A huge and very warm welcome to my blog, Tamar. It’s a genuine pleasure to have you here. Can we start with you telling us all a little about what you do?
Thanks, Nik. I’m delighted to be here. I guess my qualification for being here is that I write novels and short stories. I’ve published three books – a novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, a collection of stories, Kafka in Brontëland, and my most recent book, a novel in linked stories (what some people call a mosaic novel), Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes.
I’ve just finished reading Kafka in Brontëland, your first collection of short stories, and I utterly loved it. There’s such a delightful mix of surrealism and realism: where do these stories come from? Do they share similar roots?
On some level they’re all stories about identity and belonging, themes which have preoccupied me a lot over the years. Because of my background I’ve always felt like a bit of a floating person, and I really found my way as a writer when I realised that this was my subject. At the time of writing them, I felt Jewish but was on the outside of the Jewish community, Yorkshire but with foreign roots, lived in the countryside but had grown up in the city – in so many ways I was in the margin between identities. I found this to be a very creative place.
Essentially I think I am a realist writer, but I find reality to be highly surreal at times, especially when transformed through memory. Delving back into childhood to seek inspiration for my fiction is like entering a dream, because childhood for me stands behind a locked door, like Alice’s garden. Writing is how I get myself back in there.
Are there any ingredients that are present in all of your stories?
Character and language are the two essentials of fiction, as far as I’m concerned. I see a character, I find the right language, and narrative takes care of itself.
‘Kafka in Brontëland’ is an unusual title to say the least, and openly literary. Was it your intention to have such a blatantly literary title? Did you not worry it could put people, who might not be familiar with the work of Kafka or the Brontës (or not like them), off?
Well, it doesn’t seem so unlikely for a book to have a literary title. A book is a piece of literature, after all. I was amused, after it appeared, to find a visitor to the Brontëblog expressing horror at the intrusion of that modernist monster, Kafka, into romantic Brontëland! But you don’t have to have read (or like) Kafka or the Brontës to enjoy the book. The title is merely meant to sum up the predicament of being a Jewish writer in a Yorkshire landscape. Or more generally, of being an outsider who can never belong.
I invited my blog readers and Twitter friends to ask questions. Here’s one: ‘Were you deliberate in putting your family’s history in the author bio knowing that readers would then wonder how much, in your work, was thinly disguised autobiography?’
My family history is to me an essential part of my biography. I didn’t know readers would do that. Since becoming a published author I’ve been continually surprised by the way readers respond to my work, but it isn’t something I have any control over.
The pejorative cliché, ‘thinly disguised autobiography,’ implies work that is somehow not proper fiction or even not proper art. But it is impossible simply to transfer life onto the page and for it to work as fiction. Fiction is fundamentally different from real life. If a story or novel works artistically, then you can be certain that whatever personal experience the author drew on in order to create it, that experience has been essentially transformed.
What does the word ‘story’ mean to you?
It is something that is created by a character or characters.
And the word ‘writer’?
Someone who feels a compulsion to sit down every day and write a certain number of words for other people to read.
Another question from a reader: ‘Do you remember the first short story you wrote?’ And I’ll add to that: What was it, and why did you start writing?
I wrote my first story when I was six. It was called The Setting Sun and it was about a little girl called Mary who was swimming in the sea one evening when she saw the sun was falling down into the sea. So she swam as far out as she could to try and hold it up. But every time she looked up the sun was still far ahead. Then she remembered about the horizon, so she swam back. But when she told her mother that the sun had fallen into the sea her mother just said, “Time for bed.”
Ever since then I’ve been writing about misguided people with impossible aspirations.
‘Mr Applewick’ is one of my favourite stories in the book. It goes into great detail, in part, about the workings of a piano (Mr Applewick is a piano repairman) – I must ask: was this researched or do you play?
It was the first story for which I did any extensive research, which I really enjoyed. I do find research inspiring, especially when it includes all sorts of technical terms, which can be rather poetic. I was inspired to write the story when I had my own upright piano – which is not a Broadwood, sadly, like the one in the story, but a Laurinat – renovated by a gentleman rather like Mr Applewick. He was, in fact, an amateur astronomer. I only met the man a couple of times, but I created an entire inner life for him – and then killed him off, of course! And the story itself opened up into a meditation on God, the universe and everything.
As a matter of fact, I’m now selling my piano, so if any of your readers are interested in a piano with a literary connection, they’re welcome to get in touch!
What’s your writing process? Do you have a regime?
Absolutely. I write in the mornings and set myself a minimum word count per day (this varies from project to project). I do some educational work in schools but am able to confine that to the afternoons.
When writing a novel, I don’t like to plan things out too rigidly in advance; I like it to be a voyage of discovery. But I usually have a strong sense of the beginning, the crisis point and the ending. I keep a notebook in which I jot things down as I go along – random thoughts and phrases, character notes, narrative pointers. But if I write down too much it feels as if it’s carved in stone, so I try to keep as much as possible in my head, where it can remain fluid.
I think every writer has to find their own way of working which is right for them, so looking at how other writers work can be interesting but not necessarily very useful. As I’ve grown in confidence as a writer, I’ve learned to trust my own instinct and to have faith that things will work out, even when they seem blocked or muddled.
How different, or similar, is Kafka in Brontëland to your other books (the novel, The Genizah at the House of Shepher, and your second collection, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes)?
I wrote all three books simultaneously over a period of about thirteen years, so I think of them as a sort of trilogy. They all deal with those themes of displacement and identity I have already mentioned and anyone who reads all three will recognise that, spiritually, they have come from the same place. Stylistically, Tribes is more dense and poetic than Kafka and quite fantastical. It follows the life-journey of an unidentified narrator who encounters a series of persons, each of whom is in some way lost, exiled or alienated. The denouement is quite Heart of Darkness-like. Genizah is a multi-generational family story and crosses a number of genres – family saga, academic thriller, historical novel and contemporary journey of self-discovery. All three books have their melancholy aspects, especially Tribes, but I always ensure there is a thread of humour running through my work.
Do you have an audience or reader in mind when you write?
No, I write for myself in the first instance. If I kept a particular audience in mind, I would be constantly trying to second-guess and please them, which would spell disaster. On the other hand, there is a distinct difference between writing only for oneself and writing to be read, and that is the difference between just writing and being a (professional) writer. I always keep my responsibility to the reader in mind: to make every word count.
What book(s) or author(s) would you recommend to someone who liked your work?
What advice would you give to people who want to be writers?
Keep plugging away. If you don’t write anything, if you don’t keep sending it out, you’ve no chance of succeeding.
And would that advice differ if they wanted to be short story writers?
If they only want to write short stories they have my respect, because that proves they’re in it purely for the love of it.
What’s next for you?
Moving on, naturally. My preoccupations have changed. I’ve laid my feelings of dislocation to rest. I’m three quarters of the way through a new novel. After that, I have another novel in mind and perhaps then, finally, I’ll get back to short stories, which I’d love to do.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thank you very much for inviting me onto your blog!
Thanks for being here, Tamar, and for such interesting answers.
Tamar Yellin is the author of three published books. Her debut novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher (Toby Press 2005; St Martin’s Press 2008) was awarded the Sami Rohr Prize, the Ribalow Prize and was shortlisted for the Wingate Prize. Her collection, Kafka in Bronteland (Toby Press, 2006) received the Reform Judaism Prize, was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes was published by Toby in 2008 and will appear in paperback from St Martin’s in the autumn of 2009. She has a website at www.tamaryellin.com.