My Mitzy Kafka Story

In my interview with Ellen Miles, we traded a few war stories from the trenches, odd jobs we’ve done over the years as “writers for hire.” I mentioned a pen name I twice used, Mitzy Kafka. Someone remarked on it in the comments section, so I felt old Mitzy deserved her moment in the screenglow of the blogosphere.

First, that name come from a variety of sources. One, I remembered the old picture book, Tell Me a Mitzi by Lore Segal, a title that always struck me as unaccountably funny. As for Kafka, I was and remain a fan of his work, and somehow the surreal oddness of Franz Kafka’s stories connected in my mind to the surreal oddness of my assignment: To write a picture book featuring the Norfin Trolls. Thus, Mitzy Kafka climbed from her chrysalis, fluttered her soggy wings, and emerged to enjoy a brief but resplendent existence.

I was given a catalog produced by The Troll Company and told to get cracking. The catalog included, of course, lots of pictures of trolls in various outfits. The golfer, the tourist, the farmer, the pirate, the wizard, etc.

My job was to make up a story. After that, a team of photographers — the talented duo of Mary and Joe Van Blerck — would pose the dolls, build artistic sets, and photograph the scenes for the book. It’s pretty amazing what they accomplished, actually. Quite skilled. Never met ’em.

The first book was Too Many Trolls. The main challenge was to come up with an idea that allowed for lots and lots of cute trolls. I remembered the classic Marx Brothers “stateroom” scene (considered by some as the funniest sequence ever filmed) from the movie, A Night at the Opera, where everyone crowds into a small room with hilarious results.

That was it! So I told the story of Hanna, who was visiting Aunt Inger and Uncle Hans (I lifted these names directly from the catalog). Remembering my lessons from the Whole Language pedagogy, I added a recurring phrase, “Shhh, baby is sleeping,” and was on my way.

One by one, groups of visitors appear to threaten the quiet: one golfer (his ball sails through an open window), two neighbors whose TV is broken, three peppy cheerleaders, and so on, until ten plane crash survivors (!) show up (cheerful, but in need of a phone) and Hanna has had enough. “Sixty Norfin Trolls! There are too many trolls in this house! I’m sorry, but everybody has to leave. Baby needs peace and quiet!”

They all depart, loudly, and peace is at last restored. Baby has managed to sleep through the trollish tumult. But on the last page, you guessed it, baby cries, “Goo-goo-goo-GAHHH!”

A classic work of literature, long out of print.

I share that story because, hey, it was a good book for what it was. I’ve read far worse in hardcover. So I cashed my check and could still look at myself in the mirror. Best of all, no trolls were harmed during the making of the book, despite the plane crash. I guess when Ellen and I joked about our past work, I needed to make the point that we were professional, we did our best, plied our craft, and the end results — to the extent that we had any control over things — left us restlessly satisfied, if unfulfilled.

I feel like some people view “the writer’s life” as some sort of edifying, ethereal experience — as if we were special people, uniquely gifted — and I’m here to say that for much of my (cough, cough) career, I’ve been like a carpenter trying to earn a living. Too Many Trolls, and jobs like it, helped pay the mortgage. And in the meantime, you keep hammering away. This past year I had two hardcover books named by the New York Public Library in its 2008 list, “100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.” A huge honor.

Mitzy Kafka would have been proud.

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