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

Ivri Nasawi, Sephardic & Middle Eastern Cultures

Ivri NasawiSyrian-Jewish writer and Los Angeles native Joseph Sutton (b. 1940) has just published his first novel, Morning Pages: The Almost True Story of My Life, a loosely fictionalized version of his past and present life. 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 Los Angeles, 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 2002 by Creative Arts Book Co., the publisher of Morning Pages.

On Sunday, December 10, 2000, at the Los Angeles home of his brother, Maurice, Joe Sutton gave his first public reading of Morning Pages. The gathering included his friends and the extended Sutton family, who in their gregarious way are the epitome of the sunny Sephardim—laughing, joking, hugging and kissing each other.

Much of what Sutton has to say in the first-person voice of Ben Halaby is straightforward, 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 or pot-smoking. 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, a writer grappling with writer’s block. The remedy he’s found is The Artist’s Way, a book in which the author Julia Cameron urges blocked writers to write “morning pages” in a stream of consciousness fashion. 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.

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?

There never were social or familial constraints on me to beome a writer. If there were, I wouldn’t have listened to them anyway. I didn’t know I could write until I started writing at the age of 29. There are people who inspired me along the way; one was writer Clancy Sigal, who stopped off at my apartment one day in the mid-’60s. I showed him a little story I was writing about a football player and he liked it. A few years later I decided to become a writer and moved 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 story from my experience and added fictional ingredients to it. It felt good mixing the two together. I had found my writing voice the first time out. It was a blossoming of creativity for me.

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 or short-story writer rather than a long-distance runner or novelist.

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

If a writer censors himself, what’s the use of being a writer. Writing, to me, is freedom of expression.

Although you come 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 Sephardic, one whose ancestors were Jewish and lived in Spain until they were expelled in 1492. I’m proud to be Syrian-Jewish, a Sephardic. There’s a lot of hugging and kissing in my family, and when I get together with them and eat Arabic food and listen to Arabic music, these are the things that bring us closer together. Religion was almost forced down our throats by our parents. Four of my brothers and I rebelled against it. One of my brothers totally embraced religion. He’s now a rabbi living in Israel. My father prayed every morning with tefillin around his arm and forehead. Religious rituals, whatever they might be, don’t convey a great deal of spirituality to me.

—Jordan Elgrably