On May 22nd, at the 5th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven of our authors who have published their debut books this past year. As a lead up to the event, we’re introducing our Debs with a series of interviews about their debut books. This week, we’re talking with literary debutante Molly Antopol, author of One Story issue #132, “The Quietest Man.”
The voices that populate Molly Antopol’s remarkable debut collection, The UnAmericans, are both foreign and familiar. Foreign in the sense that they span across the globe and time, from Communist-era Prague to modern-day Brooklyn; familiar in the sense that they feel lived in, fully embodied, told in the intimate, compassionate manner that the best family tales are. The stories share echoes with many great masters of the form from the past – Paley, Malamud, Bellow – but Molly also forges her own unique path through the tangles of history. As Jesmyn Ward, who selected Molly as one of 2013’s 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honorees, said, “This book isn’t simply powerful and important—it’s necessary.” We definitely agree.
Thanks to Molly for taking the time to answer a few questions about her work and the writing life for One Story.
1. Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
I was in New York doing book stuff, and that day was hanging out with my good friend Stuart Nadler. His new novel, Wise Men, had come out that day, and we were toasting to that when I got the call about my book. Over the years there had been many other times when Stuart and I had catastrophied about our writing and stressed over when we’d finally finish our books, so it was a wonderful thing to get to celebrate our two books coming into the world at the same time.
2. Your One Story “The Quietest Man” came out in March 2010. What has happened since then? How has your writing changed and what has remained the same?
Right now I’m working on essays, and on a novel, The After Party, which is set in the U.S and Israel. When I was working on my collection, I felt like I was pouring everything I had into whatever story I was writing—and so there was something intensely gratifying about starting fresh with a new setting, time period and cast of characters to research and explore, getting to see the world from a completely different vantage each time. I worried about what it would feel like to be in the heads of the same characters for as many years as it takes me to write a novel, but so far—at least in this early stage—it’s been pretty enjoyable to wake up and think about the same people every day.
3. You mentioned back then in your interview with One Story that, “I love the feeling of trying to understand what it would have been like to live in another place or during a different time,” and you do such a lovely, seamless job of inhabiting a great variety of voices in your collection. What story or voice was the most challenging to write? Which did you enjoy the most?
Thank you! To be honest, all of the stories were hard. Every one of them took at least a year to write—and the book itself took a decade. It was really important to me to try to write convincingly from the perspectives of women and men, young and old, American, Israeli and European. While I don’t have any stories in the book about women living in San Francisco and teaching creative writing, I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I obsessed over and questioned during the years I was writing them. Interestingly, the hardest story to write was the one most closely related to my own life, “A Difficult Phase.” Like my narrator, I’d also once dated an older man who had a child and a complicated backstory—and it was only years later, when I was back in the town where we used to live, that I started thinking about the dynamics of that triangular relationship, and the complicated repercussions my leaving must have had on his son.
I really enjoyed writing “Retrospective.” That was the last story I worked on for the collection, and because it was a longer piece, I gave myself more room to breathe and try some technical things I hadn’t yet attempted in the book. And it was a lot of fun learning more about the underground art movement in Russia and the museum world of Jerusalem—in addition to an insane amount of time in the archives (my favorite nerdy pastime), I got grants to travel to Eastern Europe and Israel for it, and ended up talking a lot with former dissident artists and museum curators.
4. Your book’s title carries echoes of McCarthy’s infamous crusade in the 1950’s and many of the stories take as their subjects characters that are often identified with an outsider status – Communists, dissidents, immigrants. What drew you to these cultures and periods in history? What do you hope modern readers learn from them?
Many of these stories were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of surveillance, tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI. I didn’t know my grandfather well—he died when I was six—but a little more than a decade ago my family gained access to his FBI files. The reports followed him across the years and across the country. In the files, I was able to see exactly what the FBI was looking for, but nothing else. They showed nothing of the angst that led him to quit the Party, and how painful it was for him to learn of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin—for him to realize that the cause he’d dedicated his life to was corrupt. And they didn’t reveal what being surveilled might actually have felt like for his children—what being watched does to a family psychologically and emotionally. Those were questions I found myself exploring in the book.
It’s interesting—though my family loves to tell stories, the one place I never heard about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol. It was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. She led me to an oral history of the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English. The moment I finished reading it, I began writing The UnAmericans.
5. When did you know that you had a collection on your hands and what was the revision process like for you? Do you have any advice for writers currently working on a book manuscript?
In the beginning, I thought a lot about the difference between writing individual stories and putting together a collection—I was concerned that the stories weren’t related to one another in a neat enough way. In addition to the McCarthy-era stories, others are set in Eastern Europe, where my family’s originally from and where I’ve spend a good deal of time myself; while others take place in Israel, where I live a few months every year and used to live full-time, working at an Israeli-Palestinian human rights group and with new immigrants from Russia and Chechnya. I was about halfway through writing the book when I realized my stories all explored, in some way or another, the triangle between Cold War-era East European politics, Jewish American liberalism and the effect they had on contemporary Israel. But that was totally subconscious. And it was only once all the stories were finished that I discovered they weren’t linked by setting or character but by a question I hadn’t even realized I’d been asking myself: What are the complicated—and sometimes devastating—effects that one person’s quest to improve the world have on the people closest to them?
In terms of writing advice, I heard Philip Roth speak once and he said something that really stuck with me: never let people read your early drafts unless you’re certain they’re on your side.
6. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?
Meeting the other writers being honored that night. And trying out some new dance moves.