Author with Strong “Malarkey Detector” Drawn to Difficult Subjects
by Nita Sweeney, author of the running and mental health memoir, Depression Hates a Moving Target: How Running with My Dog Brought Me Back from the Brink and co-creator of You Should Be Writing: A Journal of Inspiration & Instruction to Keep Your Pen Moving
Nita Sweeney (NS): Before we talk more specifically about writing, how have you been taking care of yourself during this wild and unpredictable time?
Lisa Braver Moss (LBM): Like many writers, I’m an introvert, so alone time doesn’t usually get to me. Also, my husband and I are quite companionable, and we walk for an hour every morning with our little poodle, Gooby. Starting out the day that way really helps. I feel very fortunate to have a nice home and plenty of yummy food and comfy clothes to wear—plus our (grown) kids live close by. More than that, I have fascinating creative projects to dig into, so I’m not in the painful position of pondering how to give my life meaning. All in all, I have little to complain about!NS: What brought you to writing?
LBM: It began as a practical matter. I was in my thirties, and I had something I very much wanted to express. I’d been an English major, and then a technical writer in the computer field, but I had to teach myself how to “listen” to my essay writing for tone, and how to communicate the material, which was controversial, in an effective way. It was a lot of trial and error. At first, I didn’t identify as a writer; I thought of myself as an activist trying to use language as well as possible to get my point across.
NS: Your many books (fiction and nonfiction) cover a wide range of topics. Is there a common theme or thread?
LBM: My first two books were both assignments from the publisher, so I didn’t have as much leeway for my own creativity as I’ve had with my more recent books. My very first book, Celebrating Family: Our Lifelong Bonds with Parents and Siblings, emphasized the deep positive connections that many of us feel for family throughout our lives. In contrast, Shrug, my 2019 autobiographical novel, centers on the dysfunctional aspects of family life: domestic violence and psychological warfare. I think the two contrasting themes, happy bonds and unhappy ones, can coexist. Actually, Celebrating Family touches on family dysfunction in places, while Shrug does celebrate the family bond in spite of its painful content.
NS: You’ve also written extensively about the Jewish circumcision tradition.
LBM: Yes—in particular, why I find it problematic. It may seem like a strange subject, but to me, the issue remains a fascinating convergence of history, ethics, medicine, and sexuality. I wrote my first novel, The Measure of His Grief, about Jewish circumcision (to my knowledge, the first novel ever written about that topic). I also co-authored a book of ceremonies for non-circumcising families, Celebrating Brit Shalom, and have written many articles questioning this ancient tradition.
NS: Why take on such a tough topic?
LBM: I guess I like working on subjects that are difficult to write about and that I don’t see covered in the way I think they should be. Also, I have a very strong—let me put this politely—malarkey detector, and I don’t like being expected to feel a certain way. One is supposed to feel spiritually moved by the circumcision tradition. I didn’t, and I wanted to express that—but in a way that showed my deep love for Judaism.
NS: You also took on a tough topic in your coming-of-age novel Shrug.
LBM: Yes, there’s a similarity with Shrug in that again, domestic violence is a difficult topic to write about and doesn’t usually get discussed from the point of view of a child immersed in it. Having myself grown up with it, again, I don’t like being expected to have a certain set of feelings. I wanted to tell the story in a way that was emotionally authentic.
NS: What challenges did you face writing such a personal story?
LBM: Lots! The manuscript sat in a drawer, off and on, for over twenty years. I kept taking stabs at it, but somehow, I couldn’t get it right. I would pull it out, instantly see what was wrong with it, fix it, send it out to beta readers, spend weeks or months incorporating their feedback, send it out to agents, get rejected, and put it back in the drawer. This happened so many times that I wrote all my other books in between! So even though Shrug is my fifth book, in a way, it’s also my first book.
Probably the biggest challenge for me with Shrug, and this occurred to me rather embarrassingly late in the process, was to develop compassion for the main character, Martha. Duh! you might say. But it’s difficult to have self-compassion when you grow up as I did, and this definitely hampered me in developing Martha’s character. I was just too close to her. I had to detach in order to make her more lovable and thereby have the reader root for her. In this process, I was also healing myself.
NS: It sounds very liberating.
LBM: Definitely! But what really thrills me is that, based on the feedback I’ve gotten, the book “works” independent of my personal healing. For this reason, the awards that Shrug has won feel especially gratifying.
NS: Yes, please tell the WNBA-SF members about contests or other ways of winning awards. How did you find these opportunities and how have these awards helped your writing career?
LBM: I don’t know yet whether the awards for Shrug have helped my career, but they certainly can’t hurt, even if just mentioned in a cover letter. One literary agent saw on Facebook that I’d won the gold in the IPPYs for YA fiction, and commented “Send me your next book!”
I found out about various contests from my publisher, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press. Shrug wound up winning gold or silver, or being a finalist in, nine contests. I competed in general fiction, Young Adult fiction, regional fiction (west), and historical fiction. Shrug fits all of these, so I cast my net wide.
NS: You were born in Berkeley and now live nearby. Is there anything about the Bay Area or Berkeley in particular that informs your work?
LBM: I think so. Berkeleyans have the reputation of being iconoclasts, free thinkers, with good malarkey detectors. I feel grateful to have grown up with this as the backdrop, and I think my childhood place and time informs everything I write. Maybe it does with all writers.
NS: How do you approach writing? Is there a difference in how you work when writing a novel versus nonfiction or essays? We love to hear about a writer’s process.
LBM: I always start where it’s easy, knowing I can cut and paste later. It might be a snippet of dialogue or a particular image that needs description. In terms of subject matter, there’s what I call the blood pressure test. That is, I generally gravitate toward topics that get me stirred up or angry in some way. I might be reading something and find myself exclaiming in exasperation, “Why doesn’t anyone ever mention x?”—before realizing that the proverbial bell tolls for me. This is true for me with both personal essays and my fiction.
NS: Do you have any writing or publishing tips for our WNBA-SF members? Any “must do” things you recommend?
Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, I often challenge myself to go deeper. I find it’s the best way to enlighten (myself and others). Can I get more precise in what I’m saying? More honest? Can I find a word here that doesn’t have other associations? Also, I’m pretty relentless with myself with my own malarkey detector. I sniff out sentences that feel not quite authentic, and get in there and fix them.
NS: Do you have anything else on the horizon? What’s next for you?
LBM: I think I have another novel or two in me, but I’m absorbed in another time-consuming project now, so it will wait. My current project is forming a Jewish organization to ensure that non-circumcising families and other circumcision objectors are included and feel welcome in Jewish life. It will take time to build up our team, create our website, and so on, so I’m not pressuring myself about writing at the moment, other than producing a few essays here and there. Just percolating!
Lisa Braver Moss is the author of the novels The Measure of His Grief (Notim Press, 2010) and Shrug (She Writes Press, 2019), which has won multiple awards in Young Adult fiction, historical fiction, regional fiction, and general fiction. Lisa’s essays have appeared in Parents, American Health, the Huffington Post, Yahoo Business News, Lilith, and many other publications. She recently placed in Story Circle Network’s Susan Wittig Albert LifeWriting Competition for her piece “How I Became a Radical, an Engaged Jew, and a Writer.”
Lisa’s nonfiction book credits include Celebrating Family: Our Lifelong Bonds with Parents and Siblings (Wildcat Canyon Press, 1999) and, as co-author, The Mother’s Companion: A Comforting Guide to the Early Years of Motherhood (Council Oak Books, 2001). She is also the co-author of Celebrating Brit Shalom (Notim Press, 2015), the first-ever book of ceremonies and music for Jewish families seeking alternatives to circumcision.
Born in Berkeley, California, Lisa still lives in the area with her husband, with whom she has two grown sons.