Interview: Allen Zadoff of Since You Left Me

Posted on October 26, 2012 at 9:38 pm

I last talked to Allen Zadoff about his book, My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies.  He was kind enough to give me another interview about his new book, Since You Left Me.  Once again his hero is an unhappy teenage boy who feels isolated (and who shares his author’s initials).

Your main character’s internal and external struggle is exemplified by his name: Sanskrit Aaron Zukerman.  How do his feelings about his name tell us about him? 

Poor Sanskrit. The battle lines of his life were decided at birth.  His Jewish mother is a yoga practitioner and named him after her favorite thing, Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language used in yoga practice. Now in his teens, Sanskrit attends a religious school in Los Angeles because his grandfather left money in a trust for him to get a Jewish education. So Sanskrit is caught in the intersection of family tradition and contemporary life.  The teachers at his Jewish school call him by his middle name “Aaron” because it’s familiar to them. Outside of school people call him “Sanskrit”. In a real sense, my hero doesn’t know who he is—Sanskrit or Aaron—and it’s the journey of this novel for him to find out.

Why did you decide to tell the story in the first person?  What can you do in that voice that you cannot do any other way?

The first person narrator brings you directly into a character’s thinking process, and with my characters, that’s usually a funny and embarrassing ride.  At one point in Since You Left Me, Sanskrit is hiding behind an expensive gift basket while his parents fight, and he has a realization and says, “My family is less painful when viewed through cellophane and foreign chocolate.” That’s the kind of experience you only get in first person.

Also because Sanskrit is on a spiritual journey of sorts, the first person allows me to reveal the twists and turns of his thinking in an immediate and exciting way. We are on the journey with him, understanding what he understands, and experiencing his revelations in real time.

Sanskrit has experienced a lot of loss and disappointment.  How has that affected his view of the world?

He’s jaded at sixteen and wondering if God exists.  It’s a classic situation—Life doesn’t go your way, and you start to wonder if there’s anyone or anything in charge. As things get more out of control in his life, Sanskrit does what many of us do, he tries harder to make it work out the way he thinks it should be. For example, his mother is threatening to leave the family because she believes she’s found her true love (in India of all places), and Sanskrit’s determined to find a way to make her stay. It’s a dilemma I understand from my own life. When should I apply my will and effort to change a situation, and when should I relax, let go, and accept things as they are? It’s not always easy to know.

What made you decide to write a story set in a religious school?  What are some of the most significant struggles teenagers have with spirituality?

I don’t know what struggle teens have, only the struggles I had as a teen. My novel Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have was based on my experience being overweight in high school.  And Since You Left Me is based on some of my spiritual struggles in high school and also as an adult.  When I was young, I went to Hebrew School once a week on Saturdays and I was bar mitzvahed, but I had no real relationship to something greater than myself. Frankly I didn’t think I needed it. I thought being smart, talented, and hardworking would get me where I wanted to go in life.  I didn’t think I needed help from God, and I didn’t understand the idea that we might ask God what he wanted from our lives, rather than deciding for ourselves what we want or what might feel good. It’s what Rick Warren calls The Purpose Driven Life.  As with many people, my own spiritual journey grew out of hardship. In my case it was an eating disorder that nearly took me out. At 28 years old I was in serious trouble, and I had to find a new way to live in the world.  I tell the story in some detail in my memoir Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin.

Your characters often have to deal with parents who behave more like children than their kids.  As a writer, what possibilities and themes does that present to you?

It’s true that kids in my novels are often struggling with absent or neglectful parents. Sadly, I have some experience with that—parents who were doing the best they knew how, but who weren’t always there for my brother and I. Often in a novel I’ll take a kernel of my own experience and magnify it for dramatic effect. I also feel it’s an author’s job to understand and have compassion for every character. In Since You Left Me, Sanskrit’s mother is incredibly selfish, a fact that has inspired many readers to write me letters and tell me about their own kooky parents. But as the author, I really understand why this mother does what she does. She tells her children, “How can I love you if I don’t have love in my own life?”  It’s twisted logic, but it makes sense in a way.  I can imagine a character neglecting her own children while chasing love, thinking all the while she’s doing something positive for her family.

As for the theme, you might say that Since You Left Me is about the moment when we realize our parents are just people, and they are fallible. How do we deal with that realization and what it means for our lives?

Why does Sanskrit have such a hard time trusting or being honest with the people around him?

I think he’s been hurt. By his parents’ divorce. By his mother’s self-involvement. By the feeling that he’s different from the kids in his school, in particular his best friend Herschel who seems to live a faith-based life very easily, while it’s an enormous struggle for Sanskrit.  He’s also hurt because the love of his life in second grade seems to have forgotten that he exists. When you get hurt, it becomes hard to trust people and believe that things will work out for the best. This is where faith comes in for many people. Without faith, it’s just you battling your past experiences that have conditioned you to deal with the world in a certain way. But with faith, I think healing is possible. Faith and therapy. I’m a big believer in both things.

What inspires you?

I’m very inspired by music.  I listen to music when I write, probably 4-6 hours of it a day. I have mixes on Pandora, Spotify, Songza.  I listen to everything from indie rock, to punk, to international hip hop, to jazz, to religious music.  I’m all over the map. I have enormous respect for musicians and the joy their work has brought me.

What makes you laugh?

Girls on HBO. Not being a girl in my 20s, I thought I would hate it. To the contrary, I think Lena Dunham is brilliant, and I love her voice, the frankness and humor with which she captures her characters’ lives. And of course Judd Apatow, her fellow executive producer, has a lot to do with that, too. I think it’s an amazing collaboration.

Do you have an e-reader or do you still prefer books on paper?

I’m all digital, and I get some flack about it from book lovers. I understand their appreciation of the physical book, and I share it. But as I’ve grown towards middle age, my vision has gotten worse, and e-books have become a godsend.  So I guess I’m in the camp of people for whom e-readers are an accessibility device and not just a luxury item. I’m looking forward to further innovations that will capture more of the artistry of book design (internal and external) in the digital form.  I think Kindle’s new “Publisher Font” setting is a step in the right direction. Readers can now opt to read an e-book in the font the publisher has selected for the work. It seems a small thing, but it’s a very important decision that publishers, authors, and designers make. It communicates the story of the book on an unconscious level, and sadly, it’s one of the many things that had gotten lost in the rush to the digital format.

Related Tags:


Books Interview Writers

Cloud Atlas

Posted on October 25, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Six nested stories set in the past, present, and future entwine grand themes of the conflicts between those who would oppress and those who demand freedom, those who must create and those who want to repeat what is already there, those who love and those who are afraid to love or be loved.  Some in the audience will be enchanted by the grand scope of the story-telling and the intricate details of the mosaic that make up each of the story’s parts.  Others will be impatient with the gimmicks and distracted by the prosthetics, wigs, and make-up.  Many will grapple with the frustration of experiencing both reactions.

When they made the “Matrix” films, they were known as the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry.  But since then, Larry has become Lana while resisting terms like “transition” as “complicity in a binary gender narrative.”  That clearly fueled the commitment to age, race, and gender fluidity throughout the film. Even the most sharp-eyed cataloger of prosthetic noses and teeth will be surprised as the credits reveal the multiple roles taken by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugo Weaving (Mr. Smith in the “Matrix” films), Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, James Broadbent, Ben Wishaw, Keith David, Doona Bae, and others.

The oldest story, set in the early 19th century and told in the  traditional style of ahistorical drama, has Sturgess as a man disturbed by the abuse of slaves in the Pacific who is being poisoned by a doctor (Hanks) he thinks is curing him.  His journals become a book on a shelf in the next story, set in the 1930’s, with a musician (Wishaw) writing to the man he loves about assisting a venerated composer and working on his own composition, called “Cloud Atlas.”  In the 1970’s, styled to remind us of that era’s “paranoid cinema” films like “The Parallax View” and “The China Syndrome,”  an investigative reporter (Berry) gets stuck in an elevator with an elderly scientist who gives her some important information about a nuclear facility.  She discovers his 40-years-old correspondence with the musician in his papers.  In the present day, we see something of a shaggy dog story as a British publisher (Broadbent) goes on the run from hooligans and ends up having to escape from a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”-style facility.

Two stories are set in the future.  The first, in what is now Korea, has a “Blade Runner-“ish society made up of consumers and “fabricants.”  One of them sees a movie based on the story of the publisher’s escape (starring Hanks), which helps her understand that she must rebel against the abuses of her society.  Her story becomes part of the origin myths of a post-apocalyptic society hundreds of years even farther into the future, where much of humanity has returned to an almost bronze-age level of technology and everyone speaks in a Jar-Jar Binks form of pidgin English that may have worked better on the printed page but on screen is intrusive and overdone.

As the the “Matrix” films, the more specific and concrete it gets, the less resonance it has.  Its greatest message about human aspiration and inspiration and connection is in the message as medium.  The scope and audacity of this undertaking, the biggest budget independent film in history, with the Wachowskis putting up their own homes to make the final budget numbers, outshines the details that never quite reach the clouds.

Parents should know that this film includes some graphic violence including murders, rape, shoot-outs, knives, arrows, suicide, brutal whipping, poison, car crashes, and a character being thrown off a balcony.  Characters are in peril, injured and killed.  There are dead bodies with disturbing images, some strong words including f-word and n-word, gay and heterosexual sexual references and explicit situations as well as nudity, crude sexual humor, portrayal of slavery and totalitarianism, smoking, and drug use.

Family discussion: Which of the stories was the most compelling and why?  Who was the bravest character?  Who learned the most?

If you like this, try: the book by David Mitchell and the “Matrix” movies


Related Tags:


Action/Adventure Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Fantasy Romance Science-Fiction

Leslie Combernale’s Top 10 Little-Seen Zombie Movies

Posted on October 25, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I am not a horror fan, but I still like to read about horror films, and I was delighted to see that my friend and fellow critic Leslie Combernale has put together a list of little-seen zombie films she thinks are deserving of a wider audience.  Be sure to take a look at her “School of Rot” list!

Related Tags:


For Your Netflix Queue Holidays Horror Lists Neglected gem

The Real Story: “Chasing Mavericks”

Posted on October 25, 2012 at 3:34 pm

In “Chasing Mavericks,” Gerard Butler plays real-life surfing legend Richard “Frosty” Hesson, who was approached by kid named Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston) who wanted some guidance in becoming a better surfer.  They both wanted to surf the gigantic waves off the California coast that were called “mavericks.”  This movie is the story of their friendship and their passion for surfing.

Sadly, Moriairty was killed freediving at only 23 years old.  Here is a touching tribute.

For more information, try Surfing Mavericks: The Unofficial Biography of Jay Moriarity, The Ultimate Guide to Surfing, co-written by Moriarity, and Hesson’s Making Mavericks: The Memoir of a Surfing Legend

Related Tags:


The Real Story

Halloween Quiz: Television

Posted on October 25, 2012 at 8:00 am

How many of these spooky classics do you know?

1.  This animated comedy goes all-out on Halloween every year with its popular “Treehouse of Horror” series.

2.  It makes sense that this series about a witch would have memorable Halloween episodes.  Probably the best-remembered featured an adventure filmed on location in Salem, Massachusetts, home of the witch trials.

3.  A brave and curious little animated girl has to help a little monster find his way home before midnight.

4.  This Emmy-winner for best comedy series has a Halloween-loving couple who turn their home into a haunted mansion, but at first everything goes wrong when their family members get caught up in their own drama.

5.  The Halloween episodes of this long-running series were a highlight, especially one called “Boo!” where they turned their home into the “Castle of Terror.”

6.  Zoinks!  This funny-spooky animated series had a number of Halloween episodes, including one featuring KISS.

7.  The Halloween episode of this musical series featured songs from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

8. Sisters Laura and Mary try to play some Halloween pranks but instead get spooked themselves in this series based on popular children’s books about 19th century settlers.

9. Liza Minnelli guest stars as the mother of a murdered child in a Halloween episode of this crime drama.

10. The teen star of this series and his cousin want to go to a Halloween party and try to top each other to win dates.



Related Tags:


Quiz Television
THE MOVIE MOM® is a registered trademark of Nell Minow. Use of the mark without express consent from Nell Minow constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of federal and state laws. All material © Nell Minow 1995-2020, all rights reserved, and no use or republication is permitted without explicit permission. This site hosts Nell Minow’s Movie Mom® archive, with material that originally appeared on Yahoo! Movies, Beliefnet, and other sources. Much of her new material can be found at, Huffington Post, and WheretoWatch. Her books include The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments, and she can be heard each week on radio stations across the country.

Website Designed by Max LaZebnik