For me, writing fiction always begins with curiosity about other people: what are they really thinking but not saying? What does it feel like to live inside someone else’s body?
I trace this curiosity, in part, to my Orthodox upbringing – to the feeling that people (or was it just me?) were thinking things they were not saying, that there existed for many a shadow inner life that did not align with the outer one. There, tucked away under a hat, walled inside the private domain, were the feelings not allowed into the light. So much had to be encased, or run past the internal censor before it could be said. Everywhere, the sense that you were being watched, evaluated, judged. So few places where the inner experience – messy, complicated, impolite – could be revealed.
But in a novel: here, finally, there is freedom and access. The walls give way to windows. Here, what people really think, say, feel. In life, how many of us walk around with no trespassing signs affixed to our bodies? But in a novel we enter into characters who stray and fear and lie and love and seethe and desire, that great messy stew of what it means to be human. Real empathy comes not from concealment but from revealing. We hide out truest selves for fear of what others will say, yet in those messy spaces we are, however ironically, most sympathetic.
This chance to peer into others is what makes me read, and what makes me write. I’ve always thought of the novelist as a kind of voyeur – a job which requires you to assemble pieces of other people’s lives into a larger whole.
, my third novel, I started with a young mother who watches her neighbors out the window, catching snippets of their lives. In the city, we live a combination of anonymity and intimacy. We watch but act as though we don’t see one another, thus allowing this shadowy dance to continue without becoming overly exposing and invasive. So much around us is packaged and covered. Here, the chance to see one another unrehearsed. To escape our own lonely nights, to pretend as though we occupy other lives.
But at the same time, in all those views out the window, surely we are seeing not just others but ourselves. As I was writing, I was fascinated by the question of whether we can watch and remain unchanged. In my novel, my main character is ultimately not content to just watch. Watching breeds the desire for something more. Doors open and she becomes entangled in the lives of those she watches. But even if we are never caught watching, even if we never walk through our own doors, we are still changed. When we see into other people, we grow wider, more empathetic.
The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.
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