Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter
So far this week:
- Abigail Green brought our attention to an early twentieth century history book for British children: Our Island Story
- Jonathan B. Krasner revealed that one of his new projects focuses on the evolution of the term Tikkun Olam since World War II
- James Loeffler listens to pulsing electronic dance music while he writes
Today we hear from Ruth Franklin, a former Network author and Visiting Scribe blogger (read her posts here). Ruth Franklin's work, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, was deemed "an important, insightful, and perceptive book about Holocaust memoirs" by the Rohr Judges.
What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?
I love to do research—I could bury myself in the library for weeks on end, following tangents and chasing down obscure footnotes. But all too often I wind up with gargantuan notes files that can make it hard to see the bigger picture. The greatest challenge for me is knowing when to stop researching and start writing.
What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?
Many contemporary literary journalists and critics inspire me: my editor, Leon Wieseltier, as well as James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn, Janet Malcolm, Cynthia Ozick … the list is long. Looking back, Alfred Kazin is one of my models: he goes deeply into the books he writes about, but also draws out their connections to the real world we live in—and always with great clarity of style.
Who is your intended audience?
I hope my book reaches not only people who are interested in Holocaust literature, but anyone who is concerned about how catastrophe can be represented in art—and how faithful such representations must be to the facts of history. The false-memoir boom over the last decade, from Binjamin Wilkomirski to James Frey, brought this peculiar form of literary crime to the front pages. But the question of how to draw the contours of truth in fiction, from an artistic standpoint as well as an ethical one, has been around since the novel form was invented, and it is far from clear-cut. My book is addressed to anyone who has ever read a novel and wondered how much was based in reality—and whether it matters.
Are you working on anything new right now?
I’m writing a biography of Shirley Jackson, the author of the short story “The Lottery” and the novel The Haunting of Hill House, among many other works. Jackson, one of the defining writers of the midcentury, was also a housewife and mother, and much of her fiction explores the tensions of this dual role. My book is centered around Jackson’s marriage to the seminal Jewish literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman and the personal and social complexities of their union. Many scholars believe that “The Lottery” was inspired by the anti-Semitism that the couple experienced after moving to an insular New England town. Jackson devoted much of her work to the crueler aspects of human nature, particularly religious and racial prejudice.
What are you reading now?
I’ve been immersing myself in books about Gertrude Stein for an event I just did with the scholar Barbara Will at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Will’s new book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, tells the story of a little-known moment in Stein’s career when she actively promoted the Vichy regime and even translated some of Pétain’s speeches into English. It raises some very interesting questions about what exactly it means to be a collaborator and why some of the twentieth century’s greatest writers also happened to be fascists.
When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, when I would bang out stories on my grandfather’s electric typewriter. But for a long time I thought I would be an editor instead. It wasn’t until I arrived at The New Republic and was first asked to write book reviews that it seriously occurred to me that I could do this for a living.
What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?
When I’ve written something that is personally meaningful and it inspires other people to think about the subject in a new way, I feel successful.
I feel superstitious about admitting this, but I have a lucky sweater that I wear on particularly challenging days. It’s a big, ratty, unraveling, supremely comfortable gray cardigan that I’ve owned for years. I never wear it out of the house.
What do you want readers to get out of your book?
I hope readers will come away from my book with a new appreciation for the value of fiction—all forms of art, really—as a way of representing catastrophe. As far back as humans can remember, we have always used art to make sense of the world around us. But when it comes to the Holocaust, art has been stigmatized as detrimental to collective memory. My book seeks to restore literature to its proper place, arguing that to get at the truth, sometimes you have to use your imagination.
Ruth Franklin, a literary critic and a senior editor at The New Republic, is nominated for her first book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. Her writing also appears in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.
Photo by Curtis Martin