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May 29, 2018 by

What It’s Like to Publish Your Debut Novel… at Age 90

All this week, in the grand tradition of Victorian periodicals, Lilith will be serializing an excerpt of Sadie in Love, the debut novel from 90-year-old former magazine editor Rochelle Distelheim. Look out for new installments every day this week.

Sadie in LovePart 1Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


Sadie in love

Sadie Schuster—fortyish, plumpish, a suffragist, and recently widowed—spends more time now talking to her late husband, Fivel, than she did when he was alive. Sadie keeps Fivel informed of her daily activities—especially her pursuit of a husband—because “An empty bed is a cold place for a hot-blooded woman.” A lover of ballroom dancing, the moving pictures, and night-school English words, Sadie’s true talent lies in the magic love-knots she artfully crafts for lonely, unwitting, immigrants willing to purchase hope wrapped in a schmattah for fifty cents.

Selling love-knots while seeking love, Sadie consults with her magic spirits to woo Herschel—the muscled ice peddler who reads poetry and pines for his newly departed wife. Her daughter, Yivvy, sells secondhand, possibly “pinched” tchotchkes in her antique shop and plans to marry the Irish cop on the beat. Enter Ike Tabatnik, the “Dance King of Riga, Latvia,” just off the boat and ready to take on America—and Sadie’s heartstrings. Comedy and chaos follow.

A stunning confession, following the wedding of one of her love-knot clients—which begins with one groom and ends with another—pushes Sadie to make a surprising choice. She then throws herself at the mercy of her magic spirits, asking them to do quickly for her what they have been doing for her customers—before it’s too late.  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Rochelle Distelheim about what it feels like to have her debut novel published when she’s in her nineties. 

YZM: Tell us where the voice—and soul—of Sadie came from.

RD: They came from my own understanding of woman as object, including in tightly knit traditional early twentieth-century European Jewish Orthodoxy. When I could see her face, her flat, the street on which she lived, I would go where the voices are, the only way in which people who have never lived spring into life.  

YZM: How long have you been writing fiction? 

RD: Since sixth-grade grammar school. I wrote stories about my family, my friends, some that featured me as an American Indian child.

YZM: You waited a long time to publish a novel—did you ever give up hope that you would see this one in print? 

RD: I wrote Sadie in Love 15 years ago, came close to selling it twice, to editors who asked for changes with which I didn’t agree, and once won second place in a contest. My husband offered to publish it himself, but I stubbornly continued to believe that Sadie’s story should be published by someone who could come to love her as deeply as I did. I was right. 

YZM: In addition to being a fiction writer, what other kinds of work have you done? 

RD My first career after finishing my degree at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern was as a freelance writer for women’s magazines: McCall’s, Ladies Home Journal, Glamour, Working Woman, Good Housekeeping. I flew all over the country covering everything from AIDS to the drama of being married to a police officer. When my babies arrived, I taught creative writing part time at Mundelein College in Chicago, if only to get into grown-up clothes and wash my face and get out for a full day. The nuns taught me patience; I taught them how to wear lipstick.

YZM: Looking back to your own youth, what do you see as the most important differences between that time and now? 

RD: There are enormous differences, of course, too many to enumerate.  One of which I am acutely aware is that, when today’s youth seeks change, he/she is likely to drum up collaborators, rent a corner somewhere, and make a difference.   

YZM: Whats the one thing you wish Id asked but didnt? 

RD: When you can buy Sadie in Love, and the answer is, it is now on pre-sale on Amazon, and will be released on July 30, 2018.


From Sadie in Love
Part 1

Sadie knocked on Mitzi’s door at 4:01. She didn’t recognize the flat. Mitzi had furnished it like a scene from a fairy tale: gold brocade curtains, plaster statues of men and women draped in layers of filmy white tulle. The gas lamps were hooded with crimson, tulip-shaped glass, the mirror above the mantle framed in a circle of gilt angels busy hugging one another. And, in the corner — milky, luminous, shining like a skyful of moonlight, a piano. On Ludlow Street, a white piano, and she, she who missed nothing, missed seeing the men carry it in.

Mitzi, looking to Sadie like a walking bouquet in peach chiffon, waved Sadie toward a sofa. “Nice material.” Sadie’s ran her hand over the plush fabric. Mitzi sat on a pale yellow love seat, cradling a thin silver case in one hand. “Okay, hon, what can I do you for?”

“I never saw such a place, all these things.” The cupids on the mantel winked at her.  “Your mother’s furniture?”

Mitzi laughed. “Somethin’ like that.”

Sadie waved at the piano. “You know to play? I hear music coming from here. I thought, a victrola.  I never dreamed a real piano.”

 “You didn’t come knocking at my door to talk furniture.” Mitzi tapped a latch, the cover of the silver case flew up. “Cigarette?”     

Sadie hesitated. Maybe she should try, once. All the ladies who smoked in the moving pictures looked so, so — American. She shook her head.

Mitzi tapped the cigarette on the case, lit it with a tiny ruby red lighter, and looked at Sadie with a half-smile that wasn’t smile enough for Sadie.  

“I came for advice,” she blurted out, and closed her eyes. When she opened them, Mitzi was all curves and draped chiffon, leaning against the cushions, smoking, looking more beautiful than Tootsie McCoy in her last movie, when she ran through the woods in a silver crown and white feathers.

“About…”

“My best advice giver is the lady who writes in “The Daily Forward,” but this

I can’t go to her for.” Mitzi’s beauty mark shimmered. That was the secret, beauty marks. “Anyway,” Sadie continued, hoping her pronunciation made up for her accent, and talked about being alone in New York without a mother, without a husband, who had married her when she was just eighteen, and not because she’d picked him or he’d picked her, but because someone back in Poland did the picking. 

So?

“So, now I want to marry with someone I picked out myself, and I need help getting prettied up.” If Mitzi laughed, she’d raise her rent.

Mitzi crushed her cigarette. “Why do women always think, if I only had that guy over there…” She pointed to a male statue draped in black-and-red striped cloth. “… I’d be so God-damned blazes happy, I’d bust in half with joy.”

“You’re asking me, or asking yourself?”

“Women, females, ladies, girls. No matter what’s the problem, they think the solution’s a man.”

Sadie knew that word, solution. She heard it from Lillian Pomerantz, the sweet-like-sugar school teacher who could gain a couple pounds, and maybe do something about all that curly black hair, not pin it down so tight, who talked better than anyone when she came to the library to say, shame on America, women can’t vote. Women had to stand up and holler, march around, remind the men they were just as good.

Sadie stood up at one meeting and asked why that would work? Everyone marched around two years ago, after the fire in the Triangle shirt factory, so many young girls killed, and they forgot. Then Lillian Pomerantz said, in her soft, silky voice, pronouncing every word like she was born with a dictionary in her mouth, there was no easy solution, but they were making progress. Another high-class word.

Sadie wrote it down, solution, adding it to her night school word list, and practiced in front of her mirror, loving the way the u, the t, the i-o-n- got worked into such a lovely   shooshing sound.  

Now Mitzi looked at Sadie as though wondering why she’d allowed her into the flat.  “You got a few bucks in your pocket, right?”

Sadie made a none-of-your-business face: maybe yes, maybe no.

“Enjoy yourself, for Christ sake, what you wanna tie yourself up for?”

This was not the conversation Sadie had in mind. Talking to Gentiles was hard work.

“There’s enjoy, and there’s enjoy.  

“You got someone particular in mind?”

Sadie told Mitzi about her horoscope, about Herschl. “He looks like a man who knows from…” Should she use the Yiddish word for passion? Uh-uh. English. Mitzi should see her as a modern, one-hundred percent New York woman. “…from passion.” 

“It’s better if they love you. When you do most of the lovin’, they make you pay.”

“You–paid?”

“I could tell you stories, hon, but this ain’t the time.”  

She had to stay, she had to fish out this woman’s secrets, like how to talk with that careless shrug. Herschl would visit her often if she could do that, they’d practice talking American. They’d dance. “Interesting,” Sadie said, the word strung out with only a hint of a Yiddish accent, “but, if you don’t mind me saying so…” A pause, only a beat, but long enough to search her mind for another long word. “…you don’t look to me like a lady who suffered.”

Mitzi laughed, an explosion that ended in a cough. “Tell me about you. What all do you do?”

“Well…” She couldn’t talk about her marching ladies, and the vote, that wasn’t Mitzi, she could smell it. Better to get on to the love knots, even if Mitzi didn’t believe her, even if she’d say, like lots of people: You crazy, lady? Get out! “I make love knots.” Sadie’s hands crawled through her purse, pulling out a scrunched-up yellow and blue flowered knot. She shook it to restore its shape. 

“So?”

“So, plenty.”  Sadie, eyes closed, swayed, chanted a mélange of Polish and Yiddish, squatting in a half-twirl, running the love knot along her throat and arms.  “Touch, but only a fast pat, you shouldn’t crush the spirits or frighten them.”   Mitzi tap-tapped the love knot with the tip of one crimson fingernail. Sadie snatched it away. “Enough!” The spirits love pretty things, your nail polish excited them.” She jabbed at the air. “Listen!”

“Hey, come on!”

Shah, quiet. You don’t hear a little humming?” Sadie whirled and pointed to the fireplace. “There!”

“The furnace, for Christ sake!”

“In June?” Sadie slipped the love knot into her purse. “Like I tell my customers, first you believe, then you see.”

Mitzi snuggled into the cushions. “Same as any other shell game, mumbo-jumbo to fool the poor suckers. We all do it.”

“You think I make up lies?”

“I gotta hand it to you, whatta way to turn a buck.”

“Fifty cents, two for ninety-five.” Sadie blushed. “I also do something else. I dance…” She shifted, staring now at the cupids.  “…pretty good. My late husband wouldn’t, so I didn’t, but play music, and I turn into a whole new person.”

“What’s so marvelous about dancing?”

What? You touch, you don’t feel so alone.” How to say this? “It gives a chance to be anybody you want to be, to show off…”

“Let me have a look at you.” Mitzi gestured up-up. Sadie stood.  Mitzi turned her in one direction, then the other. “Well, hon…” Scrutinizing Sadie’s hair, face, shoulders, chest, hips, ankles. “…it won’t be easy, I’m not makin’ any promises. A few fast turns with the rouge brush, some upgrading here.” She fluttered her fingers toward Sadie’s eyes. “A new corset.”

She’d come to the right place. She could hug this woman who, this minute didn’t look like the hugging type. “You do me good,” Sadie said, “I do you good. One hand washes up the other.”

“Meaning?” Mitzi crossed the room to a red lacquered breakfront, and brought out a crystal decanter and two glasses.

“Who doesn’t have a little dirt on her hands,” Sadie said, “from time to time?”

 Mitzi poured wine into each glass, holding one out to Sadie. “First thing, I gotta help you with is that accent.”

“I don’t talk so good? I know a thousand fancy night school words, two thousand. Listen.” She took a deep breath. “Sumptuous, delightful, celebrity.” Should she tell her about the meetings in the library on Monday nights, the books, the pamphlets, the march they planned, women, only women?  

“It’s not what ya’ say, it’s how ya’ say it. Practice this every night in fronta your mirror.” Mitzi cleared her throat. “Some sugar-filled delicacies satisfy practically all our appetites. Clear, strong s’s on the some, a soft hiss like s-h on the sugar…”

“You gotta be meshuga to talk like that.”

“You want this ice guy to think you’re a woman of the world? I’ll write it down, ten days and you’ll sound…” Mitzi made a circle of thumb and forefinger. “Then we’ll go on to another mouthful.” Sadie shrugged. “I like you, we got a lot in common, you ‘n me.”

Sadie wasn’t sure how that was possible, but she loved the sound of it.

* * *

The next installment of Sadie in Love will run tomorrow.


  • Miriam Kalman Friedman

    I can’t wait to read this. One is never too old to write, publish, discuss, live. Brava