Monday, June 13, 2011

Interview: Patty Friedmann, Author of Too Jewish

Joining us today is Patty Friedmann, author of Too Jewish. She also is the author of a YA novel called Taken Away and six darkly comic literary novels set in New Orleans. Her novels have been chosen as Discover Great New Writers, Original Voices, and Book Sense 76 selections, and her humor book was syndicated by the New York Times. She has published reviews, essays, and short stories in Publishers Weekly, Newsweek, Oxford American, Speakeasy, Horn Gallery, Short Story, LA LIT, Brightleaf, New Orleans Review, and The Times-Picayune and in anthologies The Great New American Writers Cookbook, Above Ground, Christmas Stories from Louisiana, My New Orleans, New Orleans Noir, and Life in the Wake. Her stage pieces have been part of Native Tongues.

In a special 2009 edition, Oxford American listed Secondhand Smoke with 29 titles that included Gone with the Wind, Deliverance, and A Lesson Before Dying as the greatest Underrated Southern Books. With slight interruptions for education and natural disasters, she always has lived in New Orleans.

Welcome to The Book Connection, Patty. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

When my bio says that I have lived all of my life in New Orleans except for a few stints away for education and natural disasters, that pretty much sums me up. On my mother’s side I’m sixth-generation; my father was an escapee from Nazi Germany. So I grew up puzzled in uptown, but the result was that I became a writer who understood the subtle ironies of this strange, funny city. I had the good sense to know that I had to go away—I chose Smith College—for my education, or I’d have been cut off at the knees by the shallow values of the girls who stayed.

I write darkly comical literary fiction, and I was doing well until Katrina came. My landscape changed forever, and only recently have I figured out ways to get back to the written word.

When did you begin writing?

I began writing when I was fully grown—just before I turned 40. (I don’t include earning a living as a journalist.) I wrote a humor book to explain why I wasn’t “making it” like all my overeducated MD and JD peers. Too Smart to Be Rich. It was a hit, syndicated by the New York Times, and it led to my fiction getting sold. Before then, I was too immature to write. As you can imagine, I expect very little of my under-40 kids.

Do you write during the day, at night or whenever you can sneak a few moments?

What I love most about the writing life is that it cuts so little into my real life. I write for an hour in late morning—I mean actually sit down at the keyboard and put words on the screen. That’s it. The rest of the day, especially if I’m driving or taking a shower, I’m turning over words and story in my subconscious mind, so there’s something ready for that hour the next morning. I write maybe 300 words a day, and it doesn’t take long to write a book.

What is this book about?

Short answer, my daddy.

That’s the emotional underpinning of the book. The narrative core is that it’s a fictionalized version of his life, which was filled with pain and survivor guilt and which defined my childhood home. He left Nazi Germany at the last possible moment without his mother, who refused to go. He was married to a wealthy girl from an old Jewish family in New Orleans, and I molded my parents’ marriage into a novel of conflict and tragedy set against the colors of 1940s New Orleans. Unlike my father, the protagonist of this book does not want to know the fate of his mother, and it is on this choice that the central meaning of the book depends.

What inspired you to write it?

This book naturally was germinating long before I was mature enough to write it. I knew as a child that both my parents were on the quai at LeHavre the day war broke out in Europe, my mother a spoiled girl touring Europe, my father running for his life from Germany. I tried to write it for the high-school literary journal. But it was reportorial and flat.

This actual book was born in a funny way.

Right after Hurricane Katrina, writer Julie Smith asked me to write a short story for a collection to be called New Orleans Noir. I wrote literary fiction; how would I do that genre? Easy, she said; think of the darkest, most evil experience I’d ever had in New Orleans. Easy was right: I wrote a story about high school. It was surely the blackest story in the book, all about mean girls in predominantly Jewish Newman School. So when Julie—like me a writer stymied by the storm—started her own e-publishing company, she asked me to write a novel expanding the short story. Too Jewish is that book. The story is the tragic ending of the story of a man who can’t fit into New Orleans any more than his daughter can fit into the snooty Jewish school that’s emblematic of the social milieu in which he’s found himself.

Are you a member of a critique group? If no, who provides feedback on your work?

I don’t ever want my writing to be workshoppy. I think there’s a syndrome, and if I exaggerated I’d say that it began in Iowa and was disseminated across the land, with Iowa graduates teaching in MFA programs, teaching writers all to write in the same mannered, careful way. I want to stay idiosyncratic. I want to keep my voice. So there’s only one person who ever reads my fiction before it sees an editor, and that’s my daughter. She is wise, wise, wise, and one day she will pick up her mouse and give the world her words, eclipsing everyone I know. Her name is Esme. Watch for her.

If you knew then, what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?

Over the course of my writing career, I have had relationships with a number of editors and agents I’d give my left arm to be connected with now. I had zero perspective in those times past. I guess I took them for granted, or I expected too much, or I didn’t go the distance, or I fired them foolishly. Now, here I am with the professional maturity to know that, basically, I can’t give in to my own personality, that I have to pretend to be the consummate professional, and it’s too late. The market is very tough. Sometimes I feel like a woman who’s been divorced too many times and has to go it alone. Of course, then I say, Hey, you are a woman who’s been divorced too many times, and you’re happy as a pig in slop, so I look for another analogy!

Where can readers purchase a copy of your book?

The easiest route is Amazon:

Do you have a website and/or blog where readers can find out more?

My website is All my books are there.

Do you have a video trailer to promote your book? If yes, where can readers find it?

What is the best investment you have made in promoting your book?

It’s only been a few days, but I’m going to predict that signing up with Dorothy Thompson’s is going to have been a brilliant decision.

What is one piece of advice you would like to share with aspiring authors everywhere?

I once was asked this question when I spoke at the local magnet high school.

“Misbehave,” I said. The roots of this idea go back to my freshman year at Smith when Mlle. Weed took me aside after Nineteenth-Century French Literature class. “I’m not saying to go sit in bars,” the virginal Miss Weed said to 17-year-old me, “but I am saying that you’re not going to understand this class until you do something to understand life.” From that I’ve extrapolated that a writer can’t write about human behavior and emotion without a lot of experimenting with life. That doesn’t come with toeing the line. I won’t go into detail, but I will say that in earlier times I’d have been a pariah, and it’s amazing I’ve never been arrested. And I’m not talking drugs.

Misbehave. Naivete never works.

What is up next for you?

I’m very close to Medicare, and unfortunately every medical test indicates that I’m in perfect health. That means that I have no reason to live up to my vow to become a rockin’ granny. I did that three years ago, then wrote two books. So I guess the same thing will happen again. I’ll swear I’m finished, and an idea will grab me, and I’ll write something new. I know my granddaughter will be grateful. She’s almost five and enjoys my cloying behavior now, but how long can that last?

Thanks for spending time with us today, Patty. We wish you continued success.

1 comment:

brokenteepee said...

I will have my review up for this on the 17th. It's a very powerful story to be sure.