I’d like to welcome novelist Janice Steinberg whose novel, The Tin Horse, (Random House) has been translated in four languages with Portuguese and Japanese in the works.
Diana Bletter: How did you move from writing as an arts journalist to writing mysteries and then The Tin Horse, which in a way, is a mystery about two sisters?
Janice Steinberg: I’ve always done both novels and arts journalism, in various combinations depending on what doors were opening for me … or slamming shut. In 1993, I sold a mystery to Berkley, and I focused on mysteries through a five-book series. Then I wrote a thriller. It was my big breakout book! Alas, my agent couldn’t sell it. At a certain point, I was so heartbroken, I thought, okay, universe, what do you want me to do next? A few days later, I got a call from a friend at the San Diego Union-Tribune, saying they needed a dance writer. That led to several years of arts journalism and teaching—novel writing at UC-San Diego extension and dance criticism at San Diego State University. Eventually, I missed the immersive experience of working on a novel. I’d been carrying an idea about a marginal character in the detective classic The Big Sleep. I wanted to tell her story, but didn’t know if I could do it. Even though the idea came from a mystery—and, as the story took shape, there was a mystery element in the missing sister—I realized it had be a much more character-driven novel than I’d ever done. That was terrifying! Which led to Rule #1 of my “Seven Rules to Write By:” “Go toward what scares you.”
Diana Bletter: Who are your favorite writers and how have they influenced you?
Janice Steinberg: I had favorite authors when I was younger—Colette, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Rich—all of whom had, I think, a similar profound influence: They helped me believe in the importance of women’s stories and women’s voices. These days, I don’t think in terms of favorite authors. Rather, there are books that grab me so much that I go back and reread: The Madonnas of Leningrad, an exquisite book about memory and imagination by Debra Dean; See Under: Love, Israeli author David Grossman’s novel about the impossibility of writing a Holocaust novel which succeeds in being a wrenching, poetic Holocaust novel; The River Midnight, Lillian Nattel’s magical realist novel set in an Eastern European shtetl. The book I see reverberating most in the novel I’m writing now is one I reread because the first time, I didn’t get what all the fuss was about: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. On a second read, I was awed by the psychological complexity.
Diana Bletter: New Yorkers know about early nineteenth-century Jewish life on the Lower East Side. The Tin Horse introduced me to life in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. How did you stumble upon setting your story there?
Janice Steinberg: It really was a stumble, a very happy one. I just wanted to tell the story of this marginal character in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, a woman described as having “the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess.” So I started by knowing she was Jewish and living in Los Angeles in 1939, when The Big Sleep was published. I did research to figure out where in L.A. she would have lived, and discovered Boyle Heights, a neighborhood directly east of downtown that, in the 1920s and 30s, was a rich center for Jewish culture—kosher delis and butchers, synagogues, Yiddish and workers’ societies, a bar where gangster Mickey Cohen hung out, etc. I got hugely lucky in that the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California had done an oral history project. I was able to listen to people’s memories, some of which sparked major incidents in the book—for instance, a woman talked about going to her first day of school, holding her mother’s hand. The mother, an immigrant, had never learned to read, and her hand was trembling because she was terrified of being exposed as illiterate. That story inspired my chapter about Elaine’s and Barbara’s first day of school.
Diana Bletter: What are you working on now?
Janice Steinberg: I’m about 200 pages into a novel about a three-generational California Jewish family. It opens with a 50th birthday party for Aaron, a divorced computer nerd who fears he’s drifting into a sad, lonely old age. Then, at the party, he meets the woman of his dreams. There’s just one problem. It turns out she’s there as his father’s date. Things get more complicated and juicy from there.
Diana Bletter: Finally, my blog talks about making this the best chapter of our lives. What are the things you do on a daily basis to make this your best chapter?
Janice Steinberg: When I sit at my desk each day, before I start to write, I listen to five minutes of affirmations that were customized for me when I was facing the thrill and scariness of having The Tin Horse published and stepping onto a larger public stage. And a source of great joy is my practice of Nia, a body-mind-spirit technique that draws on dance, martial arts, and healing arts. I trained to teach Nia six years ago, working with principles designed to increase my awareness and pleasure in living in this body.
Thank you, Janice! I will definitely remember your words, “Okay, universe, what do you want me to do next?”