“I think I read somewhere to not give up until you get at least 100 rejections.” Suzanne Reisman tells us about finding agent representation for her 2015 longlisted manuscript This Eden Called Warsaw:
Congratulations, Suzanne, on accepting representation with literary agent Lisa Leshne!
Thank you so much! I’m very lucky to have a lot of people who really support me and believe in my book. I’m just so thrilled and so thrilled that others feel the same way.
Your book, This Eden Called Warsaw is a literary historical novel, set in pre World War II Warsaw. Why did you decide to set your novel in the decade before the war?
Really, there were two reasons: first, this is where my grandfather grew up. He was the one of two people in his very large family to survive the Holocaust. He came to the US in 1950, and he was one of my caregivers while my parents worked when I was a child, so I spent a lot of time with him. My sister was named in honour of his sister, Doba, one of the characters in the book. However, he never spoke about his life before the war or all of those people he lost. He died in 1995, and this information died with him. Over time, I could not stop thinking about what he was like, what his family was like, and I became very upset that there was no one to remember them. I thought if I could come up with a story – even if it isn’t their real story – I could give them a voice, honour their struggles, and memorialize them in a larger way. So that’s how I chose the period leading into the war.
Once I did that, I had a lot of research to do. It blew my mind how little I really knew about what was then the largest Jewish community in Europe, with 350,000 people in 1939. This period of time in Warsaw is little discussed today, lost in the narrative horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto and extermination camps, primarily Treblinka. That’s what people really think about today – all the death (barely one percent survived) – but I wanted to go back to the vibrant life that was there. I wanted to illuminate the complex diversity of this community, which stunned me.
What was it like for you, as a writer, discovering and creating a past your ancestors might have known?
It’s interesting because I grew up believing that my grandfather was the only survivor. But as I did research, I discovered that his brother-in-law, Yitzchak Srodogora, actually also survived and went to live in Israel after the war. It seems neither man knew of the other’s post-Holocaust existence, which just devastates me. Anyway, long story short, Mr. Srodogora actually had some surviving relatives, and we’ve met. They are lovely and wonderful people, but they don’t know much about his life before the war, either. They said he had been in the Polish Army, captured, and sent to Siberia, which is how he survived. He was a very sad man, who remarried another survivor but never recovered from losing his wife and child and other relatives. I hope they will like how I portrayed their great uncle. For some reason, he came out very rigid in the book, and I think it’s because I decided that his great sadness after the war was partly rooted in regret for his past lack of flexibility.
Writing about my grandfather’s sisters and mother was hard at first because I didn’t have much information, and I was wracked with anxiety about misrepresenting them. As I wrote more, I was excited to give them lives. They were people I had always loved in the abstract, because it was clear to me that my grandfather had loved them dearly, but now I felt I knew them and they became part of my life in a more concrete way. I hope that they would be happy with how I portray them and their struggles.
Motl is torn between his secret girlfriend’s emigration plans and his obligations towards a mother and sisters who rely on him for survival. Was the struggle against restrictive gender roles a theme you knew you wanted to explore from the start?
It wasn’t! But the theme started emerging as I wrote. I’m a feminist, and I thought a lot about the restrictive roles and how they might feel about them. I hope that it comes across that although I think it’s horrible to live in within strict constraints, others might find it comforting or even freeing. But the characters closest to my heart are the ones who see the limits and learn how to navigate within them or break free to be themselves.
Lost opportunities is also a key theme of your book, so it feels apt that you met your agent through a friend’s chance meeting with your now agent…
In Judaism, we have a concept called beshert, which very loosely (and I mean I am really stretching the definition here) means “meant to be.” There is a matchmaker who will try to connect the people meant to be together, and the match is called a shidduch. So my friend, Sara, is an amazing matchmaker. She knew Lisa through the gym, and found out Lisa was an agent when she went to her apartment for another reason. She pitched my book on the spot! Lisa said I should send some sample materials, so I sent a query and the first chapter.
I have to laugh now because when Sara told me to send my stuff, I went to The Leshne Ageny’s website and thought, oh, they won’t like it. But it would have been incredibly rude to not send something after she went out on a limb for me, and really, what could it hurt? This was a Sunday night, and Lisa replied within three hours that she wanted to read more and I should send the full. And 18 days later, Lisa sent me the most wonderful email about how much she and her editorial assistant loved This Eden Called Warsaw.
Lisa and I have been joking that Sara is the best matchmaker ever!
I met Sara in 2005. For a few years, we were co-coordinators of a volunteer group in New York City that offered housing to low-income women forced to travel to New York to obtain an abortion because laws in their states restricted access to the procedure or there were no safe places to get abortions, even though it is legal in the US. Obviously, she is a very generous person with her time and resources. In Yiddish, we would call her a mensch, someone who is a very good, kind person.
What did Lisa love most about your book?
Lisa and her editorial assistant loved the detail of the world I created and the depth of the characters. I get verklempt every time I think about this. She’s requested a few editorial changes, but not many! I’ll do whatever is needed to get this book published, though.
You’d been querying widely and for a long time hadn’t you…
Forever!!!! On and off for 2.5 years!!!
I don’t know if you have this phrase in the UK, but in the US we say we’ll “throw spaghetti at a wall and see what sticks.” So my querying process was first to determine what kind of spaghetti I had (meat sauce? Cream sauce? Olive oil?) and then research which walls would be most receptive to this spaghetti. (Sorry, that is a tortured metaphor…) I queried internationally too. I figured the story is set in Europe anyway, so I might as well throw the proverbial spaghetti at a very metaphorical global wall.I’m still mystified by the whole process, honestly.
How did you keep motivated?
I’m annoyingly persistent when I really believe in something. Plus, this story is incredibly important to me because I felt it was almost my mission that my family not be lost to history. So I just kept going. I will say, however, that taking some long breaks in querying was very helpful.
Your representation story is going to inspire so many writers. Many writers get very disheartened after twenty or so rejections, do you think most writers give up looking too soon?
I think I read somewhere to not give up until you get at least 100 rejections. The thing about publishing is that you need a thick skin. There are rejections and problems at every stage for most authors. It is important to know yourself, though. If being rejected makes it hard to write, it might not be the right time to put yourself out there.
What’s next for you?
I had an idea for my next book for a long time, but it was hard to sit down and write something new. (All the characters from This Eden Called Warsaw kept popping back up!) I am one of those people who will do everything asked of me if I spend money on something, so I enrolled in an online novel writing course with Faber Academy. It began in September, and it has been amazing! I am sussing out the characters and plot, and writing some interesting things. I am really excited. Lisa loves the idea, too, which is extra motivation.
Our 2017 prize opens on December 1st, what was your experience of being longlisted and any advice for anyone thinking of entering this time?
Enter! It was a HUGE boost to my confidence to be longlisted, especially in 2015 when only 3% of the entries were selected. Even not making the shortlist helped because I was spurred to hire a freelance editor who helped me address some of the weaknesses in the ms. I don’t think I would have bothered doing that if I hadn’t been longlisted. As a result, I have a very strong ms with few edits to make for my agent. Plus, I met awesome people. I was just on holiday in Dublin and I arranged to meet fellow longlistee Martin Gilbert for lunch, and I frequently chat online with [2015 winner] Clarissa Goenawan. They are the best; everyone is great.
Anyway, my advice is to have fun. Anyone who enters is already a winner because you wrote a novel and had the courage to submit it. Seriously! DO IT!!!
Interview by Caroline Ambrose
The Bath Novel Award & The Bath Children’s Novel Award are international prizes which aim to shine a light on emerging novelists. Each offers a £2,000 prize, along with a £500 shortlist prize and the opportunity to be introduced to literary agents. To date, 75% of winning & shortlisted writers have accepted offers of representation, with 50% going on to win traditional publishing deals, most recently a six figure pre-empt: literary agent offers and book deals
NOW OPEN: The Bath Children’s Novel Award
OPEN FROM 1 DEC 2016: The Bath Novel Award