us of her distant ‘cousin’, Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower-girl struggling to advance her language in the play Pygmalion. Like her, Anita is a ‘work-in-progress’. 
In my head I saw him back home, like, leaning over his desk, scrawling each letter with an awful fine pen, with great care, like he was aiming awful hard through a glass, a thick glass that made every mark real big. The writing was real minute, like he’d hated giving away even the slightest hint to a riddle I should’ve been able to solve on my own. I hated him for that. Anyhow, there wasn’t no way he could open his heart to me, so there wasn’t no way I could bring myself to write back. Now looking back, me, I made a mistake. 

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Plucked Porcupine

I miss the swish of grass and clover 
The crunch of twigs, no pangs, no hunger,
That place is far--I must not pine--
For a poor, plucked porcupine
I watch out for the angry poet
I stumble back, too late to exit,
She glares at me, at these sharp spines
Her ink has spilled, so here she whines 
I hate, I hate to wish her ill
She writes this poem with my quill

To see this paper sculpture of a Plucked Porcupine from more points of view, click here

This poem was meant, at first, to be a sonnet, which as you know is a form of poetry that  contains 14 lines in four verses: 4 lines in the first verse, 4 in the second verse, 4 in the third verse, and 2 in the last one. For example, the rhyme scheme in a Shakespearean sonnet is a-b-a-b, c-d-c-d, e-f-e-f, g-g; where the last two lines are a rhyming couplet. 
However, by the time the ink dried on the paper, the poem seemed to be missing a verse. Fittingly, it is a plucked sonnet.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Sense of Place: Naked Coral Trees

When you read a book, is the place where the story takes place important to you? Are you more likely to gravitate towards a story if the place is familiar to you--you have your own memories of it, perhaps--or if it sweeps you away to a distant place, a place you have never visited, or even envisioned before?
Here is an excerpt from Apart From Love, where the protagonist talks about coming back to town, and seeing San Vicente Street with fresh eyes--seeing it as it is and as it was then.
The reason I know this place, the reason it ignites such emotion, such passion in me, is not the sight of these homes—but the majestic trees, whispering in the night air. Planted at regular intervals along the median, as long as the eye can see, they are named Naked Coral Trees. Naked because—according to my father—they shed their leaves annually. 
During our walks that spring, dad would point out the tree: Its fiery red flowers, that looked like fat pinecones at the tips of irregular, twisting branches, and the seeds, which in certain species were used for medicinal purposes by indigenous peoples. The seeds were toxic, he warned, and could cause fatal poisoning. I learned that mature Coral trees should be watered frequently—but not during the summer months. In fact, he said, the less water in summer, the more flowers you can expect the following spring.
I cross two lanes of traffic, come closer to one of those Naked Coral Trees, and  with great awe, brush my fingers across the trunk. It is a contorted, elephantine thing, with a roughly textured bark, and thick roots clinging fiercely to the earth. This being early October there are no flowers, no leaves, even. The tree seems to take on a humanoid appearance, as if it were the body of a character, or even several characters, mangled beyond recognition. 
It is a stunning sight, which has fascinated me since childhood. Above me, the bare limbs—some of which have been pruned recently—are branching apart, and looking at them you can imagine a knee here, an elbow there, someone wrestling, someone in embrace. 
As you walk past them, the trees seem to tell you a story line by line, scene by scene. In one tree I could see a man and a woman, kissing; in another, a father and son.

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"A literary symphony complete with a cast of likeable, bruised characters"

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Word about Language

Many editors, publishers and readers lament what they consider a decline in the quality of written material, which they attribute to the new phenomenon of eBook publishing. Writers, gripped by their creative urge to pour ink on paper, rush to offer their stories to readers, skipping the necessary checks and balances offered by the traditional publication process. Faster turnaround time for bringing a book to market is happening, many times, at the expense of good grammar, well-structured punctuation, and careful editing. Perhaps an indication of this is the fact that in 2012, no winner has been announce for the Pulitzer Prize.

For example, check out the newly released book Switched by the indie-writer sensation Amanda Hocking. To date, there are currently 658 customer reviews on Amazon and 6440 on Barnes & Noble but at a closer look, a lot of them complain about flawed writing, and beseech her to seek a professional editor. However, her success--in spite of the flawed language--should by no means be taken lightly. Her readers care about her writing enough to place this amazing number of customer reviews on a variety of reading sites. Obviously, she gives voice to her audience.

All agree that the one place where the rules are relaxed is dialogue, because each character has his/her own speech pattern, which is an expression of emotions and at the same time, a mask. Because of this duality, a character may stutter, speak in a lousy grammar, with contractions and fragments. 
But the author is above the characters. She is god, so normally we expect good use of language, so that our reading can flow unhindered by sloppy writing mistakes. At the hand of masterful writers--writers who can stun you with a unique turn of phrase, writers whose command of an extensive vocabulary is unquestionable, and whose occasional use of slang is done with deliberate intent--language comes springing to life. 
Normally. Yes, that’s what I’ve just said, because every rule has an exception. How do you judge a story that is told not by the all-knowing author, who is floating from above and can see into the hearts and minds of her characters--but by the character? 
Case in point: The Catcher in the Rye, a story written in a first-person narrative from the point of view of its protagonist. Because of the book’s vulgar language, it was frequently censored. In 1960 a teacher was fired for assigning the novel in class; he was later reinstated. Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. And yet today, it is recognized as an American classic, giving voice to teenage confusion, angst, alienation and rebellion. 
This voice is unique. This book, and some of the ones being written today in the phenomenal wake of a literary revolution, will add, in time, to our discourse about language. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Special Moment in Literary History

I hear many of my friends, especially those who are trying to break out of anonymity in the literary world, complaining about how difficult it is. The competition is harder than ever, they claim, because everyone with a pen thinks himself a writer, and because taking rejection from publishers is a constant grind on the nerves. I beg to differ! I think there has never been a moment such as now, with new tools and new opportunities for an author just coming out. 

Here is an excellent article that supports my opinion: The Stigma of POD by Aaron Shepard. I fully agree with his conclusion that the primary market for self publishers today is not bookstores at all. It’s online booksellers, Amazon in particular. And POD is by far the most efficient and profitable means to sell to that market.

Case in point is the incredible success story of Amanda Hocking. Penniless and frustrated, having spent years fruitlessly trying to interest traditional publishers in her work, Amanda needed to raise Some money to make a trip to Chicago, to see an exhibition about Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets. In desperation, She made her unpublished novel available on the Kindle, and has since sold over 1.5m books. 

So I ask you: is this not the most amazing moment in Literary history?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Journey from Poem to Animation: Now I Am Paper

I remember: a gentler sound
The forest rustling in the rain
Leaves were swirling all around
I heard soft footsteps up the lane

So starts a poem I wrote, where the narrator is an old tree longing for the little girl who used to climb up his trunk and nestle between his branches. Here are two opposite pages of the book. To read the poem in its entirety, click here. Then, for each verse, I drew the letters (in perspective) on a 'paper leaf' that floated in a 'puddle' in the top of the left hand side page: 

And here, then, is the animation of all these pages, 
which took three months for me to complete.:

★ A Children’s Book ★
For the child in you
PaperbackAmazon ★ Barnes&Noble

Figures as Characters

How do you go about constructing a complex painting with several figures? The answer, which might raise new questions in your mind, is this: think of the figures as characters in a story, and draw the relationships between them. Case in point: my large oil painting Earthquake.

The painting is composed of several characters, some close to you in the foreground, some so far back in the background, or down in the dark corners, that it takes a while to discover them. The woman standing, hand covering her face with a gesture of grief, is based on a live model. In a first quick sketch, her beautiful luminous flesh was too seductive. So I had to create a rough surface over her body to give the impression of having been injured when the earth shifted. Also, I changed her pose so her face is nearly covered by her hand, calling attention to the expression of grief in the contorted lines that remain visible.

Then there is the boy holding up a collapsing bunch of wooden beams. Of all the characters in the painting, he is the only one who looks you directly in the eye. I arranged the beam so it casts a sharp shadow across the face, in effect cutting it off, and darkening one eye; which makes the other eye, the one visible to light, look ever more piercing.

Here is a baby lost in the dark corner of the painting. When you stand in front of the painting, it takes a while to find him.

Throughout the painting, I used distorted views and highlighted the seams between shattered perspectives. The dying man in the center of the painting is the best example to illustrate it. You are viewing him as if you are standing directly above him. But draw your attention to the broken board he tries to support, with the little strength he has left in him. You are standing over him--and at the same time, below that board. 

If, with his last gasp of breath, he lets go of it, the entire mess of wooden beams and boards will come crashing over you. Careful, now! Take a step back.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Paint with a Pen, Write with a Paintbrush

Contrary to popular belief, I see the brain working together, undivided between it left and right sides. It is overlaying its creative and analytical functions in every task. There are compositional problems to resolve, and color combination methods to gauge when you are painting a picture, at the same time that you are chasing your muse. The same is true for writing a story or composing a piece of music, with the added effect of time: a painting is perceived at once, more or less, while music and story unfold for the listener one note at a time.  

So I say, paint with a pen, write with a paintbrush. My art strives to tell a story, and my stories strive to bring you into the scene being painted! Here is a good example of the mutual influences between art and writing. I painted this oil painting a few years ago, driven to do so by a recurrent nightmare. Then, earlier this year, I brought it to life in letters, and weaved it into my novel, Apart From Love (see excerpt below.)

Just yesterday—when I laid there in bed, bleeding all day, not even knowing where I was—that was when at last, the dream found me. 
In it, I find myself in a public place, which is strange to me—even though I know, somehow, that I’ve already been here. I’ve visited this place, perhaps the night before. 
It’s raised like a stage, and flooded with light: a harsh glare, which blinds me. For a minute I can’t see nothing in the dark, beyond that ledge—but I know that them faces are out there, blank and blurry. They’re all there, hushing each other, gazing at me. 
I see myself standing there in front of them, naked.
Red-faced, I hunch up as tight as I can. I fold over my thighs, trying to hide, to cover my body, my shame—but my hands, they’re way too small, so my nipple slips out of my fingers. And there it is, circled by light, for all to see, and to jeer at me, and to lick their lips, which is like, glistening out there, tiny sparks hissing in the distance. 
For a little while, my sleep is light. And so—even as I’m looking straight into that spotlight, or like, reaching down to touch the ledge of that stage—I can tell that all this is false, it’s nothing more than a dream. But then I fall deeper, even deeper into it, and now I really believe what I see: 
Some thread is crawling on my skin. Laying across my knees is a strap of fabric, which is frayed and stained, here and there, with my blood. When I pull it in, trying to drape it around me, or use it for a blanket, it resists. It don’t hardly give in, ‘cause it’s tied to something—no, somebody—standing right here, directly over my bare back. 
Me, I don’t want to turn, but I take a peek over my shoulder. Wrapped in layers of rags and straps and loose ends, all of which is tattered and like, drenched in reds and browns, the figure seemed shaky. He lifts one leg, and tries to balance himself, teetering—this way and that—on one foot. His hand tries to touch the back of my neck—and misses it, grabbing a handful of air, instead. 
And his blood-red lips, they’re curled up, in something that looks an awful lot like a smile. A mocking smile, one that don’t change. 
In my dream, my feet must have frozen. I can’t move, can’t run away from him, or even climb off the stage, because at that point I’m weak, and too scared to even breathe, and because of that thread, which binds us. And so, rooted to that spot, I look up at him. At this close range, our eyes meet, and my heart skips a beat, ‘cause at that second, his are empty. 
Suddenly I catch sight of someone else, someone standing way over there, in the distance, behind him; behind the curtains, even. Except for her hand, which is caught in the light, it’s hard to even notice her, ‘cause at first she’s like, real shy, even modest, and keeps herself in the shadows, out of the spotlight. 
But then, she changes. Her long fingers, they’re gathered, one by one, into a fist. And twisted around her little finger, you can find—if you focus—the ends of the rags, and the straps, and the thread, all of which extend from there to here, where he stands; all the way, to the joints of his wrists and his elbows, tying them like, real tight. 
And from backstage, she’s pulling him—raising, dropping, tightening, loosening—making the puppet move, shake, jiggle, even dance on the tip of his toe, and like, bringing him, somehow, to life. I gasp, thinking: she can twist him around her little finger, if she wants to.
Me, I cringe as he puffs, breathing something in my ear. “Go, go back home, go,” says the puppet, in a voice that is not really his. “Go to the place, the place where you came from, you came from. Go back to your ma, ma, your mama.”

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The complete series: 

"A literary symphony complete with a cast of likeable, bruised characters"

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Flashback to Passovers Past

Here is a timely excerpt from Apart From Love, a flashback to Passovers past:

"If I were to focus strictly on my parents, ignore the entire background of this place, and let the clutter and the smell of it just fall away, this could take me back to a different time, a time in my childhood, when our kitchen table was set for the Passover meal. What comes back to me first is the tinkle, as my father finished blessing the wine, and clinked his glass against hers, against mine.
I remember: the table was draped, all the way down to the floor, with mom’s best, rarely used tablecloth, made of the smoothest ivory satin you ever touched. Dad sat at the head of the table, mom to his right, I opposite her. 
All day long she had been cooking, which infused the air with a wonderful aroma. In it you could detect a sharp whiff of horseradish and of gefilte fish and sweet brisket and red cabbage and roasted potatoes, all of which made my stomach growl. It went on growling until he finished reading the long, archaic text in the Hagadda, which meant little to me, except a vague notion of the utter futility of patience.  
I remember: my mother ladled the clear, golden chicken soup and set it here, steaming before my eyes, with three matzo balls floating inside, which was her way of giving. “It’s hot,” she said. “Make sure to blow on it first.” Yes, the smell of her cooking was good, but then, the taste! Just wait till you took the first bite—"

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Volume I & II, woven together: 

"A literary symphony complete with a cast of likeable, bruised characters""