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WeekEND Reading: What if an Orthodox Jewish New York man was somehow displaced to Alabama? How do authors express hope for our country in these new political times, and so much more in J.J. Gesher’s A NARROW BRIDGE

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By Leslie Lindsay 

Blazingly original debut by co-authors under the pen name J.J. Gesher, A NARROW BRIDGE seeks to bring cultural, religious, and racial groups together through music, grief, and more. 
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After a childhood of rebellion, including drug abuse, Jacob Fisher has come to terms with his demons. Living as an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn, his life is one of comfort and peace. Until the unthinkable happens and Jacob’s world crumbles under the ruins of anguish.

What’s a man to do but flee? He finds himself in a completely different world from his ‘norm,’ in the heart of the Alabama south…in the basement of a Baptist church. His life and presence is shrouded in mystique, but Rosie is determined to get to the bottom of Jacob’s secret.

At once a psychological mystery and also a personal coming-to-terms novel. (It’s not really suspense or thriller, but much more literary in terms of ‘what’s going on with this guy,’ but we, the readers know). A NARROW BRIDGE merges the teachings of the Talmud with Christianity, intermingling with race, culture, resilience, the power of love and human connection–topics I find highly timely in this current political climate. 

Written by co-authors Joyce Gittlin and Janet Fattal, the narrative is absolutely smooth and seamless, a strong sense of location, a deep understanding of culture. 

I’m so honored to welcome Joyce and Janet to the blog!

Leslie Lindsay: I did a little cyber-stalking and learned a bit about your inspiration for A NARROW BRIDGE. The way I understand, Joyce was driving along when Ben Harper’s song, “Crying on the Church Steps” came on the radio. Like every other writer, you started thinking about what would make someone cry on church steps. Images infiltrated your mind, a seed was planted. Can you talk a bit about that please?

J.J. Gesher: It wasn’t just the melody that moved us, it was the lyrics:

I sat down upon the church house steps

with all I have lost

with all I have been blessed…

 I hung my head and wept

The story’s evolution was like people watching at an airport. We took the image and worked backwards. We played with the picture, tossing possible identities until we had a fully formed protagonist, a man in all his complexity. What did he look like? What was his background? And most importantly, what would break this man so completely that he would end up crying on the steps of a church? It didn’t take long to cull the answer from the fears that we all share in our post 9/11 world.

The story would be more interesting if contrast was extreme – what if we took Jacob, an Orthodox Jew from New York, and placed him in a small southern town with a Baptist church? 143c523db0830bbb12022d62c3aeb7ecThrough research, we found our small town: Brent, Alabama, formerly industrial, stagnant, depressed, but still proud. We let our imaginations populate the town with compassionate people.

The church itself, the center of life in Brent, gave us our next creative foothold: Gospel music. Music brings people together, soothes our spirits, and makes us – no matter our background – fully human. What if our sophisticated, urban Orthodox Jew shared a passion for music with the church community of Brent? As Jews we are familiar with the Orthodox way of life –the strict guidelines for behavior, the loving community, and the intentional isolation from mainstream culture. What we didn’t know was the world of the Baptist church.

L.L.: I think it goes without saying that music brings people together. There’s something organic that…well, moves us. In A NARROW BRIDGE, we have a least two very distinct music styles merging: Jazz and Gospel. Plus, there’s Jacob’s Orthodox background. I’m curious how these musical styles married to complete a whole within the narrative?

J.J. Gesher: Sometimes music is part of someone’s life for natural reasons. This was true for Janet. Her mother was a concert pianist, music educator, and synagogue choir director.  Music was integral to family life. Joyce’s parents weren’t musical at all. Aside from contemporary music and school orchestra with a rented glockenspiel, she had very little exposure. But Joyce’s father was a dry cleaner, and Joyce spent much of her youth hanging out in the back of his business with the woman who pressed garments. This woman would pass the time by singing Gospel music and teaching Joyce harmonies. Many times, Joyce went with her to church. So to answer the question, music did shape us.  But it’s the type of music and the way it makes you feel about yourself that resonates for storytellers.

Our characters are passionate about many styles of music: liturgical, contemporary, jazz, and gospel.  All forms of music influence other styles, adapting and evolving continuously. It is also interesting that you used the word “married” to describe the coming together of disparate musical styles.  Like any good marriage, the individuals remain distinct but together create a new and richer amalgamation.

L.L.: Overall, I’d say A NARROW BRIDGE is so timely and topical, given our current worldview, regardless of political affiliation. Was this your intention in writing Jacob’s story, or did it sort of develop organically?

J.J. Gesher: In this current national climate that seems to stress division over community, how do we as authors express hope for our country? Differences will always exist, but our commonalities transcend racial, religious, and economic divides. The truest commonality is the will to live. Even when we are faced with unbearable emotional pain, most of us, somehow, put one foot in front of the other and move forward. Whether we are in a bombed out building in Aleppo or a comfortable Brooklyn apartment, survival is paramount. Of course, we continue for ourselves but the will to live must have purpose beyond the physical machinery. All humans have the drive to survive, but our deepest commonality lies in creating life and sustaining those we bring into the world. When we acknowledge our collective purpose then perhaps we will minimize the superficial differences between us.

L.L.: I have to ask, too what it was like to work as co-authors. A NARROW BRIDGE reads so smoothly, so seamlessly, that if I hadn’t known, I’d have assumed it was penned by one author. Did you alternate sections, chapters, did someone else do all proofreading and editing? How did you divvy up the work?

J.J. Gesher: In movies and television, writer collaboration is the norm. Not so in novels. But we didn’t know any better, so we used our established method. Therefore, the first draft adhered closely to the screenplay, but it lacked substance and complexity.  We had to dig deep to flesh out the story.images-21

We followed the process that had worked for us in screenwriting: outlining, dividing scenes, writing individually, meeting to critique, rewriting, and then writing again side by side. The goal was a seamless product where we didn’t remember who wrote what.

The process of listening to constructive criticism was different.  In screenwriting, writers are expected to take notes and rewrite. Everyone involved in the process feels perfectly comfortable telling the writers how to reshape their story.

Certainly, notes are part of writing a novel as well.  While screenwriting notes are dictatorial, editorial notes are Socratic. Our editors asked questions to stimulate critical thinking, pointing out where we had summarized instead of illustrated. They reminded us that we could indulge in backstories, so that behavior was authentic.  Our editors never demanded modifications; rather they guided us to explore our own creative choices.

L.L.: And your pen name. I get J.J. is Janet and Joyce. But Gesher…how did the surname develop?

J.J. Gesher: At our publisher’s suggestion, we adopted a pen name.  The reading public is not used to seeing two names on a novel, though many non-fiction works have two authors, and screenplays can have multiple credits.  We agreed to a pen name, as long as our individual names would also appear on the book’s jacket.  J.J. stands for Janet and Joyce.  Gesher is the Hebrew word for bridge. 

L.L.: You’re both secular Jews yet you get into the world of a black Southern Baptist world so perfectly within the story. Can you talk a bit about your research?

J.J. Gesher: Though neither of us is religious, we are both entrenched in our Jewish identities.  We have experienced the Orthodox world through family members.  Whatever we didn’t know about laws and customs, we asked those family members, rabbis, and the Internet.  We know how an orthodox community looks and feels.

The Gospel research was a treat.  We visited the Broadus Ministry, a church in Pacoima, California.  The gospel music enchanted us, and the welcome was genuine and kind. The download-51congregants invited two strangers, white Jewish women, to share affirmations and fellowship.  The enthusiastic spirituality and the joyful music were so different from anything we experienced in synagogue.  We were determined to convey that warmth in Rosie and the congregation of First Baptist.

As to Brent, Alabama, we have never visited but we researched extensively.  We looked at pictures, newspapers, schedules, and maps; we read about what many southern towns have experienced in recent years. The rest was imagination.

L.L.: What inspires you lately? What keeps you up at night?

J.J. Gesher: What inspires us also keeps us up at night.  Aging parents, semi-launched adult children, our melting bodies, political mayhem, unrealized dreams. Sleep aids help.

 L.L.: What question should I have asked but may have forgotten?

J.J. Gesher:  What’s next? We’re working on a new book, one which uses multiple perspectives to tell the story of four girls and their families in the summer of 1967.  We explore how the world changed: racial and gender equality, economic opportunity, birth control, abortion, changing morals, military conflicts.  How do all of these transitions affect the individual and the country?

L.L.: Joyce, Janet…it was a pleasure. Thank you!

J.J. Gesher: Thank you, Leslie, so much for your lovely review.  Your enthusiasm gave us confidence that we can reach a broader audience and touch readers with our story.  And perhaps, in some small way, we can make the world a better place.

For more information, to connect with J.J. Gesher, or to obtain a copy of A NARROW ROAD, please see: 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: J.J. Gesher is the pen name for co-authors Joyce Gittlin and Janet B. Fattal. Together, Janet and Joyce have won several prestigious screenwriting awards, including the Geller Prize and the Screenwriting Award at the Austin Film Festival. Their first screenwriting collaboration was produced as a Lifetime Television movie. The co-authors both live in Los Angeles.

janetJanet B. Fattal has a masters in Comparative Literature from UCLA and has taught literature and writing at the college level. The editor of several memoirs, Janet leads many L.A.-area book groups, including for the Skirball Cultural Center, Hadassah, and the Brandeis alumni association.joyce

Joyce Gittlin has written and directed such television shows as Wings, Frasier, and Everybody Loves Raymond and has written more than ten feature films for Disney, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox. She has an MFA from NYU.

You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, through these various social media outlets:

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[Cover and author images courtesy of Prospect Park Books and used with permission. Image of male/female music notes from Pinterest. Co-writing image from , gospel choir image from newsday.com]