An Interview with Author Rayna Sue Harris

Rayna Sue Harris has had stories published in Jewish Heritage, Coastlines, and Tales Below the Frost Line. Today, Ms Harris is sharing more details about her debut novel, Bronx Heart, Jeruslam Soul.

Q: Can you sum up Bronx Heart, Jerusalem Soul in 20 words or less?

Tyra Miller, burdened by the demands of her family, coupled with her burning idealism and strong Jewish identity, sails to Israel for a year of adventure and soul-searching.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

This question requires a multi-faceted response. In no particular order of importance, first, I dedicated the novel to my grandchildren. I am very grateful to my dear grandparents and their close-knit siblings for the kind Yiddishkeit they lived day to day. I wanted to preserve that sweet Yiddishe feeling and those values they instilled in me. What a gift for my grandchildren to be infused with a sense of pride and respect for their ancestors, for their goodness, for what they were able to achieve despite the hardships they faced. I want my grandchildren to be inspired by the lives that came before them and hopefully hold on to the Torah values that served our family so well.

Next, I love stories. I look at my life and I see all kinds of stories within. As a young student, I always took an interest in national and world events. My parents, sister and I engaged in lively discussions about the events of the day at our dinner table. At that time, New York City had six or seven newspapers and my father brought home all of them! I savored many events I lived through and even some I participated in: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Struggle for Soviet Jewry, the Civil Rights movement and especially, the Six Day War.  During the time period I write about- the Fifties and Sixties, I was privileged to meet, study, or protest with some well- known people in the Jewish world, and in a fictional way I wanted to describe the things that mattered. I wanted to preserve history in a very personal, intimate way.

Third, it is amazing to me, that an ordinary person like myself can bear witness to  spiritual, uplifting, even bizarre coincidences that made a strong an impact on me. I felt the need to memorialize them in some fashion in the novel. Many years ago, my uncle, who took up oil painting as a hobby, told us of an eerie experience involving one of his paintings that was destroyed in a fire. However, what survived the fire was so fantastic, that in tribute to him, I incorporated the essence of that experience into the novel.  I had to create new details to fit my characters, but the essence of the scene is authentic. There are more reasons why I wrote the novel, and I will leave those for the readers to discover.

Q: What research did you do when writing this story?

Regarding research, I had many of my own resources to fall back on. I kept a collection of newspaper articles from my youth (remember all those papers Dad brought home), as well as artifacts from my travels to Israel. When I visited my daughter at college, I took advantage of the university library to research the more detailed military aspects of the Six Day War.

However, it was challenging to separate what material I could and could not use in the novel itself. For instance, much of the material gave perspectives after the fact, Monday morning quarterbacking, so to speak. I could only use details that the characters could be aware of in their real time. So especially with the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is one of my favorite chapters, and with the Six Day War, I had to be very precise on which details from my research I could use.

Q: What was the most challenging thing about writing this book?

The most challenging part of writing this novel revolved around its structure. That took the most time, the most revisions and was the most frustrating. I alternated the back story with the present four times, each giving a different perspective and time frame. Every  arrangement called for revisions to the narrative in terms of flow, accuracy and continuity. This was painstaking work and very tedious. Each version had its own nuance and merit and finally, in total despair, I told myself, “Choose one!” I did and I am happy with the result.

Another challenge, but to a much lesser degree, was the use of language of the times. Certain terms from the past outgrow their sensibility and usefulness. The challenge is to keep the characters authentic. For that to happen, they have to say things in their own words. I was able to put those terms in the voices of the characters, sometimes creating dialog where I wasn’t otherwise planning to. Characters can say what they want; it’s how they speak. The narrator’s voice is easier.

Q: What made you choose to incorporate the exchange of letters in the telling of this story?

Oh, the letters! I love authentic correspondence, I don’t mean e-mails and especially not texts, but long, beautiful ‘letters where the writer brings to life her experiences and feelings, and the reader is vested in the value of the time and experience of the writer. A running correspondence shows the nature of a relationship, the motivations of the correspondents.

When I was in Israel in1966-67, my mother and I wrote prolifically to each other. We each saved the letters we received. Thirty years after the fact, I forced myself to read this massive stack of letters stored in a carton in the attic  It was painful to recall the heartaches, the loneliness, the illnesses, the fear and the war. I had to incorporate the letters in the novel because of all the history they contained. I almost consider them to be another character in their own right. I wanted the characters to exist within the history they were living through. I wanted to remind or show the reader what life was like in the Sixties- the details of American culture- the controversies over the books and television programs, the changes in religious life for Jews and Catholics alike. I wanted to show nuggets from the past that have influence in today’s society.

Tyra’s letters also portray a very different Israel then, and although the novel also depicts a love story between Tyra and Israel, she is blatantly honest about the way things were and the way she thinks they should be.

As a literary technique, the letters also open the door for the reader to discover some interesting character traits of Tyra and her mother Kaye. I spent much time separating the wheat from the chaff. By that I mean I had to excise all the personal nitty-gritty that absolutely does not belong in the novel. After massive condensing, I also had to create within the correspondence, new thoughts to push the storyline forward. One of my many goals in writing Bronx Heart Jerusalem Soul was to preserve the letters as a record for posterity. How could I discard such a treasure trove that represented the most seminal part of my life?

Q: What kind of feedback are you getting from readers?

I have been so gratified by the things my readers have said about Bronx Heart Jerusalem Soul. Some love the Bronx story because it reminds them of their experiences. Some love the descriptions of Israel because it brings back wonderful memories for them. Some have told me they learned so much about Judaism from the novel. But really the most common thread is that they are endeared to Tyra and Jessie, their difficult relationship and their individual struggles to find peace. They love Tyra’s prayers. And the very best, so many told me they cried at the end!

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Q: What inspires you to write?

I think that any tiny thought, an image, a detail can be transformed into a story or poem. To me, the written word serves as a witness or a document of what was achieved by a creative or thoughtful expression. Even when I was a child, I filled notebooks with stories, and in junior and senior high school I was on the staff of the literary magazines and newspapers. It wasn’t until later on in life that I took writing seriously and I enjoyed learning the craft and experimenting with different genres. I have come to value my thoughts and what I have learned by living, and love to imagine scenarios that I can develop into something substantial. If you can think it, you can write it!

Q: Which character was the most challenging to write?

Definitely the most difficult character to develop was Jessie.  She is the antagonist, yet she is the one that suffers the most. I had to find ways to make her empathetic and admirable in her own right, Although Jessie is the bane of the family, she certainly has some wonderful and strong qualities. That is why I had her leave the family and go to Mississippi on a voting rights drive.

Q: What is on your current reading list?

 Right now I am reading King of the Jews by Leslie Epstein.  I have a long list to get to but now that my next novel is in the infant stage, I won’t be reading fiction for a while. I don’t want to pick up any cadences, rhythms, imagery or habits from any other writers. I have to have a clear mind and concentrate solely on my own style and content. This leads right on to your next question.

Q: What is your next writing project?

I have been thinking about a particular idea for my next novel for a while, and just recently something happened that made everything click- almost as if it is beshert (destined) to commit to it. The generation that I spoke of in the beginning of this interview was a large one with many siblings on all sides. As a consequence, there are many first and second cousins. Happily after having been out of touch for a long time, we recently reconnected on Facebook. It turns out we are all interested in our background and plan to research and update our family tree. I am composing a questionnaire about our grandparents’ generation for my cousins to answer. The details they provide plus some extensive research ahead will help me write the prequel to Bronx Heart Jerusalem Soul, the story of the grandparents’ generation in1900 Europe and their adjustment and struggles in America. I am so excited.

Q: Can you provide your web address and links to your social media profiles for the audience?

I enjoy getting feedback from my readers. I give presentations to various groups and facilitate book club discussions. Feel free to contact me on Facebook.

Q: Any closing remarks?

In closing, I want to thank you, Heidi, for the opportunity to talk about Bronx Heart Jerusalem Soul. Be well and safe in these crazy times.

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