Q: Your debut short story collection, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, was a national bestseller in hardcover and paperback, winner of the PEN/Malamud award, and drew comparisons to Chekhov and Malamud. In 2009 you published a novel, but with WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT ANNE FRANK you’re back to the short story form. How does it feel?
A: How does it feel to be back to stories? It feels fantastic, is how it feels. I love this form. And I say that, not just because we're talking about a collection, and not only because stories need extra championing for the incomprehensible-to-me fact that there’s a much smaller segment of fiction-reading folk that are willing to give a collection of stories a chance. I say it because, as both reader and writer, I have always had a deep-deep connection to the short story. I could go on pretty endlessly talking about spring-loaded forms, and what it takes to build a complete world in that space, how a story can leave you with that transformative wind-knocked-out-of-you moment if everything is just right (and I say ‘just right’ as the faux-epiphany is a gravely dangerous short-story fallback, and there’s a very thin membrane that separates the two experiences, which is, again, another reason why I love writing them. It’s surgical and delicate and so easy to go wrong). What I’d like to make clear, simply, is that when I fell in love with books, I fell in love with the short story. There are so many great stories that have changed who I am, and how I see the world—that have, at this point, woven themselves into my very being. I don’t know how to explain it better than to say, go read Babel’s “The Story of My Dovecot” which I reference in the book, or Grace Paley's “Goodbye and Good Luck”, or Cheever's “Goodbye, My Brother”, or Gogol's “The Overcoat” or “The Nose" and you will be changed forever—and then you will know what I mean.
Q: The title story, which was published in The New Yorker on 12/12, is fashioned after Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Can you describe how that story inspired yours?
A: I've had that story in my head for years and years—the image of those two couples, and that dark game. As it took shape in the imagining, as I saw the pantry, say, or the house in which the story is set, I was also quite suddenly interested in ideas of ownership and inspiration and in exploring a different kind of writerly ease or comfort (and, trust me, the ideas of ‘comfort’ and ‘ease’ are groundbreakingly new for me, and of possibly fleeting interest). And I thought, I have two couples coming together in this way, what if I marry it to my own version of Raymond Carver’s very-iconic story. And—it’s important to stress (though I can’t tell you exactly why, except that it feels important)—that I didn’t go back to the Carver book until I was well into the drafting of my story. I think it’s because I’ve become really interested in how we make stories our own, literally how memory forms around them. So it was more, my personal memory of the Carver story—what it had turned to in my brain—that was the inspiration. When the story had taken form, and I felt committed to that literary-echo, I went back and reread the Carver story, and made my quiet links between the two. As for the game in the story—that crazy, who-will-hide-me-game—it’s a real game that, as the story says, is very much not a game. It’s dead serious business. And I've been playing it with my sister for as long as I can remember. And, if you ever try playing it, you'll see. People take the game real seriously. I just saw a friend in from Berlin last night, a friend I hadn't seen in years, and she’d read the story in The New Yorker and she said, do you remember when we played that in Germany? She said, she’d looked at her children and—honestly considering the peril hiding us would put them in—thought, No, I couldn't hide you, it’s too much to ask. And then she said she’d looked at my girlfriend and me, and knew that she would. I had no memory of the evening, or the interaction. But how serious is that? How raw? And, I can trace the kernel of the story to a time my sister and I played that game, now twenty years ago. It stayed in my head from then. And my sister gave me her blessing to acknowledge that she is the one who put it there—that, in our family, it is her game. The only thing she asked that I stop doing is calling her “my older sister” when I discuss it. So, yes, it’s my sister’s game.
Q: You’re a bit of a renaissance man! In addition to the new short story collection, you also have two translations forthcoming (‘The New American Haggadah’ with Jonathan Safran Foer and ‘Suddenly, a Knock on the Door’ with Etgar Keret) and a play—opening at the Public Theatre in NYC in the fall—based on your story “The Twenty-Seventh Man”. Can you tell us a bit about how translation and playwriting are different from writing fiction? Which do you prefer?
A: Ha! A renaissance man. That’s up there with being a raconteur, but still shy of being a man of letters. I have to say, it’s still strange to answer a question like the one above. I see myself as someone who publishes a book a decade and then heads back down into the salt mines in between. But something snapped a couple of years back. I decided to engage with storytelling differently. And the ability to make that change, or to learn the lessons I’ve learned, is because of the play and the translations. It goes like this: Fiction is my life. My whole sense of self, and self-definition, is as a fiction writer. And that’s why these other projects have been so revolutionary for me. I spent the last several years utterly absorbed in crafts in which I had no experience, and no reference points, where the stakes—the artistic challenges, the demands—were just as high, but around which had not formed any understanding of myself or the world, any sense of expectation or identity. And they simply helped me to explore the psychology of writing—and so much of it is psychological—in a different way. Here I am with two translations coming out, and I’d never call myself a translator. And, when doing things for The Public Theatre, I still stutter when they make me call myself a playwright out loud. I have one rule for writing, and that is, there’s nothing but the story. The other projects helped me to grasp that in a whole new way.
Q: These eight stories draw on a variety of themes from Jewish history and culture. To what extent does your own religion influence your writing?
A: Oh, I’m always getting in trouble with this question. Because, well, how can you have a book that is so chock full of Jews and say what I’m about to say, which is, I don’t see any religious influence at all. If anything, I’d call it a cultural influence. Basically, every fiction writer—every last one—is influenced by his or her culture, whether it’s the embracing of it, the rejection of it, a running toward or a running from. And no matter how distant the setting of a story is from the reality in which a writer lives—say, a science-fiction writer building a futuristic alien society unlike any that has ever been—that creation, too, is deeply influenced by the worlds that he or she has known. How does that relate to your question? I'm Jewish, I was raised religious in a very insular community, I lived in Jerusalem for a bunch of years (after turning secular), and spent nearly my whole life in New York (where we have no shortage of Jews). So to me, the idea of seeing my writing about a Jewish world, or a Jewish character, as being somehow the product of “influence” is basically like asking any other writer across time and space, how has living your life on this earth formed your imagination—which is a very fair and lovely question, but doesn’t need any qualification beyond that. It is not defensively, as a Jewish writer, that I explain this, but as a writer in defense of the universal. What I’m saying is that, yes, these stories may be deeply Jewish in their setting, but all stories must be deeply something if they’re functioning. If they’re not also, at the same time, as truly universal as they are specific, then those stories aren’t functioning at all.
Q: The story “Sister Hills” chronicles the growth of a Jewish settlement at various points in time, from 1973 to 2011. The settlements are a hot topic. What is your opinion on them and what sorts of conversations do you hope people will have after reading this story?
A: I have strong opinions about Israeli politics, the settlements included. And, like anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time living there, I feel sure that I'm right (which, I can’t even let stand as a joke, because half the problem in both Israeli politics and our toxic American political landscape, is this creepy-creepy surety that folks display, an unwillingness to hear, empathize with, or humanize another side—which, if there are actual people on that side, invariably means they must be humans). If you’re starting to sense that I’m not going to take a stand here, you’re right. I'd be happy to in another context. But you’re asking about “Sister Hills,” you're asking about a story. And, in that case, it’s very simple. My obligation, when writing (as I’ve already said above), is always to the story itself. It does not work, in a story like this, if I’m trying to be didactic, or convince, or espouse. My only goal when writing is to, quite literally, turn selfless. To inhabit, fully, those characters. To listen, wholly, to the demands of that world. I have to say, of any story I've ever written, this was the one that felt the most emotionally draining upon finishing. That is, I was truly and honestly rattled. I did not know what I had. I did not know what I’d done. I do remember that I did not sleep that night. As for the conversations folks will have after, I don't have any idea what those will be (and am simply grateful if they take place). I'm fairly nervous to see how this one will be received. I do know, from the few folks who have seen it early, and spoken to me directly, it’s functioned as a sort of West-Bank Rorschach test. One person will say, “You see, this is why Israel needs to get out of the West Bank,” and another will say, “Do you see? This is why Israel must maintain a presence.” You can’t believe it’s the same story being read. Of all the feedback, I've been most thankful for the responses-literary that deal with the story itself.
Q: What is your writing process like? How long did it take you to write each of these stories? How many drafts do you go through?
A: Well, I'm glad you asked me this question and not my friends and my family. As I’d say, my writing process is one of great calm, during which I’m always happy-go-lucky and in good spirits. What I’ve learned over the years is that the specifics of the process are ever changing, and the cycles of the process are always the same. It’s almost a reflex to call myself a compulsive redrafter. With both the novel, and the first collection, I'd rewrite parts endlessly, over a period of years. I had a completely different experience with this book. I held the stories in my head, sometimes for a great long time, waiting, in a way, until the stories were already written. And then I copied them down. As for the cycle part—and this is, really, maybe where you should get my friends on the phone—after I finish writing a piece, I inevitably erase from memory what happened when writing it. I just think, Well that was fun. Or, isn’t it nice to have this finished story? And I forget, say, that every time I start, I feel forlorn, or panicked, or like the world is coming to an end. I forget that there’s always a day that feels painfully lost, or a week where the written page doesn’t yet tune to the emotional frequency in my head. But none of that time is wasted, not a second of it. That is, in fact, how the work gets done. It is a writing process. Which means, by definition, one can’t start at the end. But once I’m in the late stages, the early ones, every time, are totally forgotten. And that’s why experience helps, time passing by. As here I am telling you about that part of the process that I inevitably forget, because I’m already trying to comfort myself for the moment when I’m digging into the next book with great urgency and suddenly feel like the sky is crashing down. I will feel that way—I absolutely will. It’s just part of finding voice, finding traction. And yet, as I write it, I don’t believe it still.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: There’s a novel set in Jerusalem that I've been wanting to write for years (which means I’ve been secretly working on it in my underground lair). And I think, after being back in the States for more than a decade, that maybe it’s time. The distance is there. And, as said, I’ve really been changed by those other projects. So I’ve got another play or two or three that I’d really like to work on, and a bucket of short stories that I’d really like to lock myself in a room and write. I’m excited about a whole lot of things.