Interview: Joel ben Izzy
Current Mood: awake
Current Song: Say No to This from the musical Hamilton
Today's stop on the 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour is right here at Bildungsroman, with Joel ben Izzy, author of Dreidels on the Brain, recipient of the Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers category. Our interview started even BEFORE page one...
At the start of Dreidels on the Brain, on the publication info page (yes, I always read that!), you say this book is "a work of fiction - and friction - that filled [your] childhood." What prompted you to fictionalize your own experience?
It's so cool that you even read the publication page! I suppose that, as a storyteller, most of my life walks the tightrope between fiction and non-fiction. When I first started traveling around the world telling stories, way back in the early 1980's, I only told folktales. Soon, though, I found that I was introducing the stories by telling about things that had happened on the way to or from my performances, and eventually those introductions grew into stories themselves. After years of that, most everything I did for kids - and adults - had some autobiographical element to it.
Dreidels on the Brain is mostly a memoir, with some parts fictionalized. But I think that the hard and fast distinction between "fiction" and "non-fiction" is overrated. I think of my writing as something between the two - "faction."
Do you approach writing short stories differently from writing full-length novels?
To be honest, I haven't written short stories for a long time, since college. Back then the approach was this:
1) Think about an idea for a short story for a long, long time
2) Discard idea because it's not brilliant enough
3) Come up with another idea
4) Repeat, ad nauseum, never actually writing anything
5) Walk around like a frustrated writer
6) Drop out of college and go to Paris.
That said, yes, the approach is very different, but probably has more to do with my age - and maybe some maturity that's crept in - than the form itself.
Does your process differ depending on the age of your intended audience?
My first book, The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness was geared for adults, though it's read in a lot of high schools now. I suppose that was the book that got me into actually writing - the hard way. I had been traveling around the world telling stories for about 15 years when my own story took a sharp twist - I found I had thyroid cancer. It's considered a "good cancer" (which is a bizarre term, like "jumbo shrimp"). That's because you can operate on it, remove the thyroid gland, and go on living. In my case, though, there was a rare complication: When I awoke from surgery I discovered I could no longer speak. At first doctors said the loss was temporary, but later they decided it was permanent. So it was that I fell into a story as strange as any I had ever told - and that's the story I tell in The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. Even though it's published for adults, it's good for older kids - and a lot of high schools read it.
Like I said, in that case, I came back to writing the hard way. Dreidels on the Brain is something of a prequel to that book, set when I was a 12 year old magician, the nerdiest of nerds, stuck in the suburbs of the suburbs of Los Angeles. Though I could do magic, what I really wanted was a genuine miracle - and I wanted it to happen during the eight nights of Hanukkah. So, I made a bet with God, over a game of dreidel - and the story takes off from there.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I am a stunningly disciplined writer, beginning as the clock strikes 7:00 a.m. each morning, and producing exactly 300 words each and every day, and if I reach that number before I am finished I will stop right in the very middle of a -
I do like to write in the morning, and if there are a bunch of dirty dishes in the sink and I can wash them, I find that's the best time for thinking. I also find that if I can get right to the writing, it's good - but if I get stuck making even one call to some insurance company or dealing with anything else bureaucratic, that creative-semi-dream state goes right out the window.
There's a particular café nearby (I live in Berkeley, close to UC Berkeley) which is good for writing in, and the walking there always helps generate ideas. The other thing that's really helpful - especially in the afternoon - is riding my bike up into the hills of the East Bay. There's something about peddling around that really helps me work through thoughts, come up with dialog, plot twists and so on.
Did any of your family members read the book prior to its publication and act as "beta readers"?
My wife and kids are far beta readers than me. In Dreidels on the Brain, they all got really involved.
I thought it was finished, then gave it to my son, Elijah, who was 23, who read it, liked it a lot, then said, "That's pretty good. But I think your main character is too nice. Twelve year olds aren't that nice, in case you've forgotten. I sure wasn't. Make him a little more of a jerk."
And my daughter, Izzy, who was 20, had big contributions. Again, she liked it, but said, "Your female lead character (Amy O'Shea, my magician's assistant) is something of a MPDG." I had to go look that up, and learned all about Manic Pixie Dream Girls. With that comment - and a lot of work - Amy's character changed entirely, so she had a life and storyline of her own.
But the biggest input was from my wife, Taly. I gave it to her when I thought I was almost finished, and she said "It's good, but… it could be a lot better." So she began to work with me, side by side, for months. Really, it was beyond editing, and that became a true collaboration. I tell the story in the acknowledgments. She really worked on this, and made Dreidels on the Brain a much, much better book.
Which of your books was the most difficult to write? The easiest?
I just have these two at this point, and they were both really difficult to write. I guess I'm kind of an ambitious writer, trying to tell a story that makes sense out life, death, God, magic, miracles, grief, illness and everything else.
It always amazes me when I go into a bookstore and see how many books there are, and how some writers have written a bunch. I guess writing for some writers comes easily, but not for me.
What's important to me, though, is not how hard or easy my books are to write, but rather how hard or easy they are to read. I like to write stories that someone will sit down with and want to finish the whole thing. I think it's almost an inverse relationship - the harder I work to write them, the more readable they become. At least I hope so.
You have been a live storyteller in addition to your work as a writer. What's your favorite part of performing live and recounting stories in front of an audience?
When I tell stories, I get to watch their faces. I don't just watch them - I read them. The response is instantaneous and gratifying. You can play with the timing, stretch the pauses, improvise, and really craft the story fresh, right there. It's magic. Not like the magic tricks I did in Dreidels on the Brain - telling a story live is real magic. And, if you can get the writing right, a book can be too.
What's your favorite part of hearing from young readers?
I love to know what resonates with them. It's different with a book, because of the lag time - which can be years. But it's great to hear that something I've written has stuck with them.
That's something I'm seeing more and more these days, having been a storyteller for over 30 years now. Adults come up to me, there's a look on their faces, and they say, "Hey, you told me stories when I was a kid! I remember them! In fact, you told me one about a guy who had a bird, hidden in his hand…" And they'll tell me the whole story. It's so cool that they remember.
Now that you have children, which holiday and/or family traditions have you passed down to them? What have you created that's new, or what have you continued from your own childhood?
Well, there's a lot there to talk about, but I'd just focus on one from Hanukkah, as that's what Dreidels on the Brain is about. I write about watching the candles burn down - and hoping that the shammes (the helper candle, which lights all the rest) will be the last to burn out. I love it when I can do that with my kids.
What books or authors did you love when you were 12?
In Dreidels on the Brain, I write about the influence of one of my favorite books, Zlateh the Goat, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. That's where I first read stories about Chelm, the mythical Jewish town of fools, which weaves in and out of Dreidels on the Brain.
I think that somewhere around that age I read the whole Wizard of Oz series, and the Hardy Boys mysteries as well. Mostly, though, I would go to the library and find anything they had about magic – and Houdini – and read those books again and again.
List ten of your favorite books. Any genre, any style.
I re-read Huckleberry Finn every few years, as well as The Odyssey. I'm pretty fond of Catcher in the Rye (the working title for this book was Kvetcher in the Rye). And I'm pretty fond of kids books by authors like Richard Peck, Sharon Creech, and Roald Dahl - as they tell really great stories. I loved listening to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and The Secret Life of Bees - I'm a total sucker for audio books, which would make sense, as a storyteller. I love Sholom Aleichem's stories (Tevye the Dairyman, which became the basis for Fiddler on the Roof, which also plays a part in Dreidels on the Brain). I loved One Hundred Years of Solitude - especially the first line: "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
And, no matter how hard they were to write, I'm pretty fond of my own two books - though I'm probably not supposed to say that.
Want to learn more about Joel and his stories? Visit storypage.com
The 2017 Sydney Taylor Book Award blog tour continues through February 10th. Here's the full schedule:
MONDAY, FEBRUARY 6th, 2017
Adam Gidwitz and Hatem Aly, author and illustrator of The Inquisitor's Tale
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Older Readers category
At The Prosen People
Gavriel Savit, author of Anna and the Swallow Man
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Teen Readers category
At Book Q&A's with Deborah Kalb
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 7th, 2017
Debbie Levy and Elizabeth Baddeley, author and illustrator of I Dissent
Sydney Taylor Book Award winner in the Younger Readers category
At Ima On and Off the Bima
Joel ben Izzy, author of Dreidels on the Brain
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers category
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 8th, 2017
Andrea Davis Pinkney (author), Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher (illustrators) of A Poem for Peter
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Older Readers category
At The Book of Life
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 9th, 2017
Michelle Edwards and G. Brian Karas, author and illustrator of A Hat for Mrs. Goldman
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers category
At Jewish Books for Kids with Barbara Bietz
Richard Michelson and Edel Rodriguez, author and illustrator of Fascinating
Sydney Taylor Honor Book in the Younger Readers category
At The Horn Book Blog
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10th, 2017
Blog tour wrap-up at The Whole Megillah