Growing up in Philadelphia, I first became interested in historical fiction when I attended the Jewish Day School, Akiba Hebrew Academy, and was exposed to Midrash, a form of scriptural commentary that retold familiar stories by elaborating on the lives of marginal characters or adding new dimensions to familiar figures. My novel, Moses in Sinai, continued that tradition, using Arabian Nights-style storytelling to subvert familiar figures such as Moses, Miriam and Aaron.
I have never stopped being fascinated by people or events that are written out of history. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan University, I majored, informally, in “failed revolutions,” and my interest in Medieval history and literature led to a fellowship to England. I was nineteen when I started my first novel, The Confession of Jack Straw which recounted a 14th Century peasant uprising from the peasants’ point of view. The novel, revised at the University of Michigan, won a Hopwood Award and was published by Black Heron Press in 1991, the same press that later published Moses in Sinai.
After five years as a Visiting Lecturer at Southern Illinois University, I joined the Peace Corps in 1991 and spent two years teaching in Hungary, where I began my novel, Louisa, a modern adaptation of the biblical Book of Ruth. Louisa is narrated by a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who emigrates to Israel in 1949, accompanied by her German, non-Jewish daughter-in-law. On returning to Philadelphia, I continued my research through a grant from the University of the Arts Venture Fund and a grant from the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, returning to Hungary and traveling to Israel, where much of that novel takes place.
Louisa was published by Penguin-Putnam in 2001. It received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal and Kirkus, and received praise from The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Philadelphia Inquirer. The novel received the Goldberg Prize for Emerging Jewish Fiction. As a result of the publicity generated by Louisa, I was asked to include a piece for The Lost Tribe Anthology and invited to write Hanukah stories for National Public Radio. Two of the stories were included in the NPR broadcast and one was featured in the published anthology Hanukah Lights. I married my husband, Doug Buchholz the same year that Louisa was accepted for publication.
Louisa is only available “new” as a Kindle book or through Print on Demand. On the other hand, Black Heron Press has kept Jack Straw and Moses in Sinai in print. Why do we write and go on writing? Yes, I want my work read, and yes, I still believe in a vetting process and reviews. At the same time, in the years since Louisa’s publication, the world has changed and will go on changing.
My novel Waveland. which follows the story of a wayward, brave and troubled Freedom Summer volunteer, has just been released by a press that is a response to this Brave New World, The Head and the Hand, a “craft publisher” that is defiantly locavore, attentive to detail, and adept at social media. Their books are gorgeous, and they may well be the future of publishing.
At the same time, I will admit to being gratified to learn that my next novel was accepted by Tor, an old-school publisher of Science Fiction. I recieved a a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction on the basis of a chapter of this very strange novel, Judenstaat, an alternative history which owes something to George Orwell and Philip K. Dick. Judenstaat considers the consequences of a Jewish state established in Germany. Even novels about invented history require research, and Judenstaat led me to study Yiddish in Vilna, as well as to travel to former East Germany and once again, to Israel, where I took a careful look at how difficult history was presented and erased in monuments and museums across both countries.
Six months before Judenstaat was published, its editor, David Hartwell, died. The hardback received strong reviews, and it was released in paperback from PM press in January 2020. I’m thrilled that the book will reach a new audience, and we added supplementary material, including end-notes to help people sort through its complicated references, and a wonderful interview with Mystery People.
So what am I working on these days? I just completed a novel based on Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. It’s set in a fancy Long Term Care Community. Of course, it’s called The Hill. Now, I’m reading the Book of Judges (yes, the one in the bible) over and over again, finding my way into my next project. In other words, I continue to write books that are difficult to classify, the kinds of books I want to read.
Meanwhile, since 1993, I have taught at Community College of Philadelphia where I established a Creative Writing Certificate Program and coordinated their English Degree. I have also taught at the University of the Arts and the University of Pennsylvania’s College of General Studies where I designed a six-week course on Writing and Researching Historical Fiction. My novels have been taught at colleges throughout the country, most notably at the University of Miami, where Moses in Sinai is assigned reading in a class called “Bad Jews.”