Unpublished In Tel-Aviv

The Yom Kippur that was…

Another year, another Yom Kippur. I fasted (The Baby, The Wife and The Dog did not) and by midday my head was swirling and thoughts were entering and leaving my head in a disorganised and uncontrollable manner. The chaos was not unpleasant – a bit like the drugs I no longer use, but the throbbing headache that birthed itself mid-afternoon and grew and grew until the fast’s end at 7:25 I could have done without. The Baby joyously slapping stickers on my forehead too…

As usual, Tel-Aviv was magical: crickets chirped, children played and the hidden sounds of the city broke free of the yoke of modern life. Usually I take photos; this year I decided to take videos to try and convey the magic of the Day of Atonement in the Promised Land. As no-one is mobile beyond a bike, this is Tel-Aviv unfiltered – exclusively of and for Tel-Avivians.

It was a holiday of two parts:

First, the night:

Allenby Street by King George

Everyone – and I mean everyone, is on the streets. Legal and illegal migrant workers congregate (Yom Kippur is the one day of the year the former do not work and the latter do not fear the immigration police), children draw on the tarmac between zooming bikes, quasi-religious dressed all in white amble to and from the myriad of tiny local synagogues, and dogs run free. It is wild and messy and inspiring…

Habima Square

…until we reach Habima Square (by the Mann Auditorium and the Habima Theatre), full to bursting with local families and a new level of intense. Even The Baby joins in, trying to throw herself down the tree-hillock to almost certain death.

Part two: the next day after thirsty, starving, sleep, and the city is deserted. The revelry is over and scant few people, bar those at the beach, venture out into the blazing sun. I sin just a little and go out on my corkinet to properly take in the barrenness of the larger streets.

A single lost religious man on Yitzhak Sade St.

Even the Ayalon Highway, the artery that runs North-South through the city, connecting Tel-Aviv and its northern suburbs to the airport and Jerusalem, is completely empty. Only children on bikes zip past and a few couples walk along the endless tarmac hand-in-hand.

Hashalom Exit of the Ayalon Highway (Azraeli Towers)

Tel-Aviv doesn’t need no stinking zombie apocalypse to stage its own 28 Days Later. It does it every year.

Shana Tova everyone.

Buying gas masks for dogs isn’t as easy as you’d think…

Save kitty!

In Israel there’s a concept of “this year’s war”. It implies inevitability, projects normality upon a reality where peace isn’t really peace but rather the absence (for now) of outright war. This year’s war? Who knows – could be Hezbollah (Lebanon), Assad (Syria) or some combination of the above with – at least unofficially – Iran. As Obama threatens to discuss strikes with Congress on its return today, just across the border one of our many friendly neighbourhood dictators gasses his own people. So Tel-Aviv is preparing itself for the possibility of regional blowback.

This preparation is partly mental (how do you rationalise this constant threat? I still don’t know), partly practical. Queues form at local post offices (“would you like a gas mask with your international mail?”), people prepare contingency plans should rockets tipped with chemical warheads fly towards us.

All apartments and houses in recent buildings must have a ‘mamad‘ or ‘safe-room’: reinforced concrete with metal shutters. They are hot, uncomfortable and claustrophobic and, as are usually viewed with resentment and disdain in times of not-war, counting as they do towards Tel-Aviv’s notorious letting ‘room-count’, despite protecting us – or so we are told – in all circumstances bar a direct hit.

Thanks. I feel much safer now.

The window in our ‘mamad’ – complete with steel curtain.

Only one problem: these mamads don’t take into account the threat posed by non-conventional weapons, and as any student of the warped logic of deterrence knows, Syria’s answer to Israel’s alleged (cough cough) nukes was one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical and biological agents.

Our family gas masks

 

So that brings us to the gas-masks, safely and inconspicuously stored in the entrance cupboard with the vacuum cleaner and the coats. Only: what about The Dog (formerly Young Dog)? Turns out the state doesn’t consider itself responsible for canine welfare, and trying to form a seal over pet hair is not that easy, so after searching the internet at length I finally settled on the only apparent option: a contraption not unlike a plastic bag that fits around a crate. This is attached to a filtration unit whose batteries – we’re reminded – “only last for six hours! Don’t forget to change them!”

Reassuring.

Just like everything else.

Shana tova everyone!

Of hacks and hopes. (On getting a professional edit.)

Is this “9.51 hours of work” worth $1426.50?

Being unpublished is tough. Writing involves just one person and one mind, and until the work is transcribed it exists only up there, completely unconveyable in anything but the most pitifully inadequate form. But, if you’ve never written a book and think that once all the words (so so many words!) are committed to paper the hard work is done, sorry. The bad news is: That’s when the real angst begins.

The work sits there, heavy in your hand like a sack of potatoes and equally as useless. It’s at once both complete and completely inadequate; nothing more than a poor pastiche of what it could be and what it still is in your head. “The first draft of everything is shit, is never more true than in the eyes of the author himself.

I grew up an isolated, solitary child – not by choice – and so my natural instinct was to tackle the task of ‘improving’ the first draft of Unpublished Novel #1 (i.e.: turning the rubbish I’d created into the masterpiece I knew it was capable of being) all on my own. While the first major edit to turn Draft 1 into Draft 2 – essentially a complete rewrite – was entirely worth it, as the five years progressed the edits became increasingly desperate and inconsequential until I finally realised the obvious: I was too close.

Unpublished Novel #1 was shelved soon after. It remains unfinished: ambitious to a fault, I need so much more experience before I can do it justice. But, I learned: as soon as I finished the first draft of Unpublished Novel #2 I googled, I read, I reread the bible (AKA “The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook”) with an explicit purpose: find a reputable editor.

My gut selected Hillel Black. Why? His decades of editing, his years in publishing, his self-proclaimed bestsellers and his Jewish roots (stupid – after all the aspiration is for Unpublished Novel #2 to transcend narrow ethnicities to the universal, but hey, I wanted to limit the chances of disappointment). A cordial if impersonal eMail exchange ensued and a deposit invoice was sent in one direction, and the manuscript was sent in the other.

The problems began almost immediately. Despite the promises of a quick turnaround, weeks turned into months and my eMails were shrugged off with the a flippant and disingenuous “I’ve been busy, I’m working on it and I’m enjoying it tremendously”. Finally another – larger – invoice arrived via Paypal together with a tracking number premised upon payment.

It arrived:

There were coffee-stains on the cover and the thick stack of papers seemed well-thumbed, but with every page the scribbled markings grew increasingly infrequent until, by chapter three, they disappeared entirely. While I had asked (and paid for) a thorough edit including a ‘book doctor’ appraisal of themes, tone, characters, pacing, writing style etc to the more pedestrian copy-editing of punctuation and spelling, what came back was… nothing. To add insult to injury, the attached double-spaced half-page of ‘comments’ (scanned above) referred to a book of two sections and two narrators (mine at that point had three of each), and included scant few specifics to signify that he had read the manuscript at all, let alone critically. Two stories? It’s one story told by three narrators! What exactly had Mr. Black been doing for those invoiced 9.51 hours?

Confused, I called his number. He answered the phone disoriented, didn’t remember who I was (though he claimed he did), didn’t remember my book (though he claimed he did) and then asked if I’d paid (unfortunately I had). Fuming at becoming the very definition of a freyer, I put the phone down and screamed and yelled and probably punched a wall.

It wasn’t just about the money – though nearly $1,500 is a huge amount of cash – it’s more about the inherent vulnerability of the unpublished author, a vulnerability that this vulture was preying on with full remorseless knowledge. Yes, he could be a drunk, he could be a fraud, he could be many things, but irrespective, he – a professional hired for an explicit purpose – had not deigned my work worthy of reading. No. Money has little ability to smart so sharply.

I took it badly. Thoughts of dead-end vacuous day-jobs in dimly-lit cubicles became alluring, even with their implicit promises of  gold watches, spiritual unfullfilment and a long, slow death. After all, why go through this isolated, isolating experience to be so painfully wounded before the slog towards publication has even begun? These are dangerous thoughts, and though I entertained them too long I picked myself up enough to return to my list and select the editors which seemed the farthest away from the wily Mr. Black – a collaborative association in the UK.

It is early days yet, but so far the Oxford Editors have thoroughly impressed. Though I was still wary and suspicious they talked me through the process, skimmed the manuscript and then selected an editor from their books who they felt was the best fit. Following a cursory read she and I spoke and she so eloquently and passionately critiqued the novel in overview (now in four parts) that I understood her to not only grasp its intent and aspirations, but also my ambitions for it.

As the name suggests, they are based in Oxford and the next time I am in England I will meet her to microscopically dissect the manuscript. I do not want to be too optimistic, but I am allowing a little crack of light to remain. Until then, here’s the first line of the book:

“She told me to get out, so what could I do? I got out.”

She said she thought it was the best she had read in a long time. What do you think?

Signs of life

Well, you may (or may not) have noticed that I’ve been away for a while. Or, better: through the ringer, for ‘away’ is so innocuous and implies sunny beaches (though there was some of that) and sangria and romantic trysts at sunset. But while through the past months the clouds were oppressive, there seems to now be a crack in the blanket that is letting the glimmers of light through once more.  In a nutshell: writing is solitary, tortured work riddled with almost limitless uncertainty, and when things seem dark it is difficult to keep any semblance of proportion.

But: more of that in coming posts. I guess you could call this an amuse-bouche. Come back soon for the entrée.

Simmering in the Bubble…

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Toilets be political! (Vote Meretz!)

Living where Unpublished Author lives, you could be forgiven for thinking Israel’s the left-wing liberal democracy of yore. Every billboard and toilet proclaims the strength of Meretz; every conversation you hear in coffee shops is between Avoda, Meretz and Hadash. This is the city where the Jewish state is still inseparable from democracy and equality. Where the (in my own opinion) greatest traditions of Judaism are still alive.

Which isn’t where the country’s moving to at all…

Just another example of the wonderful distorted reality Unpublished Author wallows in his adopted city…

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More Meretz (King George, Shenkein, Allenby, Nahalat Binyamin corner)

Of Cyprus and sick-bags…

I visited Cyprus today. Again.

I’ve been to Cyprus three times now, but only once intentionally. You see, Israel’s effectively an island. To the North, South and East we are ringed by frenemies or outright enemies; to the West is sea. Which means that should things go awry in all things aviation, Cyprus – that other ex-British colony with its own occupation problem – is the closest thing to a calm port in a storm.

Yup. That’s the Ayalon. Or the Ayalons. You know… the highway and the not-usually-a-river.

And what a storm this one is. The Ayalon, that sad sun-scorched dry stream bed is now a river that has burst its banks, swallowing not on the highway that shares its name (the main artery connecting Tel-Aviv to the rest of the country and itself), but also the railway that runs by its side.

Waze, the usually-fantastic, Tel-Aviv created, crowd-sourced free navigation app that Apple is so eager to buy, crashed under the weight of the chaos and sent tens of thousands of cars into a gridlock it covered its eyes and convinced itself didn’t exist. If you know any Israelis, check out their Facebook rants right about now.

The whole country is sodden, damp and saturated, and and all the while, we were circling overhead, oblivious to it all. Until we tried to land.

Once the plane came in, then powered out just inches from the runway. Second time we didn’t even get that close, dropping in low over the sea and scraping the tall buildings on the coast before a lightning strike took out the airport’s communications. That’s how we ended up in Cyprus, 45 minutes away and all alone in the Med. The sky was clear and the sun warmed our face through the open door as we sat like a potato on the runway.

But really, it wasn’t that bad. Not compared to what we’ve been through before. Two years ago during another storm, our plane was batted around so much in the wind on approach that all the sick-bags on-board were filled and then overflowed. When the pilot finally gave up and we landed in Cyprus, the cabin attendant pressed his head into hands and began to cry, confiding that in all his years he’d never been so scared. Then we took off an headed back. Only to be struck by lightning. Twice.

This is what Cyprus looks like from the runway. Nice, right?

This is what Cyprus looks like from the runway. Nice, right?

With that drama came consolations, though. Our experience was so bad that we made it onto the news, and Wife and I drank for free that night in the city’s hospitable bars. That was before Baby, so we still drank and did fun stuff other than changing soiled diapers.

That won’t happen this time, but at least the view of the raging sea’s pretty, and there’s some comfort in knowing that this whole region is being scolded by mother nature. Even Arabs and Israelis can occasionally get over themselves it seems.

I’m an uncle! (Again!)

Wife’s sister gave birth again today – another boy added to the burgeoning ranks of the next generation. Good timing too: his cousin (and parental addenda) just flew in from post-Sandy New York yesterday.

Ever the joyous one, the delighted new mother called Wife to tell her the news.

“He’s ugly,” she said, “but I like him anyway.”

Thank god for that.

Welcome to the world Nephew #4. It’s all downhill from here…

Pressure-free aspirations…

It’s been a rough few days. No real reason, but the storm clouds seemed to descend and not really raise.

I couldn’t write (I think the stakes seemed too high), and I couldn’t really bring myself to do anything else, so I went with Baby for her weekly paddle in piss and when she clonked out for her cat-nap at a beach-front restaurant afterwards, I picked up my pen and just let it hover there over the page for a few moments.

Since Baby’s birth, I’ve always dreamed of writing a children’s story that would be hers. This is nothing new for authors (published or unpublished) – there’s a huge section of Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, devoted to the book he writes for his son. Perhaps it’s a compensation we feel for… something. There was always an amazing tradition of literature for children before JK Rowling made a fortune from the Wizard with the scar. Barrie’s lament at lost innocence  Grimms’ repackaged adult evils; CS Lewis and his christian allegories; Tolkien and his apocalyptic tales; Pullman and his heretical master-stroke. Each raised the bar of literature, and the scope and depth of their worlds and their legends is perhaps unsurpassed. And yet despite their immense ambition, at their heart they are books for little ones, to teach and entertain and educate all at once. And your idiot Unpublished Author too has had an idea, or rather the most microscopic seed of an idea, for a while.

I’m not saying I’m a Lewis or a Tolkien or a Pullman. Not even a Rowling. But as I sat there and the waves lapped the shore, I told myself I would just see what the first page of such a book would look like. No pressure. No killing myself to continue. Just the first page and we’ll see what happens.

No sooner had I written the final word than Baby shocked herself to wake, eyed me suspiciously for a second and then burst into hysterical (and unnecessary) tears. I packed up my pen and notebook and dutifully fed her the salmon-steak I’d ordered on her behalf, now cold. I won’t continue today or tomorrow. This is clear. Not next week, perhaps not next year. But maybe one day I will read her this book, whatever it ends up looking like, and I’ll tell her how she waited just long enough to let me complete that first page.

Untranslatable comfort…

If you are what you eat, and the adult is the product of the child’s memory, then yes, I’m about 5,000 miles too far west for my own good. Packed lunches at school rarely involved sandwiches – instead there were ramen noodles imported from Japan (just add hot water from the teachers’ lounge) and maki rolls in delicate urushi-lacquered bento boxes way before Yo! Sushi spread sushi to the masses. Until I left home at 18, I had never had a meal without rice and my first piece of university-era kitchen equipment was a rice-cooker from London’s much-missed Asian-mecca Oriental City (post-closure, the site of the apocalypse in BBC3’s drama The Fades), complete with indecipherable kanji text.

When my grandmother left Japan, she and my grandfather brought with them their Japanese chef and each day for thirty years he would produce a decadently simple collection of simmered, fried and grilled dishes which would not be out of place at a Kyoto keiseki feast. But by far my favourite of his creations was a far more humble dish – and I’m embarrassed to admit this – his take on probably the ultimate Japanese comfort food: the improbably awesomely named omu-rice.

God only knows where this sacrilegious dish comes from: whoever thought it a good idea to wrap an omelette around ketchup-drenched chicken and rice deserves either a Nobel prize or a trip to the gallows. But as nostalgia food, food to make me feel better, to temporarily fill the void that aches, it succeeds far better than any two tubs of Haagen-Dazs ever could.

Not the best Omu-Rice…

There’s only one problem: Wife.

Last night I brought omu-rice to the sand dunes of the Med. I spent about two hours too long in its preparation and I even embellished her rubbery yellow egg with a gloopy, blood-red ketchup smiley face. That didn’t help: it was met by a stoney-faced, disgusted silence. Not the first time, I might add.

But I don’t care. Omu-rice reminds me of Hana-mata-san and his long knives and kindly smile. Of pulling up a wooden stool in my grandparents’ kitchen as the adults went about their intrigues in other rooms. Of being a fat kid who spent too much time on his own. Of a time when my family was much larger and I still believed some of them were good people. When the generations we’ve lost were still alive. When the world was complicated but it didn’t yet hurt. Of being young and stupid and easily comforted. And I will never apologise for that. Sorry.

“The first draft of everything is shit”…

Light at the end of the tunnel?

There comes a time in any book’s gestation when everything that will come together has already come together, where the hours have been put in and, as an unpublished author, you can sense the invisible finish-line in your bones. Thanks to Unpublished Novel #1, I recognise this moment: I realise where I am.

Unpublished Novel #2 has been full of surprises. Over the last four years I’ve had about five very good ideas (which remain bubbling away and will, hopefully, ultimately result in novels). Like UN#1 they were premised on heavy, complicated ‘idea’ ideas. There were central characters struggling with a moral  conundrum that encapsulated the spirit of their respective ages and I, exhausted, depleted and demoralised, couldn’t even contemplate the weight of work necessary to simply begin.

On an unspectacular day, Wife and I had an unspectacular fight. I did what I always do: I scrambled for my pre-packed rucksack and headed out the door. On a park-bench in Gan Meir, I took out my notebook and whatever pen was inked that day and began to write – just write – about someone like me but not me who existed in that exactly same moment, in exactly the same circumstances. As I wrote, our lives diverged and as I kept writing, a cast of characters emerged and developed, a story took root and, three weeks later, I had 30,000 words (just under half a novel) and a narrative at once complete and crying out for elaboration and exploration from a different angle.

The only problem: I didn’t know how.

I understood that this book had become about more than I had originally intended (if I had intended anything at all): it was about Tel-Aviv, about Israel, about youth and social insecurity and inequality, about racism and class and family and life and love. But as I thought about the unwritten second half, I couldn’t seem to find a way to plunge deeper, to unfurl more of the tapestry and scrape away at the layers of dirt and grime that clouded… it.

I wrote about seven different first chapters for part two and none of them were any good. While the first half came in three blinding fevered weeks, three-quarters of part two has taken me many, many months. It was hard work; harder work even than UN#1, for there at least I had a narrative arc I wished to adhere to.

But as I was giving up Sufi got ill and finally died, and Mitt Romney took the sexual politics debate to really nasty places and I finally understood what constituted the dish and what was the garnish. This was a book about the inclusive ‘everything’ of life here, yes, but it was primarily about hopes and about expectations – the characters of themselves and of others and of the world – and, of course, the consequential weight of the inevitable loss.

I write by hand with a fountain pen and a notebook. After I’ve begun, I don’t re-read a single word until I’m done. I just push on. But now that I am closer to the end than the beginning, I am charging my laptop and preparing for the sense of disappointment that comes with the first sight of the complete work. As Hemingway said: “the first draft of everything is shit.”

Shit, yes, but also the first opportunity to see not what you think you’ve created, but what you actually have. It’s a daunting moment, undoubtedly. But that’s got to be exciting, right?

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