The truth is in the details.
I gravitate towards stories with a vital, powerful sense of place — The Orchardist, Burial Rites, The Snow Child, The Visionist and Badluck Way, among them – stories where the landscape is a character of its own, where the writer’s talent makes physical place appear inseparable from the emotions, decisions, and actions of its inhabitants.
The settings and characters in Justin St. Germain’s memoir, Son of a Gun (Shortlisted for the 2013 Discover Award) and Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans: Stories (Discover, Spring 2014) vary, from Arizona and California to Eastern Europe and Israel, modern-day to decades past, but the eloquent truths they reveal about identity, consequences, and history are all the more real and resonant because of their young authors’ vital, tactile renderings of place.
Amtopol and St. Germain address their shared craft from using autobiography as a starting point and the influences of history to writing long form vs. short form, and at one’s own pace vs. writing on a deadline, among other things in this wide-ranging conversation for the B&N Review.
Justin St. Germain: How do you inhabit such a wide range of characters? In The UnAmericans, we meet everyone from Israeli soldiers to New York playwrights to widowed dry cleaners to Nazi-fighting rebels. By the end, I was in awe of your ability to portray such different people and yet make them all so real and believable on the page. I’m also curious how intentional that was—whether the diversity of characters was something you intended from the beginning, or if it was something that occurred naturally in the course of writing the book.
I ask partly because character is a preoccupation of mine. Son of a Gun started with the impulse to recreate a person, my mother, whom I’d lost long ago, and found increasingly difficult to remember. That starting point informed every subsequent decision I made during the writing process, especially in terms of focus and scope: other characters appeared only insofar as they were able to shed light on and reveal who she was. And so, when reading such deeply and lovingly rendered characters in your book, I wondered if character was a starting point for you as well.
Molly Antopol: Thanks! I’m so glad my characters all felt real and believable to you—that’s extremely gratifying, especially coming from someone who read early drafts of many of these. In the beginning, I definitely didn’t set out to write from so many different points of view. But writing a story is pretty all-consuming for me—it feels a lot like method acting, and for the eight or twelve or fifteen months that I’m working on a story, I’m constantly thinking about how my narrator would react to whatever tangled situation I’m in. I throw everything I have into whatever story I’m writing—and so there’s something immensely gratifying about finishing one piece and then starting fresh with a new setting, time period and cast of characters, getting to see the world through a completely different lens each time.
I’d written about five stories when I began to see the ways in which they were in conversation with one another. Once I understood that the collection looked at how people were shaped by large historical moments, it became really important to me to explore those events from multiple perspectives and voices. I wouldn’t allow myself to call the book finished until I felt I’d written as convincingly as I could from these varied points of view. More than anything, this felt like an emotional exercise as much as an intellectual one—so much of my book focuses on characters (banned artists, blacklisted actors, imprisoned writers) who were silenced precisely for telling their stories.
It’s really interesting to hear you talk about character, particularly that your depictions of other people in Son of a Gun served to help assemble a clearer picture of your mother. That’s completely fascinating, and you certainly pull it off in spades. But in addition to the beautiful portrait you paint of your mother, I found the book also offered such a nuanced and sensitive portrait of you. The other week in office hours, a student asked me how I thought I fit within my book, and it was such a complicated question that it took me days to figure out an honest answer. One of the things I love most about writing fiction is getting to imagine what it might have been like to live in another place or during a different time, or even to live here in the present day, but as a man, or a person much older than I am—I often find that I’m able to access certain emotional truths about my own life by exploring things from different angles. I haven’t written any stories about female writers living in San Francisco, but I do feel that my stories are autobiographical in the sense that they capture what I questioned and obsessed over during the decade I was writing them. And the theme I found myself circling back to was the complicated—and sometimes devastating—impact that one person’s quest to improve the world can have on the people closest to them.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about these issues—the role of the author vs. the narrative persona, whether or not there is/should be a difference, and whether the writer should even be concerned with those questions. As someone whose book is literally autobiographical, what do you think?
JS: It’s interesting to hear you talk about using autobiographical material as an entry point to writing characters unlike you. There’s a fascinating interplay at work there. It seems like you can identify with these characters, perhaps because of the autobiographical emotional truths you mention, and yet you’re unlike them in most other ways, so you have enough perspective to portray them with devastating accuracy. For instance, most of the stories in your book are narrated by men. Those narrators feel so male, with their fragile egos and posturing and lack of self-awareness, and yet I root for them anyway because I can relate to their internal conflicts. I think you write men better than men do.
“How do you fit within your book?” is a complicated question. I’m not sure I could answer that myself, and my book is a memoir, a genre in which readers understandably assume that it must be about me. But I never thought of it that way. I always thought of it as being a book about my mother, her life and death, and how her story reflected larger themes I wanted to write about: the crisis of domestic violence, our cultural conceptions of masculinity and murder. From the beginning, I viewed my role as that of an observer, an investigator, a lens that focused on other people and events and themes. That might be because I thought my favorite memoirs—Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City—functioned in a similar way.
I found that writing autobiographically forced me to recognize the difference between the narrative self and the self as character. You have to try to portray a previous version of yourself with some degree of objectivity, acknowledging the ways in which you were flawed and complicit. For me, that was partly a matter of taking a long time to revise. The early drafts included very little of myself as a character, and I think that often left the reader without a guide or anchor in the story. I was lucky to have a tremendous editor who guided me toward revealing more of who this past version of me really was.
Speaking of time and revision, I did a double-take when you said a story might take you eight or twelve or fifteen months to write. That seems like a long time. It probably explains why these stories feel so expansive, the characters so rich and complex, the structures so layered, the worlds you’re describing so vivid and lush.
I’m curious especially about that last part. Like the characters, the settings in The UnAmericans are so diverse and disparate, and yet they all feel recognizable, even to a reader like me, who hasn’t been to most of the places you’re portraying: Kiev, Israel, even Maine. I know you’ve traveled to those places, and spent significant amounts of time in some of them, and yet you avoid the common pitfall of writing like a tourist, where everything’s happening out front of a famous monument or in some charming sidewalk cafe. You write these places from the points of view of longtime—in some cases, lifelong—residents. That seems so daring to me, and you pulled it off so beautifully. I guess my question here, as dumb as it sounds, is how do you do that? Were you taking obsessive notes while you were there? Did you use photographs and maps, like I often do to remember details of a setting, or were you relying on memory? Did you draft the stories while visiting these places, or did you need (as many writers do) to leave them in order to write about them?
MA: I’d be lying if I said that any part of writing is easy for me, but I have always found that setting comes more naturally to me than, say, writing action scenes. Partly that’s because setting feels so ingrained in character—we’re obviously all shaped by where we’re from, and my characters are all either trying to escape their mother countries, or desperately trying to return to them. I think the other reason is that the places I depict are pretty central to my life. Many of the stories were inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I come from a big family of storytellers, and I grew up surrounded by tales of tapped lines and nightly visits from the FBI. Because I’d been trying to reimagine that time for so much of my life, writing about McCarthy-era America felt infinitely easier than writing about modern-day America.
In terms of the Eastern Europe stories, it’s a part of the world that’s always fascinated me. My family’s originally from there, I’ve traveled there a lot, and even as a kid it was the Russian writers I loved most. With the Israel stories, I’ve spent my entire 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, 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, an observer—and so even writing about it now, I’m always aware that I’m staring through the glass.
As a fiction writer, all I need is a laptop, and when I’m not teaching I travel as much as I can, applying for every research grant and overseas gig I hear of, then trying to extend those trips as far as the stipends will go. I love to travel alone. There’s something so incredible about being completely by myself with my stories—in a country where my cell phone doesn’t work and I don’t have a single friend or relative. It’s like being in this crazy suspended space where no one knows where you are or what you’re doing. If I’m working on a new story while traveling, I won’t take notes or rely on maps or anything—if I go off in search of certain facts or details while writing an early draft, the story will buckle under the weight of the research. But after the book was close to done, I did find a couple research trips incredibly useful, in particular a writer-in-residence gig in Lithuania, and a recent trip to Berlin, where I spent time at the Stasi Museum.
It’s definitely easier for me to write about a place once I’ve left it, and when reading Son of a Gun, I kept thinking that, in many ways, you didn’t have that option. If I’m remembering correctly, you wrote the earliest draft of the memoir while still living in San Francisco, and so I imagine that the San Francisco scenes in the book were written close to them actually happening in real-time. Is that true—and if so, how did you manage to achieve such incredible perspective and insight in those scenes? I’m really curious how that worked for you—in many ways your book feels like a quest narrative, and yet since you sold the book on a proposal and were on a deadline to complete it, were there any parts you essentially had to write as you were experiencing them? And if so, what was that like? I was completely in awe of how, throughout the memoir, you balance scene and interiority, and I’m wondering if that level of reflection came right away, or later down the road when revising. Along the same lines, what was it like to go off on a quest to learn about your mother—but on a deadline?
MA: It’s interesting that you asked me about character, since it as something I kept thinking about when reading your memoir. You said earlier that this is a book about your mother, and it also seems in many ways to be a book about you—and somewhere in there, Wyatt Earp sneaks in as a character as well. I absolutely loved those parts in the book. Beyond the fact that he’s associated with guns and with Tombstone, what was it about him that inspired you to focus on him? And to answer your question about my own male characters, it was something I was keenly aware of when writing the collection—it was really important to me to have an equal balance between female and male narrators (as well as young and old, American, Israeli and European). In an earlier version of the book, half of the stories were narrated by women, half by men. But I was really struggling with the last story in the book, “Retrospective” (which, coincidentally, was also the last one I wrote). An earlier draft was narrated by Mira, the wife in the story—but I kept getting blocked. It was like I couldn’t see around the situation when writing from her perspective. It was only when I decided to start with a more omniscient point of view and then zoom into the husband’s mindset that the story cracked open for me. Not to mention that it felt infinitely fresher and more interesting to write about a pregnant woman walking out on her husband, rather than a husband walking out on his pregnant wife.
Working on that story made me think a lot about the distinction between a narrator and a central character. At my book’s heart, so many of the prominent characters are youngish women. But I find that I’m able to get closer to the material if I look at everything from a side angle, like understanding some of the women in my book through their husbands and fathers (and vise versa, with my female narrators). Which leads me to another question for you about character: one of the things I admire most about your writing is that you imbue your settings with all of the narrative characteristics most writers only ascribe to people. I’ve never been to Tombstone, but it completely came alive to me. And yet when I looked back at some of the descriptions that resonated with me most, I noticed how spare and poetically compressed the language was. Your ability to bring such emotion and image to a place in so few words blew me away. Was that something you were conscious of—making the language even sparer when writing more emotionally charged scenes? Or did it just come naturally?
JS: I wouldn’t say it came naturally. I’ve written in other registers before—and some of my favorite writers, like McCarthy and Nabokov, are ornate and lyrical—but the setting itself defined the language of my book. The physical and social and political environment of rural Arizona that doesn’t humor grandiosity or ornament. I completely agree that we’re shaped by the places we’re from, and that tension between needing to escape them and always carrying them with us, wanting to return. I’ve always felt that way about Tombstone, and, in a larger sense, Arizona, the Southwest, the real and mythic West. You mention reading the Russians as a kid; for me, it was Westerns.
I was living in San Francisco when I started the book, and I think that made it easier to write the first section, which narrates the three months after my mother’s death in 2001. The physical distance of living far away helped me recreate that time and place, because I didn’t have the present-day Arizona to cloud my recollection. But I knew I’d have to go back to Arizona for the second part, which occurs in real time in 2009, as I’m reconstructing the story of my mother’s life. For that section, I felt like I shifted from being a memoirist—using memory as my primary source—to a reporter, using observations and documents and interviews. In some ways, it sounds similar to the experience you’re describing of writing in another country: I spent three months in a rented guesthouse in Tucson, away from my apartment and friends and job in San Francisco, barely talking to anyone except for my former stepdads and homicide detectives. I was also working on a deadline, as you mentioned. That was both the most stressful thing I’ve ever dealt with, and ultimately a boon to the book: I think it lent a sense of urgency to the writing process that shows up in the pacing.
Your use of history in The UnAmericans really fascinated me. The characters are all affected, and in some cases defined, by how they react to historical events: wars and oppression, McCarthyism, the decline of journalism. You asked about the Earp story in my book, which functioned for me in a similar way: as a history that continues to shape a place and define the people and ideas within it. But the historical contexts in your stories are larger and more political. It’s yet another aspect of your book that strikes me as ambitious. It’s hard enough to write as well as you do about the personal and interpersonal conflicts these characters face: love triangles, parent/child relationships, financial and career obstacles. It seems rare that a story collection, which has to create so many different worlds and characters, pays such careful attention to the larger scope of history as well.
Which brings me to a question I had about form. Most of these stories are relatively long—they average roughly thirty pages—and yet I never wanted them to end. I mentioned the complex characters and vivid settings; it seems as if your appreciation of history also contributes to that larger scope. I kept hoping characters would return in other stories, but you’ve written eight long unlinked stories, each of which feels as full and resonant as a novel. How did you know they weren’t novels? What about the short story form appealed to you? And, since so many novels originate as stories, have you considered whether you might one day return to any of these stories in a longer form? Are you working on a novel? Do you plan to?
MA: When I first started writing, most of the models I read were these very lean and tightly controlled stories. So those were the types of stories I tried to write—short and scene-based—even though they went against what came naturally to me. The truth is that I love backstory, I love the moment when I’m reading a story and there’s a space break after a scene and I suddenly get to learn all the dirt on the characters. It was only when I began to read longer stories—Deborah Eisenberg, Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones and Edith Pearlman are a few of the writers I love most—that I understood what I really wanted to attempt in a story. One of the things I admire about longer stories is the way writers can work with dead time and slower, more idle moments—not only can they feel novelistic in scope, they feel lived-in; the unhurried pacing oftentimes makes the endings even more shocking and resonant for me.
The only way I know how to write a story is to over-write, over-research, and then spend months trying to chisel everything down until I begin to see the story’s true shape. Yet even though they’re long, I always knew they were supposed to be stories, rather the beginnings of novels. But I had no idea how all the stories would connect thematically. I was more than halfway into the book when I realized my stories all explored, in some way, 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?
I am working on a novel now, called The After Party. It’s set in Israel, Eastern Europe and the U.S. right after the fall of communism during an important election in Israel, and it looks at how years of living under surveillance influences people in the most private ways. I really wanted to do something different from the stories, and in terms of structure and point of view it definitely is, and it’s more overtly about politics than my collection—but even as I write this I can see the overlapping themes in both books. Sometimes I wonder if writers have just a few obsessions hardwired into them that they spend their lives trying to understand. If I remember correctly, you’re working on a novel now, too, right? What’s the transition been like from nonfiction to fiction? Since you started out studying and writing fiction, is it comforting to be back within that realm, or do you feel, after being intensely focused on nonfiction for so many years, that you have to learn how to write fiction all over again?
There are so many memorable scenes in your book, and one that stood out in particular for me was the day you went to a Parents of Murdered Children meeting, where everyone arrived with a photo of their lost loved one for a scrapbooking exercise. It’s such a heartbreaking moment, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way you describe it: “We all do this everyday: focus on a series of small and meaningless tasks to pass the time, try to preserve our memories without wallowing in grief, and hope our lives will add up to some kind of tribute. Of course we’re good at scrapbooking. Scraps are all we have.”
That scene is incredible. It’s so sparely and gorgeously written, and so completely controlled—and most of all it astounds me that you’ve made such a specific loss feel so universal. I’m curious whether certain themes or topics seem to be hardwired into you, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction. And what about setting? You talked about that friction between needing to escape where you’re from and always wanting to return. Do you feel that the Southwest is so ingrained in you, and is so essential to the stories you want to tell, that you can’t imagine writing about another place?
JS: I think the reading experience reflects your writing experience. At first, the stories in The UnAmericans don’t seem linked in the ways we traditionally expect: they don’t share a common setting, and characters don’t reappear. But over the course of the book, we see each character living out a variation on that theme, the consequences of idealism and prices they pay for their convictions. It creates this resonance between stories that, combined with the different characters and settings, makes the book feel both cohesive and complex. It’s one of those rare books I finished and immediately wanted to read again.
I absolutely believe that writers have obsessions hardwired into them. I’ve seen that as a reader with the writers I’ve read most—I think of Didion’s obsession with a sort of object and spatial memory, how a sweater can evoke the year of her life during which it was purchased, how she defines those eras largely by the houses she lived in—and the longer we write, the more I think they become clear to us as writers. I’m also working on a novel now, and I know exactly what you mean: I can already see the ways in which it intersects with the themes of previous work. For me, I think it’s place, both literal and figurative—the West and the class divide are probably always going to be preoccupations of my work, for better or worse. The novel I’m writing now is almost diametrically different from my memoir—it’s set in Albuquerque, is more comic in tone, and revolves around a cast of characters who work at a resort, all of whom are very different from me—but it still fixates on those central themes.
Returning from memoir to fiction has been a relief, in some ways. I’m glad to leave behind the responsibility and consequences of representing real people on the page. But it’s been surprisingly difficult having to figure out what happens. Your book has helped me with that; we didn’t discuss plot much, but it’s another of your many strengths. There are so many moments in The UnAmericans that linger with me weeks after reading it—a foreigner locked out of his hotel room wandering Kiev, a young man driving recklessly through a crowded city to save his brother, a woman and an orphaned girl sitting in a treetop—moments that felt so perfectly lifelike, surprising and inevitable, uncannily real.
It’s a wonderful book. Thanks so much for having this conversation with me, Molly. I’m going to tell everyone I know about The UnAmericans, and I can’t wait to read your novel.
Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.