Keith here. Bear with me while I ramble toward an answer to the title question.
There’s nothing I love more than getting an angry email from a reader that says something like, “Curse you. I had an important meeting at the office this morning and I was wreck. Why? Because I started reading your book at 10 last night and couldn’t put it down. I was up till 3.”
I should feel bad, I know. But I don’t. I wish I got more emails like that. Heck, I’m selfish enough that I’d be willing to see the GNP suffer (just a little blip would be enough) due to the reduced productivity of the millions of American workers reading my books. Well, like Willy Loman, a man “is got to dream,” doesn’t he?
So what am I saying? That my primary motivation in writing is to entertain. When I picture someone reading Dot Dead or Smasher, I see her or him on a beach chair or in an airplane seat. But I do have a more subtle, secondary motivation. Do you remember the big brouhaha a couple of years ago about Jessica Seinfeld’s cookbook, Deceptively Delicious? In it she explains how to slip vegetables into kids’ meals without them noticing. You know, some puréed cauliflower in the mac-and-cheese or sweet potatoes in the pancakes. Well, I try to sneak some good-for-you “vegetables” in what I write, too. Critics picked up on this. Joe Hartlaub of Bookreporter.com, for example, wrote: “Dot Dead also deals, quietly but effectively, with spiritual and ethical concerns, infusing them into the narrative without overwhelming it.”
Why am I bringing this all up now? Because J, the Jewish Newsweekly of Northern California, didn’t review Smasher. Why not? Apparently because it wasn't viewed as a Jewish book.
I’m an American, a creature of Silicon Valley. That background infuses my writing. So does my Judaism. When Dot Dead starts, the hero is obsessed by making tens of millions from stock options he's been granted by the start-up where he works. In the course of the narrative, I try to “slip in” the notion that pursuing justice, belonging to a community, and establishing a loving relationship just might also be goals worth striving for. I am contrasting the schizophrenic values I myself have lived with; Ian Michaels first obsession reflects the ethos of Silicon Valley, the second set of goals reflects Jewish values.
This learning process goes on in my second book beginning right with the epigraph drawn from the Talmud: “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.” Through this book, too, Ian continues to learn the way to a rich life is not through single-minded pursuit of money.
Now Ian is a skeptic with a natural distrust of pat answers. When his wife hovers near death, he doubts the value of the prayers his mother-in-law seems to rely on. When Ian asks what good it would do to seek justice for a long-dead great aunt, a rabbi tells him, “The Torah says, ‘Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.’ It doesn’t say to just pursue justice for the living. Perhaps obtaining justice for the dead makes a better world for the living.” (Elsewhere in the book, Ian even learns that Judaism is pro-sex.)
The choices Ian makes, especially at the end of Smasher, shows the transformation Ian goes through. Like Moses, Ian is a reluctant hero. Even though Ian doesn’t necessarily believe in God, he does the right thing in the end. According to the Jewish Sages it’s far more important what you do than what you believe. He becomes a mensch.
I may write Jewish books then or at least books with Jewish themes, but they are certainly not intended only for Jewish readers. With Jews constituting only 2% of the population of the United States and ¼% of the world population that would restrict readership a little too much. I’ve had evangelical Christians, nuns, Moslems, Buddhists, and Hindus tell me how much they enjoyed what I’ve written. They like learning a little bit about Judaism and, of course, there’s a universality to the journey Ian is on. I doubt any religion would say a single-minded quest for money was more important than justice, community, or family.
So are my books Jewish books? I think so, just as they are American books and Silicon Valley books. But they aren’t meant to be only for Americans, engineers, or Jews. Most of all, I try to write books that will entertain readers of any nationality, religion, or profession.