Writer’s Life: Ellen Umansky

Ellen Umansky photo 1

First, some high praise garnered by Brooklyn-based author Ellen Umansky’s debut novel, The Fortunate Ones.

“The Fortunate Ones” is a subtle, emotionally layered novel about the ways art and other objects of beauty can make tangible the invisible, undocumented moments in our lives, the portion of experience that exists without an audience but must be preserved if we are to remain whole. —The New York Times Book Review 

Umansky’s richly textured and peopled novel tells an emotionally and historically complicated story with so much skill and confidence it’s hard to believe it’s her first. — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Now that you have hopefully clicked the link above to buy it, I’ll reveal that Ellen and I were good buddies in our Santa Monica middle school. Our paths diverged, but not too widely, as we both attended Penn, and recently reunited for a reunion author panel called “Words with Friends.” I could not be more proud of her, more excited to read her novel, or more pleased to introduce you. Meet Ellen Umanksy:

What have you learned from parenting, or from your own parents, that you bring to your work as a writer?

My immediate response to this question is a pragmatic one: I have so much less time to work than before I had children, but I’m a better, more disciplined writer now. I’m less precious about my writing; as a parent, you can’t afford to be. You simply have to get your words down on paper and take it from there.

My mother, who passed away a year ago, was my role model in all kinds of ways, large and small. She was sick for several years, but she rarely complained. She was a cheerful and warm person, almost relentlessly so, and because of that, it was easy to overlook her persistence and resilience. She pushed through some seriously painful months — years, actually — during which she continued to work, travel, spend time with her family, her grandchildren in particular. I think of her determination all the time, and try to apply that to my own work and life.

Where do you write? What do you love about it? (or I suppose, what don’t you love…)

I write anywhere I can, but often I’m at my desk in our house in Brooklyn; that’s where I am right now. A big window to my left overlooks a parking lot, but affords a slice of trees too—a light-filled urban view. There’s something I love about working in my house alone. There’s usually so much chatter and noise, questions being asked of me—mom, where are my gym clothes? Mom, I can’t find my [insert random toy here]—but then they leave for school and it’s suddenly, blessedly quiet again. For the next five hours, the space belongs only to me. When I’m stuck in my work, I find it useful to get up and take care of a mundane, household task. I might have no idea where I’m going plot-wise in a story, but emptying a dishwasher? That I can do.

I’m also a member of the Brooklyn Writers Space, a collective workspace where I’ll often decamp in the late afternoons or if I’m working on a weekend. When my kids were young, that space was a lifesaver. I know a number of other writers who also belong, and it’s nice to run into them and chat and be reminded of that camaraderie. Writing can be such lonely business, and that fellowship, wherever you find it, is essential.

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Get it down on paper. You can always revise. And revise. And revise.

Who inspires you?

So many people: My mother; a big, ever-changing mix of writers, Grace Paley, Wilkie Collins, Elena Ferrante, Jane Austen, and Lore Segal; my daughters; my husband, too. He’s a psychiatrist and a voracious reader, my secret weapon. He’s insightful about character and human relationships, doesn’t get caught up in questions of craft, and is one of the funniest people I know.

What charity or community service are you passionate about?

My grandmother, who passed away a year and a half ago at the age of 101, was born in Russia before the Russian Revolution, and fled that country as a young girl in 1921, crossing into Poland illegally and waiting with her family for close to two years before they could come to America. I remember my grandmother talking about that stressful time, living in Lemburg, Poland, and how her parents would go every day to the offices of the HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was helping them with their visas and so much more. Last month, I went to a rally at the foot of Manhattan, in view of the Statue of Liberty, to protest Trump’s ban against immigrants and refugees. The rally was organized by HIAS, the same group that helped my grandmother’s family so long ago. I am both inspired and heartened by their work and appalled that we need them so badly today.

What are you reading now, and/or what book do you recommend?

I devoured Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah a few years ago, and read her novel Half of a Yellow Sun this winter. I don’t know what took me so long to turn to it. It’s a tour de force, told from different points of views during the Biafran war of independence in 1960’s Nigeria, something I knew little about. But just as compelling, it’s a story rich in character that focuses on a pair of sisters, twins, what sets them apart and what brings them together.

Joanna Hershon’s A Dual Inheritance is also a favorite of mine. It opens at Harvard in the ’60’s when two men from vastly different backgrounds meet and become friends. But college is just the starting point for this sweeping, deeply emotional story that crosses decades and continents. It’s a such rich and compulsive read; I’m friends with Joanna Hershon and witnessed her writing the book and I still don’t quite understand how she did it.


FortunateOnes lc cover

 

Follow Ellen on Facebook and Twitter and EllenUmansky.com


The Fortunate Ones, Synopsis:

“One very special work of art–a Chaim Soutine painting–will connect the lives and fates of two different women, generations apart, in this enthralling and transporting debut novel that moves from World War II Vienna to contemporary Los Angeles.

It is 1939 in Vienna, and as the specter of war darkens Europe, Rose Zimmer’s parents are desperate. Unable to get out of Austria, they manage to secure passage for their young daughter on a kindertransport, and send her to live with strangers in England.

Six years later, the war finally over, a grief-stricken Rose attempts to build a life for herself. Alone in London, devastated, she cannot help but try to search out one piece of her childhood: the Chaim Soutine painting her mother had cherished.

Many years later, the painting finds its way to America. In modern-day Los Angeles, Lizzie Goldstein has returned home for her father’s funeral. Newly single and unsure of her path, she also carries a burden of guilt that cannot be displaced. Years ago, as a teenager, Lizzie threw a party at her father’s house with unexpected but far-reaching consequences. The Soutine painting that she loved and had provided lasting comfort to her after her own mother had died was stolen, and has never been recovered.

This painting will bring Lizzie and Rose together and ignite an unexpected friendship, eventually revealing long-held secrets that hold painful truths. Spanning decades and unfolding in crystalline, atmospheric prose, The Fortunate Ones is a haunting story of longing, devastation, and forgiveness, and a deep examination of the bonds and desires that map our private histories.”

The Sound of Inspiration, and Light for a Dark World

I’m trying something new — music in the background while I write, a soundtrack to inspire. So I pick Simon & Garfunkel.

“They’ve all gone to look for America…”

And I instantly discover the problem with this sytem: I stop and sing.

“I do declare, there were times when I was so lonesome I took some comfort there.”

I mean, can you blame me? Here is their genius: they make me feel what they feel, with intensity. I mean, I promise I have never “taken comfort from the whores on 7th avenue” — my comfort vice is ice cream — yet when they do declare, I do declare along with them.

How do they DO that? How do they get me in that moment with them when I have nothing in common with that experience?

It’s not that the details don’t matter. They matter a lot. They paint the picture. What doesn’t matter is if I have or haven’t experienced those details myself. What I’m sharing with them is not the experience of say, taking a bus across America, but the universal feeling of wishing and yearning. That’s what I sing along with. That’s what I need to write like.

I hum their tune and some Boxer part of me wants to break out of my mold, wants to write and punch my way to glory. Another line plays and I think, aha, I can relate to that one. “All my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity…like emptiness in harmony…” Those clever devils even got a good line out of writer’s block.

I wonder who inspired their artistry? Maybe the sound of silence? (Groan. Sorry.)

Next to me is today’s newspaper, with stories that crush the heart. Earthquake in Taiwan. Libya is the new Syria. Syria is still Syria. It’s easy to ask, what kind of a world do we live in? And this morning I’m happy to be reminded that we live in a world of beauty, too. Enjoy.  

Never a Dull Moment, With The Big Questions Kid

Have you ever told your children that it was good to be bored? Have you ever flailed trying to explain why, even to yourself?

Let me define boredom for my purposes: an absence of outside stimuli (e.g. XBox, Wii, FB, Instagram, television, the usual suspects), as well as an absence of creative ideas coming from within. Stasis. Quiet. Spaciousness.

I heard two super smart women sing the praises of boredom this week. Each relayed a story of a different psychological study.

At the Literary Women festival in Long Beach on Saturday, author Aimee Bender described a study in which one group of people were given an exceedingly boring task — copying phone numbers out of the phone book — and then right after were given plastic cups and told to do something creative with them. A control group of non-super-bored folks were given the same cups, same instruction. The bored-to-death folks ran away with the creative assignment, cutting out spirals and snowflakes and lord-knows-what-else with their plastic. The non-bored folks made an effort at some pyramid-thingy. The takeaway? Boredom led to pent up creativity bursting to be released.

The second study about boredom was relayed by Rabbi Amy Bernstein. People were asked to sit alone in a waiting room. There was nothing to do in the room. No one was allowed a phone, a book, a pencil and paper. Nothing but one’s body and mind. For fifteen minutes they would have to be alone with their thoughts. There was one activity in the waiting room: a button that, when pushed, gave off an electric shock. You won’t be surprised, will you, when I share that many folks preferred the pain of electric shock to being with their thoughts for fifteen minutes?

When I told my kids about this study, before I could finish, my 10-year-old son offered he gladly spin in circles for 15 minutes.

Spinning

It came as no surprise to me that this kid had no problem with the idea of fifteen minutes to himself. He lives for it. Yes, he gets addicted to screens like the rest of us. But he is a soul who needs quiet moments, too, room to hear his own thoughts. That’s when the cool stuff happens: the wide-eyed realizations and the biggest questions.

Early one morning, we ride our bikes to school. “What does it all mean?” he asks, navigating the sprinklers and bumps in the sidewalk. “I mean, we are just specks in the universe, Mom!”

We roll along, him in front, leading, and me trying to keep up.

IMG_0571

Resolution # 2: Find your heart’s calling, resist “prestige”

Yesterday morning I looked out on a winter’s day in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. My eyes absorbed the leaves, wet and drained of autumn pigment, clinging to skinny dark branches, refusing to fall. It was the kind of day that used to bring the lyrics of “California Dreamin’” to my lips when I was a freshman at Penn, far from my native habitat of Pacific Ocean sunsets. Yes, all the leaves are brown! Yes, the sky is gray! It’s all true! At eighteen years old, my future was unlimited. Every path was open.

Today, many significant reunions later, I’m “safe and warm in L.A.,” back to work, writing and lawyering and mom-ing.

And…checking e-mail, which sends me to Facebook, which leads me to a post by Maria PopovaHow to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love. Uh-oh.

It puts me in the same frame of mind as the couplet closing “The Summer Day” by poet Mary Oliver“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” It taunts me. Such pressure! Am I living up to it?

As though he is in cahoots, my ten-year-old son (who has lamented that he does not know what he wants to be when he grows up) asks me, “Mom, do you love your job?” I consider, and answer: “I love writing…I like being a lawyer.” I tell myself that’s pretty good.

Do you know what you are called to do, are you are doing it?

Do you feel that you are glimpsing it, standing at the edge of the cliff and sensing that what you seek is out there, if only you had the courage to leap?

Are you close enough, happy enough, and don’t need to rock the boat?

I am not a leaper; I am a baby stepper. I cringe my way into the ocean and have inched my way for years into the writer’s life, combining it with the lawyer’s (if it’s good enough for Scott Turow, etc…). But one particular wisdom in Popova’s article is for all of us, leapers and baby-steppers alike: Let go of the false prize of prestige.

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

….

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

Prestige lurks and tempts: it is the esteemed career path, without the passion; the appointment to a high-falutin’ committee, without the interest. If the passion is not there, resist! Enlist the help of friends, if necessary. (I once asked my sister to shoot me if I applied to be a Law Review Editor. I knew I’d hate it, but I knew I was susceptible to its golden bauble, resume value.) I resisted on my own. No shots were fired.

What a way to enter the new year. Seek more of what moves you. Move closer to the joyful sound, the bracing splash, of your heart’s calling. Even if you have to inch your way toward it.

STOMP your heart out

This is totally how we sweep around my house.

Of course not. This is STOMP, which I saw for the first time when I wasn’t all that much older than  my kids are now. It blew my mind when I saw it. Nothing had ever been so downright funky-to-the-beat, imagination-en-fuego as this. It is deservedly an international juggernaut of a show, with permanent companies running in London and New York.

It has been in L.A. before and I’ve missed it. Not this time — I’m taking my boys this Wednesday (yes, a school night, yes, a test the next day), and I cannot wait to watch their minds blown. Especially my budding drummer. There is a chance that I will be the most excited of all of us, that I will embarrass them by shrieking like the Beatles are on stage. All I can say is, that’s a chance I’m willing to take. Look out kitchen drawers, look out mops and buckets, look out whatever we will get our hands on.  It’s gonna be epic.

 

STOMP

Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd. (near La Cienega) Beverly Hills

Tuesday, December 17 to Sunday, January 5

http://www.stomponline.com

Watch Your Language! Moms Talking Dirty

We interrupt this week of Grandma Power to get down and dirty with some real Confessions of Motherhood. Well, it’s scripted, but based on reality, the new web show, “Benchwarmers,” co-starring my friend Katie Goodman, from Broad Comedy.

Its premise: Ever wonder what those women on the park bench are talking about as their kids play in the sandbox? Lots and lots of sex.

benchwarmers

I must have raised my kids at the wrong park.

When they were babies, I was one of those parents hovering in the sandbox, damaging their psyches (another blog for another day).

Now I’ve graduated to the bench, while one child plays basketball or baseball, the other plays tag or caveman. I sit with a book, or sometimes get conscripted into the game of tag if there’s no one better to play with. But so far nothing comes close to Benchwarmers.

I’m gonna find a new bench.

 

It Takes a Village, and Mine is Yummy

I’m noticing connections between parenting and writing this week. Both can be thankless pursuits. You do the work because you love it, or some days because you simply have to, but not because you expect rave reviews to come at the end.

Both can be solitary, like in those dark wee hours trying to comfort a painfully uncomfortable newborn, an all but faded memory to me now. And the solitude of writing is, for me, the antidote to the communal chaos of motherhood.

Both have intrinsic rewards, like hearing a perfect phrase in my head and simply transposing it to the page, or having my second-grader inexplicably wake up to a Mommy-phase, kisses included.  First Friday March 2013

Both take villages to make them work. Grandparents and sisters and friends offering fresh arms to rock a baby, or take them out to a movie; or those same grandparents, sisters and friends sharing the results of that solitary writing time.

Today I’m honored to have the latter kind of of support from the wonderful Jessica Heisen. Her food and photography blog, CopyCake Cook has some seriously tantalizing recipes and photos, and she’s sharing me as her featured artist of the month. Please check it out, and spend some time browsing her site. Whether you’re in the middle of a juicing frenzy (Christopher), freaking about what’s for dinner (me) or a richly chocolate mood (you know who you are), the gal does it all. I’m hoping to get some blogging tips from her, to take mine to the next level.

Yes, it takes a village. I give thanks for mine.

Thieving Thursday: Painter Erin Hanson…Wow

We’re going to play word association today.

I say “paintings” you say “gallery” or “canvases” or, some of you, “finger”.

I say “landscapes” you say “snooze” or “ho-hum” or “yawn”. It’s okay, you’re not alone — why else would hotels put ocean or farm landscapes on the walls, if not to help escort you into sleepy-land?

I don’t claim to understand why something that is awe-inspiringly beautiful in person — a glowing sunset over the Pacific, for example — is trite when captured literally in a painting. It just is. So imagine the thrill and surprise when, in the midst of a wine-tasting weekend in Paso Robles, I walked into a gallery showing the work of Erin Hanson and saw this:

Erin Hanson print

And this:

Erin Hanson print2

And this:

Erin Hanson print 3

Painter Erin Hanson doesn’t replicate the colors we see, but the emotion we feel seeing them. So Paso Robles’ green and brown hills and vineyards become purple and orange and red (but really, with all the better Crayola names and nuances of purple and orange and red). Her landscapes stayed with me.

So today, I’m sharing her with you.  www.erinhanson.com

Photos on a computer screen don’t begin to capture the effect they have in person, which is is making you want to take all of them home, but it’s too good not to try. Happy Thieving Thursday, one and all.