ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"On Starting a New Novel," an essay by Fred Skolnik

I am the author of four published novels, two written under my own name (The Other Shore and Death), two under a pen name (Rafi's World and The Links in the Chain), and have just completed a fifth, also under my own name, after struggling with it for six years. I have also published around 50 stories and 50 essays and am the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal.

These are my credentials, which doesn't say anything about the quality of my writing but certainly qualifies me to talk about the process of writing. A novel is a major undertaking. It is something like swimming the English Channel. At a certain point you take a deep breath and jump in and then you are committed to it.

The commitment, or shall we say the investment you are making, is very serious. It is one thing to tear up a few pages of a short story that isn't going anywhere and has cost you a few hours of your time, but quite another thing to abandon a novel that you have been working on for years. You certainly wouldn't want to invest all those years only to discover that you have been barking up the wrong tree, so common sense (or experience) tells you that you had better have a pretty good idea of where you are going before you start out.

The paradox is of course that knowing beforehand where you are going defeats the entire purpose and meaning of the creative act, for a novel, or at least a serious or literary novel, is meant to invent itself in the writing of it, to grow out of the characters themselves, who determine the direction of the story and give it meaning, unlike the popular novel, where the demands of the "plot" dictate the actions of the characters, who exist solely to serve its requirements.

In my own case, all three of the "serious" novels that I wrote under my own name involved long periods of gestation, so I began to write them with a very clear sense of who the characters were. But at the same time, each of the novels became a journey as I worked my way through the material at hand to discover what was concealed in it; and while I knew beforehand how the first two novels would end (but not precisely how I would get there), the third, just now completed (a modern retelling of Virgil's Aeneid, called Things Unsaid), was open-ended and for a long time defied resolution, which in itself became a motif.

Now I come to the new novel. I did not have to look for it. It found me a few years ago and I immediately saw it as the last big novel I would write, being a kind of history of the Jews in the twentieth century along the Europe-Holocaust-Israel axis, something truly Tolstoyan in scope and written in the traditional or old-fashioned realistic mode. I had found the heroine when I was working on the Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, in a group photograph attached to the Cracow entry, on the far left: Gusta Draenger. I had found myself being drawn to her, haunted by her, maybe even half in love with her, so I read her narrative of the Cracow Jewish underground, written on sheets of toilet paper as she awaited execution in the Helclow Women's Prison in Cracow, next door to Montelupich where her husband was being held (see my essay at, and I knew that I had to rescue her, to give her the life that had been stolen from her and bring her into the new century.

I thought initially to set the first two parts of the novel in Gusta's Cracow but then I realized that I was being a little too literal-minded, and that if I was going to pick a Jewish community about which to write, it should logically be Bialystok, where my own family came from, and which had its own ghetto and its own underground and even its own ghetto uprising; and so it was settled in my mind.

Therefore, even before I had completed Things Unsaid, I began to build up a library of books about Bialystok, thinking that I would devote a year to reading them while writing short stories, which was what I had done after my fourth novel, not feeling quite ready to start the fifth.

About a month ago, then, I began the reading, taking notes and working up a detailed chronology. However, the short stories didn't come. This puzzled me but didn't particularly alarm me. I even saw the bright side, thinking that in the previous batch I might have said everything that I had to say in that mode for the time being. However, this left me with a lot of time on my hands, as I couldn’t really read ten hours a day, so I redeployed, so to speak. I realized, first, that since I didn't know what I would need in the way of information, I would necessarily be accumulating an enormous quantity of superfluous notes, suited more to a history than to a novel. It would make more sense, I reasoned, to read for a general sense of things, without the detailed notes, and then to look for what I specifically needed – the name of a street or store or the events of the day – while actually writing. From here I understood that I could start the writing immediately.

I therefore spent a few hours staring into space as I considered how I might begin the novel, or rather waited for something to come. All I had was a heroine who was going to grow up in prewar Poland, live through the Holocaust as a young woman, fight in the Underground and subsequently reach Israel and create a family there. I would have liked to call the novel Mother Courage, but Brecht had beaten me to the punch, and besides, his Mother Courage was far from being a noble figure. However, I did find my heroine's name there: Emma, echoing the Hebrew Imma (Mother) and Lefkovitz and later Bar-Lev, for heart or courage.

It was clear to me that the novel had to begin with Emma's birth in 1920. The only question was whether to make her the firstborn or the youngest of the family's children. I decided to make her the firstborn so that I could follow the growth of the family in the next twenty years. And then the first sentence came to me: Jadzia, the Polish servant, watched the entire tribe of Lefkovitzes marching down the tree-lined boulevard as though they owned the city.

I was now ready to begin. I felt the rush. It always comes with the first sentence, in its rhythm, voice, texture. The family returns from the synagogue where they have announced the newborn baby's name. Jadzia serves the cholent. Everyone is there. But who are they? I have no idea. I had not thought this out. I have to fill in the blanks. I have to create a family, the family that will accompany Emma for the next twenty years and which I will have to live with for hundreds of pages and also quite a few years of my own.

And this is the miracle of art: to begin with nothing and within a few hours to create a world. In truth, I had never had such an experience before, having come to each novel with the essentials fairly clear in my mind, the result of a protracted process. Now I start by giving everyone a name, but there are so many Lefkovitzes sitting around the table that I can't keep track of them, so I stop writing and draw up a family tree, adding a year of birth for each. I arrive at five families: Emma's grandparents and her grandfather's two brothers and two sisters with their spouses and their children, including Emma's young parents – sixteen children in all. But I still don't know who they are. What I do know is that their lives will be ordinary, their lives will be like ours, with all its joys and sorrows, for I would not think to exalt or sentimentalize Jewish life. That was not the tragedy of the Holocaust. The tragedy was not that something great was destroyed but that something ordinary was destroyed, the lives of people like ourselves.

I continue to write and feel the family coming to life in my imagination as I find one and then another of its members sitting at the table. The family is becoming real to me now. I can visualize it. I can hear its many voices. This is the miracle and I am surprised at how easy and natural it has been. Yesterday they didn't exist and now they are here before me in all the concreteness of human existence:

                                                         Strength and honor are her clothing;
                                                         and she shall rejoice in time to come.

                                                                                              Proverbs 31:25


Jadzia, the Polish servant, watched the entire tribe of Lefkovitzes marching down the tree-lined boulevard as though they owned the city. She waved to them from the third floor balcony, from where she could see the Square and the Clock Tower, and a few of them waved back. She had been on her feet since six in the morning getting things ready and now they were all making their way home from the synagogue, the aunts and uncles and noisy cousins and the new mother and her young husband in a new suit. She already knew the baby's name. The mother, Sonia, had whispered it to her in the morning. It was Emma, after the great-grandmother who had arrived in the city from Silesia and started the family business with her husband. Bialystok was still a Jewish city despite the wartime exodus, and the Jews still owned everything, but Poland belonged to the Poles now, the Russians were gone, they'd left a month ago, and Jadzia felt, in an odd way but without malice, that the big apartment was really hers and the Jews were her guests.

She opened the door to let them in. Sonia took the baby straight to the nursery. Hershel Lefkovitz, the new father, came in with his own father, a man of obvious substance who employed over a hundred Poles and Jews in the Lefkovitz factory, including Jadzia's husband. Jadzia's husband didn't like the Jews but Jadzia had told him that the Lefkovitzes were decent people and were always kind to her so he kept his feelings to himself. They lived on the family farm and during the war she had brought the Lefkovitzes butter and eggs and even a chicken now and then and consequently the war had been a little easier for them than for most and they had appreciated her loyalty and treated her now like one of the family.

Grandfather Yeisef made the Kiddush on the wine. Though none of his children were religious, they deferred to him on the Sabbath and even sang Eshet Hayyil on the Sabbath Eve. Now they dutifully lined up at the sink for the handwashing ritual with the little cousins screaming and the grandfather shushing them, and then patiently stood around the table waiting for the blessing on the bread.

Jadzia began to bring in the salads and appetizers and casseroles and finally the huge cholent pot, which produced an audible collective gasp or sigh. When they got to the plum compote, Nachum Lefkovitz filled in the family on his recent trip to the East to find new markets now that Russia had closed its doors to them. He always insisted, as a selling point, that he produced the finest colored cloth in all of Poland with the modern dyeing machines he had gotten from the Germans. In fact, he had a German color chemist who could reproduce any color in the spectrum and now had orders from China and India. Business had never been better.

"Maybe it's time to buy another building," his brother Izak said.

"For the factory or for us?"

"For an investment."

"A landlord I don't need to be." This he said in Yiddish, the language he usually spoke only with his father, or sometimes with his wife, most often when they were in bed. In the family they all spoke Polish, though the children also knew Hebrew from school and had picked up Yiddish from the grandfather.

Jadzia served the tea and ginger cake. The family owned the building but occupied all the apartments themselves. Hershel and Sonia had two rooms in the rear of the parents' apartment for themselves and the baby, a separate wing of the house in fact. The grandfather, a widower, had a small apartment on the first floor and had not been active in the business for ten years. They also had a big yard out back where the young cousins could play safely every day after coming home from school. They had weathered the war and were all looking forward now to an era of prosperity in Independent Poland.

Sonia went to check on the baby for the third time since they had sat down to eat. Hershel said, "She looks like Mother."

"Then she'll be a beautiful woman," Nachum said.

Dvora blushed. Certainly she was a beautiful woman, even if she was past forty now. She was not a Bialystoker like her husband. She had grown up among relatives as an orphan in Korycin, about 50 km to the north and not far from Sokolka, where her guardians had business interests and occasionally ran into the Lefkovitzes, who had been happy to take her off their hands after bringing Nachum up for a look. Nachum liked the way she got flustered whenever the subject was her beauty. She must have recognized his amorous glow because she became even more flustered now.

They were all there: Izak with his Hinda, a tiny, ultramodern woman who was always looking at American fashion magazines, and the other brother, Pesach, with his wife, Ester, and their two sisters, Ruchel and Fruma, with their husbands Rubin and David. Between the five of them they had sixteen children, all present and accounted for except for Natan, another of Nachum's sons, who had left for Palestine, and now they had the first of the grandchildren, little Emma.

After the children were sent out to play, they all moved to the salon, a crowded room with overstuffed chairs, heavy curtains and a musty smell. A big tapestry covered one of the walls and a thick carpet covered the floor. When they were all settled in and Jadzia had brought in the refreshments, Nachum told her she could go home until Monday. This was rare, since Sunday and not Saturday was her day off. She thanked him with a curtsy. This was what she had meant about the kindness of the Jews. She was also allowed to take home leftover food and often received unwanted clothes.

Izak got back on the subject of real estate but Nachum told him that he was thinking of buying a few more dyeing machines in Germany, where everything was dirt cheap as the mark continued to fall.

"Where will you put them?" Izak said.

"In the basement with the others. We'll break through the wall."

Izak shook his head. He was always objecting to everything. That was how he asserted himself, being little more than a bookkeeper in the factory though he had the title of deputy director. It wasn't any easier at home either, where his abrasive wife was always nagging him. The women were sitting on the other side of the room. Pesach's wife, Ester, was the only one of them active on the factory premises, where she ruled the sewing floor with an iron hand.. Pesach himself looked after the electrically powered knitting machines with an assistant and an apprentice, styling himself a meister. Ruchel and Fruma, the sisters, managed the factory's retail outlet on Lipowa Street, next door to Woroshilsky's jewelry store. The sisters shared the ground floor with their father. Their husbands were unobtrusive types whose presence was barely felt. David was a printer and Rubin had his own little store, selling candy on Kosciuszko Square where the cousins naturally stopped off every day on their way home from school. Hinda was constantly berating him for spoiling their appetites with halvah.

Hinda resented the women too. She was the only one who didn't work, except for Dvora, who occupied a regal and therefore invulnerable position in the family and was so sweet-tempered that no one could dislike her. Hinda therefore picked most often on the two sisters, feigning amazement that they didn't dress better and insisting that their frumpiness was giving the business a bad name, to which one or the other would always reply in Yiddish, "What's to dress for?" On the other hand, she was just a little bit afraid of Ester, who was as nasty as herself.

The men got up after a while. It was time for their afternoon naps. They gathered up the women and went downstairs to their apartments. The children were all outside, except for Ruchel's Tomek, who was reading a book in Nachum's big library, and Nachum and Dvora's bossy17-year-old, Rivka, who was putting things away in the kitchen. Dvora checked the baby. Sonia was there staring at it. Dvora said, "Don't worry so much. She knows as much about living as we do."

Sonia smiled. "It's new for me."

"I know. When I had Hershel I was the same way."

"Was he a good baby?"

"Like a dream."

"How will I know if I'm doing things right?"

"A mother's instincts will tell you, and I'll help you. Girls are also easier than boys. You'll see."

"I hope so."

Emma stirred in her sleep. Dvora said, "Come. You don’t have to sit here."   "I'll wait till I have to feed her again. It's just a little while."

Dvora left her with the baby and went into her bedroom. Nachum was undressing. She knew he would want her but she didn't like to have sex in the afternoon, always afraid that one of the children would barge in, so she slipped out and went to the kitchen. Nachum was a forceful man but he would never use force on her and she was grateful for that. He had certainly been forceful during the big textile strike at the beginning of the year when he had kept the manufacturers from caving in and had managed to knock down the union's demands by fifty percent. She remembered his sending in Ester to reason with the seamstresses, which was the only mistake he had made.

Rivka was still at work in the kitchen. "Go rest a little," Dvora said. "I'll finish up."

But Rivka insisted on staying so they finished up together. She was in her last year at the Druskin High School. She wanted to go to the University in Warsaw or Vilna and they were prepared to send her. She was a Zionist too and sometimes talked about settling in Palestine like her brother. This Dvora and Nachum were less pleased about. It was a desert out there and the new Poland was going to be a different place for the Jews.

Rivka was an attractive girl but had very little to do with boys. Dvora would have been happier if she had shown some interest and thought she was solving her problems by hiding in the kitchen or taking on more and more responsibilities. Dvora had been shy too but Nachum had solved all her problems by sweeping her off her feet and placing her on a pedestal, which indeed flustered her but also bolstered her self-confidence. She hoped Rivka too would find such a man. Her counterpart in the family was Tomek, who was the same age and always with a book. Dvora wondered if the two of them might not get together some day.

She heard the children's voices in the yard and called down to them to keep things quiet as everyone was sleeping by now. A few of them came into the house and Rivka gave them something to drink. Then they went back to their games and Dvora went back to the nursery, where Sonia was feeding the baby. "Where's Hershel?" she said.

"He's sleeping," Sonia said. "He was up with the baby half the night."

"He'll make a good father."

"He's a good husband," Sonia said with a little rush of feeling.

"I'm sure he is," Dvora said. They had been together since they were sixteen. Marriage had been a foregone conclusion and Dvora was happy about the match. Sonia's father was a teacher and Hershel was teaching too now, in a Tarbut elementary school. Nachum had been disappointed that he hadn't wanted to work in the factory but Anshel, their youngest, came in occasionally and showed some interest. The children had turned out well, she thought. They were of a high caliber. She tried not to compare them to her nieces and nephews, whom she loved but sometimes found wanting in character and ability. Again she thought of how well Hershel had done for himself with Sonia, who was an exemplary young woman. That had been obvious from the start and she had encouraged Hershel to pursue her and had convinced her husband that it was a suitable match, surprising herself a little at how easily she could assert herself now. Yes, she thought, I am at home here, and life is good…


This is the novel, anchored so deeply in reality that I expect it will write itself, though I hope it will also demand that I go beyond myself and find a voice that tells this story as it deserves to be told. I embark on this journey without trepidation. The sea is calm, the wind is up and my eyes are fixed on the far horizon. It will be the last journey of my life and I am eager to get it started.   


See also Fred Skolnik's The Gloom of Thomas Hardy in Offcourse #56.

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