Jill measures up to success after late start to her writing career


JILL Ciment had just seen a crocodile devouring a turtle when she took my call.

It's just one of the ways of Floridian life to which the author has become accustomed since relocating to the Sunshine State from New York City.

Indeed, Jill and her husband Arnold Mesche's attempt to sell their Manhattan apartment just after 9/11 served as the basis for her best-selling book Heroic Measures.

In turn, the book was turned into a film, 5 Flights Up, starring Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton, which was released here as Ruth & Alex last month.

Heroic Measures (Pushkin Press, 7.99) - which tells the tale of New Yorkers Ruth and Alex Cohen - will be published in the UK on Thursday, having been a huge success in America.

It was one of the top five finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Award for 2010 and was chosen by Oprah Winfey's Book Club for summer reading.

"We lived through 9/11 in Manhattan," Jill said. "What captured me was I really wanted to write about the panic - but at the same time, I had friends who said to me, 'I should have put a gas mask on and gone downtown and bought a loft'.

"They were talking about real estate. Also, one day, I noticed a lost poster sign for a missing cat near my home.

"After 9/11, everyone started putting pictures up of their lost relatives, but nobody covered the cat poster - there wasn't any room.

"Eventually, it was covered and it went under all the glut of human suffering.

"I thought it would be an interesting way to tell the story and, out of that, came Heroic Measures."

Jill and Arnold now spend half the year in Florida and the other six months in Brooklyn.

"All the small interesting shops in Manhattan could not survive after 9/11," she explained.

"There was no electricity for three months and they could not cope with that, so they went out of business to be replaced by corporate America.

"I think Manhattan has lost that individuality, which is really sad."

The 60-year-old also spent time on the set of 5 Flights Up.

She had never imagined that Heroic Measures would be turned into a film.

"Most writers laugh it off when their books get optioned," Jill said. "We call it 'severance pay'.

"I received an email one day saying that Variety had run a piece saying Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton would be appearing in an adaptation of the book.

"I thought it was a joke at first, but it ended up being filmed 10 blocks from our home in Brooklyn.

"It was an amazing and fascinating experience to watch what felt like a circus coming to town."

She is, however, rather reticent to comment on what she thought of the film.

"I am the last person to ask as it is impossible for me to watch it objectively," Jill explained.

"What drives a book is that you get to visit the characters' minds.

"In a film, you are watching them from the outside. Reading is more intimate."

Born in Montreal of Russian Jewish descent, she and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 10.

Religious Judaism played little part in the family's life.

Jill recalled: "We never went to shul, although we maintained the life of secular Jews.

"Once we had moved to California, all religion went out of the window. My grandfather had won a lottery to be able to move to America.

"He wanted to run a farm, but was too old to go, so my father and us went instead.

"We moved to a very non-Jewish area in the San Fernando Valley where antisemitism was rampant.

"I heard one of my neighbours' friends say that the only reason the Jews didn't believe in Jesus was because he was 'only a poor carpenter'. My brother was beaten up, as well."

A self-confessed 'wild kid', she dropped out of high school and went on to study art at the California Institute of Arts.

She recalled: "I was a painter and conceptual artist. I was fairly successful doing that, but I could not picture myself doing it for a lifetime.

"I wanted something with a deeper tradition to it."

Jill later received an MFA in creative writing from the University of California.

It was not until she was 31 that Jill had her first book published.

Her first work, Small Claims, a short story collection, was published in 1986.

She followed that up with The Law of Falling Bodies, Half a Life, Teeth of the Dog and The Tattoo Artist.

It has only been since the release of the latter that Jill has found recognition.

She said: "It is really fun to be recognised for your work, but you still have to say to yourself, 'Can I go into a room and write again for five years?'

"It is up to me whether I want to do it or not.

"I guess recognition is akin to enjoying nice desserts - you can enjoy them, but you cannot live on them.

"Also, it is not just about motivation. When you're young, you have an incredible drive if you want to be a writer, but it is more habitual once you're older."

Jill and Arnold moved to Florida after she promised him when he hit 80 they would find an apartment with a lift.

She landed a position as professor of English at the University of Florida and now teaches there one term per year.

"The best thing for me, because I read so much student work, is I ended up reading the Russian classics just to ground myself," she continued.

"I guess the eastern European writers remind me of my culture.

"It is something which ends up in the work of the great American Jewish writers such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, but began with Bruno Schulz and Franz Kafka."

Jill's most-recently released book in America, Act of God, is set in Brooklyn and tells the story of a retired legal librarian and her identical twin sister who discover something sprouting from the wall of their hall closet.

Jill said: "When we first moved to Florida, some friends of mine were eating dinner and someone said, 'is that a mushroom coming out of your wall?'

"They called in pest control and my friends could not go back home for six months.

"It got me thinking about climate change.

"People may see the story as sci-fi, but there's actually more to it than that."

Politics, unlike religion, has played a role in Jill's life.

Like many liberal Jewish New Yorkers, she was involved with various left-wing movements and political activism.

"I am deeply American, but I also view America as kind of through Canadian eyes," Jill explained. "I am disappointed in America.

"Canada looks like how America might have been had they not had slavery and been involved in every war.

"I have never been in a synagogue - apart from when I went to see a mural Arnold had painted in one.

"I have read the Torah and studied religion, but never partaken in the community."

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph