I started writing fiction for adults, but now I write for kids and teenagers, too. I've published two books for adults: a short story collection, THE TASK OF THIS TRANSLATOR (2005), and the novel CAPTIVES (2008). My first book for your younger readers, a middle grade novel called 33 MINUTES, was published in 2013. In 2015 I published a young adult novel, ME BEING ME IS EXACTLY AS INSANE AS YOU BEING YOU. That same year, a narrative memoir for ages 10 and up that I co-wrote with and about Holocaust survivor Michael Gruenbaum called SOMEWHERE THERE IS STILL A SUN came out. In early 2018 a young person's history of the women's suffrage movement, ROSES & RADICALS, which I co-wrote with Susan Zimet, was published. In addition to writing, I teach literature at the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago and translate Hebrew literature into English. I live in Evanston, Illinois (just outside Chicago), with my wife, two daughters, a dog, and two cats.
MUCH LONGER BIO:
I was born in Detroit and raised in its suburbs. I’m the second of three brothers. All of us were born in May. Other than my immediate family, the most important part of my childhood was going to Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Michigan. Tavor is part of a Labor-Zionist youth movement called Habonim-Dror. After high school I spent a year in Israel living on a kibbutz (sort of a collective farm). I worked in irrigation.
I attended the University of Michigan as an undergrad. I majored in Near Eastern and North African Studies. I knew by around age 20 that I wanted to become a professor, and I knew that I wanted to study Israel and the Middle East. But it took me a while to decide which field or discipline I wanted to pursue.
I wound up settling on Comparative Literature. I attended the University of California, Berkeley for graduate school, where I started in 1994. There I studied Hebrew and Arabic literature, though by the time I was writing my dissertation I was only working on Hebrew literature. The weird thing about being at Berkeley, especially at first, was that I really had no idea how to study literature. My major at Michigan had been interdisciplinary, with an emphasis on history. I had always loved reading novels, but had never much systematic instruction. Suddenly I was attending one of the top literature programs in the world, and I was lost. My first few semesters at Berkeley, were, needless to say, difficult.
But when I started making sense of fiction (and narrative in general), the payoff was huge. I still remember, sitting in my younger brother’s apartment (both my brothers moved to San Francisco around the time I moved to Berkeley), reading some comic or graphic novel that was clearly in the tradition of R. Crumb or Harvey Pekar. I was amazed how the author was able to represent an entire imagined world, and that this world was utterly specific and alive, and that the author was creating all this through some remarkable combination of decisions, techniques, ideas, etc.
I guess that was an epiphany of sorts. I suddenly, Oh, this [this=writing stories] is really interesting, and somehow no longer 100% mysterious, and so maybe I could do it. I had always had a creative impulse (one that largely manifested itself from a young age with my behaving like a clown), but I never had a form or a medium to work in. Now I sensed I may have found one. I started writing a few months later, with the help of two novels (Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine and Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous). These two works, each in its own way, offered me very particular models for forging my own prose. My voice as a writer, such as it is, came out almost fully formed right away. Sometimes you get lucky.
During the second half of graduate school (graduate school lasted a LONG time, eight years), I worked on my dissertation and—when I had both time and inspiration—wrote short stories on the side. In other words, most of the time I wasn’t writing fiction. I was fortunate to be put in touch with Simon Lipskar, who agreed to become my agent after seeing a few of my early stories. He helped me slowly put together a collection.
In 2002, I relocated with my wife and daughter to Gainesville, Florida, because I got a job teaching Hebrew language and literature at the University of Florida. Getting a tenure-track job was very gratifying, even if the University of Florida seemed like an awfully random place to be. I taught there for eight years and earned tenure in 2009. My second daughter was also born there. Oh yeah, and I published my first two books of fiction there. In 2005, my short story collection (The Task of This Translator) was published. In 2008, I published my first novel (Captives). In 2008 I also published a book-length academic study, Here and Now: History, Nationalism, and Realism in Hebrew Fiction. Those were good, productive years.
I started writing fiction as a direct result of my academic study. In other words, I never would have started writing (or writing anything worth reading) had it not been for my academic work, since that work taught me how to understand narrative and forced me to develop the kind of sensitivity to language all writers need. While I was writing short stories I felt that the two pursuits (scholarship and creative writing) coexisted in a productive tension. But by the time I started writing novels, which require a totally different kind of commitment, I started feeling like this arrangement wasn’t working so well. It began to feel like I needed to choose one or the other. I slowly realized I wanted to devote all my intellectual and creative energies to writing.
For this (and a bunch of other reasons) my family and I decided to leave the University of Florida in 2010. We moved to the Chicago area (Evanston to be exact) to be closer to our families. I now teach literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Though I’ve continued writing for adults since moving here, I now focus much of my efforts on writing for younger readers. I’m still trying to figure out exactly how that happened. Most of it has to do with my editor, Liesa Abrams, who first acquired 33 MINUTES and then encouraged me to write a Young Adult novel.
Somehow in the middle of all this, I took on two co-writing projects for younger readers that sent my work in new directions. The first was to write the story of Holocaust survivor Michael Gruenbaum. This became the book SOMEWHERE THERE IS STILL A SUN. The second project was to write a history of the women's suffrage movement in America. This book, ROSES & RADICALS: THE EPIC STORY OF HOW AMERICAN WOMEN WON THE RIGHT TO VOTE, was written with Susan Zimet. I'm really proud of these books, even if they're not "mine" like my others.
Last thing. In my final year in Florida, I started translating Hebrew literature into English. This was a mildly terrifying project to take on at first, but I found that I really loved it. My translation of Asaf Schurr’s novel Motti came out in 2011. I guess I'm pretty good at that, as I won an international translation prize in 2013. Since then I've translated four other books: Dror Burstein's Netanya, D.A. Mishani's A Possibility of Violence and The Man Who Wanted to Know Everything, and Orly Castel-Bloom's An Egyptian Novel.
So that’s me for now. Thanks for reading.