• Shea Robinson

New! Author Interview with Judith Teitelman, Guesthouse for Ganesha Book Review

Updated: Jul 27

Category: Snow Flower-a story that takes you on a journey

Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism

Guesthouse for Ganesha by Judith Teitelman is a story of Judaism, Hinduism, survivalism, and love. It is Mary Poppin’s spoonful of sugar, and it is the pinprick of fear that burrows into the marrow of your bones, starting at the tips of your toes and spreading, rushing, encapsulating your very essence until you are left wondering what room is left to feel anything else. It may seem strange to the unobserving why Teitelman chose to intertwine the two faiths of Judaism and Hinduism within a world of Hitler’s reign. But the proof of our connected spirits can be found in symbols everywhere.

Like the main character of the novel, Esther, I was born Jewish but raised without the deep religious connection. Unlike Esther, my introduction to Hinduism was not through Ganesha but through a dancing Shiva statue located in the downtown courtyard of the rural town where I was born. Despite the centuries of oppression that have attempted to eradicate “the other,” there the symbols remain. As powerful as they ever were. How else could a non-Christian god have made its way so prominently into the upper reaches of a small Christian town in Northern California?

I invite you to take a walk in your neighborhood and seek what lies in the open waiting for your notice. Let the sunshine melt into your skin, relaxing your shoulders and raising the edges of your lips. Return from your walk feeling alive and awake. Then, sit down with this novel. Settle into your couch with a cup of your favorite something hot and sweet, and sink into the story of Esther and Ganesha, of Hitler and the resistance, of old heartache and new love. It will catch you, it will keep you, you will sink, you will fall, but you will survive and you will dance.

You can find the Coleman Barks translation of Rumi's full poem, "The Guesthouse," here. To purchase this book, support your local, independent bookstore and check out Crawford's Books!

And keep reading to hear my special interview with the award-winning author, Judith Teitelman!

1. Who did you read as a child and which authors do you enjoy today?

I’ve been a voracious reader since I was a child, so it’s impossible to single out one story. However, a few that immediately jump to mind are: A Wrinkle in Time, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Charlotte’s Web, Madeline (the series), Eloise (the series), and The Little Prince. Also, I read every book in the Nancy Drew Mystery Series. Often more than once.

I feel that I learn about writing from everything I read—fiction, non-fiction, poetry, articles, letters, brochures, e-mails etc. There’s always something of value to discover. Still, a selection of authors I highly admire include: Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Patti Smith, Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, George Saunders, Ann Patchett, Ha Jin, J.M. Coetzee, and Muriel Barbery.

2. Oh, I loved Nancy Drew, A Wrinkle in Time, and Madeline as a child as well! Muriel Barbery's book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, is my all time favorite book (and is the basis for my categorization of my book reviews). Which of Barbery’s novels spoke to you most?

Absolutely The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Like you, it's one of my favorite books.

3. What inspired you to start writing?

I very much consider myself one more “Accidental Novelist.” A dear friend started a new writers group on Saturday mornings and, basically, dragged me into it. And, in all honesty, I hated it. But I showed up—every week at 10am with my soy latte in one hand and my notebook and pens in the other. I have a lifetime of papers, reports, proposals, and articles that I’ve authored, many of which have been published in various professional journals, yet I never had the desire to write creatively until that fateful Saturday morning writers group where I discovered Guesthouse for Ganesha had been percolating within me for a very long time.

At the family lunch following my grandmother’s funeral in 1984, I learned that she had been abandoned at the altar by her true love when she was 17 years old. I only knew my grandmother as a mean-spirited, bordering on nasty, woman. It was difficult and unpleasant to be around her. I attributed that her experiences during WWII—losing most of her family, having to give up two daughters, leave her husband and home, struggle to survive, etc.—had hardened her irreparably. But, no, it had been love. More precisely, lost love, devastated love, abandoned love—something most of us experience at one time or another—that had made her callous, unyielding, relentless, and self-absorbed the rest of her life. This informed all her actions. Yet also, and importantly, it made her a survivor.

I was shocked and wished I had known this while she was still alive. It was the first time in my life that I felt true compassion for my grandmother and a clear understanding of her. This new knowledge was especially poignant because I, too, had recently experienced deep heartbreak. And, while this is in no way a biography, I felt compelled to honor her and this all too common, even universal experience. Equally, because of my life-long interests in eastern philosophies and perspectives, I felt it important to situate this story in the largest context possible—reflected by, and with the views and insights and perspectives of not just an omnipotent narrator, but a Hindu God. Ganesha was a natural choice for me.

4. Were you raised with the Jewish faith or is there some biographical representation in the way Esther looks at her ancestry?

Although most assume otherwise, and while it is my heritage, I wasn’t raised Jewish. Both my parents had traumatic childhoods because of religion and it is common with such experiences that as an adult one either holds fast to that religion or rejects it. My parents did the latter.

In investigating the experiences of Jewish people throughout Europe during the 1920s through 1940s, I read a great number of history books and first-person chronicles on this period in world history. My most in-depth understanding came from spending seven long and difficult days over the course of the summer of 2008 watching first-person video accounts at the Shoah Foundation located at the University of Southern California. These testimonies provided the crucial foundation for ensuring Esther’s experiences and the landscape she traversed were as authentic as possible.

Concurrently, I studied the Hindu pantheon overall with a focus on understanding Ganesha. I read religious and historical texts, academic journals, fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books about India. I wanted to learn and capture as much knowledge as possible from a wide variety of perspectives.

5. Did you expect Guesthouse for Ganesha to win so many awards? What was it like receiving this praise?

I had absolutely no expectations about awards. I didn’t think about it. But the awards and recognition that I’ve received for my novel has been thrilling and gratifying and humbling.

6. What are you working on now?

To a great extent, my time is focused on the tasks necessary to continue to get my debut novel out in the world. I started a second novel a few years ago when I was still deep in the midst of searching for, first, my literary agent and then my publisher. Those were things that felt out of my control, and I missed writing and conceptualizing—things I could control. This new store is titled Future Memories and, while very different from Guesthouse for Ganesha, it has magical realist elements.

In brief, the story centers on the relationship between a big city girl and a small town southern boy. But the heart of it is about memories—those to which we cling, those that escape us, and those that we struggle to recover—and how they affect our lives. Why do things happen to us that are seemingly incidental yet we never forget, while some momentous experiences leave our memory? One of the central themes is time, which I find endlessly fascinating and easily lends itself to heightened experiences and layered perceptions.

7. If you had one piece of advice to offer aspiring authors, what would that be?

Persevere. Be relentless. Hold strong to your truth, and don’t worry about how long it’s taking you to write your story.

8. What can readers do to best support you?

You can find Guesthouse for Ganesha for purchase here. Consider liking my Facebook page and following me on Instagram and Twitter. As a debut author, I would greatly appreciate any and all reviews from readers. I am also open to speak at book clubs and I love answering fan’s questions! Keep a look out for my next novel on the sites noted above.

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