By Hope Katz Gibbs, founder, Inkandescent PR + Publishing Co., for the Costco Connection — “We write to connect, and we connect through stories,” believes poet Elizabeth Poliner, author of As Close to Us As Breathing — an epic tale that reveals the heart and soul of a Jewish family that spends decades coping with the death of their youngest family member, Davy, in the summer of 1948.
Writing the book was a six-year journey of self-discovery, Poliner tells the Costco Connection from her home in Roanoke, Virginia.
“I had a certain fear of writing a novel,” admits the Hollins University creative writing teacher, who previously penned What You Know in Your Hands, a poetry collection; Sudden Fog, a poetry chapbook; and a collection of linked stories called Mutual Life & Casualty. “I worried if I was up to the task on a technical level as a fiction writer.”
Poliner eventually lets go of her fears, and readers are better for her diligence. This tightly woven tale is a page-turner.
In the first sentence, we learn of Davy’s death from his sister Molly Syrkin, then 12, the narrator of the 354-page book. She provides sharp observations of her clan that summers in their inherited cottage at Connecticut’s Bagel Beach, a popular destination for Jewish families.
This is an era of traditional expectations, which relaxes during the weekdays when her beautiful but volatile mother, Ada Leibritsky, and aunts Vivie and Bec, are in charge of Molly, her brothers Howard and Davy, and their book-smart cousin Nina.
But, as Molly explains, “Shabbos was soon to arrive, which meant the men would be returning, and the sisters, so entwined with each other during the week, would unravel and split, like branches on a tree.”
Although the details of Davy’s death aren’t revealed until the book’s end, Poliner moves the story back and forth through time as she unpacks its impact on each family member.
“Because almost everybody in the family has something to do with the way that the tragic events of Davy’s accident unfold, they feel responsible, and as a result, their lives are radically changed by it,” Poliner explains. “In my mind, it isn’t so much what happens as how the event happens, and to understand that you really have to understand the characters.”
The former DC attorney says she spent years developing the characters in her mind before she even began writing.
“It was like a puzzle, and I just kept trying to put it together,” Poliner adds. “The whole thing went hand in hand, and the more complex the story got, the more complex each chapter got. There isn’t a single chapter focusing on just one character, so it’s a collective story. And while I thought I did a good job thinking it all through ahead of time, the difference between the first and last drafts is night and day in terms of my feelings for the characters and how developed they became.”
In addition to her intimacy with the characters, Poliner deeply appreciates the taste and feel of the setting. Her grandmother had a cottage on Bagel Beach, where her parents met as teenagers.
Still, she worried, would the story appeal to readers?
“While writing the book, I was thinking of the characters and the structure and getting it all to congeal,” Poliner says. “Then, finally, it is done, and it goes out into the world, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Fortunately, the response has been extraordinary.
“People feel for these characters, which is the manifestation of what writing is about. I am thrilled that this story touches people’s hearts.”
Hope Katz Gibbs is a freelance writer living in Richmond, Virginia, who spent summers growing up as a Jewish girl on the beaches of Margate, New Jersey.