They say if you wait for the net before you leap, you'll never leap. And so, earlier this year I leapt into an extended leave from my academic career in order to write full-time and finish the next novel, unsure how I was going to deal with issues like food and rent, but determined to find a way. I'd been feeling like that cartoon character who jumps off a cliff and is hanging in mid-air, legs still scrambling, hoping she'll somehow avoid the fall and crash, when the astonishing phone call came, telling me I'd been awarded an NEA fellowship. The incredible honor (and unbelievable timing) of this grant is a much-appreciated net. It's also a significant validation of the work - not just my own, but the work we all strive to do as writers and artists.
My current project is the story of a young Jewish girl living in hiding with a Catholic family in World War II France, who must form an entirely new definition of "self" just at the moment of adolescence when identity itself is such a fragile and complicated construct. She ultimately denies her former self and family, to the point of becoming fanatically religious, a fervent disciple of fascism, and a collaborator. My intention is to explore how that psychological trajectory can happen.
I am profoundly grateful to the NEA for its inspiring, encouraging, overwhelming, light-a-fire-in-the-belly gift of financial and creative support.
From the novel-in-progress The Hidden Child
Her mother made soups from carrots, pureed orange soups that got thinner and yellower every week, with less and less cream and more and more water, and boiled carrots, mashed carrots, fried carrots, carrots were the easiest vegetable to get, carrots much of the time now, and no more meat. And Danielle's daily glass of milk got bluer each day with the water Elisabeth added, too, but the milk didn't quite end. And her father started trading what was left of his pipe tobacco for flour to bake bread, and Danielle heard her parents talking late one night about the black market and what they had left to sell and the coming Paris winter, the already icy mornings and not enough fuel, worrying about Danielle and vitamins and keeping her strong, and that there was always Paul's collection of rare books. And Elisabeth's jewelry. A small fortune, don't worry! She heard her mother talk about the Free Zone, about North Africa, about Spain, about a cousin who lives in England.
If we leave now we can never come back, is that what you want, Elisabeth?
Then, in December, her mother heard a rumor about eggs being available in shops and asked her father to go to stand in line for some, and he didn't come home. Elisabeth and Danielle waited up until midnight, well past the curfew hour when he should have been home, reminding each other about the long slow twisty lines, and Paul's absent-mindedness about ration cards, how he was always leaving his somewhere and patting the pockets of his coat, about the time Elisabeth stood in line for five hours to get butter and then it was just rancid margarine, and wasn't that dreadful!, certainly not worth all the wait and fear, and how funny this is now, although her mother didn't look amused, she looked like the skin under her face was getting hard and tight while the outside skin stretched out in a smile, how funny it is waiting all this time for a few eggs when they used to use them so carelessly, eggs every day at breakfast, smile, smile, Sophie used eight of them for a single soufflé or an omelette, ten of them for a merengue - and only the whites, the yolks just tossed away! - a dozen for a loaf of challah, and then there was a knock at the door. It was Claire's father, M. Beaumont.
Danielle's father had gone to the University, he told them. He'd gone to demand his job back. And there were Germans there. They wouldn't let him pass. They told him to go home. They told him politely, M. Beaumont said, they were very respectful. And he wouldn't go. And then he yelled at the soldiers, got angry and yelled at them, yelled about scraps left for dogs and sawdust for bread and children living on water, and then they called him a sale Juif, a dirty Jew. And then her father reached out and hit one of the soldiers, Incredible he did that, M. Beaumont babbled, Was he crazy? And then one of them grabbed him and they dragged him away and M. Beaumont followed after them, and saw the other soldier shoot Danielle's father - M. Beaumont's voice lurched, he swallowed - right in his belly, one loud shot with one of those big pistols. And he went down, lying there right in the street, bleeding, and M. Beaumont tried to get him to the hospital - I did, I did, their guns pointed right at me! - but no Jews allowed - But Papa's only half! Danielle thought - and tried to call Elisabeth, but the telephone lines were dead, and tried to find a doctor, but everyone was too scared to help. And Elisabeth started to shriek, loud wailing ugly shrieks that made her face finally break open and go ugly, too, that hurt Danielle's ears and made her run into her bedroom, get into her bed under the thick satin coverlet with the roses on it and tell herself he would be there in the morning when she woke up, that's all, he'd give her a kiss, tug her braids, take her out for school shoes, for a walk, to the cinema, for hot chocolate, give her his little wafer cookie and call her a movie star. He wasn't lying on the street, bleeding, in the gutter, not her father. She's never seen anybody shot, anybody dead, only in the movies and that isn't real, she can't really picture it, for real. She won't. Not that kind of end. That kind of end was too big, it wouldn't fit anywhere in her bedroom. She pictured instead how he looked when he left the apartment that afternoon, waving goodbye, in a hurry to get early in line, to get her an egg, to keep her strong, healthy...but what jacket was he wearing? What tie? It doesn't seem fair, that she couldn't know it was the last time when it was the last time, and so pay more attention to those things. So that even those things were gone. Which jacket, which tie. Just his face, hurried, over his shoulder, saying he'd be back soon.
Tara Ison's first novel, A Child out of Alcatraz (Faber & Faber, Inc.), was a Finalist for the 1997 Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her second novel, The List (Scribner), was published in February 2007. Her short fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review, Nerve.com, Black Clock, The Mississippi Review, LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine and Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous anthologies. She is the recipient of a City of Los Angeles Individual Artist's Grant, as well as Yaddo fellowships, a Rotary Foundation Scholarship for International Study, a Brandeis National Women's Committee Award, a Thurber House Fiction Writer-in-Residence Fellowship, the Simon Blattner Fellowship from Northwestern University, and a California Arts Council Artists' Fellowship. Ison received her MFA in Fiction & Literature from Bennington College. She has taught fiction and screenwriting at Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Goddard College, and is currently Associate Professor at Antioch University.
Photo by Michael Powers