Molly Antopol’s debut story collection, The UnAmericans (W.W. Norton), was longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award and received a 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming on NPR’s This American Life and All Things Considered, online at The New Yorker,and in many periodicals, including The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Elle, Ecotone, Oxford American, One Story and American Short Fiction. She teaches at Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow, and is at work on a novel.
This interview was conducted over the phone by Interview Editor Rosie Huf. Of the process, she said, “It was a pleasure to interview Ms. Antopol. She was very accessible; she has an admirable commitment to accuracy in her writing; and, her devotion to this collection and to these characters made me love the work all that much more.” In this interview, Ms. Antopol discusses the people and places that inspired The UnAmericans, as well as offers advice tangible to all writers at any stage in their career.
Superstition Review: You move seamlessly between fiction and nonfiction. How did you come to write both?
Molly Antopol: Well, fiction has always been my first love. That’s what I have always wanted to write ever since I was very young. What I’ve found is that while I was working on my short story collection—which took me ten years to write—it was really nice to write a personal essay, or to do something for the radio, or to do a review, just to use that other side of my brain. So, it just became this really nice balance while I was working. Once my story collection was out, and I was still traveling a lot for the book, I wasn’t quite ready to dive into a novel. It felt like a really great time to work on essays and shorter pieces. Somehow that balance just helps me. The fiction informs the non-fiction, and the non-fiction informs the fiction.
SR: Could you elaborate on what lead to your interest in the Jewish Diaspora?
MA: Sure. That’s definitely an autobiographical piece to the book. A lot of the stories are inspired by my family history: notably they’re involvement in the communist party, and then, farther back, my family in Eastern Europe. I think that for me it was also that I’ve just always been so curious. Every opportunity that I’ve gotten to travel I’ve taken, and it’s always been the thing that makes me the happiest, traveling or being on research grants. The more that I traveled and the more that I wrote, I became so interested in these parts of my family history that I hadn’t known about. So, I just began spending as much time traveling as I could. And, the other part is the Israel part. I live in Israel three months out of the year and I used to live there for longer stretches of time before I had my job at Stanford. So, that’s just a place that I am more intimate with than I am with a lot of other places in the US.
SR: That seems like such a great move for you, being able to live in Israel as well as here and explore all of your interests there.
MA: Yes, exactly, it works out really well.
SR: In an article written in The New York Times, titled “Tales from Tel Aviv and Upper West Side,” Dwight Garner compares you to Allegra Goodman and Grace Paley. What authors have greatly influenced your work?
MA: I was really, really thrilled by that review. I thought it was such a thoughtful review—I really admire both of those writers. Grace Paley is definitely the writer that has inspired me from the very beginning. I remember reading her for the first time in college and just being so stunned by what I read. I had never read fiction that so captured the voices that I had heard growing up; of the older generation of my family. So, it was really kind of life changing for me, both as a reader and a writer, to read Grace Paley.
The other writers that have been huge for me over the years…Allegra Goodman is also a writer I admire greatly. I think that she’s such a smart and compassionate writer, and she is incredibly funny; and she’s also so emotionally generous towards her characters. I love Edward P. Jones. I love James Baldwin. I love Alice Munro. Deborah Eisenberg I really admire.
SR: Are any of their works particularly striking to you, or is there one that holds a greater weight to you than the others?
MA: No. It’s more that they all hold a great weight for me at different times in my writing life. Sometimes I’ll really turn to one writer because I need help with dialogue, and I often feel like I learn so much by reading. Or, I’ll turn to another writer because I really need help with structure or setting or whatever it is; but, those are the writers that have just been so important to me through the years on such a personal level.
SR: In your essay “The Book of Antopol (Or, Can We Ever Know the Past?),” published in The New Yorker, you wrote, “I’ve heard writers talk about receiving a story as a gift—it arrives in their heads fully formed and all they have to do is transcribe. That’s never happened to me. I’m glad for that.” Can you expand on your own creative process? How do your stories develop?
MA: I mean they all took forever. Every one of the stories took at least a year for me to write, and I never have gotten that gift. Every time I start writing, I really have no idea where the story will go. And, often times when I think I know where the story will go that’s when it becomes totally a different animal once it’s finished. While I’m writing, I think every one of those stories took between ten and twenty very, very extensive drafts, and so often I would even change who the narrator was. It would take me maybe five or six drafts to even know who was in the most complicated place in the story and that was the person I always wanted to tell the story. So, all of those changes would happen. The fun part for me is once I figure all that out. Then, the final drafts are working on the language once I have the rest of the story changed.
SR: That seems like such a process, but a wonderful process because you become so much more informed on your characters over that time.
MA: Totally, I just love my characters. All the characters that made it into the book are people that I really loved, and that I feel like I really know and respect. And, I’m not sure that I would have felt that about them, or that I would have felt that I knew them as well as I did if I had not spent as much time on each story.
SR: I think that love does translate through the stories really well. I mean, you really embodied the characters. When I was reading about several of them, it was just like, “Okay, this is them, this is their voice, and there is no question about it.”
MA: Oh, thank you. That means a lot to me. That was something that I really worked really hard on. So, thank you.