The Lilith Blog 1 of 2

November 5, 2013 by

Our Long Lineage of Seers and Fortune-Tellers. Who Knew?

images-214980000-214989676By her own description, Toby Devens was a “Broadway baby”‘ who had a successful early career of acting on stage and television.  But by the age of twelve, she had hung up her dancing shoes and picked up a pen.  Early efforts included fairy tales, detective stories in the manner of Nancy Drew and a staged version of Little Women.  Later, she turned to poetry and short fiction; she also wrote restaurant reviews and theater criticism.  Her first novel, My Favorite Mid-Life Crisis (Yet) came out in 2006 and is now followed by Happy Any Day Now.  Devens chatted with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about what Jewish and Korean moms have in common, her lifelong passion for music and the particular pleasures of finding love in the middle ages. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: You’ve created an unusual character–a Korean-Jewish female, Judith Soo Jin. Why?

Toby Devens: Sometimes stories come about in strange and wonderful ways. Happy Any Day Now began when my granddaughter was born and I felt this surge of longing to find out about my own maternal grandmother. She died eight months before my birth. I’m named for her and when I went to and saw her listed on a 1900 ship’s manifest, I felt incredibly close to this woman I’d never known. That’s when I started asking my family questions about her: how she became American, learned the language, weaved the old the world with the new. As I put together my grandma’s story, I realized that much of the immigrant experience was universal, and I wanted to write about that. But how? The answer came with a friend request on Facebook from a relative I barely knew: the daughter of my first cousin and his Asian wife. Seeing that young woman’s photo—the beautiful blending of two cultures—produced my eureka moment, and my protagonist Judith Soo Jin Raphael, a cellist with the Maryland Philharmonic. In Happy Any Day Now, we meet Judith as she’s approaching her 50th birthday and her past invades her present to make magic and mischief.

YZM: You’ve said that you found similarities between the two cultures.

TD: There’s a particular emphasis on education and accomplishment in both cultures. The work ethic is very strong. Family is paramount, and the family bond is one that combines love and obligation. In the novel, Aunt Phyllis Feldmesser, caringly keeps Judith connected to her family and her Jewish heritage. She’s the self appointed guardian of a 5,000 year-old history and its traditions and she’s committed to imparting them to her niece. Also, she’s an encouraging, stable force in Judith’s life.

YZM: Are Korean mothers like Jewish mothers?

TD: I suppose if I wrote a book about Jewish and Asian mothers, I’d steal from Dickens and title it, Great Expectations. Jewish mothers are stereotyped as assertive and intrusive with their kids, and Asian moms are caricatured as iron-willed “Tiger Mothers” who take no prisoners, even if they’re seven-years-old. Neither is a fair representation, but the grain of truth in the exaggeration is that moms in both these cultures strive mightily to make sure the next generation meets their expectations to shape lives that are more productive, more successful, and more fulfilled than their own. Grace, my protagonist’s Korean-war-bride mother struggled through poverty, exhaustion and isolation  but was determined that Judith’s childhood musical talent would receive proper attention. The money earmarked for Grace’s warm winter coat went to cello lessons for her daughter. As an older woman, Grace is a font of experience, skewed wisdom and hilarious advice. I had so much fun writing her!

YZM: What about Judith’s Jewish father and how he influenced her?

TD: Sometimes an absence can be as much an influence as a presence. When Judith was six, her rascal of a father, Irwin Raphael, abandoned the family to take off for Arizona and a new, rich wife his family nicknamed “The Chippie.” Apparently Irwin had little contact with his daughter afterwards.  Judith’s sense that she “isn’t good enough”  began with the internal message that she’d failed to prevent her father from leaving. Then, as a bi-racial kid, a marginalized nerd of a teenager, as a college student ditched by her silver-spoon Harvard Law School boyfriend,  the message continued to resonate loud and clear: Not Good Enough! Her entire life, personal and professional, has been aimed at proving she’s  more than that. Then, when her “dad-in-name-only” reappears and as secrets are revealed , we see that he…well, let’s sidestep that spoiler.

YZM: Judith is a cellist and the book is filled with musical references; do these reflect your own experience?

TD: I was, to some degree. Though my piano teacher gave up on me for declining to practice, music has always played a very important role in my family. My mother played piano; her twin sister played violin. My uncle had his own jazz quartet. We had a slew of composers, arrangers and conductors on my mom’s side. And I was a child singer and actress who performed on stage and TV. So I was surrounded by music and brought up in a home flooded with it, from Tony Bennett,  Ella and Elvis to the Saturday broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. Those programs began my relationship with classical music, which I continue to love. But Happy Any Day Now is not a dry treatise on Schubert and Chopin.  Music enlivens the book, threads throughout and provides background and cues for some of the scenes, but it plays a supporting role to the person-to-person relationships that are always the focus of my novels.

YZM: As the novel opens, Judith is turning 50 and finds herself torn between two men. How is a middle-aged love storydifferent from young love? 

TD: The idea that love and passion fades at forty and gets a funeral at fifty needs to be vigorously debunked . Yes, at midlife and beyond, romantic love is much more complicated than twenty-something love, but in many ways it’s more satisfying. First of all, older and wiser makes for a richer experience.  Then, loving someone is much more fulfilling when you know and enjoy living with yourself. And both parties can be happily surprised—and grateful—to recognize the fire still burns and that even embers give off warmth.

Of course, it’s also tricky. You’re hauling much more baggage at fifty than you swung by two fingers at twenty. There are ex and late spouses, difficult children, geographic distances, career demands. In Judith’s case, she’s suddenly revisited by a former lover—a grand love and one she hasn’t seen in twenty-five years. They reside in different cities, Charlie Pruitt has obligations to his snob of a mother and to his fractious teenage daughter.  And Judith is caught up with feelings for her current lover. That’s a heap of stuff to schlep into a new situation…an interesting one to tackle as a novelist.

YZM:  Judith’s fortune is read by Lulu Cho, owner of the Golden Lotus Massage Club for Men. Are there comparable figures in the Jewish tradition?

TD: I’ve never heard of a traditional fortune teller in the Jewish tradition. Not one like Lulu Cho, the mudang shaman in Happy Any Day Now. We do, however, have a long line of female Biblical seers and prophets including Miriam, Deborah and Hannah. But from this trade, as Grandma Roz might say, “we don’t make a living.”

On the other hand, every Jewish woman will warn you –and  she won’t charge you for this—of the dire consequences of your actions. She can and will tell you about your future. “You keep dating that no-goodnik and you’re going to wind up bailing him out of jail.” Or, “Those heels are too high. I guarantee you’re going to trip and kill yourself.” So it’s ingrained in the Jewish culture to predict dire outcomes.  “Wait, just wait, and you’ll see,” is prophecy as practiced by all-knowing Jewish women. And, from my own experience, they’re usually right.