Winning the Writer’s Race

In the constellation of writers with Mobile connections, Zoe Fishman is probably one of the least known in her hometown. But, given her thousand-watt talent, strong work ethic, distinctive perspective and intelligent use of local vibes and themes, that is not likely to continue for long. I call Fishman at her Atlanta home late on a Saturday afternoon, aware that, as the mother of an active 15-month-old son, Ari, her time is going to be valuable and limited.

Fishman, 36, was born in Lynchburg, Va., but her parents moved to Mobile when she was 3. Her father, Dr. Ethan Fishman, teaches political science at the University of South Alabama, and her mother, Sue, is retired. As native New Yorkers and Jews, the Fishman family found a congenial spiritual home at Synagogue Ahavas Chesed, just off Airport Boulevard, but the local Jewish community was small, and young Zoe was surrounded by a very different broader culture. At synagogue, she was “the only girl at my age level, ” and in the public schools she felt apart because of her faith, her darker coloring and her liberal sensibilities. “I definitely wanted to be blonde and Baptist, ” she laughs. But whereas some children might have become withdrawn in the face of all that, Fishman was outgoing. “I was a naturally funny person, ” she says. “My sarcasm and humor were an advantage.” She proved so vivacious, in fact, that she made the Shaw High School cheerleading squad. “I had a great time.”

“I definitely wanted to be blonde and Baptist, ” Fishman laughs … “[But] I was a naturally funny person. My sarcasm and humor were an advantage.”

While fine socially, Fishman’s academic side suffered, and her parents transferred her to St. Paul’s Episcopal School for her junior and senior years. It was there that she came under the influence of English teacher Nancy Strachan, who encouraged her to enter Mobile Public Library’s annual short story contest. Writing was one of Fishman’s favorite activities — “It was one of the only things I had confidence in” — and so she submitted a story. “I won, ” Fishman recalls fondly, and her story was published in the school’s literary magazine. As for making a career out of the craft, Fishman had “always sort of dreamt about it, ” but while a student at Boston College, she was absorbed by the excitement and distractions of campus life. She did keep a journal, but that was about the extent of any literary engagement. After graduation, she worked a stint in book publishing at Random House, hoping that might jump-start her inner writer. But then Random was swallowed by corporate giant Bertelsmann AG. “I kinda had it, ” she recalls. “I certainly wasn’t writing ever.” A later gig at Simon & Schuster in the foreign rights department was interesting, but not exactly conducive to the writing life either. Fishman came away from her involvement with big-time publishing a little sobered by how much discipline it takes to write a book and by everything that goes into getting it onto bookstore shelves.

Fishman was able to crack her fear of committing to the writing desk by participating in and completing the New York City Marathon. During her early morning training runs, she would think to herself, “This is discipline incarnate, ” and in the aftermath of that experience, composing a novel no longer felt so intimidating. Two novels followed, “Balancing Acts” (Harper) in 2010 and “Saving Ruth” (William Morrow) last year. The latter book follows the trials and triumphs of a young Mobile woman returning home from her Northern college and grappling with different horizons and ingrained social and racial attitudes. It’s a dynamic that Fishman certainly knows well. Her third book, “Driving Lessons” is due next January. It deals “with the effects of impending motherhood on three different women at different points of their lives, ” Fishman tells me. With that manuscript now in production, she’s mulling ideas for more books and teaching a writing workshop at her local Jewish community center, and she has co-founded the Atlanta Writers Academy, a new group to encourage aspiring wordsmiths.

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Mobile and the Gulf Coast are never far from her thoughts, however. She got married at Orange Beach, and she and her family visit home at least twice a year. Mobile feels much bigger to her now, and she says, “The Jewish community seems to have grown.” There’s still plenty that’s familiar, of course, and she’s appreciative of her history here. “I always think about my childhood, ” she reveals. “I have nothing but fond memories. I’m sort of grateful that I was a stranger in a strange land. My friendships were so much richer.” And, I might add, so are her books.

John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”

text by John S. Sledge • photo by Karen Shacham

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