Author Eliot Fintushel’s book, Breakfast With the Ones You Love(Bantam Spectra, 2007) is at times a science fiction adventure complete with a quirky, beautiful heroine named Lea and at times a spiritual book about Judaic mysticism complete with a hero, Jack, who is one of the Chosen. Either way, this new release from the acclaimed short story writer will leave readers feeling moved, educated and entertained. Fintushel took some time to talk with Literature Chick.
LT: Did you always know you would be a writer?
EF: As a child, I wrote passionately, and I imagined that I would be a writer someday. In my early teens I typed a novel called SEDUCTION OF THE VOID, cover decorated with blood from a pierced thumb. I actually did submit it to two or three publishers and very deservedly got my rejection slips. At some point, though, I gave up on the project of being a writer, and I decided to become enlightened instead. I think that I imagined that I would disappear and merge into the universe in a kind of a puff of green smoke. I did all kinds of very extreme practices to that end--and I still do one or two of them. I practiced Zen at a big center for many years and actually did discover something. Then I became a performer of mask and mime theater, did very well at it, wrote material for myself and for ensembles I worked with. The great thing about performing is that the audience tells you at once what's good and what's not, moment by moment by moment--if you know how to listen. With writing, it may be months, if ever, before you know. When I moved from New York to California, I left all my theater contacts behind, so I figured I'd better find a way of making a living that didn't depend on location. For that reason, I started writing. Someone had told me that genre markets were the easiest to break into, so I wrote science fiction stories at the rate of about one every ten days. I sent them out practically before the ink was dry, and when they came back, I sent them out again. At the end of a year, I was selling lots of them to big magazines and making two or three thousand bucks a year at it. Part 2 of my plan was, on the basis of a track record selling short stories, to start selling novels to some big publishing house. That part has taken me about fifteen years. Meanwhile, I've managed to stay alive by doing performance art and children's shows, teaching improvisation, playing the theremin on street corners, and writing articles and reviews for this or that magazine.
LT: Why the genre of science fiction and the sub genre of Judaic writing?
EF: I write science fiction partly because it's the most easily salable, but also because it suits my wild mind to do so. Mostly, however, my fiction is not so much science fiction as metaphysical fiction--what can happen between seeing a thing and knowing its name, for example, or between waking and knowing (or believing you know) who you are. Not infrequently, I have received hate mail from sci-fi fans who are upset that such stuff has been allowed to seep into their magazines. I have written some straight-ahead literary fiction, one short for The Ohio Review, before it folded. I write Judaic stuff because I know it, I grew up in it, and I have a deep and abiding fondness for the culture. When I was a child, all the grownups were from Eastern Europe and spoke Yiddish. To write or cut paper on Saturday was frowned upon. Once, I hid under the bed, fearful that the Jewish police would come knocking because I had eaten a little milchik after fleishik. I still soulfully sing Yiddish opera ditties in the shower, plus much of Moishe Oisher's cantorial repertoire for the High Holidays and S'lichot.
LT: Breakfast With the Ones You Love deals with the nature of identity, spirituality and family all tied up in a complex, off the wall story. Where did the idea come from? The character of Lea? Of Jack/Yid?
EF: Well, I guess I just have the sort of a mind that takes things to infinity--just my natural bent. Couple years ago I memorized Revelation, that horrendous, immoral, vicious, disgusting--and most Jewish, alas!--of the New Testament books, added masks and some songs in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and toured it across the states and in Canada, a wild one-man show. So BREAKFAST's Messianic spaceship is just par for the course for me. You think this is off-the-wall? You should check out my short stories (www.fintushel.com/stories_page.htm) because you ain't seen nuttin' yet. Jack is an idealized me--well, a piece of me, and, possibly, Lea is my sister Mollie, hard on the outside, sweet and soft inside. When I read parts of my book these days, I confess that it makes me cry, and it's Lea's voice that does it to me. Where did she come from, really? I don't know. But she moves me. A gift.
LT: The nature of Kabbalah and Judaic mysticism is vital to the plot of the book; do you practice either?
EF: No. Occultism, Jewish or otherwise, is a disease of the mind, a defect. However, I believe very deeply in art, and even more deeply in the importance of meditation, not to mystify, but to clarify. This world is such a wonder altogether, what silliness to go invent exotic fabulations, mystic gestures at the mirror--excepting, consciously, as Art. I am a good and thorough Jewish atheist.
LT: Much of your writing is for young adults, this book seems to have an older demographic - would you agree?
EF: I don't think I've ever written anything for young adults, actually, although I wrote a few children's stories for Pitspopany Press. I never had YA in mind in writing this book, but, in hindsight, the YA appeal is clear. After all, it's the coming of age story of a young woman--how she learns to love (herself and everybody). Still, some pretty complex and sophisticated notions are batted about, there are a lot of sly references and subtextual cavorting going on--let's hope that that makes it the kind of a book that one can read at fifteen and then profitably revisit at fifty.
LT: The notion of salvation seems to weave throughout the work - would you agree?
EF: Salvation, in a religious sense, is at issue everywhere in the book, yes, but it functions only as metaphor for a very much simpler, psychological process. There is no Olam Habaa but this world of ours. The only salvific thing I know of is the melting/opening/remembering of which each of us is capable right now, and the redemption of evil by awareness of it--which is the main point of the angels' ritual inquisition of Jack near the very end, before he is allowed to enter the supernal realm with the rest of his tribe--not to give away too much, I hope . . .
LT: If you were not a writer, would you be a Rabbi?
EF: I do not think of myself as a writer, although I certainly write. I'm not trying to be cute--it's just that I do a lot of things, and when the Muse, if any, bops me, I'm as likely to play the theremin or to dance or to improvise a scene as I am to write. As to being a Rabbi . . . well, when I was a young teenager, I wanted to go to a Yeshiva to become a rabbi or a cantor, but now that I know myself a little better, I'm quite sure that I would not have endured it, and that I would have caused myself and everyone else a lot of sorrow on my way to getting out of there. Except as culture, as art, I'm not fond of any religion. I feel that it's very seriously questionable whether what good religions do is worth the horrific evil of the attendant magnification of ethnocentrism--medieval Crusades, Biblical wars of conquest on the desert, et cetera, et cetera, et bloody cetera.
LT: Do you find that the life of a writer is a difficult one?
EF: Difficult?? Difficult?? What could be difficult about doing what you love and getting paid for it? Of course, it's necessary to learn not to want anything much that you haven't already got, because, by and large, there's little dough in writing, but that's a knack easy to acquire for folks who, above all, love to dream and to wordsmith.
LT: What are your future plans? new book?
EF: I want to play all of Debussy's chamber and piano works on my theremin for lots and lots of people.