I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon Hart-Green, Author of the new novel COME BACK FOR ME. Sharon Hart-Green is a novelist and literary scholar whose debut novel Come Back for Me (2017) was chosen as the inaugural fiction offering of The New Jewish Press. She holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University and has taught Hebrew and Yiddish literature at the University of Toronto. Her short stories, translations, and book reviews have appeared in a variety of journals such as The Jewish Review of Books and The Jewish Quarterly.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I can still trace my fascination with Jewish writing to the day I picked up a dog-eared copy of S.Y. Agnon’s Twenty-One Stories at a used bookstore in downtown Toronto. I was eighteen years old and pursuing a career in the theatre, reading Flaubert and Dostoevsky in breaks between rehearsals. I somehow thought that somewhere between French romanticism and Russian despair, I would find clues to a meaningful existence. Though I was born Jewish, I had looked down at my middle-class Jewish background as hopelessly shallow and unsophisticated. But discovering Agnon’s writing turned all those presuppositions on their head. Why hadn’t anyone told me that I could find beauty and wisdom in Jewish literature?
Meanwhile, I was now acting in a new play, this time beside Gilda Radner — she, a rising star, and me, a shy kid trying to get noticed. When the play ended its run, I decided to leave behind the unforgiving lights of the theatre in search of another type of light. I enrolled in a Jewish philosophy class taught by Emil Fackenheim at the University of Toronto. After that I was hooked. I took courses in every Jewish Studies subject I could find that fit into my schedule. Two years later, I transferred to Brandeis University in Boston where I immersed myself in the writings of the great Jewish novelists and poets of the 19th and 20th centuries. But S.Y. Agnon was still my man. He was a master of language, a wellspring of textual knowledge — a writer whose sparkling imagination was as deep and varied as the sea.
In the coming years, I eventually completed a doctorate in Hebrew literature. I wrote my dissertation on (who else?) S.Y. Agnon, eventually publishing it as a book called Not a Simple Story with Lexington Books. Later returning to Canada, I took up a teaching position at the University of Toronto in modern Jewish literature. It was then that I started a new project: translating the poems of Hava Pinhas-Cohen, a contemporary Israel poet whose work I deeply admired. The collection was subsequently published by Syracuse University Press as Bridging the Divide.
Yet despite my growing academic career, something was still missing. As much as I loved being a professor and scholar, an intense desire to compose my own stories stirred inside of me. It was at this point that I tried my hand at writing fiction, and as soon as I started, the words seemed to pour out of me. Before long, I had written the first chapter of what would later become my debut novel Come Back for Me — the story of a young Holocaust survivor who goes to Israel after the war in search of his missing sister. Along the way, he falls in love, struggles with loss, and gets caught up in the tumultuous events of emerging statehood. It is ultimately a story about the redemptive force of Israel in the life of the Jewish people.
After numerous rewrites (and several literary agents), the novel was finally finished and eventually acquired by a publisher. It still sometimes surprises me that what started in adolescence with a single collection of stories by Agnon has led me to a lifelong engagement with Jewish literature. Although I have left Agnon behind for now, my desire to emulate his example has never waned. Whether I am teaching Jewish literature or creating it myself, I continue to draw from the well of Jewish knowledge, with the rapt awareness that, like Agnon’s imagination, it is as deep and varied as the sea.
Yitzi: Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
I am currently writing a new novel about a young man with mystical inclinations in search of love.
Yitzi: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
As I was growing up, my parents always believed in me and made me feel as though I could achieve anything I set my mind on. I believe that their confidence in me gave me the fortitude I so desperately needed, especially when faced with all the inevitable setbacks along the way.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I hope my novel helps readers understand how the Jewish people are still struggling to heal the wounds of their tragic history.
Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
№1: A hefty dose of tenacity with a pinch of chutzpah goes a long way toward achieving success. Publishing is a highly competitive (and often ruthless) business. When I first started writing my novel, I thought that if it was good, it would be recognized for its merit. I quickly learned that it is rarely that simple. Most pubishers are too busy or overwhemed with submissions to even consider a new writer. You have to be confident in the quallity of your work, while also remaining open to the possibility that your work needs improvement. You can’t expect a publishing contract to fall into your lap. You have to keep improving your writing until it gets good enough that a publisher can’t resist taking a chance on it.
№2: I also learned that a first draft (or second or third) is never as good as you think it is. Most writing needs to be reworked multiple times. I restructured my entire novel several times, and polished it multiple times over.
№3: There are generally two types of people in the world: those who are willing to help those who are starting out, and those who don’t (and are only concerned about thieir own success). Finding the former type is not as hard as one would think. You just have to keep trying. For example, I emailed many well-known writers, asking them if they would read my novel and consider giving it an endorsement. Some didn’t answer me at all, others answered but politely passed, and a few graciously accepted the opportunity to help a new writer. You never know who will accept. Believe it or not, you just have to ask.
№4: Making connections, (networking) is important, but it isn’t a guarentee of success. It might get your work considered but on its own, it will not ensure success. To be sure, I used all my connections in order to get my work read, but ultimately it was my work and not who I know that got me an agent and a publisher.
№5: Finally, getting published is often tied to popular trends, which means that most publishing houses are not selecting books on literary merit alone. Books are assessed for their profitability and if a manuscript does not appeal to popular taste, then it is likely to be rejected. It helps to remember this when your prized manuscript is rejected.
Yitzi: I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
I would love to have a private lunch with Steven Spielberg. He has created films that have had such an enormous impact on the way we view ourselves and the world. I would be fascinated to hear about his personal journey.