Today, I interview the internationally acclaimed writer, Ahuva Batya Scharff about her new book, “Meeting God at Midnight,” available from Sociosights Press, www.sociosights.com
How long have you been a poet? When did you start writing?
I wrote my first published poem in the fourth grade. I was around ten years old. The piece was about a pygmy hippo I saw on a trip to the Fresno zoo. I think I even drew a little hippo to go with the work.
But just to be clear, I consider myself a writer, not only a poet. I write poetry, fiction, nonfiction and academic works. At my core, I am a storyteller. I use different forms to convey the stories, depending on the need and the audience.
Tell me where the idea for your new book, “Meeting God at Midnight” originated?
I was terribly depressed a few years ago, the type of depression in which it takes effort to do simple things like get out of bed or brush your teeth. My rabbi, to help me, suggested that since I am a writer, I should write something and send it to him every day. I didn’t know what I could put out every day. I didn’t feel like writing anything, even fortune-cookie length, let alone work on a novel! So I wrote poems, because in them, I could express the depth of my suffering in brief bursts. In those poems, themes developed. The best of the work was edited and put together in this book, “Meeting God at Midnight.”
Writing a book can be a long, involved process. How long did it take you to write this book?
Years. I think the poems themselves were written over the course of about three years. Then there was another year-and-a-half or so of editorial process.
What advice would you give to other authors?
Hire an editor. Expect to pay a lot. I’m not talking about a friend, who will tell you that your book is great even if it’s not. I’m not talking about the local English teacher who might correct your grammar. I’m talking about a real book editor who can make your work sing. Your drafts are never as good as you think they are. Quality book editors separate the chaff from the seed, leaving you with the best story you can deliver.
Don’t hold onto work that is mediocre. There were poems that I love that didn’t make it into this book. Sometimes they didn’t fit the themes. Other times they just weren’t great. Only put the stellar pieces into your book. “Kill your darlings.”
Is this your first book? What other books have you written?
I coauthored a book on addiction recovery, which became an Amazon.com #1 bestseller, titled Ending Addiction for Good. I wrote that book under my secular name, Constance Scharff. In my “day job,” I’m an internationally recognized expert in the field of addiction and addiction recovery and speak all over the globe on the subject of addiction. You can check out some of my international presentations on YouTube, if that’s of interest to you.
Who do you envision your audience is for this poetry?
I think there are several audiences for this book. The first audience is Jews who seek a spiritual connection to their traditions. So much of Jewish practice can be experienced as dry or rote, but there’s a whole lot more to who we are than what happens in a Torah service. This book is in part about accessing the spiritual, the ecstatic, the inspiring – and cultivating that in your religious practice. We don’t have to leave Judaism to find rich traditions that include meditation, contemplative practices, ecstatic experience, even trance and dance! It’s all here if you look for it.
The second audience is women – Jewish or gentile – who have struggled with infertility and those who are barren – as well as the people who love them. In Judaism in particular, there is tremendous pressure to have children, to be part of the lineage that maintains the next generation. We are a people and when you have no children, you have no place in the synagogue or in community life. Although more progressive synagogues will try to make space for women without children, our rituals revolve around family; there isn’t much to be done about that. What do you do with that reality when your heritage and faith are important to you? I can’t stop being Jewish and yet I can’t live with a constant feeling of non-belonging. These poems work through those issues, as well as some of the stupid, thoughtless things people say and do when you can’t have kids.
I also wrote this book for rabbis, spiritual counselors, and psychologists who work with those who are having difficulty building families. Many do not know what to say to women (or men) in this situation. This book will give insight into the experience of barrenness and the despair that comes with it, along with the opportunity for tremendous growth.
A third audience I was thinking of when I wrote this book is those who were abused as children. I suffered devastating child abuse, and while it certainly changed me and made me the person I am, what happened no longer rules my life. One of the lessons I’ve learned by being unable to bear children is that you pick up the pieces and move on. In one of my poems, I talk about taking those broken bits and turning them into a mosaic, into something beautiful. That’s how I like to think of my life, as a work of art. I think that anyone can take their brokenness and sculpt it into something meaningful, but it takes work and commitment and courage to do so.
What kind of response have you received so far?
I have been absolutely blessed with the response I have received to “Meeting God at Midnight.” The first critic I sent it to called it “a work of art,” which absolutely blew me away. Listen, I’m realistic. The material in the first part of the book is challenging. And yet, readers stick with it as the experience changes from brokenness to hopefulness to joy. I mean, isn’t that what our lives are like anyway? We suffer and then we use that suffering to build good works. We can’t live in misery. We have to move on and make something of our tattered lives.
Perhaps the most straightforward response to my work came from a young woman I met on a recent trip to South Africa. She said upon reading the first few poems in my book, “This isn’t that boring rhyming stuff we read in school.” Her mother laughed saying, “No. These are poems you can actually understand.” As an author, that response is heartwarming. I don’t need to be acclaimed for creating high-brow work that “normal” people can’t make heads or tails of. I want to tell stories that inspire people to take hardship and make something of it. I want people who feel like they are marginalized in their lives or their communities or even in their own minds, to know that they matter and have something extraordinary to give from their pain.
I want to emulate those who inspire me. One of my greatest heroes is Viktor Frankl. He survived the Nazi death camps to write about meaning, that human beings need meaning in order to live vibrant lives. Elie Wiesel. Nelson Mandela. Maya Angelou. They didn’t have privileged histories, but they were able to use their experience and pain to lead others to a better life. That’s what I hope my work does.
In particular, women who have had miscarriages or cannot have children share that they find solace in my experience, knowing that they are not alone in their despair and that there is hope of creating a life that has meaning, even if there is no family to build from.
What are you working on next?
My next book, which is in the editorial process now, is a novel. It’s about the visionary experience of the modern day prophet. Although Jews have closed the scripture and no longer allow prophecy, I do not believe that God got the memo. I absolutely believe that God still speaks to us, still sends prophetic visions to some who are “attuned” to that channel, as it were. My next book is about the visions that one contemporary Jewish prophet sees, how seeing them tears her apart as she tries to understand them in the context of modern Judaism, and the conversations she has with God about what she is to do with the visions she has, which show a horrific future for humankind. I hope to have it published before the end of 2015.