Molly Antopol is a recent National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 writer and author of THE UNAMERICANS, a book of short stories published in February to critical acclaim. Reviews of Antopol’s work applaud her ability to explore our connection to a place or an event, applying this notion to the human condition with her witty and heartbreaking prose. THE UNAMERICANS examines character’s lives as they take place in Israel, the Soviet Union, and the United States, during events over the last century. It is a wonderful collection by a talented young writer.
We spoke with Antopol about writing, how her collection began to take form, her family’s personal history, and her upcoming novel, The After Party. Take a look!
Can you tell us a little bit about your start as a writer? What drew you to short stories as a form and what draws you to the content of your own writing when you’re starting a story?
I’ve always loved short stories. The stories I admire most feel novelistic in scope, where you can feel a writer pouring everything she has into it until there’s nothing left. I feel that way about so many writers, including Deborah Eisenberg, Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones and Edith Pearlman. But becoming a writer myself wasn’t ever a conscious decision. I was always a big reader and I knew, early on, that writing would be central to my life, but I didn’t see it as something I could actually do as a career. Growing up, I didn’t know any writers and it seemed to me like some mythic, unattainable job, like being an acrobat or a magician. I figured I’d sneak in time to write when I wasn’t working; when I was a kid I wanted to be a zoologist or a marine biologist. Even now, as an adult, I’m happiest when I’m outside, on some kind of adventure.
You have been working on these stories for nearly ten years. Did you have a plan for them as a collection? When and how did that start to take form?
The first story I wrote that made it into the book was “Duck and Cover.” Many of my earliest stories were set during the McCarthy era and inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I was about halfway into writing the book when I realized my stories all explored, in some way or another, the triangle between Cold War-era East European politics, Jewish American liberalism and the effect they had on contemporary Israel. But that was totally subconscious. And it was only once all the stories were done that I discovered they weren’t linked by setting or character but by a question I hadn’t even realized I’d been asking myself: What are the complicated—and sometimes devastating—effects that one person’s quest to improve the world have on the people closest to them?
In “The Quietest Man” there is a line that references a character’s success as a playwright that goes, “Daniela simply needed to live as an observer, sitting discreetly in a corner, quietly cataloging the foibles of those around her.” It made me think of the autobiographical content that seeps through into stories. Is that something you feel is true about being a writer?
Yes and no. Writing is definitely the way I make sense of the world. I love my friends and family and am grateful for the support we give each other, but the truth is that whenever something painful or shocking has happened to me, I’ve found that I gain the most comfort not by talking about it with other people, but by being alone in a room, figuring out how to control those terrible parts of life through writing.
But I don’t believe that as a writer, I should ever “catalogue the foibles of those around [us].” And, to be honest, I don’t think Daniela, the narrator of “The Quietest Man,” believes that either. There isn’t anything wrong with letting anger drive an early draft. But I don’t ever want that rage, those feelings of being wronged, to make it into a finished story. My stories can only work when I feel compassion for every person I’m writing about—even, and sometimes most of all, the least sympathetic characters who have done the most damage. For me, writing fiction has always been an exercise in empathy, of making myself try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. And if I’m still upset about someone or something in the final draft, the story always buckles under the weight of that anger—it means I haven’t figured out a way to create enough distance from the situation to tell the story in the most nuanced possible way.
A strong sense of place permeates each of these stories. Can you discuss your use of setting and how it informs or impacts your work?
Setting feels so ingrained in character—we’re obviously all shaped by where we came from, and where our parents came from, and their parents, and so on, and my characters are all either trying to escape their mother countries, or desperately trying to return to them. Nothing about writing comes easily to me, unfortunately, but setting does come relatively natural to the stories I’m writing, in part, I think, because the places I depict are pretty central to my life. Because I’d been trying to reimagine the McCarthy era for so much of my life, writing about that time in American history came much more naturally to me than writing about modern-day America.
In terms of the Eastern Europe stories, my family’s originally from there, I’ve traveled there a lot, and even as a kid it was the Russian writers I read most. With the Israel stories, I’ve spent my adult life going back and forth between there and the U.S. I lived there for years—I used to work for a human rights group, and with new immigrants from Chechnya and Russia. And since being on an academic schedule for the past seven years, I’ve spent my summers there. At this point, I feel like I know Israel better than I do most parts of the U.S., and some of the people I love most are there. But I first arrived there as a guest—and so even writing about it now, I’m always aware that I’m an observer, staring through the glass.
Are you working on any longer pieces? If so, how is this process different for you than working on a piece of short fiction?
I’m working on a novel, called The After Party. It’s set in Israel, Eastern Europe, and New York. When I’m writing a story, I find that everything I’m experiencing goes into it—and so there’s something immensely gratifying about finishing one piece and then starting fresh with a new setting, situation and cast of characters, getting to see the world from a completely different vantage each time. I worried about what it would feel like to be in the heads of the same characters for as many years as it takes me to write a novel, but so far—at least in this early stage—it’s been pretty enjoyable to wake up and think about the same people every morning.
One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story.” Can you discuss your thoughts behind that piece and how you decided on the young girl’s trajectory through that story? Particularly—and without giving away the farm—how she reacts to the family she encounters in town.
I come from a big family of storytellers. But the one place I never heard about was Antopol, the Belarusian village where everyone came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. For so many years I had tried to imagine the lives of the relatives my great-grandmother Molly had left behind when she came over to the States alone—and what had become of them, and their children, before and during the war. A little more that a decade ago I was living in Israel and wound up at a holiday party in Haifa, where I met an elderly woman from Antopol. We sat in the kitchen all night and she told me stories about the village—it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. At the end of the evening, she led me to an oral history book of the village, written in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, that her son had—and that book planted the seeds for “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story.”
What’s tricky—and fascinating—about researching such a traumatic moment in history is that everyone remembers it differently. I traveled to Eastern Europe, spent days in the archives, read more than a dozen memoirs on partisan life, and many of the writers remembered the exact same places and events in completely different ways—even details as basic as weather conditions, the kinds of weapons they had access to, and the types of food they scavenged while living in the forest. And many of those details contradicted the more journalistic texts I read. That brought up an interesting question for me: what’s the “truth” that fiction writers are ultimately searching for when researching? I’d always told myself that my job as a writer was to think about character first and foremost—but so many of the emotional truths in my characters’ lives are informed by the history and politics that surround them. And obviously another task for me is to do every bit of research I can so that all of the historical details in my stories are right—only, in subsequent drafts, to delete half of those details so that the research feels invisible and all the reader cares about are the characters. But when so much of the research doesn’t add up, it brings forth an important question on how to write accurately about moments in history remembered in so many different ways—and which accounts are ultimately the most truthful.
I’d been struggling with that story for months, and it was only when I made the narrator a reticent older woman frustrated by her granddaughter’s incessant questioning about dark periods of history she’d never lived through, that the story really cracked open for me, and I was able to approach that scene you mentioned in a more complicated and surprising way.
As an editor who works with so many new and emerging authors, I’m wondering if there was ever a time when you thought you weren’t going to make it, or your work wasn’t going to be published. If so, how did you work through that as a new writer, and if not, what was the biggest challenge you faced before your first major publication?
When I began writing these stories, I was blissfully and totally unaware of how publishing worked. I’d never thought about the difference between a large or small press, or how to go about querying an agent, or where to submit my stories—reading was, at that point in my life, a completely personal and haphazard experience. I’d stumble upon a book, fall in love with it and obsessively read everything by that writer, then read interviews with them to discover which writers they admired and go search for those books, and so on.
For many years, I basically wrote into a vacuum. I didn’t send my stories out and tried not to think about how the collection would come together as a whole—I just focused on trying to make each story work the way I hoped it would. There are many demoralizing things about working on a project for so long, one of which is that some people might tell you that you’re insane for devoting yourself to something as pie-in-the-sky as a short story collection. Most frustrating is when people ask if you’ve considered turning one of your stories into a novel, that novels are easier to sell. It drives me crazy when people talk about debut collections as precursors to novels—as if stories are what young writers do to get their sea legs, rather than being wildly different forms that require an entirely different set of skills.
It was really important for me to keep my blinders on the whole time. Because I did an M.F.A. and then a Stegner Fellowship, I was around a lot of young writers publishing books. For some reason, the excitement of seeing close friends publish never pushed me to write faster—instead, it just made me want to tune out any noise so I could focus entirely on the book I wanted to write, regardless of whether or not anyone would ultimately be interested in publishing it.
What was it like being selected as a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Writer?
It’s an extraordinary honor. I was so thrilled to get the news, and to be in such incredible company. Writing is often such a solitary pursuit; it was very nice to get recognition from people who are not related to me!
Lastly, congratulations. The UnAmericans is an absolutely fantastic collection.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read it!