The ProsenPeople

A Tale of Two Cities: From London to New York

Wednesday, May 29, 2013 | Permalink
We prompted this year's Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about "how they came to write their book." Over the past several weeks, we shared their responses:

Today, Francesca Segal, the winner of this year's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, discusses how she came to write her award-winning novel The Innocents (Voice).

With the twentieth century vivid in our collective memory, it is perhaps unsurprising that we in the European Jewish communities can be more cautious about drawing attention to ourselves. And so for a Jewish writer, to come from that climate to this one is an elixir. To breathe the air in New York is instantly to become braver, and once it is deep in your lungs, it inoculates for life against that old, old fear. To write honestly— to write social satire, even—does not arm our enemies against us, it merely says the obvious: that in our struggles and strengths we are human, just like everybody else. The UK’s Jewish cultural scene is burgeoning, too—our first ever JCC will open soon, and Jewish Book Week has become a hugely impressive landmark in literary London. But there’s still a lot of catching up to do. I am a British-American hybrid and until recently I believed that I was equally familiar with Jewish life on both sides of the Atlantic, but after the publication of my first novel, The Innocents, I began to understand that I had completely underestimated one extraordinary facet of Jewish-American life—that here there is a broad, deep support for and an appreciation of contemporary Jewish fiction. It is both humbling and inspiring, and the very existence of the Jewish Book Council is a testament to its impressive scale. Everywhere you look, there’s dialogue. There’s disagreement. There’s vibrancy. Like Judaism itself, Jewish literary life is a very broad tent. Texts; stories; debating our conflicting narratives; these are the ways in which the Jews have always asked our questions, how we’ve always argued, how we’ve solved our problems, but it is nonetheless an art that needs nurturing—and with the support of unique prizes like the Sami Rohr Prize it is nurtured in America, and it is nurtured openly. I do not take that for granted. 

But in my late twenties, New York offered me something else that I found equally seductive. It offered anonymity, a draw with which my native London simply couldn’t compete. I left behind a warm, loving, supportive, and often somewhat claustrophobic community. Jewish life in England offers a great deal, but I needed to breathe. I needed perspective. I needed to live in a city, for a while, in which I didn’t bump into someone who knew me, or a member of my family, every time I left the house to buy a pint of milk. And I needed space from north-west London in order to be able to write freely about north-west London. 

And so it is perhaps no surprise that The Innocents was written during a period in which I was living in America, though it is, to its core, a very English novel. Set in the Jewish suburbs of contemporary north-west London, it explores the pressures and the expectations of life within that community. Adam Newman is newly engaged to Rachel Gilbert, who has been his girlfriend for more than a decade. Their lives and their families are entirely intertwined. Adam works for Rachel’s father, and has been going to the soccer with him since he was a teenager. And everything is easy and safe and settled and stable until Rachel’s cousin, Ellie, moves back to London from New York. If Rachel represents the values and climate of north-west London, Ellie embodies its antithesis—she is independent, promiscuous, vulnerable, palpably lonely, and Adam finds her deeply unsettling. She challenges him—but he also begins to understand the allure of everything she represents. She offers him a way out of the strictures, the judgment, and the increasing suffocation of everything he’d never thought to question. 

It will not take the reader long to anticipate an impossible love triangle; beyond that, perhaps also to recognize that I have used the structure of Edith Wharton’s glorious, vicious, nostalgic novel The Age of Innocence as the foundation on which to build my own. It offered the perfect matrix on which to build a loving, honest, nuanced, and most importantly clear-eyed portrait of a world—a very specific world that I know inside-out, but which I was also certain would represent many others. With all its strengths, with all its foibles and weaknesses and rich, unexpected comedy, I believe the community in this novel could be almost any community, anywhere in the twenty-first century Diaspora. Anywhere there are Jewish parents trying to inculcate their children with Jewish values there will be Jewish sons struggling to live up to them; anywhere there is a Jewish life enfolded within a wider, secular city, there will be young people struggling to navigate a path between the security within, and the freedom without. Anywhere families build life-long friendships, there will be young adults who chafe against the restraints that that imposes, unable to define or redefine themselves before the knowing eyes of people who first met them in diapers. I wanted to write a novel that would resonate beyond the confines of the world that it depicts, and The Innocents was the result.

Francesca Segal was born in London in 1980. Brought up between the UK and America, she studied at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, before becoming a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in Granta, Newsweek, theGuardian, the Financial Times, and Vogue UK and US, amongst many others. She has been a features writer atTatler, and for three years wrote the Debut Fiction column in the Observer.

2013 Winner of Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

Tuesday, April 09, 2013 | Permalink

Francesca Segal, author of The Innocents, just won the 2013 $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Ben Lerner, author of Leaving the Atocha Station, was awarded the $25,000 Choice Award. Read more here and click on their images below to read about each finalist:

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Francesca Segal

Wednesday, April 03, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Last week, Ben Lerner expressed his desire for readers to be active participants in the construction of what a poem or novel means. Today we hear from Sami Rohr Prize finalist Francesca Segal, author of the 2012 National Jewish Book Award winning novel The Innocents. The National Jewish Book Award judges wrote:

Edith Wharton’s novels were at once penetrating sociology and bestselling stories, and so it’s no accident that Francesca Segal’s The Innocents, modeled on Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, can dissect a community’s behaviors and beliefs nimbly while telling a charming page-turning tale. Set among traditional but not exactly Orthodox Jewish Londoners, and peppered with precise details of the way some of us live now, the novel sets up a romantic triangle—a good girl, a good boy who wants to be bad, and a "bad"girl, tinged with scandal—demonstrating that the old tension between community and individual that engendered modern Jewish literature over a century ago is still alive and well, at least in certain neighborhoods. What power do our communities possess to keep the young in the fold, and at what price do they wield it? Segal manages to expose a signal truth of contemporary Jewish life with warmth and wit.

Below, Francesca Segal writes about her need for peace and quiet and her desire to keep learning:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

The lack of immediate feedback can be hard – one has to sit on the impulse to show one’s work too early. It’s vital to have the space and quiet in order to be creative, and I’m a firm believer in finishing a complete first draft before letting anyone else near it, but it can be hard if you need a little reassurance.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Reading fiction. There are so many writers who have altered my perspective, subtle shifts that have stayed with me, and to whom I owe whatever wisdom I possess.

Who is your intended audience?

I don’t write with an audience in mind – if I allowed myself to imagine that anyone would read what I write, I would be too self-conscious to produce anything. I have to believe it will go no further than my own desk, and with that comes a little liberation.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes, I’m at the beginning of the next novel. It’s exciting and (extremely) nerve-wracking.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjui, and The Free World by David Bezmozgis. I like to have a few on the go at once.

Top 5 Favorite Books

This is almost impossible so I've stayed relatively contemporary but –

When did you decide to be a writer?

I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything else.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

All I’ve ever wanted is the opportunity to keep writing, to keep learning, to keep getting better. Success for me is the chance to publish my second book, and then hopefully a third and forth. It’s such an unstable job –my definition of success is to earn the trust of a readership in the hopes that they will stay with you.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

All I really need is peace and quiet – although that’s sometimes quite a tall order. I used to write in cafes when I needed to get out of my apartment, until I read a wonderful interview with Etgar Keret, who I admire hugely, saying that he thinks we become more self-conscious in social spaces and that it makes writers more self-conscious in their prose. I believe that. So now I just battle the cabin fever at home. That, and a great deal of caffeine.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I hope that it prompts readers to ask questions – about community, about family, about marriage. And I don’t think it’s trivializing to say that books should give pleasure, so I do hope that readers enjoy the novel, and that it feels emotionally honest.

Francesca Segal was born in London in 1980. Brought up between the UK and America, she studied at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, before becoming a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in Granta, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Financial Times, and Vogue UK and US, amongst many others. She has been a features writer at Tatler, and for three years wrote the Debut Fiction column in the Observer.

Dating and Doctors

Friday, July 13, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Francesca Segal wrote about recasting a classic novel and about being asked the question "Who are your characters REALLY?". She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It was several years ago when my mother went for a flu shot to our family doctor, an avuncular, bearded South African whose medical practice comfortably services at least half of north-west London’s Jewry. It is a position that requires front-line heroism when one considers the demographic; the armchair physicians and proxy-hypochondriacs and tirelessly frantic Jewish mothers. His desk is a confusion of stuffed animals and rubber chew toys, brightly coloured and easily disinfected, the armoury of the family practitioner. Dr Winter oversaw the removal of almost half the tonsils in my junior school classroom, and has attended to the food poisonings and holiday vaccinations and slipped discs of most of our synagogue. My family has been going to him since 1985. And so, a flu shot for Mrs Segal. But the doctor was conscious of a far more serious threat to her well-being.

‘Nu?’ he demanded, settling back for a chat. ‘Why isn’t she married?’

At the time I was twenty-seven.

‘Never mind, I have someone. Nice boy. Older. Westminster and Oxford, like Francesca. He’ll call her. Leave it with me.’

And so my mother left, inoculated against both flu and, it was hoped, social disgrace, clutching the prescription for a son-in-law.


A lot about north-west London is embodied in that anecdote. No one involved is remotely religious. My parents, unlike many of the neighbours, couldn’t have cared less than I hadn’t married young; they were proud I was doing well at work, and only gave my romantic status a moment’s anxiety when someone else drew their attention to it. But the community here is small and tightly-knit and has remained socially conservative, even as religious practice falls away in favour of tradition. Everyone knows everyone, and can probably name the whereabouts of all kindergarten classmates. There are simply not enough of us to render the shidduch defunct; that charming man you met at a dinner party is, statistically, unlikely to be in the tribe. It’s a lovely place to grow up, but in early adulthood in particular, the warmth can border on claustrophobia.

Despite the Crossing Delancey parochialism of our introduction, I actually spent six rather tempestuous months with the doctor’s prescribed gentleman. He was handsome, and it therefore took a little while to realise that he was also, as the endlessly applicable saying goes, Not That Into Me. But if nothing else, the whole episode illustrated the strength and vigour of the north-west London grapevine, nourished as it is by the fertile soil of local gossip, because less than a week after we broke up, Dr Winter was on the phone to my mother.

‘Did it work?’ he demanded. This was mere feint; fifteen patients that morning had no doubt already told him that it hadn’t. ‘No? Never mind, I have a backup.’

This time, valiantly, my mother tried to fend him off. Dr Winter would not accept her refusal. But I must thank him because it was the backup, in many ways, who defined my fate.

Dr Winter has called and given me your number. I am very flattered,’ read his email, as if I had been declaiming sonnets beneath his window when, in fact, this email was the first I’d heard of him, ‘but I’m sorry to tell you that I have just started seeing someone. If it doesn’t work out with her then I will certainly get in touch in the future. PS. Did you go to King Alfred’s School? I think my sister knows you.

It was shortly after that email (which I did not answer, lest you were concerned) that I decided to move to New York. And it was shortly after moving to New York – safely buffered from home by the Atlantic – that I decided to write a novel set back home. North-west London and I have made up now, and these days I spend most of my time there. But two years away afforded me a fantastic perspective – and the opportunity to remember all its strengths, as well as to smile at its foibles with fondness.

Visit Francesca Segal's official website here and join JBC on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Francesca.

Who Are Your Characters REALLY?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012 | Permalink

On Monday, Francesca Segal wrote about recasting a classic novel. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It’s amazing how many North Londoners have taken me aside in a furtive, conspiratorial kind of manner, in order to ask me for the truth. ‘Go on,’ a new acquaintance might urge, within moments of our meeting, ‘you can tell me. Who is it based on? Who are they really? I won’t tell anyone.’ Many people share the conviction that fiction must draw its cast members, if not its story lines, from the writer’s own life, and that conviction seems to be redoubled when the fiction in question takes place in a specific, familiar world. I grew up in Golders Green, a small Jewish suburb in North London, and my novel The Innocents is set nearby, in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Perhaps it was therefore inevitable.

The truth, however, is less scandalous. My fiction is just that – fiction – as are my characters. I have lived in north-west London for almost my whole life, during which I have had more than three decades to make a fond, if sometimes exasperated study of its nuances, its climate, its residents. North London and I are old, old friends. And so Adam and Rachel are truly based on no one in particular, because each is based on a hundred people – just as they are formed, like any character in fiction, from who-knows-what preoccupations dredged from the murky bottom of my psyche. Rather than simply to create portraits of people one knows in real life, the fantastic joy and liberation of writing is to spend time in the company of the new people one has invented, and to discover what will happen to them.

Visit Francesca Segal's official website here and join JBC on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Francesca.

A Conversation with Francesca Segal

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Jaclyn Trop

First-time author Francesca Segal recreated one of the twentieth century canon’s gems, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, to apply the same themes of society, class, love, and family to modern London. Lawyer Adam Newman has always played by the rules and is preparing to marry his childhood sweetheart, Rachel Gilbert, when her beautiful, reckless cousin, Ellie Schneider, arrives from America. Adam must choose between following the path carved for him or following his heart.

Jaclyn Trop: Adam is confronted with a choice throughout the novel, but it seems as though the decision is ultimately made for him. What message are you imparting about marriage, relationships, and society?
Fransesca Segal: I would hate to be too prescriptive about interpretation – and I’ve been fascinated by the reactions I’ve had so far. Most readers feel very strongly about Adam’s choice, but they certainly don’t all agree with one another.

I don’t think I set out to impart a message, so much as to ask certain questions. What constitutes a good marriage? And a good life? Romantic lore suggests that one chooses a life partner as an individual, in a vacuum – that one person alone is the source of all happiness, regardless of context or circumstance. At the other end is absolute pragmatism, but between those two is a vast and complex landscape. One doesn’t, in reality, live in a vacuum, and everyone brings a constellation of factors into a marriage - their family, their culture; their interests, their financial circumstances, their ambitions, and it seems strange to suggest that none of those things contributes to one’s overall compatibility and happiness. Ellie versus Rachel, alone, in isolation? That is an altered playing field. But the lives that each woman offers – those are very different.

JT: Ellie tells Adam, ‘I swear, I knew you, I saw who you were, that very first time I met you’ when she was a child. It is clear why Adam is intrigued by Ellie, the melancholy model, but what attracts Ellie to Adam?
FS: I suspect it is a combination of factors, including, initially, an envy of anything that Rachel has. Ellie’s perception is that Rachel has everything and her life is perfect, and then into it comes another man to protect and take care of her. Initially I think that might contribute. And then they get to know one another, and both have their preconceptions of the other challenged.

Read the full interview here.

Photo Credit: Alicia Savage

Recasting a Classic

Monday, July 09, 2012 | Permalink

Francesca Segal's debut novel The Innocents is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I would never have set out to recast a classic, Pulitzer-winning American novel – it seemed the height of chutzpah. But once the idea took up residence in my mind it proved impossible to dislodge. I was living in New York when I read it – far away from the Jewish community in north-west London in which I have lived for most of my life. And, reading a novel set in 1870’s haute New York society, I felt such an unexpected, urgent, vivid sense of recognition that I could no longer imagine writing another word until I had written this. The trappings were different but the social concerns, the pressures, the closeness and longevity of friendships, the judgement, the parochialism, and the paramount importance of What Everybody Thinks – it was just the same. Golden Age New York to Golders Green. The central dilemmas remain essential and unresolved.

Wharton’s novel provided a vehicle; a means to explore certain questions that intrigued me. What is it that makes a good marriage? Is it friendship and common interest, or is it passion? Is romantic love the cornerstone of a happy life? Are there other loves – parental, familial, communal – that can be equally fulfilling, or do they remain hollow without a driving passion for one soul beside you? I have heard both cases put with eloquence and conviction, and I wanted to examine these, amongst other ideas. I would never presume to tell a reader how to interpret my novel – I adore the conflicting emails I’ve had from readers – equally impassioned messages of either joy or outrage on discovering the choice that Adam ultimately makes between Rachel and Ellie; between safety and freedom; between family and passion.

Visit Francesca Segal's official website here and join JBC on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Francesca.

JBC Bookshelf: Translations and Boundaries

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

While not all of this month's offerings are translations, there are quite a few in this round's mix, which makes JBCers particularly happy. We're happy both because fine international titles are making their way into the American literary market, and also because they help reflect the broader Jewish experience and keep lines of communication open between Jews worldwide.

Speaking of translations, if you're not familiar with Three Percent's Best Translated Book Awards, you should be. This year's shortlist includes Moacyr Scliar's Kafka's Leopards (translator: Thomas O. Beebee) and the 2010 winning title was Gail Hareven's The Confessions of Noa Weber (translator: Dalya Bilu). Two other great resources for translated titles are Dalkey Archive Press's Hebrew Literature series, which we feature on our website here, and Melville House's translations, which includes titles by Imre Kertész, Sholem Aleichem, and Joshua Sobol. Bonus: Check out Melville House's Sholem Aleichem bobbleheads. Finally, check out translator Jessica Cohen's article on translation for the Summer 2007 issue of Jewish Book World here.

Along with the translations, several of the below selections explore the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction (see: God's Horse and The Atheist's School, The Messenger, and The Wine of Solitude). When do these forms need to work together to tell the whole story and when does one form suffice?  It may also be of interest to look into newly reviewed HHhH (Laurent Binet; Sam Taylor, trans.), which is both a translation and also explores the aforementioned boundaries. And, of course, who could resist the forthcoming UPNE title focused on coffee (another thing that makes JBCers happy)? Needless to say, we've been spoiled by riches this month, and, as always, look forward to the next round of literary treats.

God's Horse and The Atheists' School, Wilhelm Dichter; Madeline G. Levine, trans. (March 2012, Northwestern University Press)
Dichter's autobiographical novels bring to life the tensions between ideologues and pragmatists, Polish patriots and their Soviet masters.

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir, Claude Lanzmann; Frank Wynne, trans. (March 2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 
Check out The New Yorker's recent profile of Lanzmann here
Jews Welcome Coffee: Tradition and Innovation in Early Modern Germany, Robert Liberles (April 2012, Brandeis University Press)
Not surprisingly, Jews readily accepted coffee when it made its way to Europe in the 1650s.

The Messenger, Yannick Haenel; Mark Baker, trans. (May 2012, Counterpoint Press)
The novelized biography of Jan Karski, a young Polish diplomat charged with bringing the truth of Hitler's extermination plan to the Allies.

The Innocents, Francesca Segal (June 2012, Voice)
Segal's debut novel explores the world of a tight-knit Jewish suburb of London.

The Wine of Solitude, Irène Némirovsky; Sandra Smith, trans. (September 2012, Vintage)
Since we have a bit of a wait for this one, check out JBC's Irène Némirovsky review page here.