Author Archives: Molly Antopol

Molly Antopol

About Molly Antopol

Molly Antopol is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She’s a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Her debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published this week by W.W. Norton & Company. Read more about her here.

On Edith Pearlman

molly-antopolI imagine many of us can remember exactly where we were when we encountered a favorite book—when we felt our lives had been irrevocably changed by a story. I had just graduated college and was living in Jerusalem when I came upon Edith Pearlman’s first book, Vaquita and Other Stories, in a used bookstore on Yoel Solomon Street (the store unfortunately no longer exists). Later that day, sitting on the grass in Independence Park, I fell in love with her characters: passionate and courageous, self-aware and sometimes solitary. The stories oftentimes examined what it meant to live in the postwar diaspora, bringing us into the lives of people in settings as disparate as Jerusalem, Boston and Central America. The story I loved most was the title story, in which a Polish-Jewish doctor serves as minister of health under a dictatorship in an unnamed Latin American country. The year I read Vaquita was the year I first started writing—and over the next decade, while I worked away on my own stories, I consistently turned to Pearlman’s other collections for inspiration: How to FallLove Among the Greatsand published a few years ago, a gorgeous anthology of her selected works, Binocular Vision.

At this point in my life, I’ve only lived in the world as someone’s daughter (rather than someone’s mother) and many of the writers I’ve often felt the deepest kinship with—Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Cynthia Ozick, Natalia Ginzburg, to list a few—write so intimately and compassionately about motherhood. I feel this about Edith Pearlman in spades. I’ve never met Pearlman, but I’ve looked to her stories in the same way I might have turned to a beloved and trusted relative for advice. Many of the most important things I’ve learned about writing I gleaned from reading Pearlman: that some of the best, and most satisfying, story collections aren’t woven together by character or by a particular place, but by something as ephemeral as theme—displacement, heartbreak, the secrets we keep from the people closest to us. That stories can be as expansive, complicated and emotionally messy as real life—and that it is immensely satisfying to read about that messiness when it’s depicted through lean, precise prose; meaningful sentences that are poetically compressed. And most of all, that while stories remind us that life is filled with both hope and heartbreak, my task as a writer is to make sense of the most painful and complicated parts, controlling that pain through language and shaping it into a narrative, rather than letting it consume me.

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 February 6, 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

On Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”

chosen-potokWhen I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen I wasn’t yet trying to be a writer myself, and was blissfully unaware of all things writing-related. Reading was, at that point in my life, a completely personal and haphazard experience: I stumbled upon Potok’s novel in my middle school library, simply because the cover spoke to me: a young, timid-looking man clutching a book, staring nervously at something outside the reader’s view. Even before I opened the book, I knew I’d identify with that boy. That day in the library, I fell in love with The Chosen: with the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, both coming of age in 1940s Brooklyn against the backdrop of World War II, and the wrench that’s thrown into their relationship because of their wildly different approaches to observance. Potok’s world came alive to me, and the themes his characters grappled with—friendship, family and loyalty—have deeply resonated with me since.

More than anything, though, The Chosen stayed with me all these years because it was the first time I really experienced male relationships. For my earliest years it was just my mother and me, and it took me a long time to learn how to act around men. They felt like a foreign species that spoke a language I didn’t understand—not only older men, but the boys in my class: I always had a circle of close female friends, but I was at a loss as to how to communicate with the other gender. The Chosen helped me edge out of my shyness, simply because I cared about the fraught and complex friendship between Reuven and Danny with as much focus and intensity as I did my own relationships. Reading Potok’s novel was like having this unknowable thing—the psyche of a boy—cracked wide open, finally giving me the chance to peer inside.

Lately, a few people have commented on how “un-biographical” my story collection seems—that there are no stories about women my age, living in San Francisco—and have asked whether it was intentional that half the stories are narrated by men. And it was intentional. It was really important to me to write from the perspectives of both women and men, young and old, American, East European and Israeli. I wouldn’t let myself see the book as finished until I felt I’d written convincingly from all those points of view—in a collection that looks at how people are shaped by large historical moments, I knew I needed to explore those events from a variety of perspectives. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I see now it was The Chosen that led me to set that as a goal for myself: that writing should be an exercise in empathy, getting myself—and hopefully my readers—to care about people with experiences wildly different from our own.

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 February 4, 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