Our long gravel drive was puddled and muddy, so there was no way the huge semi carrying my new book, Miriam’s Well: A Modern Day Exodus, could slip-slide to our house without asking for trouble, plus there’s the matter of the power lines it would rip through in the journey. So between ordering bierocks at Free State Brewery with Daniel and going home, we decided to meet the driver in an alley behind a local grocery store.
From there, it was a matter of a whole lot of weight lifting: 200 books x 575 pages each + the weight of boxes and packing materials makes for strong arms, and thank heavens, I had Daniel’s along with mine helping load 20 boxes into the back of the peanut-butter-colored CRV, then unload them onto the kitchen table, then unearth all the books, flatten all the boxes, and behold the great amount of Miriams. Then we noticed the table legs were starting to wobble, and given the weight of the Exodus, who could blame it? When the cat insisted on inspecting and climbing the piles, although she’s only 5 pounds, we started to worry. I’ve seen small kittens knock over big wood dressers before by how much force they exert from their back legs when they jump. We had to quickly haul vast armfuls of books to the shelves where I keep my inventory.
Now it’s time to pack and ship these babies. But first this moment: an overcast next morning, the branches in the distance only moving slightly in pale wind, the promise of spring on the wing, and just in time for Passover, a holiday celebrating the weight of freedom and lightness of liberation, my novel, 14 years in the making, ready to start its journey out into the world.
What to call a fictional women’s collective running a potato farm in Moab, Utah in my novel Miriam’s Well? What else but “Mrs. Potato Head” (yes, the Mrs. instead of Ms. is an ironic touch, which fits the women’s sense of humor). Likewise, when naming a L.A. non-profit organization that trains inner-city teens to grow and cook their own food, Miyako the cat and I came up with the name “Eat the Earth.” Because this novel retells a biblical story, that of the Exodus but from Miriam’s point-of-view and set in Contemporary America, I named a North Carolina ecovillage “Garden of Eden” and a utopian Idaho community “New Egypt.”
Such is the thrill of writing fiction: you get to make up all kinds of stuff, and name towns, organizations, and projects, not to mention characters, which is a little like naming our children. Sometimes the name came to me easily, and sometimes in a dream, glimpse, or great suggestion from a pal. Of course, there were also many real places, plucked from travel guides and web searches, because of their names, such as Maine’s Mount Desert Island where I placed the made-up Acadian Dream Inn, and Idaho’s East Hope, sporting a fictional restaurant with the slogan, “Eat and get out!” I even got to dream up an arts parade to benefit a San Francisco hospice at the height of the AIDS crisis, titled “Soul Train,” and stealing heavily from my own experience of once organizing an arts parade in Lawrence which also featured marching existentialists who regularly called out questions like, “What about the children?” and “What does it all mean?”
Along with this, since the book has 35 pages of recipes, I got to make up meals, then track down recipes from wonderful cooks and bakers I know (thanks so much to Nancy O’Connor, Jayni and Frank Carey, Meg Heriford, Kris Hermanson, Lauren Pacheco, and Janet Majure) or write out my own made-up recipes. Of course, this entailed eating real food from fictional impulses, but that’s all for the good.
Now that the book is about to go the printer so it can mosey on out at the end of March, I’m doing another kind of making-stuff-up-as-I-go, organizing readings and workshops in various states and states of mind. Although we live in a time when the real is seemingly far weirder than fiction, it’s nice to know there’s ways to immerse ourselves in fiction that I hope brings new slants of light on more universal truths.
You can see a short video about the book at my Indiegogo page, another way to make things up by selling books in advance to help fund the book tour, right here.
In this modern day retelling of the Exodus, Miriam wanders the political and spiritual desert of a changing America, torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a Black father and white mother, her yearning for home, and her brothers Aaron and Moses. Beginning in the middle of the 1965 New York City blackout, when stuck in the pitch-black subway somewhere in the East River, Miriam's family encounters a mysterious rabbi, who persuades the family to go to Israel where the family is caught in the 6-Day War. The losses from the war break apart the family, scattering Moses to western Kansas to live with evangelical Christians, Aaron to New York City to practice corporate law, and Miriam all over America. An astonishing cook and singer, Miriam has a knack for showing up to feed and help people at at landmark events, including People's Park during the Summer of Love, the Wounded Knee encampment in South Dakota, the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. As she seeks the promised land, she shows her people, and eventually herself, how to turn the chaos and despair of our times into music, meals, and miracles.
The novel also includes over 35 pages of real recipes from the fictional cooking and baking Miriam does throughout the book, including delicious dishes from Nancy O'Connor's The Rolling Prairie Cookbook, Jayni and Frank Carey's The New Kansas Cookbook, Janet Majure's Recipes Worth Sharing, and Meg Heriford of the Ladybird Cafe.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg's retelling of Exodus is a sprawling tapestry, woven of all the threads of a modern-day Miriam's ancestors, and her own present and future. From the Badagry Point of No Return and a sukkah in the Sinai Desert to a series of camps, communes, and cafes all across America, Miriam's Well delves into the mystery of how we find our place in the world, within our families, even within ourselves. ~ Bryn Greenwood, New York Times bestselling author of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things
I fell in love with Miriam’s wisdom and her sweet engagements with the people she meets along her lush and vibrant travels. I was plunged to the depths of her nightmares, soared with her song, and emerged blessed to have made the journey with her. Miriam’s Well is the latest terrific book by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg. ~ Jocelyn Cullity, author of Amah & the Silk-Winged Pigeons
Miriam’s Well is truly a hearty feast, and a song of life’s bounty, of its “fragile miracle,” of its sorrows and its cycling, its joy, its mystery, its sorrows, its journeying. The vibrantly moving and compelling storytelling is immediate, intimate, and resounding; bringing us into a complex weaving of tales, told and untold, from the Biblical epic to the painful legacy of United States, which frame the story of one brave woman with an inexhaustible well of caring. Daughter, sister, lover, neighbor, friend, mother, Miriam is one extraordinary ordinary woman whose life is emblematic of our absolutely interdependent web of relationships, physical and metaphysical, over the seasons of a lifetime and the histories of our own time. In Mirriam-Goldberg’s rendering of the web of story that is Miriam’s, Aaron’s, Joseph’s, Moses’, and our own, we are brought into the gift of tenderness and compassion in heartening human response to our historical conundrums. The work is big hearted, embracing, and wonderfully embodies love’s plenty and the power and the beauty of the story, the song, the telling, to remember and transform us. ~ Gale Jackson, author of Put Your Hands on Your Hips and Act Like a Woman: Song, Dance, Black History and Poetics in Performance
Miriam’s Well is a page-turner that gently pulls the reader into the heroine’s quest while also chronicling the country’s cultural revolutions, gastronomic recipes, political causes, women’s communes, spirituality, the AIDS crisis, Oklahoma and Twin Tower terrorist attacks. A compelling writer, Mirriam-Goldberg’s Miriam’s Well captures a quintessential American story, its multitude of nations, of immigrants and indigenes, in the quest towards a meaningful national identity. ~ Omofolabo Ajayi-Soyinka, Professor of Theatre, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, University of Kansas
This startlingly insightful and quietly confrontational novel by poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg courageously inserts the biblical prophet Miriam into many of the most daunting and provocative ethical conflicts since the early 60's civil rights revolution, as though we are Israel after the Exodus from slavery and before the Promised Land. Mirriam-Goldberg’s story calls on readers to consider "Have I done enough?" and "What is it that the Lord requires of you?" A surprising page turner featuring multiple plot twists and turns, the moral challenges and clarity deserve more than attention, they demand debate. Do yourself a favor and share it with friends. ~ Rabbi Mark H. Levin, author of Praying the Bible
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg brings back the charged days of the 1970's revolutions and their aftermath in the decades to come in her novel Miriam's Well. For those of us who lived through those times, the book is a reminder of their importance.” ~ Thomas Pecore Weso, author of Good Seeds: A Menominee Indian Food Memoir.
With this novel, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg has extended her considerable poetic talents to the narrative form, giving us sustenance for the body (her character's recipes) as well as inspiration for the spirit and the mind. A masterful adaptation of Biblical wisdom to the challenges of the modern age, entertaining while informing all along the way. And the storyline provides a marvelous overview of the cultural inflection points in 20th century American history along with an unforgettable character experiencing them. This is one not to be missed! ~ Mark Scheel, author of A Backward View: Stories and Poems
Would your book club like to read Miriam's Well? If so, just have your club buy six or more books (free shipping!), and Caryn will visit your club via video or phone conferencing or, if you're near where she is, in person. contact Caryn here.
Book Tour: Here is where I've given readings of this book. I'm happy to come to your community too.
Lawrence, Kansas -- Book Launch sponsored by the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, Lawrence Public Library, The Merc, and the Raven Bookstore.
Topeka, Kansas - Writing the Tree of Life: Midrash & Personal Mythology to Revision our Lives: Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, A writing workshop based on Miriam's Well to unearth, explore, and revise our life's myths.
Topeka, Kansas - Miriam's Well Book Launch & Havdalah Service.
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma - Writing the Tree of Life: Midrash & Personal Mythology to Revision Our Lives and Miriam's Well Reading, Temple B'Nai Israel. Workshop and reading followed by lunch featuring recipes from Miriam's Well.
Wichita, Kansas - Miriam's Well Reading: Watermark Bookstore.
Prairie Village, Kansas - Miriam's Well Reading & Brunch, Cafe Ohev at Temple Ohev Shalom.
Minneapolis, Minnesota - Miriam's Well Reading and Party, Mojo Coffee Gallery. Reading with delectable treats made from the novel.
Lincoln, Nebraska - Miriam's Well Reading and Reception: Burkholder Project, part of First Fridays.
Lincoln, Nebraska - Miriam's Well Reading & Reception: Francie & Finch Bookstore, featuring q & a, and a reception with recipes from the novel to try out.
Overland Park, Kansas - Writing the Tree of Life workshop: Jewish Community Center's Day of Discovery.
Pittsburg, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Pittsburg State University.
Topeka, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Washburn University.
Kansas City - Miriam's Well KC Launch at Function Junction: short readings from the novel featuring Susan Hancock singing some of the songs Miriam sings, plus treats prepared from recipes in the novel.
Montpelier, Vermont - Miriam's Well Reading, sponsored by the library, Temple Beth Jacob, and Bear Pond Books.
Lawrence, Kansas - Writing Jewish Symposium: Sponsored by Jewish Studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation, day-long symposium featuring Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Renee Perelmutter, and Rena Rossner, and recipes from Miriam's Well.
Atchison, Kansas - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Benedictine College.
Hutchinson, KS - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Hutchinson Community College.
Emporia, KS - Visiting Writer & Miriam's Well Reading at Emporia State University.
Springfield, N.J. - Reading at Sha'arey Shalom: talk and reading.
Madison, Wisconsin - Miriam's Well Reading & Havdalah Service: short Havdalah service (to welcome in the new week) and reception.
Lawrence, Kansas - Special Event: Osher Institute, University of Kansas: reading, discussion, and reception featuring recipes from the book.
Kansas City, MO - Read Local at the Plaza Library: reading and discussion of Miriam's Well.
Deborah sees the world both through her own eyes and through her camera. What difference does it make for her to look at people, events, her own responses as if she were taking a photograph?
Do you believe the death of Deborah's brother catalyzed her parents' divorce? What difference might it have made if he had lived?
People under severe stress do strange things, particularly when in the middle of a horrendous divorce. Consider some of the actions of Deborah's parents in this light, and discuss what might have been behind such actions (such as the ivory liquid/plants incident, or the knish-baking incident).
From reading about Fatima, what do you think her backstory is? What does the novel suggest about the losses and hardships she suffered? In this light, how do you see Fatima's decision to distance herself from Deborah?
What is Eshe's role in this story? How is she an important mentor to Deborah in unexpected ways?
Some people, after reading about Deborah's father, would suggest he suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that makes it hard for him to read social cues and understand both people's actions toward him and his own reactions. How do you see his motivations and interactions with others?
Why does Deborah choose to live with her father?
Why do you think Jeanine brushes off the loss of her social work career rather casually? What seems to appeal to her about the new work in her life?
When Deborah suggests to Boy he can be anything he wants in the world, he tells her, "That’s just a pipe dream. I’m signed up long term for the rags-on-the-road life." Why does he believe his options are so limited, and are then indeed that limited?
Liz has traveled all over the world but ends up in 'Jersey, "like I'm never been anywhere," she says. Why is she so satisfied with her life, and what do you think she's found in the store, a home, and "Uncle" Carl?
Roger spends a lot of time reading classics, particularly about women in complex social situations in the 1800s, as well as reading comics and watching TV. How might these function well as his way of coping?
The rabbi doesn't talk about spirituality much, yet he seems to be very focused on working with a difficult congregation and doing all he can to help Deborah. What do you see as his motivation?
How does Mrs. P contradict or reinforce the myth of a Holocaust survivor? Also, why do you think cleaning and cooking are so important to her?
Food is a major theme throughout the book with Deborah's father struggling to sustain his weight loss, Deborah's mother having difficulty getting herself to eat under stress, Mrs. P focused on creating perfect meals at regular intervals, Liz somewhat obsessed with sweets, and other characters motivated by their next meal. How do you see food functioning for various characters as more than just nutrition?
Why do you think Deborah's mother wrote all the letters (and chose to reveal her life), and why do you think Deborah's father hid all the letters?
What is Mark's role -- from start to finish -- in this novel? What gifts does he give Deborah?
Meet Deborah Shapiro, a New Jersey teenage photographer whose parents’ outrageous divorce lands her in the biggest flea market in the free world, a Greek diner with immigration issues, a New York City taxi company, a radical suburban synagogue, a hippie-owned boutique, bowling alleys, beaches, and bagel shops. As her home explodes, a first love, a series of almost-mothers, and a comical collection of eccentric mentors show Deborah how to make art out of a life, and life from the wreckage of a broken home. Join Kansas poet laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg as she explores loss, grief, and bad behavior with humor and imagination. This coming of age story illuminates how a daring heart can turn a broken girl into a woman strong enough to craft a life of art, soul, and beauty.
I just finished reading this book, and I am damn near speechless because I love it so much. I found myself laughing and crying throughout and not wanting it to end. The Divorce Girl is wonderful and soulful. ~Kelley Hunt, international-touring rhythm and blues singer and songwriter
A saavy and generous-hearted book, rich and gritty and wise. There have been many well-intentioned but formulaic takes on what it is to be a child of divorce, but this unique and fearless novel, beautifully written by poet Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, is fresh and unpredictable, pulsing with its young protagonist’s wit, determination, and courage as she journeys through painful and frightening times, transporting herself by sheer force of will from a shattered world to a world made whole through self-determination and the saving grace of art. ~Patricia Traxler, author of Blood and Forbidden Words
The Divorce Girl itself is.....wickedly, subversively funny. In fact, in its open-minded view of Jewish culture and knowledge of how children ultimately discover the stealth of their parents, I dare say that this is the novel Mordecai Richler would have written had he born a girl. Richler had the Boy Wonder in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz; Mirriam-Goldberg has Boy in The Divorce Girl. In case you don’t know, this is as high a praise as I can offer a novelist....This is likely the choicest read you’ll open this year. I loved it. -- Hubert O'Hearn, Herald de Paris
Full of great characters and charm! ~Laura Moriarty, author of The Center of Everything
When her family explodes, Deborah shuts down. Her world shrinks to what she sees through her camera's viewfinder. As she focuses on images she creates, her life emerges, filled with possibilities beyond bruises, beyond self-destruction. Art creates for her a life she could not imagine in any other way. The Divorce Girl is a visionary novel, a powerful story of pain and healing. ~Peggy Shumaker, Alaska State Writer Laureate, and author of Just Breathe Normally
The Divorce Girl is a fresh, interesting story done well. By turns sad and sweet, angry and funny, the book brings you right into Deborah’s life, into the house with her, into the flea-market booth exposed to the elements, behind the camera lens as she looks at her world not as a participant but as an observer. The writing is full of lovely surprises. Mirriam-Goldberg keeps her poet’s eye for detail and drops nice turns of phrase into the prose. ~ Lisa McLendon, Wichita Eagle
The Divorce Girl is as smart and funny as its teenage protagonist, whose struggles to make sense of the chaos into which her family descends will keep you riveted. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg delivers a story that is poignant yet sharp, timeless yet fresh. Her characters come alive on the page, real as our own parents and siblings and assortment of other zany relatives. This is a book that will make you care about them all. ~ Katherine Towler, author of the Snow Island Trilogy
Divorce can often send children into turmoil. The Divorce Girl is a novel set in the 1970s; Deborah Shapiro copes with her parents splitting in her teenage years by seeing a whole broad stroke of the world and its many curious characters through it all. A coming of age tale with a strong dose of humor all throughout, The Divorce Girl is a must for fiction collections, not to be missed. ~ Midwest Book Review
At the beginning of The Divorce Girl, 15-year-old Deborah confidently asserts, "I knew all about divorce." Beset by challenges, adventures, and difficulties, but always finding transcendence, Mirriam-Goldberg's pitch-perfect narrator grows on the reader while she grows toward the light of her womanhood and her art. Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, long a celebrated Kansas poet and nonfiction writer, gives us a winning fictional debut. ~Thomas Fox Averill, Writer-in-residence, Washburn University, is the author of rode, awarded Outstanding Western Novel of 2011.
The Divorce Girl is wonderful and substantive. Not a flash in the pan or a novelty, this book will heal people who have been through similar experiences. ~Denise Low, Poet Laureate of Kansas 2007-2009, author of Ghost Stories of the New West and Natural Theologies: Essays About Literature of the New Middle West
Beyond being a terrific read, The Divorce Girl teaches us life's important spiritual lessons; that pain can inspire creativity and that art and creativity is the best antidote to despair. Like Dan Savage's life-saving book, It Gets Better, this novel will help children of a difficult divorce see that the light at the end of the tunnel is not always another approaching train. Similarly, the book may inspire divorced and divorcing adults to do better for their children's sake. This is a lot to ask of a novel that we read for pleasure, and the author delivers. ~Harriet Lerner, author of The Marriage Rules and The Dance of Anger
Excerpt: Chapter One
The moment I saw Dad’s car instead of Mom’s in the driveway, I knew it was too late. I had been trying to photograph the falling leaves ever since the school bus had dropped me off at the bottom of our horseshoe-shaped street. But when I spotted that car through the viewfinder, I let the camera fall to my chest and walked quickly, my books heavy in my arms as the future rushed toward me.
As soon I crossed the threshold, I saw Dad just where I expected him – on the living room sofa, waiting. One half of me obediently walked over and sat down beside him, ready to hear whatever bad news had brought him home from work in the middle of the afternoon. The other half of me lifted my new 35 millimeter camera and stepped back to frame the shot, focusing on the heavy drapes behind us, the crisp lines of the plastic-covered cushions, while blurring our faces. When he said, “I have some bad news to tell you,” one part of me nodded as the other snapped the shutter. Yet both parts of me knew that this room, this house, this family, were already turning into something different, just as the black screen of a Polaroid picture loses its blankness for an image.
“Deborah, your mother and I are getting divorced.”
Even though I knew it was coming, I still jumped a little inside. Then I calmed myself by imagining him moving out, like other dads, into a North Jersey apartment. He would come every Saturday to take my little brother, sister, and me bowling or ice-skating. There would be less yelling in the house, and I’d probably end up seeing Dad more.
“I thought that might happen,” I said. That’s when the other me, not so calm about the future, felt suddenly nauseous. I blinked, thinking how strange it was that I was scared.
We stood up, oddly formal with each other, as we spun inside our heads a picture of what life would look like a year from now. There would be alimony checks and phone calls. There’d be bowling alleys, Pop-Tarts for breakfast, Sunday afternoon matinees with popcorn for lunch. We’d visit Dad at his messy little apartment and joke about his inability to cook spaghetti. I’d seen it happen with the neighbors and in the movies on television. I was fifteen years old, and I knew all about divorce.