Author Archives: Yona Zeldis McDonough

The Lilith Blog

June 19, 2018 by

Dispatches From an Anxious Life

Little Panic CoverThe world never made any sense to Amanda Stern–how could she trust time to keep flowing, the sun to rise, gravity to hold her feet to the ground, or even her own body to work the way it was supposed to?

In her memoir Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life, Amanda describes this feeling. Deep down, she knows that there’s something horribly wrong with her, some defect that her siblings and friends don’t have to cope with.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in New York, Amanda experiences the magic and madness of life through the filter of unrelenting panic. Plagued with fear that her friends and family will be taken from her if she’s not watching—that her mother will die, or forget she has children and just move away—Amanda treats every parting as her last. Shuttled between a barefoot bohemian life with her mother in Greenwich Village, and a sanitized, stricter world of affluence uptown with her father, Amanda has little she can depend on. And when Etan Patz, the six-year-old boy down the block from their MacDougal Street home disappears on the first day he walks to school alone, she can’t help but believe that all her worst fears are about to come true.

Stern spoke with Lilith Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the peculiar terror that dominated her childhood, and how her eventual understanding—and acceptance—of these early fears has finally earned her a measure of peace.

YZM: Why do you think it took so long for anyone to diagnose what you were suffering from? 

AS: The landscape of focus wasn’t the same as it is today. The adult world was much more attuned to what they could see rather than what they couldn’t. Bad grades: visible; mental anguish: invisible. My teachers and testers seemed to recognize my anxiety, but no one spoke to me about it. Adults have the power to keep a child from knowing herself, and without forecasting how the end result might play out (badly), they withheld who I was from me. It was a different time; our parents didn’t parent the way they do today. Not to mention, anxiety and panic weren’t part of the cultural conversation, so the signature features that today would be so obvious weren’t taken as seriously.   

YZM: You wrote that in middle school, you were exposed to a kind of casual anti-Semitism; how did this contribute to your anxiety and sense of yourself as an outsider?  

AS: That was my first experience with anti-Semitism, and quite honestly, I thought it was narrow-minded and sad. But it did alert me to a difference to which I hadn’t been entirely aware. I never considered that I looked Jewish, and when I realized that I became a bit more self-conscious of myself, but for reasons I can’t quite explain, it didn’t exacerbate my anxiety. It simply made me more attuned to prejudice and heightened my awareness that fearing difference was one more thing I didn’t have in common with the general population. “Otherness” is home to me. It’s what I’ve always gravitated toward, so in a sense, it helped me define who I was; that I was not a person who shamed others, or who cared for that matter whether a person had cancer, was deaf, wore a prosthesis, or was another race or religion. It simply cemented my connection to those who, to me, seemed most real and alive.

YZM: The memoir is constructed as a series of small essays, moving back and forth in time.  Was this your overall vision for the book from the start or did you write the essays first and only later see them coming together in book form? 

AS: I set out to write an autobiography of an emotion; to chart the lifecycle of anxiety as it moved through me since I was an infant. My overall vision for the book was to have the IQ tests and personal evaluations play a bigger role than they ultimately did, and while the shape came together as I wrote, when I finished I felt very much as though the feeling inside me matched the final product.

YZM: You’ve written a novel for adults and eleven children’s books as well as this memoir; can you comment on writing across genres?  

AS: Writing books for children is like taking your brain to a playground. It’s incredibly freeing, and while it’s a bit less spontaneous than writing for adults, because there are more restrictions, it’s really helped flex my thinking. In the beginning it was a bit of a struggle. I would carry the kids voice over to the adult work and then I’d fear I’d lost the ability to write a sophisticated sentence. It reminded me of a guy I dated who was a serious actor who was cast in the Cirque du Soleil. He worried relentlessly that the cheesiness of the show would erase everything he’d ever learned about being a classical actor. That’s sort of how I felt, but that goes away, and you learn that your skillset doesn’t get erased.

YZM: What would you like readers to come away with after reading this book? 

AS: My hope is that readers with anxiety will come away feeling less alone, and less ashamed to feel what and how they do, and that readers who don’t suffer from anxiety will realize that mental illness is not something to be fixed. It’s a condition of being human. Despite our opposing political viewpoints, and values, we’re all in this together. There is no one right way to be a human being, and if I can get any point across it’s that being ashamed of your or anyone else’s humanness will weaken, not strengthen who you already are.

 

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The Lilith Blog

June 12, 2018 by

Isolated Mothers, Searching for Miracles

The reader knows by page one of Queen for a Day that Mimi Slavitt’s three-year-old son is autistic, but if anyone told her, she wouldn’t listen, because she doesn’t want to know—until at last Danny’s behavior becomes so strange even she can’t ignore it. After her son’s diagnosis, Mimi finds herself in a world nearly as isolating as her son’s. Searching for miracles, begging for the help of heartless bureaucracies while arranging every minute of every day for children who can never be left alone, she and her fellow mothers exist in a state of perpetual crisis, “normal” life always just out of reach. In chapters told from Mimi’s point of view and theirs, we meet these women, each a conflicted, complex character dreaming of the day she can just walk away.

Taking its title from the 1950s reality TV show in which the contestants, housewives living lives filled with pain and suffering, competed with each other for deluxe refrigerators and sets of stainless steel silverware, Queen for a Day portrays a group of imperfect women living under enormous pressure. Maxine Rosaler talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the true-life experiences that led her to write this book. (more…)

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The Lilith Blog

June 6, 2018 by

What Did Your Grandparents Do to Mine?

The HeirsAfter breaking her hip in a serious accident, Eleanor Ritter’s mother, Rose, a Holocaust survivor now living in New Jersey, suddenly starts talking about her harrowing childhood in Poland and the taboo subjects she has refused to discuss for half a century—even speaking in long-forgotten Polish. Around the same time, Eleanor learns that the parents of her nine-year-old son’s soccer teammate, Tadek, are Catholics from Poland.

As Eleanor becomes fixated with digging into the histories of both her mother and Tadek’s family, her obsession strains her already difficult relationship with Rose, as well as her marriage to Nick, an IT technician who is himself caught up in preparing for the feared Y2K turn of the millennium.

Eleanor starts flirting with the soccer coach, ignoring her 12-year-old daughter’s growing rebellion and her son’s misery when, messing up several games, he becomes the team pariah. Meanwhile, the “sure-fire” tech stock that Eleanor bought behind Nick’s back is losing money. Even as her quest nourishes an odd friendship with Tadek’s mother, it forces Eleanor to face the unavoidable questions: For how many generations can guilt carry on? And: What did your grandparents do to my grandparents?

Hawthorne, the author of the award-winning Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love and seven other books about business, consumers and social issues, talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her journey from fiction to fact and then back again. 

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The Lilith Blog

June 5, 2018 by

Love, Seduction and Survival—and Always, Paris

In 1950, Glynne Hiller, 26, goes to Paris with her husband, Joe, and her three-year-old daughter, Cathy, so they can all study French in the City of Light. But after a year, Glynne leaves Joe. She doesn’t love him—in fact, she questions whether she’s ever been in love—and she is looking for a more liberated life. Saucy and beautiful, Glynne charms one man after another, including the movie star Jean Gabin. Then she meets a man named Maurice and her whole understanding of love changes. Hiller, now 94, describes this transformation in the memoir Passport to Paris. She talks about her life and writing with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough. Passport to Paris

YZM: Your father, an Egyptian Jew, moved your family from England to America in 1939; did he have a sense of what was coming? 

GH: My father started a cotton mill with his brother in Guatemala, before the war started. Both of my brothers volunteered to fight: Eddie, the eldest, in the RAF (Royal Air Force). Max went into the artillery force.  Both survived. 

Meanwhile, Sally and I, separately, came to America. I came alone, and on the second night, we all came on deck were told we mustn’t make a single sound because there was a German U-boat in the vicinity. And everybody, even the children, were absolutely mum. We all cooperated. And they were already unloading the little lifeboats boats. It was very scary, I have to tell you.

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The Lilith Blog

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. 

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The Lilith Blog

May 23, 2018 by

A Novel Imagines F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Lesser-Known (and Jewish) Love Affair

In 1937 Hollywood, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham’s star is on the rise—while literary wonder boy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s career is slowly drowning in booze. But the once-famous author, desperate to make money penning scripts for the silver screen, is charismatic enough to attract the gorgeous Miss Graham, a woman who exposes the secrets of others while carefully guarding her own. Like Fitzgerald’s hero Jay Gatsby, Graham has meticulously constructed a life far removed from the poverty of her childhood in London’s slums. And like Gatsby, the onetime guttersnipe learned early how to use her charms to become a hardworking success; she is feted and feared by both the movie studios and their luminaries.another side of paradise

A notorious drunk famously married to the doomed Zelda, Fitzgerald fell hard for his “Shielah” (he never learned to spell her name), who would stay with him and help revive his career until his tragic death three years later.

Working from Sheilah’s memoirs, interviews, and letters, Sally Koslow revisits their scandalous love affair and Graham’s dramatic transformation in London in her new novel, Another Side of Paradise, out this month from HarperCollins.

Koslow, the former editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine and author of four other novels, including acclaimed international bestseller The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about how she came to uncover the secrets of Graham’s past—and why.

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The Lilith Blog

May 2, 2018 by

“The Heirs” Asks For How Many Generations Can Guilty Carry On?

TheHeirsCoverAfter breaking her hip in a serious accident, Eleanor Ritter’s mother, Rose, a Holocaust survivor now living in New Jersey, suddenly starts talking about her harrowing childhood in Poland and the taboo subjects she has refused to discuss for half a century—even speaking in long-forgotten Polish. Around the same time, Eleanor learns that the parents of her nine-year-old son’s soccer teammate, Tadek, are Catholics from Poland.

As Eleanor becomes fixated with digging into the histories of both her mother and Tadek’s family, her obsession strains her already difficult relationship with Rose, as well as her marriage to Nick, an IT technician who is himself caught up in preparing for the feared Y2K turn of the millennium.

Eleanor starts flirting with the soccer coach, ignoring her 12-year-old daughter’s growing rebellion and her son’s misery when, messing up several games, he becomes the team pariah. Meanwhile, the “sure-fire” tech stock that Eleanor bought behind Nick’s back is losing money. Even as her quest nourishes an odd friendship with Tadek’s mother, it forces Eleanor to face the unavoidable questions: For how many generations can guilt carry on? And: What did your grandparents do to my grandparents?

Hawthorne, the author of the award-winning Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love and seven other books about business, consumers and social issues, talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her journey from fiction to fact and then back again.

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The Lilith Blog

April 19, 2018 by

The Holocaust and the Dot Com Boom Intertwine in This New Novel

paper-is-white-hi-res_2_origAs Ellen Margolis and her fiancé Francine beat their own early path toward marriage equality, Ellen falls into a clandestine entanglement with a wily survivor of the Kaunas Ghetto and a secret search for buried history that very well may disrupt her wedding plans.

Set in ebullient, 1990s dot-com-era San Francisco, Paper Is White is a novel about the gravitational pull of the past and how it directs and transforms the present.

Zaid, whose story “Even in Dreams, She Leaves Me Every Time” appeared in the Winter 2013-2014 issue of Lilith, talks to Lilith’s Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about her nuanced and tender debut.

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The Lilith Blog

April 4, 2018 by

A Girl’s-Eye View of Las Vegas Jewish Power

y648Equal parts precocious and precious, Esme Silver has always taken care of her charming ne’er-do-well father, Ike Silver, a small-time crook with dreams of making it big with Bugsy Siegel. Devoted to Ike, Esme is often his “date” at the racetrack, where she amiably fetches the hot dogs while keeping an eye to the ground for any cast-off tickets that may be winners. Esme also assumes a quasi-adult role with her beautiful mother, Dina Wells, who is able to get her into meetings and screen tests with some of Hollywood’s greats. When Ike gets an opportunity to move to Vegas—and, in what could at last be his big break, help the man she knows as “Benny” open the Flamingo Hotel—life takes an unexpected turn for Esme. She catches the eye of Nate Stein, one of the Strip’s most powerful men.

Narrated by the twenty-year-old Esme, The Magnificent Esme Wells moves between pre–WWII Hollywood and postwar Las Vegas—a golden age when Jewish gangsters and movie moguls were often indistinguishable in looks and behavior. Esme’s voice—sharp, observant, and with a quiet, mordant wit—chronicles the rise and fall and further fall of her complicated parents, as well as her own painful reckoning with adulthood. An excerpt from the novel appeared in Lilith’s Summer 2016 issue; now Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to nationally bestselling author Adrienne Sharp (The True Memoirs of Little K, First Love, White Swan Black Swan), about her noir-tinged—and wholly original—coming-of-age-story.

YZM: What drew you to the subject of Las Vegas in the 1940s?

AS: It was the beginning of everything. My husband’s family likes to gamble, and so with him I started going to Vegas in the early eighties, when the old hotels were still there, just before all the big, over the top hotels were built. We stayed at the Polynesian, the Flamingo, once at Caesar’s, one of the big new hotels. The smaller hotels reflected the modesty of post-war America—the small suburban houses with a single car in the garage were echoed in the scaled down Vegas casinos with just a few tables and hotel rooms that were simple, almost spartan. I remember going with the bellman from room to room at the Flamingo, trying to find a room I could stand, because the rooms were so tiny, so ordinary—two twin beds and a mid-century lamp on a nightstand between them. Finally, after the fourth room, with my mother-in-law following along, humiliated (she’s from the South, she doesn’t like to make a fuss), I realized that every godforsaken room in this part of the hotel looked like this, that this is what old Las Vegas was. The expectations were smaller. The paycheck was smaller. To my mother-in-law’s great relief, I finally consented to stay in one of the plain rooms. After all, I was a grad student. I didn’t need a palazzo. Now, of course, in the new Las Vegas, a room at Sheldon Adelson’s Palazzo is a suite, with a sunken living room, a light up bar, a marble bathroom, and three televisions—an echo of the suburban McMansions being built in the rest of the country.

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The Lilith Blog

March 6, 2018 by

If You Liked “Mrs. Maisel,” You’ll Love “The Bible of Dirty Jokes”

514aylnfdNL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In The Bible of Dirty Jokes, Eileen Pollack brings to life the vivid history of Borscht Belt comedy, Catskills resorts, and the notorious Jewish mob, Murder Inc. In a novel that reads like a cross between The Sopranos and a Sarah Silverman special, Pollack introduces us to the wisecracking, starry-eyed, endlessly generous and forgiving Ketzel Weinrach. On a reeling, roundabout hunt for her beloved brother, Potsie—gone missing in Las Vegas—she finds herself in ever stranger and more unnerving locations. Ketzel uncovers family secrets, buried bodies, and repressed memories; she also comes to see her failed comedy career and her deception-riddled marriage to the late Morty Tittelman, self-styled professor of dirty jokes and erotic folklore, in an entirely new way. Pollack talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about funny girls, both then and now.

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