Perle Besserman Talks About the Pros and Cons of Being a Writer

by Perle Besserman

First: What I love most about writing is being visited by characters who invite themselves onto the stage of my mind (or heart, or imagination, or dream life, or whatever you choose to call that place that is no actual “place” but is more real than the desk or sidewalk or traffic light in front of you) to enact their life dramas in their own words for me to write down.  Sometimes I feel like a medium at a séance, channeling people out of the akashic ether, people neither alive or dead, past nor present, factual nor fictional–but oh so palpable–moving, breathing, gossiping, fighting, laughing, crying; storying forth, each in his or her own inimitable voice– tugging my sleeve, Ancient Mariner-like, desperately spilling over with stories.  These characters are so compelling that I want to hang out with them for hours at a time . . . forgetting to eat, sleep, go to the toilet . . .

This oddness started early on.  I was about nine when I published my first story, about an ant named Penny.  But when I think back on it, these visitations started even earlier.  I can remember being five years old, sitting in my bedroom talking out loud to whoever decided to show up that particular day, “getting into it”, as my mother would say when I came into the kitchen speaking like an Irish housemaid or a Swedish witch, or an ancient Chinese sage.  It helped, of course, that I was a voracious reader: Dickens, Nancy Drew, Greek Myths, bowdlerized editions of Shakespeare’s plays for kids, Marvel Comics, the backs of cereal boxes, toothpaste tube ingredients–anything in print. And that my dad and I would read together every night before bed.  And before I could read, that he’d tell me stories he’d make up himself.

Second: What I don’t love most about writing is being too busy dealing with publishers demanding I “promote” my books, create a “brand” or a Facebook Page, get my name “out there” (I’ve yet to learn where “out there” is despite my thirty plus years of writing over twenty books and who knows how many stories). What I also don’t love most about writing is having my attention diverted from my characters by having to push and shove through a mob intent on becoming the next best-selling, million-dollar-advance-author.  Or the bookstore that’s closing down the week before I’m schedule to give a reading; or the brilliant editor who’s been sacked on the day she decides to acquire my novel; or the stunning online literary journal that’s published my work announcing that this will be their last issue . . . In other words, while I love writing, I don’t love marketing my writing.  I don’t even like the word “marketing,” which, for me, is a distortion of what I’ve always happily associated with farmers’ markets, and craft markets, and street fairs–a turmoil of vegetables and cheeses and silken scarves and pottery and someone playing the saxophone for quarters, and, down the block, a woman with a long blonde pigtail in a purple pinafore sitting at a little table selling her self-published poems wrapped in handmade rice paper covers.


Perle Besserman is a recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem. Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.”  Houghton Mifflin published her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage, and her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, North American Review, and Bamboo Ridge, among others.  Her books have been recorded and released in both audio and e-book versions and translated into over ten languages.  Her most recent books of creative non-fiction are A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan) and Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers, coauthored with Manfred Steger (Wisdom Books). Two novels, Kabuki Boy, and Widow Zion, and Yeshiva Girl, a story collection, are forthcoming from Aqueous Books, Pinyon Publishing, and Homebound Publishing, respectively.

Perle holds a doctorate in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and has lectured, toured, taught, and appeared on television, radio, and in two documentary films about her work in the US, Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, and the Middle East.  She currently divides her time between Honolulu, Hawai’i and Melbourne, Australia.

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