There’s no doubt that Janice Eidus, author of The Last Jewish Virgin: A Novel of Fate, has been extremely busy promoting her latest novel, so I was doubly excited when I discovered the level of detail that she included in her responses to my interview questions. To read an excerpt from The Last Jewish Virgin: A Novel of Fate, check out our spotlight piece on Janice.
J: Although I don’t believe in Heaven or fate, I’m a romantic at heart, often swept away by old-fashioned, traditional love stories, and fascinated by the Jewish concept of bashert. According to the Talmud (a central text of Judaism pertaining to ethics, customs, history, etc.), bashert means that marriages — and love/soulmates — are literally predestined and made in heaven.
In The Last Jewish Virgin (which I like to call my Feminist FashionistaJewish Vampire Novel), the main character, Lilith Zeremba, is a young woman determined to remain a virgin until she achieves her career goal of becoming a mega-successful fashion designer. And yet despite her materialism, ambition, and tough mindedness, she finds her bashert, her soulmate, and in a completely unexpected, untraditional way — replete with vampires, feminism, real estate, fashion, and a seriously funny exploration of contemporary urban Jewish life.
B: After reading the description of your novel it’s easy to see that your piece is unique in a world where Vampire-Lit currently thrives. What would you say to potential readers that may dismiss this as “just another Twilight-inspired” novel?
J: While writing The Last Jewish Virgin, I felt as if I were engaging in an ongoing dialogue with all the writers who’ve explored the vampire myth before me, and with all those who’ll explore it after me — as if we’re an endless chain of writers stretching into eternity and beyond. Among others, I communed with Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Anne Rice, as well as with the Bram Stokers, Sheridan Le Fanus, and Anne Rices of tomorrow.
My intention was to simultaneously honor, subvert, and tweak the traditions and tropes of the vampire myth, which has been an obsession of mine since childhood. It doesn’t matter to me whether vampires are super-hot or totally uncool; I’ve never wavered in my interest because I find the vampire myth to be the perfect metaphor for just about … everything — at least everything that interests me! As Lilith herself discovers: “The vampire myth is a metaphor for repressed desire. For artistic creation. For madness. For the wish never to be parted from one’s loved ones. For the outcast inside us all. For the monster inside us all. The vampire myth is about boundaries crossed; taboos broken; desires unearthed; about bestowing death and granting life; about being both savior and destroyer.”
As to why vampires are so very, very hot at this particular moment in time … why there’s so much lust for Twilight, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, etc. … To quote Eric Nuzum, author of The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula: “… [to] understand any moment in time, or any cultural moment, just look at their vampires.”
It strikes me that post 9-11, we all feel vulnerable and unprotected, forced to confront our mortality each time we board a bus or plane, walk our children to school, read news reports about the current-and-seemingly-never-ending economic recession, about dishonest politicians, about the latest medical “plague” for which there’s neither protection nor cure, and the latest suicide, rape, or homicide caused by homophobia, misogyny, or racism — or all three. Many of us wonder when we awaken each morning if we and our loved ones will survive the day. The vampire myth, about eternal life and eternal love, is oddly comforting in times like these. As literary critic Steven Moore says: “The vampire is a mirror, reflecting our secret self.”
B: What drove you to focus part of your novel on the complicated relationship between mother and daughter?
J: My relationship with my own mother was always fraught, mostly unhappy, and extremely complicated for as long as I can remember. For nine years prior to her death, I was her primary caretaker, nursing her through two major illnesses. She and I eventually came to a place of understanding and forgiveness — especially when my husband and I became the parents of our beautiful, spirited daughter, whom we adopted from Guatemala at age one. This softened us toward each other.
Because of my difficult relationship with her, I’m extremely interested in what goes on between mothers and daughters who aren’t alike in some crucial ways, and yet who are perhaps too alike in others. In The Last Jewish Virgin, Lilith’s mother, Beth Katz-Zeremba, is a feminist college professor/scholar who says things like, “Jewish women have a responsibility to shape their fantasies along feminist lines.” Beth is determined to transform patriarchal Judaism into a woman-friendly and multi-cultural religion. Lilith perceives her as old-fashioned and naïve, and is in a constant state of rebellion against her. For her part, Beth is deeply disappointed that Lilith is enamored of fashion, wealth, glamour, and a materialistic lifestyle. The stage is set for conflict — one that’s both universal and particular.
The War of the Rosens, my novel before The Last Jewish Virgin, also explores mother-daughter conflict — as well as mother-daughter love. It’s a realistic novel, with no vampires at all, rooted in the autobiographical truth of my life, although not literally autobiographical. It takes place in a Bronx housing project and “stars” a left-wing, Jewish family much like my own. As in The Last Jewish Virgin, I explore Jewish identity, family conflicts, and the difficulty of behaving not only ethically but kindly during increasingly troubled times. In The War of the Rosens, Annette Rosen, the mother in the Rosen family, dreams of escaping her unfulfilling life in the Bronx, and finally living her youthful dream of being a social activist traveling the country. But she feels trapped by financial circumstance, marriage to a domineering man, and motherhood. Her two young daughters, May, age 13, and Emma, age 10, feel her sorrow, anger, and disappointment, and react as daughters will — with rage and love. I tried to portray the Rosen family as particular in circumstance, and yet universal in the depth of their feelings.
B: Revisiting all of your previous material, it seems like you decided to tackle something new and different for yourself as a writer when you wrote The Last Jewish Virgin. Would you agree and is there anything that made you decide to go in that direction?
J: In The Last Jewish Virgin, I also explore some of my other obsessions: the appeal of Mr. Wrong to women of all ages; the nature of romantic love and female sexuality; the intersection of myth and reality; social justice; the artistic process; and the ever-changing faces of New York City and Mexico. In addition to our apartment in Brooklyn, my husband and I own a home in the town of San Miguel de Allende, in the mountains of Mexico, and we spend as much time there as possible around our daughter’s school schedule. Although far from my native New York City, its historical complexity and diverse contemporary cultural scene feel familiar and extremely comfortable for me. Much of my favorite art and writing comes out of Mexico, from Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo to Arturo Mead and Ana Thiel, from Octavio Paz and Leonora Carrington to Elena Poniatowska and Carlos Fuentes.
Writing The Last Jewish Virgin allowed me to be both whimsical and earnest, and to explore my thoughts about rebelliousness, materialism, faith, secularism, feminism, the relationship of art to politics, myth, the New Age, and, of course vampires. I wanted to combine realism with magic and myth while exploring social issues in a non-didactic, entertaining way. In other words, I wanted to write what I love to read!
B: From what I’ve read, you use a lot of Jewish terminology in The Last Jewish Virgin: A Novel of Fate. It definitely gives the story some color, yet it seems like the language is accessible to readers who may not be familiar with Jewish terminology or the Jewish religion. Was this purposely done?
J: It was important to me that The Last Jewish Virgin be both particular and universal. Particular in its exploration of a young woman living in contemporary New York City and grappling with her unique coming-of-age story — a coming-of-age story that includes vampires, feminism, Judaism, real estate, and fashion. Universal because (as is essential in all coming-of-age stories) we meet a young person confronting sex and death for the first time.
The Jewish terms I use, such as bashert, tzedakah, and tikkun olam, are also both particular and universal. Bashert, as mentioned earlier, is the concept of a predestined soulmate. Tzedakah means charity. Tikkun olam means repairing the world. These concepts are universal ones, found everywhere in a wide variety of cultures, religions, and traditions.
B: I’ve read that The Last Jewish Virgin: A Novel of Fate is where “Jewish myth meets Jewish reality.” Would you say that this is an accurate perception of what you were trying to aim for when writing this book?
J: I’m drawn to certain writers who blend magical and/or mythical elements with realism in order to delve more deeply into reality — writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nikolai Gogol, Manuel Puig and Angela Carter. I’m equally drawn to writers of no- holds-barred realism such as Philip Roth, Alix Kates Shulman, and Scott Spencer, all of whom write compellingly and movingly about strong characters facing complex ethical dilemmas. I tried to draw on both traditions while writing The Last Jewish Virgin.
The name of my main character, Lilith, is rooted in myth. As she explains it: “I thought of Lilith, the character from the ancient but unorthodox Jewish legend for whom I’d been named — so-called “demon of the night” — Adam’s first wife, created as his equal, who deserted him and flew away, returning now and then only to threaten Eve. But Jewish feminists like my mother had re-invented the mythic Lilith as their hero. Not only had she never threatened Eve, they said, but she’d left Adam with good cause because he treated her like a second class citizen. Lilith had been the first feminist.”
B: Was there a particular audience you had in mind when you decided to write this story or do you find it accessible to a wide range of readers?
J: I share a host of obsessions with a wide range of readers: a desire for social justice; the tragi-comic complexity of love in its many forms, including familial, romantic, and amongst friends; and the intersection and collision of classic myth and popular culture. In addition, like many readers, I’m intrigued by place, and how some writers can transform a particular landscape into a “character” in its own right. I love writing about the places I’ve lived: Manhattan, upstate New York, the Virgin Islands, the Midwest, California, Brooklyn, Mexico … I love traveling to new places, meeting new people, trying to make sense of cultures and customs that are at first unfamiliar.
In general, I’m drawn to understand that which feels different to me, and my reading choices reflect this: I read across landscapes, genres, gender, etc., and I urge my writing students to do the same. I want them to routinely expand their reading choices to include the works of writers much older and much younger than they are, writers of other races and religions, of the opposite gender, living in other parts of the world, writing in styles and with messages to impart that seem unlike their own — although reading carefully and deeply often reveals unexpected, meaningful, and deeply delightful commonalities.