Sunday, December 18, 2016

Q&A with Joel ben Izzy

Joel ben Izzy, photo by Ahri Golden
Joel ben Izzy is the author of Dreidels on the Brain, a new novel for kids. He also has written the memoir The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness. A professional storyteller, he has recorded six collections of tales and has traveled around the world for more than 30 years telling stories.

Q: The main character in the book is named Joel. How much of the story is based on your own childhood?

A: All of it, to be honest! The line between fiction and nonfiction is a blurry one. I prefer the term “faction,” between the two. It is written mostly as a memoir.

What I took liberties on was the time things happened. Elements that happened when I was older were brought back to these eight days of Chanukah. My father had gotten sick like that years later.

The inventions were all pretty much accurate as they were, and school—I may have embellished, in fact, I definitely embellished, and I changed names too…The way the school assembly played out was changed around too.

The working title for the book, Snow and Oranges, never did much of anything. My editor called and said, This book is funny, quirky, Jewish, about Chanukah—I don’t get any of that from Snow and Oranges!

I came up with Kvetcher in the Rye, but she said kids wouldn’t get it. I went on to Short Boy’s Complaint, which is also derivative. Inglorious Boychik. None of those were working.

I came up with the idea of a dreidel. It’s specifically about Chanukah, it’s a quirky thing. I came up with every possible title: I Dream of Dreidels, The Hand that Spins the Dreidel, From Dreidel to Grave. They were all terrible. I said [to her], this is driving me crazy! I’ve got dreidels on the brain! She said, Perfect!

Q: You note that it took many years to conceptualize and write the book. What was the process like?

A: I come to this primarily as a storyteller, yet I always knew I would want to tell the story of the orange. Ten or 11 years ago now, Lauri [Hornik, the editor] had read my first book, and said if you’re in New York, I would love to meet with you and see if you want to write a book for kids. I told her the story, and she said, I love that story.

I thought it would take place over the eight nights of Chanukah. Then I went home, and tried to write it. I tried every way I could, and it came out as faux-nostalgic drivel…

Suddenly it all came to me in two words…chopped liver. Once I had that, it was the voice. I found my voice as a 12-year-old that let me latch onto [the writing].

Q: So as a storyteller, what do you hope readers take away from this particular story?

A: One is I really hope readers get a sense of a way to hold this holiday of Chanukah--the idea of finding light within darkness always has currency. From my political perspective, there’s so much more darkness now to work with than when I was writing it.

[The book takes place in] 1971, December, when the world seemed to be falling apart. The Vietnam War seemed to be going on and on. We had Nixon as president. Yet here we are now in a time that seems pretty creepy.

I hope people find light within the darkness as they read it, and as a storyteller, I hope people will appreciate the glow of the stories they have.

Books take on a life of their own—in a sense the book tells the story of how I became a storyteller. It’s sort of a prequel to my other book. That came out in 2003—it’s good for older kids and adults. It’s billed as a memoir, though again it’s “faction.”
I’d been traveling around the world telling stories when I found I had thyroid cancer. It’s called a “good cancer”—those are two words that should never be put together, like “jumbo shrimp.”

It’s considered treatable. But when I woke up from surgery, [I couldn’t talk]. The doctor said give it a couple of weeks…after two months, the doctor said, This is permanent—I hope it doesn’t affect your work!

That book tells that story. During that period of time, my mother was getting sick and dying. That story, as an adult, as a storyteller, it’s learning to come to terms with not being able to speak and finding the blessings hidden in that. I began to dip into the stories of my childhood. Snow and Oranges began to percolate.

Q: What about Chanukah makes it a good structure around which to build a story?

A: For my purposes, the eight candles and the shamash are a nice length to work with.

In many ways, Chanukah is a holiday begging to be understood. It’s this quirky holiday. It’s an awkward holiday from the get-go. We tell the story of a military victory, the Maccabees fighting against an enemy—but as Jews we can’t even name the enemy.

I was told we fought the Assyrians, but we did not. The Assyrians are a persecuted ethnic minority in modern-day Iraq. Some would say the Syrians, but we didn’t. Some would say the Greeks, or the Romans. In the book I ended up calling it the Seleucids. That was the closest we could get to the descendants of Alexander the Great.

The Maccabees—we’re excited about their victory but they went on to be terrible rulers. The whole story of Chanukah couldn’t be put in any Jewish books…

Here was a weird story with no place to go. A couple hundred years later, they said this story is so awkward to tell…[the idea of focusing on] oil and rededication was after the fact.

Joel ben Izzy as a 12-year-old magician in 1971
It’s an awkward holiday; it comes in the middle of Christmas, which is clearly a big-deal holiday. There’s something about the absence of a story that makes it ripe for interpretation…

The whole story behind Chanukah is confusing, contradictory, and controversial, but the idea of the simplicity of focusing on light is something that’s always perfect, and gets to the essence of those winter holidays. On the one hand, it’s the most complicated, and the simplest of holidays, and that makes it ideal for a story.

[I think] it’s the first novel for older kids and adults about Chanukah. Chanukah has lost older kids; it’s a young kids’ holiday. People don’t quite know what to make of [the book]—I think it will take a while to catch on.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: …As I wrote this, there were great sections I had to cut out. I have a tendency to digress. There was a great passage about gefilte fish and I went off on that…My editor said this is all great, but this is going to be 600 pages long!

Somewhere on my computer is a book set during Pesach, Matzah on my Mind! I don’t know that I’d be taking that up next; I need to make a living.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. To read the first chapter of Dreidels on the Brain, please click here. To hear Joel ben Izzy describe the story behind the book, please click here.

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