Postville Part I – The Book (11.1)

February 3, 2011

In 1987, a small town in Iowa was suffering some serious economic turmoil when a group of Hasidic Jews moved in and opened a kosher slaughterhouse. The result was a culture clash of epidemic proportions. In spite of being ultra Orthadox Jews, these folks were, by most people’s standards, highly unethical in their business dealings. This only compounded their natural inclination toward insulating their community from the secular and/or Christian world that threatened assimilation, all of which ired the locals to no end. Just outside the city limits, the townsfolk ultimately voted to annex the land that included the plant, thereby forcing the owners to pay taxes to the town. And then, a few years ago the plant was raided, and the owner charged with workforce violations (using illegal immigrants) and fraud.

Much of this turmoil has been captured in the book Postville by Stephen Bloom. Although the book was published in 2000 and therefore fails to include the raid and its aftermath, it does capture quite effectively the first dozen years or so of the conflict. More than that, though, it’s a book about cultural belonging. In the first few chapters, my thought was, “Holy crap, this guy likes the sound of his own voice (so to speak). The author spends page after page detailing all the different ways in which his being a Jewish city boy colored his move to Iowa from San Francisco to teach college journalism. A thorough skimming of that chapter was required.

The book soon settles in, although it does continue to be long-winded. Bloom spent two or three years making the 150 mile drive from Iowa City to Postville, visiting with the townsfolk, asking them for their perspectives, and having comparatively few interactions with the Jews themselves. And the result is a tale of the author’s discovery, rather than any plot-based narrative of the events that took place. A few chapters occur as out of place, somewhat valuable to me as someone researching the topic, but really not relevant to the story itself. And much of it drags, saying similar things over and over, reflecting I’m sure the same experience Bloom had talking to a hundred locals who mostly said similar things again and again.

The reason I read the book is because I’m writing the screenplay. My father wrote a fictionalized play version a few years ago, which I’m now adapting into a film. More on that in Part II – The Screenplay.


How to Get Started Writing Your Book

August 3, 2010

Got this question recently:

I am a 24yr old single mother to two wonderful boys. For the past two years I have advocated, fund raised and raised awareness for prematurity. Both of my children were born very early and have had a long journey to having a stabilized life. I have a passion for getting the boys’ story out to the public, recently I have found myself really wanting to write a book more than usual. There are various books published about being a premature parent and the journeys the preemies go on. I thought my book would differentiate based on the fact that I was a single mother during both births, and I am not a medical professional, so unlike most of the books out there I was a regular girl in a very unknown world. Yet I have made it to a place where I know I am able to help others, and I feel as though my story will be able to relate to others.

My question to you is: I have no idea where to even begin to do this project. Do I write a book, do I sell my idea, do I take classes? I am lost. Please help!! I read you do ghostwriting. What are the costs for your services? If I need to save up I will do whatever it takes to accomplish this. I want this to be a life changing project not only for my family but most importantly for the future parents of preemies. Again please help!

I generally think that there’s a very specific situation that makes it a good idea to hire a ghost writer, and from the sounds of it, this person is not in that situation, so I most definitely would not recommend hiring a ghost writer. You’re talking about spending 5 figures, and unless you’ve set up a business talking to people about this subject for a couple thousand dollars a pop, there’s a 99% chance you won’t come even close to recouping your money.

If this person wants to get the story out, then there are a couple of things I recommend.

One, read a lot of books – not just on the subject of preemies, but things that are on different subjects but similar in tone/style/genre to what you want your book to be. Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother by Jana Wolff comes to mind. I’ve never read it, but from what this person described, it sounds like one she should check out.

Two, read some books on writing, take some classes, attend conferences (the Writers League of Texas Agents’ Conference, the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, the Texas Book Festival in the fall, and I’m sure there are plenty of others around the state). Personally, I wouldn’t spend a lot of money on classes that are only a couple of hours long. I think you get far more by, for example, spending $300 on the WLT Summer Writing Retreat, which gives you a whole weekend of classes and time to actually work on your book. Also, you will ALWAYS get more out of volunteering for a conference/festival than you will attending it. You get to sit in on the sessions for free and you get excuses to talk to important people about something other than your book, which sets you apart from the crowd of attendees.

Three, if finding the time to actually sit down and write the thing is a challenge, create structures for doing that. NaNoWriMo is a good one for some people, but far more people quit partway through than finish their book that way. Most people are better off putting something at stake, that they stand to lose if they don’t fulfill on it. In the past few months I’ve started promoting myself as a writing coach, with the idea being that the person pays me a set monthly fee, and I talk to them every day to make sure they’re writing and then I read and edit whatever they write, so they’re learning as they go along. So far I’ve had a couple of people say yes to this but none have started yet (they’ve all got stuff going on during the summer and are putting it off – which I’m starting to realize is something I need to push people out of).

I’m teaching classes on “Kick-Starting Your Nonfiction Book.” It does wonders to focus ideas and move you in the right direction, and if you sign up for my “every whenever-I-get-to-it newsletter“, you can find out when the next one is. Also, check out this article, which discusses what we cover in the workshop:

Thanks to Melissa Overy for the question, and if you’re interested in supporting her cause, please visit

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