There are so many ways to start a story about Lizzie Skurnick of Jersey City.
It could begin with her long-running, recently ended “That should be a word” series in the New York Times magazine section, with her resurrecting the All-of-a-Kind Family series from out-of-print oblivion, with her poetry, with her early and influential blogging, with her family’s fascinating (and partly very local) history, with her deep knowledge of teen literature, or with the way she came to have her own publishing imprint, Lizzie Skurnick Books.
Maybe that’s because a story about someone drunk on words, high on words, addicted to books, surrounded by teetering piles of books, demands more than one beginning.
Let’s pick one of them, then, and begin.
Lizzie (more formally Elizabeth, Liz to everyone but her mother and the reading public), who is 42, grew up in Englewood, the second of the three children of Eugene and Dr. Blanche Jordan Skurnick. Gene, an engineer, has been on Englewood’s city council four separate times. “For better or worse, he’s all heart,” his daughter said. He grew up, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, on the Lower East Side, in a time and place where being Jewish meant being socialist, having a thick Yiddish accent, and arguing very loudly about just about everything, just for the joy and the passion of it. (Think Bernie Sanders.)
Blanche Jordan grew up in an all-black town in Oklahoma named Langston, after the African American poet and activist Langston Hughes. Her family — intellectuals, many of them teachers — came from Louisiana, “but her father left there because he was afraid he’d be lynched. It was the same reason my grandparents left the Ukraine,” Lizzie said — a realistic fear of pogroms. The family eventually moved to Queens, and Blanche went to City College. She met Gene there. “She was a lapsed Catholic,” Lizzie said. “She went to a college filled with Jewish people, and she had a million Jewish friends. She always was at home in the Jewish world.”
Blanche earned at Ph.D. in English, and taught at City College until she was 40, when she decided that it was time to act on a long-held ambition. She went to medical school, and has been practicing medicine ever since. “She works with senior citizens, which is what she always wanted to do,” her daughter said.
Right around the time that their oldest child, David, was born, the Skurnicks moved to Englewood. (Miriam, their youngest, was born 10 years after David.)
Lizzie’s Jewish education came from the Workman’s Circle in Bergenfield. “Our teacher was wonderful, but I didn’t realize that he was the premier Yiddish scholar of our time,” she said. He was Pesach Fiszman, “a wonderful man. He thought he was about 85, and later I realized that he probably was only about 35. He was doing a mitzvah in coming out and teaching this class.” It wasn’t until she posted something about him on Facebook that she realized how famous Dr. Fiszman had been, she said. He also was a good teacher; she really learned to speak Yiddish, although she since has lost that skill.
Lizzie was a serious reader, the sort of child who’d wander around banging into things that she could not see because her entire field of vision was filled with letters. She went to public school in Englewood. It wasn’t a particularly good school for advanced students, but she was left alone, free to read whatever she chose. “I was an autodidact,” she said. She also was a musician; she first studied violin and then voice at the Manhattan School of Music, near Columbia in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. “I learned the Great American Songbook and Schubert’s lieder,” she said. “It was magical for me.” She no longer sings, but she has that music in her head and her heart.
Lizzie went to Yale, where she majored in English and African American literature as a combined concentration. “I wrote two theses,” she said. “One was on black women’s magazines in the 1950s, as it related to housewives post World War II. The other one was on Titus Andronicus.” She also studied and wrote poetry.
Once she graduated, “I had truly no idea about what I wanted to do,” she said. “I applied to a million internships. I was in a terrible depression, but I was trying to force myself to sound like a normal person. And I didn’t notice that someone accepted me. I got a letter from a feminist press, Calyx, in Corvallis, Oregon, and I didn’t even notice until something finally went off dimly in my brain.”
The note had come in March, and she called in May; it would have been too late, but someone who had accepted dropped out, so after graduation, Lizzie went out to Oregon. “My parents were lovely. They bought me a Saturn, and I drove across the country by myself. I loved it.”
Corvallis was a brand-new experience. “It’s different out west,” she said. “There are enormous supermarkets filled with produce and whole grains. There’s nothing like that here, even now. It’s particular to the west.
“It was beautiful, and also a little boring. My roommates got nervous when I crossed the street against the light. But there was a river that I could run along, and I lived in a group house with different kinds of people — one of them was a soil engineer — and it was wonderful.” During that four-month internship, she copy-edited, wrote pieces for the press’s journal, arranged book tours for authors, and in general learned a great deal about the less glamorous side of the publishing world.
Back home, Lizzie got a job at the Book of the Month Club, doing development (which in publishing means putting together books, from beginning to end; it does not mean fundraising) for the African-American collection, Griot books. She moved to the Upper West Side. “Back then, you could support yourself in publishing,” she said. “I think I made $23,000 a year. I wasn’t living it up, but I could buy my own couch. And I learned a lot more about every aspect of publishing.”
She also learned a great deal about the less elevated aspects of publishing. Part of her job was reading new manuscripts, weeding out the clunkers (most of them), and propelling the good ones to be considered for publication. One of the men for whom she worked said, “‘women can’t write, and black people don’t really read,’” she reported.
Then she went freelance, writing readers’ reports and press releases. “In those days,” the late 1990s, “it was a word-of-mouth thing,” Lizzie said. “If you had a publicist who needed a press release, and you knew someone who wrote quickly…” She was a very quick writer.
Next, Lizzie was hired by a publisher that specialized in packaging books for teens. The firm, called 17th Street Productions — and now owned by Alloy Entertainment — did “all the teen books you could think of,” including the very popular Sweet Valley High series. One of Lizzie’s passions is children’s and teen literature — not only the Sweet Valley High kind but the other, better, longer-lasting kind — and she was able to indulge that love in her work.
After so much effort on other people’s words, Lizzie decided that it was time to work on her own. (Also, “I had a boyfriend I hated and I already had published a friend, a wonderful poet at Yale, in the Book of the Month Club.” Her work there was done.) She applied to writing programs at Columbia, Iowa, and Johns Hopkins, got into all of them, and chose Hopkins. She studied with poets whose work she loved — Sandy McClatchy, Andrew Hudgins, John Irwin. They are “the formal poets of our era,” she said. Through them, “I got to meet all these Southern male poets at the Sewanee writing conference.” It was a yearlong program. She earned a master’s degree, had a teaching fellowship, and once that was finished became an adjunct, teaching writing.
Can you teach someone to write? “You can give them assignments. I have always been very into forms — one of my teachers always said that the whole purpose of a form is to free up the psyche. When you have a limitation, that improves your craft. You can expose people to literature that expands them. If they really can’t write, you can’t teach people to write, but you can make them competent, and teach them to recognize what competence is.”
You do need a spark, she added. “It’s like what I couldn’t do as a singer. It would have been a disaster if I’d tried.”
Lizzie stayed in Baltimore for seven years, teaching and writing. She published her first book of poetry, “Check-In.” She turned out books for 17th Street Productions. “They needed people who could bang them out,” she said. She could. “Everyone was scornful toward me for writing these books, not fancy novels — the dream of their lives was to be published in the Iowa Review — and I was like ‘Dude, you should do some writing for money.’”
And then she stalled. Management at 17th Street Production changed, and she got fewer assignments. “I had written 10 books, I had published the book of poetry, I had gotten fellowships at Yaddo, Ucross, and Green Mountain. I had done all that — but then I dried up, and I remember jogging around an awful depressing lake, and I told myself, ‘You will have to write yourself out of this or you will endure doing nothing, being no one.’”
No surprise — she did.
Lizzie started a blog she called Old Hag. It was 2003, not so long ago but antediluvian in blog history. “It was just me messing around, having fun, finally writing the criticism I wanted to write in my own voice. I had no idea that anyone was reading us” — the other early bloggers, the “people who became The Awl and Gawker and Wonkette” — “but I was wrong.
“An editor from the New York Times Book Review emailed and said, ‘We read your blog and we would like to have you write a few reviews for us.” After getting over her conviction that the email was a joke — “I wrote back and said this isn’t even funny” — she did contribute reviews to the Times, to the Washington Post, and to the New Yorker.
“From Old Hag I had a huge freelance career, and did occasional free verse on NPR,” she said.
Lizzie also wrote “That Should Be a Word,” where she combined two words into a new one, with a logical definition. They’re hilarious. In nearly every instance, she’s entirely right. Why weren’t those words?
Her definitions have been collected into a book also called “That Should Be a Word,” a tall, thin cartoon-illustrated paperback, in dictionary form, with diagrams showing her creations’ relationships to each other.
It’s remarkably difficult to pick just a few, but it seems worth trying. So here are some randomly picked samples from the chapter on social media:
“Smearch” — v., Google someone in hopes of finding bad news.
“Twiticule” — v., Make fun of someone on Twitter.
“Epistol” — n., One who fires off messages.
“Hystoria” — n., Panic if one second of life is not documented.
Blogging changed Lizzie’s life. She moved back to New York in 2006 and wrote a weekly column on out-of-print teen books for Jezebel.
“The column began when blogs were launched and could never have existed at any other time or place,” she said. “It was a place where women could gather,” virtually, of course, “and talk about these books. It was a bunch of 35-year-old women saying ‘I never realized how important that book was for me.’”
She was approached by a book packager who offered Lizzie her own imprint, Lizzie Skurnick Books, which launched in 2013. “I use my expertise in finding out-of-print books that we should bring back, as well as books that should have been popular and never were.” The imprint has 23 books now.
The first of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family series remained in print, but the other four did not until Lizzie rescued them. They are by far the most popular of her books.
Most Jewish women have read those books, which were set in the 1910s and first published in the 1950s. Ms. Taylor wrote them for her own daughter, Jo, who was an only child.
“They are essentially a combination of a Jewish Little Women and a Jewish Little House on the Prairie,” Lizzie said. “There are, as far as I know, no other books about Jewish children set in this time period. They are not about the Holocaust. They are about a large family, and each girl represents a different kind of person, like in Little Women. They are all connected to the community, and they don’t notice that their dad is a junk salesman, their mom has to hunt for buttons, and they only have one dress between them.”
Ah, that dress. Ask almost anyone who has read the books, and the first memory they will come up with is the dress, which one sister stained with tea and then recovered by dyeing with tea.
“That dress is an obsession for everyone,” Lizzie said. “My theory is that the dress is about the ingenuity of assimilation.
“America is the white dress, and the Jews are a benefit to the country. They are able to wear it, and they also have the ingenuity to change that white dress into something else.”
And, she added, “the idea of dyeing something like that is just so much fun.
“The family is always drawing together to weather situations, and that’s something that readers want too. We don’t always have the chance to have so many experiences of learning with our families. And something specific always is happening, and they are solving it with something else specific.
“I am always focused on how Uncle Hyman comes over and eats a dozen eggs, and freshly buttered bread. He comes over with food, and then he eats it all.
“When you are a younger person, you learn about the world through details and stories, not through overarching theories. These books are about eating pickles on the subway. They’re about library books.
“They also tell the story of the Jewish migration from the Lower East Side to the Bronx, and how neighborhoods change. They tell about the features of the girls’ lives — the library, the settlement house, the subway, the double-decker bus. Most books don’t revive a world like this.
“You can tell it was a mother telling her story to her daughter. You could see that she was looking back for specific details, and coming up with the details that a child would remember.
“That’s why the books are so important. They contain so much.”
Lizzie Skurnick Books specializes in books that read as authentic. “All the books I chose are about girls contending with the world, and learning about it, but we get to see them learning about it as teenagers, not from the point of view of an adult. It’s not how an adult would see things, but how a teenager experiences it. That makes the entire difference.”
In the All-of-a-Kind Family books, “Mama definitely is there, but it’s about how the girls see Momma. It’s not about how Mama sees the girls.”
In 2013, Lizzie had a baby, Javier, around whom her life (and, she says with love and gratitude, her parents’ lives) revolves. She adjusts her writing and publishing to his schedule; when he was an infant, that meant doing less. Now, she is working on two books. One, “Grandma Said,” for Workman Press, is a “collection of great old-time phrases for every occasion,” she said. The other is a novel, set in Yale in the 1990s.
Lizzie’s career so far has been an idiosyncratic one. She can offer no clear model for younger writers, other than the obvious truth that what she has done has worked wonderfully for her.
“Doing any kind of writing makes you a better writer,” she said. “I find it’s much easier to work on something when I am also working on something else. And every three years I seem to turn over a leaf for the next thing.”
You can learn more about Lizzie on her website, lizzieskurnick.com.