Molly Antopol | The After Party: A Novel || Radcliffe Institute

-Thank you so much, Judy. This was such a lovely and
thoughtful introduction. And also, thank you so much
for so much warmth and support and just wonderful
conversation all year. And thanks to Liz Cohen for
her generosity in so many ways, and to everyone else at
the Radcliffe Institute for this incredible fellowship. It’s been not only massively
productive, but also just a really inspiring time. I feel so lucky to be surrounded
by Fellows as brilliant and as kind as all of you. And huge thanks to Sharon,
and Rebecca, and Mervy, and Katie for making
the Fellowship run so amazingly, and
also for having the answer to everything. It’s pretty incredible. And thanks to you all
for being here today. So Judy you mentioned
the UnAmericans, which is my first book. It’s a collection
of short stories. And it took me 10
years to write, and that was, like, working all
the time kind of obsessively. And because of the
subject matter, I ended up doing an
enormous amount of research in many countries. And so today I
thought I would talk about how I put
the book together, and then also just about how
one goes about researching and writing a collection of
fictional stories, all of which are grounded, in one way
or another, in history. And throughout the talk,
I’ll read from my book. And then we can open it up
into a larger discussion. So I begin with
this deep interest in exploring this triangle
between East European politics during the Cold War,
Jewish American liberalism, and the effect that
these two things had on contemporary Israel. And so it’s no surprise that
the stories in my collection moved from McCarthy
Era Los Angeles to contemporary Tel Aviv, to
communist era Prague and back again. But beyond that idea,
I really had no idea what themes would connect
the stories or how– or even if– the whole book
would come together as a whole. And the truth is that I
felt like I kind of had to keep these crazy blinders
on the whole time I was writing these stories, and just not to
worry about any of that stuff. And to just trust that
once I finished writing, the work itself would start to
tell me what these themes were. And that is basically
what happened, although it took a long time. And once the stories
that ultimately made it into this book were
done– and I should say there were so many
stories that didn’t make it into the book and that ended
up, like, in a secret drawer that I hope no one ever looks
in because they’re so bad. But once the stories that made
it into the book were there– And I remember having
them all printed out. And I put them on
the floor of a room. And every day I would kind of
go in and stare at the stories and shuffle them around. And I was trying to figure out
both the order of the book, but also how these were all
threaded together thematically. And what I realize is that
they weren’t put together by a particular place or by a
particular voice, as so many of my favorite collections are. They move around the globe
throughout almost a century of history. And they’re narrated by women
and men, younger, older, American, Israeli, and European. But rather, in the length there
was this underlying question that was just sort of
thrumming beneath the surface. And the question was, what are
the complicated and sometimes devastating effects that
one person’s attempts to improve the world can have
on the people closest to them? And so that’s what these
stories are really about for me. So first of all, I’ll turn
to the stories in Israel. I’ve spent a lot of my adult
life going back and forth between the US and Israel. I used to work for a
nonprofit there, and also at an immigration
absorptions center for Ethiopian and
Russian immigrants. And the first connotation that
the word “unAmericans” has, I think for most of us,
is the McCarthy era. But as I worked on the
book, I became so interested in this complex meaning
that the word unAmerican might have to this current
generation of Israelis who are forced to contend every
day with their country’s very messy but incredibly
close relationship to America. So for example, in
one of my stories I have an Israeli
soldier who deeply resents having to defend a
settlement filled with Brooklyn born religious families,
but still pines for a chance to visit the US for himself. And I also found
myself exploring this idea of unAmericanness
in terms of privilege. So for example,
in another story, I have a working
class Israeli narrator who has been living in
the US for a decade. And he doesn’t at
all feel American. Whereas his wealthy
American wife can just globe trot throughout the Middle East
with utter confidence and ease. And so that felt
really interesting for me to think about,
the way that money works into that idea. And so what I wanted
to do, as I said, I’ll be reading a bit
from my book as I talk. And so I wanted to read from
a story called “A Difficult Phase,” which is about a
young Israeli journalist named Talia who’s stationed in
Ukraine and whose career and ultimately her life is
upended by America’s most recent economic crash. And I’ll just read a couple
pages about her life in Keiv. And everyone can hear me, right? I just got up and started
talking, so– OK, good. So her name is Talia. And here we go. “When are you coming
back,” her parents would ask during
their weekly calls. They thought she was
insane for wanting to report on the very
city her grandparents had worked so hard to leave. The moment Talia
heard their voices she felt as if she’d been
yanked across the Mediterranean and transported back home. Her father on the porch,
listening to the radio. Her mother always beside
him, shelling fava beans or peeling beets. Her two sisters chasing
after their toddlers while their husbands
relaxed on the lawn. Things are working
out here, Talia would tell them, wondering
how just having them on the end of the line
could make her feel as defensive as she’d been at 16. And the truth was that
things had been working out. Talia had wanted
to be a reporter since she could remember. And it had stunned her,
sitting in her cubicle in Kiev, that her life was
actually unfolding the way she’d fantasized. She’d started at the Jerusalem
Bureau of an American paper right out of college doing
whatever grunt work was needed, filing, fact checking,
going on coffee runs when the intern was busy. But her English was near
fluent, and after years of begging and badgering
the Bureau chief, he finally started giving her
work, as if the very behavior that had gotten her
sent to the corner as a child was the thing
that garnered his respect. It was true, he
said, that she was living in one of the hardest
countries to find staff jobs. No one ever left their
positions at the Israeli papers. And reporters from
all over the world competed for work
at the foreign ones. But with her language
skills– probably the one time her Slavic literature
degree made her more employable– he’d
lobby the higher-ups in Chicago to send her to Kiev if
things got bad enough to need someone on the ground. That was four years ago,
in the fall of 2004. And Talia remembered
sitting in the flickering fluorescent-lit conference
room of the Jerusalem Bureau watching it all unfold
on TV, the election fraud allegations, Ushanko’s
terrifying, ever-changing face, and holding onto a shameful,
selfish hope for things to keep spiraling. She’d always felt so envious
of the other reporters at her paper in Jerusalem. None of them Israeli,
all of them cabbing over to the bar at the
American Colony Hotel every night after
work as if living out some vintage fantasy. They were all smart. They all spoke the language. Many had relatives there
and knew the country even before they were hired. But there was something so
romantic about the way they saw their jobs, sinking into
chairs in the garden bar, press passes still
dangling from their necks. Immediately launching
into thrilling tales at how they were this
close to danger that day before pausing and taking a
handful of the free cashews on the table. Even her bureau chief– whom
Talia genuinely admired– still acted as
though he was playing the part of the
daredevil reporter, always driving himself
into the territories, traveling with a
separate passport through Lebanon and Syria as
if relentlessly performing for a rapt imaginary audience
back home in Chicago. It had always bothered
Talia, listening to them debate her country’s politics
when it was implicitly understood that the moment
their brushes with danger went from being this close
to way too fucking close, they could leave. But then she was given
the same opportunity to be lifted from her
life and plunked down in a place to which
she had an even flimsier connection than many
of her coworkers had to Israel. And she found herself guilty
of that same excitement. Anyone would have
felt it covering the demonstrations, of course. But she’d been just as
amped in the months that followed, sitting in the
stuffy, windowless media room in the district court
house or transcribing at her desk for hours, eating
meal after meal of crackers with chocolate spread. As if everything
took on a significant she’d never felt
back home, the thrill of living on the other
side of the glass. I’ll stop there. So as I kept
working on this book and was working
on these stories, I kept thinking about this
notion of unAmericanness also for my East
European characters. And those characters are
dissidents and academics, banned artists and writers
who risk their lives for their politics and
their mother countries only to come to
the US, where they have to reinvent
their identities and where they’re treated
as anything but American. And I kept thinking about
this really complicated emotional impact that
the fall of communism might have had for my
characters during that time. Like, what is it like
to dedicate yourself to a cause– for these
characters in this case, it’s defeating communism– that,
in the course of world events, is ultimately successful, and
therefore it comes to an end? And I wondered
whether some people might have had a niggling
feeling of nostalgia for this incredibly bleak
time simply because they held a significant place in it. For so many of my characters,
their entire sense of self is shaped by their
political work. And I felt like I was
spending so much time just trying to understand
their political lives. And I wanted to explore how
having lived under surveillance in Eastern Europe influences
their lives once they immigrate to America, where
they quickly realize that not only are they
no longer being watched, they’re not even being noticed. And so I wanted now
to read a couple pages from a story that’s in
conversation with this idea. And the story is set in this
fictional college town in Maine where a former Czech dissident
named Tomas is teaching. And he has a supremely
fractured relationship with his ex-wife, Katka,
and their daughter, Daniela. And he has just learned that
his daughter Daniela– who is in her 20s– has written
a play about their family, and that it’s going to
be produced off-Broadway. And he’s just a disaster. And he is massively
paranoid and terrified that the play is going to
expose him and his shortcomings as a father. And so he strong-arms his
daughter into a weekend up in Maine so that he can
get his hands on the play and attempt to revise it. So that’s the story. And I’ll read a few pages
as he prepares for her visit and looks back on these
early years in America. And the story is called
“The Quietest Man.” And you can all just picture me
as a paranoid, middle aged man as I read. So, “The Quietest Man.” OK. And so, again, Daniela is the
daughter and Katka is the wife. Daniela was two when
Katka and I separated. She was bred on a lifetime of
her mother’s tales about me. Katka, I imagined,
would begin by saying that I was the one
who dragged her to America in the first place. In Prague, we had written
anonymously with our colleagues for The Journal, the
chronicle of our time. We wrote by hand. The government had a record of
everyone who owned typewriters. And late at night, I’d sneak
into different university buildings to type the materials. Every time we finished an
issue, we’d distribute it to people we knew, who
then passed it along to people they knew, until
we have thousands of readers throughout the country. But when the government
still managed to link me to a typewriter, I
was brought in for questioning and fired from my teaching post. At the time, Katka had
seemed like the lucky one. She was on maternity leave that
term and so avoided suspicion. But it was my name people
chanted outside the university. It was my name that made
international headlines and reached the desk
of Saul Sandalowski the American professor
who campaigned to get me a visa and a teaching
job to avoid imprisonment. She’d tell Daniela about packing
our entire flat in three days before boarding the long
flight to the states. She’d talked about
the brick faculty apartment that
awaited us in Vermont, boxy and carpeted and new. A million times nicer than our
flat back home, but dimly quiet without our friends crowded
around the living room, chatting away the evening. She talked about how my
assistant professor’s salary barely covered our rent. And she’d talked about
working the early morning shift as a janitor
at the college, mopping the same mahogany
classrooms I lectured in, emptying the garbage
can full of my students crumpled napkins and
paper coffee cups. Katka came from a long
line of intellectuals. She was the one who was
supposed to be offered a professorship in America. Her father had been shipped
to a psychiatric prison for writing his own
anti-government pieces when Katka was still a baby. And an enormous part
of her childhood was watching her mother devote
herself to getting him out. I remember Katka
back in university, and trying to impress
her with my big ideas, only to realize the
political books I was reading for the first time were one
she had already dissected and gleaned an
understanding of years ago. There was something
so romantic– almost exciting– about watching
this brawny college girl reduce my ideas to a lumpy
pile of porridge, making me feel not like a
rising star at the university, but what I knew I
really was deep down, a skinny kid from a family
of uneducated dairy farmers. A big part of me
had always believed I was destined to
ride her coattails. I could see how hard the
move to Vermont was on her. I could see it in the way
she closed into herself when I dragged her to cocktail
hour at the Provost House. The way even meeting me for
a quick lunch before class made her anxious. The woman who had once stood
outside party headquarters chanting “STSTB equals
just the gestapo” was suddenly afraid to order
at the campus sandwich shop because she didn’t
understand the menu. At this point, Katka would
say the transition would have been difficult
no matter what, but that I certainly
didn’t help. She’d say even when I was
home I wasn’t really there. At the dinner table, or lifting
a crying Daniela from her crib, I always seemed to be silently
working on another essay. How I ducked into my study
at every possible moment, how birthdays and
anniversaries slipped into a murky, irretrievable
place in my mind. But how I never seemed to forget
the dates of Saul Sandalowski’s dinner parties. And she would be right. But those dinners! Saul with his floppy,
wheat-colored hair and shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows
clamping a hand on my shoulder as he led me inside. His stone house on
Seminary Road, so amazing and grand I always got lost
looking for the bathroom. I was the honored guest, the
man with the stories scholars and journalists and
philanthropists wanted to hear. And so, over glasses of wine,
I told him about the two STB officials waiting outside the
Political Science Department. “Tomas Novak,” one had said. And I had said, “Why
do you need to know?” And they dragged me into
a black service car. It was late April,
sunny but cold. And as we pulled
away from the curb, I saw people outside
the university staring away or
feigning conversations so they wouldn’t be witnesses. In the headquarters,
the officials led me down a long hallway
into a windowless room with white walls and a steel
desk with a green-eyed, round faced man behind it. He calmly asked me to name
the other writers involved in the journal. I refused. He asked again. He asked again and again,
so many times that the hours began to blur, and
I couldn’t tell if we’d entered the next day. All over Czechoslovakia,
writers were breaking down and naming names. But did they really believe
sleep deprivation would crack a father with a newborn,
I joked to Saul’s guests. Though I remembered the
moment I’d started to cry, sitting in that hardback
chair as I recalled stories of people brought
in for questioning and never heard from again. The lights were bright. And one of the chair legs
was shorter than the others, so I felt as if I was
perpetually sliding off. And every time I
nodded into sleep, the man would slam his desk
drawer shut, jolting me awake. But I continued to refuse. And when one of
Saul’s guest would ask where that bravery came
from– as someone always did– I’d tell them we all had a
reserve when we needed it most. I believed that,
though sometimes I wondered if I could
ever depend on it again. When I was finally
released, word spread. And I became famous
among other writers. They called me the Quietest Man. Yet, as I circled Saul’s
living room with Brubeck on the stereo and little salmon
crudities being passed around, I understood I could finally
name the names of the chronicle writers without consequence. So I told them about Katka
Novak, my brave, brilliant wife, who unfortunately
wasn’t here this evening because we
couldn’t find a sitter, I lied. When in truth, she really wanted
to leave the apartment anymore. My wife, who, for
the four days I remained quiet in the
interrogation room, was anything but. With a newborn on her
hip, she led rallies outside the university,
marching through the streets and up to a podium
in Wenceslas Square. She spoke with
such force that she persuaded an American reporter
to write a piece about me. So while people with less
evidence against them were jailed, enough support
came through that my family and I were given
emergency clearance. And when I described
Katka to Saul’s guests, it was like she was
back up on the podium, drawing so large a crowd
that children climbed the trees to glimpse her. But then Saul’s
dinners would end, and I’d tiptoe into
our silent apartment and find the new Katka in
bed with the lights off. “You awake,” I’d whisper,
a little drunk off the wine as I ran a finger along
her pale freckled arm. “No,” she’d say, rolling over. And it was only hours
later as the sun came up and I walked her through campus
that she’d unlock the lecture hall with her chunky
ring of janitors keys and say, “Imagine eating alone
while I was at dinner parties.” That’s how Katka was. She’d pick up a
conversation I thought had ended eons ago without
ever reintroducing the topic. “I’m not saying we go home. I know we can’t,” she’d
say. “But maybe New York. Somewhere,” she’d said,
“With people like us.” Somewhere that didn’t feel
like the edge of the Earth. But before I could answer,
the first students of the day would breeze past
us as if we were no more significant
than the chalk boards and long wooden
desks that filled the room. Katka continued to push the
idea of moving to New York. But things were changing
for me at work, and fast. Katka said I was being selfish. I told her I was working
hard for all of us. She said I owed it to our
daughter to be home more, that if I didn’t
consider her feelings, she’d leave me and
take Daniela to stay with her cousin in Queens. I begged her not to, but
there was a secret part of me that wanted her
to go, that longed to be free from the
responsibility of my family. I wasn’t ready to leave Vermont,
not when I felt my life there opening up wider and wider. Of course, I didn’t
really expect a woman with no money and next
to no English to leave. And it was only when I
made the first custody drive down the Taconic
that it actually felt real. Of course, I didn’t expect
Katka to find steady enough work cleaning houses in New
York, or that she’d parlay it into her own business
with a dozen employees. And of course, I didn’t expect
that three years after Katka left, communism would collapse
and the work I dedicated my life to would be done. That the dinner discussions
at Saul Sandalowski’s would suddenly
revolve around Bosnia, and that a young female Serb
would become Saul’s newest honored guest. And I certainly didn’t
expect that same woman to win tenure over me. That my 30s and 40s
would be about mastering the delicate tricky dance
of pleading for adjunct work up and down the East coast,
Albany, Durham, Burlington, and now for the past
two years, in Harpswick, Maine– which, if Katka
had thought of Vermont as the edge of the Earth,
would have made her feel she’d fallen off completely. So thanks. And the other thing that I
wanted to talk about today is family history and the
way that those elements worked their way into
the writing of the book. And Judy mentioned this essay. And I have to say the
most exciting thing. So I had wanted to talk
about this woman from Antopol that I had met at this friend
of a friend’s party in Haifa. And this was back in 2000. I had just graduated college,
and I was living in Israel. And then I walked in here to
give a talk, and I met a man. And David and Kitty– who
I just met 20 minutes ago– and their family is from
the village of Antopol. And they brought the book. So that was really exciting! So, it was just like
I wanted to cry! I felt so emotional
right before this talk. So it’s just so incredible. And so thank you so much
for bringing this book. And there aren’t
that many of them. Yeah. So I would like to talk
a bit about this book. And as Judy had said,
so I had met this woman. And you know, I
was at this friend of a friend’s party in Haifa. I think the only person
I knew at the party was the friend who’d invited me. So I had no one to
talk to at this party, and this is how this
interaction happened. I was standing by
the dessert table just kind of eating desserts
and having no one to talk to, feeling embarrassed. And then I went to the kitchen
to have something to do. And I met this
elderly woman who Judy mentioned in her introduction. We started chatting, and I think
it was about 30 seconds of me trying to chat with her up
with her in Hebrew when she was like where are you from? And I said America. And she said, no, no, no. Where are you from? California. No, where are you from? We got to Antopol. And I found out that this
woman was from Antopol. And it was genuinely one of
the most extraordinary moments of my life. I come from of a big
family of storytellers. And so growing up,
I had just relished these tales of all of these
times before I was born. So I had heard about
this battered VW Bug that my parents had lived
in before I was born, and then when I was little. It was nicknamed “Blue”
after the Joni Mitchell album that I just remember on
repeat my entire childhood. And then before that, the
generation before that, my grandfather had been really
active in the Communist party. And I had heard so many stories
from my mom and her siblings about those dinnertime
visits from the FBI. You know, always right
at dinner time, always these two men in these
stiff brown suits asking my grandfather if
he had a moment to talk. Those were the stories
that I heard so many times. And then as Judy mentioned,
I had also heard stories about my namesake,
my great grandmother Molly, who had come from
this village of Antopol. And who had basically had to
leave her entire family behind, went to work in the
sweat shop that was run by another cousin of ours. And she didn’t make enough
money to send her family over. But besides that,
I just knew nothing about where Molly was from. And I knew nothing
about this place. And it was just this
kind of dark place that no one in my
family talked about. And even the funniest
relatives just kind of didn’t know how to twist
that into a good anecdote. And so nobody talked about it. And I had spent all
of these years trying to summon an image of
this place or that time, and I didn’t know how. And so meeting that woman
and finding that book was incredibly life changing. And it’s funny, because I mean,
I’m only here for the term. So I don’t have
the book with me. So the fact that the book is
here while I’m talking about it is pretty mind blowing. And so I wanted to
describe it a little bit. So as Judy talked about,
it’s a Yizkor book. It’s a memorial book. It’s a memorial book basically
from all of these villages that were basically just
destroyed during the Holocaust. And so there are
these books that are published by
former residents, or by aid societies as
remembrances of communities and of people lost
during the Holocaust. And it’s this enormous,
I think really carefully and beautifully
put together book. You can just feel
the careful bindings and in the thickness
of the pages that people just put so much
effort into creating this book. And one of the things that I
loved the most about this book and that captured me the
most were the accounts of the villages partisan
fighters, teenagers who escaped the ghettos
during World War Ii, and joined these
underground resistance movements in the forests
surrounding Antopol. And growing up in the states,
I had known very, very little about the partisans. But in Israel I was
living there that year and working with teenagers. And I was learning that it was
basically an essential part of the school curricula. And that was so
intriguing to me, that in Israel they weren’t
teaching the Holocaust just as a story about victims
and about innocent lambs being led to the slaughter. But rather that, among
these tales of the camps and the ghettos that they
were teaching in the schools, there existed this
other narrative that was being taught,
which was the story of Jews fighting back. And to the Russian
of the Chechen kids that I was working with that
year at the absorption center, the Lithuanian
poet Abba Kovner– who was a partisan fighter who
went on to live in Israel– was considered a national
treasure to them. And they were reading
his poems in class. And growing up in the states, I
had never heard of Abba Kovner And for so many
years, I had just wondered about all of
these people from the past. All of the people who had stayed
Antopol, and all of the friends and the neighbors
and the relatives that Molly had left behind. And I did really feel that
suddenly finding this book, it was as if I finally got
access to these stories and into these voices. And I became obsessed
with this book. I carted it around with
me everywhere that year. It was really the
year that I first started planting the early seeds
of what would become this book. And really drawing
on my family history, whether they were the
McCarthy era stories or the liberalism of the 70s. And I suddenly
felt like I sort of had the access and
the authority– I thought– to be able to
write about this place and time as well. And it would be so
perfect to tell all of you that I read all of
these books and that it was incredibly helpful
and illuminating for me. But the truth is that I found
this bookstore in Tel Aviv that wasn’t far from where I worked. And it was on Allenby Street. And it was behind this
electronics repair shop and the Sephardic luncheonette. And I would go in there
every couple days. It had this seemingly endless
resource of Jewish history books in English. And the guy, the owner, I would
always stop and chat with him. And I remember he was
kind of large and balding, and his clothes were so rumpled
that he kind of resembled an overstuffed drawer. And I remember he looked
at me one day and he said, I have never met anyone with a
more depressing taste in books. And I thought, that is true, OK. But I have to say– and you too? Judy and I share that. So I had this depressing
taste in books. And I just read, and
read, and read everything that I could find about partisan
life all around that area. And it would be so perfect
to report now to all of you that I had finished that
whole stack of books that I got from the
bookstore on Allenby Street with this really sharp and
nuanced picture of Antopol. And that I finally
felt like I had the knowledge and the
authority to write about this faraway
place and time. And then on weekends,
I went and hung out with this woman in
Haifa And we drink tea and bonded and swapped
stories and became friends. But the truth is is that I
never heard from her again. And I think that, to her,
I was the American girl who showed up at a party,
cornered her by the sink, and asked way too
many questions. Which is fine, and that’s true. But I will say that everything
had just felt so clear when I was reading that Antopol book. Because it’s so enormous. And it’s so detailed. And it contains such
a myriad of voices, that I had really
wanted with everything to believe that it was
this pillar of fact. But the more books that I read
and the more research that I did, the more my doubts grew. Because suddenly, putting
all these books together, all of these inconsistencies
started to come out. So I had read a dozen books
on partisan life near Antopol and still I had questions. In fact, I had more questions. So one person would
recount subsisting solely on blackberries and
mushrooms in the encampment they set up in the forest. Another person living
in the same forest during the same chilly
autumn in brutal winter described the weekly village
raids, pillaging bread from peasants kitchens,
livestock from their farms, potatoes and turnips and
onions from their gardens, all cooked over a fire in their
makeshift outdoor kitchen. One writer mentioned
this plethora of weapons that he and his partisan
brigade stole from peasants in nearby villages. Another person again, living
in the exact same forest during the exact same time,
described the one snub nose revolver that the brigade
had to gingerly pass around and the spent bullets that
they had to pry from the forest floor to reuse again and again
because that was all they had. And you know I have
to say that I’ve never believed that it’s a
fiction writers job to create an exact
replica of the past. I deeply, deeply
believe that it is not. I don’t think that
we should be trying to create a diorama for
a reader to step into. I think we have civil
war reenactments. I think we have
historical home tours. And it doesn’t need
to happen in books. And it definitely doesn’t
need to happen in fiction. But I think that it
is my responsibility to learn everything about the
world that I’m writing about, and to try really hard
to become an expert. Because I think that, in
order to truly understand my characters and to try to make
them feel real and empathetic to my readers, I
have to understand the politics and the history
that influenced who they are and influenced their decisions. And that’s the only
way that I know how to make the imagined
feel authentic, which is what I’m trying to do as a writer. And the question is, what if
these details don’t add up? And what if, despite months
or years of research, I remain uncertain as to where
the truth actually resides? And how else can I glean
facts about a village when there’s no one left in that
village to answer my questions? I’ve always loved
this idea that memory isn’t a precise duplicate
of the original. That it’s not, instead,
it’s this continuing act of creation. And whenever I think
about memory in that way, I envision all of
these partisans from Belarus who
chose to relive some of the darkest moments in their
lives for the sake of a book. And I can’t believe that it
crossed any of their minds that one day, more than
70 years after the war ended and they’d left the woods,
that an American writer would be comparing details from
one book against another, neurotically worrying
whether blackberries really grew rampant in the forest
in the autumn of 1942. I can’t believe it. But rather, I imagine that
by writing these books, or by allowing biographers
to write about them or people to interview them,
that they were attempting to make sense
out of a harrowing history and trying to kind of control
it and shape it through language and through telling the story. And I think that
as a writer it is important to focus
on the blackberries and these other kind of details. But where these facts
don’t jibe, no matter how deeply I research,
no matter how many books I read and
archives I visit, I think my job as a
fiction writer is not to impose order on
a host of disparate and often contradictory
facts, but rather to adhere to the
deeper emotional truth of my characters. So whether they ate blackberries
or whether they ate turnips, and whether they carry
pistols, rifles, or sticks, they were living, hunted,
in a freezing forest with no anchor to the lives
that they had once known. And what does that feel like? And what does that
do to a person, both there in the forest
and– for the lucky ones– when they trudged out, filthy,
exhausted, and bone thin? What does that do to someone? And I have to say that I’ve
come to this realization over, and over, and over. It has hit me at some point
in every single story I’ve written, all the stories
that made it into the book at all the stories that
hopefully will never make it anywhere. And it’s the advice
that I would give to anyone who’s writing
anything kind of based in real life,
which is, nail down the facts to the
best of your ability, and then mine them for truth. And once you’ve done that,
you’ve earned the license to make the rest up, and that’s
why they call it fiction. So I’ll just with
a flash fiction piece that I wrote
that was inspired by all of this research. And this piece ultimately
became a longer story in the collection. Maybe you’ve heard this story. 1942, and a winter so
cold my grandfather watched hot soup
freeze in a bowl. He was living in the
forest with other teenagers outside Antopol. Maybe you heard
about the weapons he robbed from nearby peasants. Maybe you heard about
the sticks of dynamite he set along
military rail routes, waiting for them to
spark and explode. Maybe you heard about the bear
he chased out of the woods. When I was a kid we’d
spend summers in Tel Aviv, squeezed into his
sweaty kitchen, picking at a bowl of grapes
while my mother fixed us lunch. He had a deep tan
and a big voice, white hair parted
drastically to one side. He liked to sit around in
his undershirt and sandals and tell stories, stories I half
believed, but still repeated to my friends like
gospel of secret missions and near escapes. And always, always at some
point, he and my father would argue. My mother and I could never
predict what set them off. It was like watching a
barometer rise from zero to 80. And suddenly, it was
as if the two of them had taken up all the
oxygen in the apartment, and my grandfather would
stomp out to the patio. And my father would say to us,
“He’s always been like this. The war is over 70 years,
and still he’s in it. He hate everything.” And my mother would say,
“Nahum, calmed down.” And my father would
say, “I am calm.” And then she’d give
me the look, and I’d pack up our uneaten lunch
and take my grandfather around the block to the park. “I worked 40 years at the
shoe store,” he’d say to me. “I turned it into a franchise. You tell your father that’s
looking forward, not back. And I don’t hate everything.” He didn’t walk the streets
so much as patrol them. “I love my apartment. I love the heat. I love you. I love this park,” he
says, gesturing wildly. I watch Filipino women
push the very young and the very old
down the path, watch two teenagers, barefooted in
Bedouin pants, chase a Frisbee. “I love this bench,” he says. “It’s our bench.” But then he starts
popping his knuckles like he does when he’s antsy,
and I know this can’t go on. “But I don’t love that
squirrel, he blurts. It’s nothing but a
rat with a fancy tail. And those kids, they’re
lazy at Frisbee. Why aren’t they in school? Give me that bag,” he says. And when I do, he lays out our
lunch– boiled eggs and pita and fruit salad– and says,
“I don’t love the berries at SuperSaul, they’re mush. I ate better ones that year
in the forest, no joke. All winter it was potatoes,
potatoes, potatoes. But come summer,
blackberries were everywhere. See? That’s me being positive. Give me a napkin. Give me a fork. Give me that stick over there,”
he says, “It’s a good one. You see this? Long and so straight
that at night, they might mistake it for a rifle. Hold it up like this, and
no one can ever hurt you.” Thanks.

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