In college (Barnard College), I majored in playwriting (Program in the Arts: Writing-Playwriting), an impractical major if there ever was one, but I won the Helen Price Memorial Prize for Dramatic Composition. My first play, “Do Hermaphrodites Reproduce Only in the Spring?”, was a finalist for the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theater Competition. It was scheduled for production twice: the first time, the theater owner died, and the season was shut down; the second time, the director committed suicide. For the benefit of the arts community, I decided to get out of playwriting and get a real (read: “paying”) job, and spent 15 years in public relations and marketing for health-care, high tech and consumer products companies before returning to writing. Sometime during that period (“the lost years”), I also earned an MBA at Yale University.
Can you tell us more about your writing and your latest book?
The Accidental Anarchist is the true story of an Orthodox Jew who was sentenced to death 3 times in the early 1900s in Russia – and lived to tell about it. He also happened to have been my grandfather, and the book is based on the diaries that he began keeping in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. That was when he decided that he needed to overthrow the Czar (Nicholas II, the last of the Romanov dynasty).
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Tell us about the genre of your work.
I don’t work only in a single genre, choosing the medium based on the story I want to tell. The Accidental Anarchist is a historical biography, but also have two unpublished novels, one of which I plan to rewrite as a YA book. I also write essays, and just yesterday submitted a cartoon to The New Yorker called “If Football Penalties were Applied to Parenting.” Also in the works are an ebook about self-publishing and a novelty book/card to be sold at bookstore checkout stands.
Why did you choose this genre? How is writing in the genre you write, different than other genre?
When I wrote The Accidental Anarchist, it was difficult to define the genre. I didn’t want to call it Non-Fiction, because any personal recollections or documentation as in a diary is, by its very nature, an opinion or perspective. Nor did I want to call it a Memoir because I had never met my grandfather, and structured the book with a narrative structure that the diaries didn’t have. I also rewrote and summarized some portions of the diaries that had been published but were necessary to appreciate the unpublished material; tightened the pacing of the writing; and added content in my grandfather’s voice based upon historical fact or what I was able to learn from my mother. Biography seemed to be the most descriptive category for the work I had done that wouldn’t get me in trouble with Oprah. I’d also like to point out that In Cold Blood, which is the first book in the genre of Creative Non-Fiction, is typically shelved in Fiction in bookstores, so I also tried to think about how a reader might look for my book.
Where do you get your ideas for writing?
What is your favorite thing about your book?
I kept the book in my grandfather’s unique voice that was filled with an ironic, not mean or sarcastic, sense of humor that was a remarkable contrast with the circumstances he wrote about: poverty, starvation and the horrors of war. I was pleased, when I let my mother read it, that she said it sounded just like her father, including the parts that I had written in his voice.
Why and when did you begin writing? Is there any one person who had a big influence on you or encouraged you to write?
My father was a writer. In fact, he was the first Orthodox writer in Hollywood, so there was nothing unusual about the fact that I started writing when I was very young. I had one elementary school teacher, and I don’t remember for which grade, who gave us an assignment of writing “A Day in the Life Of…” We were to pick an inanimate object and imagine what life was like for the character that was a hangar, or something else. I wrote a whole series of “Day in the Life” stories, and remember how delightful it was to imagine the world from the perspective of different objects.
Unfortunately, I believed I was ‘expected’ to be a writer, and although I was drawn to it, I also resisted it, which resulted in a lot of wasted years that could have been spent developing my skills.
What is your writing schedule? What atmosphere do you need to write?
I work out first thing every morning. That’s when my energy is highest, and if I don’t do it then, the day would get taken away and there would be no other time to do it. I run errands on my way home (if a business isn’t open by 8 am, I don’t patronize it; I don’t like to break up my day.) Then I go home to write. At the moment, I’m working at the kitchen table because my office is so overwhelmed with paper. I go back and forth between writing longhand and composing on the computer, but I seem to always need to be surrounded by various papers, various projects, which results in my no longer having a usable kitchen table.
For a few years, I wrote at a local Starbucks or Panera because I found the atmosphere less distracting than home. That’s right; all the people walking around me and talking, the music, the general cacophony – I found that less distracting than knowing there was a load of laundry to do or dinner to make; whenever I got to a tough spot in my writing, I used to hear household chores calling me, so I had to leave the house. But if I sat myself down at Starbucks for the day, I had no choice but to keep working. And it gave me the idea to for an article I wrote about people who had turned Starbucks into their “office away from the office,” which I called: “Have Laptop, Will Travel.”
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
I am working on an ebook about self-publishing, about half of which will focus on the mistakes I made so that other people don’t have to repeat them. That’s where I can add value in this category. I’m also working on a humorous novelty book about parenting, and plan to rewrite my first novel as a YA novel built around the first chapter. Of course, to get back to these projects, my book, The Accidental Anarchist, needs to start selling itself without my needing to constantly seek out opportunities to speak about it, which has been my most effective way of selling it.
What kind of advice or tips to you have for someone who wants to write and be published?
Start young! Begin submitting your work to publications that accept contributions from kids and teenagers. Then, by the time you’re an adult, you’ll have a portfolio to show, and you will have also grown as a writer by having gotten advice on how to improve. That takes having a thick skin, which not everyone has at a young age. Find at least one person other than a parent, such as a teacher, who thinks you’re good and encourages you. That will help you take what’s useful from rejection without letting it demoralize you.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I work out regularly, though not for long enough, because I am always trying to lose 5 pounds that just won’t leave me. I love the movies, and see several movies a week that I review on my personal Facebook page. I also read a lot and go to the theater, and review these as well on my Facebook page. I spend whatever time I can with friends; I have really remarkable friends who are wonderful people. And I enjoy cooking. Lately I’ve been making desserts from a cookbook from a well-known baker in San Diego, each of whose recipes runs about 5 pages long and take several days to complete!
What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?
My happiest experiences have been seeing the success that my children are achieving. They amaze and inspire me every day.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I grew up on the periphery of Hollywood. Although my father was a writer, we were Orthodox, so it wasn’t easy to be part of the Hollywood ‘scene,’ and from my parents’ perspective, it wasn’t desirable either. But I was always fascinated by the movies and television, and used to accompany my father to the studios to watch different television shows being filmed, such as Medical Center. There was a time when I thought I wanted to be an actress because I longed to be “popular.” But after watching different shows being filmed, and seeing the hands of the clock on the set turned back over and over for the multiple takes it took to shoot each scene, I saw the work as incredibly boring. That was the best way to disabuse a kid of any notions of stardom.
I don't know if I knew it at the time that I was going to the studio with my father, but apparently Carl Reiner, who was a nursery school parent at the same time as my parents, was 'smitten' with me and wanted me to be Little Richie's next door neighbor with a recurring role on the Dick Van Dyke show. My parents turned down that offer, wanting me to have a 'normal' childhood. While it's true that a lot of child actors have not had made easy transitions to adulthood, it might have been nice to have had Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore as surrogate parents...
Note from Sylvia: You can visit my other blog at: http://love-faith-and-guts.blogspot.com/that features a preview to my new book released in 2012, Traveling a Rocky Road with Love, Faith and Guts.