Leora Skolkin-Smith explains the backstory to
her first novel, Edges
I think, looking back, that the days "Edges" was only a cipher
inside my very confused ideas about heritage and psyche, writing and
autobiography, real history and the illusions of politics were the
days the back-story for the novel began. I had really gone through two
other unsuccessful novels, trying as hard as I could to turn the world
I knew as a child into some sort of workable literary clay. Everything
I formed from this clay, though, was either desperately personal or
show-offey, depending on how much I had to prove to myself that I was
really a writer on any given day. It was more like I was a boxer using
words-- pugnacious, defensive and always so punchy.
A certain unmistakable character trait began to manifest
itself these early struggling writing days. It was Grace Paley, a
friend to my piles of drafts and rejection letters from publishers,
who finally said: "You know, you have a certain fight and pridefulness
in you not unlike your mother's." This was an alarming thing to say to
me, as a major part of my literary clay was my conflict with this
mother. I always told myself I would rather jump out a window than be
My mother was born in the ancient city of Jerusalem in a Palestine
not yet damaged irrevocably by war and terror . Later, she was
required to identify herself only as an "Israeli", despite her more
innocent moments as a young Jewish girl in a wildly sensual and
exciting early Jerusalem. She had joined the Israeli underground by
fourteen, and perhaps it was there that she developed what I saw as an
alternately obnoxious, prideful and fiery personality. A personality
later complicated by the sophistication of New York cocktail parties,
which she attended after she married my genteel American father and
settled here in America.
In a way, my mother never really knew who she was, or to what
country she really belonged, or if, when she stopped fighting for some
ineffable password into a solid identity, she might finally rest, even
relax into an equitable relationship with the world. I both admired
and feared her instability, her refusal to be anything at all but the
messy self she was. But after Grace said this to me I began to write
about her. Instead of writing about me. It was easier than facing the
many ways I was turning into her.
The first scenes I came up with were just about sitting around a
dinner table in 1963, in Jerusalem as a child with my mother, my aunt,
my sister, and my uncle. They made Grace and people I loved laugh but
also feel an intimacy with a place so be-riddled and terrifying-- the
news about Israel and the war there was constant after the first
Infatida in the 1980's-- bombings and death graphically shown on TV in
monotonous, bloody, relentless reportage. I wanted to draw everyone to
some more illuminating and digestible reality, a profounder place
perhaps, and telling them these stories--about my mother, my
grandmother from old Jerusalem, about a childhood where things were
beautiful on the streets now strewn with victims--I offered something
I had never felt as a writer. Finally, after years of searching for
the reason to write, I found out why I liked to write. I tapped that
earliest of impulses--a yearning to tell stories that would entertain
and uplift people a little, tell them things about mysterious and
frightening faraway places, excite the room with weird characters,
and, like Scherezade keep the plot of war, love, family, and land
going ever strong and truthful.
I never expected any of this to be a "novel". I mean, I wasn't
desperately personal anymore, I was lively and generous in a way. And
I wasn't really showing off (well, maybe a little here and there).
Instead, really, I felt like I was bringing some light to events far
out of people's control and understanding, to people I cared about who
were hurting from the confusion, the daily innumerable incidents in
Israel and elsewhere in the nearby Middle East. And, not
unimportantly, I was also entertaining, bringing intimacy, familiar
warmth with the tears. Added to this, I was finding myself and my
mother, finding what one would call a "writing voice".
The magic came when Grace Paley, reader and listener, one of people
I tried to entertain out of sorrow, asked for more dinner scenes in my
1963 recalled Jerusalem, then more family characters, more scenes with
this mother, this sister, this forgotten place and historical time.
Eventually, "Edges" got written.
I guess that's my back-story. Like the novel "Edges" it is both a
coming-of-age story and a story about war and family and love... and
how one might find a way, after all, to finally become writer.
First published at
Reprinted by permission of the author.