Sunday, March 16, 2014

On the privilege of being American, on being nostalgic about dark times and the difference between writing about politics and writing political fiction.

The UnAmericans is Molly Antopol's first book and I say this with so much sadness because the moment I finished reading it, I wanted MORE. So, I went back and re-read my favorite stories from her debut collection. The three absolute stand-outs for me were The Quietest Man, in which a Czech dissident scrambles to make a living on adjunct gigs after the world has lost interest in his area of expertise (communism, communism's aftermath) and under the constant fear that his daughter will expose his poor parenting in the play she has just been commissioned to write. My Grandma Tells Me This Story is about Jewish resistance fighters in Belarus, a gaggle of teenagers who build a village and an army in an effort to survive. And last, but not least, I adored the closing story of the collection, Retrospective, in which an Israeli man travels back to Jerusalem for an art retrospective celebrating his American wife's grandmother. The journey is precipitated by difficulties in the marriage and complicated by the mystic figure of the grandmother and her extraordinary but not untroubled life. Of course, the moment I list these three stories as favorites, I start agonizing over my choice... because every single one of the pieces in the collection is just as powerful.

I talked to Molly via Skype in early March as she was taking a little breather from her book tour and I originally intended to transcribe and edit the conversation down to proper interview length. However, I had so much fun talking to Molly that I thought it'd be fun to share the actual conversation. The audio quality is not perfect but I think you will be charmed by the person as well as moved by the writer Antopol! If nothing else, PLEASE read the book!


The UnAmericans is wonderful for so many reasons and, definitely, subject matter is one of them. Antopol is interested in the ways in which politics and grand historic moments affect the day to day existence of ordinary human beings. In her McCarthy Era stories, she tells a story of a surveillance state but through the eyes of those being closely watched. In A Difficult Phase, the life of an Israeli reporter working in Ukraine is interrupted by the financial crisis in the United States. But the stories are not didactic and you will actually find yourself wondering about the political opinions of the person who wrote so compassionately about such a diverse set of characters.

Because the stories are so firmly grounded to actual historic moments and locales, I wanted to know more about Molly's family - where they were from and what they did - and her experience of living in Israel.

As you read Molly's stories, you get a very keen sense of the ways in which geography, place and history have an impact on the way people move in the world. For example, you become aware of the subtle ways in which being American makes it so easy for Americans to travel and slide right into place anywhere in the world. Does that have to do with nationality or something else? Class? Privilege?

Speaking of careers driven by conflict, what happens if your entire life is defined by a conflict and then the conflict is gone? Can you be nostalgic about dark times? (These questions seem especially relevant in the context of various political conflicts we are baring witness to. Could Putin be missing the Cold War? Yeah, we lived in fear but we were relevant, weren't we?)

In the next clip, Molly Antopol talks about the research she did for The UnAmericans, traveling to Eastern Europe and Israel to learn about the people and places she was writing about and filling in the gaps when the person/location was no longer there. We also talk about the difference between researching facts and discovering truth. Bonus footage: Molly's dog Rocky makes an appearance and our dogs Lyudmila + Hamlet begin barking at him. Dog party! P.S. So sorry, Jennifer DuBois, for totally blanking out and forgetting your name. I adored Partial History of Lost Causes!


The next question is for the writers among you, I was really curious about Molly's writing process and given the diverse subjects and settings of her work, in particular, if she worked on a single story at a time.

Stylistically, what I love about Molly's stories is how novelistic they are. They span generations and locales, cover conflicts personal but also political... The stories really caught me off-guard because I really didn't know that short stories could be and do that. So this is the point in our interview where I had to admit my ignorance and just ask Molly if that was a common approach to short story writing. What I got was a fantastic answer and discovered a fellow lover of a good back-story AND a reading list. Get your pen out, you would want to write this down.

Since Molly mentioned it took her about 10 years to finish her book, I was really curious to know if in the process of writing, her stories would change. What happens to a story when you take a long time to write it? Do you come back to it to find that in your absence your characters have completely changed?

Here are Molly's thoughts on the difference between writing about politics and writing political fiction, a distinction that is important to her and really comes through in her work.

And here are some final notes on the upcoming translations of The UnAmericans in Europe, on saying good-bye to her characters and her next book project.

Thank you, Molly!
Thank you guys for reading!

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