Friday, October 05, 2007

Jay Nussbaum

Forty-seven year old novelist Jay Nussbaum is a former real estate attorney who eventually became general counsel of a New York City mortgage bank. Eleven years ago he seized an opportunity to stop practicing law and pursue his dream of becoming a writer.

His first foray into fiction, Blue Road to Atlantis, was published by Warner Books in 2002. A second novel, A Monk Jumped Over a Wall, is being released this November. Jay wrote me last month encouraging me to include more stories of late-blooming men on this blog. Below, he tells his own:

In certain, very authentic Chinese restaurants, there is a soup called, “A Monk Jumped Over a Wall.” I don’t recommend it--due both to the $150/bowl price tag and to the merciless way the shark fins in the soup are obtained--but I have found inspiration in the story behind the soup’s name.

According to Chinese legend, there was once a very wealthy man expecting an important dinner guest, and so he instructed his chef to create a soup using all of the very best ingredients the world had to offer, and nothing but. In a nearby monastery, a monk smelled it simmering and was so overtaken with desire that he scaled the monastery wall--turning his back on the safe, predictable life it offered--and went in search of the soup, never to return.

The story, of course, is a metaphor for when a person is living one life while hearing the call of a better one somewhere in the distance, but unsure of how to get there. It was a story I thought about often in 1996 when, at age 36, I was general counsel for a New York City mortgage bank but had two unpolished, unpublished novels sitting in a desk drawer. I knew I could make those manuscripts publishable if only I could find the time to work on them. And I knew that, if I could devote my life to writing, I would be living more true to myself than I ever had before and that, by doing so, I would have at least a chance to become the highest expression of myself possible. And that, I had come to believe, would improve everything. But how to get there?

I’ll come clean--I got lucky. I can’t claim to have had the courage or foresight to systematically reconstruct my life, but I did have one virtue going for me--an unwavering love and devotion for my wife. And so when she earned a scholarship to a prestigious veterinary school, I quit my job without a moment’s hesitation. By August of 1996 I was living in rural, upstate New York, where there was little need for another commercial real estate attorney. So, instead, I got a job teaching Eastern philosophy and martial arts at a university. But that took just a few hours a day, and with a wife in graduate school, I quickly realized that my own course of study in animal husbandry husbandry would leave me with many hours to fill. So I wrote. I wrote for four years, and when the smoke cleared, Betty got her degree and I--at age 40--got my first publishing contract.

Changing careers late in life is not easy, especially when one is transitioning from a lucrative, seemingly stable career into something as unstable as the arts. It’s all the more difficult when there are wives, husbands, children and mortgages involved. Prill asked me to comment on how I coped with the loss of income, and the truth is, maybe I never did. But it might be too much to expect of major life transitions that they be simple. Life, career, faith, love--it’s all a mosaic, and we each cobble together (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor) the life that suits us. I still practice some law, but I also publish books. I earn less than I would were I to devote all my energies to a legal practice, but more than I would were I to focus exclusively on fiction writing. Perhaps one day I’ll have it all; perhaps I won’t; perhaps I already do.

But the thing is, like the monk in the story, my previous life of stability and predictability was just an illusion. Because here’s the great secret: Once you’ve smelled the soup, it’s already too late. We are who we are. Had the monk been truly happy in the monastery, he would have smelled the soup, maybe smiled or raised an eyebrow, then gone on with his life. Surely there were other monks in that same monastery who never even noticed the smell.

But that monk did what he had to do to save his life, even if he had to risk it at the same time. We each have the same obligation to ourselves, regardless of our age or circumstance.

For more information, visit To order his new book, click here.

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