by Marian Kaufman
Recently, Bayou had the opportunity to speak with Molly Antopol about her debut short story collection, THE UNAMERICANS, which won the 2015 New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award and was nominated for a National Book Award. It was also a finalist for the PEN/Robert Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the National Jewish Book Award, the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, the California Book Award, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. Additionally, Antopol won the Hadassah Magazine’s 2015 Harold U. Ribalow Prize for Jewish fiction. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, she is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.
How did THE UNAMERICANS come about, and how dramatically did it change during the revision process?
Oh it changed so much over the years. The book took me a decade to write, and that was writing pretty consistently. I would say about six days a week. I think one of the main things that changed is that I felt that, as a short story writer, certain stories could work well on their own, and I could submit them to journals or magazines. But when I thought about how they would come together as a book, I had to radically change a lot of the stories. I had to take some out and really play around with the structure because I wanted the overall book to tell a story. I didn’t want there to be too much thematic or emotional overlapping in the stories. Obviously, there needs to be a sense that everything links together, but I didn’t want to make too many sound the same note, and that required a ton of revision maybe about three years of revision.
I’m a slow worker. I’m good about putting the hours in, but it just takes a long time. Every one of those stories took me about ten or fifteen substantial drafts because it takes me so many drafts even to figure out what the story’s about. I’m just never one of these people who knows what I’m doing before an actual year of working on it.
You spoke of overlapping themes in this collection, and one of the major themes is family history. Is that something you have continued to explore in your writing?
Absolutely. When I was starting this book, I did an interview with Dan Chaon, who I really admire. He said he felt like every writer had three or four obsessions that were basically hardwired into them, and every writer would play those out throughout their careers in different books. That idea really freed me because I do think that I’ll be writing about family history probably for the rest of my life. And other themes that came up for me were the relationship with the self and politics, and this idea of wanting so desperately to leave a legacy that the people closest to you kind of get lost in the shuffle. All of those things are so interesting to me that I wouldn’t know how not to write about them. As for family history, ever since I was a kid I have been interested in talking to my relatives and asking for stories. I think that is a well I’ll draw from for the rest of my life.
Your story “My Grandmother Tells Me a Story” has an interesting narrative form. It’s a grandmother telling her granddaughter how she and the girl’s grandfather came to be together during WWII and then it becomes a story within a story. And in “The Quietest Man” we get an initial story about a man’s daughter selling an autobiographical play. Then the story shift to how he and her mother came together and moved to the United States. He then he imagines how her mother would have told her the story and eventually tells his daughter a new story.
So I’m curious: What have been some of your inspirations for this sort of storytelling?
Oh that’s so interesting. No one has ever asked me that. It’s funny because all of these stories are completely fictional, and it’s me inventing all of the details and the people, but my goal as a writer was always for the stories to read like memoir even though they were one hundred percent fiction. And so I read a lot of memoir because I love that voice. I love that really confessional voice when I’m working in first person. For both of the stories you mentioned and for a couple others in the collection, they almost felt to me like testimonials, that sort of formal storytelling where these characters, who haven’t really gotten to tell their sides of things and feel so alone in life and so deeply misunderstood, finally get a chance to tell their side of the story. And so I feel like that’s where the urgency came from in both of those stories and in a couple other ones.
The idea of who one’s people are and where they come from is very prominent in the story “The Old World.” Could you tell us more about how you became interested in that idea?
Oh absolutely. There’s a line in “My Grandmother Tells Me a Story” in which the grandmother says, why don’t you go out and enjoy yourself rather than asking questions about things that have nothing to do with you? These horrible things happened before you were born. And I feel like that was a line that, as soon as I wrote it, I was like, oh, this is what this book is really about. In a lot of ways, it’s about my anxiety about being so obsessed with these really dark moments of the past and why I’m so interested in talking to the older generations of my family about things they might not want to look at or might not want to talk about. Once I understood that, it was really interesting for me to explore it throughout the book. And I love the idea of Howard as a middle-aged guy by himself, a guy who is really resisting the past and resisting his heritage. And I like what it does for him on an emotional level when his daughter starts to embrace the past.
You’re working on your first novel, THE AFTER PARTY. Could you talk about how it might differ from what you have done before? Have there been risks you have taken while working on it, or a new challenge that you haven’t faced before?
It’s still in the really early stages, and it’s incredibly hard. I feel like I’m having to learn how to write all over again on this project. But, you know, something that has been really exciting for me about working on a novel is that with each of these stories I felt like I had to imagine an entire world, an entire cast of characters, and then create a structure around the parts that I wanted to write about their lives. There is a structure of urgency and tension. That’s how I would make the story. And so with a novel it’s really fun to get to spread out and spend a lot of time with these people and incorporate more of their back stories and all the things I was really interested in as a story writer but that I wasn’t quite sure fit in the story structure. That’s been really wonderful. But it’s hard. It feels unwieldy, and it’s definitely been a humbling process.