Interview with Ruhama Veltfort

The author of The Promised Land talks about the extensive research she did for her novel, her unusual structure, her characters, Jewish mysticism and mysticism in general, the “little gremlins” which affected her book sales, her unpublished novel, her company Logos Editing, and lots more.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: The promised land is the story of a people and place which no longer exists. How did you do your research for this?
Ruhama: I really, really enjoyed the research for this book. First of all, although my ancestors on my mother’s side were Jewish, I wasn’t raised as a Jew, so I had to do a lot of research on the Jewish religion, especially as it was practiced in Poland in the 19th century. Besides reading many collections of Chasidic sayings and tales, and general books about Judaism and Jewish history, I also read about the customs and lifeways of the Jewish shtetl. Because I have never been to Poland I read Chekov and I.B. Singer’s early novels to get a sense of the countryside. Then there was the Western history part. I’ve always been really into pioneer history. I especially got a lot from a couple of collections of pioneer women’s diaries and letters. Then a friend gave a children’s computer game called “The Oregon Trail” which I must have played a couple of hundred times. Across the bay in Berkeley, the Judah Magnes museum has a very complete collection of materials on the history of Jews in the Western states of the U.S. There is another Jewish library in San Francisco that I spent a lot of time at. Mostly when I do research for a novel I do research for feeling, rather than for information. Of course I like to have the facts as a skeleton to hang the story on, but I’m most interested in what contemporary writers and diarists have to say. It’s the little details that bring the time and place to life for me and I try to get those in the book.

Magdalena: Tell me about the structure. Were you nervous about alternating voice and point of view?
Ruhama: No, I didn’t even think about it. Both Chana and Yitzhak appeared as full-blown characters from somewhere … the akashic record, I suppose … and each was very insistent about telling the story in his or her own words.

Magdalena: Did you deliberately try to create a distinctive male vs female perspective with Yitzhak and Chana? Tell me more about their symbolic roles.
Ruhama: As I said above, the characters just seemed to appear without my having a conscious sense of creating them, but I did notice the symblism. There is a stream in Jewish mysticism that describes the creation and sustenance of the universe in terms of alternating polarities. Yitzhak is all “fire and air” — inspired and idealistic, but not very grounded. Chana is all “water and earth” — practical and instinctual. At first, I didn’t like it so much that they were coming out that way, because it seemed a little too much like gender stereotypes. But that’s who they are and I had to let go of my concepts.

Magdalena: Did you feel that, to a certain extent, you were plumbing your own historic heritage?
Ruhama: Not exactly. It is true that my mother’s mother’s family came from Poland, near Cracow. But they were not at all typical in that the family was very assimilated, for Polish Jews. My Jewish grandparents were bohemians and free-thinkers, and even my mother did not have a Jewish upbringing, much less a Jewish religious education. So there may be a connection in the dna, but it’s hard to see it in terms of heritage.

Magdalena: What about Yitzhak’s spirituality? He maintains his orthodoxy to a certain extent, but were you hinting that he might have been tuning into some broader truth greater than the rituals of his religion?
Ruhama: Well, I hope that was more than a hint! Yitzhak is a mystic

his experience of the divine is direct and personal. Like anyone, though, he has to try to express his vision in terms of the culture and society he finds himself in. In one sense, the book is the story of how he has to keep seeking a bigger and wider space, because he can’t fit into the confines of conventional or orthodox religion. At the same time, he can only express himself in terms of what he already knows. It’s part of the whole human situation
how we grow beyond the lives we are born into.

Magdalena: You mentioned that you were a little disappointed with the book’s sales when it was released. Tell me more.
Ruhama: The people at Milkweed were absolutely wonderful to work with. I know they really supported the book — it was their lead title. But they are a small press and didn’t really have the resources to promote it adequately. And there were a lot of gremlins at work. The invitations to my launch party weren’t sent out and I had to frantically phone about a hundred people. Then, the launch was packed, but somehow there was only one case of books to sell. The NY Times review was terrific, but it didn’t come out until five months after the book came out. The worst thing was that for over a year, the book’s distributor, amazon, and barnesand noble listed a “forthcoming” paperback edition which did not — and still does not exist. Milkweed had announced a paperback and then were not able to go ahead with it, but somehow the word didn’t get out. And I feel the paperback “false alarm” hurt sales of the hardcover to some extent. On the other hand, I have been really gratified by the responses to the book I have received from readers. And it was assigned in a college-level religious studies class, where I was invited to participate in the on-line class discussion, which I enjoyed very much.

Magdalena: What happened to your unpublished novel Passing Through?
Ruhama: Milkweed turned it down, and I put it away to work on other things. I still have a lot of love for that book and will take it out and do something with it … one of these days.

Magdalena: Why do you think now is a good time for a re-release? What do you have planned?
Ruhama: It’s not exactly a re-release, as the book has not gone out of print. But I feel the issues the book raises about orthodoxy, fundamentalism, and spirituality are very much alive in today’s headlines. Especially with the current attention on the situation in the Middle East, I think that the alternative point of view about Judaism that The Promised Land points to is something people will find of value. Besides, it’s a good story.  As for what I have planned, I am just now putting the finishing touches on a very different novel called “Strange Attractors.” It’s set in a the mid-1990’s in a posh suburb in Silicon Valley, California. It’s very different from The Promised Land, set in a prosperous community in Silicon Valley, California, in the boom years of the 1990’s. It’s about a woman who comes to question the basic premises of her life when she discovers that her sensitive environmentalist husband is a child molester. It’s suspensful; a psychological novel about the complexities of sexual passion and the choice people make under its sway.  I’m also working on a collection of short stories called “The Trauma of Birth,” which is a kind of memoir; and a non-fiction book called “Growing Awareness: Self-Taught Gardening as a Spiritual Path.” The novel I really want to write is still in the research/notes phase — it’s about war. It mostly takes place in the second half of the 20th century, but there are substantial flashbacks to the U.S. Civil War.

Magdalena: Tell me about the development of Logos Editing.
Ruhama: In the mid-80’s I had a job at UCSF (a medical school) as an assistant editor in the anesthesia department. I found I really enjoyed editing and started looking for free-lance jobs. Little by little, it has expanded. Most of the projects I work on are really interesting, and all of them teach me something more about writing.