The ProsenPeople

Interview: Anna Solomon

Thursday, September 22, 2016 | Permalink

with Sophie Siegel

Image: Beowulf Sheehan

Anna Solomon’s latest novel, Leaving Lucy Pear, delves into relations between rich and poor, Jewish and Irish in Prohibition-era New England, around the story of a baby abandoned in a pear orchard. Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to discuss her current and previous books this summer.

Sophie Siegal: Your first novel The Little Bride was very successful, however, its content is very different from that of Leaving Lucy Pear. How did you come to think of the idea behind each novel, and how did your writing process differ between the two books?

Anna Solomon: I generally write pretty linearly and work my way to the end. The biggest difference between these two books is that the point of view for The Little Bride is a very close third-person, somewhat claustrophobic, which fits the subject matter of the book. In Leaving Lucy Pear I jumped to an omniscient narrator who can really go anywhere she wants, and kind of plays God. That was a great joy and also a challenge and probably the big leap that I made in the book, which required a lot of revision and also a lot of studying of other texts.

Each novel started in somewhat different ways. For The Little Bride, my ideas started to form when I was on this website on Jewish woman pioneers, which that set me off on this path. For Leaving Lucy Pear, it was also a little piece of history, which I came across in a book called The Saga of Cape Ann. Cape Ann is the place where I grew up, north of Boston, and the book is about a wealthy Bostonian summering on Kaden and suffering from a nervous disorder. The protagonist is aggravated by a screeching whistle buoy that had been put in to keep fisherman and sailors from crashing into shore, and she does what I guess any well-connected person would do: she called the Navy and demanded they take out the whistle buoy, which they did, and by the next summer when she was feeling much better. But I was left with a question of what happens when the whistle buoy is out there, and what are the consequences for which this woman is responsible?

SS: The cover of the novel is beautiful; I hear there is a great story behind it…

AS: I feel so lucky for the cover. It is taken from a painting by a British artist named Laura Knight, who was quite controversial in her time. She was one of the first, if not the first, female painter to make a painting of herself that shows herself painting a nude model. This was a real challenge to restrictions on women painters at the time—they were supposed to work from casts, not nudes—and while it brought Knight a lot of flak it also made her a pioneer in the broader movement for women's rights. I was really excited that the artist who had made the painting ended up on the cover because her story felt really in-tune with the women in my book—and myself, as well: Knight was pushing the boundaries of what a woman painter could do in her time.

Initially I saw only the front cover for the book, and it took me a while to notice that there were these boots lying on the rocks. I became fascinated with whose boots they were; there was this mystery to the image that made me even more in love with it. When they finally sent me the whole jacket and it wraps around to the book, you can actually see the woman who belongs to those boots on the back cover, looking out at the viewer. The image just grew and grew for me in terms of its meanings and the layers. I feel like the women in the painting are ultimately the same as the main characters of my novel, Bea—and at other times Emma—and Lucy Pear.

SS: The descriptions of the time period are so vivid. What kinds of historical research did you do to begin your writing?

AS: I started in the way that I think a lot of people do, which is a lot of history books and newspapers. I spent a lot of time on the microfilm in my hometown public library, looking back at old issues of the Boston Daily Times, looking at advertising, photographs, and still film, but I always find that talking with people is the most pleasurable way to get information. I spoke with one woman who had been alive during that time—she has since passed away—who talked about things like how the granite dust felt on her bare feet as she walked through the woods. I talked to someone else who was a grandson of a bootlegger and he remembered his grandfather talking about how they would blast out the walls of the courts to make these panes where they would hide all the booze.

SS: Each character in the novel faces distinct forms of gender oppression and societal expectations that affect their lives. As a Jewish woman, mother, and daughter, how do you deal with society’s expectations of you? Do you see parts of yourself in each character, and which character do you identify with most?

AS: I do see parts of myself in each character—the Jewish ones and the non-Jewish ones: Bea grew up in this fiercely assimilationist family, as my own mother did; Emma, who has more children than she probably wants; and even Susannah Stanton, who is unable to have children. What drives each of these women is an exaggeration of feelings that I have had myself, feelings I have had at times of being overwhelmed in the transition to motherhood and my selfhood being threatened, and feelings of fear that I wasn’t going to be able to have children.

One of the biggest challenges of becoming a mother, and a Jewish mother now, is that in some ways we have more choices than we have ever had. I could go and do anything, which doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be hard, but the options are there for me and yet… I grew up in this very feminist family; I went to a very feminist camp; I am teaching my children, both my boy and my girl, to be feminists, while at the same time I have made a marriage in which I am the one who does all of the menu-making and the cooking. What I observe in the world around me is that women constantly feel judged by somebody for the way they are balancing their work, parenting, and partnerships, and often that person is themselves. In my fiction, I seek to observe and to empathize in a way that allows my readers to not only understand the choices my characters make but respect them for those choices.

SS: Each of the characters faces life-altering decisions—most significantly abandoning one’s child, and deciding to raise an orphan as one’s own. Can you tell me any difficult decisions that you had to make as a writer while writing Leaving Lucy Pear? What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

AS: In earlier versions of the novel, I had even points of view I really wanted to dive into, including those of the crazy woman who lives up the hill from the Murphy family, and Caleb Stanton. I had so many pages of scenes that I loved and my readers also said they loved, but did not belong there. I agree with them, but those moments are hard and making that final decision and saying goodbye are hard, even when it is the right one.

My advice is that you have to keep reading and reading and reading, even as you start to write. It’s important to really see yourself as a student of the books that you read, without being afraid to stray in terms of form with those books; I wrote a lot of poetry before I ever turned to fiction and it definitely informed the way I hear language and the way I write. The biggest thing is really to work to surround yourself with a community of writers and to do that by forming a writing group where you live or finding writer workshops. The relationships that you make in those places are critical to keeping going and continuing to write through rejection and through drafts that don’t work. Having people cheering you on and people that will read for you is so important.

SS: What can we look forward to next?

AS: I am working on a new book, which I am not really able to talk about yet. It involves the Book of Esther and 1970s feminism and Brooklyn life.

Sophie Siegel is a student at Emory University interested in Holocaust Studies and Film. She worked with the Jewish Book Council as a 2016 summer intern.

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Discover Anna Solomon on Twitter

Tuesday, January 31, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In preparation for our February 21st Twitter Book Club with Anna Solomon you should not only read her book, Little Bride, but you should also start following her on twitter at @SolomonAnna (and I'm just going to assume you already follow us). Here are a few of our favorite recent Anna Solomon tweets (and, by the way, I don't know why it's in Spanish...if you have a solution, email me):


When I Went to Synagogue

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Anna Solomon wrote for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about Jews in the West and a grandmother’s secrets. Her novel, The Little Bride, is now available.

We don't belong to a synagogue. My husband and I have defended this in various ways over the years. We wouldn’t go enough. It costs a lot. We’ll join when our daughter is old enough to go to Hebrew School. But beneath all these justifications – at least for me – there’s a less practical, more spiritual concern: the synagogues we visit don’t feel like home.

I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, part of a small, tightly-knit community of Jews, all of whom went to the only synagogue in town. The synagogue had originally been a church, but to me, as a child, it was perfect. I knew the smell of the wooden pews, the sound of the rabbi singing (there was no cantor), the feel of my tights on the basement rec hall tiles. My mother had been taking me since I was six months old and more than anything else, I felt known and loved there, especially by the older people who ruffled my hair and kissed my cheeks.

There was one man I loved more than all the rest: Maurice, a Sephardic Jew from Egypt who sat with me at services every Saturday morning in the two years leading up to my bat mitzvah. I loved Maurice’s soft voice, his accent, his kind eyes winking at me as we turned the pages of the prayer book together, and the beautiful Sephardic tunes he sang.

A few years ago, the Gloucester synagogue burned to the ground. I felt devastated yet distant – we were living in Brooklyn at the time – and didn’t dare go visit the spot until the rebuilding of a new temple had begun. Finally, this past summer, the new synagogue was completed. It’s about as different as it could be from the old one: modern lines, a soaring roof line, sand-colored bricks that evoke Israel.

In September, I entered the new building for the first time: I was there with my musician friend Clare Burson to perform a literary-musical collaboration based on my first novel, The Little Bride.

The room in which we performed – with high ceilings and white walls – felt somewhat sterile at first. There was a different feel to the place, a different smell, a different quality of light without the old stained glass windows. And then, as people began to arrive, there were different faces. Many of them I knew, but many I didn’t, and more importantly, many people whose faces I longed to see were gone, including Maurice.

These absences hit me hard as I got up to introduce our performance. I tried to say something – “I’m thinking of the people who aren’t here tonight, too” – but I choked up. In the audience, people nodded – many eyes filled with tears. It seemed nothing more needed saying. Clare and I began to play and the room filled with a kind of electricity, coming not only from us but from the audience, too. People held hands, and swayed, and listened with such an intensity they seemed to make their own music.

By the end of the night, I felt comfortable in this new place. But it wasn’t mine anymore. It wasn’t home. And somehow knowing this made me feel free. A couple weeks ago, I took my daughter to a synagogue near where we live now, in Providence, Rhode Island, and the unfamiliar faces, the strangeness, didn’t make me want to run away. I liked the service. I liked the people. I could see how, with a little time, it might become a place where we belong.

Visit Anna Solomon's official website here.

Jews in America's West

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | Permalink

Yesterday, Anna Solomon wrote for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about a grandmother's secrets. Her novel, The Little Bride, is now available.

I still don’t know how the subject of Israel came up. I was at a party, in line at the bar, when the man in front of me turned and said, “You know, I have a solution to that whole problem in the Middle East.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, nor did I know which problem he was referring to, until he gave me a wary look and said, “Are you Jewish?”

“I am,” I said. Clearly this man doesn’t know Jews, I thought.

“I am, too,” said the bartender, “so be careful what you say.”

The man appeared a little abashed, a little excited. Two Jews!

“Well,” he said, “I’ve been listening to all the news about the violence and bombings and everything, and I was hearing something on the radio about how in the Great Plains they’re losing population every day, all the young people are leaving, and I thought: why don’t they just move Israel to the Dakotas?”

The bartender smiled. I smiled. I was in shock. Not just because the proposal was so offensive, or because this man had the gall to share it with us, but because something similar to it had been proposed 130 years ago, by Jews in Odessa. As pogroms intensified, many Eastern European Jews were heading east, to Palestine. But this Odessa group – Am Olam, they called themselves, meaning Eternal People – decided that Jews should head to America’s West, and become farmers. From 1880 to 1920, Jewish agricultural colonies were founded across this country, in Oregon, Louisiana, Colorado and New Jersey – and, yes, in North and South Dakota.

And, I’d written a novel about it.

I mentioned this last part nonchalantly. I didn’t get into politics or history or point out to him his obvious ignorance about “the situation” in Israel. I just took my beer and walked away. But I have to admit: this man got me thinking. What if the Am Olam farmers in America had succeeded? (Most wound up back in cities and towns.) What if there was a veritable Jewish state smack in the middle of our country and Jews there played every role, as we do in Israel? Farmer, mechanic, electrician, plumber, cook, rancher. Imagine. I was reminded of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon – a similarly wild vision, of Jews taking refuge in Alaska. What if such a thing had come to pass in the lower 48? It’s not a proposal, but a re-envisioning, an expansion of my sometimes narrow assumptions about what Jews can be and do and mean in America today. This expansion has led me to question, and search. And guess what I found? There are Jewish kids learning to farm right now, in 2011, at the Jewish Farm School in upstate New York.


Check back tomorrow for Anna Solomon's final post for the Visiting Scribe.

A Grandmother's Secrets

Monday, November 21, 2011 | Permalink

Anna Solomon's debut novel, The Little Bride, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother recently. This is my paternal grandmother, the longest-lived of my four grandparents and the only one I came to know well. Her name was Rose – like so many women of her generation – and the name suited her personality: under her smooth exterior (held in place by corset and garters) there were thorns.

People use a lot of words to describe women like Rose. Hard. Cold. Judgmental. Even unloving. But – and it’s a big but – Rose was a mother, to four children. She has nine grandchildren now, most of us with advanced degrees, thriving in every corner of this country. How do we reconcile what we knew of her with what she gave us?

A couple weeks ago I visited a book group that had read my first novel,
The Little Bride. The women were discussing my protagonist, Minna Losk, a Jewish orphan who travels to America in the 1880s as a mail-order bride. They were talking about how complicated she is – how along with being strong and compassionate she can also be stubborn and selfish. One woman said she forgave Minna all of it, because of what she’d been through. “She’s a survivor," she said, and the other women nodded. “She reminds me of my grandmother,” the woman went on. “And my grandmother was not a nice woman.”

Immediately, others began to speak.

“My grandmother wasn’t nice, either.”

“Mine was very cold.”

“I never saw my grandmother smile.”

The table erupted in laughter. Then the women began talking about their grandmothers, and why they thought they’d been the way they were. They wondered about stories they’d heard – of
immigration, or abuse, or miscarriages. And they wondered about stories that might have been kept a secret.

As they talked, I started wondering about Rose. Most of her stories had been about my grandfather’s history, or about her children. She hadn’t often talked about herself. What was her story, not the public version but the private one? What were her secrets? How had she become the woman I knew?

That conversation opened up a new door for me in my relationship with my grandmother. Fiction can do this, I think – it can lead us, however circuitously, to new compassion: for difficult characters, yes, but also for the people in our own lives. I feel closer, suddenly, to my Grandma Rose. I can hear her scolding me – “But I’m not even alive.” But I don’t think that matters one bit.

Anna Solomon's debut novel, The Little Bride, is now available. Read more about Anna on her website and find discussion questions for your book club here.