Margot Singer: ‘The Pale of Settlement’

We did this via email (her website):

* When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I had absolutely no idea. I hated grownups who asked that question.

* How did you find out that writing was your thing?

I always loved to write. It’s one of those things that I just knew, deep down, from a very young age. And everybody told me I was good at it, which helped.

* How did you avoid losing your ability to write clearly after spending so many years in higher education? Did all that education affect your style and your thinking?

Since when does higher education stunt your ability to write and think?! I prefer to think that I reclaimed my writing faculties by going back to school after ten years in the business world! For a while, I could only think in groups of three bullet points. And I had picked up some awful habits, like using “impact” as a verb.

* Why did you do a PhD in Creative Writing?

I sort of fell into the PhD. I moved to Utah to be with my boyfriend (now my husband) who was living there at the time. I thought I’d go out for a year or two and ski and try to teach myself how to write. Because I’d quit my job, I decided to apply to the MFA program at the University of Utah, and I liked it so much that I stayed on. Also it was pretty clear that if I actually wanted to get a job teaching at the university level, I’d be better off with the Ph.D.

* If Mark Twain or William Shakespeare did a PhD in Creative Writing, how do you think that would’ve affected their work?

I like to think that they would have appreciated having the time to write. For me, being in the program was permission to spend a few years reading and writing pretty much whatever I wanted, while hanging around nice and helpful people gave me deadlines and urged me on. It was a gift.

* Tell me how your book Pale of Settlement came to be.

For a long time, I was just writing one short story after the next with no particular plan. Then one day I realized that I had a group of stories that seemed to fit together, thematically. These were the first few stories in the book. At that point the main characters all had different names, but it became clear they were really all one character, Susan.

*Have you spent much time in journalism, if not, how did you research that part of the book?

I spent the summer after my first year in college working for a small regional newspaper in Waltham, MA called The Middlesex News. I had the police beat. The cops liked to tease me. Every morning when I came in to read the blotter, they’d call out, “Hey, Lois Lane!” I also worked on my college newspaper, but I sold ads, I never wrote a thing—I was too intimidated. As for the research, I just read a lot. Also, I have an ex-boyfriend who is a reporter. That helped too.

* What do you love and hate about teaching?

I love the students, especially when they get excited about their work. I hate the whining. Neither students nor academics seem to appreciate how good they have it.

* Is there any part of writing that comes easily to you? Which parts of writing are most difficult for you?

None of it feels easy, though I suppose that, compared to other people, it is probably relatively easy for me to hear the “music” of a sentence in my head. What’s hard is deciding which word should come next. And then. And then.

* What are the most interesting reactions you’ve had to your book?

One reviewer (who shall go unnamed) insisted on the “subtle and marked allusions” in one of my stories to Wallace Stevens’ poem “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock.” I had never read the poem until I looked it up then. Funny how that works.

Also, a few people have come up to me at readings and asked me to explain how it was that Jews lived in “Palestine” before 1948. One lady actually said, “But I thought Palestine didn’t exist.” I rattled on about the Ottoman Empire and the Treaty of Versailles and the British Mandate for a while until her eyes glazed over. Now I give a little historical context before I read.

* Have you spent much time in Israel and what do you love and hate about being there?

My father emigrated to Israel with his family in 1939, and my uncle and cousins still live there today. When I was growing up, we went to visit my grandparents for a couple of weeks every other summer. The longest I spent there was the summer of 1983, when I took classes at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I haven’t been back to Israel since 1997.

I love Israel, even though (or maybe because) as everybody knows, it’s a crazy place. But in Israel I’m always caught in the middle – not a tourist, but certainly not a local, either. It would help if I spoke Hebrew, but I don’t.

* What’s the story of you and Judaism? Have you ever flirted with belief and practice?

I’m not religious in the least. Although once, when I was twelve or thirteen, I got fed up with my parents’ half-assed approach to Passover and I highlighted the (Maxwell House) haggadah so my father wouldn’t skip through so much of it. On the rare occasions that we have a family seder, he still uses that haggadah with the highlighted bits.

* Have you flirted with blogging?

Nope. I don’t know how you find the time.

* What most surprised you about the process of publishing and promoting a book?

How utterly insane and irrational it is, from a financial viewpoint, to write a book. (I knew this, but it surprised me all the same). And how incredibly rewarding it has been nonetheless.

* Anything weird or funny happen on the road to all of your awards?

Before I submitted the book to contest, I tried going the agent route. Most of the agents I sent the manuscript to didn’t even bother to reply. One agent, however, wrote back immediately—like in a day. She rejected the book, but kindly advised me to “try to get some of the stories published in literary magazines.” In fact, nearly all of the stories already had been published in literary magazines. Not only had she not bothered to read my manuscript, she hadn’t even bothered to read my cover letter. I guess that’s not funny or weird, just pathetic. Thank god for the contests and awards – without them the short story would really be an endangered form.

I call Margot Friday morning.

Margot: "It did occur to me early on that I was writing about Israel in a way that a lot of people in this country don’t."

Luke: "Could you elaborate?"

Margot: "A lot of the American writers who have written about Israel in recent years have tended to write about it from a more religious standpoints. Nathan Englander, Tova Reich. Not so much, what does it mean to have this connection to a place when you are not necessarily particularly religious? Where your family is sorta from but only very recently. There’s been less written about the period from the 1980s until now. I’m thinking about ‘A Palestine Affair‘ by Jonathan Wilson, set in the 1940s. There’s less written about the more contemporary period, which is a time of great questioning for Israelis, probably more Israelis than Americans questioning these Zionist ideologies that a lot of Americans are vaguely brought up with. Americans have the attitude, why should I care about Israel? It’s not a place I want to go. It’s dangerous, unpleasant. I was going there all the time. We had grandparents there. We didn’t go to synagogue. I didn’t have that kind of indoctrination that Americans get."

Luke: "Am I being blind or was there an absence of ideological intent in your book?"

Margot: "That’s right. I tried quite hard not to be ideological."

Luke: "Are there common ways people respond to your book?"

Margot: "No."

"I haven’t had many responses that surprised me. I was surprised in the opposite way — over how many people get it."

Luke: "There are some similiarities between you and the protagonist Susan?"

Margot: "Some. Initially I started writing stories that were drawn more closely. As time went on, they evolved away from me. It was me but not me, the me that might have been had circumstances been different."

Luke: "Publishing your book. Is it the greatest thing that ever happened to you?"

Margot: "My children have to trump the book but it’s up there."

Luke: "What was it like being a Jew in a goyisha place like Utah?"

Margot: "I found myself for the first time in my life in a Jewish community. It was not what I expected when I moved there. My husband is not Jewish. Because it is such a Mormon place, the Jewish community is pretty cohesive, liberal, welcoming and inclusive. Because I have young kids and they were in pre-school, I found I was hanging out at the Jewish Community Center a lot. Unlike New York, where I didn’t feel like I needed to seek out any Jewish stuff. In Utah, I found I was part of the community. It was cool. I didn’t grow up with that. My family did not belong to a synagogue. We didn’t go to any community centers. We had this stream of Israelis who would show up to the house from time to time… I feel more isolated here in central Ohio, even though Columbus has a large Jewish community, but I’m not really a part of it."

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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