A Letter from Author Janice Steinberg
I recently encountered the appealing idea of "watershed books"--books that get you through a rough time. In a study in Britain, people said they chose classics like Pride and Prejudice and One Hundred Years of Solitude. My watersheds were also classics--the noir mystery novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, which I read out of a desire to identify with tough, fearless protagonists.
Alas, reading noir fiction did not make me tough. Among the hard-boiled men and fast women, there was just one, very marginal character with whom I felt a kinship: an unnamed woman in Chandler's The Big Sleep. Philip Marlowe, the detective, wants information about a sleazy Hollywood bookseller. He enters a legitimate bookstore and flashes a badge at the woman working there, and she and Marlowe engage in crisp intellectual parrying, in which she gives as good as she gets.
The woman is reading a law book, which is intriguing in itself in a novel published in 1939. And she's described as having "the fine-drawn face of an intelligent Jewess," a phrase that struck me with its profound sense of otherness, as if she lived in a very different Los Angeles than Marlowe. And I felt hungry to know more about this nameless woman. What was her story? What was her Los Angeles?
Like many novelists, I love doing research, and I began by exploring the second question: what was her Los Angeles? I discovered Boyle Heights, a neighborhood east of downtown that, in the 1920s and 30s, was the Jewish part of L.A. As I was researching, I started hearing the woman's voice in my mind--not as the young woman in the bookstore but as a vibrant, opinionated octogenarian. She was talking to a young person--an archivist? So she'd had a life, perhaps related to the law book she was reading, that merited archiving. And I gave her a name: Elaine Greenstein.
Then came the difficult question: what was her story? I'm an outliner by nature. I like to know where I'm going. But Elaine's story resisted my attempts to lay it out in advance. And if that pushed me into a disorienting limbo, it was also liberating. When I started writing about Elaine's childhood, what came out first was her grandfather's story. I discovered that she lived within a fabric of stories, some of dubious veracity, and ultimately that led to the idea at the core of the book: that we construct our reality and give meaning to our lives by the stories we tell--and believe--about ourselves. In a sense, they're our personal watersheds.