posted on September 20, 2013 by Yona Zeldis McDonough

What’s in a Name

twoofakindI categorize all names I hear as better or worse than mine.  I’d say ninety-five percent fall into the better camp but once in while, I come across a name that I actually think is worse. When this happens, I feel an enormous amount of pity and tenderness, not only for the name itself, but also for its hapless owner.  I know all too well what it’s like to go through with an odd and ungainly name.  When I was new to fourth grade, my teacher looked at the class list and said, “What is Yona Zeldis?”  I had to raise my hand and say, “It’s me.”  She thought it was a misprint and that it should perhaps have been Zelda Yonis; no such luck though.  I was born in Israel, where Yona is not an unusual name.  But I was raised in the United States, where it bordered on the freakish. Combined with the Z in the uncommon Zeldis, it was altogether a challenge and a conundrum—people just did not get it.  They still don’t but I have added McDonough (my husband’s name) and made my grudging peace with it.

Because of my heightened name sensitivity, I am almost obsessive about the naming of anyone else in my life: children, dogs and of course my fictional characters. I love the process and devote a lot of time to selecting their names.  The names are not always ones I like; that would be too easy. No, the names have to fit the character—his or her gender, religion, nationality and class.  (Names imply so much about a character; we perceive Katherine Anne Worthington as distinct and different from Sadie Mossbacher without another line of description about either.)  And the names have to speak to me in some ineffable way—each new name is like a poem to my ears and I have become highly attuned to the music that a name can convey.

A dear friend had an uncle named Oscar Kornblatt; I found this one of the few names that was worse than mine.  The first syallable,“Korn,” suggested not the yellow ears but the affliction of the toes, and second, “blatt,” had the misfortune to rhyme with splat. And the combination of the two induced shudders. But this name was paradoxically dear to me because of its very awfulness and I gave it to character I loved in my first novel, THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS.

I chose the names in my new novel, TWO OF A KIND, with the same kind of attention.  The male protagonist, Andrew Stern, had the sort of Jewish boy name I was familiar with from my own childhood. Andy is a high-risk OB/GYN and he’s a smart, driven and though essentially decent man, at moments he can be overbearing and obnoxious.  I felt I knew his type well and I found a name that put me in mind of it.  For the woman he meets, the name had to be Christina.  He’s Jewish and she’s not; this religious difference is one of the issues they must overcome to build a life together.  Christina was about as clear and emphatic as I could get—can’t miss the reference to Christ in there, now can you?  Her last name, Connelly, is Irish because she comes from the kind of working class Irish family that used to make up the backbone of Park Slope, where she’s lived all her life.  Her daughter Jordan and Andy’s son Oliver have names that are reflective of their generation; I knew of no one, other than characters in books or in movies, who had such names when I was growing up, whereas my teen-aged daughter and twenty-something son have friends and acquaintances with these names.  Andy’s mother, Ida, got her name from my great-aunt; I wanted a name that suggested her European Jewish roots and felt that was the one.

yonazeldismcdonoughThe naming of these characters and others has given me such satisfaction and delight as a writer.  There is something so grand, and even Biblical in the process; isn’t naming one of the jobs that Adam is given?  Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. So Adam gave names to all cattle, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field.

I’m sure that when he was done, Adam was proud.

Yona Zeldis McDonough

Yona Zeldis McDonough

When I was young, I didn’t think about becoming a writer. In fact, I was determined to become a ballerina, because I studied ballet for many years, and by the time I was in high school, I was taking seven ballet classes a week. But I was always a big reader. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I used to frequent all the different libraries in my neighborhood on a regular basis. I would look for books by authors I loved. I read my favorite books’ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, A LITTLE PRINCESS, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN’over and over again. I probably read each of those books twenty times in all. I read lots of other things too: I loved comic books and magazines, like Mad and Seventeen. But when you are reader, you just need to read. Sometimes you read books that change your life, like OF MICE AND MEN, which I read’and adored’ when I was in sixth grade. Other times, you read the latest adventures of Betty and Veronica. You’ll read a three-day old newspaper days or the back of the cereal box if that’s all that there is available, because readers just need to read. So I kept reading, and I kept dancing too, though by the time I was a senior in high school, it was pretty clear to me that I was neither talented nor driven enough to become a professional ballet dancer and I stopped taking lessons and went off to college instead.

As a student at Vassar College, I never once took a writing course. I was not accepted into the poetry workshop I applied to, so I avoided all other writing classes, and instead focused on literature, language and art history, which was my declared major. I was so taken with the field that I decided to pursue my studies on a graduate level. I enrolled in a PhD program at Columbia University where I have to confess that I was miserable. I didn’t like the teachers, the students or the classes. I found graduate school the antithesis of undergraduate education; while the latter encouraged experimentation, growth, expansion, the former seemed to demand a kind of narrowing of focus and a rigidity that was simply at odds with my soul. It was like business school without the reward of a well-paying job at the end. Everyone carried a briefcase. I too bought a briefcase, but since I mostly used it to tote my lunch and the NYT crossword puzzle, it didn’t do much for my success as a grad student. But I have to thank the program at Columbia for being so very inhospitable, because it helped nudge me out of academia, where I so patently did not belong, and into a different kind of life. I was allowed to take classes in other departments, and by now I was recovered from my earlier rejection so I decided to take a fiction writing class’also, the class was open to anyone; I didn’t have to submit work to be accepted. This class was my aha! moment. The light bulb went off for me when I took that class. Suddenly, I understood what I wanted to do with my life. Now I just had to find a way to make a living while I did it.

I finished out the year at Columbia, got a job in which I had no interest whatsoever, and began to look for any kind of freelance writing that I could find. In the beginning, I wrote for very little money or even for free: I wrote for neighborhood newspapers, the alumni magazine of my college. I wrote brochures, book reviews, newsletters’anything and everything that anyone would ask me to write. I did this for a long time and eventually, it worked. I was able to be a little choosier about what I wrote, and for whom I wrote it. And I was able to use my clips to persuade editors to actually assign me articles and stories, instead of my having to write them and hope I could get then published.

But all the while I was writing articles and essays, I was also writing the kind of fiction’short stories, a novel’that had interested me when I was still a student at Columbia. And eventually I began to publish this work too. I’ve written two novels for adults, THE FOUR TEMPERAMENTS and IN DAHLIA’S WAKE’and my third novel, BREAKING THE BANK, is out now. I presently live in Brooklyn, NY with my husband and our two children and two small, yappy dogs. I have been setting my recent novels in my own backyard so to speak; Brooklyn has been fertile ground in all sorts of ways.

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