As a child, Judith Ormand was the only Black — and the only Jew — in a small insular Pennsylvania mountain village where she was raised by her white Christian grandparents. Now, she must reluctantly break her vow to never return to the town she learned to hate. During her one week visit, she buries and mourns her beloved grandmother, is forced to deal with the white boy who cruelly broke her heart, and is menaced by an old enemy. But with her traumatic discovery of a long buried secret, Judith finds more questions than answers about the prejudice that scarred her childhood.
Targeted Age Group:: Adult
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Last year, while on my book launch tour for “Jo Joe,” I gave the following talk at various venues, which answers this question:
Let me tell you a story about my novel “Jo Joe.”
To some extent it’s about a boy I once knew, who worked for us part-time after school, doing odd jobs around the house — when it wasn’t football season. Bob wasn’t very bright, at least not in those things I had been taught to measure intelligence. But once I explained to him what I needed or wanted — with clear step by step instructions — he would absorb those directions within himself. And even though Bob was taciturn, not trusting — I believe — in his ability to form the words to explain himself — after he thought a while about what I had said, he would tell me his ideas about how to make the work easier, better. Then, he did whatever it was I needed. Quite well.
As long as it was something physical that needed doing, something he could see in his mind as involving his hands and body, Bob was quite competent. That’s why, while he did poorly in school, barely passing, he was the high school’s star halfback.
Bob dreamed of avoiding out of the rut of a life that loomed before him. The answer, he decided, was that he would join the Navy right after high school. The Navy would give him his chance to make something of himself in a way his father and mother and grandparents never had. When he talked about the opportunities — the wide world that the Navy would open up to him and the skills he would learn — his eyes sparkled and words flowed from him.
About ten years after we moved away from that town, I was driving through and pulled into one of the gas stations. And there was Bob. Grown up and beaten down, filling my gas tank. He had been injured in a high school football game and the Navy simply wouldn’t take him, because he was broken.
For those of you who have already read my novel “Jo Joe”, you’ll recognize the story. That boy who really did exist was the inspiration for Joe Anderson. No, Joe Anderson is not Bob. But I did take pieces of details that I remembered about Bob and layered them onto Joe, fleshing him out, much as a sculptor adds slabs of clay to a skeletal armature before working it into shape.
My novel “Jo Joe” was first born when I was out walking with Watson, our Golden Retriever, along the dirt road that follows the stream behind our home. I can tell you exactly when I had the first flash of inspiration that sent me running home, to quickly write down the idea. But I can’t tell you the precise germination of the story, because it was a convergence of so many influences.
Bob was part of it.
However, like all my stories, “Jo Joe” also evolved out of my confusion over the way the world works and how cruel people can be to each other.
I often picture a hospital newborn nursery, filled with tiny bundles of unshaped humanity. Which one will be the phi-lan-thropist or artist or teacher? Which one the corrupt politician or drug dealer? What is it that can take an infant — so full of hope and potential — and make him or her hate?
Why is it that families who are brimming over with love can twist that love into something that destroys the lives of the very people they claim to care about?
How is it that communities who want only peace are so willing to send their young to kill and be killed in far away countries, which are filled with other communities who, in their hearts, also want only peace?
Those are the type of questions I often ponder. They frequently wake me up in the middle of the night, demanding that I do something with them.
But how did my litany of what are frankly unanswerable questions coalesce on that particular day into the novel “Jo Joe”?
I think it started with Bob. And the dirt road that runs along the stream behind our home.
And my memories of my first meal in the cafeteria as a college freshman.
At seventeen, I was a painfully shy girl. But I had made up my mind that once I got to college, I wouldn’t let my fear handicap me. So, there I was in the cafeteria, with a tray full of unappetizing food in my hands, and when I looked around for a place to sit, I saw a table of young women laughing and enjoying themselves. I steeled myself to ask to sit with them.
“May I?” I said, gesturing to the one empty chair at their table.
They all looked at me, surprised, I suppose, or maybe annoyed, or maybe just not wanting a stranger in their midst. They made me feel so uncomfortable that I retreated from their stares, and sat elsewhere. I don’t remember with whom.
I often wondered if their treatment of me had anything to do with the fact that my complexion was several shades lighter than theirs.
And so Judith Ormand, the protagonist of “Jo Joe” was born, from that brief moment in my first week in college, and from other similar interactions, in which strangers have been unwelcoming to others. I think it may be a tribal instinct, to circle the wagons, whenever outsiders try to break through, but that’s just one of the theories I’ve posed.
Judith was a woman I needed to write, because I ached to understand her – to understand them – and myself, too. Judith didn’t belong anywhere, not within the already established peg holes of our society. Black and white, with both Jewish and Christian antecedents. She is an outsider wherever she goes. And yet, her reactions to others, her own fears and anger, has caused her to make an even greater outsider of herself.
The downward spiral of prejudice. It can begin with one misunderstanding, one act of cruelty, but it doesn’t end there. We distrust because we are distrusted. We turn our backs on others because it’s easier than going face to face, and being forced to see our mirror selves within the eyes of strangers. My mind gave birth to Judith, because I needed to understand that and so much more.
So, all these influences converged on me, percolating ideas and characters. But that doesn’t mean I really know the original sources for my novels. When I sit down to write, or while I’m on walks, or drifting off to sleep, stories flow out of me, because of all those questions and life experiences and people or places I’ve known. Somehow my subconscious synthesizes all those influences, and develops them into stories I tell myself and feel compelled to write.
And so, it was on that walk with Watson that my subconscious first introduced Joe Anderson and Judith Ormand, and sparks began to fly.
That was about seven years ago. What took so long? Well, first Judith and Joe had to tell me their story, and I had to listen very carefully to them, to try to understand who they are, what drives and motivates them.
Yes, every author is something of a schizophrenic. We have characters in our heads talking to us, and when we get a certain glassy look in our eyes, you know that we are lost in the worlds these imaginary friends are helping us build.
It’s that world-building that makes or breaks a good story. It’s one thing to have interesting characters going through difficult times. But unless you have them living in a believable world, one that you, as an author – and your readers — can picture and understand – until you have an environment that shapes around the people in your story and molds how they move, see, grow, react and interact — those interesting characters will be nothing more than stick figures. Judith and Joe deserved better than that.
My husband Daniel was the first biographer of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Oxford don who created the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. In Daniel’s book, I learned that Tolkien was both a professor of Anglo-Saxon and a philogist – an expert on words and language. Tolkien had a theory that a culture’s mythology presupposes its language. So, he created his fantasy world of Middle Earth to provide the environment in which the mythology and society defined the languages. In other words, it was the structure of the world that established both the framework and the flesh of the story.
And so it is, the world that any author builds around her characters must be more than a stage setting. It must be integral to every breathing moment of the story. In fact, for me, the town of Black Bear, Pennsylvania is as much a character in “Jo Joe” as Judith and Joe are.
So, now let me tell you a bit about Black Bear. It was born years before that walk with Watson, when I first introduced Judith to Joe Anderson. It was born out of my relationship with Daniel.
Two writers living together, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. It could be a recipe for disaster. Or, if you are very lucky to find the right combination of minds and spirits, it can be – and is — a remarkably creative incubator of ideas and imagination. While most couples gossip about their neighbor’s antics, share their frustrations and triumphs from work and sometimes argue about bills, Daniel and I gossip about people who live only in our minds, share our frustrations and triumphs regarding plot developments and scene transitions, and we argue over split infinitives and the Harvard comma.
About 15 years ago – shortly after we had moved to the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains – Daniel and I created the town of Black Bear. It was just a sketch, loosely based on our village of Newfoundland, an imaginary place that someday we thought we might use as a fictional backdrop. Don’t get me wrong. Daniel and I do not collaborate on our fiction. Our novels and stories are very separate and individual. But we felt that it would be fun to build a world together using the same pool of invented locale and characters – something like Thorton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners or O’Hara’s Gibbsville.
For quite a while, Black Bear was an intellectual game we played. On long drives, we’d get lost in our shared fantasy, talking about the antics of the ambulance corps, the foibles of the dog kennel ladies, the firehall politics.
Then, it became more than a game. It became real — or at least as real as anything a novelist creates.
The first Black Bear story was Daniel’s novella Honor, [hold up Honor]. It’s about Jeff Smith, a man riddled with guilt over his actions or lack of them during the Vietnam War. Forced to face his past, he must come out from behind the mask of a life he had created. It’s a poignant story that has been known to literally make grown men cry, and it gave new dimensions and textures to our folie a deux of Black Bear.
So, when I came home from that walk with Watson, with my head filled with the gestating story of Judith Ormand and Joe Anderson, I had no doubt that it would be set in Black Bear. I took what Daniel had created and built on it. Jeff Smith, the protagonist of Honor, and his charming curmudgeon of a father-in-law AH became important secondary characters in “Jo Joe,” and I gave even more details to their backstory and personality quirks. In a similar vein, I added to the geography of Black Bear, even building a new small synagogue headed by Rabbi David and his wife Rebecca. – Temple Beth Shalom which wasn’t welcomed by everyone in town.
I could add to the world and to the stories of the people from Honor, but I had to accept the underlying facts that were already established, not just by what Daniel had written, but also by the characters and places I was creating. In other words, I had to be true to this new reality, even as it changed and evolved.
I’m not talking about the obvious things I couldn’t do, such as move the town from the mountains to the seashore, or make AH suddenly able to walk without his canes. I had to be true to the personalities and histories of the people and places. Once Judith and Joe told me who they were – and once Jeff and AH were defined by Daniel – I could no more force them to do things out-of-character, than I could force my mother to serve canned soup at a dinner party.
For instance, a friend of mine really wanted Joe Anderson to assert himself. Since some of you might not have read Jo Joe yet, I won’t say exactly what Marilyn wanted Joe to do, because it would be a spoiler about what really happened. But the fact is that what Marilyn wanted from the story, from Joe, would have required twisting Joe into something he isn’t and could never be, not the man who I now know as well as I know Daniel.
In fact, my detailed knowledge of my characters and the town is as intimate as my knowledge of Daniel. When I think of any of the people of Black Bear, say Martha, Judith’s grandmother, I see her, quite clearly. Her tightly coifed grey hair and thick short body that fills a room. I hear the clipped cadence of her soft, determined voice that could melt stone. I can even smell the rosewater she wears, and I ache for her heartbreak over her lost children and crushed dreams. No mother should have to bury her children; it’s unnatural and breaks something within her that not even the love of a granddaughter can mend.
Martha is one of my favorite characters in Black Bear. That’s why I’ve set my next Black Bear novel – Woof! A Love Story – several years before Jo Joe, so Martha who is dead in Jo Joe can be very much alive and poking her nose into other people’s business in Woof. And to answer a question that many people ask us, yes, Daniel and I have several other Black Bear stories in various stages. Woof is in a very early phase – the first draft – which is when I tell the story to myself, listening to the characters and trying to sense the terrain that maps their lives.
Daniel has just finished a young adult novel — Adam 5 — which is set in the outskirts of Black Bear. Rabbi David from Jo Joe plays a small but significant role in Adam 5. While awaiting the edit of Adam, Daniel has begun his next novel – Black Bear One – about the town’s volunteer ambulance corps. In Black Bear One, Daniel has absconded with my Jo Joe characters Joe Anderson and Rabbi David, and he has told me that he plans something for David – I can’t tell you what, but it makes me very unhappy. Still, a cardinal rule of our imagined world is that once one of us has taken over a character, the other has no say about what happens to that person, as long as the basic rules of the world and the character’s personality and backstory are maintained.
I think I may get even with Daniel in The Minyan, a novel that I’m currently researching about a woman’s Torah study group which will, by the way, involve Judith Ormand from Jo Joe. While I don’t plan to start writing The Minyan for at least another three years, I think I may appropriate Daniel’s character Jane Kleinman from Black Bear One and expose a truth about her that she has been trying to hide.
Not that all our stories are set in Black Bear. In fact, my novel — The Winter Boy — which will be published this autumn is as far from Black Bear as you can get. But there’s something seductive about this Pennsylvania town that pulls me back with stories that the characters keep telling me, and ethical, social situations that are so rich to mine.
What’s fun is that now Daniel and I aren’t the only ones playing this intellectual game.
The other week, David Zarko, the playwright, came to our studio to chat with Daniel and me. David is writing a play based on Daniel’s novella Honor, and he wanted to better understand the foundation of the story – the nine-tenths of the iceberg, so to speak, that’s beneath the surface of what Daniel wrote in this short book. He also needed to better understand the entire village of Black Bear, to keep his play an authentic extension of our world building.
So, we spent the afternoon, gossiping about Black Bear, and having a grand time of it. David has even added some new characters to the citizen-ry. I particularly like Fran, David’s purple-haired librarian and her wife Claude, a very quiet mouse of an artist. I can just imagine how the village folk are reacting to these two women who have recently arrived in town. In fact, I have come up with another germ of a novel that will feature Claude.
At one point in the afternoon, David asked Daniel and me about Bonnie — Jeff Smith’s wife and Judith Ormand’s cousin. Bonnie doesn’t appear in any of our books – neither those we’ve already published nor those we are currently writing. But her presence, as Jeff’s deceased wife is clearly felt in Honor and referenced in Jo Joe.
Though we had never before discussed the woman, never even thought much about her — without pause, Daniel and I started talking about Bonnie, as though we’ve known her all our lives.
“Bonnie is a petite woman, with small movements, who was always in her mother’s overbearing shadow,” Daniel said.
“But inwardly, she’s a rebel, who knows her own mind, and won’t be swayed by anyone, once she’s decided on something,” I added. “And when she set her sights on Jeff, no matter what her family did or threatened, she would have him.”
We continued back and forth, describing a woman who was always involved in the community, taking her role as a member of one of the founding families very seriously. She was a peace maker between factions, who never took a stand — not openly. Yet, she married Jeff, a man perceived as a hippie, as anti-establishment. As we talked, Daniel and I discovered something about Black Bear that had been hidden to us until that moment. Someone in that very conservative, insular village had a significant subversive influence on two youngsters from different books — but from the same family – Bonnie, Jeff’s wife, from Honor, and Maggie, Judith’s mother from Jo Joe. And because of this person, both Bonnie and Maggie did something that was completely unexpected, which ire-vo-cably altered lives.
Bonnie is now a living, breathing woman in Daniel’s and my minds. And you can trust that she will make appearances in future books and stories. What’s more, that hidden person, the woman or man who influenced and, as far as the town is concerned, corrupted youth with his or her strange ideas and unwarranted questions – that character is now germinating. I wonder what his or her story will be, and which one of us will expand on it – make it Real – as Daniel or I write another Black Bear tale.
To make a character Real. Doesn’t that sound like The Velveteen Rabbit? When I think about it, maybe in some ways it is quite similar. When an author makes a character real – loves it until its seams split and the stuffing is revealed – when we can see his warts and hear her laughter, when we know what made him cry himself to sleep or what the rhythm of her walk is when she is angry – when our knowledge of the character is fully imagined and undeniably intimate – perhaps that’s when he or she will become real not only to us as writers but also to you as readers.
I’ve been gratified that many reviewers say that Jo Joe reads like a memoir. Of course, it isn’t. It is thoroughly a work of fiction. But in some ways, it is a memoir, my memories of people who have never been, but could be, the people who inhabit Black Bear.
“Welcome to Black Bear, Pennsylvania.”
The carved wooden sign is new — dark forest green with gold-leaf lettering — the best that the firehouse cake sale could buy, no doubt. Little else seems changed as I drive down Main Street. I’ve been gone half my lifetime, and this tiny, insular mountain village appears just as threadbare as ever.
Seventeen years ago, I fled Black Bear, returning to Paris for university, vowing I’d never come back. If it hadn’t been for that anonymous phone call, I never would have set foot in this town again. Does death nullify vows?
In the center of the village, at the crossroads where it all started over a hundred and fifty years ago, are the vener¬able steepled Moravian church and the modern single story Catholic Church across the street. For a Monday after-noon, the Chug-a-Lug beer distributor is busy, with two mud-splatter¬ed pickup trucks and an old beat-up Mustang in the lot. As usual, Cliff’s True Value’s inventory spills out onto its cracked asphalt parking lot, trying to convince lake tourists and returning snowbirds to stop and buy as they zoom past, routinely breaking the 25 miles per hour speed limit. Why Cliff doesn’t close on Mondays had been a mystery to Grampa. “No one does yard work or barbecues or puttering on Monday,” he would say. “Not when they have the weekend to rest up from, and the work-a-day week ahead of them.”
And there, next to Engelhardt’s sprawling Ford dealer¬ship, the vile old school is still a blot on the land-scape, boarded up and falling down. How typical.
But no, not everything is the same. Some things — and people — are irretrievably lost. Next to Engelhardt’s Auto Supply and across from the old school is Grampa’s drug store, now a second-hand clothing shop. I wonder, what have they done with Gramp’s soda fountain and snack counter? Are neatly folded recycled baby jumpers piled on the chrome and red leatherette stools where I used to love to twirl? Black Bear must have been one of the last places on earth where the local pharmacist would greet you by name and know how you liked your milkshake as well as what medicines you took, when and why. The Rite-Aid in Hamlin put an end to that about fifteen years ago, forcing Gramps out of business, but he had written me that he’d been thinking of retiring anyway. Or had he already known that he was dying and would be gone in a couple of years?
I pull into Dutch’s service station, to top up the fuel tank. Ever since I first learned to drive, Gramps drilled into me that I should never, ever let the gas get below a half tank — just in case. Not that I was an overly obedient teenager; I would often drive until the car was almost empty. But I learned my lesson that horrid night after the homecoming game in my senior year, when I ran out of gas on Drumheller Lane. Fleeing for my life from that dark dirt road was a suit¬ably wretched finish to the miserable day that changed every-thing. Now, back in Black Bear, where I vowed I’d never return, I’m determined to heed every precaution necessary to make it through this one week, including filling up my rental car at Dutch’s before leaving town for the farm.
Just as I flip open the door to the car’s gas cap, a big white man in his mid-thirties yells from the service bay, “Hey, I’ll do that for you, miss!” and limps toward me as quickly as his bad right leg lets him.
I remember how Old Man Dutch used to rant at the alleged convenience store gas stations that had sprouted along the interstate. “Where the hell’s the service in self-serve?” he’d ask.
This enormous man, with his unkempt, thinning, dark blonde hair and that beer belly protruding over his low jeans, isn’t Dutch. Still, he must agree with Dutch because after he starts pumping the gas, he actually squeegees the car’s wind¬shield and rear window. All the while, staring at me.
Well, I knew that would be part of coming back. They never did get used to my dark skin, flat nose and kinky hair around here in Wonder White Bread territory. “You’re like a one-two punch, for some folks,” Gramma once tried to explain. “You’re Schmoyer through and through, down to the family hazel eyes and high cheek bones, but in a very differ¬ent package from anything they’ve ever known. You confuse them.”
Confuse isn’t the word I would use to describe how Black Bear reacts to anyone who’s “different.” From a young age, I learned to try to ignore the rude stares and cruel jibes.
So, why does the way this man’s icy blue eyes bore into me make my skin crawl? Something about how his lop¬sided grin seems to consume his entire face — it’s all too disturbing — and familiar.
Even as he replaces the pump nozzle, caps the tank and wipes a spot where the gas splashed on the side panel, he doesn’t take his eyes off me. “Jo…?” he finally asks, then, catches himself before saying anything else. Now, those pale, searing eyes that he couldn’t keep off me just a moment ago are diverted everywhere but on my face. Mostly, he focuses on the oil splattered, cracked concrete around his feet.
Oh no! It can’t be. Not this massive wreck of a man. His puffy face has that grizzled look of someone who’s lived and worked hard. Wrinkles punctuate his eyes and mouth, like parentheses cut into his flesh. His nose has obviously been broken, perhaps more than once. And he’s hunched over and soft, nothing like the wide-eyed, fair-haired, muscular football hero of our high school days. Once upon a time, nothing could have convinced me that a day would come when I wouldn’t instantly recognize Joe Anderson, regardless of how long we’d been apart. Yet, it takes hearing his hesi¬tant, hoarse voice, saying that damned nickname he gave me, before I can be sure he really is Joe Anderson.
Despite myself, I step back, hating that, after all these years, he can still make me flinch. “Hello, Joe,” I say, deter¬mined to keep my tone even and unemotional.
He’s standing so close that the smell of sweat and motor oil permeating his clothes wash over me. Stuffing his large, oil-rimmed hands into his scruffy jeans pockets, he mumbles. “Hell, you really did come back.”
“Yes, well, Gramma’s dead.” To say it still doesn’t give it any sense of reality.
“Yeah, I know.”
I glance at the numbers on the pump. $37.50 for only a half tank of regular unleaded. A family of six in the Congo could live on that for a month, if they were lucky enough to have someone earning actual cash. When I hand my credit card out to Joe, he looks at it, starts to reach for it, then shakes his head. “Naw, don’t bother. I own this place now.” I guess he wants to show me that he’s actually made something of himself.
Treating me to a few gallons of fuel is a meaning-less gesture that isn’t worth arguing over. I simply say “Thank you,” as I concentrate on putting away my wallet, though gratitude is the furthest thing from my mind. All I want is to get away from him — fast. I force myself to not look in the rear view mirror, as I drive off.
Merde! Why did I have to run into that bastard the very second I return to Black Bear? Damn him! Even after so many years, just seeing Joe still twists me up inside. But then, for nearly two decades, my memories of Joe Anderson have been a scarred-over thorn that jabs painfully whenever any¬one else tries to get close.
About the Author:
Sally Wiener Grotta is the consummate storyteller, reflecting her deep humanism and appreciation for the poignancy of life. As an award-winning journalist, she has authored many hundreds of articles, columns, essays and reviews for scores of glossy magazines, newspapers, journals and online publications. She has also co-authored numerous non-fiction books. Her fiction includes “The Winter Boy.”
A member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors, Sally Wiener Grotta is a frequent speaker at conferences and other events on the business of writing, as well as on photography and the traditional tradespeople of her American Hands narrative portrait project. She welcomes invitations to participate in discussions with book clubs (occasionally in person, more often via Skype, Google Hangout or phone), and to do occasional readings.