On Writing Jacob’s Folly

by Rebecca Miller

I started with one image: a fireman peeing on his front lawn, at the moment between night and dawn, just as the darkness began to drain from the sky. I knew his last name was Senzatimore. I had known a young man with that name—he was, in fact, the assistant editor on my last film—and the grandeur of the name bewitched me. Senzatimore means “without fear” in Italian. It has an aura of the Middle Ages, of our more primitive, real selves, when names could be wishes, or properties of being, and had not devolved to mere accidents of birth. I wanted my man to be a kind of Titan because then his fall—the fall my hunch told me was coming in the story—would be all the more meaningful. And another element came to me as I wrote Leslie Senzatimore peeing on his front lawn: a spirit creature, some mischievous, malevolent entity, which at the time I saw as a soul frozen between lives like a spat-out chunk of bread stuck between two harp strings. I saw him looking down on Leslie, and laughing.

Masha was not, at first, Jewish. She began as a purely destructive force (even though she was to become the “true heart’s core” of the book, and the most creative element). I only realized that she was Jewish after I encountered several large Hasidic families rowing boats in Prospect Park. I became totally mesmerized by the workings of their clans, especially the women, who were wearing long sleeves, thick stockings, and wigs on a hot day in August. Looking back on it I see that my fascination was the beginning of a need to get inside that way of life. Perhaps, in understanding these people who were so immersed in their tradition, I would achieve some understanding of my own Jewishness. So I followed my nose, and it led me down a very long rabbit hole. I began to read Isaac Bashevis Singer and fell in love with his magical, folk-inspired stories. I then began to read Jewish folk tales, and got lost in that dark world of demons and possession. I read Martin Buber’s Tale of the Hasidim—I listened to the entire Old Testament on CD, read by a man who had a booming voice that freaked out my children on the drive to school. I read and read and read. I could have gone on for the rest of my life, but finally I am a storyteller, not a scholar—I took what I needed. I spent crucial time with an Orthodox family in Long Island, and the mother became a kind of informal advisor to me, answering endless email queries and allowing me to stay in their home. During this time, I wrote the parts of my story I knew enough to write—islands emerging from a great lake of ignorance. One day, I was reading a little article written by a Hasidic Canadian woman. In it, she mentioned that a fly had followed her daughter around all day, and she joked that maybe the fly was a soul, doing penance. I stopped, my heart racing: was there reincarnation in Judaism? To make a long story short, there is a kabbalistic doctrine of reincarnation: Gilgul is the return to earth of Jewish souls who have to burn off some sinfulness. These souls can come back as humans, or in the form of animals. The truly wicked come back as demons. Singer had written about demons that talk to humans. My “spiritual being” was a reincarnated man who came as a fly to destroy Leslie, using Masha! But why? Who was my fly in the past?

For some reason, when I made my last film, I read about the Marquis de Sade every night. I found it oddly comforting. I was fascinated by the relationship of de Sade with his valet, whom he called “La Jeunesse”. Now I decided that my fly had been the valet of a libertine… and he was a Jew. Now came another flood of research, facilitated by a brilliant young scholar, Max McGuinness. The tiny population of Jews in 18th-century Paris was difficult to penetrate—they left few traces, but there was an inspector Buhot who was in charge of them. He kept track of every Jew coming in and out of the city. He stamped their papers, giving them leave to stay for three months at a time. So, it was the police reports that gave me the greatest clues to my subject. And then came the gift: Jacob’s voice, like a real person speaking in my ear. Sometimes writing in his voice felt like dictation. The trick was finding a way to write Leslie’s and Masha’s sequences when the fly is a more neutral observer. Then, those characters imbue the text; Jacob’s flamboyant ironies and ornate figurative language are supplanted by a more contemporary idiom.

The biggest challenge, once the three main characters were breathing entities with wills, was the structure. I wanted the whole story to be braided in the shape of a three-stranded Challah bread. In order to create balance, though not a perfect symmetry, I put the whole book on small squares of index card which were color coded: red for Jacob in the past, yellow for Jacob in the present, green for Leslie, blue for Masha. This way it was laid out sort of like a painting, and I could create a visual balance. That was helpful. The calibration of the structure was painstaking. Once my editor, Jonathan Galassi, suggested that we were close but that he thought we needed to see Leslie Senzatimore three more times. That took me a year, because really the whole book needed to be restructured, and then as I reworked it I saw all the rewrites I needed to do.

Much as I try to recount the process of writing, there is a little falsehood embedded in it, because the truth is I don’t remember how the big leaps came about. There is a kind of amnesia that descends once you’re done.
Rebecca Miller is the author of the short-story collection Personal Velocity, her feature-film adaptation of which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (FSG, 2008), which she also adapted for the screen. Jacob’s Folly is available this month.