Author Interview with Eliezer SobelPosted by Michy
Eliezer Sobel’s Author Interview:
It’s rare today to find an author who does nothing but write for a living. Do you have a ‘real’ job other than writing, and if so, what is it? What are some other jobs you’ve had in your life?
Eliezer Sobel: I was fired from my first job in 10th grade as a pizza-delivery guy because I kept getting lost and taking 2 hours to deliver each order. I fared better as a busboy in the Catskills, but let’s not talk about the flying noodle kugel incident, or the matzah ball soup in the guy’s lap. In college I only lasted one day selling Time Life Books over the phone, because I kept trying to talk people out of it. I guess I’ve never really been cut out for the real world, though I have managed to fake it well enough over the years to have been a hospital chaplain, high school music teacher, typesetter, magazine editor, workshop and retreat leader, and a ropes course facilitator.
What compelled you to write your first book?
Eliezer Sobel: A flat fee of $1000, which sounded like a lot of money at the time. The publisher sold How-To books through ads in the National Enquirer, books he self-published in his basement in the days before computers and printers. He had received hundreds of orders for a self-help book that didn’t exist yet, called the Manual of Good Luck. I wrote it for him, and he sold over 40,000 copies at $17.95 a pop.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Eliezer Sobel: No, I originally wanted to be a baseball player. Later it was a detective, then rock star. I still want to be a rock star.
Tell us a little bit about your book/s.
Eliezer Sobel: After the Manual of Good Luck, I got lucky, and my agent at the time managed to get three major publishers into a bidding war over my next book, Wild Heart Dancing, which was a self-guided creativity retreat. Simon & Schuster won, gave me quite a substantial advance, and then both my editor and her assistant left Simon & Schuster and suddenly nobody in that huge company even knew me, and everything that had been promised me in terms of PR went out the window.
My first novel was called Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken, which also had a difficult birthing process. First, a big-time Hollywood agent got me all excited when she called personally to say she loved the first chapter and was taking the manuscript with her on vacation in Greece to finish it. She emphasized on the phone that she does “big, big projects” in the film industry. A few weeks later I received a generic, white postal card from Crete, no picture of the Parthenon, nothing, just a note saying “I can’t work with this material, I am discarding the manuscript here.” I pictured my characters drifting in the Aegean Sea, helplessly flailing about.
Fortunately, I was thrilled to find a new agent who was quite well respected in the serious literary world, and he all but promised he would find a publisher for Minyan. And then he died. On and on it went—it was over 15 years between inception and publication.My present book, The 99th Monkey, also accumulated a fair amount of rejections from agents and publishers, including my own agent, who felt that memoirs are too difficult to sell, so chose not to represent it. One publisher led me on for a year, saying he really liked the book but was still on the fence. When I finally pushed him for an answer, he turned it down, saying, “The central character’s story just doesn’t hang together.” “Central character?” I thought to myself. “This is a memoir. I AM the central character!”
Have you ever won any writing awards? If so, what?
Eliezer Sobel: Minyan won the Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel, out of 400 entries. That’s actually how it finally got published. A short story, excerpted from Minyan but standing alone as Mordecai’s Book, won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction.
How did you feel the day you held the copy of your first book in your hands?
Eliezer Sobel: I can’t remember. It was in 1979. My girlfriend was with me, in Brooklyn. I think we walked to the boardwalk in Brighton Beach and had a knish.
What inspires you and motivates you to write the very most?
Eliezer Sobel: Having something to say, the need to communicate. When I don’t have something to say, I don’t write. That’s why I created what I call a “Mostly Silent Blog” – http://the99thmonkey.wordpress.com –I don’t want to contribute to the word glut unless I think it might be useful, or at least entertaining. I’m not someone who spends a certain amount of time with the blank page everyday no matter what. I’ve always liked the Zen idea that “I am a writer when I am writing.” Other times, I am something else. When I am shopping in the grocery store, I am a shopper.
What one thing are you the most proud of in your life?
Eliezer Sobel: I’m usually proud if I can make it out of bed in the morning and face another day, but that’s not something you can really boast about: “Hey, I got up today!”
What about your family? Do you have children, married, siblings, parents? Has your family been supportive of your writing?
Eliezer Sobel: I live with my wife, Shari Cordon, and three cats: Plum, her daughter Peanut, and the irascible Squarcialupi, who works part-time as a stand-up comic. My parents are both 84, still living in my childhood home in New Jersey. My father wrote a rave review of The 99th Monkey on Amazon, and has been my benefactor, so yes, he’s very supportive. My mother has Alzheimer’s, so her only comment about my book so far is that “I don’t like all the monkeys.”
Is there an established writer you admire and emulate in your own writing? Do you have a writing mentor?
Eliezer Sobel: In my early days I emulated Kerouac’s stream of consciousness, but that mostly resulted in stacks and stacks of journals that I eventually burned. I do sometimes use his approach of thinly disguising his own life story and just changing the names. I was also into Stanley Elkin early on, and lots of other Jewish male writers. And Vonnegut, of course, and I not only love Tom Robbins’ books, but I actually find almost all of his individual sentences just amazing. For non-fiction I am a big Colin Wilson fan. As for mentors, after 30 years away from the classroom, I took a writing course at UVA last semester with National Book Award winner John Casey, who also happened to be the judge that selected Minyan as the winner of the Peter Taylor contest, so he is my most recent mentor, if not savior.
When growing up, did you have a favorite author, book series, or book?
Eliezer Sobel: The Happy Hollisters, The Hardy Boys, The Bronc Burnett baseball stories, the Black Stallion series. My first book ever was A Home for Sandy, about a cocker spaniel. I also loved several Golden Books that I still have: Scruffy the Tugboat and Judy & Jeremy’s Hanukah. And the Papa Small books.
What about now: who is your favorite author and what is your favorite genre to read?
Eliezer Sobel: I’m all over the map, with usually half a dozen books going at once, of which I will finish two or three. I always think of Father William McNamara’s advice: “Never read good books. There’s not enough time. Only read great ones.” The other day that phrase came into my head in the middle of page 126 of a novel I was reading, and I found myself tossing it across the room, realizing life was too short for that one. I’m currently enjoying Michael Chabon’s recent book, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and all the works of Steve Stern, who I just discovered. I’m reading Henry Miller’s Sexus for the first time, and I read all of Richard Power’s books—his The Echo Maker won the National Book Award last year, but lots of people have never even heard of him!
Hey, let’s get morbid. When they write your obituary, what do you hope they will say about your book/s and writing? What do you hope they will say about you?
Eliezer Sobel: I’ll have the first tombstone without a last name. It will just say:
“Eliezer who?” And my soul will drift off into much the same obscurity as I enjoy now, among the living. Either that, or it will say, “Just another dead guy.” What I’m not counting on is, “The Tolstoy of his generation,” which, by the way, is something The New York Times Sunday Book Review did say about my friend Richard Powers, so maybe my epitaph can be, “He knew the Tolstoy of his generation.”
How has having a book published changed your life?
Eliezer Sobel: I read an article somewhere that issued a warning to writers that said: “Don’t expect your book to change your life.” To do so is to put a huge burden on your book. You’re way ahead of the game if it changes someone else’s life, hopefully for the better. As for my own life, unless Oprah calls and I become wealthy and famous overnight, which might require a lifestyle adjustment, basically I still seem to have to take myself with me wherever I go, or as my friend Eddie Greenberg said about me, I’m “still the same old schmuck.” I think we all get into trouble when we make the quality of our daily lives somehow dependent on external events. That’s a set-up for a lot of suffering.
Do you have any book signings, tours or special events planned to promote your book that readers might be interested in attending? If so, when and where?
Eliezer Sobel: I’m doing a tour this fall—you can find details at www.the99thmonkey.com
Now, use this space to tell us more about who you are. Anything you want your readers to know?
I just turned 56 and I still feel like I’m 4; I find it very soothing to play Satie on classical guitar and piano; I believe in a raw foods diet but I eat brisket; even though I generally hate to move my body, I am actually about to complete a year-long training to teach Gabrielle Roth’s 5 Rhythms work, which works with dance and movement as a healing path; I co-lead silent Jewish meditation retreats several times a year at the Isabella Freedman Center in Falls Village, Conecticut; and I used to teach intensive creativity workshops at Esalen Institute. I’m a lefty.
In addition to the two websites I’ve already mentioned, there is also my home base site at www.eliezersobel.com. People can read the Prologue to The 99th Monkey online to see if it grabs them. Thanks!