What would you do if you had any skills to do something else?
I’d be an activist, true and blue, like the older characters in my book, but with current concerns. I went to the rally for Planned Parenthood, Title X, in NYC last weekend and listening to all the speakers, I thought, that is what I should have been. But of course, I am only a little bit that. And of course, just as when an attorney says she should take two months off to writer her novel, well, it takes a little more than wishing.
Where do you write?
In my closet. It’s big for a closet, but it’s small for an office. Make what you will of the metaphor.
You were an interviewer for a while—you had a your own radio show once. Why are you finding it so difficult to come up with questions for yourself?
I could ask Allen Ginsberg anything. But it’s like being a publicist. I was head of publicity for a publishing house and I can’t get myself to say anything much about me or my book. I have trouble talking about my work as I am really aware of the implicit judgment of an audience. What is too much, what is not enough? It’s exhausting.
Right! People ask you a lot about having worked in publishing. What do you make of that?
I always answer recklessly, irresponsibly—times have changed so much in the three or four years since I’ve left publishing , I have no business saying anything. When I left, the guys from Amazon had just come in for secret meetings, massive gray “Kindles” hidden under their long black coats. I was like, what is this? It looks very big and bulky and old fashioned but they’re acting like it’s going to change the face of the planet.
Do you want to have the Jewish Novelist discussion?
I do! I do.
The earnest answer to that Jewish Novelist question is: I am so insanely proud to be part of that dialogue. I have been informed as a writer by Jewish American writers—Grace Paley, Delmore Schwartz, the Great Roths, Bellow. And there are some great contemporary writers emerging from that tradition who I admire. So in that way, being a Jewish novelist is a fabulous honor.
More glibly: I was shocked to be placed in this category initially, as I wasn’t raised terribly observant. I am 100 percent Jewish, that experience has become, as we say, more cultural. When I was lucky enough to be nominated for the National Jewish Book Award, I was like this is so awesome, but it felt initially strange. Not strange: mysterious. And then I went back to my book and realized, this is a very Jewish book. Every character is a Jew. All the themes are “Jewish.” There’s just no religion. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered Jewish.
There is a lot of dialogue about what makes a Jewish book, I’m not going to solve it here, but I’m glad and grateful to be a part of that discussion.
Who would you be if you could—finally—escape and become someone else?
Justin Bond and Zadie Smith, combined, no question.
What do you wish you were better at?
I’m not one for resolutions, but every New Year I resolve to do a more sustained reading about the very politics that have always compelled me. Maybe it’s all the on-line activity, which makes it so difficult to sustain focus now. I am ashamed of that. And that when reading the Sunday Times, (the actual paper, yes) I start with hope, with the Week in Review and the Op-Ed pages, and somehow I end up lying back with Style Section. I’m what’s wrong with America. I stop reading a riveting piece in the Economist on the Middle East to check D-listed for news on Suri Cruise’s shoes (which, as you know, cost more than the rent on my apartment).
Are you old enough to have written a book in 1979?
I’m so glad you asked! Yes and no. I am not a hundred, and I was young in 1979, but I was there. It was a weird and nostalgic time for the country—Vietnam was over, and there was the hangover from the sixties, even a bit of a hangover from the thirties and forties. Disco was dead, which everyone but my grandfather seemed to be happy about. Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” was at San Francisco MOMA, Styron had just published the Executioner’s Song, you could see Manhattan or Breaking Away or Apocalypse Now in the theaters, rock was king of the radio. It was a great time for art and a terrible time for politics. And Something Red is about how being an activist, or a radical, is defined so differently for each generation.
Your first book took place from the twenties to the sixties, and this one, in the late seventies. Why so obsessed by the past?
I have always been that way…when I was three, I was pining for two, but what was so great about two? I have always looked back to a time that wasn’t really ever there. In regards to writing, though, the past has been freeing for me. I like looking at the way history has informed my characters, and I like looking at the from the future. I think my next challenge will be to do that—have influences of the culture—affect my characters in the now.