A Conversation with Molly Antopol about THE UNAMERICANS

The UnAmericans  Molly Antopol colorMolly Antopol 1     

The theme I found myself circling back to, again and again, was the complicated—and sometimes devastating—impact one person’s quest to improve the world can have on the people closest to them.

The UnAmericans seems like the work of a more mature writer, both in terms of the subject matter and the narrative voice. Why do these stories feel like they were written by an older Jewish writer? Have people been telling you that you’re an “old soul” since you were young?

Thank you! Yes, people have been telling me I was an “old soul” since I was little. I’m an only child, and was always a big reader, and kind of a nerdy kid—my mom says on camping trips I’d sit in my tent all day and write myself into whatever book I was reading.

I’m not sure why these stories feel to you like they were written by someone older, but maybe it has to do with the fact that so many of my characters are significantly older than I am. Once I understood that my collection looked at how people were shaped by large political and historical moments, it became really important to me to explore those events from multiple perspectives and voices—old and young, female and male, American, East European and Israeli. I wouldn’t allow myself to see the book as finished until I felt I’d written as convincingly as I could from these varied points of view. And it is true that many of the Jewish writers that have meant the most to me over the years—Grace Paley, Edith Pearlman, Leonard Michaels, Cynthia Ozick, Bernard Malamud—are from a generation prior to mine.

Your stories are set in various times and places, and concern distinctive situations. Yet your characters share some common traits. What would you say unites your characters, despite their superficial differences?

I’d written about half of the stories that ended up in the book when I began to see the ways in which these characters were in conversation with one another. The book doesn’t have any stories about female writers teaching creative writing and living in California, but I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I questioned and obsessed over during the decade I was writing them. And the theme I found myself circling back to, again and again, was the complicated—and sometimes devastating—impact one person’s quest to improve the world can have on the people closest to them.

“Minor Heroics” is a fascinating exploration of the sibling dynamics of brothers. I loved the complex relationship between younger brother Oren and older brother Asaaf, which was made more fraught by the presence of Asaaf’s girlfriend, Yael. What inspired this story? What themes were you exploring?

That story began with an image for me: of two young men fighting, and one letting the other take the upper hand. When I started writing, I didn’t know who these people were or where they lived or why they were fighting, and so I started with the ending and worked my way back.

Your bio reveals that you’ve spent some time in Israel, which informs several of your stories. Can you tell me about your experiences in Israel and how they came to inspire stories like “Minor Heroics” and “A Difficult Phase” (probably my favorites)? Why does Israel have such a powerful effect on people?

I can’t speak for everyone else—but for me, I first went there to study during my junior year in college, and found the juxtaposition of the country’s extreme modernity and its extraordinary history incredibly fascinating. Since then, I’ve continually gone back and forth between there and the U.S. I lived in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for years—I used to work for a Palestinian-Israeli human rights group, and at a youth village aiding new immigrants from Chechnya and Russia. And for the past seven years, since I started working on Stanford’s academic schedule, I’ve spent my summers there. At this point, I feel like I know Israel better than I do most parts of the U.S., and some of the people I love most are there. But I first arrived there as a guest, an observer—and so even writing about it now, I’m always aware that I’m staring through the glass.

What was your goal in writing the stories in The UnAmericans, other than to tell a compelling story? To shed light on the lesser-known personal impact of key events or situations? To make the “unsympathetic” or outcast more sympathetic, more recognizably one of us?

The first connotation the word “Un-American” brings up for me is the Red Scare, and the earliest stories I wrote in the book were all set during the McCarthy era and inspired by my family’s involvement in the Communist Party. As I worked on the collection, I became fascinated by the complicated meaning the word “Un-American” might have to this current generation of Israelis, forced to contend every day with their country’s close but messy relationship to America. In one of my stories, an Israeli soldier resents having to defend a settlement filled with Brooklyn-born religious families, but still pines for a chance to discover the United States for himself. In another, a young Israeli journalist’s life path is thrown into question during America’s 2008 economic meltdown. I also found myself exploring this idea of “Un-American-ness” in terms of privilege—for example, in the book’s final story, my working-class Israeli narrator never feels at home in America even after a decade of living there, whereas his wealthy American wife globetrots across the Middle East with utter confidence and ease.

While I wrote, I kept thinking about this notion of “Un-American-ness” for my East European characters—dissidents and academics, banned artists and writers—who, after risking their lives for their politics in their mother countries, then have to reinvent their identities in the United States, a country where they’re treated as anything but American. I kept thinking about the complicated emotional impact the fall of communism might have had on my characters during that time, and what it might have felt like to dedicate oneself to a cause that, in the course of world events, ultimately comes to an end. I wondered whether some people might have had a niggling feeling of nostalgia for that bleak time, simply because they held a significant place in it. For so many of my characters, their entire sense of self is shaped by their political work, and I wanted to explore how having lived under surveillance in Eastern Europe influences their lives once they immigrate to America, where they quickly realize that not only are they no longer being watched—they’re no longer being noticed.

More than anything, though, I found myself interested in writing about family, in particular the dynamic between these immigrant parents and their children: parents who find themselves in a country whose reality is so painfully different from their expectations; and their children, inheritors of so much political heaviness, who struggle both to honor these thwarted ideals and to navigate their own complicated lives.

In November, you were named one of the “5 Under 35” writers to watch by the National Book Foundation. How has that acclaim affected you, both on a personal level and as a writer working on a novel, in the few months leading up to the publication of The UnAmericans? Before the award, had you read anything by Amanda Coplin, NoViolet Bulawayo, Daisy Hildyard, and Merritt Tierce?   

It’s an extraordinary honor. I was so thrilled to get the news, and to be in such incredible company. Writing is often such a solitary pursuit; it was very nice to get recognition from people who are not related to me! I had already known Amanda Coplin (we have mutual friends) and NoViolet Bulawayo (we’re at Stanford together) and had been completely in awe of both of their novels. Two truly incredible books. I met Daisy Hildyard and Merritt Tierce for the first time at the 5 Under 35 ceremony, and was excited about their work after hearing them read. Merritt’s book comes out soon, and Daisy’s novel is on my bedside stack.

You’re working on a novel entitled The After Party. Can you share the subject matter? When might it be published?

Well, it’s set in Israel, Eastern Europe, and New York, right after the fall of communism. But I’m superstitious about discussing a book that’s in such an early stage—I shouldn’t say anything else!

Which authors or books have had the greatest influence on you, either as a person or as a writer? In what way?

Grace Paley has had an enormous influence on me. I admire her stories for so many reasons: for their intellect, humor, poetic compression and emotional generosity. I first read Paley in a literature seminar in college, and it was only then that I truly understood how compassionate and direct stories can be without ever veering into sentimentality. And she writes such gorgeous sentences without ever seeming like she’s showing off. Most of all, I love how character-driven her stories are while still giving us a nuanced sense of the larger political landscape—the politics of her fiction feels like such an essential part of the people she writes about that I never feel she’s being didactic or forcing any opinions on me.

The books I read as a kid were also hugely important in my becoming a writer, in particular Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnick series. I recently reread those books and found them just as fantastic as I had as a kid—both Fitzhugh and Lowry write with so much warmth and self-awareness and what feels like genuine love for their characters. I also loved books about explorers as a kid, particularly Gulliver’s Travels and Call of the Wild—for a long time I wanted to be a zoologist or a marine biologist, and even as an adult, I’m happiest when I’m outdoors, off on some kind of adventure.

That’s one of the things I love most about being a fiction writer: all I need is a laptop, and when I’m not teaching I travel as much as I can, applying for every research grant and overseas gig I hear of, then extending those trips as far as the stipends will go. There’s something so incredible about being completely alone with my stories—in a country where my cell phone doesn’t work and there isn’t a single person who knows where I am or what I’m doing.

What have you read in the past year that really impressed you? Who deserves more acclaim?

I recently read and loved Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral; Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More; Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped; Jennifer du Bois’ Cartwheel; Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena; Tom Kealey’s Thieves I’ve Known; Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them; Tom Barbash’s Stay Up With Me; and Gal Beckerman’s book on Soviet refuseniks, When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone. Right now I’m really enjoying Maria Hummel’s Motherland, as well as an advance copy of Skip Horack’s new novel, The Other Joseph, which comes out next winter.


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