The Sami Rohr Prize for emerging Jewish writers was recently awarded for Tamar Yellin’s novel The Genizah at the House of Shepher (also awarded the Ribalow Prize). Her collection of stories, Kafka in Bronteland, received the Reform Judaism Prize. I wonder what award Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes will achieve when it is released next year. This successful author has been writing fiction since childhood. Like most writers she has another profession. When not writing “pretty much full-time” she is a qualified teacher working as a Faith Tutor in schools, teaching non-Jewish children about Jewish customs. Yorkshire, England is home to her and her husband.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Tamar Yellin: Writing definitely chose me. I knew I was a writer from before being able to write. I used to fill notebooks with scribbles and illustrations. I remember loving the feeling of the pen in my hand. I must have had stories to tell, but I can’t remember them now!
Moe: What inspires you?
Tamar Yellin: Life inspires me and reading inspires me. Moments of strong emotion beg to be expressed in words. The small, often humorous or poignant details of life – like the piles of loose change my husband leaves lying around the house – ask to be written into some story. Or I will pick up a volume of Katherine Mansfield, say, and as soon as I begin reading her wonderful words I want to rush to my desk and start writing.
Music can do it, too. There’s often a particular piece of music associated with the book I’m working on, and when I listen to it, I glow with anticipation. With The Genizah at the House of Shepher, it was guitarist John Williams playing Gowers’ ‘Stevie.’ For me it expressed all the tragedy and yearning of my protagonist, Amnon.
Moe: Every writer has a method to their writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Tamar Yellin: Soon after breakfast I unplug the phone and climb the ladder to my attic study. I switch on my computer and, some two or three hours later, I come back down and take the dog for a walk on the moors. (She’s usually whining at the foot of the ladder by then.) What happens in between is what I call the front-of-the-brain work. It’s hard, and there’s no way round it. I can’t do it in the afternoons. I do a lot of my creative thinking while I’m out walking or performing household chores.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Tamar Yellin: I’m very secretive about my work. I can’t let anyone see it until I feel it’s ready. It takes years. I revise as I go along. Each day I re-read what I wrote yesterday and tweak it. This happens over and over – it goes through countless revisions. I may produce five or six full drafts before the book is ready to be seen.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Tamar Yellin: No, I never think about that while I’m writing. I’m completely focused on the work itself.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Tamar Yellin: It’s a mixture. I have the general arc of the novel in mind before I start. I usually know the architecture (for example, Tales of the Ten Lost Tribes is precisely that: a novel in ten tales, one for each tribe). I sketch out chapter plans but these are usually fluid. I don’t like putting a cage around my creativity. Unless there are unknowns, there’s no voyage of discovery, and that is what writing a novel should be. Yes, I get into muddles, sometimes seemingly hopeless ones, but that’s part of the process. One of the greatest joys of writing is the flash of revelation that takes you through the maze. I keep a notebook to hand and write down everything that occurs to me, because if you don’t, you are certain to forget it.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Tamar Yellin: Research is very inspirational. I do lots of it. For The Genizah at the House of Shepher, I continued to research throughout the entire writing of the book – for thirteen years. The novel was inspired by my own family history, and it was all fired off by the archive of family documents we discovered in my grandfather’s attic. So I was translating my grandfather’s World War I diaries, the letters he wrote to my father in the ‘thirties, the Hebrew newspapers he edited and the book he published about old Jerusalem. It was very moving, getting to know my grandfather in this way, because he died when I was nine months old. I also researched in libraries from Jerusalem to Yorkshire, Oxford and Toronto.
The spirit of place is always very important in my fiction. For the sections in Genizah about nineteenth-century Jerusalem I visited the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, but it was strange, because it had all been rebuilt within the last twenty years. It was like a simulacrum of itself. I immersed myself in old photographs and lithographs from that time, in travelogues and memoirs, until I began visiting the Old City in my dreams, wandering its lanes, walking its roof-gardens… It became an obsession.
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Tamar Yellin: I’m a pretty autobiographical writer. I often draw on the material of my own life for my fiction, but I mould it in the way a potter moulds their clay – I make what I want of it.
My fictional characters are composites. They may possess elements of myself, of people I know plus some purely imagined characteristics. The imagination has to be free to invent, otherwise the character is dead on the page. For example, Julia in my story ‘Mrs Rubin and her Daughter’ is a writer, but she isn’t me – she’s the fictive embodiment of someone I maybe could have become under different circumstances. You push the borders of your own experience when you create. It’s the way you ask questions of yourself and make new discoveries.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If yes, what measures do you take to get past it?
Tamar Yellin: I struggled for years to write my first published novel, Genizah. I would write and write and junk what I had written – it was just terrible. It was then that I realised that writer’s block isn’t not being able to write; it’s not being able to write the way you want.
Sometimes it’s necessary just to stop and take some time out. Time spent away from the desk can be just as important as the time spent beating your brains out over the laptop.
Moe: What do you hope readers gain, feel or experience when they read one of your books for the first time?
Tamar Yellin: The main thing I’ve learnt since becoming a published writer is that every reader brings something different to what they read. They bring themselves. And, while they are opening up to the experience you are offering them on the page, they are also, consciously or unconsciously, looking for themselves. If they can connect with what I have written, if they can find themselves there, I have done my job as a novelist.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
Tamar Yellin: As a struggling writer you can spend so many years striving toward the holy grail of publication you can forget that beyond publication there is a whole new set of challenges. It can be very hard to get noticed, especially if you don’t have the big marketing guns of a major publisher behind you. Cast your bread upon the waters – you never know when it might come back to you a hundredfold. Be patient, but also a bit pushy. Always get a qualified disinterested third party to check over your contract before you sign it.
Moe: What is your latest release about?
Tamar Yellin: The Genizah at the House of Shepher is a family saga covering four generations of the Shepher family from Lithuania to Jerusalem, England and Azerbaijan. It’s also a thriller about a missing biblical codex and the search for the true text of the Bible. Shulamit is an English biblical scholar who returns to her grandparents’ house in Jerusalem after a twenty-year absence to find herself embroiled in a family dispute over an ancient handwritten copy of the Bible which has been discovered in the attic. In retracing the history of the codex she uncovers her own family history, questioning and reassessing her own sense of identity, exile and belonging.
The story was inspired by my own family history, when we discovered an important book in the attic of my grandparents’ house in Jerusalem just as it was about to be demolished. It contained handwritten notes on the text of the most perfect manuscript of the Bible ever written, the Aleppo Codex, which had been lost in a pogrom in 1947. This book was the only surviving record of what the differences in the text had been, and it was ultimately used to reconstruct the lost codex. Even tiny variations in the sacred text can be of tremendous significance to scholars and also, of course, to code-seekers. But I was using the idea as a metaphor for the many differing versions we have of history, of our family histories; and of the moments of choice which alter the text of our lives forever.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Tamar Yellin: Language is tremendously important to me, so they have to be well-written. I am always learning as I read, so I seek out the best teachers. The Brontes, Tolstoy, Mansfield, Woolf, Kundera, Primo Levi, W. G. Sebald, are among my favourite writers. I also love poetry.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Tamar Yellin: You mean writing isn’t fun?! To unwind I go for long walks in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. I listen to music (I especially enjoy live jazz) and enjoy all sorts of films from foreign art films to the latest blockbuster.
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Tamar Yellin: Read and read and read. Write and write and write. Be passionate, patient and persevering.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Tamar Yellin: If I weren’t a writer I wouldn’t be me.
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Tamar Yellin: The right one in its place.
- Purchase The Genizah At The House Of Shepher from Amazon.com.
- Purchase The Genizah At The House Of Shepher from Amazon.ca.
My interview with Tamar Yellin was originally published 4/30/2007 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.