The North Stars

Erica Zendell
May 23, 2018 · 13 min read

Instead of waiting for the timing to be perfect, a few weeks ago, I leaned into the dream I’ve had for myself for the last five years: to write a book of personal, “memoir-ish” essays.

To hold myself publicly and seriously accountable to my own goals, I put up a post on social media stating I’d write this book by the end of 2018 and asking folks in my network for their help. Within a few days, I gathered a list of names of people from all corners of my life who stated their willingness to brainstorm, edit, otherwise contribute to the making of this book in some way (if you’re reading this and are interested in being added to it, let me know!)

Last week, I sent out my first email “mission” to this group of helpers, asking them about my most memorable pieces, things they thought I could/should write more about, and how they’d describe me to other people. I got some delightfully critical feedback, insightful reflections, and more than a few thought-provoking questions. One of the questions that I was asked that was top of mind for me this morning was this:

What kind of writer do you want to be?

If you asked me before this morning, I would have said a cross between Carrie Bradshaw, Cheryl Strayed, Taylor Swift, and Roxane Gay. I think that’s true to some extent about the kind of writer persona I wish to have — a little bit of fun and fashion a la Sex and the City, a lot of radical empathy and self-discovery a la Wild and Dear Sugar, plenty of relatable love stories a la T-Swift, with Gay’s skill to speak about personal turmoil as fluently as about pop culture. I might throw in the eloquence and pedigree of Marina Keegan and the shamelessness of Lena Dunham in there, too.

As of this morning, on the news of the passing of Philip Roth, I am considering the question of what kind of writer I want to be from a different perspective: a literary perspective instead of a persona perspective.

To the person who asked me what kind of writer I’d like to be, this is the answer for the moment: a cross of Fagles, Bradbury, and Roth. This is why.


When I finally decided that I was going to go to Princeton a decade ago, in May 2008, I was excited to have the opportunity to study under Professor Bob Fagles, a heavy-hitting translator of the classics and whose translation of the Aeneid was one of the most heart-wrenching and inspiring things I was reading at sixteen years old, trying to figure out how to steer the ship of my life, how to live a story as epic as Aeneas’, and, like Aeneas, constantly searching for ‘home’. Within days of me choosing Princeton, Bob had died.

I wrote a paper in my sophomore year on translation theory based on the opposing principles of Lord Woodhouselee and Vladimir Nabokov. Even though Nabokov is a herculean writer, I’d argue his translation of Eugene Onegin completely blows. It’s generally acknowledged as unreadable with 20+ volumes of notes and annotations. I subscribe to Woodhouselee’s school of thought, that translation needs to prioritize the style, character, and ease of the original. Fagles also does, effectively. In the words of Charles McGrathm, who wrote Fagles’ Obituary: “He was not an exactingly literal translator but rather one who sought to reinterpret the classics in a contemporary idiom. He once compared his job to writing Braille for the blind, and said that he imagined in a generation or two that someone would have to come along and re-Braille it.”

I’ve always been a firm believer in what Bob Fagles said in an interview in the Paris Review, “ If the translations are worth their salt, they just may win recruits to learn the old languages themselves.” There’s a reason I have Greek and Sanskrit textbooks on my shelves and why one of my favorite books is Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. The latter is exactly what you would expect: nineteen ways of translating one Chinese poem, 鹿 寨 (“Deer Park”) by Tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei.

I’m not a translator for a living — at least not yet and definitely not full-time — but Fagles definitely left a mark on my career that I’m only realizing just now. When Bob died, I still thought I’d graduate with a degree in Electrical Engineering. Within a year, I was declaring a major in Comparative Literature, the department in which he taught, and dedicated much of my time at college to studying translation and doing some literary translation work — the very thing he did for a career. Until today, I hadn’t realized the kind of quiet effect this man I had never met, whom I had only known through reading one of his epic works, had had on me throughout my entire college career.


The day after I graduated with that degree in Comparative Literature, another megaton figure in my literary history passed away: Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury came into my life at different pivotal time in my life from Fagles, who rolled in when I was a junior in high school. Bradbury came into the picture in the eighth grade, when I was reckoning with some of the moments that would define me as a writer and a person for the rest of my life (so far).

The first essay I wrote in the eighth grade was about Dandelion Wine, a lesser-known work by Bradbury. It was a “magical summer,” “coming-of-age” kind of book based on Bradbury’s childhood in Illinois. It might be worth my rereading it now, as I spend the summer writing about my own family and coming-of-age moments for the book.

Anyway, I barely remember Dandelion Wine. I only remember writing the essay and having a brutal time of it. Editing and improving it was a painstaking effort. (After that writing experience, I’d never have expected to be pursuing some sort of life as a writer — yet here I am).

I do remember reading Fahrenheit 451 later that year, though.

Most people read Fahrenheit 451 in middle school and forget about it. I reread it every few years and recommend it to people often. Bradbury is often pigeonholed as a science fiction or fantasy writer. To be honest, I still haven’t all of The Martian Chronicles or much of the work that slots him into those categories except for a few of his short stories like “There Will Come Soft Rains” and, of course, Fahrenheit 451. Regardless, this “sci-fi/fantasy” characterization doesn’t do him or his body of work justice.

I’d argue Fahrenheit 451 gets forgotten and overshadowed by Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, which people are also required to read for school and are mistakenly considered more “adult” books than Fahrenheit 451 because the former works are twice the length of the latter and the former writers’ reputations are more “serious,” both in nature and content, than the latter. Orwell and Huxley were hardcore British essayists who were focused exclusively on dystopian works, Bradbury, for all his dystopian brilliance, was a brazen American who lived out the tail end of his life in Los Angeles, had a full career in Hollywood and a literary range that was bounded only by his imagination.

If I could save only one work of fiction in my apartment from burning in a fire, it would be Fahrenheit 451 (cue the irony that Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns and the book itself is about a world in which books are burned instead of read). Bradbury’s short story, “The Cat’s Pajamas,” is one of my favorites of all time. His most famous writing about writing lives on a note at my desk: If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”

I had decent SAT scores and extracurricular activities, but I believe what actually got me into college ten years ago was my personal statement: an essay on the power of imagination. I don’t see it as a coincidence in my life that the man who stoked the flame of my imagination passed away the day that I graduated from college. I always believed in carrying his torch in some way in my own life. Now is looking like that time. As I take blog posts and emails and narratives and notes to self I’ve written over the years and spinning them into a more cohesive whole, I’m taking a page out of his playbook: turning his decades of short stories and creating a novel. In his case, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I hope the same will be true for me. Also, if you’re reading this and somehow charged with the task of writing my obituary for some reason, use this one for Bradbury as a guide. It’s one of the most poetic things I have ever read.


This morning, I woke up inexplicably at 5:11AM and went downstairs to print out my train ticket to New Jersey next month and make myself some hot chocolate at the vending machine. I was done printing, had a little bit of cocoa left in my cup, and decided to do something I don’t do that often anymore because the news is too depressing — I checked out the headlines of the New York Times. In addition to the usual stuff on Trump’s America and too many banner ads on the Times homepage, none of which shocks me anymore, I saw a piece of news that genuinely made me feel something: “Philip Roth, Towering Figure in American Letters, Dies.” I started to cry.

Philip Roth was one of those authors I thought would never be “for me.” I thought he would be yet another stodgy, white, American man in the literary canon whose work would be esoteric and useless to me beyond crafting an essay for a high school English class. However, my very liberal-progressive Spanish teacher in high school, the legendary Señora Kanter, adored him, and I trusted her literary taste immensely after three years educating me in the greats of Spanish literature. Still, it wasn’t until after I was in college that I finally cracked open a book by Roth. When I finally did, it was the one she had most highly recommended: American Pastoral.

I had tried to get through the opening chapters a handful of times to no avail, but then, for whatever reason, in a sweltering New York City summer in 2009, I had a breakthrough and fell in love with the book. It was the summer I started studying Arabic, and when I wasn’t cramming vocabulary for daily quizzes at my summer program, I binge-read Chuck Palahniuk books and binge-watched True Blood in my small Manhattan apartment at Broadway and 113th Street. I must have been exhausted by all the blood and sex and sensationalism in those works, or the lack of literariness of them (because Roth has plenty of blood and sex and sensationalism), because something finally stuck when I tried to read American Pastoral that third time. I was suddenly hooked. The stories about New Jersey and being Jewish resonated with me, even though they were coming from a man of my father’s generation. The overarching ideas around perfection and potential and powerlessness gave me so much to think about at the time that I can only imagine what reading the book again would do for me today. The drama of Swede Levov tugged at my heartstrings and left me speechless when I turned to the final page.

Over the years, I’d read a few of his books, and while many of them sounded the same and adopted a similar intellectual-psychoanalytical-sometimes-insufferable style, I loved them when I made it to the end (The Human Stain, the last work of fiction I read). Even if they weren’t good (Everyman). My favorite overall is still American Pastoral, but Sabbath’s Theater has one of my favorite exchanges of all time about secrets and the role they serve in our identity:

“You’re as sick as your secrets.” It was not for the first time that he was hearing this pointless, shallow, idiotic maxim. “Wrong,” he told her — as if it really mattered to him what she said or he said or anyone said, as if with their mouthings any of them approached event the borderline of truth — ‘you’re as adventurous as your secrets, as abhorrent as your secrets, as lonely as your secrets, as alluring as your secrets, as courageous as your secrets, as vacuous as your secrets, as lost as your secrets; you are as human as —” “No. You’re as unhuman, inhuman and sick. It’s the secrets that prevent you from sitting right with your internal being. You can’t have secrets,’ she told Sabbath firmly, ‘and achieve internal peace.” “Well, since manufacturing secrets as mankind’s leading industry, that takes care of internal peace.”

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my love stories and romantic encounters, and after reading Roth’s obituary this morning, I found this line from Chapter 2 of Goodbye, Columbus that is so on point for many pieces of my experience:

“We came back to the chairs now and then and sang hesitant, clever, nervous, gentle dithyrambs about how we were beginning to feel towards one another. Actually we did not have the feelings we said we had until we spoke them — at least I didn’t; to phrase them was to invent them and own them. We whipped our strangeness and newness into a froth that resembled love, and we dared not play too long with it, talk too much of it, or it would flatten and fizzle away.”

And of course, there are the following lines from American Pastoral, which informs my view of what it means to truly live.

“The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”

The quotation that most resonates with me now, trying to write the book of my life and wondering what keeps me going is this, also from American Pastoral:

“Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.”

If nothing else, Philip Roth is the shining example for me of a weird, plucky, overly analytical Northern New Jersey Jew with a gift for writing and who made it as an prolific and accomplished author. I don’t know who I would consider a female equivalent for him. Unless I find one, I wouldn’t mind becoming that person, or, ideally, something even better.


I’ve explained my nostalgic moments with each of these writers and mentioned a few things about their craft, but when it comes to considering them as my “North Stars” in my writing journey, these are their core characteristics I hope to bring into my work:

Fagles, in addition to being a brilliant, lyrical writer, managed to take three of the most-translated texts of all time (The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid) and reinvigorated them: he stayed true to Homer’s and Virgil’s voices while being contemporary and fresh in his style. If I’ve done my job right in writing this book, I’ll be able to take classic memoir stories about love, family, and whatever else and make them similarly worth reading — and worth reading again.

At this point, the young woman’s memoir genre is a little tired — does Urban Outfitters need another one of these books to sell? Would mine even make the cut? Then again, I’d have said the same of Fagles before reading his translation of the Aeneid. The last thing anyone thought the world needed was another translation of an epic poem. Then Fagles came into the picture and raised the bar. At best, I’m striving to be that new bar for the female memoir, but also break the mold.

Bradbury saw the future before it happened. His imagination of the world we live in today, connected by technology in every surface, was effectively laid out verbatim in Fahrenheit 451 with the Mechanical Hound and the Seashell Radios. I’d give anything to have that man’s imagination, but strengthening that muscle to get to his level will require years of diligent writing and practice and at least one long vacation in Los Angeles.

Ray Bradbury is creative, fanciful, prolific, shameless, humorous, and thoroughly engrossing. He manages to be highly expressive with his words while being exceptionally efficient with them (not in a stoic Hemingway kind of way). His love of entertainment and his sense of wonder about the world permeate his work. His spirit of joy, hope, and curiosity about life and humanity is so captivating that if I could bring even a sliver of it into my book, it would light the whole thing up.

Roth is my cuttingly brilliant and cerebral hometown hero. He manages to get inside the heads of others and ruthlessly capture all the inner workings of people’s minds. I’ll note that Roth also gives me hope that I can talk about female sexuality, neuroses, my secular Jewish cultural upbringing, and the like as brazenly as he did in all the works of his that I’ve read. Roth gives me hope that I can take my most brutal, honest, raw moments of thinking and put them on the page and that there will be someone like me who relates to them — no matter how unfathomable they may seem.

In the obituary, McGrath writes“…there was about his person, as about his writing, a kind of simmering intensity, an impatience with art that didn’t take itself seriously.” I’d say that’s true of me, as are Roth’s words, “I don’t know yet what this will all add up to, and it no longer matters, because there’s no stopping. All [I] want to do is the obvious. Just get it right.” The tireless, potentially-fruitless, but consuming and worthwhile pursuit of “getting it right.”

There you have it. My North Stars for my writing journey: the Triumvirate of Fagles, Bradbury, and Roth. These are the altars to which I’m paying tribute if I make it big and who are on my mind throughout the process, inspiring this young woman writer to greatness.

RIP, gentlemen.

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