March 8, 2021

An Evening with Zoë Klein, author of Drawing in the Dust

By Amy Sessler Powell, HBI Communications Director

In discussing her book, Drawing in the Dust, the author, Rabbi Zoë Klein, shared insight into the creation of the story and characters as well as the parts of herself that went into the text.

She visited as part of this season’s first meeting of Boston HBI Conversations, one of 10 groups that bring together authors and some 640 readers for “conversations.”

She described writing as a lonely process. “When you write the last sentence, you want to fling open the doors, but no one is waiting for it. You’ve birthed the thing and now you have to parent it,” she said.

As Klein shared her perspective on writing the book, readers asked questions about certain devices. The discussion led readers closer to the text and to understanding the author’s choices. At the same time, it brought Klein close to a group of readers and what they experienced in the pages.

Drawing in the Dust follows the story of Page Brookstone, an archeologist toiling in Israel’s battlegrounds of Megiddo for 12 years. She risks her reputation when she agrees to excavate beneath the home of a young Arab couple who claim the spirit of two lovers overwhelms those who enter their home. While the archeology community laughs, Page discovers the bones of the troubled prophet Jeremiah in an eternal embrace with a mysterious woman, Anatiya. She finds a mural that depicts their story and a collection of scrolls that challenge existing interpretations.

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Rabbi Zoë Klein speaks with a reader

Klein, the head rabbi of Temple Isaiah, a congregation with 1,100 families in Los Angeles, said she connected with her character’s loneliness. “People have a lot of love toward rabbis, but it often skips friendship and can be lonely. No one wants to hear about their rabbi’s fight with her husband,” she said.

Some readers wondered why she made Page Catholic versus Jewish. Klein explained that she hoped to broaden the book’s appeal so that it would reveal a positive image of Israel to a wider readership. But, she acknowledged, “I realized a little too late that Page should have made pot roast not brisket.”

She told the group she “fell in love” with the prophet Jeremiah just after her undergraduate studies at Brandeis. “He was such a brooder, so miserable. He almost needed a girlfriend,” she said.

So, she gave him one. After all, this is fiction. First, she wrote the Scroll of Anatiya, which reads like the book of Jeremiah. She was told it would not sell so she created Drawing in the Dust about Anatiya’s scroll. The entire process, start to finish, was about 16 years.

Many people are under the impression that writers just “let it flow,” and some do, but that’s not her style, she said. Klein outlines the entire story and then devotes every Monday, her day off from Temple Isaiah, to writing.

She considers her writing to be a balancing act with her job as a rabbi and mother of three. For example, she wrote much more sex into the story, supporting the theme that the ghosts of Jeremiah and Anatiya inspired passion in the characters. Then, she imagined her congregation and preschool community reading it so she toned it down so she wouldn’t lose her job.

Klein draws influence from her father, the artist, James Grashow, known as the “cardboard Bernini,” for his large cardboard sculptures, some decay and rot outside in the elements.  Part of her attraction to archeology as a central theme in her books derives from the presence of rot and decay in her life through her father’s work.

Her experiences as a successful woman also inspire her. Successful women will always find characters like Norris in their lives, someone who tries to undermine them both personally and professionally. Many of the readers in the room agreed they had all met a “Norris” at some point.

Ultimately, the writing of the book changed her as a person. “I had a moat around me. Your calling comes from your darkest fear. Mine is death, but this book filled in the moat for me.”

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Author Rabbi Zoë Klein and Conversations members.

 

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