Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Greetings from Author Eric Kimmel

Hi, Everybody at B'nai Israel! Eric Kimmel here. My friend Heidi Estrin is giving me a chance to talk about Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins. I'm always amazed at how a quirky idea that I couldn't give away at first has become a Hanukkah classic. That's the exciting part about writing. When you start a story, you never know where it will end up. It may lead to something great. It may go nowhere. There's no map to the journey. It's all a process of discovery. That's the best part.

Okay, I'd better get busy and answer these questions Heidi sent me. (By the way, the photo of me and Heidi was taken at an Association of Jewish Libraries conference, when I was honored to receive the Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award for contributions to the genre of Jewish children's literature.)

What was your inspiration for writing Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins?

There's no one inspiration to Hershel. All of your experiences play a part in the encounter with that blank page. Most people are surprised when I tell them that the two main literary influences aren't Jewish at all. The first is Charles Dickens's memorable story, "A Christmas Carol." "Marley was dead…" Oh, I've loved that tale for years! I fell in love with the old Alistair Sim film version years before I could read it on my own. Dickens's achievement is amazing. He gives us a Christmas story with no religious content at all. There's not a church or a Nativity scene in sight. Not a single aspect of the Christmas story appears. No Baby Jesus, Mary or Joseph, Magi, animals, angels, shepherds. Nothing! Just "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men. God bless us, every one!" In this one story Dickens created the modern secular celebration of Christmas. In addition, he made it spooky. Like my favorite holiday, Halloween. Think of those three ghosts who visit Mr. Scrooge on Christmas Eve. My favorite was the most terrifying, Christmas Future, who shows up at the end. Aha!

So when I was writing Hershel, I had Dickens in mind. I wanted to write a secular Hanukkah story that wouldn't mention the Maccabees or the Miracle of the Oil at all. My aim was to tell a story, not to teach about Hanukkah. There were plenty of other books to do that. I needed a hero. Who better than Hershele Ostropolyer, the Jewish Tyll Eulenspiegel. I grew up with Hershele stories. My nana used to tell them. She was a terrific storyteller. She was a Galitzky, from Kolomea, deep in the Ukraine. That's where Hasidism began. Her second language was Ukrainian and the Ukrainians are wonderful storytellers, too. Most of the stories we think of as Russian are actually Ukrainian. She knew lots of spooky stories. They scared the pants off my and my brother, but we always came back for more. So I have impudent, clever Hershele and eight creepy "Shaydim." I'm in business.

Another important influence is a Russian tale (maybe Ukrainan) from Afanasiev's classic collection of Russian tales. It's "Ivanko, the Bear's Son." Ivanko would fit well in Chelm, Is he clever or is he stupid? One of the things he does is fool a goblin who lives in a lake. I liked that goblin, so I multiplied him eight times. Now I had to figure out things for my goblins to do. Originally, there was a goblin for each night. Eight goblins made the story too long. When it was first published in Cricket Magazine, my friend Marianne Carus asked me to cut it. So I did. The missing goblins can be found in the original manuscript. It's in the library at Keene College in Keene, New Hampshire. That's not as weird as it may seem. My dear friend Trina Hyman, who did the illustrations, lived in Lyme. The mountains you see at the beginning of the story are the White Mountains of New Hampshire, not the Carpathians.

What do you think is special about the illustrations?

The illustrations are special because they were created by one of the great American illustrators, Trina Schart Hyman. She was a great friend. "Top friend," as Shlomo Carlebach used to say. She was one of the great souls of her generation, a real lamed-vavnik. She died a few years ago. I miss her terribly. Trina wasn't Jewish. Her family was German. She grew up in Philadelphia. Her husband was Jewish. As she told it, a lot of the Jewish family members weren't kind to her. They treated her like "the shiksa." We all know that attitude, don't we? Despite that, Trina had great love and understanding of Jewish people. She Got it. She knew what the story was all about. I treasure the letter she wrote to me after she finished the illustrations. I have it framed. She wrote to tell me how pleased she was with how the artwork turned out. She felt it was one of the best books she had ever illustrated. I think so, too, although my personal favorite of all her work is "The Fortuneteller." I bought the picture of the Green Goblin with his hand in the pickle jar. I intend to pass it on to my grandson. It's a treasure.

What are some of your own recent favorite reads?

You're going to laugh. I love reading biographies of rock stars. I think I have read everything ever written about Elvis. Janis, Jimi, Jim, John. If you were there, you know whom I'm talking about. It's mind candy. Or maybe not. A good rock bio is like Greek tragedies: the hero struggles, triumphs, attempts too much, then falls. I balance this with history, especially books about the early history of religion. Norman Cohn and Elaine Pagels are two of my favorites. I hunt for books about the early Islam, too. The great Islamic historians have rarely been translated into English. They're hard to find, but what stories! Amazing stuff that helps you understand the present day. Why do we believe what we believe? Do you think that any religion is handed down complete, in one piece. You can believe it if you like, but it just ain't so.

I like folk tales, books about knitting and fiber arts, and books about bicycles and horses because these are all things I love to do. I go through two or three books a day.

How are libraries important to you (and important to the world)?

Do I seriously have to answer this question? Isn't it a shame that we have to make a case for libraries? Where would our books come from if we didn't have libraries? I couldn't afford to buy the books I read. The internet is a great tool, but you can't always trust what you find there. I depend on libraries to separate sense from nonsense. (Or to do the rough cut, at least. Plenty of nonsense gets in to print. And I usually read it. One of my favorite genres is "nut" books. Visitors from Venus, Flat Earth, Kennedy assassination theories. Crazy people make our lives richer. We need to keep a place for them.)

Libraries are important to my family. My mother lived across the street from the library. The books and the librarian encouraged her to start thinking about going to high school, then college, and becoming a teacher. She didn't get that at home. Nobody in my grandma's generation had EVER gone to school.

My fear is that libraries are not as important as they once were. How many elementary schools have a library with a professional librarian? If the library were also not the "technology center," would it still be there? How many librarians are really "book" people, not "computer" people? How many children and teens list reading as an important, pleasurable activity? Do publishers market books with the same investment and energy that corporations market toys and breakfast cereal? Can you think of another product that is not marketed? The world is changing. Will books be part of it? I don't know. I don't think anyone does.

What do you do when you're not writing?

You think writers write all the time? Hah! I'll let you keep that illusion. I go on long bicycle rides. I practice my banjo. I knit. I watch old movies. I think. Most of the real work of writing isn't done at the desk. It's in the thinking. I'll often kick back, do something else, and let thoughts and ideas float into my mind.

What can your fans look forward to next?

There's another Hershel in the works. This will be a Passover story, if it ever sees the light of day. I don't know who will illustrate it with Trina gone. A Sukkot story is coming up with illustrations by Katya Krenina, who illustrated "The Magic Dreidels." I've seen some of the artwork. Gorgeous! It's called "The Mysterious Guests" and it's about guests in the sukkah. I got the idea one night in Cherry Hill, NJ when the power went out at the hotel and I had to sit in the dark and look out at the lights. Ideas come when they come, and sometimes at the oddest times. You can't force it. And there's another story about Anansi the Spider to be out in a year or two. It's called Anansi's Party Time. There are plenty of other books, too. I'm always working on something.

Okay, CBI yidn! Books don't grow on trees. God doesn't hand them down from the mountain like He did with the Ten Commandments. The library needs money to buy books. So get out the checkbooks and start writing. And no little pisher amounts either. Or the goblins may show up at YOUR house on Erev Hanukkah!

Zei gezunt! Read and be well
Eric Kimmel

How's that, Heidi?

That was great, Eric! Hey everyone, be sure to visit Eric's web site at www.ericakimmel.com!


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