By Daniel Ford
Author Molly Antopol’s short story collection The UnAmericans was longlisted for the National Book Award and was called “beautiful, funny, fearless, exquisitely crafted, and truly novelistic in scope” by author Jesmyn Ward. Antopol was also named a 2013 National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" Honoree.
The author talked to me recently about her writing career, what inspired The UnAmericans, and her love of short stories.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Molly Antopol: It wasn’t a conscious decision, exactly. I’ve always read a lot. As a kid, I had a bunch of imaginary friends and my mother says I used to spend full days writing myself into whatever book I was reading. But writing as a career felt to me like a pie-in-the-sky profession, like being an astronaut or a magician. I figured I’d sneak in time to write when I wasn’t working—when I was young I wanted to be a marine biologist or a zoologist.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
MA: Grace Paley has had an enormous influence on me. I admire her stories for so many reasons: for their intellect, humor, poetic compression, and emotional generosity. I first read Paley in a literature seminar in college, and it was only then that I truly understood how compassionate and direct stories can be without ever veering into sentimentality. And she writes such gorgeous sentences without ever seeming like she’s showing off. Most of all, I love how character-driven her stories are while still giving us a nuanced sense of the larger political landscape—the politics of her fiction feels like such an essential part of the people she writes about that I never feel she’s being didactic or forcing any opinions on me.
The books I read as a kid were also hugely important in my becoming a writer, in particular Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnick series. I recently reread those books and found them just as fantastic as I had as a kid—both Fitzhugh and Lowry write with so much warmth and self-awareness and what feels like genuine love for their characters. I also loved books about explorers as a kid, particularly Gulliver’s Travels and Call of the Wild—even as an adult, I’m happiest when I’m outdoors, off on some kind of adventure.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
MA: I write on all the days I don’t teach. I write best in the mornings, before my day gets too cluttered. And I always turn off my phone and email—I’m horribly addicted to the Internet and can begin by researching one small (yet essential!) detail for a story can often lead to a three-hour black hole from which I only emerge once I’ve learned everything I can about something wholly unrelated to my book.
I don’t have a lucky pen or anything like that. If I can sit down and get something done, it doesn’t matter if I’m dressed or still in my pajamas, or have my music on or off.
DF: We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
MA: 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, Andrea Barrett, Edward P. Jones and Edith Pearlman. Whenever I was struggling with my book, I found myself searching out interviews with them, looking for nuggets of inspiration that might help along the way. I learned about Pearlman’s love of Dickens, that Munro doesn’t show work-in-progress to anyone, and that for Eisenberg, the earliest seeds of a story begin for her with an image or a phrase, and “sometimes a kind of tonality … almost as if I was writing a piece of music.”
DF: How long did it take you to complete The UnAmericans?
MA: Ten years. For many of those 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.
It was really important for me to keep my blinders on the whole time. For some reason, the excitement of seeing my friends publish never pushed me to write faster—instead, it just made me want to tune out any writing business-related 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.
DF: Did the ideas for each story originate differently when you were planning out the collection, or did you find ways to connect them during the writing process?
MA: Many of the earliest stories I wrote 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?
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
MA: Well, my book doesn’t contain any stories about women in their 30s living in San Francisco, but I do feel that it is autobiographical in the sense that it captures what I cared about, questioned and obsessed over during the 10 years that I was writing it. It was only at that halfway mark I mentioned that I realized that all of the stories were in conversation with each other.
DF: What are some of the themes you tackle in the collection?
MA: Growing up, I’d always associated the word “Un-American” solely with the Red Scare in America, and the 1950s-era stories in my book grew largely out of my attempt to understand what it might have been like for my family to grow up under the shadow of McCarthyism.
As I wrote more stories, I became fascinated by the complicated meaning the word might have to this current generation of Israelis, forced to contend every day with their country’s messy and symbiotic relationship to America. Some of my other stories are about East Europeans immigrating to America. I was really interested in thinking about this notion of “Un-American-ness” for these characters—dissidents and academics, banned artists and writers—who risked their lives for their politics in their mother countries and are then forced to reinvent their identities in the United States, a country where they’re treated as anything but American. I kept thinking about the complicated emotional impact the fall of communism might have had on my characters during that time. I thought about what it might have felt like to dedicate oneself to a cause that, in the course of world events, comes to an end—and wondered whether some people might have had a niggling feeling of nostalgia for that bleak time, simply because they held a significant place in it. For so many of my characters, their entire sense of self is shaped by their political work, and I wanted to explore how having lived under surveillance in Eastern Europe influences their lives once they immigrate to America, where they quickly realize that not only are they no longer being watched—they’re no longer being noticed.
DF: Your book received rave reviews from a variety of media outlets and was longlisted for the National Book Award. What’s that experience been like and what are your future plans?
MA: I’ve found it fascinating to have a book out in the world and to see how people have responded to it. It’s an incredible feeling to read and hear peoples’ responses to characters who had lived solely in my mind for so long. I was incredibly honored (and surprised!) to be longlisted for the National Book Award. It was thrilling to get the news, and to be in such amazing company. Writing is often such a solitary pursuit; it was wonderful to get recognition from people who are not related to me!
As to what’s next, I’m working a novel, called The After Party. It’s set in the United States and Israel. But I’m superstitious about discussing a book-in-progress—I shouldn’t say anything else!
DF: What advice would you give writers just starting out?
MA: That there’s no rush to get published, that it’s okay to spend years reading and writing and messing up, until you feel truly great about the work they’re putting out. When I was first writing stories, an older writer gave me a piece of advice that’s resonated over the years: you only get one chance to have a first book, so make sure you stand behind every one of your sentences.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
MA: They filmed “The Wonder Years” at my high school.