The View From Here Interview:
Eliezer Sobel is the author of MINYAN: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken which won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, University of Tennessee Press. His most recent book is The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist's Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychadelics, and Consciousness-raising Experiments. He lives in Richmond, Virginia in the USA with his wife Shari Cordon, and three cats, Peanut, Squarcialupi, & Plum. He's very funny, likes long book subtitles and is dangerously close to being a genius (although don't tell him!)
Can you tell me a bit about yourself.
That's not easy. I just published a whole memoir to try to answer that question. I guess I'm able to say a whole lot about myself, but I can never manage to get it down to "a bit." I was once meeting a boss for the first time at a company event, after having already worked for him for several months. He approached me and said, "Okay, give me the two-minute version of who you are." I laughed, refused, and instead handed him my business card, on which my job title is listed as "Human Being." (I gave it to someone at a party once who responded by asking, "But are you any good at what you do?" My wife clarified, saying, "He only does it part-time.") I guess I should also mention that the guy fired me a bit later. But the basics are I'm 56 and living in Richmond, Virginia with my wife Shari and our three cats. We're both Jewish, raised in New Jersey, and were fixed up by relatives. I built a pond in our backyard, and I like to ride my bicycle. I'm a Type Four on the Enneagram, an ancient system of personality study. Type Four is also called "The Melancholic."
Both of my parents are alive, living in the house I grew up in, Mom with Alzheimers, Dad taking care of her, me helping him when I can. I talk to them on a video chat nearly every day, and mom often asks me, "How long are they going to keep you there inside that little box?"
What's your ideal night?
Sitting on the couch across from Shari, both of us reading, then perhaps playing some classical music on the guitar or piano. Shari is promising to get her flute out some time soon for some duets. On a cold night, a soak in the hot tub under the horrible light from the streetlamp in the back alley, making me long for the star-studded black sky of the country life we recently left behind. Then reading in bed together, she falling asleep in the first paragraph but continuing to hold her book aright, me eventually needing half an Ambien or two. Getting awakened by the phone, and it's the NY Times Book Review informing me that they want to feature Minyan on the cover, and as a result, a publisher wants to publish it in paperback and is offering me a six-figure advance plus free use of his dream house in Kauai. Sex would be nice, too, but who can count on that?
What is your favourite book?
It used to be The House on the Cliff, which was the second book in the Hardy Boys series by Franklin W. Dixon, who, it turned out, was a pen name representing a team of writers working on independent chapters. Before the Hardy Boys were the Happy Hollisters, a female family of sleuths, and before them, the Papa Small books by Lois Lenski, along with Scuffy the Tugboat, Judy and Jeremy's Hanukah, and my truly, all-time favorite book to this day: A Suitcase With A Surprise, by Miss Frances.
I also loved The Town and the City by Jack Kerouac, and The Outsider by Colin Wilson. In college, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand inspired me to drop out of music school to become an architect like the hero, Howard Roark. Then I found out that Northwestern University didn't have an architecture department, so I enrolled in the nearest thing to it, Interior Art & Design. On the first day of class they had us cutting out little couches from construction paper and I quit school entirely.
How long did it take you to write your first novel,Minyan,and what stages did it go through?
I first conceived it as a series of ten independent short stories, in which the characters and plot lines would spill over and overlap. It evolved into a novel, and several friends read it and told me that ten characters were far too many to track, especially when they are named Goldberg, Weissbaum, Lipschitz, Finkelstein and so on. So I literally took four of the ten and crushed them together into two characters, and in order to have the title still make sense (since the word "minyan" refers to the ten men required for a Jewish prayer service) I included a dead man and another character as part of the minyan. So I guess you still have to track ten characters, except the dead guy doesn't do much. That process, from beginning to end, including the years of multiple agents, rejections and rewrites, and the years of putting it away in a drawer, until publication, was about 18 years.
Can you tell us about the Hollywood agent who expressed interest in Minyan before it was published.
She got me all excited after she read and loved the first chapter. "I work with BIG Hollywood projects," she told me, "and I mean REALLY BIG!" I began composing my acceptance speech for the Academy, for Best Adapted Screenplay. She promised to read the rest of the book on her upcoming vacation in Greece. About three weeks later I received a generic, white postcard--the kind you get at the post office, no picture of Corfu on the front, nothing. On the back she had written, "I can't work with this material. I am discarding the manuscript here." I was heartbroken, and imagined the pages of my book floating about in the Aegean Sea, my characters helplessly flailing their arms.
Part 2 of this interview coming later this week in which Eliezer talks about Minyan and his reaction to it being published.
Read The View From Here review of Minyan here.
To visit Eliezer's web-site click here.
To visit The 99th Monkey click here.
Picture credit: Kelly Athena
Read part 2 here.
For this interview in the printed edition of TVFH visit here.