Monday, 22 February 2010

A Literary Conversion

Jewish Book Week is coming up. As always there’s a great line-up of authors - Jewish and non-Jewish talking about their work. It’s a great example of a successful literary festival, very popular and whenever I’ve been the events have been sold out. They don’t call Jews the people of the Book for nothing.
So…as my Jewish friends have been asking…am I going to be speaking at Jewish Book Week? After all I am Jewish and what’s more I sometimes work for a Jewish newspaper. I have been known to write outspoken comment articles in that newspaper. Surely I am a dead cert for Jewish Book Week.
Umm, well no, I reply. The problem is that I may be a Jewish writer – define that - but I have not written a Jewish book. In fact I have written a Catholic book. Two Catholic books. I don’t know if I’m more proud or surprised about that. I certainly enjoyed it. Thinking my way into the head of a Catholic was just as much of a challenge as becoming a teenage boy.
I didn’t really mean to write a Catholic book. I wasn’t especially drawn to themes like confession, penitence and stigmata (Note to those who have not read When I Was Joe yet, these themes are delivered with a light touch. I promise). Ty became a Catholic for purely pragmatic reasons, to do with the sort of school I wanted him to go to.
But once he and his family became Catholics, there was no going back. It was part of their mindset, it informed their behaviour. I felt quite uncomfortable at times, almost as though I was being unfaithful. It also felt strange to be viewing Catholic liturgy as quotable copy - and it's fantastically quotable, thank you so much whoever wrote it. I thought and learnt about Catholicism as best I could, asked a Catholic friend to read the most relevant bits, and hoped I’d got it right.

It was a great relief when I met the (completely wonderful) reading group at Nicholas Breakspear School, a Catholic School in St Albans who’d been given advance copies of When I Was Joe to read. Did I get the Catholic bits right, I asked nervously. “The thing is,” said one boy, “usually people make a big deal about Catholics in books. You just made it normal.” He couldn’t have paid me a greater compliment.
I had a chat with the organisers of Jewish Book Week who, quite reasonably, suggested that if I put a Jewish character in a book then they would welcome me with open arms. And I would like to do that. Growing up in an area where few Jews lived, as almost the only Jewish girl at my school I noticed the lack of Jewish characters in the books I read. I can only think of a few - Miranda West in Antonia Forest’s brilliant stories about the Marlow family stands out as a completely real north London Jewish girl, even though she and her family were nothing like mine. Growing up I never read a book about anyone anything like me. I felt more different, more peculiar, more invisible as a result.
So I would like to put a Jewish character in a book. But how to do it? It’s relatively easy to make sure that not everyone in your books is white, and I also have a thing about putting women and black people in positions of authority. But you can’t easily mention someone’s Jewish roots in passing - not without sounding like a 1930s anti-Semite anyway. Maybe you just need a character or two named Rebecca Rabinovitch or Tal Amit? But does there have to be a point to that? Does a Jewish character mean Jewish themes, battling Jewish stereotypes? How much Jewish background and practise do I have to explain?
Anyway, I am going to try and always have a designated Jewish character in every book of mine. In When I Was Joe it can be Ashley’s friend Becca. In Almost True it’s Mr Armstrong. True their Jewishness only exists in the author’s mind, but that’s OK. I’m always going to know more about my characters than anyone else. And maybe one day that designated character will step out of the shadows and take centre stage.
In the meantime I do feel I'm a good pick for Catholic Book Week. Can someone tell me when it's on?


  1. Fascinating, especially your comment near the end about knowing the characters better than the reader. If you are sure of the Jewishness of these characters but don't want/need to flag it up for the reader, then it may be that little clues about their backgrounds will emerge through the writing anyway.

    I have just ordered When I was Joe -- I'm looking forward to it.

  2. Well it won't with those two because I'm doing the designating after the event. It may well with the next book - I just have to decide who to anoint.

  3. Well I think its a shame you are not at JBW. Maybe they'll reconsider next year when you have two books to talk about.

  4. Judy Blume has Jewish characters but doesn't make a big thing about it. Don't ask me which books, though.

    On the conversion front - keep it literary, that's my advice. I knew an orthodox Jewish man who became a Catholic and a member of opus dei. Two sets of elaborate neuroses made him a very odd character indeed

  5. Much easier to do for Americans, I have to say where there are more Jewish people and it's more likely that they will be Jewish only in name. In the UK it's more complicated (she generalises wildly).
    Don't worry, I can safely say that my conversion will remain entirely literary! I have quite enough neuroses of my own.

  6. Oooh there was a Jewish character in my last post - do you think they'll let me speak?
    *Read about my dating disasters at plentymorefishoutofwater*

  7. Its a shame they won't let you speak!

    OBVIOUSLY they are not aware of the awesomeness of When I was Joe.


  8. Def. going to get When I was Joe because it sounds fascinating & yes, I want to see if you got it right. But why not...writers can do anything, cross countries and cultures, explore different philosophies and do something far harder & write in the voice of the opposite gender. We've always written the 'other'
    My novel is very Catholic (priest falling in love in 1960s London) but I was invited to give a talk at a Hove synagogue because they thought the themes of breaking the rules of your community and religion was something that they could relate to...