By Jeff Talarigo
By the time I started teaching at the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University in 2009, over 400 pages of my third novel were in the garbage. Still, I didn’t feel that I was anywhere near telling the story I wanted to tell, the story I had to tell.
At each residency, the faculty participate in public readings from their work. Prior to that time, any public reading that I had done was in the past – that is, work that had already been published. Over my first six years at Wilkes, I read, not from the past, but rather from what came to be known simply as my “Gaza book.”
After each of the readings, faculty and students would often make comments, not critics per se, but comments that would, for the most part, reassure what I was doing. However, the question in my mind remained, where is this book going?
As I do with images that I find intriguing, I also allow comments on my writing to nurture over time. I don’t rush or force them, I am patient. Some of the comments on my work in progress, however, resonated, and in their own ways, big or small, helped to change the course of the book.
* Your stories are so visual, they would make wonderful plays: this was said to me on several occasions and eventually I stepped away from the book for a few weeks, wrote a short, one act play with a carrier pigeon as the narrator and this helped me to focus and simplify the voice. In the end, the voices of many animals are heard throughout the novel.
* Don’t forget to have a little humor in the book: again, a comment made by several people and now I have a somewhat sarcastic sheep narrating the longest story in the novel.
* Bring yourself into the book: one day, back in 2011, I was having lunch with a recent graduate of the program along with Dr. J. Michael Lennon. The graduate asked me if the story I had told him of getting shaved in Gaza was in the book. I told him that I am not in my books, that I don’t feel comfortable doing so. Dr. Lennon agreed that it was a memorable story and that I should think about it, he even so much as referred me to a Herman Melville story (“Benito Cereno”) where a man gets a shave on a Spanish slave ship. The following month I worked on writing short scenes of myself, “the American,” and began to place them in the book as anchors to each of the stories. I used third person in these short scenes, allowing me some distance from that oh-so-heavy one letter word “I.”
By early 2013, after more than eight years and eight hundred pages in the garbage, I completed a draft and had told the story that I wanted to tell. It was time to send the book out and my agent submitted initially to about a dozen houses. Going in, we knew this was going to be a tough sell, partly because it was a novel told from the Palestinian perspective – in fact, a surprising number of houses declined to even look at it because of this fact. Two years went by and the book had not been accepted. We did receive numerous “admirable passes,” but those meant little or nothing to me at that stage of my career.
I continued to read from the “Gaza book” over the next three residencies, but then suddenly, in June, 2015, twenty minutes before I was to be on stage, I borrowed a copy of my first novel – The Pearl Diver – from the bookseller and began to read from my past. The following residency I read from my second book, The Ginseng Hunter, and on the return flight to California, thoughts that the Gaza book was dead swarmed me. I had, for the first time in my twenty-three years of writing, doubts, and felt trapped as a writer. I felt numb creatively. Questions abound. Would I ever publish another book, hell, did I have the energy and desire to write another one? I had a fourth novel in mind, but, as with all my books, it would take time and funding to do the research and travel. Instead of writing, I began to go on long hikes on the weekends and started to get back into photography, which, in all honesty, saved me from those darkest times. Quite simply, it allowed me to be creative, allowed me to express myself, allowed me the deep solitude that I craved. But the questions and doubts stalked me.
* * *
Flash ahead eight months, July, 2016, on a beach at Point Reyes National Seashore. I had just finished a six-mile early morning hike and came to one of my favorite resting spots, a very large piece of driftwood, a place where I would lie down and listen to the pounding Pacific and think. On that day, I began to scour my past and think about regrets in my life; I could come up with only three, the last being that the Gaza book would never see the light of day. This book, the Palestinian people’s story I most wanted to tell, the subject that made me want to become a novelist, a story with me for more than a quarter of a century.
Two weeks later, I received an email from Phil Brady, founder and executive director of Etruscan Press, and he, along with Bob Mooney, had read my Gaza book, a book they had heard me reading from at Wilkes over the years, and they offered to publish it. And now, in a few short months, In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees, will see the light of day and I have only two regrets in my life.
Jeff Talarigo is the author of two novels: The Pearl Diver (Anchor, 2005) and The Ginseng Hunter (Anchor, 2009).
From 1990 to 2006, he lived in Gaza twice and in Japan. Talarigo was a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in 2006-07. Currently living in Oakland, California, Talarigo teaches in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University.