Episode 123A – Lisa Solod – Shivah

Overview

Lisa Solod has been writing since the age of eight and publishing since the age of seventeen. Her award-winning short fiction and essays have been published in dozens of literary journals and anthologies and has appeared in literary journals, anthologies, magazines and online, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Lilith, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald. Her essay “Black Boots for the End of the World” was a Notable essay in Best American Essays 2012. Four of her novels have been shortlisted for  major fiction prizes and many of her short stories have been contest finalists.

With pained honesty tempered by well-exercised empathy, Lisa Solod’s debut novel Shivah: A Novel from Memory connects deeply to the challenges of family and faith, and the potential for growth and peace.
 
Constructed in seven parts to mimic the seven days of shivah, the Jewish period of mourning wherein the mourners enter the home of the bereaved and sit and pray with them, Shivah is an exploration of difficult family relationships, of mental health, and of negotiating selfhood in the face of adversity.

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Transcript

I have Lisa Sok. Who’s gonna talk to us about her nav. Shva Lisa, how you doing today? I’m okay. Thank you. Yeah, doing good.

I’ve got rainy weather. Where are you at? What do you have? I’m

Lisa: in Savannah. So it’s it’s hot, but it’s sunny until we have almost a shower every day, but nice right now.

Stephen: It’s gorgeous. Nice. I actually paradise. I, I. There was supposed to be a writer retreat in Savannah this year. That didn’t happen.

Some someone up here that runs those. So it would’ve been nice to go visit. I haven’t been down to that area for quite a while.

Lisa: It’s gorgeous. It is.

Stephen: Yeah. Lisa, before we talk about your book tell us a little bit about you and your background and some of the things you like to do.

Lisa: I I majored in something offbeat in college, I majored in semiotics, which was a hip linguistics thing many years ago.

But what it let me do was read and write, which was the two things I wanted to do more than anything. And so I did those and I’ve always been a reader. And so it was really fun for me to be in school and be able to discuss books with other people and professors, and also to do, to parse them in ways that I wasn’t familiar with.

That was great. I think I always knew I would write I always, but I wasn’t quite sure what I would write at any given time. I’ve always written fiction. But first thing I did when I got out of college was I worked as a magazine editor and writer. And so that was great, right? It was a not only did I make a living, but it also taught me a lot about deadlines and editing versus writing, write writing versus editing how to craft something for another writer that sounded like them, but was better.

So now I’ve heard,

Stephen: I’ve heard from a lot of other authors that did some journalism, did some magazines and articles and nonfiction and all that, that even though they write fiction, now, the skills you learned doing the newspaper, the journal, whatever really applied and helped you with the writing is you find that to be very true.

Lisa: Absolutely. Because anything you publish and anything you work on is something that you’re proud of and you’ve finished and that can only improve all of your writing. I don’t think I, I still write essays. I still do some non-fiction. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive at all. Anything that, that makes you a better writer, which includes reading which is always a fun discussion with people is a good thing.

Absolutely. OK. It’s kinda hard. Sometimes when I was freelancing years ago doing lots and lots of newspaper work and book reviews, it was very hard fit to then. Do my own fiction writing later in the day, because I was done. But it’s actually a good challenge to present to yourself, okay.

Stephen: So sorry. I interrupted your flow. Tell us some of the other things you like to do there a little bit more about your background.

Lisa: I I’ve been in politics for a long time. I’ve worked poles and knocked on doors and done all sorts of volunteer work for democratic candidates. I raised two kids.

I’ve traveled wild and lived in two other countries. Wow. Let’s see. I’ve taken care of even though not full-time two aging parents yeah I garden, I cook, I’m a very good cook and I love flowers and plants and herbs and vegetables. So I do that. Nice about it.

Stephen: all right. So you said you’ve written and always wanted to write and you have done it for a long time.

What made you finally wanna start writing this book?

Lisa: Oh this book is based on truth and that’s why I call it novel for memory it’s. It’s got real stuff in it, but then I I use fiction to discuss it, to analyze it, to decode it in a way that I don’t think I could have if I did it as a memoir.

And I’ve never seen anything written quite like this about Alzheimer’s, I’ve seen interesting pop books. There’s been a memoir or two, but this, I wanted it to to really. Talk about the concept of memory, what it means when you lose it, what you forget, what you don’t forget, what that means to the people that you’re connected to in this case, it’s a mother and a daughter as the primary characters.

And when the daughter realizes the mother has Alzheimer’s, she then has to let go of their former relationship and let go of ever getting to a different place together. And so what she chooses to do is instead create out of reality and desire a past and a present for her mother. So it has to with memory and just watching my mother die slowly of Alzheimer’s was extraordinarily profound.

She was very difficult, extremely beautiful, extremely smart. Mentally ill and an alcoholic. It was an interesting experience growing up with her, but when I saw her lose herself and not even realize she had lost herself, it was go smacking and it made me rethink everything. Especially my relationship with her, but also what it means to be a person and what it means to be alive.

And so the, I wrote a bunch of nonfiction things, essays that I published about or struggle over the years, but I really felt like I had to do a whole bigger work about. About memory and relationships. And so that’s what I tackled over 12

Stephen: years. And I was gonna ask about that, cuz you’ve got a non-fiction background.

So you did both, you wrote some non-fiction about wor apparent losing themselves. Dealing with the, all of that. So you got that out. So you went into different direction and wrote some fiction. Do you think that was not only therapeutic for you, but do you think the message you were trying to get across came out better as fiction or would help other people or I, cuz it’s an interesting choice to do that.

Do you did both essentially?

Lisa: I, this is not my first novel. I have written other novels. I had agents, I won contest, but I couldn’t get ’em published. It’s a long story. So I’ve always been attached to the novel. I’ve been writing them for many years. I really didn’t start doing a lot of essay work until the early two thousands.

But I found that I really had a, I was good. I had a feel for it and it worked. So I did that for a while and really put fiction on the back burner, but I just couldn’t figure out a way to tackle this subject in long form as a memoir. And also I felt like it wasn’t as interesting.

I’m sure people would disagree with me, but I didn’t feel like my particular point of view was interesting enough or different enough. And that’s why I expanded it out with science and physics and religion and faith and everything that has to do with Losing your memory and having a relationship and things of that nature.

So I I just felt like with fiction, I could be freer. I could create characters, I could get rid of characters. I could combine characters. I didn’t want to talk about this man or that man or this person. And I do discuss my sisters and I wanted to respect them. So I fictionalized them and not in, in a way that would make it easier for them to read perhaps, although I don’t know where that they have.

Stephen: nice. Okay. So you mentioned you couldn’t get agents, so this is independently published.

Lisa: I, I, during the pandemic, I decided to stop looking for agents and I started submitting to small presses. Now the book had already won, had already been long listed for a novel price and shortlisted for a novel price.

So I knew it was really good and I knew it was close. And so I started looking at independent presses, small presses, and I submitted it to jaded IBUs press in California, and they loved it. And that’s where I went. They published a lot of women’s writing and I appreciated their viewpoint. I knew it wasn’t a big five, but I was okay with that.

And they did an amazing job. It they’re great editors and I it’s a beautiful book, so I’m very pleased with that.

Stephen: Nice. Okay. And is it already out or is it coming out?

Lisa: It is, it came

Stephen: out in June. Okay. Yeah, I thought it was really close when I was talking to D see here. Can you see, there you go.

Now what’s the title mean?

Lisa: Shva is the week long period of boarding that Jews do when somebody dies. Okay. And there’s all these rituals, which are explained in the book. So each day of the week, you you do all the things that all the same time, but I did a conceit of dividing the novel into seven sections each with a certain aspect of mourning.

Shiv is essentially mourning the person that is lost. and so that’s that’s the larger context. It’s a, it’s not morning for a week in this case, it’s morning for a lifetime. So I divided up in two sections which

The first one is called the heart wrenching pain of grief and loss. And then the second is the ceremony of the washing of the hands. And so I use these things symbolically. The third one is the condolence meal. So I use that to talk about how feeding someone and a TA inviting someone to your table in the Jewish religion is a sacred act.

And then I discuss. What that was like in the family and the book. And was it a sacred act? It was not, it was a eating was an act of fraught with symbolism and sadness. So I use each of the ideas of what you’re supposed to be doing when you mourn with people in shva to talk about the relationship of the mother and the daughter and the mother’s life as to how it fits in.

Does that

Stephen: make sense? Yeah. Nice. That’s a good framework to start with and use and gives it an interesting twist for a lot of readers. I’m sure. Cuz I didn’t grow up Jewish. I don’t have a one that’s Jewish in my family, so it’s always, I enjoy learning about other religions, other cultures, other ways people do things.

So I, I think that’s a good way of

Lisa: doing it. I do think long and hard about it. I thought is this gonna put some people off but it is what it is. It’s mourning. And this is what this book is about. It’s in a way it’s how to mourn and why to mourn and what happens and what are you mourning?

Who are you mourning? Are you mourning your yourself, your relationship with this person? Are you mourning them? And I it’s about grief and I think that, I don’t know. I think it’s important to talk about grief.

Stephen: It is, even though we tend to avoid it, we

Lisa: do. Yeah, we absolutely do. And I think when when you have a time a dozen, 15 years of watching someone die, it’s a very different experience than losing somebody quickly or knowing that they have something that’s gonna carry them off in a year or two.

Alzheimer’s dementia can last. A very long time and it goes through different stages where the person is somewhat more there and then not there. And I try to take the reader through the loss of the mother in all these ways,

Stephen: in a way it’s an extended loss and you lose the person way before their body is gone.

Absolutely. And I that’s way harder. Cause you’re in a constant state of mourn and

Lisa: grief. You are, you absolutely are. You, my mother and I used to have a very difficult relationship, but every time I used to fly up to see her four or five more times a year she insisted on staying in new England when she got sick.

But every time I would say goodbye to her, I would cry. And I would say what is going on here? But it was each time. It was like a little deaf and I didn’t know who she’d be when I saw her next. I didn’t know when she would stop realizing who I was. When she would stop recognizing you. And then eventually you stop walking, you stop speaking.

And so each time the disease progresses, you lose another piece of that person. And so you have to mourn over at, over and over. I think X every time you lose a another piece. Yes. So I think a lot of people in our generation will get this because no matter what your faith is or none where a lot of us are dealing with seriously ill parents.

And also having to think about how we want our own death to look like. This has made me really think about what I would do where this to happen to me. I’ve talked to both of my children about my plans. Something, my mother did not do we, my sisters and I had to create a plan for her because she had not.

And we didn’t know what she wanted, so we just did the best we could. But once you watched something like this, my first reaction was I never ever want my children to see me. Like I’m seeing my mother. I never want that. Because as I said, she was beautiful and smart and funny and very wicked in ways, but all that went.

And I, I think if she had bit on the outside looking and seeing she is very vain what she looked like, how she presented herself on those letter. I think she would’ve been horrified. I know she would’ve been horrified. And so I’ve been, I have pictures around my house that are of her. Much younger when she was beautiful when she was vibrant and alive, because I don’t want that picture of her sitting in a wheelchair, comatose, practically dressed in someone else’s clothes to be the last way I think of her.

It’s too. It’s unbearable. It really is. It

Stephen: It’s the same old enjoy life. It’s short. You don’t know when don’t let so many thing smell the roses, right? And that the old standby.

Lisa: It is. But I do think that everybody needs to think about their exit. If you don’t think about your exit, you leave that to other people who may not be able to do what you want.

Because it’s too hard. When you love somebody, you don’t want them to die. I As much as my mother was sick and I thought it would be a blessing if she went, when she finally went, it was horrifying. I was. It was crazy. I was with her for he for 10 days in hospice and watching her die.

And yet it still was traumatic. And I think until you do that you don’t realize how it’s gonna hit you. And so you just have to think about what you wanna put your own family through. Yeah,

Stephen: exactly. So the book’s been out for a couple months when we’re recording this. What’s the feedback from readers been like

Lisa: it’s been really good so far.

I the pub the publicity by the press, wasn’t everything I wanted and that’s down to me should have hired somebody, which I finally did, but it’s not gotten as widespread cover as I’d wished, which happens when you publish with a small press, as opposed to a big five. But I am gonna go to the Montana book festival in September.

They’ve invited me to be a reader, so that’s gonna be fun. Because I’ve never been to Montana, but the people who’ve read it have been really moved by it, strangers and and friends. So that’s been great. I don’t, I, I don’t know what the people who I haven’t liked it feel, but can’t worry about that anyway.

Okay. But no, I think it’s been pretty positive. Okay. It’s the book I wanted to write. I wrote the book I wanted to write and you really can’t and it was accepted for publication and published by a nice press. You really can’t do much better than that. When you think about it, it’s I wasn’t aiming for the best seller list.

It’s not that kind of book, but but it’s exactly what I wanted to do, which is a big deal, especially when you’re my age. It’s oh, okay. This is a nice treat at the end. Nice. Okay. So if you had a choice, Lisa, would you rather see your book as a movie or a TV show? Oh,

that’s interesting. I actually I, you’re not gonna be with her.

I really hadn’t thought about it. I don’t know, personally, I’m really, I used to be a big fan of movies, so I go two or three times a month for years and my husband and I would go, and then the pandemic happened and we haven’t been to a film. I don’t love watching films on television, but I love the good television that’s out.

It is amazing

Stephen: nowadays. Yeah. It’s oh my God.

Lisa: Good. So different than when I was younger. Just astonishing TV. I don’t know whether this has enough meat to make it a long series, but I think you could probably do it and do the British TV, which is what, like two to four

Stephen: hours.

Yeah. You got episode

Lisa: thing. Yeah. So I, whatever, it’s hard. It’s a very, it’s a very thinky novel. I’m very. Consumed by language. Each word is crucial to me. I’m not a, I’m not plot driven, I’m character driven and word driven. And so sometimes I think that doesn’t translate very well to the screen.

So I don’t know, they say the worst books make the best films. And vice versa. So I don’t know. I don’t know something like the gold, which was so brilliant. The movie was not. So you have to just think, could they do it right? I don’t know. Yeah. It seems like TV shows are getting it right.

Stephen: A lot better than most movies.

Lisa: I think they do cause well, because they have a longer time. What happens with film is that a big book of squished down and you miss right? You miss a lot of it unless they just take a piece. Of it. And really, I think it’s not even movies versus TV shows. I think it’s streaming shows that’s yes.

Stephen: Something newer really is what it’s coming down to. Where can we get your book? And do you have

Lisa: a website? I do a website. It’s just my name. Lisa sola.com. It’s got links on there. I, you can get it at, you can order it at any bookstore. You can get it from bookshop, which only sells to Indi from independent bookstores, you can get it on Amazon.

You can get the Kindle version, which I actually like Kindle versions. And you can get it barn and noble for book or no. So anywhere. In Savannah you can get it at the book lady bookstore. I did a reading when it first came out at my synagogue and the woman who owns the book, lady sold the books there which was great.

Great. But I’m doing another program at the J a in October. Where I’ll also be reading and then I’m gonna be at the Montana book festival. So it will be sold there. So we’ll see. But you can get it anywhere you want. It you decide, you wanna support Jeff Bezos, you can go online and order today and you’ll get it tomorrow yep. And that is crazy. I’ve ordered stuff at four 30 and had a 10 o’clock the next morning and that’s,

and we’ve got, we’ve gotten very spoiled. Yes, we do no longer know how to delay ratification, which I don’t think is a very good thing. I agree.

Stephen: That’s a whole nother discussion.

Lisa: it is. But yes, it’s.

And I know of course with Kindle I very often, especially books, like I’m a, I love thrillers and mysteries, not true crime but people like Jane Casey and Tyler, French and Lee child. And so with anywhere Michael Conley. That’s my sort of fun, fun stuff. Whenever one of those comes out, I just immediately go and get it on kids.

I preorder it. And so someday when I’m sitting, reading, it pops up, oh your book is here. And I like that. It’s really fun. I know it’s maybe not the best thing in the world I am somebody said where what would you prefer? How would you prefer me to buy your book? I said, I don’t care.

Just buy it. I don’t, I have no preference. You could borrow your friends. I don’t care. But just buy it and read it and let me know what you

Stephen: think. So are you working on, or do you have plans for your next book?

Lisa: I am working on yes. A book which is a retailing of a children’s fairytale.

I’m not gonna go into too much detail other than that familiar fairytale. And I’m also working on an essay which I’m very excited about. I hope I can pull it off. It’s very ambitious, but So we’ll see what happens with that, but yeah, I’m always, and I keep like writers, I write ideas on my phone.

I have an idea notebook. So I’m usually thinking of something to write.

Stephen: Got it. Put it that way. Okay. So let me ask a couple other questions about you. What are some of your favorite books and authors?

Lisa: As I told you, I’m very interested in words. You probably figure out who it was, but I, I think Philip Roth is a genius, was a genius.

His sentences have never not made me stop and go, oh my God. So his writing is beautiful. I love early influences where Margaret drab, who’s a British author and Nita Brookner, who’s also British. Their work was very pivotal in my education as a writer and a feminist. I love their work. I think Anita Brookner novels were tight and spare and absolutely perfect.

And I don’t think she has big enough readership. She did win the Booker for wonderful her books. But so really, yeah. I like domestic fiction if you wanna call it that. So you’ve got Margaret Atwood before she went sci-fi although I don’t dislike the Handmaid’s tale, but an Tyler, I really I like that, but I also like muscular intellectual fiction, too.

Maryanne Wiggins who has just published a new book despite a stroke. But her John dollar’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read in my life. I think she’s brilliant. She was married to salmon roti for a while when he was I had to go into hide because of the fatwa. And so she published John Doar during that period and it sank like a stone basically, because she was also in hiding with him.

And I think this’s just a really interesting story. It’s an amazing book, but yeah, I like and I like the usuals, I like Fitzgerald and marque and so forth. I’m just E Wharton, but I’m a voracious re reader. I read very quickly and I usually have two or three things going and mostly fiction I will admit.

But I’m always finding new writers. I really like buying debut authors, not just because I am one, but because I think I wanna see what’s going on. I wanna see what they’re doing. So that’s fun. I have always supported fiction by women, especially, but for first time published, Authors, but for me, it’s a lot about the language.

It really is. It’s a lot about the words. So when somebody says to me, this is a beautiful book that makes me very happy because I think it is too. And I spent years making sure that it was a beautiful book. Nice. So that’s nice to be recognized for that, but

Stephen: nice. Okay. All right. So before we talk about some author stuff, if you’re at the book festival and somebody’s looking at your book and they say, so why should I buy your book and read it?

What would you tell ’em?

Oh man, maybe this is something good to think about before you get there.

Lisa: Huh? Wow. Yes, absolutely. I don’t know. I would think I would tell them that it’s I did have I have had people tell me it’s unputdownable, I’m not sure if that’s true because it’s, it is rather sad, but I think it’s compelling. I think that’s the word I would use. I think it’s a compelling book about an important or several important subjects. Mother-daughter relationships, illness, death.

And I think that I think you learn something, there’s a lot of information in it. Let’s put it

Stephen: that way. Nice. There you go. So if that helps you at the Montana book festival, that’s

Lisa: great. Oh yeah, that’s good.

Stephen: I I really hope someone does that, that they come up to you now and say, so why should I get this and read this?

And you’re like, oh man, I’m so glad I thought of it. I really,

Lisa: or what are the people will say? That’s a very good question, but anyway, no, I it’s you always, it’s really hard. I think. I long for the days of. The old school writers who just wrote their book, sent them off and then didn’t have to go on speaking tours and do interviews and get on Twitter and sell their books.

And I it’s exhausting and you just, you don’t wanna push people away, but you want people to read you and there’s so many books published every year. And why do people need this? Why do people do your book? I don’t know. Do they? They probably don’t. But but I still want them to read it.

It’s it’s, there’s just, and then of course people are self-publishing, which is a whole other bag of tricks. So there’s just a lot of stuff out there. And how do you choose what to read? That’s very individual.

Stephen: Yeah, very much all right. So I appreciate you sharing all that. The book sounds great.

I really wish you the best of luck on it. You should read it. I, you oughta see my to read pile every week I’m talking to new authors and just about every book sounds amazing to me. And then I got the stuff I’ve normally had that I’m interested in reading and right. I go visit a bookstore.

I’m like, oh, that looks, oh, I didn’t know. They wrote the, and then it’s wow, okay. Let’s add to this list.

Lisa: no, I’m. Yeah. I can’t in every place we travel, my husband and I go into bookstores. We love used bookstores too. And we’re always like, why are we buying books and vacation, but we do. We always do.

Yeah.

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