To hear the women tell it, Joseph Licht, the protagonist in Evan Fallenberg’s first novel, Light Fell, is neither sympathetic nor likable. In fact, during the Q&A one of last night’s attendees put it pretty bluntly, “I didn’t like any of the characters in this book.”
Fallenberg, who is not only likable and sympathetic but was a terrific and engaging speaker (not to mention cute as all hell), stepped back from the podium, took a swig of water and laughed. “Wow. People have told me they don’t like Joseph. But no one’s ever said they don’t like anybody in my book. Let me think about this for a moment.” Earlier in the evening I’d answered a friend who had the same reaction to Joseph. Perhaps Fallenberg wanted the challenge of humanizing an unlikable character. Or perhaps he wanted to try on being an SOB.
Acknowledging the reader’s antipathy, the author said he set out to take people and put them in an impossible position. “I wanted to create a situation… you may not like him but can you sympathize with his predicament?” The predicament? Israeli scholar Joseph Licht leaves behind his entire life — wife, five young children, the religious farming community where he grew up — when he falls in love and has an affair with a man, a famous rabbi no less. Now that’s a predicament. Which, inadvertantly or not, extends to some of Fallenberg’s readers who found themselves enjoying his novel while disliking the driving character.
Opening the folds of his writer’s cape, Fallenberg discussed the ins and outs of writing his first novel. A translator by profession, he was so overwhelmed by the idea of creating a novel that when he sat down each morning (4:30 – 6:00) he would tell himself, “Just write a scene Evan, just a scene.” Once the morning’s scene was done, he’d jot down a sentence or two of what came next, a lifeline of sorts. When 4:30 am rolled around again, he had something to grasp as he made his way.
Fallenberg discussed character development, which included giving one the birthday of February 22, 1922. He then visited an astrologer to learn what a person with a birthday of 2/22/22 would be like. “It was as if the [astrologer] knew my character.” He wrote them letters, talked to them until they became fully formed individuals, completely independent of the author. “I spent so much time with them,” he recalled, “that I could trust myself to run with them when they surprised me.” How often does a writer get that nuts and boltsy with an audience? One more reason why I live for Jewish Book Month.
I mentioned translating above, the work that puts pita and hummus on Fallenberg’s dinner table. He’s the man behind the exquisite translation of Meir Shalev’s A Pigeon and Boy for which he received a PEN Translation Prize for 2007. It’s a prize well deserved. I never could have tackled it in the original and the book is pure magic.
So that’s about it for Evan Fallenberg. Look for more on Sunday. Until then…Happy Reading.