I’m delighted to welcome Leah Kaminsky, author of the debut novel THE WAITING ROOM (Harper Perennial 2016). Although this story is set in Haifa, Israel, during 2001, the story straddles three continents and a time span of seventy years. It took Kaminsky ten years to write the novel and she told me, “every word and sentence has been a labour of love, rewritten countless times” until she was satisfied she could do no better. For Kaminsky, “the craft of writing is of the utmost importance.”
Here is Leah Kaminsky’s guest post on stumbling onto the past, and what we take into the future:
“Recently, while visiting Berkeley for the first time as part of my North American book tour, I passed an old stamp shop. A handwritten note told potential customers to knock loudly, so I did. After a minute or so, a tall man with a shock of grey hair shuffled towards the door, which creaked as it opened. He gruffly told me he was busy dispatching some orders and left me alone to wonder around the store. I was instantly transported back to my childhood, dizzy with the thousands of stamps from around the globe staring down at me, pinned to the walls like zoological specimens in a museum. I watched the owner as he lovingly affixed a collage of stamps to the front of a package he was preparing to ship. We started chatted about my old passion for stamp collecting, a hobby that is rapidly becoming part of a lost world. I became quite teary, as if I had entered a lush forest on the verge of extinction.
I feel the same whenever I wonder around antique shops, or stumble across old haberdashery stores that are still lovingly kept open by their elderly owners after several decades in business. In THE WAITING ROOM, I have written an entire chapter set inside an old shoemaker’s cave in downtown Haifa:
‘The shoemaker’s workshop lies hidden at the edge of the shuk, down a crooked laneway that reeks of cat piss. The metal door rests slightly ajar and a bell tinkles as Dina pushes it open. She enters a dimly lit cave in the wall, its interior redolent of a tiny shtetl in Europe, pungent with leather and blacking.’
The old shoemaker fascinates her, and she is drawn into his workshop like Alice into Wonderland:
Dina could stare at the shoemaker all day. With his knobbly white knuckles and brown leather apron that hugs his rotund belly, he looks like a character that stepped straight out of a fairytale.’
But he also carries wisdom along with his expertise:
‘He is busy gluing the sole of an old boot. On a shelf behind him, a small fan pivots to-and-fro, blowing wafts of glue into Dina’s face. She places her broken shoe onto the workbench.
“One shoe does not walk alone,” he says in a quiet steady, voice, without looking up at her.’
These elderly craftsmen, whose lives have been dedicated to refining their ancient skills, are on the verge of disappearing – and along with them the magical world of my own childhood will vanish. Their stories are a portal to another time and place, where good craftsmanship and integrity were deeply valued and respected, so different to the disposable consumer culture of today, with its emphasis on cheap mass-manufacturing. My father was a tailor and I vividly remember the care he took in fussing over each client’s measurement, jotting down secret numbers in a sacred notebook he kept hidden in his shirt pocket. He drafted bespoke patterns, which he laid out on the finest material, carefully cutting pieces he would later sew together by hand.
The stamp collector I met in Berkeley, the shoemaker in THE WAITING ROOM and my diminutive father in his tailor’s workshop, are my connection to both the beauty and the hardships of the past. THE WAITING ROOM warns us that if we don’t bear witness to history and what we have inherited from the past, we are more likely to hurtle blindly into a tenuous and shaky future.”
Thank you, Leah Kaminsky.
THE WAITING ROOM is available wherever books are sold, including this link: