She’s the author of Golden Country.
We did our interview this week via email.
* What did you love and hate about your work as a publicist?
There’s much to love about working in publishing, but working in publicity, even as head of the department, overcoming the perception that publicists are semi-retarded lazy individuals sitting back and eating bon bons at their desks gets tiring.
* What do you love and hate about Jewish life?
That’s a complicated question. I love the humor in Jewish life. I hate the narrowness of it.
* Why did you choose the structure of your book?
That structure took me six years to find, it chose itself but took a long time to reveal itself to me. I really had to know the characters well before I could figure out how to build this book around them. And as a result I had to take many of their voices away.
* Which reactions to your book surprised you?
It was really interesting to have non-Jews read the book and tell me about their families’ experiences as immigrants. One early reader asked me: do you think the Swedish women were just as frustrated with their choices as the Jews? I imagine they were…I loved that that experience was universal, but it did surprise me.
* Was there any change in the way people related to you after you published this? Sure. I worked in publishing so I had a unique experience knowing booksellers and editors and colleagues, who all had advanced copies. There are not a lot of novels coming out of publicity departments. It’s nerve racking to be publishing a book under these circumstances, but in many ways it’s a privilege. Most were happy to have one of their own on the other side. If I had written a different book about, say, running around New York City, going to magazine parties in good boots, it might have been a different story.
* Where did the publication of this book rank on your life’s highlights?
Having had a book published is wonderful, but that process is not. Publishing a book is what I’d always wished for: stray eyelashes, ladybugs, found pennies, every wish was for a book. Who knew it took this long? When the novel was published and I was touring around, I just thought: this is what it feels like when your dream comes true. It’s just regular. And then I thought: what if I wasted all my wishes! I was really lucky with publication, I have no real complaints, but it is a bit of an anti-climactic experience. Isn’t everything though? Give me a a woman who has thought about her wedding day since she was a little girl, and tell me she’s not a little–or a lot–disappointed the day after.
* What did you feel upon publication? Upon receiving such glowing reviews? What was most gratifying to you in publishing this? Whose respect for your work is most important to you?
There are so many people who read your book, just that this happens is sort of miraculous to me. I had a lot of interesting mail, from old folks who grew up in Williamsburg who were really into being placed back in time. I was grateful that my family didn’t lose their marbles over it. They saved picking stuff apart for my earlier work, I think so that was fairly gratifying. And it’s always nice–and feels important–when the New York Times says it’s worth the read.
* When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I am boring: Other than a brief period of wanting to be Julie Andrews, I have always only wanted to be a writer.
* What crowd were you in in high school?
I was a little of everything in high school, which of course can feel like a lot of nothing. I worked on the literary magazine, and was in the art club, but I played field hockey. I went to punk rock shows, but I always managed to show up to the Sadie Hawkins dance.
* Did you ever cry while writing your book? In which parts?
I cried a lot, but mostly because it wasn’t getting finished. There is a death in the book, and I cried every time I tried to revise the scene before it happens.
* Are most of your friends writers?
Only some of my friends are writers. Sometimes it’s hard to be friends with writers.
* Was this the book inside of you struggling to come out or was its formation more prosaic?
I am not one of those writers who always had This Story to Tell. Little stories over time accumulated into this larger book. I was always interested in history and its affect on family in all sorts of ways. In this book, the characters are sort of affixed in history, the people and the place depend on one another to grow and change. That story has always been there for me and I imagine it always will be.
* What do you love and hate about being interviewed? It’s difficult to be so painfully aware of the implications of what you say. I am not like that in normal conversation, which can create its own set of problems. Perhaps I could learn a little from being interviewed.
* I believe you have taught Jewish lit. Do you have any views on this topic that are controversial or out of the mainstream?
I don’t know if my thoughts are controversial–I just became interested in what made these Jewish American novels–Roth (both of them), Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Anzia Yezierska–Jewish novels. There’s no religion in them. What differentiates a Jewish book from an immigrant book? We fall on stereotypes to name the difference–money, nose jobs, hair straightening, the move out west. All I can say is, these are stereotypes for a reason.
* Do you ever get joy out of reading a withering book review of someone else’s work?
I once did, certainly. Since my own experience with publication, though, I wish less harm on others. Of course I am less bitter, but I also think I understand the cost of those thoughts more now.
* Do you only wish good things for your fellow authors or do you ever hope that some wither up and blow away?
I have to believe there is room for everyone. I save my evil wishes for a select, unjustly coroneted few.
* How do you think you would handle bad reviews? Would you ignore them, laugh at them, retreat from the world, from writing or what?
I have gotten bad reviews! Can I just say? I found the good reviews and the bad reviews to feel oddly the same. The first few–if they’re good–are truly exciting. My first was this rave from Publishers Weekly, and that was amazing. But after that, they all registered on the same level as something that had little to do with me or the book. I realized they are important to the book selling, and to my publisher returning my calls, so in that way, I certainly preferred the good reviews.
* Are there any advantages or disadvantages in being a woman writing a novel? Which male novelists do you think best illuminate women and domestic life?
Most of my favorite authors are male authors, but I don’t admire them because I think they illuminate women well. Until recently, and for a multitude of reasons, women weren’t writing books with large scopes. I don’t think there’s much usefulness anymore in saying: she’s a great woman writer. I think all writers want to be great writers and they either are or they aren’t. And yes I realize how many women laid down their lives for me to say that. But publishers’ expectations for female authors are different than they are for men–which goes far deeper than a discussion about chic lit–and this has been a drawback. Far as I can tell, the only advantage to being a female novelist is that women seem to be able to get a lot more, various tasks done in a day. Try getting a man to work on his novel and go to the post office. Needless to say, the package will never get sent.