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Author Interview

Drawing in the Dust
Zoe Klein

A CONVERSATION WITH ZOE KLEIN

1. Discuss the title Drawing in the Dust. The use of “drawing” implies continuous creation. In your mind, what creation is happening throughout the novel?

There is a dance that begins in the first sentence of the novel. The opening describes a young Page sitting slumped at a school social staring across a swarm of dancing students at a clock. Page observes in the first paragraph, “The clock was my only partner at the dance.” The rest of the novel is a continuation of this dance between Page and the clock. Time, which was once benevolent and generous, becomes monstrous and devouring with her father’s illness. It stalks her the way the crocodile, “Tick Tock Croc,” stalked an aging Captain Hook while Peter Pan flew about forever and tauntingly young. Page spends her life trying to figure out the steps to this dance, but her own terror robs her of any grace. She cannot reconcile time as her partner, and instead tries to run by burying herself in the sand.

The creation that is happening throughout the novel is the choreography of a dance between mortal and eternal. Toward the end of the novel, Page realizes, “Story is the one thing that moves between death and life. The soul of a person is made from stories. Stories that keep telling themselves over countless ages, and when man no longer listens, they become the lyrics to the music of galaxies.” She finally begins to transform the battle into dance.

The phrase, “drawing in the dust,” of course means different things. It is what a vacuum does. It is also what a child does. Page is a little bit of both. She has childishness to her as well as emotional vacancy. She struggles with impermanence. Drawings in the dust, castles in the sand, flesh and blood which becomes bleached bone. But one could argue that impermanence is the essential quality of beautiful. Fleeting lends to enchantment rather than detracts.

2. You are one of the youngest female senior rabbis in the United States. How did that influence your writing?

I think that when one assumes the title of ‘rabbi,’ one steps out of age and gender. A rabbi needs to be able to be as genuinely connected to the elderly widower who is taking off his wedding ring for the first time as she is to the young parent bringing a child to the podium for a blessing.

That being said, I do remember this private moment I had in my apartment when I was living in Jerusalem. I had been studying Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and I had a passionate fire in me about it. After a few months, however, I began to become frustrated and even despondent. I felt myself excluded from the texts. It seemed that woman was just a vessel for man’s further enlightenment. A sage was to make love to his wife on the sixth day in order to arouse harmony in the cosmos. In other words, sleeping with his wife was all about affecting something in the universe, she was just some vessel for his ultimate, heroic, heaven-altering purpose. That is how I read it then, young and tutor-less. But just as quickly, out of my sorrow something broke through. I realized that because I wasn’t written into the story, I was entirely free. I wasn’t fettered by lettering. Kabbalah, Torah, Talmud, was all mine to learn and play with and tease and mold and own and dance through. I was outside the grain so I didn’t have to follow the grain. I was female and under forty, so I wasn’t even supposed to be here, which meant that no one was looking for me. I could be wind or water, fluid enough to move around and in and throughout every looping letter. No one could see me, I felt, because I wasn’t written in. I felt as if I was, all at once, invisible, and instead of sadness this filled me with elation, with a surge of joy and ownership and freedom. I could spook into the Holy of Holies where no one but the High Priest ventured, and no one could find me. I could join Moses on Sinai, and crouch by the ram on the top of Mount Moria. And though I’ve grown and my learning has been deepened with spectacular teachers through Seminary along the way, when I write I still experience that pure and solitary joy of being bodiless, moving undetected through time and space. In a way, age and gender did contribute to that.

My mentor, Rabbi Jerome Malino, used to tell me that being a rabbi is about seeing the unshed tear and hearing the unasked question. I think that writing is not too different. The private wrestling that writing requires and the public presence which is the rabbinate symphonize with one another for me. I think without the writing, I would be fragile as an empty shell. My stories are my substance. They are my soul, and allow me to listen with greater depth. So as much as my rabbinate influences my writing, I think my writing influences my rabbinate more.

3. Though the two are not mutually exclusive, what do you consider yourself most to be? A religious figure – a rabbi – who has written a novel, or a novelist, who is also a rabbi?

While the answer to this question is clear in my heart, it is hard to answer it in words but I will try. I consider myself a novelist first, but this takes a bit of explaining. While God is often referred to as the “Author of All Life,” I like to relate to God as the Reader of All Life as well. Life is a love letter, written in logos deeper than language. I am a novelist first, but I don’t always compose with pen and ink, or keyboard and monitor. Rather, as a rabbi I help people compose with heartbeats and breath, identifying the myths and truths in their lives. A community is a library of timeless tales and adventures, of grief that poeticizes, often darkly, and of redemptions that fill the air with song. When I officiate life cycle ceremonies, I always feel as if I am trying to weave something strong out of delicate fibers. At weddings, I try to help build a solid foundation out of very feathery dreams. At births, I try to infuse joy and light into an entirely mysterious future. At death, I take the tiny strands of an infinitely complex life and try to thread them into something sacred. Writing and serving as a rabbi are not too different to me. In the end, it is about crafting stories, and helping people discover their grand themes and subtler metaphors. It is about offering these stories skyward to the Reader of All Life.

4. Throughout the history of Judaism, women have had many different roles and have been treated very differently in regard to the faith, at times very well, and in some instances, not so well. How did this affect you in creating the book’s characters?

It is interesting to me that most people, when they imagine a pious, God-fearing woman, imagine someone very modest, soft-spoken, and dutiful. However, women rarely make it into the Bible unless they use a little sass. Eve’s desire for wisdom causes her to transgress. Sarah, afraid people might kill her husband Abraham in order to take her, pretends she is single and even allows herself to be married off to two different kings. Yael seduced Sisera before driving a tent peg through his head. Look at the only women outside of Mary mentioned in the Gospel’s genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, and Bathsheba. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law. Ruth snuck to a sleeping land-owner, Boaz, in the middle of the night and lay at his feet. Rahab was a prostitute who lived in the wall of Jericho. Bathsheba slept with King David while her husband Uriah was at war. Biblical women were very strong, and they used what little power they had to influence history and protect their families’ futures, and that power was primarily sexuality. I wanted to recast what it means to be a God-fearing, God-wrestling woman and to lift the sanitizing veil and let the raw faces with flushed cheeks of Page and her ancient soul-sister Anatiya shine.

Judaism is a home-based rather than a church-based religion which means that most of the rituals are centered around the home. For that reason, woman has traditionally been a pillar of the house of Israel. A Jewish marriage contract is ultimately concerned with the happiness and protection of the wife in the household.

When I was in Israel, I studied everything. I was so hungry to learn, and since I did not have a bat mitzvah I was really starting from the beginning. I took a class at a very orthodox yeshiva for girls. I was learning Ein Yaakov, ethical teachings, in a class with other girls. I was always very careful about what I wore so I would fit in, closed toe shoes, no shoulder blade peeking out. The teacher was a middle aged man in a black coat and hat who had spent most of his life teaching girls. The last day of class, after a full year, I decided to “come out,” and I revealed that I was applying to rabbinical school. The teacher laughed so hard that his hat popped off his head and fell on the floor! I couldn’t help laughing too! But then the most amazing thing happened…now, mind you, I know that he deeply disapproved of my decision but…for the first time that entire year he taught a phenomenal class that included Jewish law…he had never taught any Jewish law to us, and now he went all out. I mean he was on fire. I realized that here was this man who had spent his life teaching girls only certain ethical “easy” things, and then, for the first time in his life, he had a rabbinical student in one of his classes, how she got there, who she was, that she was a women, or a heretic, didn’t matter at the moment, he became for the next hour a teacher to rabbis, and it was remarkable. The girls wouldn’t talk to me on the bus back to Jerusalem, but I felt glowing. I felt that I had given them something that might deepen them even if just the littlest bit, for the rest of their lives. They would never forget.

5. How did you research Drawing in the Dust? Was your knowledge of Jeremiah something that you brought with you from your rabbinical training and you framed the story around it, or was there some other inspiration?

It is interesting. We didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time studying prophets in rabbinical school, but those were the texts that captivated me the most. I read them again and again, turning their words over trying to refract every meaning. I fell in love with Jeremiah instantly, the courage of his furious poetry. The bones of Drawing in the Dust is definitely my fascination with Jeremiah, but the book gained sinews and flesh with every wedding or funeral I officiated, with every bedside I sat beside. There are so many hats a clergyperson wears in a day, from teaching songs to preschoolers to walking loved ones through tragedy to handling personnel and politicking. At some point you find yourself in danger of becoming completely fragmented, pieces of you deposited in other people’s lives. You have to learn to turn a thousand stories into one story that you tell yourself, to turn a community with all its diversity into one spinning galaxy, one living organism, lest you fall apart. And when you learn to do this, there starts to appear little fingerprints of creation. When the Hebrew name the young couple chooses happens to be the same name as the man whose funeral you officiated that morning, it becomes evidence of one story, all of us like dew on one trembling web. It becomes beautiful rather than burdensome, and I am grateful any moment I get to catch a tiny glimpse.

So how did I research this novel? Monday is my day off, and Monday is the day I sit and write. Every day in between I was immersed in people’s stories and teaching Torah. That is how I did my research.

6. What do you see as the role of fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, in addressing change and reaching the hearts and minds of people who may be inflexible in their beliefs?

I have always believed in the power of fiction. Many semanticists, linguists, and language purists claim that metaphor is a parasite on language, that when we say “my love is a red, red rose,” what we are really saying is that there is no word to express what I mean and so I will take words out of context and abuse them to express myself.

But what they call untrue, I call revelation. To me, metaphor says, “I have no other means in my language to combine the depth of my feelings and fears, my creativity and my intellect, my sense of spiritual connectedness…I have a million thoughts and ideas and questions that I could unload over hours and hours, or I can simply admit the shortcomings and futility of language, and in my desperation to communicate simply say all of that in one easy breath, ‘My love is a red, red rose.’”

In nonfiction, there is little need for relationship, but with metaphor and story, we have to trust each other. We have to assume an intricate, deep understanding. Metaphor relies on the ability for any two people to immediately strike up a relationship.

The definition of metaphor is the conditional relationship of two concepts, a relationship that is reciprocal, where both concepts influence and redefine each other. Think about that. Isn’t that covenantal? Isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that the revelation we seek? To me, story reaches more deeply into hearts and minds because unlike nonfiction which demands the attention of a fraction of our selves, fiction invites our presence wholly: mind, body, spirit. It sweeps up and away and returns us renewed with keener vision. We do not live objectively. We live in metaphor. Poetry, to me, is not just something that “makes pretty.” It reveals and it redeems.

7. As many people read, they “cast” the movie of the book in their mind to help the story play out. In your perfect world, who would you cast to play some of the main characters – Page, Mortichai, Itai, and Norris?

I would love to see how differently this movie looks in different people’s minds! Who would I cast, I guess I want to say that I want a woman who is reading this book to imagine herself in really good shape, and tanned, and to put herself in it. And stick the guy you have a secret crush on in a black hat and cast him as well. I’m not sure I can say who I would ideally cast because I live in Los Angeles and I don’t want any of my friends who are aspiring actors to get mad at me!

8. Who are writers you admire? What books or authors inspire you?

I tend to admire books based on how much I admire the person who recommended them to me. I recently read Nathan Englander’s collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, and found it haunting and exquisite. I love Mary Doria Russell’s writing. My Milan Kundera books are covered in my highlighting and scribbles. As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg was a great influence to me as well. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work endlessly astounds, especially The Sabbath. I find irrational joy in Billy Collin’s poem Undressing Emily. I love KC Cole’s book The Hole in the Universe, which is actually a nonfiction physics book for laypeople, and it explores, basically, the mathematical concept of nothing. It has a permanent place on my bedside table and I draw strange comfort from this elegant biography of the zero. I think I have been most inspired, however, by the often anonymous language I find in prayer books. I used to read them cover to cover like novels. And the book that taught me the most and without which I would be lost would have to be The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky which is really a masterful treasury of ancient stories and teachings from which I could derive nourishment for a hundred lifetimes.

9. Stephen King once compared his writing process to archaeology, writing, "Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.” Do you agree? Share with readers a bit about your writing process. Did the novel take a different turn once you began writing, or did you know how everything would play out from the beginning? How long did the research take you, and then the actual writing?

I love Stephen King’s description. When I write, I can only maintain the self-discipline if I put myself in a very corporate mindset. I actually have a terribly mean imaginary boss who often stands behind me looking over my shoulder and yelling at me. I don’t know what he looks like – I imagine him kind of wiry – but I know his voice well. “I’m not paying you to sit here making up names!” “I’m not paying you to sit here eating pretzels and grapes staring at a blank screen!” Of course, he’s not paying me at all, but his prodding helps me push forward.

For me, it is important to have the entire book well-outlined from the start, with dates alongside each section which serve as deadlines. These deadlines are never ever met until months later (something which doesn’t make my wiry boss happy!), but I think they help keep me in that business mindset which keeps me focused. It is also a lot more believable and manageable to say to yourself, “I am going to write a scene” than to say “I am writing a novel.” I like having the whole book outlined because then you can plant allusions in the beginning which can carry through to the end. The end of the book is written in my mind long before it is reached because I have been working toward it deliberately from the beginning.

I first wrote The Scroll of Anatiya, which was Anatiya’s own story. This part of the work didn’t as much require research as it did long immersion in biblical text, and a lot of genuine love.

I feel that sometimes because the research never really ends, the research itself becomes a dangerous excuse for not writing. For Drawing in the Dust, I did do a lot of research. I had stacks of books on Megiddo, lots of articles and essays on archaeology in the Middle East, and pages of notes. But at a certain point, I (encouraged by my imaginary boss: “I’m not paying you to look at pictures of digs!”) said enough. I had the book outlined, and I sat down to aim for that first deadline, with the knowledge that once the manuscript was finished, I could take the time to do further research and fill it in.

In many ways, the hardest research came after the first draft was complete. Understanding the story through the eyes of excellent and insightful readers demanded countless revisits. Giant two-hundred page portions were removed and rewritten. The order was played with again and again. Characters were deepened with more and more layers. For me, once the manuscript is complete, the careful and painstaking transformation from writing to story-telling really begins.

10. Are you working on another novel? If so, will it feature Page, or an entirely different cast of characters?

I wrote a book called The Goat-Keeper before writing Drawing in the Dust, which I then put aside. I am currently revising it. The Goat-Keeper is a biblical novel which is about a tribe of people called Edge who witnessed God at Sinai from afar, but never actually received the Law. There is a purification ritual described in the book of Leviticus (6:6-10) in which once a year the High Priest would take two goats and mark one to be offered on the altar as a sacrifice to God, and the other to be driven into the wilderness of Azazel carrying the sins of the people. The modern term “scape-goat” is derived from this ancient ritual. In The Goat-Keeper, each year the sin-laden scapegoat finds its way into the herd of one of the daughters of Edge, the matriarchal shepherdess of these mystical Pan-like creatures. It is different than Drawing in the Dust, but shares the notion of love as a messianic value.

Currently, I am also in the process of completing another novel, Whish. Whish is about a modern girl, named Whish, who develops the ability to understand Shome’ah, the language of the entire natural world. Once her ability is awakened, she quickly realizes that the natural world is at vicious war with itself, a war of which humankind is unaware, where the pretty plants and docile pets we love the best may be in fact plotting our demise. Whish finds herself dangerously in the middle of this secret war that has been raging since Jurassic times.

I know Whish sounds completely different than Drawing in the Dust, but to me there is a subtle golden thread which connects them. Both Page and Whish are convinced of their own worthlessness. Page spent most of her career in Megiddo where enormous historical battles have taken place over hundreds of years. Her own battles, however, were all internal, struggling with her own fear and morbidity. Whish’s battles are all external, struggling to survive brutal attacks. While Page allows herself to be consumed from within, Whish is in danger of being consumed from without. The characters of both books are seeking psychological ceasefire. I think all of my characters want to transcend their limited allotments of time and space. Page seeks the tranquility of her own wholeness, and inadvertently gifts the world with the same. Whish, on the other hand, seeks to mend a planet, and inadvertently may find herself mended.

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