Many of you know that Waveland, my Civil Rights novel, is coming out in May with The Head and the Hand, a small Philadelphia publisher based in Kensington. When I considered ways to spread the word about Waveland I immediately thought of the Jewish Book Council.
As each major Civil Rights anniversary passes, again and again, Jewish organizations have been finding ways to celebrate the disproportionate number of Jews who volunteered in Mississippi Freedom Schools or marched with King in Selma, and Waveland’s heroine, Beth Fine, is Jewish. Beth’s story isn’t simple or heroic. As she tells her daughter years later, she was the girl who did everything wrong. She comes to Mississippi as an outsider, and struggles to move beyond mere good intentions and make a difference in the South and in this country. It is an American story, but also a deeply Jewish one.
The Jewish Book Council had awarded a prize to my previous book, Louisa, and my friend Nomi Eve told me about their legendary conference where authors pitch their books to a hundred representatives from book festivals, synagogues and community centers from across the country.
Then I looked at their website and my heart sank. I could apply to join the Jewish Book Council’s network, but my publisher would have to send a hundred copies of the book—10% of their print run. They would also have to pay a fee of close to $500.00. My immediate response was simple outrage. The requirements seemed to rule out any books that didn’t come from a large, commercial press (or was self-published by an author with deep pockets).
But after some reflection, I knew that The Jewish Book Council probably had its reasons. The representatives from Jewish organizations certainly would all need copies. How else would they be able to read the book? Furthermore, given the good work done by the JBC—reading guides, awards, and author tours, and countless forms of outreach, how could I begrudge them an opportunity to do some fund-raising?
The trouble is: The Head and the Hand doesn’t have the money. The staff are bright, talented amazing people with day-jobs. During our meeting, wine is served in coffee-mugs. Their books are carefully selected, well edited, cleverly marketed, and beautiful. But the the press could never afford the Jewish Book Council’s terms.
But then, I had the following idea: what if we asked for help? I’ve always been leery of platforms like Kickstarter or Pubslush, but I felt as though I’d become possessed by a tech-savy crowd-sourcing Dybbuk. The Head and the Hand staff have good instincts about these things. They immediately agreed to the plan.
Thus, some emails went out to a list of Jewish friends who care about books. And if you’d like to help out, you can contribute here.
It will be fascinating to pitch Waveland to the folks at the Jewish Book Council conference. Its heroine—the deeply flawed and fearless Beth Fine—doesn’t believe in religious or ethnic distinctions. At one point, Beth encounters a Mississippi shopkeeper—a Jew of course– who says, “You all don’t know how difficult you make it for us here. You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” Beth doesn’t deny it. Yet she feels that it doesn’t make a lick of difference. Certainly, some people may feel that there’s a kind of arrogance to her perspective, but based on the letters and memoirs I’ve read, it’s one that many volunteers seem to share.
Yet fifty years after Freedom Summer, four volunteers, Dottie Zellner, Ira Grupper, Larry Rubin, and Mark are touring the country as part of Open Hillel, speaking out against Israeli policies in Palestine. They’re doing so as Jews.
Does this represent a shift, or is it simply an outgrowth of their work in Mississippi where they spoke out as Americans? Is it the nature of a Jew to raise difficult questions, and to hold any country to a decent ethical standard?
…or is this claim an exercise in self-congratulation? I’m not sure. Waveland doesn’t answer these questions, but it raises them. Help me convince the folks I meet at the Jewish Book Council’s conference that they are questions worth asking. Apparently, I’ll have exactly two minutes to make my case.