Wolves are “in”. Werewolves seem to be even more “in”. A few years ago someone approached me with a book about Jewish vampires and I wasn’t sure there would be readers for it. By the time Ira Berkowitz called me about his book A Wolf in the Soul, I knew it was time. This theme seemed to be popping up everywhere I looked and I thought his book was really good. I have heard many readers (especially younger ones) complain that they don’t connect with fiction written for Orthodox Jews. Wolf in the Soul was not written for Orthodox Jews – yet it is something that many will feel is “kosher” and doesn’t offend their sensibilities or values. Yet, it is out of the box. It is definitely not “same old, same old”. The reviews have been great. And you read more of them here, here and here. It has been fun to work with Ira on getting his book published as well as seeing how much readers enjoy it. The following interview with Ira ought to help readers know him better. Enjoy!
Why did you undertake the huge task of writing fiction?
Shortly before I undertook writing this novel, I was dying to be an actor. I talked about acting, read about acting, took acting classes, and even prayed to God that I’d fulfill my dream of being an actor.
But it was nearly impossible to be an actor, both because I’m an Orthodox Jew and because my dream meant too much to me. Acting was too daunting to undertake! But writing, which I knew I could do, didn’t intimidate me so much. So I put my creative energy into that instead.
Your book is not typical of what is seen as “Orthodox Jewish Fiction” – do you see your book as part of that genre?
In a word, no. Orthodox Jewish fiction is meant exclusively for Orthodox readers. It assumes a common background and common values. My book doesn’t assume either. So while Orthodox Jews (albeit somewhat daring ones) can enjoy my book, so can other types of Jews and non-Jews. In fact, three non-Jewish readers told me personally that they liked the book.
How much of the book is biographical?
Okay, I’m going to state this for the record: I did not become a werewolf when I was a freshman at Columbia!
I was a senior in high school when it happened.
In all seriousness, I can say that–not surprisingly–some of the book is autobiographical and some of it isn’t. Like Greg Samstag, the main character, I did grow up on Long Island, and I did attend a modern Orthodox yeshiva, and I did attend Columbia University.
But my family was Orthodox, unlike Greg’s. And my parents were very close to each other, unlike Greg’s parents.
Which details of Greg’s life correspond to my life? I’m not telling!
You write detailed descriptions of what a wolf senses, feels and does. How did you learn about this? What sort of research did you do?
At the age of 10 or 11, I became interested in wolves. A teacher of mine, named Mrs. Fox (no, I’m not making this up), gave me an LP narrated by the actor Robert Redford that gave a glimpse into wolf behavior and provided some great recordings of wolf howls. I loved it. In my 20’s, I read books and articles by Barry Lopez, L. David Mech, and others. In preparation for this book, I did even more reading and studied videos of wolves. It became something of an obsession.
How did you know how to craft the dialogue and banter between the characters in your book – so much of it is specific to certain age groups, etc?
I’m flattered by the question. Really, I just try to imagine how a particular character would speak. It takes more work, though, imagining the dialogue of female characters.
And working with a good editor certainly helps if you’ve struck a wrong note! Deborah Meghnagi Bailey‘s advice was invaluable.
What tips do you have for someone who is interested in writing fiction?
Okay, a few tips. But I’m not a veteran writer.
1) Writing an outline for a novel is a good idea. Even if you veer from the outline, you’ll still feel more secure if you have one. Also, sketching interiors is a good idea. You don’t want to put the stove on one side of the kitchen on page 14 and then end up putting it on the other side of the kitchen on page 237.
2) For Heaven’s sakes, write notes for yourself. If you try to keep all your ideas in your head, you’ll literally give yourself a headache. I wrote notes on two small whiteboards in my study. They saved my sanity.
3) Say a psalm or two and give a coin to charity before you start a writing session. Ask God for help.
4) I learned this one from Joseph Kaufman: Every part of your book should be as good as every other part. If you think one section is a little weak, you’ve got a problem.
5) If something sounds awkward, it is.
6) Take care of tiny details that no one else would notice.
7) No matter how hard you work, the book is not going to be perfect. You have to accept that.
8) Writing a book is not an impossible job, nor is it an exalted calling. Don’t idolize some famous authors, and in the process, disqualify your own work.
9) Write the kind of book that you yourself would like to read.