Fifteen Characters in Search of a Better Author — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

The rapid, staccato knock, perk and businesslike, startled me out of the beginnings of the trance I sink into whenever I write. Sometimes a fully-formed character emerges out of the trance, but much more often I just get a really good nap. I was startled because my office, which is really a basement storeroom stuffed with boxes, camping gear, and a dismembered eternal sukka, seldom gets visitors. Good thing, too, as there is barely enough room left over for me, my computer, and my bike. I sighed at the disturbance to my carefully-honed creative process, pushed myself out of my expensive, well-upholstered, and really comfortable executive chair, and opened the door.

illustration by Avi Katz
illustration by Avi Katz
I found myself facing a thirty-something woman wearing an unzipped parka over a long, dark-blue dress. She looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her. She held out her hand assertively and frowned when I hesitated before shaking it. Behind her I spotted a middle-aged woman with a hiking pole, but she quickly disappeared into the shadows of the corridor.

“Peppy Samuels,” she said. Then, seeing that the name didn’t connect, she added “Number 70. ‘Hooligan Oil.’”

“Oh, right,” I said. “It’s been a while.”

She wrinkled her nose at the sweaty gym clothes I’d hung up to dry over my bike and took in the general mess. Coming to my senses, such as they are, I drew a plastic folding chair off a hook and opened it for her.

“Have a seat,” I suggested. She took a glove out of her parka pocket and wiped down the chair before sitting down. Then, turning toward the door, she called out “Looks like the rest of you will have to stand out there!”

“The rest of you?”

“We’re a delegation,” she explained. Leaning over, she pushed the door open wider so I could see her companions. She gestured toward a sandy-haired young man with a dreamy expression, dressed in IDF fatigues. His arm was draped casually over the shoulder of a tousle-haired teenager with downy sideburns. “This is Ami, number 62, ‘Nobody Smiles,” and number 64, ‘Odysseus Eats.’ He’s representing the soldiers. His friend here is Felix Mendelssohn, number 43, ‘Piano Lesson,’ representing the classical composers.”

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Unstocking the Characters: Thoughts on Three New Works of Short Fiction

Haim Watzman

I almost stopped reading Aurelie Sheehan’s short story “Recognition” after the first sentence. Oh, God, another piece of fiction about a writer, written by a writer who only knows how to write about writing for an incestuous circle of other writers.

But I had a rare opportunity to dip into some short fiction on-line—I was at a bat mitzvah and the DJ’s bone-vibrating music had driven me outside—so I persisted in perusing “Recognition,” the latest short story published by the on-line journal Guernica . In fact, I had a chance to read two other stories as well: David Riordan’s “Mutts” at the Boston Review and ”The Waiting Room”, an excerpt from a novel by Leah Kaminsky at JewishFiction.net. It’s interesting to note that all three offer stock characters, ones we might feel, at the beginning of the story, that we’ve read about so often that we don’t care to read about them anymore. But the first two stories surprise us by using technique to give us a new take on old material. The third fails.

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Plane Story — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

    illustration by Avi Katz

“The air is unexpectedly cool and damp for early September when I emerge from Terminal 3 and cross over to the AirTrain. I’m alone and there are no human sounds, only the roar of traffic on the highway. Even that is muted as the elevator door shuts.”

I look up from 60C on my Delta flight from JFK to TLV. A pudgy young guy in a white shirt and a beard is standing over me.

“I’ve got the window,” he says apologetically.

I snap my laptop shut and squiggle out of my aisle seat.

“Sorry,” he says. “You were writing something.”

“It’s ok,” I say as he squeezes past me with a hat box and a large plastic bag full of cookies. He places them on 60B.

“I saw at the desk that no one’s sitting here,” he explains. He points at the computer. “Work?”

“Yes,” I say. “A story. I have a column in a magazine and the deadline is coming up. I’m just trying to get it started before takeoff.”

“Well, don’t let me bother you. By the way, I’m Yehuda.”

“Haim,” I say. “Thanks. Actually, I’m not sure if I want to write it.”

Read morePlane Story — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Is Truth My New Fiction?

Haim Watzman

A couple weeks ago I published my first short story. That’s an important milestone in my career as a writer, since up until now I’ve only published journalism and non-fiction. But, in fact, it’s less of a breakthrough than it sounds, because I made my fiction debut in the pages of a news magazine, and everything my story recounts actually happened.

The story is called “Hagar,” my most recent “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report, which I cross-posted here on South Jerusalem. It’s about a dumpster cat who had kittens on my doorstep. This really happened, about two and a half years ago.

As journalists tend to do at middle age, I’ve long been getting itchy at the constraints imposed by my trade. For years, I’ve been getting more and more interested and involved in the practice of writing—style, structure, word choice, sound. Writing my two books, a memoir and a travel narrative, gave me an opportunity to experiment with telling a story in ways far different than my newspaper writing ever allowed. Writing them made my yearn to take the next step and write fiction. In a fictional narrative, I thought, I’d be freed from the constraints of writing only events as they happened about people I’d actually met.

When I took another look at the cat essay,

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Hear Haim Tomorrow at Evan Fallenberg’s Writers’ Studio

I’ll be speaking tomorrow, Monday March 16, at 8 pm. at Evan Fallenberg‘s writers’ studio in Bitan Aharon, near Netanya. I’ll be discussing the dos and don’ts of memoir and travel writing. Tickets are NIS 60 at the door, NIS 50 a piece if you bring a spouse. Reserve seats by writing to evanfallenberg@gmail.com. Directions … Read moreHear Haim Tomorrow at Evan Fallenberg’s Writers’ Studio

Is It Easier to Get Published in Hebrew?

Israeli book editors are less likely than their American counterparts to demand major manuscript changes of an author. For better or worse-and it’s both-that has been clear to me for a long time. And it was confirmed by four emerging novelists who spoke Wednesday night at Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom literary café in the framework of Jerusalem’s International Writers Festival.

As both a writer and an editor, I have mixed feelings about this. Like all writers, I get annoyed when an editor tells me that parts of my pieces are unnecessary or uninteresting, and that other things are, in his or her opinion, missing. Like all editors, I almost always see faults in manuscripts that come my way, and believe that if my clients will take my advice, the works will be better. I had very productive and pleasant experiences with the editors of my two books, and I think the manuscripts were improved by their suggestions. But from the stories I hear, my experience is not necessarily typical.

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