Features / Fiction / Interviews

“We Have All Experienced Some Kind of Heartbreak”: Q&A with Judith Teitelman

by Shoba Viswanathan

Judith Teitelman’s Guesthouse for Ganesha is the story of Esther Grünspan and her journey of over two decades in Europe before and during World War II and her eventual travel  to India. With the Hindu God Ganesha as the narrator, Teitelman uses magic realism in this debut novel to explore displacement, survival, love, and loss. In a recent conversation, Teitelman shared how she came to creative writing and answered questions about how and why Esther and Ganesha came to dance together.

Shoba Viswanathan: I believe a weekly writing group gave you the context to get disciplined about your writing. Could you share a little bit of what propelled you from thoughts about writing to completing your manuscript?

Judith Teitelman: I never intended to write fiction or poetry and very much consider myself yet another accidental novelist. I’ve always been a confident writer and, over my nearly four decades working in the nonprofit sector as staff member and then consultant and educator, I have authored and published (both in print and online) numerous professional articles, essays, reports, proposals, and the like. One such article was included on the National Endowment for the Arts’ (NEA) website for a dozen years and, more recently, I’ve published six articles in Professional Artist magazine and one in the international online publication Arts Management Network.

However, over the years, quite a few people in my life have urged me to write creatively. In 2001, a close friend started a Saturday morning writing group and more than insisted I join. Ultimately she wore me down. I must admit that initially I hated it. But I had committed to attend—and I honor my commitments—so I showed up every Saturday at 10 a.m. with a soy latté in one hand and pens and paper in the other. It was the showing up that began to crack my resistance.

One of the most important aspects of those Saturday mornings was that, at the onset of each session, my friend would first lead us on a guided 20–30 minute meditation. Then we would write. It was a powerful way to break down my own barriers and, essentially, allow me to venture “elsewhere” and excavate what dwelled in those deep recesses.

Nonetheless, I had no idea what I would work on, and in those first weeks I mostly flailed about with topics and words and language. A month or so into these weekly sessions, I realized a title—Guesthouse for Ganesha—was bouncing around in my head. At the time I had no idea of its origin. Probing its meaning gave me a semblance of direction on those Saturday mornings.

Another month or more passed and the death of a man I was involved with in my early 20s led me back to a journal from those years. Recapturing that period in my life, I methodically read through each page. There I came upon an inscription dated 25 June, 1983, that read “The title is Guesthouse for Ganesha.” Nothing leading up to it, nothing written afterwards, no explanation. Needless to say, I was shocked to learn that the title had actually been gestating for nearly two decades!

Only then did I fully realize there was a story, headlined by this title, that I must tell. And from that point forward I was committed to its realization. Although I was still unclear as to what it meant, I spent the next four years of Saturday mornings working diligently to figure it out. And, I must admit, once I finally understood my tale and how it needed to unfold, I began to enjoy, even relish, the challenges of writing and deciphering how to move my characters forward.

The lesson here, one that we all inevitably learn, is that life will often take us in directions that we can’t otherwise imagine, but are exactly where we need to be.

SV: What was your process after finishing the manuscript and how did you land with She Writes Press?

JT: After my manuscript was finished, I turned to the search for, first, my literary agent, and then my publisher. I was well prepared to do this work as, to a great extent, the process mirrors the methods associated with finding the most appropriate resources for a specific organization’s mission and programs or an artist’s project. As a longtime nonprofit professional, I am highly skilled in this type of research and my expertise was easily applicable.

However, I must admit that the “getting-my-book-out-in-the-world” process was, without question, the most frustrating and often discouraging part of the journey. After nearly 50 queries of prospective agents, I was taken on by the wonderful Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary. She, in turn, approached approximately 25 publishers and was mostly met with responses like “beautiful writing,” “unique story,” but… “we don’t know how to market/sell it.”

Of course I was aware that I had written a different type of story with an uncommon protagonist that some have described as difficult and without compassion. During this period, I would often joke, although I really did think it was the truth, that if I pulled out the Hindu God, who is both narrator and character in my story, and replaced Him with a vampire or a zombie, my manuscript would have sold immediately. One recent reviewer summed up this part of my experience succinctly: “Guesthouse for Ganesha is the kind of novel marketers hate and readers love because it challenges simple categorization.”

But, I am relentless. My nearly 40 years in the nonprofit sector have shown me that there are always resources for worthy projects. They just may not come from the sources or within the timeframe one might hope for. And I fully believed my story had a destiny beyond my computer. So when Priya told me she had hit a wall with the traditional publishers and suggested I reach out to the independents, that’s what I did. Not long afterwards, I discovered She Writes Press, which accepted my manuscript within a couple of weeks of submission.

As it turned out, my novel and I landed exactly where we needed to be. Their standards—from editorial to design to publication—are of the highest quality, and She Writes Press has an extremely supportive community of writers, who regularly share information, recommendations, experiences, tips, connections, and strategies. This type of assistance and transparency is rare in the world of publishing.

SV: Kirkus Reviews called your combination of Jewish protagonist and Hindu God an “odd pairing” while praising the beautiful world you’ve created. So, how did you decide on this odd pairing? 

JT: I see Esther and Ganesha inseparably linked. Not an odd pairing at all.

 Most especially as I don’t see my novel as being Jewish or Hindu; it is about being human. The story’s thrust is about how one responds when devastated by love. No matter one’s culture, nationality, orientation, or religion, we have all experienced some type of heartbreak. Many, if not most of us, have been dumped and/or have been deeply saddened by love not fulfilling hoped for promises. That is universal. Ganesha represents universality. Esther Grünspan’s experience is one particular story that underscores that wholeness.

Although raised in the United States with close family ties in Germany, as long as I can recall I’ve been drawn to Eastern cultures, beliefs, and philosophies. While not solely focused on Hinduism, over the course of my life I’ve studied Buddhism, Taoism, Sikhism, and Confucianism. Likewise, I’ve been privileged to have traveled to about 16 or 17 countries in Asia and Southeast Asia. As long as I’m able, I will continue to travel to this part of the world. There’s much more to visit and learn.

I chose a Hindu God as my narrator because of my Eastern interests and passions. Determining it would be Ganesha was evident. I’ve always been drawn to and inspired by His wisdom, warmth, humor, and generosity of spirit. I felt it important to have His voice of reason, clarity, and world perspective. And I loved invoking His thoughts, beliefs, background, and humor throughout the novel. Relevant to my story’s unfolding is that Ganesha is well known as the destroyer of obstacles. As well as, a key fact that few know—or remember—that He places obstacles in one’s path to ensure one stays—or gets back on—the right track. I remained committed to honor His essence to the best of my ability.

 Also, significant to my story is the accepted belief in most Eastern cultures that the only thing we carry from life to life is love. Everything else falls away.

 I believe we’re all heading in the same direction, so to speak. Only that we follow different paths. My novel strives to better understand the connections and interconnection between all humanity—as they say in India: “same, same, but different”—as well as the possibility and probability that there is more—much more—many more layers and spheres—than most people typically see and experience or allow themselves to see and experience. One of my hopes is that readers will become more curious about these connections and the wide range of perspectives.

SV: How did you handle the research in choosing to work with material from another cultural and religious context? Did you worry about how it’ll be perceived by different communities?

JT: Although most assume otherwise, and while it is my heritage, I wasn’t raised Jewish. Both my parents had traumatic childhoods because of religion and it is common with such experiences that as an adult one either holds fast to that religion or rejects it. My parents did the latter. When my mother would tell people she wasn’t raising her children Jewish, most were horrified and asked, “How will you raise them?” She always clearly responded with “To be good human beings.”

So, in essence, both cultures—Jewish and Hindu—were “other” to me and I did equal amounts of extensive research for both.

In investigating the experiences of Jewish people throughout Europe during the 1920s through 1940s, I read a great number of history books and first-person chronicles on this period in world history. My most in-depth understanding came from spending seven long and difficult days over the course of the summer of 2008 watching first-person video accounts at the Shoah Foundation located at the University of Southern California. These testimonies provided the crucial foundation for ensuring Esther’s experiences and the landscape she traversed were as authentic as possible.

I studied the Hindu pantheon overall with a focus on understanding Ganesha. I read religious and historical texts, academic journals, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books about India. I wanted to learn and capture as much knowledge as possible from a wide variety of perspectives. This part of the process I thoroughly enjoyed.

In addition, I studied the rituals and rites of Catholicism, which becomes essential to my protagonist’s survival.

A key part of my research was travel. I’m very much a visceral writer, one that, as much as possible, has to “breathe the air and touch the ground” that I write about. The world and its kaleidoscope of people and cultures and viewpoints are a never-ending source of joy and fascination for me. I’ve spent time in the countries Esther’s journey takes her to—Poland, Germany, Holland, France, Switzerland, India—although not always the exact locations [where] her story transpires. I’ve been to India twice. My first trip there was focused on exploring the land Esther would cross—from Bombay/Mumbai and throughout Rajasthan.

Because I was diligent and thorough in these efforts, I can’t say that I ever did worry about negative perceptions from any of the cultures I was writing about. I’m pleased to report that I’ve received extremely positive reviews from the widest array of media sources, including the Jewish Book Council and the NRI Pulse, Home of the Indian-American Family

SV: Esther is a remarkable protagonist—resilient, yet very emotionally closed off. You’ve said she’s based on your grandmother. What was the most difficult thing about creating this character—was it challenging to not explain her into a more compassionate position?

JT: Esther is loosely based on my maternal grandmother, also named Esther, who was a mean-spirited, bordering on nasty, woman. She was extremely difficult and always challenging to be around. I was aware she had survived the Holocaust, where most of her family perished, but knew nothing about her war experiences. In truth, other than the fact that my grandmother made her living as a master tailor and furrier, I knew little about her background overall. She never shared information or stories, and we all understood not to ask. This included my mother and aunt, her daughters. Not knowing details and trying to be considerate, we assumed her personality was a result of the war, hardening her irreparably.

As it turned out, our assumption was completely wrong. The truth of her nature—and the significant spark that inspired the gist of my story—was finding out that she had been abandoned at the altar by her true love. This was only discovered in 1984 at the family lunch following my grandmother’s funeral. Her youngest sister had come from Berlin and, when my grandmother’s difficult personality was inevitably brought up, she revealed the incident that forever transformed her sister: when Esther was 17 years old, she was standing under the chuppah (bridal canopy) in the town center, surrounded by family and friends, waiting for the love of her life, her betrothed, but he never showed up. She learned he had run off with the richest girl in their village. Esther became irrevocably humiliated and embittered.

I was shocked and wished I had known this while she was still alive. It was the first time in my life that I felt true compassion for my grandmother and a clear understanding of her. This new knowledge was especially poignant because I, too, had recently experienced deep heartbreak.

Forget the assumption that war, devastation, Hitler, loss of family and friends had shaped her. It had been love. More precisely, lost love, devastated love, abandoned love—something most of us inevitably experience—that had made her callous, unyielding, relentless, and self-absorbed for the rest of her life. This informed all her actions. It was abandonment that set her course in life and firmly established her personality and temperament. But, critically, it also made her a survivor. These thoughts were immediately followed by, “This would make a fascinating novel”—never conceiving that I would someday work on such a story.  

 While Esther, my protagonist, is very much her own woman, I did weave threads from the little I knew of my grandmother’s life with her personality central to my story. I wanted to respect her tough, unyielding stoicism and was committed to maintaining the essence of her nature and the life experience that molded her.

 I knew her personality would be a challenge for some readers, but I liked that about her and didn’t feel obliged to “soften” her up. I felt my protagonist must remain true to who she was, who she needed to be. And, not surprisingly, I have heard the widest range of reactions to Esther’s “toughness” from readers. There are those who admire her strength and fortitude and others who abhor her and cannot forgive some of her actions.

SV: The parts with the God Ganesha and the spiritual visitations have been described as magic realism by some book critics/reviewers. How do you think of those elements of your book that step away from conventional realism?

JT: I am a longtime enthusiast of magic realism and very much aspired for Guesthouse for Ganesha to be included in this genre and spirit. Frankly, I consider magical realism the true reality. I believe there are layers of existence and experience around us at all times. Those we see. Those we don’t. And those we could see, if we made the effort. I believe these distinct, but interwoven, realities exist concurrently.

We’ve all had experiences we can’t “rationally” explain. Perhaps flashes of light or color or an outline seen out of the corner of one eye. Perhaps a creak in a floorboard where no one is standing. Or maybe a brush or a graze on a cheek when there is no wind. One of the delights of Ganesha as narrator is that He could explain these occurrences. 

 Many circumstances surrounding the creation of Guesthouse for Ganesha definitely underscored the genre in action. I felt guided and directed throughout this journey. The process of writing a magical realistic novel was mirrored by numerous “magical” occurrences. Once, when I was especially struggling with a particular topic, I received notification of a writing class on that same subject taking place within two weeks’ time. On another occasion, I had the opportunity to join my husband on a business trip to Colombia—the birthplace of Márquez and magic realism—but realized not one hour after landing that I was actually there for me and my novel. Three chapters were written during those two weeks! These are just a couple examples of many.

SV: Running away, or rather running towards, a new life is a theme of your book—sometimes by choice and sometimes forced by outside circumstances. How would you describe what it takes to leave all that’s familiar? Esther’s journey is like so many others in the past and the present. Yet she’s so different. 

JT: The search for sanctuary—safe haven—elsewhere—is not uncommon throughout time, history, and geography. Most especially when one is unsafe or deeply wounded, as Esther was. Many feel they have no choice but to venture somewhere.

 Throughout my novel, Esther had to leave. First from her birthplace and family—the wound she experienced was too deep and untenable for her to remain. And then, throughout the war, she had to keep moving to survive.

 She was fortunate in that she had a glimpse; a taste of her ultimate destination, and she was unwavering in her quest. She didn’t understand it, but Esther could not deny the commanding pull of Ganesha leading her to India.

SV: I’m curious about how you framed your book as you plotted it—why did Ganesha choose to dance with Esther?

JT: I love dance. Watching, studying, moving. I’ve taken classes in all types of dance since I was five years old and, while I’ve never performed professionally, I remain passionate about it. Fortunately, it is also one of Ganesha’s delights. So I strove to weave in dance—through specific language, actions, thoughts, and choreography—throughout the story.

In my extensive research, I learned that one of the more common stories—there are myriad!—about Ganesha’s “birth” was that he came out dancing. Thus, in the opening of Chapter Four where He introduces himself, that’s what I chose to include.

 Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThere are innumerable representations of Him dancing and an image of Ganesha dancing became the ideal illustration for my book cover.

Regarding plotting my novel, I actually wrote the ending before I even knew that I was writing a novel. Before I even (re)discovered the title in that old journal. So, fundamentally, I always knew where my characters were heading. And it was that destination that informed a particular theme throughout the narrative.

SV: The idea of the one lost love and the character-defining influence this is for Esther is intriguing. In the face of all the historic tragedy she endures as a Jewish woman in Europe during World War II, this personal tragedy is still so dominant. It’s an interesting commentary—do you see this as a broader truth?

JT: I consider my novel much more than the historical context within which the story resides. I feel its theme is universal—love. The thread that unites us. And heartbreak, which also unites us. In essence, it is a novel about what it means to be human.

Esther and Tadeusz experienced pure, true love, the type of love that many only dream of. Alas, this profound connection can overwhelm and, as a result, often one will become fearful and leave. In this case, Tadeusz got scared and ran. Ran from her, from them, from the truth of who they were to one another and together.

It is common for people to shut down to protect themselves from painful and difficult situations in their past. Of course, this manifests in different ways for different people. As much as she tried to suppress it, Esther was never able to deny this love and was brutally scarred by what she innately knew should have happened, but didn’t. This knowledge and truth remained within her, only deeply buried and kept as far away from her daily thoughts as possible—so she could function, take care of herself and her duties and responsibilities to the family she created.

This love, and its loss, was the powerful motivation that propelled her forward, that refused to let anyone ever make her feel powerless and vulnerable again—including the war and all the trials she underwent to stay alive. Unquestionably, it was what made her a survivor.

SV: What are you working on next?

JT: I started a second novel a few years ago when I was still deep in the midst of searching for my literary agent. That was something that felt out of my control, and I missed writing and conceptualizing—things I could control. In the past couple of years, it has mostly been languishing, because of my work with clients and students, life and travel, and everything that had to be done to get my debut novel out in the world. I plan to return to working on it once more in the coming months.

The title is Future Memories and, while very different from Guesthouse for Ganesha, it does have magical realist elements. In brief, the story centers on the relationship between a big city girl and a small town southern boy. But the heart of it is about memories—those to which we cling, those that escape us, and those that we struggle to recover—and how they affect our lives. Why do things happen to us that are seemingly incidental yet we never forget, while some momentous experiences leave our memory? One of the central themes is time, which I find endlessly fascinating and easily lends itself to heightened experiences and layered perceptions.

Bloom Post End

Shoba Viswanathan is a writer, editor and book critic based in New York.  She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.

Photo credit Anne Bray

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