The Truth As I Saw It: Joseph Sutton's Story

Syrian Jewish writer and Los Angeles native Joe Sutton (b. 1940) has just published his first novel. Morning Pages, the Almost True Story of My Life (Creative Arts Book Co., Berkeley 2000), is a loosely fictionalized version of his youth growing up in L.A. during the 1950s, one of five boys of a Syrian family from Brooklyn. After a promising high school football career, Sutton won a football scholarship to the University of Oregon. It wasn't until the late 1960s while he was working as a teacher in South-Central, however, that Sutton realized he wanted to become a writer. And where else do aspiring writers go to live the boho life and write fiction? San Francisco. A familiar face on the Bay Area writers scene, these days Joe Sutton writes for a variety of magazines, including Writer's Digest and Writers' Journal. He has written many short stories and his first collection, The Immortal Mouth and Other Stories, will be published in 2001 by Creative Arts.

On Sunday, December 10, at the Los Angeles home of his brother, Maurice Sutton, Joe Sutton gave a first public reading from Morning Pages. The gathering included the extended Sutton family of brothers and cousins, uncles, aunts and children, who in their gregarious way are the epitome of the sunny Sephardim (when they are not reveling in melancholy)---laughing, joking, hugging and kissing each other hello and goodbye.

Much of what Sutton has to say in the first-person voice of Ben Halaby is straight forward, in the style of a Raymond Carver or William Saroyan (one of Sutton's models, incidentally); and Sutton usually seems to write what's on his mind without beating around any bushes, whether it is candidness about sex, pot-smoking or dislike of fellow man. For his reading, Sutton chose one chapter, "My Almost First Woman," which might have put off prudish listeners, but instead, there was a steady stream of laughter, as people seemed to recognize themselves in the character of Halaby.

Ostensibly, Morning Pages is about Ben Halaby the writer grappling with writer's block; the remedy he's found is The Artist's Way, a book in which the author urges blocked writers to write "morning pages" in a stream of consciousness fashion---just write what comes to mind, without censoring yourself. In this novel, Sutton organizes his "morning pages" into coherent chapters, so the reader is not facing the randomness of a journal, per se; and in fact the whole book feels much like a collection of vignettes, or short-short stories; taken together they work as quasi-autobiography.

An affable man who still looks like he once played college ball, Sutton sat for a few informal questions after his reading.

Your novel, or fictionalized autobiography, recounts the difficulties of Ben Halaby as he struggles to become a writer in San Francisco, working a variety of odd jobs along the way. Was it in fact difficult for you to become a writer; were there perhaps social or familial constraints?

It took my fortitude. I was a teacher before that. I didn't realize I could write. There are people who inspired me along the way, though, and one was Clancy Sigal, who stopped off at my apartment one day in the late '60s. I showed him a little story I was writing about a football player. He thought it was very good. A few years later I decided to become a writer and move to San Francisco.

You seem to be writing about true events and real people yet you choose to fictionalize. I wondered about that.

The first time I sat down to write, I wrote a true story, but I fictionalized it, and it felt good. It was creativity blossoming.

Although this is formally being called a novel, Morning Pages reads a lot like a collection of stories.

I mainly consider myself a short story writer. I'm a sprinter, in other words, rather than a long-distance runner.

Well, you certainly don't seem to pull any punches, you don't censor yourself when you write about sex or getting high as a young man, for instance.

If a writer censors himself, he's not a writer. This is what it's all about, complete freedom of expression.

Although you came from a Syrian Jewish family, you seem to have integrated into the American mainstream and your writing reflects that. Can you talk about what being Sephardic means to you?

My roots are Syrian Jewish; those are my roots, it's me. There's a lot of hugging and kissing, and when we eat the same Arabic food and listen to the music, these are things that bring us closer together. If we go to temple, it sometimes has a way of bringing us together, though we don't go often. We never prayed much as kids, my brothers and me. We were out playing. Religion was forced down our throats and we almost all rebelled against it. My father prayed every morning with tefillin around his arm and his head, which I remember doing only once, on my Bar-Mitzvah. Religious rituals don't convey a great deal of spirituality to me. I think you would find that me and my brothers are spiritual and I guess we all believe in God. I love my roots in a way; but if I had to go and live in Brooklyn and live that life...What I love most about this culture is the little things that bring us together.

Morning Pages, at times, reads a bit like an oral history, a family history. You must be pleased with it.

After thirty years of being a writer, this is my first fiction book. When my publisher called and said, 'I want your book,' I was in heaven for four months!


 As part of the next "Conversations on Roots & Identity" salon series, to be held in the Poetry Center at San Francisco State, Joe Sutton will read on Thursday, January 18. Check our January calendar for details, or RSVP now to Myra Lappin, (415) 338-1706.


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