Leora Skolkin-Smith: Backstory

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I think, looking back, that the days “Edges” was only a cipher inside my very confused ideas about heritage and psyche, writing and autobiography, real history and the illusions of politics were the days the back-story for the novel began. I had really gone through two other unsuccessful novels, trying as hard as I could to turn the world I knew as a child into some sort of workable literary clay. Everything I formed from this clay, though, was either desperately personal or show-offey, depending on how much I had to prove to myself that I was really a writer on any given day. It was more like I was a boxer using words– pugnacious, defensive and always so punchy.

9680228A certain unmistakable character trait began to manifest itself these early struggling writing days. It was Grace Paley, a friend to my piles of drafts and rejection letters from publishers, who finally said: “You know, you have a certain fight and pridefulness in you not unlike your mother’s.” This was an alarming thing to say to me, as a major part of my literary clay was my conflict with this mother. I always told myself I would rather jump out a window than be like her.

My mother was born in the ancient city of Jerusalem in a Palestine not yet damaged irrevocably by war and terror . Later, she was required to identify herself only as an “Israeli”, despite her more innocent moments as a young Jewish girl in a wildly sensual and exciting early Jerusalem. She had joined the Israeli underground by fourteen, and perhaps it was there that she developed what I saw as an alternately obnoxious, prideful and fiery personality. A personality later complicated by the sophistication of New York cocktail parties, which she attended after she married my genteel American father and settled here in America.

In a way, my mother never really knew who she was, or to what country she really belonged, or if, when she stopped fighting for some ineffable password into a solid identity, she might finally rest, even relax into an equitable relationship with the world. I both admired and feared her instability, her refusal to be anything at all but the messy self she was. But after Grace said this to me I began to write about her. Instead of writing about me. It was easier than facing the many ways I was turning into her.

The first scenes I came up with were just about sitting around a dinner table in 1963, in Jerusalem as a child with my mother, my aunt, my sister, and my uncle. They made Grace and people I loved laugh but also feel an intimacy with a place so be-riddled and terrifying– the news about Israel and the war there was constant after the first Infatida in the 1980’s– bombings and death graphically shown on TV in monotonous, bloody, relentless reportage. I wanted to draw everyone to some more illuminating and digestible reality, a profounder place perhaps, and telling them these stories–about my mother, my grandmother from old Jerusalem, about a childhood where things were beautiful on the streets now strewn with victims–I offered something I had never felt as a writer. Finally, after years of searching for the reason to write, I found out why I liked to write. I tapped that earliest of impulses–a yearning to tell stories that would entertain and uplift people a little, tell them things about mysterious and frightening faraway places, excite the room with weird characters, and, like Scherezade keep the plot of war, love, family, and land going ever strong and truthful.

I never expected any of this to be a “novel”. I mean, I wasn’t desperately personal anymore, I was lively and generous in a way. And I wasn’t really showing off (well, maybe a little here and there). Instead, really, I felt like I was bringing some light to events far out of people’s control and understanding, to people I cared about who were hurting from the confusion, the daily innumerable incidents in Israel and elsewhere in the nearby Middle East. And, not unimportantly, I was also entertaining, bringing intimacy, familiar warmth with the tears. Added to this, I was finding myself and my mother, finding what one would call a “writing voice”.

The magic came when Grace Paley, reader and listener, one of people I tried to entertain out of sorrow, asked for more dinner scenes in my 1963 recalled Jerusalem, then more family characters, more scenes with this mother, this sister, this forgotten place and historical time.

Eventually, “Edges” got written.

I guess that’s my back-story. Like the novel “Edges” it is both a coming-of-age story and a story about war and family and love… and how one might find a way, after all, to finally become writer.

Leora SkolkinLeora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel Hystera. You can learn more about her at our website. This post originally appeared on Backstory.

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On January 6, 2014
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