On May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
This week we have the pleasure of chatting with Kim Brooks, author of One Story issue #65, “Do You Like It Here?” Her novel, The Houseguest, out this month from Counterpoint Press, examines the Jewish experience in America prior to the U.S. involvement in World War II on many, often unexamined, levels: a Yiddish actress and refugee who is haunted by her past, a rabbi who can no longer ignore the atrocities happening overseas, a Jewish junkyard owner who tries to turn a blind eye, and a secret network of organizations that attempts to transport Jews to American soil. Brooks deftly explores the subject of the Holocaust through this multi-layered narrative and in doing so, showcases themes of survival, cultural passivity, and personal vs. social responsibility. Through her characters, Brooks illustrates what it was to be Jewish in America during this tense time and simultaneously exposes the unsettling ignorance and inaction exhibited by Americans, both Jews and non-Jews. A multi-faceted story of love, politics, history, and identity, The Houseguest challenges what it means to save another.
Kat Misko: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate? How was this experience different than publishing a short story?
Kim Brooks: It was Rosh Hashanah, and I was attending a family service at synagogue, something I manage to do every four to five years whether I want to or not. I remember I was there because I left my phone in the car on purpose so I wouldn’t forget to turn off the ringer. I’d been pretty much surgically attached to this device since the whole trying-to-publish-a-book process began. But suddenly I was looking at it through the window of my parked car, and I could see that my agent had just called, but then I couldn’t find my keys for about forty seconds. It was the longest forty seconds of my life. After much hysteria, I found the keys, got the phone, listened to the message, and learned that Counterpoint wanted to publish my book. After that, I smiled for about a week. My husband and I went out to dinner and drank a lot of champagne and debated which actors would play the main characters in the film adaptation.
In terms of how the excitement compared to the excitement of publishing a story—it didn’t compare at all. I mean, I basically poured four years of my life into this book, four years worth of concentration, emotional energy, professional aspirations, babysitting money. Also, between you and me, it was not my first attempt. So like many writers, I figured that if I couldn’t find a home for it, I’d have to kill myself. Except I have kids, so I can’t kill myself, so the situation was even more desperate. All this is to say, it felt AMAZING!
KM: What I find compelling about your novel is that it explores the Jewish story during World War II from a very different perspective—those that make it to America and are haunted by their past; those that live in America and try to assist overseas through a network of organizations; and even those that live in America and turn a blind eye. What made you choose to write about this subject, which in many ways is the subject of the Holocaust? You deftly handle the notion that many people in America, even Jews, chose to remain ignorant of the issue overseas: Was it difficult to generate this subtle theme of cultural passivity that courses through the book?
KB: You know, this is the first time it’s occurred to me, but I suppose that passivity, the refusal to engage, the habit of turning away, negating, invalidating, unseeing, passivity in all its forms—cultural, individual, interpersonal—has always been a primary interest for me. But this is a problem for a fiction writer because it’s extraordinarily hard to make people NOT doing something interesting or compelling or suspenseful or all the things fiction is supposed to be. Imagine an HBO crime series that begins with a cop going to a crime scene and saying to his partner, “Meh, let’s leave this one alone.”
So in this book, I suppose the breakthrough must have been my realization that sometimes what we don’t do as individuals or as a community can have as many tangible, world-shaking implications as what we do. David Wyman writes about this in great depth in his book The Abandonment of the Jews, and that was certainly a large part of my inspiration, wanting to work through in a piece of fiction the experience of the abandonment he describes.
A number of people have asked me about why I chose to explore the events from an American perspective, about the unusualness of that choice. And I always try to challenge the question a little—this idea that there is a single, dominant Holocaust narrative. There’s this tendency to simplify or streamline what happened during this time to a few monolithic facts, but I think it’s important to try to remember that this was an event that was made of thousands of millions of smaller threads, from the individual to the collective to the continental. For me, there’s as much to learn from the stories of the victimizers, the accomplices, the bystanders, the witnesses, as from the victims.
KM: The book resonates with a deep tension between two cultural perspectives and is instilled with the fear of the Jew/immigrant on American soil. You have that great line: “…was not a Jew in America but an American Jew. These were two distinct, discrete things.” Did any current events inspire elements of this novel?
KB: Yes, unfortunately, though not one particular event. Our country and culture excels at using people’s differences as grounds for withholding compassion or basic human decency. I mean, I wouldn’t even know where to start: police brutality against African-Americans, racial profiling of Muslims, governors taking the time to announce that Syrian refugees need not apply for residence in such-and-such a state.
It’s funny, every so often, someone will ask my about my writing, and when I describe it, they’ll say something like, “wow, that sounds pretty dark.” And I always think, yeah, but, the world is pretty dark. I mean, turn on the news. I only know how to write about the world I inhabit.
KM: I am always intrigued by the notion of research in a novel. As a work of historical fiction, did you perform extensive research for this book? How do you know how much research is enough and when do you sit down to write? Did you continue to refer to the research as you wrote?
KB: Like many writers, I find the process of the writing itself excruciatingly painful, even agonizing. And so I’ll generally do anything I can to put it off as long as possible. As a result, I think I do a lot more research than is necessary or relevant. But I should also say that by “research” I basically mean just reading books that interest me. I don’t have the discipline to research in any organized, professional, meticulous manner. I’m helpless with stuff like that and ask my husband to look things up for me like ten times a day. When I’m researching, I’m basically just reading widely and searching for something that sparks an idea or engages my imagination, throwing aside everything else.
KM: Structurally, your novel is divided into four sections. It’s also told from various character perspectives—mainly Abe, Max, Ana, but even at times, Judith, Spiro, Field. I love novels that experiment with form and perspective: why did you decide to have these sections and multiple perspectives play off each other? In what way did you feel this enhanced the story being told?
KB: A long time ago, back in college, I remember being stuck for the first time with a paper I was writing, and my college adviser told me, think about the question you most urgently want to answer for yourself, that you also sense you will probably not be able to answer in any definitive or clear cut way. It was such good advice that I’ve used it many times since, and when I look back at writing The Houseguest, I think I must have, at least subconsciously, wanted to explore the question of how different people deal with, respond to, incorporate, or turn away from the suffering of strangers. Are there certain character traits or personality traits that prime people to be compassionate or callous? What makes some people able to face their own fears and powerlessness productively, and others not at all? Because I wanted to answer these questions, I suppose it only made sense to have a cast of characters who are all dealing with the main disruption of the novel in different ways based on their particular sensibilities, backgrounds, values.
Of course, these are things I can only say in retrospect. As I was writing, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
KM: In the same chapter, Ana is visited by the ghost of her husband, while Abe is visited by the ghost of his brother. I enjoyed how you inserted these ghosts into their narrative realities—which can be a difficult feat—as a way of indicating that the past haunts the present, which properly reflects Ana’s journey as a Jew leaving her homeland for a strange, new home. What made you choose to use ghosts in the story?
KB: I’ve always been easily enchanted by writers who are able to blend elements of the otherworldly or fantastical into realist narratives: the two that jump to mind are William Kennedy in Ironweed and Bernard Malamud in many of his stories. It’s odd, because I’m almost never interested in the purely supernatural. For me, real life is strange enough. But some of my favorite moments in fiction take place in that borderland between dream-life and reality. I often say that I don’t think there’s much difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, and I’m sticking to this, but if there is one difference, I think it’s that fiction is slightly better equipped to forge into this territory of the strange and subconscious. Or I suppose I should say that for me, when I’m writing fiction, I somehow feel like I have permission to be associative, to let go of what I think I know, to invent my own rules and do what I want.
KM: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball? And most important, what are you going to wear?
KB: Good questions! I am looking forward to the whole shebang, but most of all to hugging and thanking and drinking fancy cocktails with all the friends who’ve somehow put up with listening to me fret and complain about “the novel I’m working on” for the past half-decade.
As to what I’ll wear, I can tell you that my editor (and Ball chaperone) Dan and I have been discussing the possibility of matching, long, white satin gloves. So I’d say there’s a high probability that will happen. Beyond that, I’ve been thinking it might be fun to wear the sort of high-baroque gown that the Yiddish-actress, houseguest-diva Ana Beidler would wear if she were coming. It would be fun, but I’ll probably wear whatever frock I find in my closet that fits and isn’t in need of dry-cleaning.