Author Archives: Lara Vapnyar

Lara Vapnyar

About Lara Vapnyar

Lara Vapnyar moved from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1994. Knowing very little English, she quickly picked up the language and soon began writing in it. She is the author of two story collections, There are Jews in My House and Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, and two novels, Memoirs of a Muse and The Scent of Pine. She lives in New York City with her family.

Jewish Mother vs Bad Mother

lara-vapnyarThere were two models for motherhood in my sprawling family: my great-great-aunt Riva and my great-grandmother Clara.

My great-great-aunt Riva was praised for being a true Jewish mother. There were many stories about her, but here is the most famous one. Once, at a dinner party, she brought in her infant son Abrasha to show him off to the guests. Little Abrasha promptly peed in her soup. She ate the soup.

“Riva ate that soup! That’s how much she loved her son!” my grandmother commented.

Needless to say, Abrasha grew up a mama’s boy. Never married. Never moved out from home.

My great-grandmother Clara on the other hand had many flaws. The biggest flaw was her selfishness. She would sneak out of the house, go to a farmer’s market, buy a quarter pound of cottage cheese and a few strawberries (an expensive delicacy in Russia) and indulge in them alone while sitting on a park bench.

“She ate them alone!” my grandmother lamented.

Ever since I was a small child I wondered which kind of mother I would become. I aspired to be a self-sacrificing Riva, but I worried that I’d end up like Clara. (I just loved good food too much.)

I think I became a mix of two. I’m very involved with my children (sometimes to the point of smothering), but I also have a life of my own, and I do indulge in sneaky pleasures. I still haven’t figured out the right amount of Rivaness or Claraness that would make an exceptionally good mother, but I tend to experiment with that in my fiction.

I create characters who follow either Riva’s or Clara’s model, push them to the brink of bad motherhood and see what happens. Let them figure it out. Nobody will suffer, except for their fictional children.

How much pleasure was allowed? Wasn’t too much sacrifice suffocating to the child? I certainly wasn’t a true Jewish mother by my family standards. And even though I denounced them in my head, I still felt a lot of guilt in my heart. I was uncomfortable and confused.

Then I came up with a solution. In my novel The Scent of Pine, the main character is an unhappily married mother of two. She loves her children, but she is longing to find love.

Let her figure it out.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 9, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Home Away

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scent of pineI look for locations for my stories on CyberRentals and HomeAway. I find the houses described on these websites far more interesting than anything that my imagination can supply.

For my latest novel, The Scent of Pine, I needed a cabin in Maine, where my two main characters would have a torrid, three-day-long affair. I wanted it to be small, deep in the woods, preferably close to the lake. So I typed in: “Maine” “Acadia region” “Waterfront” “Sleeps two people.” The search returned several houses and I picked the perfect one. It was a tiny cabin—just one room. On a lake. Far away from everything. With no electricity or running water. No internet. No shower. No heat. I spent months reading the description of the house, staring at the photos provided by the owner, imagining my character occupying that space.

If I were to create a cabin from my imagination, I would’ve never thought of one without a shower or toilet. But this detail made the situation all the more intimate and romantic. My characters have to run out and plunge into the cold lake instead of banal showering. They warm themselves by the little woodstove. They cook their food at a campfire. The campfire inspires them to share stirring and bizarre stories from their past. The absence of phone connection allows them to feel free. The absence of internet makes them truly concentrate on each other. The strangeness and intimacy of the entire setting makes them fall in love.

I owe half of my plot to that house.

I think I’ll visit it one day.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 7, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy