There are plenty of parallels between Joel Momberg’s life and that of Alan Handler, the central character in Momberg’s third novel, For Those Who Can.
Alan, like Momberg once did, teaches reading comprehension skills and college prep to at-risk youth – and forges numerous long-lasting friendships. They both love to read, and to write, and in both their curiosity and joy de vivre opened the doors to many an adventure. The spirited woman at the heart of For Those Who Can is loosely based on someone Momberg once knew.
But Joel Momberg had at least one significant life experience that Alan Handler can’t claim: He spent 30 years with All Children’s Hospital, in a range of fundraising roles including Executive Vice President of the ACH Foundation, and 10 more as Chief Executive Officer for the University of South Florida Foundation, before retiring in 2019.
“I guess all writers will say that you always draw from your own experiences,” Momberg explains. “I’ll grab little snippets in time, whether it’s meetings, or talking to people, or characters I’ve met, and put them in a novel. And they may not even be in a right time or area, but it’s something that happened to me at some point in my life.”
New Orleans (Momberg’s hometown) and Florida are locations in all three books.
Re-inventing himself as a writer of fiction wasn’t easy as Momberg’s earlier, chameleonic career shifts might suggest. “My first novel, I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he laughs. “I’ve always written, but I would write shorter types of essays or papers or ads or other kinds of things, but I’d never tried a novel before.
“So when I did Home Movies, the first one, it took me years. I would start it and stop it – I was working at All Children’s at the time – and finally, it all came together.
“Sammy, the second novel, took me a year or two. But I got better at it.”
Breezy, engaging and at times hilariously funny, For Those Who Can had a much smaller gestation period than its two predecessors.
“I knew the time period I wanted to focus on, and I knew the story I wanted,” Momberg explains. “At least I knew the beginning and a little bit of the ending. And the middle part I could have a lot of fun with.”
What he hadn’t anticipated was the one-two punch of 2020. A diagnosis of lymphoma left him weak and woozy (and not in the best of places, emotionally) while he went through immunotherapy.
And then the pandemic said hello.
‘When I first was diagnosed with this crummy cancer, it was pretty dark time. It was like the perfect storm – it was awful.
‘I had retired and thought ‘Well, this is great. We can have some fun.’ Then we had Covid, can’t go anywhere. I get cancer, I can’t go anywhere anyhow. I’m feeling like hell for a while.”
So For Those Who Can began as a way to get his mind off his troubles. “It was about four months of work, I guess, during the time that I was recovering,” Momberg says.
On joelmomberg.com, he also makes regular contributions to a blog he calls I Was Born Very Young.
“Sometimes I’ll write something and my kids will get all mad at me,’” he offers. “They’ll call and say ‘We didn’t do that!’ I just have a good time with it. It actually helped me with my novels, because I’d write a lot about my parents and my kids, and people I met.
“I knew I couldn’t write about work, and I couldn’t write about donors. I couldn’t write about a lot of stuff that was too sensitive. I stayed away from politics. It was just kind of general stuff that everybody laughs at, and people could relate to.
“I have fun with it – and I happen to have a really funny family, so I have a lot of material.”
Momberg, who’s also a piano player and songwriter, began his professional career as a fresh-out-of-college marketer – when he transitioned into fundraising mode, he says, he began with tentative steps.
“The key is, if you’re a good fundraiser you rarely really ask for money. It’s really all about building relationships with people. You have to be a good listener. You have to like people. You have to kind of figure out what their needs are and match them with the organization, and after you do that, then you talk about how they can make it happen.
“It took me a lot of years to learn that. There were a lot of years of making mistakes, and jumping in and asking the wrong questions. They don’t have to give me money just because they have a lot of money. And I think most people who aren’t in fundraising kind of think that.”