Donna Tartt, the author of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Goldfinch, was once told by Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, never to read her press: “I’ll tell you why, kid. The good things don’t help and the bad things still hurt.” A modified version of this guidance appears in virtually every testimonial by a fabled writer: You can’t worry about your audience; you must write for yourself.
Read without nuance, sentiments like these surely encourage the view that writers are elitist, self-serving navel-gazers. The truth feels more complex. As a writer, I am deeply engaged with my imaginary audience. I write because I have things I want to say, and a way I want to say them, but I want them to be heard. I write to connect. I write to have a conversation. At the same time, bad things happen on the page when you start writing with an overly concrete audience in mind. Instead of looking for new expression, you start saying things you think your audience will like. Entertainment is a perfectly honorable reason to write and read. But I believe writers have an obligation to push their readers—and themselves—to think about things they may not be overly eager to think about. It’s how literature, and, in some ways, the world moves forward.
I bring all this up because my debut novel, A Replacement Life, out this week, is on a subject that gets readers going: A young man starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn. I began writing the novel in the fall of 2009, inspired by my experience filling out my grandmother’s restitution paperwork in the 1990s (she was an inmate of the Minsk ghetto). My family had emigrated from the former Soviet Union only a decade before; I was just a teenager, but had the best English, so the paperwork was handed to me. Continue reading
The reissuing of my novel about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Red Love, as an e-book this month is a joyful moment for me. When the book came out, the Holocaust historian Lucy Dawidowicz, a month before she died, wrote that “This is a novel that represents life and is true to history, combining imagination with the documentary record, written with bite and black humor, tempered by compassion for the betrayed sacrifices, the lives lost.” Elie Wiesel wrote that my book has “fascinating events and amazing perception.”
I remember as a small boy in Queens how the sky seemed to darken for me when I heard of the Rosenbergs’ execution. It was an event I could not get out of my memory. Soon I would be drawn to the American Communist Party. I felt a kinship for these well-read, cultured and passionate souls who yearned for a kinder, more compassionate world. As I learned more about Stalin’s crimes and anti-Semitism, it was inconceivable to me that these people who I so admired, who had so much humanity and love for their fellow man, revered a system that even Nikita Khrushchev admitted in 1956 was bathed in the blood of tens of millions of people. The USSR allied itself with Hitler during the Hitler-Stalin pact, murdered millions in the Gulag, destroyed Jewish life in the Soviet Union and murdered the major writers and artists who comprised the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Yet I came to understand that for these American true believers, the Soviet Union had once symbolized paradise, where there were no such things as anti-Semitism, economic exploitation, poverty and racism. The contradiction between the sincere goodness of the people I met in the Communist Party and the justifications they presented for a totalitarian regime became for me a personal and professional puzzle to resolve. Continue reading
I’ve had four opportunities to visit the Soviet Union/Former Soviet Union over the years, the fourth being the trip I’m preparing for as I write this blog that MJL will be posting online while I’m physically there.
My first trip, as a twenty-six-year-old single in 1968, was mainly exploratory. I wanted to check out the terrible press reports, leave behind some Jewish books, and instill some hope. In this pre détente era when tourism between the USA and the Soviet Union was virtually unknown, I signed up with the Dutch Student Travel Organization, NBBS, for a two week all-expenses-covered trip costing $250. I was the only Jew and the only American among the thirty travelers. The railroad that left Amsterdam took two days and nights to reach our first stop, Minsk. At the intersection between the two Germanys, bloodhounds came on board to search. Crossing Poland, I recognized the names of towns like Bialystok, well known in Jewish history. Were these the same tracks used a quarter century earlier to bring Jews to the concentration camps, I wondered? Continue reading