The National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, 2013
(W.W. Norton & Company, February 2014)
Selected by Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award Winner in 2011 for Salvage the Bones
Molly Antopol lives in San Francisco. She is a recent Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She is also writer-in-residence at the Summer Literary Seminars in Lithuania. She received her MFA from Columbia University, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming on NPR's This American Life and in One Story, Ecotone, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She also reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle. The UnAmericans is her first story collection and will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in February, 2014.
> Twitter: @MollyAntopol
Interview with Molly Antopol by Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins: Can you tell me your book's artistic origin story? What image/story/phrase/character did you start with? How long did it take to write? What was the research, composition, and revision process like? What most shocked, confused or surprised you about that process?
Molly Antopol: My stories move from McCarthy-era Los Angeles to modern-day Jerusalem to communist Prague. Many were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of surveillance, tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI. Those things—combined with my very nerdy love of research—informed my McCarthy-era stories.
In terms of the Israel stories, I’ve spent my entire adult life going back and forth between there and the U.S. I lived there for years—I used to work for a Palestinian-Israeli human rights group, and at a youth village aiding new immigrants from Chechnya, Ethiopia, and the former Soviet Union. And for the past seven years, since getting to Stanford and being on their academic schedule, I’ve spent my summers there.
Eastern Europe is a part of the world that’s always fascinated me. My family’s originally from there, many of my favorite books were written in (and about) communist-era Europe, and in recent years I’ve been lucky enough to have received writing and research grants to a number of countries in the region. It’s interesting—though my family loves to tell stories, the one place I never got to hear about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol who had known my family. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. She led me to an oral history book about the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, which her son had put together. The moment I finished reading it (I remember just where I was, at the kitchen table in my apartment in Tel Aviv), I began writing The UnAmericans.
CVW: How about your book's journey to publication: How did your project go from being a Microsoft Word document to being a real life glued-together book? How long did that take? Any helpers along the way? What's been the most shocking/confusing/surprising part of that process?
MA: The book took me ten years to write. For many of those years, I basically wrote into a vacuum. I didn’t send my stories out and tried not to think about how the collection would come together as a whole—I just focused on trying to make each story work the way I wanted it to.
About three and a half years ago I showed an agent, Bill Clegg, some of my stories. I only had about a hundred pages ready to give him, but he was excited about the stories and wanted us to work together. That was immensely gratifying. Every six months or so, I’d send him a new story, and he’d give me comments and we’d go back and forth. He read my stories so carefully and thoughtfully, and didn’t seem concerned at all that until he sent the book out this past February he’d spent years essentially working for free.
CVW: The phrase "emerging writer" always makes me feel like I'm stuck in a birth canal somewhere, so forgive me, but: were high-profile spotlights on emerging writers—like 5 Under 35, the Granta "Best of..." lists, The New Yorker's 20 Under 40, or the defunct Best New American Voices series—on your radar as you were coming of age as a writer? Did they influence or inspire or intimidate or nauseate you? Were there other, now-emerged writers whose career trajectories and/or early work you followed via these venues, and if so which? Or were you looking up to major already-established writers as a young person considering one day writing and publishing a book? Did you have contemporary writer role models, and where did you find these?
MA: When I began writing these stories, I was blissfully ignorant of all things publishing-related. I’d never considered the difference between a commercial or independent press, or publishing stories in magazines versus small journals—reading was, at that point in my life, a completely personal and haphazard experience. I’d stumble upon a book, fall in love with it and obsessively read everything by that writer, then read interviews with them to discover which writers they admired and go search for those books, and so on. Interestingly, of all the writers who had such an enormous impact on me—Grace Paley, Deborah Eisenberg, Natalia Ginzburg, James Baldwin, Sergei Dovlatov, Paula Fox, Tillie Olsen, Francine Prose, Leonard Michaels and Alice Munro—only Baldwin and Prose would have even qualified for the 5 Under 35 award. Everyone else began publishing later on in their lives.
It was really important for me to keep my blinders on while writing. Because I did an M.F.A. and then a Stegner Fellowship, I was around a lot of young writers publishing books. For some reason, the excitement of seeing close friends publish never pushed me to write faster—instead, it just made me want to tune out any writing business-related noise so I could focus entirely on the book I wanted to write, regardless of whether or not anyone would ultimately be interested in publishing it. That was necessary for me. But yes, I do read a lot of contemporary fiction, and there are a ton of younger writers I really admire, among them Rachel Kushner, Susan Choi, Dana Spiotta and Aleksandar Hemon.
CVW: This year's 5 Under 35 list is composed entirely of women. Care to share your thoughts on how gender affects a writer's encounters with the literary world?
MA: I teach creative writing, and it’s almost always the women who come to my office, worried that there’s something wrong with writing stories about things they haven’t experienced firsthand. I’ve been teaching at the same university for five years, and I can count on one hand the number of male students who have come to me with similar concerns. I often share this quote from Grace Paley with my students—don’t write what you know; write what you don’t know about what you know. I love that advice, but over the years, there have been times when it’s been difficult to heed. It was really important to me to write a book that spanned generations and continents, with stories narrated by women and men, young and old, American, Israeli and European. But it would be a massive lie to say that I didn’t have spells of doubt in which I wondered whether I had the right to write about things I’d never lived through.
One thing that’s always helped quell my writerly doubts is the kinship I’ve felt with the writers I admire most, even though I’ve never met them. At this point in my life, I’ve only experienced what it’s like to live in the world as someone’s daughter (rather than someone’s mother), and many of the writers I’ve felt closest to—Paley, Munro, Ginzburg, Edith Pearlman—write so intimately and humanely about motherhood. In a sense, I’ve turned to their stories in the way I might turn to a wise and generous relative for advice. I was halfway through my book when I read an interview with Paley that completely cracked open my collection and inspired me the rest of the way. She was talking about coming of age as a writer after World War II, and how heavy and masculine the fiction of that time had felt to her. She said that in comparison, her own stories seemed trivial, and she wondered who would be interested in the kitchen table life she was writing about. That interview stunned me. I couldn’t believe that Paley had ever worried that her stories were small, when I consider her to be one of our best and most nuanced political writers, whose kitchen table politics extend so naturally into the bedroom, the neighborhood, the world.
CVW: What makes you write?
MA: This is going to sound corny, but it’s true: writing’s the way I make sense of the world. Whenever something difficult or painful is happening in my life, I always turn to books. As much comfort as I get from my family and friends, I find equal solace being alone in a room, finding ways to understand—and sometimes even control—the hardest parts of life through writing.
Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn, winner of the Story Prize. She currently teaches at Princeton University.
David Shire, The Conversation Soundtrack, "Theme from 'The Conversation"
(track 14 from The Conversation soundtrack)
Many of the stories in my collection are about people living under surveillance or investigation, and I love this creepy, paranoid soundtrack (not to mention how wonderfully obsessive Gene Hackman is as Harry Caul, surveillance expert).
Duke Ellington, Far East Suite, "Blue Pepper"
(track 6 from Far East Suite)
Like everybody else I love Duke Ellington, and this album—inspired by a trip to the Middle East he and his orchestra took in the 60’s—is probably my favorite album to listen to from start to finish. It took me an hour to choose which song to use for this soundtrack.
Beirut, Gulag Orkestar, "Prenzlauerberg"
(track 2 from Gulag Orkestar)
I'm pretty sure Beirut was playing in the background while I wrote every story in this collection.
Jacqueline Taïeb, The French Mademoiselle, "Le Coeur Au Bout Des Doigts"
(track 2 from The French Mademoiselle)
This song has absolutely nothing to do with my book. None of my stories are set in Tunisia, where Taïeb was born, or in France, where she grew up. But her voice! I can’t think of any other singer who pulls me out of a slump the way she can.
The Barry Sisters, Shalom, "Beit Mich a Bisele"
(track 23 from Shalom)
I've had a strange obsession with the Barry Sisters since high school. I love how they manage to sound like both an over-the-top Yiddish Catskills act and a jazzy pop duo, and I love thinking about these two smart, opinionated sisters leaving their family in the Bronx to tour Europe and Israel during all of these politically messy periods—they traveled there in the late 50 and early 70s. A lot of my book is set in Israel and in Cold War-era Eastern Europe, and I found myself listening to the Barry Sisters over and over when writing. Supposedly there was all sorts of drama when they performed in 1950s Soviet Russia—I’ve been trying to imagine my way into that particular story for years.
About Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward was a National Book Award Winner in 2011 for Salvage the Bones, which won the American Library Association’s Alex Award, was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and a nominee for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan and has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a Grisham Visiting Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of South Alabama. She is the author of the novel Where the Line Bleeds and her memoir, Men We Reaped, will be published this month. Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, and lives there now.
> Twitter: @jesmimi