The Penmen Profile: Short Story Writer Dalia Rosenfeld

By Rebecca LeBoeuf

Photo Credit Efrat Vital

Over the past couple decades, Dalia Rosenfeld‘s short stories have appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Los Angles Review and Moment Magazine. Her first collection, “The Worlds We Think We Know,” filled with humor and heartbreak, published this spring. The book garnered praise from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Bustle and her peers.

Rosenfeld writes about Israeli, American and Jewish experiences. Returning from Israel this May, she is touring major cities in the U.S.

Have you always written?
Actually, yes! My earliest memory is sitting on my father’s lap in front of his green manual typewriter and liking the feel of the keys under my fingers (perhaps that also explains why I took up piano later on). What’s interesting is that I didn’t have a particularly vivid imagination as a child, or a long attention span. So, while I dabbled in paragraph or page-long stories, much of my writing took the form of letters to family members, expressing things I thought were more persuasive on the page than in person: an apology to my mother after a squabble; an entreaty to my brother to let me tag along to a neighborhood baseball game; a long rhyming poem-plea for a dog, which I later set to music when no dog appeared at my doorstep.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
When a story is going well, it writes itself and I’m not conscious of any process at all. One sentence simply flows into the next, and before I know it I have a scene, without having mapped it out beforehand. I’ll give you an example. A few months ago, in Tel Aviv, where I live, I saw an ancient, frail man in a wheelchair being pushed by an even more ancient, frail man. I was so beholden by this sight that I knew I had to write about it in order to understand what it meant; but what I ended up writing took me in a totally different direction. In the scene, the main character describes the wheelchair incident to one friend after another, and is dismayed that no one understands why she finds it compelling. But when she describes it to her ex-husband, he immediately “gets it,” and the scene is transformed into one about their relationship. So, in this particular story, the process started out with an image that served as a catalyst for an unanticipated change in plot and character development.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them? 
A writer always knows her characters better than the reader, and I often struggle to find ways to capture a character’s essence that are nuanced, but not too nuanced. Finding that balance is hard, because you are trying to elicit, in the span of a few pages, a strong feeling on the part of the reader about someone they have never met, and the temptation to hit them over the head by overdramatizing a scene is strong, as is the temptation to underwrite with the hope that the reader will get a feel for a character by the things that are not said and spelled out. The “less is more” approach.

Setting is a killer for me. I hate it. Or maybe fear it is more accurate. But I know setting is often considered a character, and I try to treat it as such. Maybe I cheat a little by describing a place through how a character relates to it more than by its geographical features. One day I would like to learn how to describe, in a fresh way, a setting sun, or a shadow cast over a mountain range. Or a mountain range.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
Ugh. I’ve discovered that patience and perseverance are virtues that can be imposed on you against your will. Having a degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop definitely helped get my foot in the door, but that also had a way of working against me, because knowing a story submission was likely to be read sometimes led me to send things out prematurely. When I finished my collection and found an agent, it was like finding a soulmate. Especially since she didn’t ask for revisions—hooray!  But the road to publication required as much patience as placing individual stories, so this process too felt like it would never end, and at a certain point I was convinced the manuscript would circulate forever, not in a slush pile but somewhere in space, and that that would be its fate. And then we got an offer, and I regained my sanity.

How do you market your work?
Through interviews like this, public readings, conferences, friends. I’m not social media savvy, so there’s a lot I’m not doing that I probably should be. I guess you do what you’re comfortable with, and leave the rest to fate.

What do you wish you knew when you first started writing?
That I would improve. That the act of writing itself leads to better writing, so you shouldn’t succumb to dry spells. That dry spells are ok. That no story is finished until you have put it in a drawer for a week or a month, and are ready to return to it with fresh eyes. That with age comes wisdom.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
When I was young, Anne Frank and her diary. Of course, there was no inspiration in the horror that she went through, but the passion and urgency with which she wrote—not due to her circumstances, but because she was a writer—and the things she wrote about (first love, fights with her mother, observations about adolescence and about human nature in general) moved me in a way that made me want to write too.  I recently came across a quote of hers that is so straightforward but surely true: “Anyone who doesn’t write doesn’t know how wonderful it is.”

Later in high school, I discovered Nabokov’s “Lolita” in my father’s study and I remember him saying I wasn’t ready for it, so I started it that same day and was transformed. I actually didn’t care that much about the plot; I was too swept away by the language, the pure poetry in every sentence, the limitless ways words can be invested with power and beauty and emotion.  Nabokov taught me to read as a writer, even before I became one.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
The Hebrew Bible, both because I’m Jewish and because it’s such a great work of literature; Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” which I loved it when I read it, but was too young to unpeel all its layers. It’s on my list of books to reread. And the third would be a space on the shelf for a book yet to be written by a writer yet to be discovered, because it’s so rewarding to discover new writers who change the way you look at the world.

For more information on Rosenfeld, visit her website.