Molly Antopol’s debut story collection, The UnAmericans (W.W. Norton), was longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award and received a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming on NPR’s This American Life and All Things Considered, online at The New Yorker, and in many periodicals, including The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Elle, Ecotone, Oxford American, One Story and American Short Fiction. She teaches at Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow, and is at work on a novel.
This interview was conducted over the phone by Interview Editor Rosie Huf. Of the process, she said, “It was a pleasure to interview Ms. Antopol. She was very accessible; she has an admirable commitment to accuracy in her writing; and, her devotion to this collection and to these characters made me love the work all that much more.” In this interview, Ms. Antopol discusses the people and places that inspired The UnAmericans, as well as offers advice tangible to all writers at any stage in their career.
Superstition Review: You move seamlessly between fiction and nonfiction. How did you come to write both?
Molly Antopol: Well, fiction has always been my first love. That’s what I have always wanted to write ever since I was very young. What I’ve found is that while I was working on my short story collection—which took me ten years to write—it was really nice to write a personal essay, or to do something for the radio, or to do a review, just to use that other side of my brain. So, it just became this really nice balance while I was working. Once my story collection was out, and I was still traveling a lot for the book, I wasn’t quite ready to dive into a novel. It felt like a really great time to work on essays and shorter pieces. Somehow that balance just helps me. The fiction informs the non-fiction, and the non-fiction informs the fiction.
SR: Could you elaborate on what lead to your interest in the Jewish Diaspora?
MA: Sure. That’s definitely an autobiographical piece to the book. A lot of the stories are inspired by my family history: notably they’re involvement in the communist party, and then, farther back, my family in Eastern Europe. I think that for me it was also that I’ve just always been so curious. Every opportunity that I’ve gotten to travel I’ve taken, and it’s always been the thing that makes me the happiest, traveling or being on research grants. The more that I traveled and the more that I wrote, I became so interested in these parts of my family history that I hadn’t known about. So, I just began spending as much time traveling as I could. And, the other part is the Israel part. I live in Israel three months out of the year and I used to live there for longer stretches of time before I had my job at Stanford. So, that’s just a place that I am more intimate with than I am with a lot of other places in the US.
SR: That seems like such a great move for you, being able to live in Israel as well as here and explore all of your interests there.
MA: Yes, exactly, it works out really well.
SR: In an article written in The New York Times, titled "Tales from Tel Aviv and Upper West Side," Dwight Garner compares you to Allegra Goodman and Grace Paley. What authors have greatly influenced your work?
MA: I was really, really thrilled by that review. I thought it was such a thoughtful review—I really admire both of those writers. Grace Paley is definitely the writer that has inspired me from the very beginning. I remember reading her for the first time in college and just being so stunned by what I read. I had never read fiction that so captured the voices that I had heard growing up; of the older generation of my family. So, it was really kind of life changing for me, both as a reader and a writer, to read Grace Paley.
The other writers that have been huge for me over the years…Allegra Goodman is also a writer I admire greatly. I think that she’s such a smart and compassionate writer, and she is incredibly funny; and she’s also so emotionally generous towards her characters. I love Edward P. Jones. I love James Baldwin. I love Alice Munro. Deborah Eisenberg I really admire.
SR: Are any of their works particularly striking to you, or is there one that holds a greater weight to you than the others?
MA: No. It’s more that they all hold a great weight for me at different times in my writing life. Sometimes I’ll really turn to one writer because I need help with dialogue, and I often feel like I learn so much by reading. Or, I’ll turn to another writer because I really need help with structure or setting or whatever it is; but, those are the writers that have just been so important to me through the years on such a personal level.
SR: In your essay "The Book of Antopol (Or, Can We Ever Know the Past?)," published in The New Yorker, you wrote, "I’ve heard writers talk about receiving a story as a gift—it arrives in their heads fully formed and all they have to do is transcribe. That’s never happened to me. I’m glad for that." Can you expand on your own creative process? How do your stories develop?
MA: I mean they all took forever. Every one of the stories took at least a year for me to write, and I never have gotten that gift. Every time I start writing, I really have no idea where the story will go. And, often times when I think I know where the story will go that’s when it becomes totally a different animal once it’s finished. While I’m writing, I think every one of those stories took between ten and twenty very, very extensive drafts, and so often I would even change who the narrator was. It would take me maybe five or six drafts to even know who was in the most complicated place in the story and that was the person I always wanted to tell the story. So, all of those changes would happen. The fun part for me is once I figure all that out. Then, the final drafts are working on the language once I have the rest of the story changed.
SR: That seems like such a process, but a wonderful process because you become so much more informed on your characters over that time.
MA: Totally, I just love my characters. All the characters that made it into the book are people that I really loved, and that I feel like I really know and respect. And, I’m not sure that I would have felt that about them, or that I would have felt that I knew them as well as I did if I had not spent as much time on each story.
SR: I think that love does translate through the stories really well. I mean, you really embodied the characters. When I was reading about several of them, it was just like, “Okay, this is them, this is their voice, and there is no question about it.”
MA: Oh, thank you. That means a lot to me. That was something that I really worked really hard on. So, thank you.
SR: You’re very welcome. Now, in the same essay, you speak about your feelings towards "neurotically worrying whether blackberries really grew rampant in the Polesia forest in the autumn of 1942." You conclude that "It is important to focus on the blackberries. But where those facts don’t jibe, I try to get at deep, emotional truths of my characters." Can you comment on how you distinguish and define truths in fiction and truths in the actual world? How do you navigate between the need for factual accuracy and artistic accuracy?
MA: That’s such a great question. I mean I think for me it’s that I need the reader to feel that I’ve done all of the research, and to really trust me so that they can get swept up in the story and not worry that anything is incorrect. But, I’ve also found, like for example in that essay I was talking about a particular story in my book, “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” that the more research I did, the more I realized that certain facts and certain testimonials didn’t add up. And so, I was really interested in that tension between what we see as factual research and what we do and remember; and how so many different people experiencing the same thing can remember it so differently. Once I realized that in my research process it really opened up my book, and it really stopped these stories from just being historical stories. It allowed me to think about the very slippery role that memory can play in our lives.
SR: I think that is something that a lot of writers who traverse the road of nonfiction, as well as fiction, have to deal with and you have a good grasp of it in your stories. So, that was nice to hear your process.
MA: Oh, good. I’m glad.
SR: Since it was published, your debut collection The UnAmericans has received wide acclaim. What was your inspiration behind the novel? Is there a message you hoped would resonate with young readers or others in the Jewish community?
MA: You know, I really didn’t think about any of that. I didn’t know if my stories would be published; I didn’t know once they were published if they would get reviews. All of those parts of the book were so out of my control that all I really did, honestly, was to try to get the book as good as I could get it. And then I just had to let it go out into the world. I wasn’t really thinking about how anyone else would receive it, or what kind of message I would leave with readers because I was just so focused on doing this one thing I could control, which was making the book the way I wanted it to be. Then, after that, I kind of just let it go.
SR: How do the various characters from The UnAmericans resonate with you? Which characters from that collection still linger in your creative mental space, begging for expansion?
MA: Oh, a lot of them. And it’s funny, I’ll just be on a run or on a hike and I’m still thinking about those characters and thinking about their lives. I think particularly the last story in the book, “Retrospective,” was the last one I wrote. I was really interested both in those characters and also in the career paths that they took in that story. So, I think, those two might be revisited in a novel.
SR: That would be wonderful, and how about Oren? Do you see a future for him?
MA: I mean I still think about him sometimes, but I don’t think he and Asaaf will come back in the novel. But, yes, I definitely still think about them and I never say never.
SR: When reading the story "Minor Heroics,” I was amazed by how well you embodied Oren: he has the authenticity of a teenage boy in a war torn state, as well as the zeal of a boy on the verge of becoming a man. How do you relate so fully to your male characters?
MA: Oh, thank you. That’s so nice to hear. That part just comes pretty naturally to me. I think that the moment I feel like I know my characters I am able to take on their voices. It almost feels like method acting, where for the eight or ten or fifteen months that I am writing a story I am just constantly thinking about however that character will react toward strange emotional or social situations that I’m in. So, with Oren, that story took a while for me to write. I think all told, it was maybe a year and a half or two years—with me starting and stopping and starting and stopping—and I love the complex range of emotions that he felt, not only for his brother’s girlfriend but for his brother and for his mother. Once I sort of figured Oren out as a person, I was really able to just kind of go with him where ever he needed to go in the story.
SR: What are your thoughts about how female characters have been rendered by male authors?
MA: Some men do it really well. Jonathan Franzen in his novel Freedom. I think his protagonist Patty is one of the most compelling and memorable and complex characters I’ve read in years. I think she is a completely phenomenal character, and I think that his men are just as nuanced as Patty. I think that some writers, once they know their characters, are just able to kind of move across gender in that way.
SR: Though your vivid character descriptions and accurate settings entice readers down the lush rabbit hole that is The UnAmericans, it is your commitment to using Hebrew that seals the trip. Was there ever a hesitation to include these terms?
MA: No, and once the book was finished and it went through to the copy editor and my publisher, I remember writing to my copy editor and saying, “just to be clear, I’d really love not to italicize any of the other words in other languages." And they were totally fine with it and they completely agreed. Because for me I just felt like I didn’t want to draw any more attention to Hebrew words or Yiddish words, or anything else in the book, because these are such voice driven stories and I just felt like all of it was coming from my characters. So, I didn’t need to highlight certain words. I felt that some readers would know these words; and the readers that didn’t, I felt like they could, just through the context, understand what was happening.
SR: In some ways, the characters in The UnAmericans are struggling against the bond they have with each other. In the story, "A Difficult Phase,” Talia felt "there was no denying how painful it was to be in a family that had always seemed so confused by her for stubbornly studying languages of all the places they'd never go, as if it were some geeky form of rebellion, rather than what learning them had always been to her, a shield against loneliness." Can you discuss this character’s relationship with her parents? Are there any themes within this story, or in the collection, that you find run parallel with your own life or past experiences?
MA: To be honest, I think that all of these stories are autobiographical in the sense that they captured what I was obsessed with and questioning and curious about during the decade that I was writing them, but I actually don’t find that any of my female narrators [or] that those stories are any more autobiographical that the ones with my male narrators. You know, in my family, I never did get that pressure that Talia got to settle down and to have a family or to give up my career. That wasn’t something that I dealt with, but I have seen it a lot and I’ve seen it a lot with friends. I think also that was something that I started to worry about myself. When I was working on that story I started to think “Oh my gosh, I’ve been so focused on my writing and when will that moment that I am ready to settle down and I am ready to have a family (which is something I really want in my life) feel right?” I think that that tension and that question was just drumming through me while I was writing that story, and that was why it was so interesting for me to explore those questions.
SR: Now that you have gotten your feet wet with your first book, can you offer advice to young writers hoping to make a similar splash with a work of their own?
MA: Yeah. I mean, my main advice would be just don’t rush it. This book took me so long to write and then to feel ready to put it out in the world. I remember all around me I would see my friends publishing and you know all these things would be happening that seemed so exciting. I kind of wondered secretly when I would finish my own book. But what I’ve realized is that there is no rush and there really is just one chance to come out with a first book. I would just recommend to people that there’s nothing wrong with waiting until you feel like you can stand behind every story in your book and you’re just ready to put it out in the world with no regrets. That’s really the moment to put it out there.
SR: I think I read somewhere, and I can’t remember the author at this moment, that “a work is always in progress. It’s up to the author to determine when enough is enough.” Did you ever find yourself coming to that question of when is enough enough?
MA: Oh yeah. It’s also really hard to tell on your own. I mean for me, it’s like I could just keep thinking about these characters, and I could keep reshuffling the order, and I could keep thinking about another story that could go into the book. I had been working with my agent for about two and a half or three years—I think two and a half years—before we sent the book out, and finally he was like “Molly I think the book is really ready to go.” And I thought okay, here is someone who has been working with me for a long time and who has read so many drafts of this book and if he feels ready then I trust him. And that was when we went out with it.
SR: That seems like such a great working relationship. Personally, I love to learn about the many dynamics of the writer editor relationship. Would you talk a bit about your relationship with your editor? What are your mutual expectations of each other?
MA: It really is great, I love my editor. She is just extremely wonderful. She is a very warm and wise person and editor. One of the things I love about the way that we worked on this book is that she gave me both global suggestions—you know about the order of the stories and about titles—and then we also talked a lot about larger things like character motivations and the overall arc or structure of the story. In addition to being an editor, she’s also a poet, and so it was really exciting to also talk to a poet about language. And I felt like we were able to talk about the stories on so many different levels, which was incredibly gratifying.
SR: In a recent segment of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Audie Cornish states, “For many young writers from different ethnic backgrounds, it comes down to this: They believe the diversity they experience in their daily lives should be reflected in the books they read and the stories they write. And if a culture that supports that doesn't yet exist, they are willing to create it.” How does diversity influence the characters and stories you create?
MA: That’s such an interesting question. I think that for a lot of these characters, for actually almost all of them, they are from one place and they end up in another place where they feel foreign. So I think it’s that feeling of being a fish out of water or trying to fit in that unites a lot of the stories. I think with a lot of my characters travel is a theme in almost all of the stories, and it’s either a form of escape or the desire to come back to something familiar. That was something that I was thinking a lot about when I was writing.
SR: What role does culture play in your imaginative life?
MA: Oh I mean in every way. I mean, with my students I teach a lot of works in translation because I think that it’s so essential as readers to imagine life outside of our own experience and to imagine what life might be like for people who are experiencing things totally different than we are; and I think that even before I was able to travel when I was a lot younger, for me I was really able to learn about the world through books, and I think of books as being so instrumental in that way.
SR: Could you elaborate on your perception of diversity in publishing?
MA: I am not really sure what I can say about that. I only know which books are being accepted because those are the books I find at the bookstore, or those are the books that I hear about. And, I do feel that I am learning a lot about the world through a lot of the books that are being published about the world, but again I don’t know what’s not being accepted and what’s not being published.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
MA: I actually don’t have a writing space. I feel like one of the great things about being a writer is that I can do it anywhere. So, I get a lot of good writing done on international flights where there’s no email and I’m just in that vacuum and my cell phone can’t ring. If my work is going well, I can do it on the train on my way to work. My husband and I share an office, but right now he is on a kind of crazy book deadline and he has taken over the office with all of his research. So, I write at the kitchen table or on the couch or in my pajamas in bed. I feel like one of the joys of being a fiction writer is that I can take my laptop and go absolutely anywhere. And, I have a dog and she will lay at my feet or follow me anywhere. So that’s enough for me.