Some academics have observed that young Jewish writers do not mine their personal lives for material in the same way that Jewish writers did a generation ago. In my own case, this is and isn’t true. My first novel, The Jump Artist, was based on someone else’s life and took place in lands and days disparate from my own. My second novel, In the Land of the Living, which is being released by Little Brown this week, draws on my own personal experiences and on events in the history of my own family. It’s first and foremost about loss at a tender age, and finding your way out from under the pall of grief, back to the land of the living, and to all that makes life worth living. (Why am I not on Oprah’s book list?)
If a book gets its license to exist from a fresh or unique subject, then my book’s claim would lie in its manner of depicting early childhood. Most novels do not incorporate early childhood into their storylines or into their characters at all, except in metaphorical ways. Mary Shelley and Toni Morrison are two writers who invented rather ingenious novelistic contraptions to represent early childhood: Shelley did it by writing of a human man made from scratch and educated (and abused) like a child, Morrison by turning a dead child into an adult ghost in Beloved. In his autobiographical novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Tolstoy wrote about his mother’s death, which happened when he was two, but he revised his age to something like eight to make the scenes more artistically manageable. James Joyce writes directly of early childhood in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but he does so impressionistically and does not draw any firm connections between those opening early childhood scenes and later ones. I have taken a different approach by depicting early childhood experiences directly and carrying through their implications in every other scene of the book.
Having said that, there is something suspicious to me in the notion that a novel needs “uniqueness” in order to be valuable. “Uniqueness” sounds a lot like “competitive advantage”—a phrase from the world of commerce, not literature. A writer sets out to portray what is true to him or her, and also, usually, what is beautiful. New styles, new philosophies, new insights into character, forays into unknown subject matter—these things come about automatically when new voices do a good job examining the same old world on a cutting edge that is provided to them by time itself: another day.
In my first novel, I wrote from the point of view of a Nazi. In my new novel,The Wanting, I’ve taken on the persona of a suicide bomber from a village outside of Bethlehem. And while this character, Amir, is only one of three distinct voices in the book, his was the most painful to write and the most difficult to come to terms with. On the one hand, he murders scores of people – unconscionable and terrifying. On the other, he is also a person, not a monster. It is that person within him I was trying to access in my writing – but did I succeed? And should I have even tried?
My friend and fellow writer Jonathan Rosen (Joy Comes in the Morning, The Life of the Skies) has some doubts on this score. He wondered if I had created a moral equivalency between the victim (in this case the Russian Jewish immigrant, Roman Guttman) and the victimizer (Amir). I hope Jonathan won’t mind if I quote from his email:
“…my fear [is] that Jewish imaginative sympathy sometimes runs the risk of secretly being narcissism disguised as empathy, as we project the better angels of our nature outward in the name of human understanding and then have a dialogue with ourselves. German Jews did it with Germans, as Gershom Scholem argued so persuasively about Buber — I and Thou is sometimes Me and Me.”
This, of course, begs the question of fiction writing in general – but without addressing that (and Jonathan himself told me he genuinely thinks writers should be free to attempt anything and everything) I have to admit his misgivings give me pause. What is it we do when we write about the radical other, especially when this other has declared itself our mortal enemy and feels empowered to use any means, no matter how repugnant, to achieve its aim. Is it merely an exercise in vanity, a sort of hope against hope – wishing away the truth of the barbarity which confronts us?
I struggled with this from the onset. Just doing the research was painful in the extreme. Like poking at a sore, I had to read page after page of vitriol aimed at Jews and Israelis. The writings and rantings of mullahs and radical Islamists throughout the Muslim world frightened me, and our history reminds me it is wise to be frightened. My conversations with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs were of course less rife, but an underlying fury was never very far from the surface. I did not feel safe. Add to that the painful and inevitable realization of our own (my own) responsibility for the suffering and thwarted ambition of Palestinian people, and you can see how complex things became for me. Fear and guilt. Never a good place to write from.
So it’s not surprising that my first characterizations of Amir were flat and lifeless: in turns he was demonic, hate-crazed, and otherworldly – a kind of poet of cruelty – in others he was comic and buffoonish, a mindless machine of vengeance. I was stuck, and it was not until my Israeli reader, Michal Evron Yaniv, said, quite simply, “Just make him a person,” that I was reminded that my task as a novelist is to render all my characters with empathy – an empathy that extends throughout this awful symphony of life. And I fully admit that in the end I did perversely fall in love with Amir, because I came to see that he, too, is a victim – not so much of the Israeli occupation as of his own limited experience and the agenda of powerful forces far beyond his control or ability to understand.
I believe I’ve created a vital and living character who demands our attention and rewards our reading in a book I hope papers over nothing while attending to the thing that matters most: the human spirit.
But should there be limits to a writer’s empathy?
I welcome your comments.
When I first started writing, I loved reading advice for writers from my favorite authors. Yet there was one common piece of advice I didn’t quite get. Whenever writers spoke about letting the characters control the story, I became skeptical. It sounded a bit too fluffy and hazy for my understanding. I had no idea how to implement that advice. After all—I was the writer. I was the one deciding my characters’ fate. What does that mean, in a practical sense, letting the characters control the story?
I still don’t fully get that advice, but after gaining more experience writing, I have learned that in order to produce my best work I have to be willing to abandon many intentions I had for a story when I first began writing it. This is probably one of the hardest things that I had to learn to do as a writer. Every writer comes to the page bursting to say something. Yet I found that in order for a story to work one must be willing to abandon their original intentions in the service of what works best on the page.
A few months ago I googled myself and found a bunch of thoughtful responses (both favorable and less favorable) that engaged with one of my just-published stories, “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations.”
Some responses, however, treated the story as if it was non-fiction, and clearly in service of one particular opinion or another. Because the story was fiction, I was surprised to read these polar opposite responses from people who held strong opinions on both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Some viewed the story as pro-Israeli propaganda and claimed that it was degrading to Palestinians, while others claimed that I must hate Israel, and that I’m trying to profit by negatively portraying my own country. The language of the responders on both sides was far less kind than my summary of their sentiments.
I was pleased to see that other readers pushed back on these purely political interpretations of my story, and that they urged for it to be understood as fiction. I think the fact my story managed to enrage people with opposite political views is actually an odd kind of accomplishment. The irony is that one of my story’s central themes was the absurdity of the war of narratives that is happening in the West regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict.
A passionate war of narratives regarding this conflict has been going on for ages. People on both sides are eager to evaluate everyone and everything only in regards to how that person or work of art either agrees or disagrees with their point of view. Although I wish my work could be evaluated only as a work of art, I know that because of my subject matter that may not always happen.
While many differing interpretations have been given to the choices I made in that story, the truth is I feel as though many of those choices were not up to me. They were in service of the story. Whatever my original intentions were when I began writing that story, it was the story itself that dictated my later choices and brought me to write from my characters’ perspectives in the ways that I did.