The ProsenPeople

30 Days, 30 Authors: Molly Antopol

Tuesday, December 01, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Molly Antopol’s debut story collection, The UnAmericans, won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, a “5 Under 35” Award from the National Book Foundation, the California Book Award Silver Medal and the Ribalow Prize. The book was longlisted for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the National Jewish Book Award, the Sami Rohr Prize and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. It appeared on over a dozen year-end lists and will be published in seven countries. Her writing has appeared in many journals and magazines and won a 2015 O. Henry Prize. She’s the recipient of a Radcliffe Institute Fellowship at Harvard and a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, where she currently teaches.


Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Molly Antopol

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Today we hear from one final 2015 Sami Rohr Prize finalist: Molly Antopol. Molly's debut collection of stories, The UnAmericans, received praise from around literary (and Jewish) universe, and even made it to the longlist for a 2014 National Book Award, so we were thrilled to welcome her to the Sami Rohr literary community. We have lots about Molly in JBCland, including her Visiting Scribe posts and her video chat for JBC Book Clubs (I even wrote about Molly for another site, recommending a wine for book clubs to enjoy while reading the book!), but we couldn't resist the opportunity to share a little more about this highly talented author below. 

And, of course, a hearty congratulations again to our other four finalists, who have been profiled over the past several weeks: Ayelet Tsabari, Kenneth Bonert, Yelena Akhtiorskaya, and Boris Fishman. Be sure to check back soon to see which of these authors will be taking home $100,000.

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

Honestly? Everything! I’ve heard some writers talk about stories arriving fully formed in their minds, and all they have to do is transcribe. That’s never happened for me. But I’m grateful for it—all of the stories in my book took at least a year, sometimes two, to write. Every one of them changed drastically draft by draft, and I often don’t discover what a story is truly about until the tenth or twelfth or fifteenth version.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Many of my relatives are incredible storytellers and I started thinking about how best to tell a story when I was a kid. When it was my turn to talk at the dinner table, I knew I’d better have something interesting to say. A lot of my family’s stories revolved around their involvement in the communist party. I heard so many tales of tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI, and many of the stories in my book grew out of my desire to understand what it might have been like for my mother and her siblings to have grown up under such intense surveillance, knowing that their most intimate moments were being recorded and catalogued.

Who is your intended audience?

I like to picture a better version of myself reading whatever I write—a version that can’t be dismissive or judgmental, a version that understands that in order to write the kind of fiction I strive to write, it’s necessary to feel empathy for even the least “likeable” or sympathetic people.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m at work on a novel, called The After Party. It’s set in Israel and the U.S.—but I’m too superstitious to say anything else!

What are you reading now?

Louise Gluck’s gorgeous new poetry collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night, and a collection of linked stories, Uncle Peretz Takes Off, by another of my favorite writers, Ya’akov Shabtai.

Top 5 favorite books

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, exactly. I’ve always read a lot. As a kid, I had all sorts of imaginary friends and my mom says I used to spend full days writing myself into whatever book I was reading. But writing as a career? It 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 a kid I wanted to be a marine biologist or a zoologist.

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

Seeing someone on the subway reading my book!

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

I don’t have a special writing hat or a lucky bathrobe 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 at my desk or on the couch. My only rule is to get started in the morning. I like to roll out of bed and just get to work, before my day gets too cluttered and the emails begin to pile up. I treat writing like a job, putting in full days on the days I don’t teach and half days on the days that I do. I shut the phone off, and lately I’ve been using a program that prevents me from accessing the Internet. I’m horribly addicted and 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 and have won a bidding war on eBay over a vintage lamp I never wanted in the first place.

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

I hope readers get swept up in the stories the way I’ve gotten swept up in so many books. I’ve missed my bus stop any number of times because I was so wrapped up in what I was reading, and felt disoriented when I had to put the book away and was no longer in the world of my characters.

Molly Antopol's debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published here by W.W. Norton in 2014, and in six other countries. She teaches creative writing at Stanford University, where she was a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow. A recipient of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 award and longlisted for the National Book Award, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and lives in San Francisco.

Related Content:

On Edith Pearlman

Thursday, February 06, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Molly Antopol wrote about Chaim Potok's The Chosen. Her debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published this week by W. W. Norton & Company. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I imagine many of us can remember exactly where we were when we encountered a favorite book—when we felt our lives had been irrevocably changed by a story. I had just graduated college and was living in Jerusalem when I came upon Edith Pearlman’s first book, Vaquita and Other Stories, in a used bookstore on Yoel Solomon Street (the store unfortunately no longer exists). Later that day, sitting on the grass in Independence Park, I fell in love with her characters: passionate and courageous, self-aware and sometimes solitary. The stories oftentimes examined what it meant to live in the postwar diaspora, bringing us into the lives of people in settings as disparate as Jerusalem, Boston and Central America. The story I loved most was the title story, in which a Polish-Jewish doctor serves as minister of health under a dictatorship in an unnamed Latin American country. The year I read Vaquita was the year I first started writing—and over the next decade, while I worked away on my own stories, I consistently turned to Pearlman’s other collections for inspiration: How to Fall, Love Among the Greats, and published a few years ago, a gorgeous anthology of her selected works, Binocular Vision.

At this point in my life, I’ve only lived in the world as someone’s daughter (rather than someone’s mother) and many of the writers I’ve often felt the deepest kinship with—Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Cynthia Ozick, Natalia Ginzburg, to list a few—write so intimately and compassionately about motherhood. I feel this about Edith Pearlman in spades. I’ve never met Pearlman, but I’ve looked to her stories in the same way I might have turned to a beloved and trusted relative for advice. Many of the most important things I’ve learned about writing I gleaned from reading Pearlman: that some of the best, and most satisfying, story collections aren’t woven together by character or by a particular place, but by something as ephemeral as theme—displacement, heartbreak, the secrets we keep from the people closest to us. That stories can be as expansive, complicated and emotionally messy as real life—and that it is immensely satisfying to read about that messiness when it’s depicted through lean, precise prose; meaningful sentences that are poetically compressed. And most of all, that while stories remind us that life is filled with both hope and heartbreak, my task as a writer is to make sense of the most painful and complicated parts, controlling that pain through language and shaping it into a narrative, rather than letting it consume me.

Molly Antopol is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She’s a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Her debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published this week by W. W. Norton & Company. Read more about her here.

On Chaim Potok’s The Chosen

Tuesday, February 04, 2014 | Permalink

Molly Antopol is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She’s a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Her debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published this week by W.W. Norton & Company. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen I wasn’t yet trying to be a writer myself, and was blissfully unaware of all things writing-related. Reading was, at that point in my life, a completely personal and haphazard experience: I stumbled upon Potok’s novel in my middle school library, simply because the cover spoke to me: a young, timid-looking man clutching a book, staring nervously at something outside the reader’s view. Even before I opened the book, I knew I’d identify with that boy. That day in the library, I fell in love with The Chosen: with the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, both coming of age in 1940s Brooklyn against the backdrop of World War II, and the wrench that’s thrown into their relationship because of their wildly different approaches to observance. Potok’s world came alive to me, and the themes his characters grappled with—friendship, family and loyalty—have deeply resonated with me since.

More than anything, though, The Chosen stayed with me all these years because it was the first time I really experienced male relationships. For my earliest years it was just my mother and me, and it took me a long time to learn how to act around men. They felt like a foreign species that spoke a language I didn’t understand—not only older men, but the boys in my class: I always had a circle of close female friends, but I was at a loss as to how to communicate with the other gender. The Chosen helped me edge out of my shyness, simply because I cared about the fraught and complex friendship between Reuven and Danny with as much focus and intensity as I did my own relationships. Reading Potok’s novel was like having this unknowable thing—the psyche of a boy—cracked wide open, finally giving me the chance to peer inside.

Lately, a few people have commented on how “un-biographical” my story collection seems—that there are no stories about women my age, living in San Francisco—and have asked whether it was intentional that half the stories are narrated by men. And it was intentional. It was really important to me to write from the perspectives of both women and men, young and old, American, East European and Israeli. I wouldn’t let myself see the book as finished until I felt I’d written convincingly from all those points of view—in a collection that looks at how people are shaped by large historical moments, I knew I needed to explore those events from a variety of perspectives. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I see now it was The Chosen that led me to set that as a goal for myself: that writing should be an exercise in empathy, getting myself—and hopefully my readers—to care about people with experiences wildly different from our own.

Read more about Molly Antopol and her debut collection The UnAmericans here.