Thursday, March 27, 2008

An Evening in Havana: 1950

As I have been working on the screenplay for My Last Romance, and discovering how hard it is to write a screenplay, I have been trying to get myself back in that place I was in when I wrote the story it is based on. I have been remembering warm summer nights in Galveston at the Balinese Room with the moonlight shining on the Gulf of Mexico. One of the things I loved when I lived down there was the Sangria on the Terrace at the Hotel Galvez which was as close to being in 1950s Havana as I can imagine. And there was a little bistro called Hemingway’s Hideaway that I loved.

Anyway, it reminded me of how much I loved Oscar Hijuelos’ book The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love when it first came out. I remember reading it on the beach one summer and that it was one of those books that you could fully enter into and get lost. I loved every page and was sad when it was coming to an end. So, trying to imagine how that rich, luscious novel got transformed into a movie, last night I got a copy of The Mambo Kings and watched it. I loved every minute of it.

I had seen it when it first came out and had mixed feelings about it but I was still enthralled by the book at the time. But now, with some distance between the novel and a new appreciation for the formidable task a screenwriter faces, I had a new appreciation for it. First of all, any movie that features Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas --- well, what’s not to like? And the music --- ahhh, the music! And the mambo. The dancing is glorious. There is one particularly luscious scene where Cesar (Assante) is dancing the mambo with Dolores and Dolores’s sister says to Lana, “He thinks he’s the last Coca-Cola in the dessert.” And Lana replies, “He is, honey. He is.”

She’s right.

So, as I was watching the movie (and it was one of those rare occasions when I didn’t even pick up my knitting) I realized this is what I want --- this is the feeling, the mood, the atmosphere I want for My Last Romance. Now how do I get it?

I see there is a commentary version on the DVD so I’ll probably watch that tonight and see if I can pick up any tips. But that movie (and the book that it was based on) made me realize that when a book or a movie (or any work of art) can completely take you out of where you are and transport you to somewhere else --- that’s magic. I don’t know if I can achieve that but I’m going to try.

So many people have told me that when they read The Old Mermaid’s Tale they felt completely transported. I’ve even had people bemoan the fact that the setting for it --- the Erie waterfront of the early 1960s --- no longer exists as it was then. So I know I’ve been able to make that magic for a few people. Let’s hope I can find the way again.

The best thing about doing this screenplay is that it is an excellent exercise in creative cross-training. When you approach your art from a new direction it gives you a fresh perspective as you appreciate challenges that never presented themselves to you before. It is exciting despite the frustration.

So, I’m learning and glad that I am. Who knows where all of this will take me but I’m excited to be making the journey.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

This Would Make A Great Movie!

I absolutely LOVE it when people say that to me about something I have written. I’m glad that people like my stories enough to envision them that way. I, personally, have a hard time imagining them as movies because the characters are very real and personal to me but I certainly appreciate others thinking that.

I’m writing this because, well, I have a confession to make --- I am writing a screenplay. I was browsing one of my favorite software suppliers and came across this tricky little program called Hollywood Screenplays which says it guides you through the form one needs to follow to write a script. I bought it, installed it and then thought, “Rats, what should I write about?” So I got this bright idea to try to turn my short story "My Last Romance” from My Last Romance and other passions into a screenplay. It is one of my oldest pieces so maybe a little distance will let me be more objective and less attached to my personal vision of the characters. I’ve always said that of all the female characters I’ve ever created Ruby is my favorite. I think in some past life I must have been a chanteuse with a big band. I’ve always loved records by Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford and Rosemary Clooney and that whole Big Band Era nightclub lifestyle enthralls me. And I think it is a colorful setting for a cool movie.

So I started writing and you know what? This is HARD. When you lack description and can only rely on action direction and dialogue --- holy cow! Talk about coming face to face with your Inner Control Freak! I never realized I was that attached to my expositions. Plus, the thing I am having the hardest time with is writing believable dialogue. This is embarrassing because all my writing life I’ve been told by writing teachers and readers that they love my dialogue but when you are writing pure dialogue, with no other narrative, it all sounds boring or corny. I know the objective in scriptwriting is to make every bit of dialogue move the story along --- but doing that while being original and clever is a big challenge.

I’ve blogged before about my love of the commentary versions of movies that we find on a lot of today’s DVDs. I often watch the commentaries before I watch the movies. I LOVE hearing directors, actors, screenwriters, etc. talk about how they created what they created. I also love looking at the storyboards they create for their movies. In fact I used the concept of the storyboard when I made the video for The Old Mermaid’s Tale. I just sat down with a big yellow legal pad and drew. So now, as I try my hand at scriptwriting, I am trying to remember everything I have learned from commentaries I’ve watched. In college I took a course in theater scriptwriting but that was a long time ago and I seem to have forgotten most of it.

But here is the thing, if I can just stay focused and play the movie in my head it does seem to work. The first thing I realized was I have to reorder the events in the story for clarity. In the story everything is told from Ruby’s point of view and she moves back and forth in her memory with occasional forays into other ramblings. How much of that is usable in the script? I don’t know. I love Ruby’s “voice’ in that story and trying to emulate that voice in her dialogue is also challenging. There’s a lot to learn in this process.

I’ve never been able to imagine how writers could turn big novels into a 120 page script. I remember when I read Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides and I was so in love with Luke, Tom’s brother, who was the character that the book took its title from. When I saw the (terrible, terrible) movie and discovered that Luke had been entirely eliminated and Tom was now the “Prince” I felt so betrayed but I’m starting to understand that better now. You streamline and streamline and streamline. It’s annoying.

Well, I’ll stay with this and see how it turns out. I have to get my money’s worth out of this software, don’t I? Don’t I?

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Windy Good Friday

It is a perfect Good Friday in my opinion --- bright and sunny but also cold and very windy. The trees in the cemetery behind my house are swaying and rattling against the windows. Some workers have been cleaning up the cemetery and there are stacks of wood against the old stone vaults set into the hill. Looking out the window I can see the open entrances of the vaults and, somehow, they seem particularly poignant today.

Ever since I was a good little Catholic school girl I have particularly loved Good Friday. I love the quiet of it and the sense of sadness that ends in joy in just a few days. I loved the Stations of the Cross when I was a kid and the Stabat Mater, a hymn I still remember the Latin words to. I will go through my CDs and select those that are perfect for today. Of course Allegri’s beautiful Miserere --- my favorite piece of music. And the evocative Requiems that I prefer --- Brahms in particular. I won’t eat meat today. I’m not a very good Catholic and I know those old dietary restrictions aren’t really adhered to anymore but I don’t care, I love the ritual of it.

Years ago I spent a Good Friday in a quiet coastal beach town in Mexico. It was a fragile time in my life, a love affair was dying and I was sad about it because it was senseless. He was a good man and I cared for him more than I had for anyone in years but we had different visions for our lives. Those visions were incompatible. So I went to this little beach town and stayed in a hotel that just opened for the season, there were very few guests --- one was a solo traveler like me. I still remember his name --- it was Karl and he was Hungarian. He had been living in the States for years but was now thinking about moving to Mexico.

There was a graceful courtyard in that place with a swimming pool the walls of which were decorated with amazing, intricate tile mosaics of seahorses and starfish and fish of all colors. I spent a lot of time sitting in the courtyard watching the beautiful young men who worked there cleaning the pool and getting it ready to fill. Karl joined me. He brought whiskey and I brought the tiny, sweet oranges, called “mandarinos” by the locals, that the children sold by the side of the road. We talked and I suspect he was trying to get me drunk for nefarious purposes but my mind was elsewhere. There were a lot of little salamanders in the holly shrubs that surrounded that courtyard and I remember how quiet it was and how they watched us with their huge, long-lashed eyes --- friendly, curious little creatures.

I remember Karl was telling me some story about a train ride he took through the north of Africa when I heard the church bells ring to mark the beginning of the three hours of silence Catholics observe on Good Friday. I told Karl that I needed to be alone and went up to my room. There was a balcony that overlooked the street which had an old stucco, Spanish-style church with a campanile next to it. It was filling with people who were there to attend the Stations of the Cross. I thought about going but the truth was I felt so bereft at the time that I didn’t want to move.

Later that day, when it was growing dark, there was a procession down through the street with everyone carrying candles and singing. I remember the heartbreaking tenderness of it and that, at the time, I thought I would never let myself love anyone again because it was too painful when it was over.

Of course since then I’ve changed my opinion and I’ve loved other men and I’ve always come away from those romances gaining more than I had lost. But I’ll always remember that particular Good Friday and all its emotions.

So today is Good Friday and I have a lot of work to do but I am glad that it is a bright and windy day like that one so long ago. And I am glad that there will be silence today and the memory of sweet voices lifted in song and salamanders blinking in the hedges. Happy Easter, everyone.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Reality – What A Concept!

I admit I have shamefully neglected this blog in recent weeks. I was so embroiled in the Misha Defonseca hoax for awhile there that it seemed that was all I thought about. Things have simmered down at the moment but more interesting stuff is coming to light every day. Eventually most of it will wind up being posted here but I have to tell you this has been an educational experience for me.

I’ve long subscribed to the belief that people as a general rule believe what they want to believe regardless of what the facts may be. Nowhere has this been more glaringly pointed out than in the articles, blog posts, comments and emails that have surfaced around this controversy. Sometimes I read some of the responses and think, “Have you read ANYTHING that was written about this?” There are a lot of people who have their opinions and don’t want that screwed up by having to face facts.

One of the strangest things I encountered in my Google-powered trips around the internet was a “statement” written and posted by Vera Lee, the woman who acted as translator and ghost writer for the original Misha book. I realize Ms. Lee is in her eighties but the entire statement is virtually unreadable. She rambles all over the place, indulges in endless gossip, throws in peculiar little stories that supposedly attest to her abilities. Well, I’ll be honest, she lost me. I have no idea where she was headed with that piece. But the strangest thing about it is that she started out saying --- saying in black and white --- that she was hired as the ghostwriter. In fact she uses the word ghostwriter several times. Now, correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t a ghostwriter called a ghostwriter because they are supposed to be invisible? Isn’t that where the “ghost” part comes in? Yet, it was Ms. Lee who initiated the entire legal debacle with a lawsuit against the publisher because the publisher wouldn’t put her name on the cover of the book!

Somebody help me out here --- she openly and publickally admits she was the ghostwriter and she brought a lawsuit because her name wasn’t going on the cover? She also complains endlessly about the poor writing quality of the book, simultaneously touting her own talents as a writer and yet the entire statement eludes comprehension or even a modicum of sense. I know Ms. Lee has an impressive academic background --- Professor Emeritus at Boston College. Certainly distinguished. But, reading her statement in response to the recent press about this hoax, one wonders how long ago that was and what has happened to her abilities in the mean time.

Then there are all the comments on the publishing blogs from independent publishers who seem genuinely confused as to what their position should be. They realize that holding publishers accountable for the books they publish is not in their best interest but they also don’t feel comfortable standing up for freedom of the press. One of the worst things that has happened to this country since 9/11 is the regrettable trend among people who are genuinely frightened to be willing to sacrifice a freedom or two in exchange for the illusion of security. There is no security, folks, but freedoms are being endangered all over the place. This is one more example. If publishers are held accountable for vetting the truth of what they publish who will publish things that no one wants to believe? Who will publish the Harriet Beecher Stowes of the future if publishers cannot publish what they cannot prove?

Well, it’s crazy making. However, Sharon Sergeant, the genealogist whose skills lead to the discovery of the documents posted here and on BESTSELLERtheBook.blogspot.com, has sent the following. Listen to her talk and you’ll learn more about how she accomplished what she did. The world can use all the extra truth it can get:

"For more than a decade, historians had focussed on the implausibility
of the Defonseca popular allegory. We took a page from Pulitizer Prize
historian David Hackett Fischer's early work 'Historians' Fallacies' for
the process of Inquiry, Explanation and Argument and applied it to the
entire body of work created as a result of Defonseca's storytelling: her
public appearances and interviews, various book versions and the many
lawsuits.

We found many problems with previous inquiries. Question framing,
factual verification and significance were definitely lacking.
Explanations were generalized and narrations were all tainted by the
basic inquiry. Cause and effect, motivations, composition of the
information and analogies were all over the board.

Highly charged emotional issues were given undue proportion, distracting
the inquiries from actually testing theories against the facts.

We were thus able to frame the inquiry in the search for the factual
evidence trail by asking "What is wrong with this picture?"

I presented these findings to my team on January 5, 2008.
http://www.generalvoice.com/

Sergeant will also present how her team used this preliminary analysis
to find the proof trail for Misha Defonseca's true identity at the
Massachusetts Genealogical Seminar on April 26th at Bentley College in
Waltham, MA.
http://www.massgencouncil.com/

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Where There’s Smoke There’s Wild Speculation

Now that the story of Misha Defonseca/Monique DeWael has made waves throughout the publishing world and it has been well established that the woman is a liar and probably more things that we have yet to learn about I am sort of stunned by the reactions of people to the story. Of course there has been no shortage of press about it both here and in Europe. The most interesting article to me was the one on Slate.com, Crying Wolf: Why did it take so long for a far-fetched Holocaust memoir to be debunked? by Blake Eskin. We’ll overlook the fact that Mr. Eskin is in serious danger of dislocating his arm patting himself on the back for questioning the authenticity of the book when it first came out. Of course there are a few things Eskin fails to mention such as the fact that, while he is excoriating Jane Daniel for not uncovering the hoax earlier, he himself (an alleged investigative journalist) not only did not uncover a single thing on his own but had to be spoon-fed the story he just published by Ms. Daniel. Contrast his mistakes (like the history of Defonseca/DeWael’s parents) with the journalistic integrity of French journalist Marc Metdepenningen who uncovered the truth about Robert DeWael and who has been barraged with hate mail because of it. I heard a radio interview recently with Eskin in which he loudly proclaimed that Daniel was at fault because TWO (count ‘em two) Holocaust authorities questioned the veracity of the story early on. What he conveniently manages to brush over is that there were quite a few experts --- from wolf experts to Holocaust authorities --- who loved and supported the story, including Noble Laureate Elie Wiesel. Why did it take so long? Well, why indeed, Mr. Eskin? When Le Soir and M. Metdepennigan received the information posted on this blog (see the highlighted documents posted on February 19th) they took that information and ran with it. Eight days later the hoax was exposed when Defonseca confessed. Eskin had that information and more directly from Jane Daniel but.... well, I won't belabor the point.

But, all that being said, I am fascinated by the number of people willing to concede that Daniel was duped and yet still want to hold her responsible. Well, why did she lose the court case if she is innocent? they ask. Where there is smoke there must surely be fire. They somehow manage to grasp that while Defonseca/DeWael lied her face off from the minute she met Daniel (actually long before) and kept the lies going until Belgian newspaper Le Soirth exposed her lies on February 27, but still believe she told the truth when she said Daniel withheld royalties and hid money in offshore accounts. In other words, she lied big time and perpetrated a fraud on the entire world but told the truth about not getting enough money. I’ve long believed that people have a great deal of difficulty in believing in injustice. Injustice happens all the time but a lot of people can’t accept that --- they want to find a way to blame the victims and thus preserve their delusion that the legal system is always fair and just.

The other issue that keeps coming up over and over is why didn’t Jane Daniel do some fact checking? Where was her due diligence? This question has been answered over and over and over but people don’t seem to want to accept the answer --- the very same lies and deceptions that kept the truth hidden for close to twenty years were well in place when Daniel met Defonseca. Which brings us to a new issue: Should publishers refuse to publish anything they cannot document to be true? The answer to that is of concern to all publishers now. I’ve already given my opinion on what a publisher’s responsibilities are. But I shudder to think what would happen if the publishing world became so fraught with dilemmas about vetting and due diligence that they became afraid to publish books that need to be published.

Throughout publishing history publishers have relied on the contracts they signed with their authors to protect them from litigation. Despite the hoaxes that happened, there have been an awful lot of books that, while difficult to believe, present fascinating possibilities --- books about everything from government cover-ups to paranormal experiences. Last year I read, with utter fascination, Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil. It was one of the most compelling books I’ve ever read. Was it all true? Who can say, but should books like that go unpublished from now on?

So while Blake Eskin continues to crow over his foresight, serious journalists like Marc Metdepenningen will do real research and uncover real stories and clever ladies with computers and endless curiosity like Sharon Sergeant (the genealogist who discovered Defonseca/DeWael’s Baptismal certificate and school records) will do the real work of finding the truth. And let’s hope that publishers will always have the courage to take a chance on something that seems unbelievable.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Powerful Commentary from the New York Times

Op-Ed Contributor

Stolen Suffering

ON a March day four years ago, a very old lady, striking, snowy-haired, unsmiling, was looking at me with disgust. A Polish Jew who had survived the Holocaust, she’d been telling me how she and her young son had managed to keep a step ahead of the people who were hunting them down, and at the end of this stupefying tale of survival I’d looked up at her and said, “What an amazing story!” It was at that point that she flapped her spotted hand at me in disdain. “‘Amazing story,’” she mimicked me, tartly. She fetched a heavy sigh. “If you didn’t have an amazing story, you didn’t survive.”

She was referring to literal survival, of course — survival at its meanest, most animal level, the mere continuance of the organism. At a time when Jews throughout Europe were being rounded up like livestock or hunted down like game, survival indeed depended on feats of endurance or daring so extreme, on accidents or luck so improbable, that they can seem too far-fetched to be true.

A Jewish couple who hid in the attic of a Nazi officers’ club, forced to listen as the soldiers below joked and drank after a day’s slaughter; two young brothers who hid in a forest, strapping the hooves of deer to their feet whenever they ventured into the snow to confuse those who were trying to find them; a youth who, the day before the Germans entered his Polish hometown, left home and just kept walking east, until he reached ... China.

I heard these stories firsthand five years ago, while researching a book about relatives of mine who didn’t survive. But still they keep coming. Last Monday, I heard about an orphaned Jewish girl who trekked 2,000 miles from Belgium to Ukraine, surviving the Warsaw ghetto, murdering a German officer, and — most “amazing” of all — taking refuge in forests where she was protected by kindly wolves.

The problem is that this story is a lie: recounted in a 1997 international bestseller by Misha Levy Defonseca, it was exposed last week as a total fabrication — no trekking, no Warsaw, no murder, no wolves. (No Jews, either: the author, whose real name is Monique De Wael, is Roman Catholic.) To be sure, phony memoirs aren’t news: in 1998 the acclaimed child-survivor memoir “Fragments” was proved a fake, and more recently James Frey’s credibility infamously exploded into a million little pieces. But the trickle now seems to be a flood. Just days after the revelations about Ms. De Wael’s book yet another popular first-person account of extreme suffering turned out to be a fraud. (This one, “Love and Consequences,” purports to be the autobiography of a young half-white, half-American Indian woman who was raised by a black foster mother in the gang-infested streets of Los Angeles.) This trend sheds alarming light on a cultural moment in which the meanings of suffering, identity and “reality” itself seem to have become dangerously slippery.

Each of the new books commits a fraud far more reprehensible than Mr. Frey’s self-dramatizing enhancements. The first is a plagiarism of other people’s trauma. Both were written not, as they claim to be, by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II, the impoverished African-Americans of Los Angeles today), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes. Ms. De Wael was a Christian Belgian who was raised by close relatives after her parents, Resistance members, were taken away; Margaret Seltzer, the author of “Love and Consequences,” grew up in a tony Los Angeles neighborhood and attended an Episcopal day school.

In each case, then, a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit — a boon to the career and the bank account, but more interestingly, judging from the authors’ comments, a kind of psychological gratification, too. Ms. Seltzer has talked about being “torn,” about wanting somehow to ventriloquize her subjects, to “put a voice to people who people don’t listen to.” Ms. De Wael has similarly referred to a longing to be part of the group to which she did not, emphatically, belong: “I felt different. It’s true that, since forever, I felt Jewish and later in life could come to terms with myself by being welcomed by part of this community.” (“Felt Jewish” is repellent: real Jewish children were being murdered however they may have felt.)

While these statements want to suggest a somehow admirable desire to “empathize” with the oppressed subjects, this sentimental gesture both mirrors and exploits a widespread, quite pernicious cultural confusion about identity and suffering. We have so often been invited, in the past decade and a half, to “feel the pain” of others that we rarely pause to wonder whether this is, in fact, a good thing.

Empathy and pity are strong and necessary emotions that deepen our sense of connection to others; but they depend on a kind of metaphorical imagination of what others are going through. The facile assumption that we can literally “feel others’ pain” can be dangerous to our sense of who we are — and, more alarmingly, who the others are, too. “We all have AIDS,” a recent public-awareness campaign declared. Well, no, actually we don’t: and to pretend that we do, even rhetorically, debases the anguish of those who are stricken.

Similarly — to return to the world of the Holocaust — a museum that offers ticket holders the chance to go inside a cattle car, presumably in order to convey what it was like to be in one, can ultimately encourage not true sympathy or understanding, but a slick “identification” that devalues the real suffering of the real people who had to endure that particular horror. (When you leave the cattle car, you go to the cafeteria to have your chicken salad; when they left it, they went into a gas chamber. Can you really say you “know what it was like”?)

In an era obsessed with “identity,” it’s useful to remember that identity is precisely that quality in a person, or group, that cannot be appropriated by others; in a world in which theme-park-like simulacra of other places and experiences are increasingly available to anyone with the price of a ticket, the line dividing the authentic from the ersatz needs to be stressed, rather than blurred. As, indeed, Ms. De Wael has so clearly blurred it, for reasons that she has suggested were pitiably psychological. “The story is mine,” she announced. “It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving.”

“My reality,” as opposed to “actual reality,” is, of course, one sign of psychosis, and given her real suffering during the war, you’re tempted to sympathize — until you read that her decision to write her memoir came at a time when her husband was out of work, or (we real Jews call this chutzpah) that she successfully sued the publisher for more than $20 million for professional malfeasance. Or until you learn about her galling manipulations of the people who believed her. (Slate reported that she got one rabbi to light a memorial candle “for animals.”)

“My reality” raises even more far-reaching and dire questions about the state of our culture, one in which the very concept of “reality” seems to be in danger. Think of “reality” entertainments, which so unnervingly parallel the faux-memoirists’ appropriation of others’ authentic emotional experience: in them, real people are forced to endure painful or humiliating or extreme situations, their real emotional reactions becoming the source of the viewers’ idle gratification. Think of the Internet: an unimaginably powerful tool for education but also a Wild West of random self-expression in which anyone can say anything about anything (or anyone) and have it “published,” and which has already made problematic the line between truth and falsehood, expert and amateur opinion, authentic and inauthentic identities, reality and fantasy.

That pervasive blurriness, the casualness about reality that results when you can turn off entire worlds simply by unsubscribing, changing a screen name, or closing your laptop, is what ups the cultural ante just now. It’s not that frauds haven’t been perpetrated before; what’s worrisome is that, maybe for the first time, the question people are raising isn’t whether the amazing story is true, but whether it matters if it’s true. Perhaps the most dismaying response to the James Frey scandal was the feeling on the part of many readers that, true or false, his book had given them the feel-good, “redemptive” experience they’d hoped for when they bought his novel — er, memoir.

But then, we all like a good story. The cruelty of the fraudulent ones is that they will inevitably make us distrustful of the true ones — a result unbearable to think about when the Holocaust itself is increasingly dismissed by deniers as just another “amazing story.” Early on in my research for my book, another very old woman suddenly grew tired being interviewed. “Stories, stories,” she sighed wearily at the end of our time together. “There isn’t enough paper in the world to write the stories we can tell you.” She, of course, was talking about the true stories. How tragic if, because of the false ones, those amazing tales are never read — or believed.

Daniel Mendelsohn, the author of “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million,” is a professor of humanities at Bard College.

The New Baby

In all the posts regarding the Misha Defonseca story I have had little time to think or post about anything else. However, there is an exciting new development in my life --- I have new, slick, handy computer. I loved my old Toshiba but it was getting to the point where I couldn’t do a lot of work because the old girl was just so --- well --- old. So I did it. I bit the bullet and bought a new, slick HP with lots of RAM, and ROM, and all that stuff --- plus Windows Vista. Oooolala! I’m even finally figuring out how to use my MP4 player!

I got the MP4 player for Christmas and so far all I had done with it was knit a cute little cozy out of bright pink Banana Silk for it. It looks so cute --- except I didn’t know what to do with it. Now I’ve subscribed to all these cool Podcasts (KnitPicks has a great podcast) and can listen to Kelly tell me knitting secrets while I cook dinner and clean the kitchen. Cool.

So anyway, the new baby arrived two weeks ago and for three days it sat in the box because I was so busy. Well, actually, that’s sort of a lie. I was kind of busy but I was also somewhat intimidated about having a new computer after nearly six years. There is so much to deal with when a new computer gets set up --- loading all the software, setting up email (I have over a dozen different email accounts), transferring passwords. Lucky for me I got some good advice and used some very slick password transferring software that I didn’t know about before.

So it took me three full days to get the desk cleaned off, make a place for the new baby, familiarize myself with all the new gizmos and widgets, add software, download new drivers, configure email, transfer passwords, etc. No wonder I put off doing this. Then it was time to transfer all the files.

This turned out to be pretty easy actually. I have 2 removable hard drives --- one 80 GB and one 120GB --- and I had backed up files to them so it was easy to transfer stuff using those but, of course, all that stuff takes time.

Then there is the whole issue of just making the new baby feel like “home”. There were things on my old computer that I was used to --- a little Weather Bug, a notepad on the desktop, my beautiful wallpaper of a rainbow over Niagara Falls. But, little by little it is all getting shaped up and this week I seem to be able to work without too many issues. And this new computer is slick.

But, of course, there is the old one sitting there ready to leap into service if I discover there is anything I forgot. I loved that computer --- it was so reliable and easy to work with and I hate the idea of it being neglected. I’ve entertained the notion of cleaning everything off of it but my writing projects and moving it in to a different room so I can go there to write when I need a break from working in here.

Now that the Misha story has calmed down a little (although fascinating new developments are percolating and I can’t wait to reveal details when I get the green light to do so) I can get back to normal life and work. I had been trying to pull together a short story to submit to the Level Best Books annual crime fiction anthology and I now have the first draft of that done and ready to polish up. I like the story --- it is another of my anonymous-and-strange nameless heroines dealing with an unfair world. Where these women come from I have no idea but I’m glad they keep showing up.

The down side of this new baby is that it is too entertaining. I’ve got a lot of very cool new software to play with plus it can access television programs and movies I never had access to before. I’m totally hooked on HBO’s In Treatment (guess why) and keep sneaking breaks to watch another episode. So, well, maybe I need to keep the old, less talented PC for when I need to stay focused. Of course I can always take the MP4 player with me……………… sigh.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Thanks and Explanations from Jane Daniel

This morning Jane Daniel published a detailed explanation and responses to some of the questions raised in these articles on her blog, BESTSELLER! the Book.

Part Two from The Daily News Tribune by Barbara Taormina

The ‘Misha’ mêlée


GateHouse News Service
Posted Mar 07, 2008 @ 02:40 PM

Beverly —

As a ghostwriter working on a Holocaust memoir, Vera Lee wanted to go that extra mile. She not only listened to Misha Defonsca recall her childhood story of wandering across Europe, she wanted to experience some of the same things.

In an interview with the Boston Globe’s David Mehegan, Lee says when she heard Defonseca had eaten mud to survive, she went out and tried a little mud. When Defonseca said she had scaled the wall of the Warsaw Ghetto, Lee, who was in her 70s at the time, tried climbing a brick wall in front of a neighbor’s house in Newton.

“I really wanted to understand what she was thinking,” Lee tells Mehegan. “She wanted me to taste raw meat, which I did after she assured me it was from Bread and Circus.”

In the wake of last week’s revelation that “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years” is a hoax, you would think Lee would be a little peeved with Defonseca. But according to her lawyer, Frank Frisoli, she’s not. Frisoli says the two women get along just fine; it’s their publisher Jane Daniel who’s the adversary.

Back in 2001, Lee and Defonseca sued Daniel, claiming that she had withheld royalties, hid profits in offshore accounts and that she failed to adequately promote the book in the United States. The jury awarded the two women nearly $11 million. Several months later, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Fahey found that the business practices of Daniel and her tiny publishing business, Mt. Ivy Press, were “extremely egregious” and “any reasonable business person would find Daniel and Mt. Ivy’s conduct reprehensible.” Fahey tripled the damages and ordered Daniel to pay the women $33 million.

Fahey wrote that Daniel had, among other things, run a scam transaction to withhold money, failed to provide accurate royalty statements, fraudulently pilfered copyrights and intentionally caused emotional and psychological injuries to Defonseca.

Daniel insists that none of this is true and that she did everything according to the standard publishing contracts that were signed at the beginning of the project. And as far the charge of not promoting the book goes, Daniel points out that she had arranged an appearance on Oprah for Defonseca. But that fell through when Defonseca started putting up roadblocks and the lawsuits started to take shape.

Daniel says in hindsight she realizes that Defonseca knew she couldn’t appear on a television show broadcast overseas because someone might recognize her. But back in 2001, during the 10-day trial, no one wanted to listen to any of that, says Daniel.

“It’s almost impossible when you are up against a Holocaust survivor,” she says.

“That mantle became a bullet-proof vest or a Teflon coat with an assumed air of moral superiority.”

Actually, it was even worse. Defonseca didn’t come to court just as a Holocaust survivor; she came as a Holocaust survivor losing her home to foreclosure because her publisher had withheld the royalties from the book that told her painful story.

With Lee it was a little different. Frisoli says that as the book was going through its final edit, Daniel tried to cut Lee out. She decided not to run Lee’s name on the cover and tried to buy out all her interest in copyrights.

“Look, it’s really simple,” says Frisoli. “Jane Daniel hired her best friend and then tried to blow her off.”

Daniel says the problems with Lee arose when she read the final draft of the manuscript and found pages of historical errors. And there were other problems. Daniel didn’t think the book was written well. She says she tried to work with Lee to edit the manuscript but Lee refused. So, Daniel rewrote it herself.

Frisoli says that Daniel changed a word here and there but it was still essentially Lee and Defonseca’s manuscript that went to press. “She completely lacks credibility,” says Frisoli. “If Jane Daniel tells you it’s Monday, go and look at the calendar. To me, she cheated her friend.”

Daniel appealed the enormous judgment but lost and since that time, Frisoli has been doing his best to collect for his client. At one point Daniel was order to spend 10 days in MCI Framingham because she had fallen behind on her $2,000 a month payments to Lee. Friends scraped together the money and got her out after one night.

Daniel now runs a bed and breakfast overlooking Gloucester harbor. It’s a beautiful historic house built around 1845, and Frisoli has been trying to sell it to get the money Daniel owes Lee. The house isn’t up for sale now because the market is lousy, he says. “But when I find a buyer, I’ll sell it and I’ll even give some of the money to Jane,” he says.

Frisoli says the news that Defonseca’s story was a hoax doesn’t change anything about the case. But Daniel thinks it changes everything. And while she hasn’t had much luck or found much sympathy from the courts yet, she’s hoping that will change. She plans to head back in and ask that the $33 million judgment be dismissed.

“By law, one way to overturn a judgment is to prove it was based on fraud,” she says.

Every trick in the book

Literary hoaxes are nothing unusual. In the past week, we’ve had two of them exposed. First Misha Defonseca confessed that her 1997 book, “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years,” was a fantasy. A few days later we learned that “Love and Consequences” — Margaret Jones’ memoir about what it was like to grow up as an abused half-white, half-native American teen living with a black foster family in a gang-ridden neighborhood of south Los Angeles — was actually written by Margaret Seltzer, a 33-year-old middle class white woman who grew up with her biological family and attended private school.

“Writers have been passing off hoaxes for centuries,” says Marblehead’s Roberta Kalechofsky, who has written seven books, two collections of essays, a prose poem and a monograph on George Orwell. Kalechofsky also runs her own small publishing business, Micah Publications, which specializes in Jewish literature, Jewish Vegetarian Books and works about animal rights.

Kalechofsky says hoaxes have been so common, they’re almost a literary tradition in their own right. But that doesn’t mean we should accept them.

“It’s deception,” says Kalechofsky. “If it happens enough times it really affects the public trust in the written word.”

Kalechofsky hasn’t read “Misha,” but she says it sounds like “deception, deception and still more deception.” And while she doesn’t condone it, she does say the publishing world is set up in a way that almost encourages these types of hoaxes.

“It’s very hard to get a novel published,” she says. “It’s hard to get your foot in the door if you are a fiction writer.”

And when you publish something, it’s either fact or fiction. There’s no category for a little bit of fact embellished by creative writing. So, people try to pass off what might be good novels as true accounts.

And there’s something else, says Kalechosky. As a culture we crave verisimilitude. The fact that a story is true gives it that extra edge.

Kalechofshy recently faced this very problem when she published “Finesilver’s Gold,” a story about a Russian Jew who walks from the Ukraine to the Yukon to take part of the 19th century gold rush. Author Ruth Shallet Littman used her grandfather’s diaries as the basis of the story. But a lot was missing, so she used her imagination and some historical research to fill in the blanks.

Kalechofsky didn’t feel she could market the book as non-fiction, so she lists it as “A Fictionalized Memoir.” Problem solved — well, maybe.

Kalechofsky says Defonseca didn’t have to say her story was true, but she probably felt she would get more attention that way. That’s pretty much what happened with another notorious Holocaust memoir hoax, “Fragments,” written by Binjamin Wilkomirski in 1996. The book, which describes a child’s memories of being in two Nazi death camps in Poland, picked up a National Jewish Book Award and was praised as a masterpiece until it was discovered that Wilkomirski was actually Bruno Grosjean Dessekker, born in Switzerland and raised there by an adoptive family.

Kalechofsky says both “Misha” and “Fragments” succeeded in part because they involved stories that played on the public’s sympathy. The same could probably be said for “A Million Little Pieces,” James Frey’s account of his struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction. After the hoax was exposed, Frey admitted he was having trouble selling the book as a novel, so he turned it into a memoir.

As for Jane Daniel, the publisher who helped turn “Misha” into an international bestseller before the truth came out, Kalechofsky says the book business is a cutthroat marketplace and there’s probably more to the story that we don’t know.

“She sounds very clever,” says Kalechosky with a good-natured laugh. “I’d like to hire her.”

— Barbara Taormina

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Excellent Article from The Daily News Tribune by Barbara Taormina

Bad moon rising: The truth behind a Holocaust hoax


GateHouse News Service
Posted Mar 07, 2008 @ 02:36 PM
Last update Mar 07, 2008 @ 10:17 PM

Gloucester —

Author Misha Defonseca often used to say that if she were in a sinking boat with a dog and a human, she would rescue the dog and toss the human overboard. No doubt. Dogs aren’t sticklers for facts, and they hardly ever do the kind of research that would expose a bestselling memoir of the Holocaust as an international fraud.

That’s what happened last week when fact took down fiction and Defonseca admitted that her book, “Misha: a Memoir of the Holocaust Years,” which has been translated into 18 languages and made into a feature film in France, was a hoax.

Defonseca’s story is a gripping World War II account that begins when she is 7 years old and her parents, members of the Belgium resistance, are arrested by the Nazis. Defonseca then sets out on a five-year journey that takes her thousands of miles through war-torn Europe as she searches for her parents. Along the way, she visits the Warsaw Ghetto, travels for a while with a band of resistance fighters, kills a German soldier and, oh yeah, hides in the forest with a pack of wolves who adopt her as one of their own.

The book was published in 1997, and from the beginning there were some who questioned her story. But it was only over the past couple months that Sharon Sergeant, a genealogist from Waltham, and two of her contacts in Europe dug through the records and discovered that Defonseca had actually spent the war at a desk in a small elementary school in Etterbeek, Belgium. They also found a baptismal certificate that showed not only was this heroic story about a child surviving against all odds a lie, Defonseca isn’t even Jewish.

“The story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving,” Defonseca said in a statement to the Associated Press last week. “I ask forgiveness to all who felt betrayed. I beg you to put yourself in my place, of a 4-year-old girl who was very lost.”

It’s not clear yet if there will be much forgiveness for Defonseca, simply because there are so many who do feel betrayed. Holocaust historians, students and survivors not only feel angry and disappointed, they worry about the possible fallout in a world where many continue to insist that that death marches and concentration camps are a myth. Meanwhile, writers and publishers are wincing at the potential effect this latest literary hoax will have on readers who crave true accounts and the book business that seems less and less capable of delivering them.

And Jane Daniel of Gloucester, the original publisher of “Misha,” also has a story of betrayal to tell. Shortly after the book was published, Defonsca and her co-author, Vera Lee, sued Daniel, claiming that she kept royalties and hid the proceeds from international sales for translations in offshore accounts. They also claimed that Daniel didn’t do enough to market the book in the United States.

In 2000, a jury awarded Defonseca $7.5 million while Lee won $3.3 million. A judge stepped in and found Daniel’s business practices so egregious that she tripled the damages. (See related story.) Daniel, who has spent the past eight years with a $33 million judgment hanging over her head and no way to pay it, has always maintained that the facts of the case do not support the complaint or the award. She now plans to head back to court to have the judgment vacated.

A must-read

Last summer, Daniel launched a blog called “Bestseller,” an online real-time book that offers her behind-the-scenes account of how “Misha” was written, published and promoted.

Daniel writes that she met Defonseca back in the ’90s while she was doing some PR work for Jan Schlichtmann, the Beverly lawyer of “A Civil Action” fame. On day, Schlichtmann happened to mention that his brother had a business making commemorative videos from family photos. He asked Daniel if she could help promote it.

Daniel decided the best place to start was with a client who had made an unusual video. That led her to Defonseca, who had commissioned a two-hour film tribute to her recently deceased dog, Jimmy.

Daniel recalls her first close-up impression of Defonseca on her blog.

“Misha was a short, plump woman, somewhere in her 60s, with pixie-cut platinum blond hair and icy blue eyes that glittered with extraordinary intensity,” she writes. “She wore a dress patterned with leopard spots and heavy Native American silver jewelry. Her eyes were rimmed with startling yellow-green liner. Long glue-on nails, white, tipped her fingers like claws.”

Over lunch, Defonseca told Daniel about her video but then began an even more interesting story of how she was a Holocaust survivor. When Daniel heard she had walked across Europe searching for her parents and had spent time eating and sleeping with a pack of wolves, she was sold.

Daniel had recently started a small publishing house called Mt. Ivy Press. It was a one-woman show that had produced some cookbooks and “a prurient but not hard-core tome, ‘Gigolos — The Secret Lives of Men who Service Women.’”

When she heard Defonseca’s story, she immediately smelled not only a book but a potential blockbuster. Defonseca has always said that she never wanted to write the book, because the memories were too painful, but that Daniel eventually talked her into it.

From the start nothing about the book was easy. Defonseca spoke some English, but not enough to write her memoir. Daniel hired her good friend and next-door neighbor, Lee, a former French professor and chairman of the Romance Language Department at Boston College, as a ghostwriter who would help translate Defonseca’s memories.

As the story began to take shape, there were more problems. The three women all seemed to have different ideas of the direction the book should take. Daniel wanted a straight narrative that would offer a message of hope, Lee felt the book should be simple and geared toward younger readers and Defonseca wanted to include more about her personal beliefs that animals were morally superior to human beings. By the time the book was published in 1997, the disagreement had turned ugly and the lines were drawn for a legal battle.

But along the way there were other concerns. Daniel sent the manuscript out to several different Holocaust writers and scholars hoping to score a couple blurbs for the back cover. And she did.

Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel — who has written more than 40 books, including the seminal Holocaust memoir, “Night” — took a look at Defonsca’s story and wrote back that he found it “very moving.”

Leonard Zakim, who was then the executive director of the New England Anti-Defamation League, described “Misha” as “A scary ‘must read’ for anyone interested in the Holocaust. Humans acted ‘like animals’ and animals acted ‘humanely.’ Her story is heartwarming and bone-tingling, all the more so for being true.”

And the wolf experts, including Joni Soffron — who runs Wolf Hollow, a park on Route 133 in Ipswich that features a pack of wolves that visitors can watch safely from the sidelines of a big backyard pen — were also on board. Although documented accounts of wolves raising human children were extremely rare, Defonsca’s account was consistent with what the experts knew about wolf behavior.

But there were others who weren’t quite as enthusiastic. Yale Professor Deborah Dwok, an expert on children and the Holocaust, told Daniel the book was a fantasy filled with historical inaccuracies. Lawrence Langer, a history professor at Simmons College, also felt the book was contrived.

“She just happens to get into the Warsaw Ghetto right before it burns down, but she doesn’t have a tattoo. And she manages to escape over a wall. Why didn’t everybody escape over that wall? You can’t publish it as factual,” Langer told Daniel.

Now that the book has been exposed as a hoax, everyone seems to be asking why there wasn’t more fact checking. Why didn’t Daniel question Defonseca harder?

Daniel’s good friend Kathleen Valentine, a fellow writer from Gloucester, says you have to remember what it was like back in the ’90s when the book was being written.

“Jane was being told by all these local Jewish organizations that Misha was a hero,” says Valentine. “There were a couple of authorities who said they didn’t believe the story, but you had to weigh that in the balance with everyone who did.” And, as Valentine points out, you don’t question a Holocaust survivor.

“I believed her, and a lot of people believed her at the time,” says Daniel, who has been spending this week racing between her lawyers and television and radio reporters, all asking why the book wasn’t better vetted.

Daniel also says it was impossible to do specific background checks since Defonsaca claimed she didn’t know her real name or birth date — information she said her parents kept from her in case she was taken by the Nazis.

“I didn’t have a true name, a birthplace or a single person who knew Misha,” says Daniel.

And Daniel believes it wasn’t her job to check all the facts. “As the publisher, I was not responsible for being the gatekeeper of the truth,” she says, adding that Defonseca signed a standard publishing contract with a clause that stipulated all statements in the book would be true.

Daniel believes that the proper stage for vetting a book is the marketplace. And although it took more than 10 years, “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years,” did finally receive the attention that ultimately revealed it as a fraud.

A beautiful story?

Unfortunately, the truth about Defonseca came a little too late for a lot of people. Soon as the book was published, it became a bestseller in France and several other European countries. Late last year, French film director Vera Belmont released her full-length film, “Survivre avec les Loupes” based on Defonscea’s memoir. In Italy, the story was made into an operetta.

A spokeswomen for Belmont said this week that Defonseca’s recent confession wasn’t really that important.

“No matter if it’s true or not — (Belmont) believes it is, anyway — she just thinks it’s a beautiful story,” she says.

Daniel also says the fact that the book is fiction doesn’t mean it’s not good.

“I still think it’s a beautiful story,” she says. “It’s a classic story of good against evil — the Nazis against a child. You have to separate the message from the messenger.”

But the question of whether or not it’s true, particularly when it was billed as the truth, matters a great deal to others. Peabody’s Sonia Weitz survived five concentration camps and knows a little about Holocaust memoirs. Her book, “I Promised I Would Tell,” is her own personal testimony. In 1981, Weitz founded the Holocaust Center of the North Shore Jewish Federation in Peabody, where she continues to educate people, particularly young people, about the Holocaust.

When “Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years” first came out, Weitz says she was very excited about the book.

“Some of it was sort of unbelievable, but I’ve learned that unexpected things did happen during the war,” she says. However, after hearing last week that the book was a hoax, Weitz said she felt angry and disappointed.

“It’s hurtful and it’s harmful to the history of the Holocaust,” she says. Still, Weitz has reserved any judgment on Defonseca.

“Am I angry at her? I can’t really say that. I guess I think that maybe there’s more to it,” says Weitz, who wants to know more about Defonseca’s true story during the war.

Weitz does agree with Rabbi David Mayer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead, who feels Defonseca’s deception will be used against other Holocaust survivors who have told their stories.

“What bothers me most aside from the unconscionable disrespect for those who perished is that it fuels the flames for the Holocaust deniers,” says Meyer. “That makes it even more heinous.”

Weitz says that’s a problem Holocaust educators will face in the wake of the Defonscea story. But her greatest concern is the hundreds of young students at the Holocaust center. Defonseca’s book was a great story that engaged young people and now, it’s just a fraud.

“She should have been a role model,” says Wietz. “Young people will be very disappointed to hear it’s not true. The book should have been worthy of their attention, and it’s not.”

E-mail Barbara Taormina at btaormin@cnc.com.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Ye Gads, When Will It End?

On September 27, 2005 I published a blog called Sad, Depressing Books With No Redeeming Value. It is still one of my blog posts that gets a lot of traffic --- especially lately. This week another book was revealed to be a hoax, Margaret B. Jones’ Love or Consequences. It is another tragedy riddled book about an abandoned bi-racial girl raised by a foster family and her descent into drug use and gang violence and other heart-string yanking baloney. This written by a privileged girl from Sherman Oaks who once met a guy who belonged to a gang. Aye-yi-yi.

Coming fast on the heels of the Misha Defonseca story it has caused a lot of rumblings among the public about why publishers don’t do a better job of fact-checking these stories before they publish them. I’ve pontificated here before about why that is not a publisher’s responsibility. If an author signs a contract stating that the content of their book is true and autobiographical as Misha Defonseca did that is as much as a publisher is required to do. There are a lot of gray areas in this that bother me a lot. If publishers become responsible for vetting the truth of everything they publish how much poetic license and creativity will then be allowable in non-fiction/memoirs? For instance if I publish my memoir and say my fourth grade teacher was the sweetest, warmest, kindest teacher I ever had and someone else takes issue with that and claims she was a vicious, cruel, vindictive shrew whose evil looks caused them to spend years in therapy --- well, now what?

But even more importantly is why in the blue blazes do we suck these things up? The truth is that Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust was a good read and so, I have heard, is Love or Consequences. Why weren’t they published as fiction? The movie, Survivre avec les loups is said to be extremely beautiful and inspiring. But, of course, it now suffers from the stigma that it is based on lies (not that I think that will hurt it at the box office). There are two things that occur to me.

In one sense I think it is pure egotism on the part of the authors. They want to gather all the emotional percs that come with being held up as a model of what it means to survive a horrible ordeal. They want people to come up to them and say, “I admire you so much --- you are such an inspiration” instead of, “hey, cool story”. It’s that attention thing. There are a good many readers who say with a certain amount of misguided pride, “Oh, I never read fiction --- it’s just something somebody made up.” The utter ignorance of that remark sets my teeth on edge but I digress.

The other thing is that there is a pitiful and regrettable truth that non-fiction is easier to sell than fiction is --- probably because of reasons stated above but even more because there is a distasteful tendency on the part of many readers to want to read something that will leave them thinking, “Whew, my life might not be perfect but at least it’s not that screwed up.”

So, now that the public is aware that there is no shortage of baloney being passed off as truth what will their reaction be --- besides blaming the publishers? Maybe it’s time to take a look at why these books have become so popular. This entire “memoir” genre has been going on for quite awhile now and has spawned a lot of godawful junk. I wonder if someone were to research the “It” boy books how accurate they would prove to be. James Frey and Laura Albert/J.T. Leroy were exposed as fabricating their stories and yet the genre persists. It baffles me.

The question I keep asking is what is wrong with publishing these stories as fiction? It’s as simple as that. Had any of those books been published as fiction all this brouhaha could be avoided. Or is it that we love the brouhaha? We love the angst of the stories when we believe them to be real and we love the melodrama around their expose. Sigh.

Give me a novel any day --- I don’t have the emotional energy for that other stuff.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Jane Daniel Radio Interview

On March 4, 2008, Jane Daniel was featured on NPR's Here and Now program talking about the Misha Defonseca hoax. You can listen to the program by clicking here. (Real Player or other audio player required.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

What Justifies A Judgment?

A few years back a friend came to me and said she had a book of poetry that she wanted to publish. She wanted to do it on her own but she didn’t know how. I am a graphic artist and said I could lay it out and design it for her and then we would think about what to do next. At the time I had a number of friends who were starting their own publishing businesses. Thanks to the latest innovations in desk top publishing, print on demand, and the ease of internet marketing through such online sites as Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, lots of small publishing businesses are forming. I decided to publish her book for her and then went on to publish two more books of my own.

The right to publish independently is one of the most time-honored of American traditions. Look at Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine and Henry David Thoreau. Small presses have always been the medium for people who had something to say and needed a means to say it.

The recent controversy around the Misha Defonseca hoax has brought so much scrutiny in so many areas that it is just mind-boggling to me. I have been blogging about it regularly, giving phone interviews, and participating in many discussions online and in person. It is horrific and there is a long way to go before all is revealed. But one thing that people ask me over and over and over is “what in the world justified a $33 million judgment against Jane Daniel and Mt. Ivy Press? What did she do that was horrendous enough to warrant that huge amount?” It’s a good question --- a question everyone in the publishing industry, independent or corporate, should be asking!

According to the judgment of the court Daniel and Mt. Ivy “engaged in deceptive business practices”, “failed to adequately promote the author’s book”, and “withheld monies owed the author”. Okay, first of all even if all of that was true (and based on the testimony of the sort of person Misha has turned out to be can we not assume much of her testimony was false?) what makes the case worth $33 million for a small independent publisher?

First of all, the book sold 5000 copies in the U.S. --- not a spectacular amount but certainly respectable. That means that even if Misha received not a penny from the publisher, the court awarded her roughly $4400 per book -- $4400 PER BOOK! We all know that every publisher takes the lion’s share of book profits so what in the name of heaven justifies an award of $4400 per book?

Second, has there ever been a publisher anywhere who didn’t say to an author “I’m going to make your book a bestseller!” Yeah. And all writers want to believe that. Baby, I’m going to make you a star and if it doesn’t work out you get $22 million. And whatever happened to the admonition caveat emptor? Did Misha have NO responsibility in checking out the publisher she was about to sign a contract with? If Mt. Ivy did not have the credentials she needed to promote her book why did she sign a contract with them?

Third, what exactly are “deceptive business practices”? Particularly now that we know that the contract Misha signed with Mt. Ivy verified that her story was true and autobiographical. So the entire relationship was built on a lie --- a lie unknown to the publisher but certainly not to the author --- from the very beginning. If the deceptive business practices were that Mt. Ivy did not have the resources and/or experience to adequately promote and market the book shouldn’t the client bear some responsibility for checking that out in advance?

I’ll be honest; this judgment has me very afraid. If this judgment could be handed down based on the facts presented in this case, what could happen to other publishers? This judgment is scary --- or should be to all publishers. It almost seems like a way of silencing the press. Take a risk on an author whose story strains credulity and who turns around and sues you and you stand to lose everything.

Of course the answer that we get is that the amount was "punitive" --- designed to punish the publisher for the author's charges against her. The author, of course, had lied from the beginning and entered into a contract based on her lies --- and reaped a huge reward. I’d really like to know what Jane Daniel and Mt. Ivy Press did that justifies a $33 million dollar award. I think every publisher in America should ask the same question.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Stunning Development: The True Story of Misha's Father

Order BESTSELLER! by Jane Daniel at Laughing Gull Press.

Update: There has been much objection to the article that appeared in
Le Soir on the part of readers who felt it was unfair... consequently in fairness we are adding the disclaimer that the story, as reported in Le Soir, may be unfairly biased or not properly researched. If Le Soir retracts or modifies their reporting we will post accordingly.

Sometimes things take turns and twists that are even more stunning than one could have imagined. Le Soir, the Belgian newspaper that on Thursday printed Misha Defonseca's confession that she invented her entire tale about being Jewish and her experiences during the Holocaust, now reveals that her father Robert DeWael was, in fact, a traitor. The article in French is titled The Dark Past of
Misha's Father in today's edition of the paper.

My translation skills are not worth reproducing here but the story says basically Robert DeWael cooperated with the Gestapo and became so despised by the people of his town, when the story became known after the war, that his name was chiseled off of a memorial to the town's war dead (shown at left, image from LeSoir). The story was based on information provided by Misha's 88-year old cousin Emma De Wael (below, right) and a former coworker 98-year old Robert Van den Haute, the story was written by Marc Metdepenningen. In a companion story Le Soir says that once the newspaper
received the information that Misha's birth name was "De Wael" and not "Valle" as given in the French edition, they contacted 48 of the 375 De Wael's listed in the region. That is how they were able to find Emma De Wael, Misha's cousin, who provided them with information.

I have to say I am speechless --- what a sad, sad tale and a horrible thing for a child to have to live with. While I think this in no way gave her license to perpetrate the hoax that she did, it is still a horrible thing to have to live with.

Yesterday, when I read the article in the Boston Globe about Misha and her lawsuit against Jane Daniel I was stunned into virtual incredulity by the nearly gleeful crowing of Frank Frisoli, the attorney who represented Vera Lee, in the lawsuit. His gloating remark, "She's a very unhappy camper. And when I find a buyer for that house, she is out" was so repugnant I was trying to imagine any scenario in which I could revel comparably in someone else's misfortune (not to mention the fact that anyone over the age of fourteen who uses the expression "happy camper" should be sent to their room for life.) After hearing about the article in Le Soir and reading it, all I could feel was sadness for Misha despite my distaste for what she has done and what she has put others through. It is not much consolation to realize one is not as reprehensible as someone like Frisoli.

So, this bizarre and unimaginable case has taken yet another bizarre and unimaginable twist. Clearly, no matter what anyone can make up, reality can be even more astonishing.

Thanks for reading.

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