Ep 330 Meet Rick Held, author of ‘Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem’.

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In Episode 330 of So You Want To Be A Writer: Meet Rick Held, author of Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem. Put our party in your diaries! Catch the replay of Valerie's conversation with James Phelps and go in the draw to win a copy of Pedantic by Ross Petras and Kathryn Petras.

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Show Notes

So You Want To Be A Writer BLOCK PARTY

Watch Australia’s #1 bestselling true crime writer James Phelps in ‘Creative Conversations’

Writer in Residence

Rick Held

Rick Held studied creative writing at Victoria University before taking up a position at Crawford Productions, then Australia's premier producer of television drama. He has since had a long career as a TV screenwriter and editor, working on numerous series including the critically acclaimed A Place to Call Home and the popular family drama Packed to the Rafters. Since 1997 he has been based in Sydney.

Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem, inspired by his father's wartime memoir, is his first novel.

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Interview Transcript

Valerie Khoo

Thanks so much for joining us today, Rick.

Rick Held

Valerie, it's a pleasure to be here.

Valerie Khoo

Congratulations on your book, Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem. Now, for those people who haven't had a chance to grab hold of this novel yet, can you tell our listeners what it's about?

Rick Held

Okay, it is the story of a teenage Jewish boy who's 16 years old, who is living in a city which has been occupied by the fascist forces of Romania and Germany, and who is facing the possible transportation of himself and his family to a concentration camp.

He discovers that his employer in a weaving mill where he works is responsible for providing names for further transportations. He also discovers that one of his employers is having an illicit affair. He uses that information to protect himself and his family from being transported to the camps. But the complication is that the woman who's having the affair is someone he becomes involved with. And so the fact that he's, so he has two competing forces; his relationship with the woman, with the Romani woman, and his desire to save himself and his parents from the concentration camps.

Valerie Khoo

Now this is inspired by a true story from the memoirs of your father. Is that right? Can you tell us a little bit about that? And how you used that as a jumping off point and how much of that is included in the story?

Rick Held

Well, to say it's a jumping off point is actually a very good description, because that situation I described without giving away too much of the plot is exactly what happened in real life. I found this little nugget of narrative gold in his memoirs when I read them, and they stuck with me for like 20 years. Like, Oh my god, this is an amazing situation. You know, basically you are instrumental in supporting an affair, which could collapse at any moment, and therefore lead to your death. And so many things could go wrong. It was an incredible dramatic situation. And that is the, that became the leaping off point for it.

In real life, nothing actually did go wrong for my father. It was an incredibly bold proposition that he put to his employer, to play a role in supporting the affair. Incredibly bold. I mean, you know, his employee might have said to himself straight away, “ah, I think it's better you don't know this and I'm just going to have you taken away.” Could have had him killed, you know, at the snap of his fingers. So it was an incredible situation. And that is the true-life story of how my father actually avoided being transported and his parents to a concentration camp.

Valerie Khoo

And so you you've known this story for 20 years. Why now? Why did you decide then to write this now?

Rick Held

Look, it was a story that I mulled over. It was the potential basis for a story that I mulled over for a very long time. And I actually took a break from writing because I used to write, I wrote mostly for television for 30 odd years. And I had actually not written for television for a while and I'd become a little bit disillusioned with… I'd taken a step back from writing for television. I'd enjoyed it a lot, but I felt like taking a break from it and from writing.

But that story just couldn't, wouldn't leave my mind. And I took it out of the bottom drawer and I decided to revisit it. And suddenly it just started. It's funny how these things just have their time. And all the ideas for how I could develop that premise, and what I could do with it, and what the themes that I could explore, started to come to light for me. And I started to roll with that.

And originally, it was in fact going to be something I thought that I would do as a movie. But by a series of completely fortuitous circumstances it came to the attention of the person, Vanessa Radnidge, who turned out to be my publisher, who I'd never met, who got my phone number, rang me up and said, “I love this story, would you consider writing it as a novel?”

Valerie Khoo

Wow. And so can you give us a little bit of idea of the timeline? So obviously it had been mulling in your brain for decades. But when did you start actually putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard? And once that started, how long did it take for a first draft that you were happy with?

Rick Held

The first draft took me, let's see, the first draft took me about nine months. It actually was a year from when I signed the contract with Hachette to delivering the first draft. There was a few months break because unfortunately one of my sisters passed away. And also, I then had to have unexpectedly surgery for a complication, a carotid artery that was popped. And so it all got stopped.

And that was an interesting part of the process, because when I went back to it, to sort of get momentum back into it, I thought, “look, I'm going to read what I've done from the start.” Well, you could say that was a good thing or a bad thing. But the result was I thought, “oh, gosh, really, this can be better.”

So then I went back and started reworking. I virtually did a second draft of the first half of the book. And at a certain point, I thought, “Rick, are you overthinking this? What are you doing?” But I pushed on it and literally about a week after that, it all fell into place well. And I'm really glad I did that process, that I had the break and came back to it. I really regret the reasons that I had to take the break. But then I rolled on. So the actual writing time was nine, about nine months.

Valerie Khoo

And so you get this contract from Vanessa, and you already had your premise because it was based in fact. Did you already know when you started writing what was gonna happen? Your plot, your narrative arc? Or did you let that unfold as you wrote?

Rick Held

I did have a very good idea of what the narrative arc was. I had written a 20-page outline of the story, so I actually knew where it was going. I knew that it was really going to become a story about a relationship between a teenage boy who was naive and romantic, and had a lot of lessons to learn about sex, relationships and power. And someone from a very different background, an illiterate marginalized Romany woman who was disempowered and trapped in a relationship upon which her life depended. So I knew that that was the core of it and I knew that we needed to, I needed to develop a relationship between them.

It wasn't till I started to write it that I thought about amalgamating my father's character with that of his first cousin, who was essentially a musical genius who went on to conduct in Australia, be the director of the Australian Ballet, conducted internationally and what have you. Music became the means by which those two characters bond.

And so that developed in the writing and then other things happened as well, which were, which I really enjoyed. When you write for TV, you which I've done a lot of, you've probably seen that on my CV, you write very much within a formularised, committee-driven thing, where, you know, you've agreed to write this, that's what you go away and write, and that's what you deliver. And if you don't, you're in deep doo doo.

But on this one, I decided to actually do it very organically. I didn't do a chapter plan, for example. I knew where the story was going generally. And I allowed myself to be surprised along the way. So there's a few points in the story where I thought… So in answer to your question, I knew what the beginning, middle, and end was. But how I got there changed a little bit in the writing and that was incredibly enjoyable.

Valerie Khoo

Right? So did you just say that you did not do a chapter plan?

Rick Held

I did not do a chapter plan.

Valerie Khoo

Right, because I find that very surprising for a screenwriter who is, as you say, so used to knowing, Well, this is going to happen before the first commercial break, or this is going to happen at the end of Act Two, where it is so clearly delineated. And you're so used to it. Did you, were you craving not to work within those parameters? Or did you just… How did you approach it?

Rick Held

Well, I've always found those parameters… They're very useful. You know, it's like writing by a blueprint. And it can be a very useful way to work and has all sorts of useful things in TV in terms of production because all the production people, from all the people who are planning production know what's going to happen. And it can be a useful blueprint, but it also can be a bit of a straitjacket.

And as I said, I'd taken a bit of a break from writing and when I came back to it, what I was doing was rediscovering the joy of writing. When I started out as a much younger person, wanting to be a writer, it was because gave me so much pleasure to do it. It became a career and I don't regret it. I've had a great career that I've really enjoyed. But you are writing on contract all the time. This was something I was doing for the pleasure of it. And I decided that I was going to allow myself to fly by the seat of my pants a bit.

Valerie Khoo

Yeah, right. Wow.

Rick Held

And it was actually, and it was very liberating. Very, very liberating.

Valerie Khoo

So can you just give listeners just a little bit of a brief potted career history so far, just so that we can have an understanding of your background until this point.

Rick Held

I started as a trainee script editor in the early 1980s in Melbourne, with a company called Crawford Productions, which at that time was the premier production company. There was Crawford's and Grundy's. And Crawford's was the quality.

Valerie Khoo

The Sullivans.

Rick Held

Yeah, The Sullivans, Flying Doctors, Carson's Law.

Valerie Khoo

I loved Carson's Law.

Rick Held

Oh, that's good. I worked on that. So I worked on all those shows, then I went freelance and I wrote for Crawford's for a number of different shows. I moved to Sydney in the late 90s. And wound forging a very good relationship with Channel Seven. I went on staff for a number of years working on All Saints. And then I also worked on Packed to the Rafters and probably the last show I wrote was A Place to Call Home.

Valerie Khoo

It's funny with A Place to Call Home, I do a different another podcast on photography, where the bulk of our listeners are actually from America and Europe and we get messages from them saying, “Oh, you sound like just from A Place to Call Home.” Which is such a bizarre thing to say.

Rick Held

Well, Bevan who created that show would be delighted to hear that.

Valerie Khoo

So you've written a lot for television, and so you had to probably change gears, because, you know, if you're writing an episode for something like A Place to Call Home or one of those it might take you what, four weeks? So what would generally be the timeframe for something like that versus, you know, nine months?

Rick Held

Well, as I say, it's very structured. So you get, probably you start with a script meeting where you sit around with people and everybody works by committee, and you agree on what you're going to write. And then to prove it, you go home and you write up the scene breakdown, the document we talked about, you get maybe a week to write that. Then you wait another week, it comes back with notes on it, you know, people have ideas or you didn't quite get that right, or they've changed their mind, whatever. And you then get usually about three or four weeks to write the first draft. It's a while since I've done it now. It might be a bit longer. It's somewhere between… You know, I can't remember exactly now. It's between three and five weeks to write the first draft. And then again, you wait until you get feedback on that from your script editor and other people have input. And then you get usually a couple of weeks to write the second draft. The whole process takes about 10 weeks. But the actual writing process is all up about six weeks.

Valerie Khoo

Right. And so when you are… So, script writing is such a collaborative process and, as you say, it's done by committee. When you were writing this draft, would you feel compelled at all to get validation from someone or a committee, since that's what you were so used to?

Rick Held

I started with tremendous confidence because the way the whole thing had happened as I described it was quite almost magical. You know, it's a once, it's a rare thing in a career where someone rings you up and says, “Please write us a novel.”

The next stage was I wrote a few chapters and sent them off to Vanessa and said, “Is this any good? Because I've never written a novel.” And she said, “I love it. I love the style, the way you're writing. It's terrific. So, yeah, let's sign you up.”

So that gave me great confidence. You know, I'd written five chapters, I had a bit of momentum going, it was great. But then there were moments when I started to go, “Oh, really? I'm not sure what I should do here.” So you know, I had my dark nights, I had a couple of sleepless nights. And yeah, it was a lonely journey. And I did feel like I was climbing a mountain by myself.

Valerie Khoo

But what kind of things were you doubting? Because I imagine that structure would not be one of them. Because you're so, you know, screenwriting is all about structure. What kinds of things were you thinking in the middle of the night, “oh, is this working?”

Rick Held

Oh, what things, for example? I don't want to give away the plot, that's all. You know… Should this relationship change at this point? I mean, these… You know… Look, ultimately, I just reminded myself… I think the important thing to say here is that this process began with, “I would like to get back to enjoying writing.”

Valerie Khoo

Yeah.

Rick Held

So when I started to get a little bit stressed and questioned whether I was doing, making the right choices, I just took a moment, breathed, and said to myself, “what would you like to do next here in the plot? You're supposed to be enjoying this.”

Valerie Khoo

That's a great approach.

Rick Held

I had to tap myself on the shoulder and say, “hang on. You're doing this to enjoy it. Don't second guess the reader. Don't second guess things. What would you like to do? And with that in mind, there were a couple of points where I thought I knew what was going to happen next. And I just flipped the card over. And that was great. That was like, Hey, I didn't see that coming.

And it's great as a writer, you know, you've got a very good idea, you've got a sort of a map of the story, as I said, I had a 20-page outline. But it's a bit of a dead process if there can't be moments in the writing of it, where you say, Hey, I didn't see that coming. Let's do that.

Valerie Khoo

Yeah. And so most debut novelists don't get the contract before they've written anything. So you did have a contract, and therefore you knew that there was a home for it. So on a practical level, you then had to go write this manuscript. What kind of goalposts or milestones besides, of course, finishing the whole thing, did you give yourself in order to make sure you kept some kind of forward momentum? Did you have any targets or anything like that?

Rick Held

Look, I tried to get… I discovered… Okay, first off, I'd actually not written in Word. I've always written in a program called Final Draft.

Valerie Khoo

Oh, yes, of course.

Rick Held

So whenever I put words on the page, it's something called Final Draft. And of course, I'd used Word to write Word documents to write letters, what have you, but I'd never actually written a manuscript. Well, I discovered there's a thing called the word counter!

Valerie Khoo

Ha! I love that.

Rick Held

I didn't know it was even there. So I started setting myself goals, so a certain number of words had to be written each week. And I have no problem with actually structuring my time. I mean, all those years of working in TV, and working as a freelancer, I had the discipline of being at my desk, you know, watching the news in the morning and having the coffee ready by 10 and, you know, and being awake and doing three hours and then having lunch and going for a walk and coming back.

And so in terms of how to structure my time, that was no problem. I'd done that. But I tried, I then sort of set myself the word counter goal. And my editor, by the way, my publisher, by the way, was fantastic. When I first got the contract, it said, it designated the number of words that the book needed to be. This number or more. And I just had this instinct. I said, I called her up and I said, “I've got this feeling. I mean, you know, I've never written a novel, but I've got this feeling it might… It's a very intimate tight story. And it might not be that long. Is that a problem?”

She was wonderful. I mean, she's been wonderful all the way through. She just said, “Rick, I don't want you to be writing something where the whole time you're looking at the word counter.” That was my first, that was the first time I'd heard that there was a word counter.

Valerie Khoo

Oh my god!

Rick Held

“I don't know want you looking at the word counter the whole time. So we'll adjust the contract and just say approximately this many words” and she reduced it by 10,000. Reduced it by 10,000. Took all the pressure off me.

But still, but then, I'd heard of the word counter. So I tried not to look at it, but every now and then you sort of put the cursor down the bottom and you go, how many words have I done? Oh, yeah, okay. Right. Okay, good.

Valerie Khoo

That's great. So you told us a little bit about your writing day where you start by ten, wrote for three hours, had some lunch, go for a walk. Tell us about the end of the day. I'd love to hear the whole writing ritual. The whole writing routine.

Rick Held

I just enjoyed it. I did it. I'd end the day and…

Valerie Khoo

But when would you end the day?

Rick Held

Oh, I usually finish… Actually I would write pretty late, maybe around about six or seven o'clock.

Valerie Khoo

Right.

Rick Held

I lived alone. I live alone. So I finished about six, around six or seven. But I take a nice break. I've always found it's a good idea not to do just a continuous burst of six, six- or seven-hour day in a row. Take a breather. Go back. I think three, you know, three to four-hour bursts is about the maximum to get some good quality down.

Valerie Khoo

And so after six o'clock, did you, you know, put it aside? Or are you the sort of person who was going to tinker at night?

Rick Held

No, I put it aside.

Valerie Khoo

That's disciplined of you, too.

Rick Held

But trust me, later on, I did plenty of tinkering. And I did plenty of tinkering. And when I'd finished and delivered the first draft of it, I was very, very chuffed and flattered that my publisher and the editor who I got to meet, Rebecca Allen, fantastic to work with, both just loved it. And now were ready to like, “right, so let's edit it.” And I'm like, “I think I need a second draft.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah. And I think I actually need to go to Czernowitz, the city where it's set, because I've never actually been there. And I don't know why I need to go there. I mean, obviously, this is a bit of a personal odyssey for me, when I've never been to this city where my father grew up, where the story's set. When else in my life am I going to do it? And I have this instinct that it's actually going to… I don't know what changes it's going to bring. But I think it's going to bring changes.”

And I wanted it to be… Although I was writing a work of fiction inspired by fact, I wanted it to be incredibly accurate and authentic.

And so they were totally supportive. It meant adjusting the schedule, the delivery schedule.

Valerie Khoo

Oh my god, really?

Rick Held

Yep. Yep. But they totally got it. And I went there. And it was really amazing. The city was beautiful, by the way. My dad had told me he never wanted to go back because the Russians who, it became part of the USSR after the war, part of the Soviet Union, he said that they'd destroyed it. I thought that it would literally be, you know, buildings would have been torn down. What it really meant was that it had been neglected. Like, you know, those country towns that all wish that they'd had the money to build the new municipal buildings, but they didn't? And then 50 years later they realised, thank god, we didn't do that. We've got an historic township. Well, Czernowitz is like that. And it's this beautiful city. It's magical. It's a 600-year-old city that was known as little Vienna, that became a jewel in the crown of the Viennese Empire etc, etc.

So I went there and I was spending all my days walking the city, up and down, to all the locations that I put in the book. I discovered where the ghetto was, literally the streets where the ghetto was. Literally I found my father's house, I went inside it. I went to… My guide who I had, who I told, I explained to her the story and how the heroine works in a brothel. She said, “Oh, I can show you the two most famous brothels that were during the war.” And all these amazing things happened. And then at night, I'd go back to my Airbnb that I'd rented and I'd be writing the second draft whilst I was there.

Valerie Khoo

And how significantly did the second draft change from the first draft and what was the difference?

Rick Held

The story didn't change, but the authenticity of it and the details and richness. It was only when I got there that I discovered that I was able to answer questions like, did they use coal or wood in the ovens? And then the original draft of it I had, there are, I don't want to give away the plot, but there's a section, there's a part of the story where the hero of the story, young Tholdi, needs to sneak into a building at night. I had him sneaking in by back stairs. They don't have back stairs in any of the buildings! Now, no reader, you know, 99% of readers in the world, assuming the world gets to read it, would not know that. But I wanted it to be absolutely authentic. So I rewrote those sections. I was also able to give much richer descriptions and details. And the net result was that the 10,000 words less that we had put into the contract came back. The second draft was 10,000 words longer than the first draft.

Valerie Khoo

So now you've written this novel, you have a career in screenwriting behind you. Have you got the taste now? Is this your thing now?

Rick Held

Oh, I'd love it to be. I'd love it to be. I think it might depend a little on whether the first one does well, but I certainly have enjoyed the process incredibly.

Valerie Khoo

But are you already writing your second novel?

Rick Held

I haven't got into the thick of it. But I've got two and I'm trying to decide which one I want to go with.

Valerie Khoo

Remember the question that you should be asking yourself: which one are you going to enjoy?

Rick Held

Correct. Correct. Very good, because I've actually pitched a couple of people and they said, “I like this one.” And I said, “Yeah, but that one, I think that one is going to allow me to explore stuff I'd really like to explore.”

And as much as I've enjoyed writing this, the one that I've done, I really would like to write a novel not set, well, what are we talking, 80 years ago with issues like, is it wood or coal on the stove? You just cannot get answers to.

Valerie Khoo

Yes, yes. All right. So finally, what are your top three tips for aspiring writers who would like to have their novel out one day?

Rick Held

Oh, okay. Um, pick a subject, pick a story that, pick a subject that really fascinates you, that you can be passionate about.

Create characters that are multi-dimensional and surprising.

And enjoy it. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the process. It is so important to do that. Do not be writing something… You can Google if you like. And you'll find interesting answers to the question how to, but ultimately, it is a journey that you take and you have to enjoy that journey.

Valerie Khoo

Wonderful. And on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Rick.

Rick Held

Valerie, it's been a huge pleasure.

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