The Edit

“I’m having lunch today with my editor,’ said Al with a bit of a smirk.

It was way back in the dark, pre-digital age when editors travelled to talk with their authors and proofs came in big brown envelopes.  Barbara Ker Wilson, one of Australia’s most highly respected authorities on children’s literature, was commissioning editor for the University of Queensland Press, and she liked Alan’s first chapter for ‘The Boys from Bondi’.  She liked it enough for the publisher to offer an advance payment … and lunch.

It was the beginning of Alan’s most productive period and a turning point.  He’d always written.  In the Isabella Lazarus Children’s Home he contributed a little quiz to the magazine produced by the ‘reffo’ kids.  Then, in his teens he was himself the editor of a newsletter for a Jewish youth movement;  his ‘purple prose’ makes for hilarious reading now.

From time to time, ‘The Australian Jewish News’, ‘The Melbourne Chronicle’ and ‘Generation Magazine’ published his articles and short stories.  The highlight was ‘Meanjin’ which published his short story ‘The Value of a Nail’.

‘The Balconies’ was a prize-winning entry in a short story competition run by the Sydney ‘Sun’;  Thomas Keneally, one of the judges, said it was ‘poignant’.  Judah Waten, political activist, author and enfant terrible as far as the Jewish establishment was concerned, was the kindest of mentors and encouraged Alan to self-publish his first book, ‘Troubles’ in 1983.  ‘The Balconies’ became ‘The Trouble with Felix’, the first story in the collection.

And then UQP invited submissions for their Young Adult list.  ‘The Balconies’ aka ‘The Trouble with Felix’ became the first chapter of ‘The Boys from Bondi’.  It all fell into place, just when Alan was ready to write honestly about his life.

*

“How was the lunch?’

‘Lovely woman, absolutely charming.  Really liked the first chapter.  Great meal.  Gave me a cheque and I walked her down to Spencer Street to get the airport bus.  She’s going back to Brisbane today.’

So I banked the cheque on my way to work at the Tech College and Al went back to running his little one-man ad agency in the studio he’d built in our back yard, and we thought no more about ‘The Boys from Bondi’.

Until one day, when ‘edit’ became a terrifying word, full of implications we’d never imagined.

‘Barbara rang and asked how I was getting on with the book.’

‘Well, I haven’t noticed you writing much lately.’

‘Yeah, well that’s it.  She pointed out that UQP have a publishing schedule and so on, and the long and short of it is that they want the finished text within the next few months.  They’re talking about artwork for the cover and typefaces and paper stock and I haven’t written anything at all except that first chapter.  They want the manuscript on floppy discs and I have no idea what they mean.  What are we going to do?  Should I just return their cheque?’

Anyone remember the Amstrad computer c1986?  We bought one in a hurry.

‘I’ll set it up in the morning before I go to work, you type and save every paragraph, and then when I come home we’ll print it off.  We’ll get a cheap Epson printer.  After you’ve corrected anything I’ll make floppy discs.  Forget about the typewriter.  Trust me.’

He tried, but it was very hard.

‘It all fell off!  One minute I could see the words and then they disappeared!  My fingers don’t fit this little keyboard and I miss the carriage return bar.  I just can’t do it; I’ll send them back the money and cancel the contract.’

But ‘The Boys from Bondi’ did appear on the UQP list and the reviews were good.  Agnes Nieuwenhuizen, who did so much to promote young adult reading, wrote in ‘The Age’:

Collins brings to life a period when our changing society, while sheltering the dispossessed, allowed much ignorance and prejudice to flourish.  We are moved by Jacob’s odyssey and simultaneously entertained by a rich cast of minor characters …

And Faye Zwicky, in her launch speech, said:

Reading the psalms, one finds everywhere a reverence for the whole created world and for all creatures in it.  This book is a kind of Australian psalm to life, sympathetic to all created things, including dogs.  There’s humor, sensitivity, and wisdom here.

Over time, we became more accustomed to the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful editor, but when Dutton Publishers in New York decided that ‘The Boys from Bondi’ would become ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ for American readers (who could not be expected to know where Bondi is) we hit road blocks.

‘I won’t give up my Australian slang, it’s part of the period,’ protested Al when we opened the large brown Fed Ex envelope containing the proofs.  Page after page covered in yellow stickers:  elevators not lifts, sidewalks not pavements, pants not strides.  Of course, he did in the end comply;  Dutton would brook no argument.  But humour always won out with Alan and it was a delight to shock the puritan American publishers with the following:

As the tram trundled up William Street she told me she was a pantry maid at Sydney Hospital.  She hoped to become a nurse as soon as she was old enough.  Her family came from Bathurst.

“We live only a few doors from Ben Chifley,” she said proudly.  “My dad was a shunter in the railway yards before he got hurt.  She rummaged in her handbag.  I told her I was paying the fares.  “Don’t get upset Jack,” she said.  “I’m only looking for a fag.”

It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and ‘fag’ activated the alarm bells;  it became ‘purse’ and ‘cigarette’ – and so lost all flavour.

*

That was then, this is now.  My second book, ‘Rosa’ is ‘being edited’.

‘We’d prefer you not to put out any extracts until we’ve ‘tailored’ the text, ‘ said Hybrid Publishers.  It’s understandable, given my grasp of grammar.

It was different when Hybrid published Alan’s books, ‘Alva’s Boy’ and ‘A Thousand Nights at the Ritz’.  By that time he had died, and as his literary executor, I was very involved with Alex Skovron and Anna Blay in the editing process.  But these were not my books;  I was a keeper, a guardian, a protector of Alan’s words.  My ‘Rosa’ is out there all by herself and it’s strange to contemplate her future.

My first book, ‘Solly’s Girl’ was a very different production. It was self-published through the ‘Write Your Story’ program at what is now the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia.  The editing was meticulous and kind.  However, commercial considerations were not really an issue for anyone involved:  as it has always been, since I set it up back in the 1990s, the program is designed for the Jewish community ‘to tell its own story’.  And so I did;  ‘Solly’s Girl’ complements ‘Alva’s Boy’ and, although the writing style is completely different, our family stories are now done.  Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers was sufficiently impressed to include it in her non-fiction Best Books of 2015.

*

So.  Perhaps Hybrid won’t mind too much if I publish a photograph?  No text yet – just a picture?  I hope it will be suitable for the cover.  It’s a very flattering image and I’m fond of it.  Here am I, at the mid-point of my life, the period covered by many of the stories in ‘Rosa’.  In fact one of the chapters is about the dress, the Alice headband, the chai around, my neck, the fringed shawl …

 

 

Ros with shawl

 

 

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Am I A Jewish Writer?

AM I A JEWISH WRITER?

Alan wrote:

‘WITHOUT MY SENSE OFJEWISH HISTORY, I WOULD NOT BE A WRITER…. I WRITE OF JEWS IN AUSTRALIA [but] MY WRITING HAS ITS GENESIS IN OUR AUSTRALIAN ETHOS…’   ‘Say no to literary kashrut’ Generation Magazine 1993

It’s a fine piece of humorous and provocative writing and I will probably re-print the entire article in a separate blog; it deserves a wider audience.

Now with the publication of Solly’s Girl it’s my turn to think about this matter.

Alan’s ancestors went from Spain and The Netherlands to London in the 1700s; they arrived in Sydney in the 1830s. They were part of the Anglo-Jewish community. He grew up intensely Australian but with a ‘sense of Jewish history’. My grandparents went from Eastern Europe to London in the late 1800s and retained nostalgic sentiments about the shtetl life they had left behind. I was the first truly British child on one side of the family. I grew up yearning for a family tree that would reach back into English history:

London was the centre of my world. It was great to be English, and I would have given anything to be able to claim British ancestry, preferably back to the Tudors. Solly’s Girl Ch. 1

* * *

Like my other grandfather, Morris did not become a citizen and, being Austrian, he was classed as an enemy alien during World War I, just as Nathan from Russia would be at the beginning of World War II. My family took its time to become British: Sadie and Solly [my parents] were both – almost accidentally – born in London, but their East End Jewish upbringing held them firmly and nostalgically to their roots in Eastern Europe. Not until my birth did a genuine little English girl appear on the family tree. Solly’s Girl Ch. 4

So, what is my perspective? Not exactly Australian, even after fifty years. No longer British – I’ve been away too long. I’m really left only with ‘Jewish’ but this makes for complications. I’m not very observant and have no religious curiosity. Labels are tricky items. The aggressive atheists do little for me. The ‘bob each way’ agnostics leave me equally cold.   I’m not one for deities but I’m comfortable with my Jewish heritage and appreciate the fact that there’s always a branch of Judaism to suit whatever kind of Jew one is (you know the old joke, ‘two Jews, three opinions’); and in my case Masorti, which is egalitarian and does not discriminate against women, makes me welcome.

I found it difficult to explain this in my memoir. I’m reminded of Brideshead Revisited and the ‘twitch upon the thread’ that pulls Waugh’s characters back to their religion; all that angst – not for me.

On one occasion in my teens I deliberately tried to provoke Solly with stupid queries about the meaning of life. He was an amazingly tolerant man and just told me, mildly and correctly, to look in Ecclesiastes: ‘there is a time for everything, for all things under the sun’.

It’s become trite, a cliché and a lyric for popular music, but really what more is there to say?

***

And yet Jewish identity is not a problem for me. I think of it as a genetic inheritance, rather like blue eyes or red hair and not something to agonise over. A phrase from the Rosh Hashanah service comes to mind:

We believe that He abides in mystery.
Therefore we need not solve life’s every problem.

And I don’t try. Spiritual is not me. I think of Judaism as one long continuous question and answer debate, never to be resolved and fascinating for those of us who love a good argument. Words. Solly was a compulsive writer: poems, short stories, humorous retellings of Bible tales, memoirs. Alan was a journalist, a copywriter, a published author. ‘Solly’s girl’ is a librarian. ‘Jews and words’ (Yale University Press, 2012) ‘a speculative, raw, and occasionally playful attempt’ on the ‘relationship of Jews with words’ is written by Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, ‘secular Jewish Israelis’. Their book resonates with me, as does their thesis that words ‘compose the chain connecting Abraham with the Jews of every subsequent generation’.

***

My father was modest about his relationship with his God; he just quietly went off to shul, came home, kissed Sadie and me, made Kiddush (sanctification of the Sabbath) and that was pretty much it. Every day he’d recite morning prayers, but it was so discreetly done I was hardly aware of it until he visited us in Australia. When I was a child, there were things we couldn’t do on Shabbes and Yom Tov, such as go to the pictures (involving money) or use scissors (involving work). There were no large family dinners; it was Sadie, Solly and me, just we three. The one big occasion was Pesach, when Solly conducted the seder for the whole of his extended family, but it was at his sisters’ house, not ours. After I left England he put his heart into acting in a grandfatherly role to my cousin Gina’s son, Mark, a surrogate for his own grandchildren in far away Australia.

I look at Solly’s siddur, something I haven’t done since I packed it up to bring home after he died. It’s The Authorised Daily Prayer Book of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Empire, with a new translation by the Rev. S Singer, the ninth edition published in 1912. Solly probably had it since he was bar mitzvah age. The binding is much worn and my father has neatly repaired it with a replacement spine taken from Letts Motorists’ Diary. The tiny stitches must have tested his thimble as he sewed through two layers of black leather. Many of the pages have been mended with brown sticky tape, and wine from the Kiddush cup has been spilt over them from the Sabbath evening service. For so many years he and Sadie would ‘make Shabbes’ all by themselves on a Friday night. The challah would be on an orange rimmed lustre plate they must have received as a wedding gift in 1927. The edges are scored from his bread knife. We treat it more gently now, and the slices are cut on a board before they reach ‘Poppa’s plate’. In the frontispiece of his book are the Hebrew yortsayt dates – the anniversaries of their deaths – for his parents, Morris and Regina, and tucked in between the pages is a small booklet A Guide for the Living outlining the customs for mourners. Solly’s siddur affects me deeply. As his daughter, I can place my hand on the worn leather and know that I’m sharing a moment with him. As a librarian, I can treasure a book that was used every day for over eighty years, not an impersonal computer tablet that’s here today and gone tomorrow. I wonder what will happen to the book when I die.

Poppa's plate

Poppa’s plate

And then there’s Alan’s siddur, a very different publication. A Prayerbook for Shabbat, Festivals, and Weekdays edited by Rabbi Jules Harlow and published in 1985 by the Rabbinical Assembly, New York. It is commonly referred to as Siddur Sim Shalom and has a Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number and an ISBN – a long way from Solly’s Singer edition. I could digress here into a compare-and-contrast exercise between the two prayer books, wandering off into unfamiliar liturgical territory, but I think not. What is more important to me is the way in which Alan’s book, like Solly’s, tells so much about its owner. Siddur Sim Shalom is festooned with those small coloured stick-on marker flags used on business documents. Alan has written on each flag instructions regarding the service: which page comes next, the name of the prayer and where to find the important parts. There will not be another siddur in the world so decorated and so reflective of its owner’s searching spirit. On the rare occasions I turn up at Kehilat Nitzan and take the book from its blue velvet bag, there are knowing smiles from the old-timers who remember Alan. I wonder what I should do with Siddur Sim Shalom. Solly’s Girl Ch. 18

© Ros Collins, words and images

Romance

Long before the 1950s – in the 1920s in fact – we have romance in the East End of London. In Chapter 5 of Solly’s Girl you may read about Solly and Sadie – my parents. Here’s a little extract:

It was a long-distance courtship as Cardiff to London was at least a three-hour train journey. They exchanged letters I don’t have and photographs, some of which have survived. I imagine he asked hesadie 1925 001r to have studio portraits taken so he might show his mates, and these pictures are lovely. For his part Solly, who had a life-long passion for gadgets of all kinds, would surely have had a Box Brownie camera and sent her amusing photographs. She must have already said ‘yes’ when he wrote on the back of one of these that ‘I look as if I possess the world’.

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A companion book for companions in life: Solly’s Girl and Alva’s Boy

0153A-Alva's Boy coverSollys Girl coverWell the deed is done, the blog is a ‘presence’ of some kind on the web. I take consolation from the thought that my digital ignorance is not that different from my automotive incapacity; ‘just drive’ I tell myself, don’t worry about what’s under the car’s bonnet or in the computer’s hard drive.

Now, my one contribution so far to the Collins’ literary oeuvre is Solly’s Girl, a companion piece if you like to Alva’s Boy written by my husband Alan Collins. He was a professional writer and his works are significant contributions to Australian-Jewish literature; but there won’t be any more since he died in 2008.

  • Troubles
  • The Boys from Bondi
  • Going Home : Joshua
  • A Promised Land?
  • A Thousand Nights at the Ritz
  • Alva’s Boy

But fifty-one years’ of marriage leave their mark and inevitably Alan is ‘all over my book like a rash’. In this blog conversation I’m surely going to quote from his work so we’d best get this point clear from the start. And no doubt I shall reference the life we shared, the family we created; the way it was for ‘the boy from Bondi’ and his ‘ten pound Pom’.

Hello from Solly’s Girl

Sollys Girl cover‘You must have a website blog, that’s what authors do’, she said. ‘How do you expect readers to find your book?’

It was a workshop on marketing literature in the digital world. ‘She’ was young and pretty and when she was finished with us was heading off to play basketball. Most of the participants had electronic gadgets at the ready on the table in front of them; I just had Solly’s Girl – well I AM Solly’s girl – and at my age basketball is no longer an option.

I consider my book. ‘Let me entertain you’ is how I’ve introduced myself.  But as it says in my book, Solly’s Girl….

‘Let me entertain you’ is how the song goes.  But I’m wary of the Jewish memoir genre. So many authors have suffered such unspeakable torments; it seems almost flippant for me to want to be entertaining. I didn’t spend time hiding in an attic, living on turnips or freezing in Siberia. I’m not a witness.

My husband Alan, an author, was fond of saying: ‘Leave your mind alone!’ and I’ve never quite understood what he meant. He was a natural storyteller and his books are significant contributions to Australian literature; I’m just fossicking through my memories, teasing out what was funny, romantic or sad – and perhaps provocative. (Alan’s memoir, Alva’s Boy, is very different from Solly’s Girl, but maybe they are complementary.)

So, in the spirit of zachor (remembering) and with the vanity of wanting to say ‘I was here’, let me tell you some stories …

So, here we are, you the unknown readers ‘out there’ and me, tentatively exploring the digital world that is so familiar to my grandchildren and so challenging to me.

I have a lot to tell.

I wonder how we shall get along.