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Guest Post: Who we Are

I'm delighted today to share with you a guest blog post from Montreal paranormal author Philip Mann who discusses what we choose to write about and Jewish genre fiction. Welcome Philip Mann to gilagreenwrites!

One of the main features writers have in common is fear. Fear of expressing ourselves in public, fear of not doing it right, and especially fear of criticism. You can write for your own satisfaction just to see how it looks, or write a diary to remember what you went through at a certain time in your life. There's no fear in that. I wrote some short pieces to see how they looked and showed one or two to friends. I even wrote a couple of letters to the editor.

But for me, the time came when I wanted to know how good I was. That competitive spark lit up. You might train for a marathon, and despite that expression, that it's a race and not a marathon, you time yourself every day, looking for improvement. You don't want to just run, you want to be faster, at first faster than your own speed yesterday, and later, faster than somebody else. Maybe faster than a lot of people.

Writing is like that for me. At some point you want to know, how good am I? You have to know how you measure up against other writers and for that you need a coach, or a teacher.

I hired an editor. Some people use beta readers. I have a couple of informal ones now. But I count on my editor because of her experience and her credentials, to give me her time. And because I pay her.

Let me back up because I have to talk about something important, what do you write about? What is your idea, where does it come from? In essence, who are you? Because any story is about you. It reflects what your interests are, how you see the world, and what world you live in. Not just in the sense of being in touch with reality, but more like, what is your reality?

Do you see things from a religious background, whether consciously or unconsciously? If you're Jewish, like I am, I find it influencing me and my writing more and more, in different ways.

When I started writing my own book, I made no reference to religion. It was a short piece, a one-off. I never intended to turn it into a book. It was only when people said they wanted to know more about the main character that I took the plunge into writing a full-length novel. Then I had to decide. How much would Jewish life be present in this book?

I would write for a general audience, and it would show my own experiences, both as an orthodox Jew (most of the time) and as part of broader society. I have a foot in two camps, maybe three: secular, orthodox Jewish, and not quite orthodox. Yes, it does get awkward.

I would be writing about what I know, which is the life as a Jewish citizen of a modern society and would try to show the non-Jewish reader a glimpse of what we're about. Not a strictly orthodox view, but not an overly watered-down, politically correct glimpse either. I have my own world and that's the one I have to write about. How I see it, how I react with it, and how it reacts with me.

When I wrote my book, I gave it a Jewish identity. And when I rewrote it, I went even further. I explained more about our lives and traditions, the role of a Chassidic rabbi in the community, and relations of parents to adult children. I also hinted at conflicts we face when our desire to be ourselves confronts our desire to fit in. 

What kind of book did I write?

It's based on an incident that took place in Montreal, on Boxing Day, 2010. A Jewish man walked out of a bar and was never seen alive again. His body washed up on a local waterway, the Lachine Canal, two days later. I could not get past that story. The idea of a young man becoming so disoriented that he lost his bearings and walked a mile to his demise in the middle of a modern city gripped me.

The idea of delusion, of a hallucination came to me. I put together an introduction, got it on paper, and began to show it around. People liked it, including my editor, who said it was very unusual. She helped me write the book, step by step.

It became a paranormal, set in Montreal. The characters, however non-human they may be, all had human needs and desires. They looked for love, for companionship, and for understanding. And it became a very Jewish story. All the characters, for better or for worse, are Jewish, even if they don't lead such holy lives. They don't marry out, and they keep Shabbos. Even the dangerous anti-heroine, who may be the most devout of all of them.

The idea of the muse, in my rewrite, is a Jewish idea, derived from Bereshis, specifically the exile from Gan Eden. The genealogy of the muse is from an idea in the Torah, and however much she chafes and pushes the limits of her mandate, she is totally loyal to Hashem. The devil does not exist. Any supernatural items she may use are written in the Torah, if you look closely. No borrowing from the pagans, or druids. Definitely no vampires.

I rewrote that classic Greek myth.

Why did I take this approach? Partly for originality.

But also because we as a people have been around so long, have seen and done so much. We should be able to create an original idea at least one based in our own story, one that presents our own values, our own conflicts. Even our own views of Hashem and what he asks of us. We should be able to create it in a readable, maybe even popular manner, and not be derivative of what has been done to death.

So why are there so few Jewish science fiction writers? Well, there used to be. Isaac Asimov comes to mind, Neil Gaiman is another. One author who used Jewish tradition to write a Jewish based story was Helene Wecker, in her book The Golem and the Jinni. She created a story based on our own myths, our own history and tradition. That's a truly Jewish genre.

So why aren't there more? Part of it stems from an old Jewish belief that a story is either truth or it's a lie, and we don't read lies. If you're orthodox, you may read fiction, but anything truly weird, like horror or science fiction, well, no. You think it's a waste of time. A common expression is Bittul Torah, a waste of the Torah. This is usually a shut-down expression when a discussion becomes too challenging.

And if you're not frum, or never had the education, then you may not have the familiarity with the Torah, some medrash and all the ideas that keep coming up. The conflicts between man and Hashem, the challenges, the places where you see the potential for a break, for all the things which can make for a uniquely Jewish genre. So you stick with what works; history, law, biographies, Holocaust. That's fine. It's exceedingly hard to get anything published these days.

But I practice my religion with something else in mind. I see it as a meeting between the human and the Divine, an intersection.

I look over the sedrah on Shabbos, and something catches my eye, and it says, Look carefully, Peretz (my Jewish name), what is this really saying? Can you explain this differently? Try, don't be afraid.

And I don't let go until I have an (un)reasonable explanation for it, something that fits, even fits well, but may not be traditional.

There's nothing stopping you from doing the same. Look over what has been written, examined, dis-assembled and re-assembled, put under a Biblical mass spectrometer for traces of the unexplained. Mix and match ideas, sentences, words, the things we already do as writers, and see what you come up with.

And be ready to live with it for a while.

Don't be afraid. You may surprise yourself with what you see.

Bio: Philip Mann lives in Montreal, with his wife and several of his fictional characters. He attends two synagogues and tells whomever will listen about his latest idea on the weekly Sedrah. His series is called Dark Muse, loosely defined as a paranormal, but which his long-suffering editor has classified as "other."

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Wednesday, 22 May 2024

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