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Interview with author Sharon Bially

Author Sharon Bially recently made the decision to publish her most recent novel, Veronica's Nap, online, as a blog; the story of a mother struggling with marriage, children and life choices has a distinctly Jewish setting in the milieu of Sephardic France and in the questions below, she addresses why she chose these topics to write about, the challenges she faced and her views on the future of publishing and of the book.

1. Why did you choose to set your novel in the Sephardic culture of
France? What do you find interesting or special about this corner of
the Jewish world? How does the setting impact your characters and by extension, the story?

France’s diverse and vibrant Jewish community is a fascinating microcosm of world Judaism, embodying nearly all of its aspects and living them out with an intensity rarely seen outside of Israel.  Its half-million-plus members – the third largest Jewish population worldwide after Israel and the U.S. – include both Ashkinazi survivors of Nazi occupation (as well as their descendants), and large numbers of Maghreban Sephardim – emigrants from France’s former colonies, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.  Discovering these two groups’ differences and similarities, their traditions, customs and direct, palpable links to the past, was far more intriguing to me than getting to the bottom of that French je-ne-sais-quoi during the twelve years I spent in Paris and Aix-en-Provence.   And learning about the Maghreban Sephardim has opened my eyes to a whole other dimension of Judaism that deserves a lot more attention than it gets!  It’s so important to be able step outside of ourselves and look back in from another angle.  As a Jewish American married to a French-Italian Cohen, I continue this discovery process every day and want to share it.

On top of its cultural and historical richness, the French Jewish community lives alongside France’s 5 – 6 million Muslims.  Tensions often flare, particularly in conjunction with developments in the Middle East.  Synagogue bombings and other such incidents spark high-voltage emotions that can make Jewish life in France feel like it’s taking place at the very core of the Middle East conflict.

I find Provence intriguingly symbolic of all this.  There’s a large population of both Maghreban Jews and Muslims, and the landscape even reminds me of parts of Israel, with its Mediterranean blue skies and cypress trees.  Its vivid contrasts – striking shades of blue and green and orange, harsh wind that rips through the peaceful scenery, architecture that simultaneously encapsulates both the past and the present – resonate with all sorts of conflicts, from world politics to one woman’s identity struggle.  And its beauty can fool you into forgetting what’s really going on beneath the sunny surface.  This is the linchpin of the emotional bond between the setting, the characters and the story of Veronica’s Nap.
2. Your protagonist, Veronica, is a privileged married woman who has the luxury of time to herself and the resources to follow her dreams of painting, yet she struggles. What kinds of value-oriented questions is Veronica challenged by? What are her moral guideposts?

Veronica Berg Benhamou, the story’s protagonist, has the good fortune of having most of her material needs provided for by her husband and parents.  Like many others with a similar background, she’s awash in choices and has never had to fight for her well-being or ideals.  When her hard-working, Moroccan-Sephardic husband loses patience with her aimlessness, triggering her quest for change, she’s forced to question the assumptions underlying her rose-tinted values about personal merit, hardship, the sources of inner strength and her role as an adult.

As guideposts, Veronica initially looks to the values touting individual fulfillment she was raised with in suburban New Jersey and the sanguine belief these fostered that if you just give it a good old college try, things will always turn out for the best.  Deeply attached to her own family, she values Jewish family life – enough to agree to the more observant lifestyle her husband leads, including keeping kosher, and to join his family in celebrating holidays Moroccan-style.  As the story unfolds, she’s forced to question what these values mean to her, too.

3. You’re publishing this novel on a blog, at How did you become interested in using social media as a vehicle for telling your story? Has it changed the way you told the story?

As a professional publicist, I’m fascinated by the power of social media, which has blurred the lines around many stalwart institutions including the press and is a fantastic community-building tool.  And as a writer who’s had two unsuccessful agency contracts over a period of ten years, I was yearning to share my work by the time I finished Veronica’s Nap.  I was also eager to connect with people about its many issues – motherhood, identity, the French and Jewish angles – and to share the “backstory” about my path as a writer and what I’ve learned from it, which I hope can be of value to others.  Blog technology just seemed like the right tool for accomplishing all these goals together.

Because I completed the book before launching the blog, blogging hasn't changed the way I've told the story -- which in fa ct may not be particularly well suited to blogging!  It'll be interesting to see this relationship evolves for others, though, as more writers begin posting work-in-progress online.
4. What are some of the challenges you faced writing this story? What did you learn?

To adequately describe the challenges of writing this book, I’d need to write another!  I began writing fiction before the internet age really took off, and even when I started scribbling the first drafts of Veronica’s Nap, online resources for writers were rare.  So I relied mainly on a couple of local writing groups for support.  Unfortunately, the quality of the input I received was often dubious at best and it was difficult to figure out where to get better advice.  At one point, I threw up my hands and stopped looking, since this search seemed to take up more time and energy than writing.

As a result, I had no guidance shaping the narrative or plot of Veronica’s Nap in a way that fits in with current publishing trends.  Veronica’s inner conflict, her denial, her relationship with her husband, how it feels to be her – these quiet, contemplative events inspired me, so that’s what I wrote about.  I’ve only recently learned that they’re too “quiet” from publishers’ perspective.  Still, it was as exhilarating as it was challenging to explore them in depth, and in addition to growing as a writer, I learned a lot from putting myself in Veronica’s shoes about the power and limitations of denial.

Now that I’m more familiar with the publishing world and its trends, I’ve also learned to question my own values as a writer.  While I used to be determined at all costs to to write a book that would attract a publisher, I now feel differently.  Simply continuing to write what’s meaningful, to improve as a writer and share my stories when I’m ready has become much more important.  And the lives of French Jews are extremely close to my heart: Veronica’s Nap is just the tip of the iceberg.  My next book will tell the story of a woman who’s the victim of a bizarre and fiery form of terrorism targeting a synagogue in Paris and the unfair fate of the Muslim man who tries to help.  Maybe a bit risqué, but I intend to write it.
5. What do you see as the future of e-publishing? It differs even from “traditional” paper-based self-publishing as being a more ephemeral medium. Do you plan to publish your book in paper form, ever? Why or why not? What do you see as the advantages of e-publishing?

Confession: I don’t have an e-reader, and always buy paper copies of books!  And since I love that there are so many different reading options out there today, I do want to produce both a paper copy and an e-book of Veronica’s Nap to supplement the blog.   I’ve been looking into it, but haven’t made as much progress by now as I would have liked.  There are only so many hours in a day!

While I hope paper books will never go extinct and don’t think they will, I do see e-publishing as the mainstream of the future.  Just look at how quickly the world switched to reading and watching the news online.  And this is not a clock we can turn back: publishers will only be able to resist the tidal wave for so long.  E-books are cheaper to produce and are better for the planet.  They make great economic sense for books whose profit margins don’t absorb the costs of printing – and even for those that do.  They’re easier to publicize and distribute.  And with four times as many self-published books as traditionally published books in 2009 alone and those numbers growing, e-books are helping make writing into what it should be: something to share.

Sharon, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about your book and the future of the book business. As librarians this is a topic that has a big impact on us and the services we offer and will be offering into the future. Thank you for your insights, and best of luck with the book! Sharon is Vice President, Farrell Kramer Communications and Principal, Connaissance Media.

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