Eliezer Sobel Interview Part 3 of 3

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by Mike

The View From Here Interview:
Eliezer Sobel

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.
Part 2 of this interview can be found here.

How important are your Jewish roots to you and your writing?

That's a bit like asking a fish, "How important is the water to your swimming?" Jewish is the ocean I showed up in. Plus, I had the added bonus of growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My mother and her immediate family got out of Germany just in time, in 1939, but had to leave loved ones behind who were put to death soon after. It’s hard to imagine what it must feel like to be 14 years old and have to leave the only home you’ve ever known because the powers that be want to kill you. It understandably left her scarred, with very little trust of non-Jewish people and a fundamentally fearful stance towards life that got transmitted to me, which has required a lifetime’s work to recognize, understand and move past. And I write from inside all of that history.

Can you give some advice to writers trying to get a publishing deal?

It's murder out there. Try to separate out your well-being, self-esteem and quality of life from the publishing process. I always write very effective query letters, percentage-wise, which means I know how to get someone's ear, and then it is up to the work itself, or more accurately, the whimsy, taste and mood of whoever happens to read it. It could be a college English major interning as an in-house reader who’s anxious to get back to the dorm for a party.

What do you think of the current climate for publishing fiction?

I'm actually completely ignorant of the current climate conditions for fiction. Are you trying to tell me something? What's going on? Should I quit?

Can you tell us something about the books that came after Minyan.

Book, singular. There were two before Minyan. The first was called the Manual of Good Luck. I was working as the editor of a magazine in the late 70s, and received a call from a man looking for a writer. He sold mail-order how-to books that he published in his basement on an old press, and advertised through the classifieds in the National Enquirer. He had just run an ad, as a test, for a book that didn't yet exist, and received thousands of orders. So he needed someone to write a book for him very quickly. I took it on.

The ad he ran said something like "Change Your Luck Overnight: Send for Free Introductory Material!" The free introductory material was a four-page leaflet that had also been produced previously in order to sell a product that did not yet exist. The leaflet declared, "This astounding information has been revealed by the Ancient Secrets of the Essenes. Don't make a financial move until you've read it." Thousands of people paid $17.95 for their book at about the same time I was hired to write it. I was actually not at all well versed in the Ancient Secrets of the Essenes, so I dropped that idea and wrote a fairly useful self-help book.

The Manual of Good Luck sold over 40,000 copies, but I received only an agreed-upon flat fee of one thousand dollars, which seemed like a good deal to me then. It never occurred to me to negotiate for a percentage. For fun, some years later I ripped off the cover and submitted it as a manuscript to a division of Prentice Hall. They promptly sent me a contract, at which point I had to sheepishly confess that there was one slight hitch: I didn’t own the rights to my own manuscript. I attempted to negotiate with the Manual’s publisher to buy back the copyright, but to no avail. I had to let it go.

A friend once calculated that the publisher of the Manual of Good Luck may well have made close to half a million dollars or more on my work, and she said that I had nothing to lose by writing him and simply requesting $25,000. So I did.

She was right: I lost nothing.

Just a few years ago I discovered a book for sale on the internet called the “Manual of Good Luck." Suspicious, I ordered it, and sure enough, discovered my own words - including my own personal story - attributed to a name I didn’t recognize as my own. My work had been edited from the original 175 pages down to a flimsy, twenty-page pamphlet. I threatened to punch the man responsible and he stopped selling it.

My other earlier book was Wild Heart Dancing, a self-guided creativity retreat book. After Minyan came my current book, published last February, called The 99th Monkey: A Spiritual Journalist's Misadventures with Gurus, Messiahs, Sex, Psychedelics and Other Consciousness-Raising Experiments. My original subtitle was "On Personally Preventing the Paradigm Shift," but my publisher preferred something a bit steamier, plus a guy at Kinko's Copiers saw the title and asked me what a "pa-ra-di-gum" was. The 99th Monkey is an account of my utter failure to get enlightened, my 30 years of resistance to change and growth despite going to great extremes all over the world in the attempt. "Hilarious and poignant, shows great insight into the human condition," an astute reviewer might suggest.

Do you have any plans to write another novel and can you tell us something about it?

In my twenties, I was really excited by Jack Kerouac's ongoing saga of his own life and that of his friends, using different names and undoubtedly doctoring and/or manufacturing reality. His Duluoz Legend, as he called it, inspired me, so when I wrote Minyan, I considered it to be the first in a series about Norbert Wilner, the next being Wilner in Wonderland, then Norbert Goes to Newark. I have started one that picks up his life nearly 20 years later, with some of the old characters and some new ones. Maybe I'm just imitating Philip Roth and his Zuckerman series, but I didn't mean to.

Thanks Eliezer

Thanks so much, Mike!

Read The View From Here review of Minyan here.

To visit Eliezer's web-site click here.

To visit The 99th Monkey click here.


Stella said...

Excellent interview, Mike. I've been cackling with merriment for the past 10 minutes.

ankyonline said...

interesting and well written

gary davison said...

Good interview, Mike, enjoyed it alot.

Paul said...

What an interesting bloke Eliezer Sobel is. Nice interview, Mike.