Understanding the Villains; or, Stranger than Fiction

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.

Two things about the application struck me—first, the burden of proof seemed remarkably low. Understandably—ghetto inmates didn’t get confirmation vouchers on being incarcerated. So a matter of the historical record became a mater of storytelling—if you could tell the story persuasively, you were in. This was catnip for a young writer. The other thought was less pretty—it felt like only a matter of time before someone decided to take advantage of that low burden of proof and collect money for invented, but well-relayed, suffering. And so I decided to write a novel imagining exactly that.