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!)
Part 1 of this interview can be found here.
You had nearly thirty rejections for Minyan, how did you cope with that and what made you keep going?
I had received enough positive feedback from certain people so that I knew it wasn't completely terrible. Plus, I had already published the first chapter in Tikkun Magazine, although we now know that you can't trust the first chapter. Pushcart Press expressed interest in it at one point, but the company was in dire financial straits at the time and advised me to keep sending it out. I also have the misfortune of being friends with a famous novelist whose work makes me feel like I am barely a step ahead of a low-order mammal that grunts. He liked it, and I believed him, and that gave me hope. And then his agent loved it and wrote to tell me, "We will find a publisher for this." I got insanely excited. Then he died.
Did you consider self-publishing Minyan?
No, for two reasons. One, that wouldn't "count" for me. I desperately wanted and needed the recognition of the literary community. And secondly, I did consider self-publishing my nonfiction books early on, and bought one of the best books on the subject, by the pioneer of self-publishing, the late Peter McWilliams. His book talked me out of it in the first paragraph, when it stated: "Recognize that to self-publish means to spend 95% of your time being a publisher, and 5% as a writer."
How did you feel when you heard that Minyan had won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel and was going to be published under the University of Tennessee Press?
I was in Whole Foods Market at the time, in Charlottesvlle, Virginia, and got the call on my cell phone, so I had to be subdued and contain myself, and I also found it hard to believe it was actually happening. At the same time, there was a sense of inevitability about it, like, "Finally. Thank you, God; it sure took you long enough." The scary part though, is that those moments, ecstatic as they are, are not exactly grounded in the reality of the situation. It may feel like winning the lottery, but in the big picture, it's actually a very small and relatively unimportant event. I mean, Minyan getting published had no impact whatsoever on the people suffering in Darfur, for example, as far as I know. In addition, each time you have a "win" like that, it simply ups the ante, so now the ecstatic moment would be, as I said, when the New York Times calls, or Oprah. How much external validation and acknowledgment will ever be "enough" to relax that feeling inside? I have a friend who has spent the last 15 years writing full time at home, working on a novel. He has never published anything. I don't know how he does it. I needed to know that I was going to be read, otherwise writing for its own sake didn't interest me. In fact, I went on strike until Minyan was accepted, because I just wasn't willing to add to the stack of unpublished manuscripts in my file cabinet.
The artwork on the cover is yours, did Tennessee work with you on the format and look of the dustcover?
They were great. I submitted the artwork for their consideration, they accepted it and designed the cover around it. That painting hangs over our piano in the living room.
You have said that you thought the book was largely overlooked, how do you feel about that, has it effected you as a writer?
Yes. Even though you can never get enough external recognition to be satiated, I could use just a little more for this book. It's mostly my frustration with the book business, and the mystery and luck of a book somehow winding up on the front table at Barnes and Noble instead of having to see all the LIKE NEW copies for sale on Amazon. It does make me wonder if I should bother writing another one--I mean, the positive responses from readers are certainly very gratifying, so that is obviously reason enough, but unless you hit it big, the material rewards are less than slim. I just visited 14 cities in 28 days to promote The 99th Monkey, and even if every one of the roughly 300 people total who came bought ten books each, that still wouldn't even register on the success-o-meter. You either have to love writing, or you have to have something you really want to communicate. I have some of both so I will carry on, but I find myself filled with envy and jealousy of more successful authors, just as unpublished writers have at times been envious of me. We're all such fragile creatures. A friend of mine has won the National Book Award, received the MacArthur Genius Grant and many other prizes, and I've observed him stewing miserably over one subtle line that could be construed as less than positive in an otherwise spectacular review.
Did winning the prize open other doors for you?
It allowed me to get to know the judge, author John Casey, another winner of the National Book Award, for Spartina. It turned out that he lived nearby, and subsequently invited me to sit in on one of his writing classes at the University of Virginia. I hadn't been to a writing class in 16 years, and was afraid to raise my hand at times, but Casey was both dazzling in his spontaneous stream-of-consciousness literary free associations, as well as incredibly generous, insightful and encouraging to people's work in a way that was very inspiring.
I wouldn't say that it opened any doors of opportunity for me as a writer, except indirectly, in that I'm sure the prize helps when I'm submitting something new to a publisher, although the sales figures sure don't help. I've even heard of authors who changed their names in order to publish second novels, for that very reason. I'm thinking of using "Pinky Schmelnick" next time--please keep it quiet.
Is Minyan semi- autobiographical as your main character, Norbert Wilner says towards the beginning of Minyan, "although parts of my story are identical to the author's, I am a fictitious character."
Yes, very semi-. I took bits of real people and their real life events and put them together into a fictitious story, alongside characters I made up. Of course, if you're the friend whose life I stole, you will not see it as fictitious at all, much to my dismay, since it cost me the relationship of an ex-girlfriend who didn't see the bigger picture. And there is a bigger picture.
Oddly, just the other day I received an email from a real person in Holland named Norbert Wilner. It kind of freaked me out to hear from one of my own characters, and particularly the one that is based on me. I hope he doesn't change the ending.
Later this week: Part 3 of the interview when Eliezer talks about how being Jewish effects his writing, his other books and gives some advice to writers.
Read The View From Here review of Minyan here.
To visit Eliezer's web-site click here.To visit The 99th Monkey click here.
For part 3 click here.